General Practitioner

Paul wanted to be everything to everybody so he could lead them to the One for all.

SJF • Epiphany 5b • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.+

When I was in college, I worked on a play by German author Bertolt Brecht. You may know the hit song, “Mack the Knife,” from his musical Threepenny Opera, which had a successful run on Broadway years ago, and was made into a film. The play I worked on, The Measures Taken, will never appear on Broadway, however, because it is about a group of communist agitators working in China prior to the communist revolution. It concerns a young agitator who doesn’t grasp the purpose of the Communist mission. In each scene, whether a factory where the workers are beaten, or by a canal by which the workers slip in the mud as they try to pull barges, the young agitator tries to help individuals: individual factory workers or individual barge-pullers; he binds the wounds of the wounded factory workers, and puts rocks in the mud so the barge-pullers can gain traction. He soon discovers he cannot bind up all of the individual wounds, and that he can’t move enough rocks to give all the barge-pullers a solid footing, and eventually the workers and barge-pullers turn on him and expose him as an agitator. His efforts are misguided from the standpoint of the communist party — they are interested in class warfare, not individual welfare; and this leads to his undoing.

What surprised me most about this was the way the play was received. I mean, this was a touchy stuff in the 60s! But because it is such an honest portrayal of the nature of the communist movement — that in the communist theory the good of the whole is more important than the good of the individual — people who favored socialism could look at the play and say, “See how noble it is!” while those who were opposed to it could say, “See how terrible communism is” — because the play told the truth. You can tell when something is challenging and true, because it often gets angry people from both sides. It is also fairly true about the dilemma that we all face about of how do we do good in the world.

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For there is a tension between works of charity — feeding the hungry, clothing the naked — and the works of justice — seeking to transform society by reforming the causes of hunger and poverty. The one thing of which I am certain is that this is a “both / and” situation. We are called to help those who come across our path: with food, clothing, and care — as did the Good Samaritan. But we are also called to work for the good of the whole society in which we live, to help fight the causes of hunger and poverty.

This is not an original approach, of course. Jesus, in his own ministry, does both — he heals those who come before him, but also — on the cross, and through his blood — heals and saves the whole world.

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Our gospel today is a good example. Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law. Word spreads and the sick gather at the doorstep come sundown, and he cures many of them. Even Peter sees Jesus as a great healer, and chases after him when he leaves in the early morning, to bring him back to the village to continue working.

What Peter fails to understand is that Jesus does not see himself primarily as a healer of the sick, but as the proclamation of a message. Jesus does do the exhausting work of healing in response to the crowds who seek his touch, and we know it was exhausting from that story of the woman with the hemorrhage: You remember that. She secretly touched the hem of his garment and was healed. But as she did so, Jesus felt the power drain out of him. So we know that healing these many people crowded about the door, must have been exhausting.

When morning comes he slips away in the pre-dawn darkness, he does so so he can rest and collect himself, and most importantly, pray. And when Peter comes after him, to drag him back because “everyone is searching” for him, Jesus tells him it is time to move on to other towns, time to move on to proclaim the message, for that is what he came to do.

Jesus did not come to earth to set up a clinic as a Galilean country doctor, but to spread the good news of salvation — which is the healing of the whole person, body and soul, from the deadly effects of this fallen world of ours. He came to save that world itself. He is not a general practitioner, but the universal healer for the life of the world. Jesus came to reveal himself not as everything to everybody but as One for all. He is even more than the bearer of a message — he the message itself: he is the Word of God. Jesus only had to be himself to be the living presence of God — the Word of God made flesh — for that is what he was. After all, there were dozens of preachers and teachers and healers in first century Israel. But there was only one Son of God.

Ultimately, the Gospel of Christ isn’t about all his good deeds as teacher or healer, but about who he was, and who he is: the Son of God, the savior of the world. This is the heart of the gospel truth.

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Saint Paul, on the other hand, knew very well that he was not the message, he was not the Word of God, but a messenger charged to deliver the Word of God. Preaching the gospel was no source of pride or boasting, it was his duty. In his preaching Paul worked every angle, taking every opportunity to make the gospel reach as many different people as he could, to win them to Christ, to bring them to salvation.

Because Paul was the messenger, he knew how important it was that his message be understood. And so he took on many roles to reach many people, to meet people “where they were” and to speak to them in a language they could understand. To his fellow Jews Paul emphasized his own background in Judaism, as a disciple of Rabbi Gamaliel, whose teachings are recorded in the Talmud and studied by rabbinical students to this day. Paul would argue the Torah with the best of them, as well as making use of different traditions within Judaism.

To Gentiles outside the Jewish covenant, Paul moved with ease and liberty as a Roman citizen of no mean city, a man acquainted with the latest trends in Greek philosophy, able to quote pagan poets to Greeks and Romans as well as he was to quote Moses to fellow Jews. Paul did want to be everything to everybody, but only so that he could lead them to the One for all, Jesus Christ.

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So where does the church find itself today? Are we everything to everybody? One for all? Some experts on church growth point to the huge megachurches of the South and the West. These are huge building complexes with worship auditoriums ranged with rows of reclining padded seats. Instead of hymnals and prayer books, the texts are projected on giant screens, accompanied by orchestras, and you won’t find a child in the congregation, because the have full nursery service in a separate space; breakfast and lunch are served before and after worship, there’s a Starbucks in the lobby, you can pay your pledge with a credit card, and during the week you can attend not just Bible Study but weight-loss classes and aerobics. These are the churches of one-stop-shopping; and if Saint James Fordham is a boutique, they are Walmart; and they appear at first glance to be very successful. But you know what — the Crystal Cathedral had to close its doors a few years ago, and be sold. The question is, is this the gospel: do they have members or customers? What has happened to the gospel that Paul wanted to make “free of charge.” In the effort to be everything to everybody, is proclaiming the gospel taking second place to targeting a consumer market?

Saint Paul always had a very clear sense about why he was so flexible in accommodating those he met — so that he might by all means save some. “By all means” — in whatever way he could: the goal was to save: to proclaim the gospel.

Certainly a church needs to be willing to be open and flexible, ready to welcome all regardless of nationality or background, their culture or class. And the church also does cost money to maintain: I wish I could say, “The church is free of charge.” But we all know what it is to pay insurance, and electric bills, and snow removal, and all of the other things that come in our own lives - and the church is no different. The church also is charged to provide, out of what people give. Not just to be a place where people can gather but to be a place that can serve human need. I think we do a good job of that here at Saint James, and I trust we will do even better in months to come, as the Elijah Project grows and expands, and we welcome Kairos gatherings, as we welcome members of our families, and our friends, and our co-workers, to come here.

But we are called to be more than welcoming. We are called to provide those we welcome with the Gospel, not just with comfortable seats and nice music, with child care or yoga classes — even with food and clothing itself — but with the message that doesn’t just reassure but challenges; not something that merely entertains, but transforms.

We can learn from Paul and his willingness to be everything to everybody, learn to be open and welcoming, and flexible and ready to adapt to the needs of a changing world. But we can also learn from Paul and from our Lord how important it is to concentrate on the message of salvation offered in Jesus Christ.

Jesus healed, but then he moved on to proclaim the message, and finally to Jerusalem and Calvary, to the cross and the tomb, and then on to glory. The church gathers here to meet that same Jesus, the Jesus who healed, but also the Jesus who died for us and rose again; the Jesus who shed his blood upon the cross for our salvation: which is not merely the healing of our bodies but of our souls and spirits — he is the “One for all” to whom all of our “everything to everybody” evangelism leads.

May we never tire of the daily tasks of charity, but also let us not be wearied that we fail in the tasks of justice. May we welcome all, to guide them to the One. May we be strengthened to remain true to the commission we share with Saint Paul, to proclaim the gospel, so that by all means — in every way we can — we might save some.+

The Saint Mark Sandwich

The Evangelist weaves two stories together to give us a set of important messages. A sermon for Proper 8b.

Proper 8b • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse.

A month ago I spoke about different characteristics of the different Gospels. I noted John’s tendency to record long dialogue scenes, such as that between Jesus and the Samaritan woman or Nicodemus. Today we have a long reading from Mark, and it is a good illustration of one of the characteristics of his Gospel.

I’ve mentioned before Mark’s interest in moving the story along, and his frequent use of the word “immediately” — twice in our Gospel passage this morning — as well as the obvious fact that Mark’s Gospel is the shortest of the four. But another feature of Mark’s Gospel is something known as the Saint Mark Sandwich. This doesn’t involve bread and luncheon meat; it is a narrative technique, a literary device.

We have a prime example today: the account begins with the synagogue leader Jairus begging Jesus to heal his little daughter. But on the way to the elder’s house, a sick woman touches Jesus’ cloak, and is healed of her disease. Then the story of Jairus and his daughter resumes, leading to her being restored from what we would most likely call a coma.

So this is a Saint Mark Sandwich: the “bread” is the story of Jairus and his daughter, but the “filling” is that of the sick woman. For one thing this device keeps the story moving — in keeping with Mark’s brevity and immediacy. Jesus is always at work, Mark assures us, and something is always happening, and even on the way to doing one thing, something else will come up. There is an almost cinematic quality to this, like a technique used in Alfred Hitchcock’s films. Next time you watch a re-run of a film like The Birds, or Rear Window, or Psycho, notice this technique: Hitchcock will show you someone looking at something, then he will show you what they are looking at, then he cuts back to show the person looking at it again, perhaps reacting. This tells what the characters are seeing and feeling. More importantly it also shows you what they know or don’t know by their reaction to the thing they, and you, see — and this builds up the suspense that is the foundation for his films.

Saint Mark’s Sandwich serves a similar purpose: the “filling” of the sandwich helps us understand the “bread” and vice-versa. There is always some connection between the inner story and the outer story. In this case, both stories deal with healing, and that in itself is not so unusual in the Gospels. But Saint Mark gives us hints that there is more going on here than simply healing. He uses key-words to remind us that passages are linked, in this case, the word “daughter” to link the stories together. He also tells us that the woman suffered with this bleeding disease for twelve years, and then also mentions that the little girl is twelve years old. If this were a poem you would say that it rhymed!

This sandwich structure and the linkage of the repeating words in the two stories bind them together, and alert us to the fact that Mark wants us to see them as illuminating each other. So how do they do that — and what is the lesson can we take with this sandwich?

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Let’s first notice the “hinge” of the story, the very center — or to use the sandwich analogy, the mayonnaise: the key-word “daughter” links across the boundary from one story to the other. Jesus tells the woman, “Daughter, your faith has made you well, go in peace,” and while he is still speaking the messengers arrive with the contrary word, “Your daughter is dead; why trouble the teacher further?” So in this seam in the stories we are confronted with healing and peace with death and trouble, and going (as he sends the woman on her way) and with staying put (the advice to let the teacher stay where he is).

Moving a little further out from this center of the story, we see that the woman herself did not want to trouble the teacher, just to touch his robe, but in the end she causes quite a bit of trouble; while on the other side of the hinge the messengers suggest not troubling Jesus but when he arrives he finds a commotion.

So the first thing Saint Mark wants us to take away from this sandwich is the importance of relationship to Jesus — highlighted by that word “daughter.” The bleeding woman wants to remain secret, but Jesus wants to be in relationship with her — it is not enough that she has been healed, he wants to know who it is that touched him, and he calls her “daughter” and sends her off with a blessing. Similarly, notice the intimacy with the little girl’s healing: Jesus keeps the crowds outside, and brings only the parents and his inner circle of disciples — Peter, and the brothers James and John — into the house with the little girl, whom he takes by the hand and addresses endearlingly as “Talitha.” So Mark is assuring us that healing is not just some magic act, not just some quick fix — but that Jesus wants an intimate, personal relationship with those he loves and heals.

Then there is that mention of the number twelve — a significant number in the Gospels — but remember that Mark mentions it twice, and that when hasty Mark takes time to tell us something he must mean to make a point. And the point here is that this woman’s disease began about the same time the little girl was born — and recall what it is that happens about the time a young girl reaches the age of twelve, and how under Jewish law a girl or woman is considered to be ritually unclean when she has her monthly period. This reminds us of how miserable this sick woman’s life has been for these twelve years; the constant bleeding has rendered her permanently unclean under Jewish law, unable to participate in the life of the community, perhaps even being barred from going into the synagogue — the synagogue of which Jairus is a leader — just in case you might wonder why that particular detail was included in the story! According to strict interpreters, a woman in her period was not allowed to enter a synagogue or, more important for our story here, to touch a Torah scroll. Yet here this woman ventures to touch the living Word of God himself! And when she does, her interminable bleeding stops — her uncleanness is removed.

For the little girl, on the other hand, her monthly flow will soon start — but for her it is a sign of life — that she is alive and has reached that age; she will be restored to her family, and become a young woman in her own right.

There is so much richness in this Saint Mark’s Sandwich — in case you can’t tell St Mark is my favorite evangelist — I hope I’ve given you at least an appetizer, and that you will when you get home perhaps take out your Bibles and look at some of the other accounts in Mark’s Gospel, and look for other sandwiches. But in closing — and I hope you bear with me for a somewhat long sermon since I’ll be away next week and I need to make up for that! — I want to note one more link between the two stories, because of the core message Mark wants us to take away. It is lost in our translation that we used today, and you might miss it otherwise, so I want to highlight it.

In the crucial hinge verses — the ones linked by the word daughter and the contrast between peace and trouble — Jesus tells the woman that her faith has made her well, and then also tells the leader of the synagogue not to fear but only to have faith. (That’s the way I’d translate it, because in the original faith and belief are the same word.)

So the message to us is to have faith, faith in Jesus who is with us in crowds and commotion but also in private and in secret; Jesus will heal us whether old or young, from chronic or acute conditions, whether we trouble him or simply reach out to touch the hem of his clothing. This is our living Lord, presented to us in this beautiful portion of Scripture from the hand of Saint Mark the Evangelist. He truly has, as Jesus commanded the little girl’s parents, given us something to eat: bread of heaven, words from the mouth of the Most High. Let us give thanks for such nourishment.+

Saved From What

Eternal salvation is to a purpose in the here and now: life is a gift to be used in service to others -- a sermon for Easter 4b

SJF • Easter 4b • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Peter said, This Jesus is ‘the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.’ There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.

Our reading from the Acts of the Apostles picks up where we left off last week. Peter had addressed the crowds amazed at the healing of the crippled man who sat begging in the gate of the Temple. He told them that they and their rulers had acted in ignorance when they conspired to put an end to the ministry and life of Jesus.

In today’s reading Peter stands before those very rulers, and addresses them in no uncertain terms concerning the Christ. He affirms that it is through the power of Jesus Christ, now at work in Peter and his colleagues as disciples of Christ, that the man was healed and stands before them all in good health. But Peter then goes further — it is not enough that Jesus is the source of the power that brought about this one miraculous healing. Peter declares that there is no salvation, there is salvation in no one else, and no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved!

Now, if you had never heard of this before, you might be moved to ask, Saved from what? There are a couple of things worth noting about this passage in answer to that question, “Saved from what?” and the shift in the proclamation from healing the body to salvation of the whole person, the whole human being, body and soul.

Peter’s proclamation establishes first of all that there is a connection between healing and salvation. It is no accident that the word salve — anointment used for healing — derives from the same root word used here. Salvation is the ultimate healing of all that ails us — not just the ordinary illnesses or even the more lasting disabilities, but the whole state of being mortal, susceptible not just to illness, but to death itself.

So the answer the question “Saved from what?” is in large part, “Saved from everlasting death.” As Peter reminds us, and the rulers of the people and elders, Jesus himself died, crucified at their instigation and by means of Roman hands, but God raised him from the dead. He is the source of new life, and salvation not just from illness, but from death itself, because he has plumbed the depths of hell in person, and been raised victorious from the grave. Death cannot touch him any more, and those who are joined with him, in a death like his, will also be raised to a new life like his, though we too will taste of death at the end of our earthly lives, will — in him to whom we are joined as members of his body — rise with him to life everlasting. So the first answer to “Saved from what” is indeed “saved from death.”

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But in the meantime what about life — this earthly life we lead day by day and year by year — what are we saved from in this life? The Evangelist John offers us an image, a familiar one, perhaps too familiar so as to have lost some of its impact, down through the years of singing those wonderful hymns about it: Jesus as the good shepherd. He contrasts his good shepherding with that of a hired hand who fails to take responsibility and high-tails it at the first sight of trouble. The good shepherd, on the other hand, confronts the wolf, and saves the sheep from the wolf’s ravages. In this is figured the way in which Jesus saves us and protects us from the dangers of this world — if we will listen to his voice.

And that voice insists that we too ought to have love for him and for one another. John emphasizes that insistence in the portion of his First Letter we heard today. This is one of John’s major themes in all of his writing: love of the community of faith for the members of that community. This is the sign and mark of what it means to be in the light, to be a child of God. John shows us that Jesus saves us in large part by strengthening us to save each other, following his example: as he laid down his life for us, like a shepherd confronting a deadly wild beast, so too we ought also to be willing to lay our lives down for each other; and perhaps more importantly, day by day to give our lives for each other. What does John say? “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help.” John’s point is that we often save each other, those with helping those without, those who have helping those who have not, in a divine redistribution of the wealth of this world, a world in which there is plenty of food to go around and in which no one need go hungry — and yet in which so many countless thousands starve while others throw excess food away their plates are too full to hold, and which they cannot eat. Sometimes I think that in answer to the question, “Saved from what?” we need to acknowledge, “Saved from ourselves!” So much of the harm done in the world is from people towards other people — either intentionally harming others by doing wrong to them, or unintentionally harming others by failing to do the good we could do. Humanity is often its own worst enemy.

For although in relation to Jesus we are like sheep — sheep who have no ability to help each other or even to defend themselves — in relation to each other we are called to be — challenged to be — like him in his willingness to give his life in service of to others, to lay down our lives in service to each other, and at the very least to share what we have with those who have less, or who have nothing at all.

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Peter reminds us of the saving power of Jesus’ name, and John reminds us of the commandment: that we should believe in the name of Jesus Christ and love one another. That’s not an either / or; it’s a both / and. We are called to believe, and to act. As John says, to love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. This is not about lip-service, but putting hands and hearts and minds to work with all that God provides.

There is a great deal from which all of us need to be saved in this dangerous world of ours. But the great good news is that Jesus has saved us from the ultimate and final enemy, death. And that should encourage us, in the meantime, that are given this gift of life so that our lives might amount to something, in service to one another. There is no other name given under heaven for salvation, and there are no other hands or hearts or minds to serve but ours to help each other. Let us neither reject him, the cornerstone chosen and precious, nor each other, children of God and charged with his command to love one another as he loved us.

Ultimately let the question not be, “Saved from what?” but “Saved for what?” Our salvation has a purpose, and God has an intention for us, having been saved through him; and he has commanded us to spread that word of salvation in his name, and to love and serve our brothers and sisters. Thanks be to God who saves us, and thanks be to God who gives us this command. May we fulfill it in his name and to his honor and glory, through Jesus Christ our Lord.

I Once Was Blind

What was it like to be able to see for a man born blind. He is of age, ask him! — a sermon for Lent 4a 2011

SJF • Lent 4a 2011 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.+

Today’s Gospel tells the powerful story of how a man who had never seen came to see. He was not just a person who lost his sight at some point early in life, but one who had been born without that faculty. He was a man who went through infancy, childhood, adolescence and into adulthood never having seen anything at all. His condition was so unusual that he became something of a test case in his neighborhood, as people wondered at his affliction, and how and why it had befallen him.

You see, in those days people strongly associated all disability or illness with sin. If you fell ill, or a disaster befell you, then you must have done something to displease God, and you were being punished. It is an idea with considerable sticking power, no doubt fueled by those cases in which a person’s sinful actions do indeed result in some affliction or disaster. Even today it’s easy to think of God’s justice being worked out in this life — come on, admit it — you feel a certain sense of rightness and vindication when you watch a film or TV show and the villain, who thought he was cleverly escaping, falls down an elevator shaft instead.

We may well feel that this is God’s justice at work — but then we have to face the troubling reality of so many of the illnesses and accidents that happen in our own lives and the lives of those we love, things befalling people whom we know are good, or at least not so bad as to deserve what has befallen them.

For as the Book of Job and the teaching of Jesus show — as if we needed any further evidence than the daily news — the good and the innocent suffer illness and injury as well as the wicked and the guilty. Job’s wife seemed to think God was being unfair to have so afflicted her husband, and advised him to be bold enough to “Curse God and die!” (God help us if we follow that advice.) Job’s friends advised him to search his mind and realize he must have done wrong, and to ‘fess up and repent. But Job knew that was not true, as he had sought with all his might to live righteously — as God himself says at the beginning of the Book, “Have you ever seen anyone like my servant Job, upright and blameless.” And so Job suffers terribly, not because he deserves it, but so that the glory of God might be revealed.

None of us dare presume to such perfection and blamelessness as Job, God’s servant. Still we recognize the disproportion of suffering endured by people who are at least making the effort towards perfection.

We can, of course, chalk this all up to Original Sin — but while that may identify and name the condition — the human condition of mortality — it doesn’t really offer a very satisfying explanation. It gives the human condition a name, but it does not offer a treatment for the ailment. Being told that mortality is a result of original sin is a bit like telling the man with a cold sore that he is suffering from aphthous stomatitis. It diagnoses the ailment but does not treat it.

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So what does this Gospel offer us as a better way to treat this conflict between our hopes and our fears? I would like to suggest to you that it is the same answer given in the Book of Job — it is not the illness or the suffering that is the point of the incident, but the revelation of God’s glory: that bad things do from time to time happen to good people, and inevitably to all people, but that it is all, all under the grace of God who, as we heard a few weeks ago, takes notice of a sparrow’s fall and the wilting of the grass and the flowers.

In the case of this blind man, people wondered whose sin was at the base of his blindness: obviously it’s hard to pin the fault on the man himself since he was blind from birth and scarcely had a chance to sin. So some suggest his parents are being punished through him. But Jesus counters these anxious questions with his assertion that “this man was born blind so that the work of God might be revealed in him.” He is, after all, more like Job than any other figure in the Scripture, except Jesus himself: a man afflicted not because of anything he has done, but so that God’s glory might be revealed.

In the long run it is not his disability that defines him, but his spirit — and his healing. He is no longer “the man born blind” but the” the man who was formerly blind,” or “the blind man healed!” He is a witness, and more than that an eyewitness who testifies again and again — much to the annoyance of the prosecution — testifying to that simple and evident fact: I once was blind, and now I see. It is not his malady that defines him, but his healing; he is not defined by darkness, but by light; not by sickness, but by salvation: which means “healing.”

In all of this, Jesus shows himself forth as Savior, as Healer, as the one who is the bringer of light and life. And the blind man in this account tells us how we are to act towards our Lord and Healer — with heartfelt thanks. It is not our illnesses or maladies that should shape our lives, or even end our lives: rather it is the hope that is in us that should point us towards salvation, the healing of all that is wrong or broken or torn, through the power and the glory of God, revealed in Christ.

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I would like to end this sermon with a poem I wrote a few years ago. I was inspired to write it by a walk along Fifth Avenue, as I was heading to Mount Sinai hospital to visit our sister Ms Ira Butler. I thought of all of the infirmities that come our way in the course of life, and was reminded about this man who came into life already stricken with infirmity — and how when he finally came to see he might understand or express his new-found sight. And so I imagined him speaking to someone who asked him what it was like to gain his sight. And this is my imagined account of his testimony. As the Scripture says, “He is of age; ask him!”

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Because I was born blind I didn’t know
I was until they told me I was blind.

I used to sit beside my father in
the synagogue, pressed close against his side,
his arm around my shoulder. Once he let
me touch the velvet-covered Torah as
it passed, guiding my hand in his.

I never made bar mitzvah — couldn’t read,
and didn’t have the heart to memorize.

Still, how I loved the synagogue, especially
the prophets’ words. A few years back I heard
a man read from Isaiah and — I swear —
I thought the words would come true then and there:
“sight to the blind,” he said. Well, one can hope.

When I grew up, I earned my bread by sit-
ting on the corner, holding out my hand.
They knew me in the neighborhood. It wasn’t
a bad living; once a rich young ruler
even put a gold coin in my hand — a small one, but so heavy next to coppers.

From time to time discussions would take place
about my blindness and its possible cause.
All above my head — in every sense!

Then, of course, one day that man called Jesus
happened by. He said that he was light.
He put mud on my eyes and sent me to
the pool to wash it off. And then I saw.

What was it like to see at first? It looked
like trumpets sound on New Year’s Day, ram’s horn
and brass; it looked like gold feels in the hand —
I think I told you that I felt it once;
like smiles feel on my fingertips. It looked
like velvet felt that time my father, my
small hand in his, pressed it against the Torah,
and the jingling silver sounded round
my ears. A bit like that.

Funny, though,
that when I got back to the street, though I
could see, the neighbors didn’t recognize me.
Scholars grilled me, called my parents, wouldn’t
take my word. And finally they kicked
me out.

Do I miss the synagogue?
I miss the New Year’s trumpets; miss the Torah
scroll, its velvet cover and the silver
bells. I miss the prophets’ words. I miss
my parents.

But I do not miss the end-
less questions on my blindness; I
don’t miss the corner of the street or my
old “friends” and neighbors; I don’t miss the heat
and street-smells and the ache of outstretched arm
and empty hand.

Besides, I saw that man —
the one that said that he was light? He was,
you know. He was the one who gave me sight,
just like the prophet said. He is my Torah now, my New Year’s Day, my gold, my light,
my father and my God.+

Shame on You!

SJF • Proper 23d 2010 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
“Was none found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”+

One of the first things that Paul the apostle wrote to the Corinthians was the reminder that God uses the foolish to shame the wise and the weak to shame the strong. Judging from today’s Scripture readings, we can also be sure that God uses the foreigner to shame the native-born.

We see this first in the story of Naomi and her daughters-in-law. As you may recall, a man of Bethlehem in Judah takes his wife Naomi and his two sons to live in Moab. The two sons marry Moabite women — but then all of the menfolk die, father and sons, leaving three widows: Naomi and her two Moabite daughters-in-law. Naomi decides to return to her husband’s ancestral home in Judah, and tries to dissuade the two foreign women from following her there, as their chances for marriage would be slim, especially under the rule that required a childless widow if at all possible to marry her brother-in-law or close relative. To add to that, Moabites were looked down upon in Judah as ancestral enemies, going back to the days of Balak, and that would likely stand against their marriage prospects too.

In spite of Naomi’s urging, in spite of the unlikelihood of finding a husband, and in spite of the harsh way in which a Moabite immigrant woman might expect to be treated in Judah, one of the women pledges her loyalty in that beautiful and moving passage we heard. Ruth will neither give up nor turn back. She will cling to Naomi like a vine on a trellis, pledging that even death itself will not be able to part them. What daughter-in-law has ever pledged such loyalty to a mother-in-law?

Of course, there is much more to this story. Ruth does in the end discover a distant relative of her late husband; she finds Boaz, who because of Ruth’s loyalty to him and to Naomi marries her. She bears him a son — and that son, it turns out right at the end of the story, is none other than the grandfather of King David!

Imagine how that punch-line must have sounded in the ears of proud Judeans: David’s great-grandmother was an immigrant Moabite — a foreign-born member of one of Israel’s ancestral enemies. For Moabites had once long before treated the wandering Israelites themselves as lower than dirt and wouldn’t let them so much as set a foot in Moab on their roundabout way to the promised land; and in latter days the songs of Israel would declare, “Moab is my washbasin” — and yet here it turns out that our greatest hero, David the King, David the Deliverer, is part Moabite, and wouldn’t even have been born at all had it not been for the loyalty of a woman of Moab, Ruth, in not turning back from Naomi. And perhaps a feeling of shame might rise in the heart of any Israelite who had ever mistreated a foreigner.

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The message is brought even closer to home in the gospel passage about the ten lepers, only one of whom — and a Samaritan at that — gives thanks to God for the gift and grace of healing that all then of them receive at the hands of Jesus. And if there is any doubt at all as to the point of this incident, Luke sets the stage by specifying that this incident takes place in the border-country, between Galilee and Samaria; and Jesus spells it out: “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except the foreigner?” Remember that Samaritans were hated by the Jews of Jesus’ time as much if not more than their predecessors had hated the people of Moab. Yet the Samaritan distinguishes himself as the only grateful one among the ten, foreigner that he is; Luke emphasizes the fact, yet again, by pointing out his nationality. And Jesus hammers it home to the shame of the other nine (in absentia) but also to challenge and shame the prejudices of those listeners who would have regarded all Samaritans with contempt. That goes double for the Galileans, who, as that opening phrase in the Gospel reminds us, stand in relation to Samaria as Texans do to Mexico.

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And so it is — from the time of Abraham’s wandering from his home between the rivers to live in a foreign, strange land; through the time of Moses as an exile in Egypt; to the roundabout wanderings of the children of Israel as they sought to return to the land of promise — every last one of them a non-native immigrant; to the special grace and favor shown to Ruth the faithful Moabite; to the return from exile in Babylon; to the stranger and the foreigner and the outcast, who are promised protection by the Law and the Gospel: the message is clear. If you mistreat a foreigner or an immigrant, shame on you.

Now, in this congregation I know I am speaking to many immigrants, or people closer to being the children of immigrants than David was to his great-grandmother Ruth. How many here this morning were born on other shores? How many are the first generation native-born here in the United States, or the second, or the third. And how many of you have faced the scorn of those who look down on you for your nationality or your ancestry, for your language or your race? I know that some of you have felt this, and those who have so treated you ought to be ashamed of themselves, in this nation of immigrants — a nation in which only a tiny fraction can truly claim to be people of the land, rather than the descendants of the foreign-born who arrived as colonists or immigrants.

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You know that I rarely if ever preach on political subjects. I prefer to preach the gospel and let it speak for itself, and for that gospel to speak in your own hearts as you form your own opinions about the state of things in the world. But I hope you will forgive me as I tell you that I cannot help — both as I read our Bishops’ Pastoral Letter, that is included in your bulletin this morning, and even more-so as I read those Scripture passages and am reminded of God’s great care and love for foreigners and immigrants, and of Galilee with Samaria just to its south — I cannot help thinking of that wall being built along the border between Texas and Mexico. Of course, both our bishops and I are fully aware of the real concerns and issues, to ignore which in this era of terrorism and economic crisis would be irresponsible. But a wall! I cannot help but think of the one built long ago in China to keep the Mongols out, or the one being built to divide Palestinians from Israelis, or the one of which President Reagan said, “Mr. Gorbechev, tear down this wall.”

There is something about a wall, you see, whether meant to keep people in or out. It seems to be the last resort, the confession that we just don’t know what else to do — as if we’d really tried everything else, every other way of dealing with the problems we face. As the great American poet Robert Frost once wrote, in response to the old saying, “Good fences make good neighbors”:

“Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.”

And it’s not what Robert Frost or Ronald Reagan or you or I or even the bishops of the church might say about such a construction that’s important. What is important is, what would God say about it? The United States has a very mixed history when it comes to how it has treated immigrants: and it does not take a degree in social science or American history to see how skewed and selective the flow of immigration has been, how favorable to some nationalities and races, and how difficult for others. Some of you here have no doubt faced some of those difficulties, even more stringent than the abuse my own great-grandparents faced (as far from me as Ruth from David) when they fled the Irish famine to come to a new land filled with opportunity — but also with prejudice and unfairness.

That was then, and this is now. What would God say about it now, say to this nation’s leaders, or to this nation as a whole? Or to us? “Shame on you”?

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Whatever the leaders of this land might do, whether they feel the shame or not, we at least as individuals can vow never ourselves to treat a stranger or sojourner, a foreigner or an immigrant as anything other than a fellow pilgrim in a world in which all of us are but temporary visitors and resident aliens. Our true homeland, after all, is above — at least that is our hope! But in the meantime, in our sojourn here, here in our own exile, we have the opportunity to begin to practice the gracious fellowship that welcomes all into the household of God, not as foreigners but as sisters and brothers, all of us tegether — not just one in ten, but the whole assembly — giving thanks to God, for the grace that we have known through him. We can realize our hopes for a future heaven in how we act here and now, as another great poet, William Blake, put it, to see “Jerusalem builded here...” on our own shores and see righteousness prevail through our own exercise of fairness, justice and equality. If we do this, we will, as Saint Paul said to Timothy, have no need to be ashamed.+

Good News for Now

SJF • Epiphany 3c 2010 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jesus said, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”+

You’ve probably all heard the old saying, “No news is good news.” What I’d like to suggest to you this morning is that old news is good news, too. For in the Gospel passage we heard today, Jesus wasn’t being original. He wasn’t telling the people in the Nazareth synagogue anything they hadn’t heard many times before. No, he was reading from a scroll, a copy of a copy of a copy of an ancient document, handed down for almost five hundred years: the scroll of the prophecies of Isaiah, old news from long before his time, but good news at any time.

Who wouldn’t want to hear about release for captives, sight to the blind, and freedom for the oppressed? This is good news that addresses universal human longings, universal human hopes, whether preached as they were originally, to those facing captivity in Babylon, or centuries later in Jesus’ day, preached to Palestinian Jews suffering under Roman domination, or again centuries after that to African slaves brutally torn from their homes and shipped across an ocean to toil on plantations of the American South or the cane-fields of the West Indies, or then again in living memory to their descendants in the ghettos of Montgomery, Alabama or New York City. This is old news, but it is also good news, preached again, even more recently, amidst the ravaged ruins of Haiti.

This good news had been repeated for centuries, by the time Jesus took up that scroll,. and it has been often repeated since. What is different, the crucial difference, in the news as Jesus delivered it, lies in his closing one-line sermon on the text: (the shortest but most powerful sermon ever delivered!) “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Isaiah’s words had been read for centuries, and would continue to be read, but always with an eye to the future, to some unrealized liberation not yet come, and in that they provided encouragement and support for people in their suffering, to comfort them. Yet Jesus, with that authority for which his ministry and preaching were known, says in that one line that these promises are not for some future yet to be realized time, but are unfolding even now, even as he says them. Promises from a distant past for a future yet to come suddenly meet in the glorious Now of their realization.

This kind of spiritual “time travel” is deeply embedded in the Jewish tradition into which Jesus was born and in which he grew to maturity. The annual Passover meal was not simply a re-enactment of that night in Egypt from the distant past, that night when the spirit of God hovered over the city, slaying the firstborn of the Egyptians while passing over the houses of those marked with the blood of the paschal lamb. The annual Passover meal was and is timeless, so that those Jews who gather to this day to break matzoh and eat bitter herbs and roasted lamb in haste and with girded loins — it is as if they are dining at that same original Passover meal. So too for us, our weekly celebration of the Holy Eucharist where we share in Christ our Passover is not simply a re-enactment or a recreation of the last supper, but a present participation both in that historic event and in the heavenly banquet that awaits us in the future. God telescopes or folds up the distant moment of salvation into the present commemoration, and has and will for ever and ever.

This is the spirit and attitude we need to adopt if we are to understand what Jesus means when he says the year of the Lord’s favor has begun; that release, new vision, and liberation have arrived. The ancient prophecies of a distant future time are happening now, all around us, if only we have eyes to see and ears to hear. The day of liberation has come!

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Yet what an odd person to bring such a message! We know what would happen to Jesus in very short order: arrest, trial, sentence, torture and death. Hardly evidence of the Lord’s favor! The one who proclaims release will betaken captive; the one who announces new sight to the blind will be blinded by the sweat of his own thorn-wounded brow; the one who proclaims liberation will go to his death while a criminal goes free. Could there be anything more tragic, more ironic?

But my dear sisters and brothers, what I proclaim to you today is that it is neither tragic nor ironic. What Jesus spoke that day in Nazareth was true then and it is true today. Just as the Passover Seder and the Holy Eucharist are for ever new instances of the same meal, a kind of second seating, if you will, so too the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled in our hearing, today and every day — if we have ears to hear. For what Jesus shows us in his life and in his death and in his rising to life again is that the kingdom of God is among us. What Jesus reveals to us in his victory over death, is that liberation is taking place even in the midst of our pain and our suffering; that the presence of the Holy One of Israel abides among the faithful even when they are oppressed; that the knowledge of the love of God survives and thrives even as we pass from life. This is the incredible fulfillment that Jesus proclaimed that day: that the liberation of the spirit transcends and transforms the suffering of the flesh; that the vision of the heavenly city can illuminate our eyes even when they are blinded by the tears of this transitory life; that the yoke of oppression can be lifted from our shoulders even as we sink into the grave, singing all the while, Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

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This parish church has from its foundation been blessed by the presence and ministry of people in the healing professions. I’ve spoken before of Dr. George Cammann, the inventor of the modern stethoscope, who served this congregation in the nineteenth century as a lay leader. And among our members today are many who work in the hard but vital field of medicine. Those who exercise these ministries share in the vision of fulfillment that Christ preached that day so long ago. And what we celebrate and honor in them is not simply the skill to cure, but the gift to heal.

To bring about a medical cure is no small feat, but as we all know, ultimately medical science comes to an end, and there is always that one last malady or injury that will not or cannot be cured.

But healing — healing that is so much more than a mere cure — healing can happen and does happen even in the midst of death, perhaps even especially then. Most physicians and nurses know this, they’ve seen it — anyone who serves in a nursing home or hospice knows it for a certainty— that even in the midst of death itself liberation can be proclaimed. The healing of the spirit can encompass the death of the flesh, the vision of the heavenly city can shine forth even in the most unexpected places.

I spoke last week of the sign of transformation that Jesus gave at the wedding party at Cana; how it wasn’t so much about wine as about the new life to which he called the people. So too, the sign for us this week is not the sign of miraculous cures, but of unshakable faith that survives even in the face of death, that transcends the grave and outlives it — that hope for the resurrection. Those who serve in the works of mercy are themselves signs and agents of the heavenly reality that comes to birth even in the midst of earthly pain and death. They are the members of Christ’s body, the body which suffers when any member suffers, the body that rejoices when any member of it is honored. These workers of mercy are those most acutely charged with reaching out to touch and comfort in times of pain and suffering, to cool the fevered brow and grasp the hand of the wounded.

In their hands and hearts that scroll has been placed, to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, not merely the temporary respite of relief but the eternal manumission of salvation; not the mere glimpse of a furtive hope but the steady vision of the love of God; to set free the oppressed and proclaim the Lord’s favor; not for a time or a season but for eternity, and not with the relative freedom of even the best earthly society but with the true and lasting freedom of the children of God in God’s own house; This is not an unrealized promise from long ago. This is not a hoped for vision deferred to some distant time to come. This is the power and the presence of God with you and the present power of God among you — you, the Body of Christ, filled with his life-giving Spirit. As he promised, so it is. Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. Here. Now. Always. Everywhere. In all places and at all times. From the heights to the depths and to the end of the ages. “Publish glad tidings, tidings of peace, tidings of Jesus, redemption and release!” To him whose promises are secure and fulfilled, to him be the glory, henceforth and for evermore.+

Particularly Clean

SJF • Epiphany 6b • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG Naaman the Syrian asked, Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel?

There are two things about the Christian faith that often provoke controversy, sometimes even within the church. The first is the claim that Christ is unique, the sole assured way to salvation. This doctrine is embodied in Jesus’ statement that he is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and that no one comes to the Father except through him. The second is the observation that what God demands of us through Christ is neither complicated nor difficult, but simple. And this is embodied in Jesus’ statement that his yoke is easy and his burden light.

We can find a foreshadowing of both of these doctrines in the story of Naaman the Syrian warrior — and leper. Naaman hears of a cure of his illness from a young slave who was kidnaped from her home in Israel. He sets off loaded with treasure, expecting some kind of grand royal reception. What he gets, however, is a message from the prophet Elisha to go and wash in the Jordan seven times. And the Scripture describes his anger at what he perceives to be off-handed treatment.

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Naaman’s anger has two aspects, which reflect the two Christian doctrines I mentioned a moment ago. First, he finds it is absurd that there should be anything special or unique about the River Jordan. Aren’t there rivers back in Syria that are bigger and better? What’s so special about the River Jordan? Second, the Syrian general expects an elaborate healing ceremony, some kind of a ritual where the prophet will come forth and call on God by name and wave his hands over the diseased spot.

But the general’s servants know better, and they give him very good advice: if the prophet had asked for something difficult, wouldn’t you have done it? How much easier simply to do as he says, to wash and be made clean? And so he does, and is healed, and comes to realize that the power of God is at work both in its particularity and in its simplicity. Only God can save and heal; and what God asks is simple, as simple as the faith to do as you are told.

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Let’s look more closely at these two attributes of God’s power and working. First, God’s power and working are particular. God could have chosen to settle his people Israel by some other river than the Jordan; he could have taken them up to Syria to settle by the Abana or the Pharpar. For that matter, when they were in captivity in Egypt, he could, instead of bringing them to the Promised Land, simply have wiped out Pharaoh and kept them comfortably settled by the Nile — a far more impressive and significant river than the Abana, the Pharpar or the Jordan. Or, choosing instead when he led them forth from Egypt, in forty years of wandering he could have led them to the Tigris or Euphrates or even the other way on up north and into Europe. God could have led his people to the Rhine or the Seine or the Thames. Or, he even could’ve inspired them to build boats, and bring them to the Hudson or the Mississippi! Why, God could even have settled his people by the shores of the Bronx River running through the Botanical Garden just a few blocks away!

But he didn’t. God settled his people in Israel by the Jordan, and that was where the slave-girl came from who told Naaman about the prophet, and that was where the prophet lived, and that was where Naaman went, and that is where he was healed. There; and no where else.

In the same way, God could have chosen to become incarnate in fifth century BC India, or in twelfth century Japan or fifteenth century Mexico. But he didn’t. God chose to be incarnate, “God in Man made manifest,” in the person of Jesus Christ, born in a suburb of Jerusalem in the reign of Caesar Augustus of Rome and Herod the Great of Palestine. This Jesus would be a man of a particular height, speaking a particular language, of a particular complexion and build, and most importantly, and particularly and uniquely and most importantly God from God, light from light, true God from true God.

The uniqueness and particularity of Christianity after all doesn’t lie in its content but in Christ himself — personally. Other religions have creeds and scriptures, liturgies and teachings and moral advice, many of them similar to Christianity in many respects. But only Christianity has Christ, the Son of God. It is in him that the Christian faith finds its uniqueness and particularity.

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So it is that Christians believe God’s power and working to be particular. And God’s power and working are also simple and direct. God could have commanded the prophet Elisha to put on a big show for Naaman the Syrian, something to impress him with thunder and lightning and spells and incantations, wavings of the arms and high drama. Instead he simply told him to take a bath, seven dips in the river.

In the same way, Jesus could have healed that leper that approached him, in the Gospel we heard this morning, with an elaborate ritual. He could have placed upon him some complicated act to perform after he was healed. Instead he simply touched him and spoke the word, and told him to do no more than what the Law of Moses already asked, a simple offering to the priest to certify the cure.

The simplicity of Jesus’ teaching is given in his own summary of the ancient law of Moses: to love God and one’s neighbor. That is the simplicity of Christian duty, simplicity so simple that sometimes it is hard! How many Christians down through history have afflicted themselves with terrible penances instead of simply doing what Jesus asked, to love God and their neighbors! And even that love takes a simple form — to do to others as we would be done by.

This is so simple and so fair that even a child can understand it — perhaps better than many an adult. Perhaps that is why Jesus said we had to become like children if we are to enter the kingdom of heaven. For children know what fairness is — believe you me. If you don’t think so, just try a little experiment with two children: sit them side by side and give one of them a dish of ice cream and the other a bowl of oatmeal, and you see if they can’t tell the difference! Of course, it takes a bit longer for the child to learn that fairness also means giving up something. I’ll be if you tried that experiment you might find a child ready to share the ice cream. It takes a while to learn that sometimes, but children do often grasp it, and you can see them, especially if they don’t know you’re watching, sharing, giving up his or her own toy, or learning to share it with another — that takes a while, sometimes; and sometimes we forget, too soon.

And yet children often seem to grasp that spirit of generosity to others that can put many an adult to shame. And perhaps that is why Jesus said “come to me as a child does” — with a clear sense of what is fair, but also a willingness to be generous, a willingness to share with others.

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After all is said and done, Jesus does not ask heroic feats of us. He has done the heavy lifting for us. He bore the cross for our salvation, and he asks us each to take up — each of us — our own cross, not his. He carried his cross, and he only asks us to take up our own, and follow him. This yoke of our own cross is easy and the burden light. For even given his unique and particular power, he asks of us only a simple task. He does not expect us to do anything more than to accept his love: to love him and to love each other just as he has loved us.

And to help us on our way he touches us in the sacraments and he speaks a word to us in the Scriptures, and he says to us, Be made clean. Be made clean from the false self that seeks only itself, and turn to the true self that gives itself for others. Be made clean from the burden of guilt so that you may accept the yoke of service. Be made clean of the elaborate show of religion so that you can experience the simplicity of faith. Be made clean of running about in confusion and aimlessness after this or that way to salvation, so that you can run the true race with your eyes fixed on the finish line, where an imperishable crown awaits you.

The way lies before us, as particular and clear as a lane marked out on the 400-meter track; the task lies before us, as simple as putting one foot in front of the other. All we are asked to do is follow: to run with perseverance the race that is before us, led by the one who goes before us to prepare a place for us: the one who has touched us in Baptism; the one who has spoken to us in the living word of his Scriptures; the one who has washed us clean in his blood; and the one who has fed us with his own body at this holy table: even Jesus Christ, our only mediator and advocate, to whom we offer our praise and thanksgiving, now and for evermore.+