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.+

Charity Does Not Stay at Home

A call for outreach...

SJF• Proper 25a • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
One of the Pharisees, a lawyer, asked Jesus a question to test him, Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?

There is an old saying that goes, “Charity begins at home.” You’ve probably heard that said from time to time. It usually comes up in a church context when someone on a vestry or church board suggests sending money or resources out to the mission field, and someone else points out that there’s plenty of work to do right where they are. And of course, that’s the problem with, “Charity begins at home.” It usually means, in practice, “Charity stays at home.”

When the Pharisees came to test Jesus, our Gospel today tells us, the lawyer among them asked him what the most important law was; natural question for a lawyer. And he answered, as many a Jew of his day would, by citing two laws from the Law of Moses. First, from Deuteronomy: that one must love God with heart and mind and soul and strength; and second from Leviticus: that one must love one’s neighbor as oneself.

What these two laws show us is that charity — love — does begin at home, with oneself and one’s immediate neighbors; but that it cannot stay at home. True love, true charity, reflects the compassion of God, and though it starts at home, it reaches to the ends of the earth — just as the love of God does.

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Charity begins at home: because if you do not love yourself you will not be a very loving person to anyone else. Many personal relationships go sour because people feel unworthy and unlovable, and they reject the love that others try to show to them. This was the lesson of many a fable and fairy tale, for example, of the Beast whose heart was finally warmed by Beauty, who taught him to stop treating himself as a monster, and to realize his own lovableness.

Yes, charity — love — starts at home. But charity cannot stay at home: few people are as unlovable as those who are so full of self-love that they don’t reach out to those around them. The truly loving person is able both to love and to be loved, starting at home but reaching out beyond it, from self, to neighbor, and to God.

For you can’t jump right to claiming to love God if you don’t start at home first. As the beloved disciple John wrote, “Those who do not love their brothers and sisters, whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” How many people down through the years have quietly and contentedly claimed to love and serve God while ignoring God’s children — their brothers and sisters in the faith! There is a powerful indictment in the words of Saint John Chrysostom: “Do not, in your journey to worship Christ in the church, pass him by where he lies starving and freezing in the street! You cannot claim to love God if you do not love God’s children.”

Jesus taught us, in fact, that the primary way in which we show our love of God is in how we love each other. He was highly critical of the temple authorities for putting on such a show of piety while taking the last few resources of the widows and orphans. He criticized the Pharisees for imposing rules of such high demanding virtue that they lost sight of human reality.

And so Jesus offered a stumper of a question to the Pharisees, who were trying to test him, to catch him and trip him and if possible bring him up on charges. Jesus asked them how it was possible that David could call his own son, “Lord.”

Now this question stumped the Pharisees, as Jesus intended it to do! They lived in a world in which the younger always served the older, a world in which it was inconceivable that a man would call his son, let alone his many times great-great-great-grandson “my lord.”

Things simply didn’t work that way in their neatly ordered world. The humble and the poor are the servants; the rich and the mighty are the lords over them. That’s the way the world works. The Pharisees didn’t understand that what Christ brought them, what the disciples would later reveal was a movement that would “upside-down” their neatly ordered world. Had they been able to understand this one riddle, they might have grasped what Jesus was about: that turnabout of true charity, in which those who have serve those without, in which a leader becomes a nursemaid, in which the master takes up the role of a serving-woman and washes his disciples’ feet, in which a many many times great-great-grandfather looks to the distant future to see his distant son and heir lifted from the earth, to draw the whole world to himself,
and calls him, Lord.

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As you know, I was traveling in South Africa and England this past two weeks, and in fact had a brief stop in Ireland when the plane developed problems and had to turn back. (Rather more travel than I had counted on!) But I learned something in South Africa, where I had a wonderful experience meeting people from across the continent — from South Africa of course, but there were clergy from Sweden, people from New Zealand, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Nigeria, from Rwanda, from Kenya — many parts of Africa, discussing many issues. And the one thing that surprised me was that the most inspiring talk I heard came from Chicago, from the priest in a parish in Chicago who presented to the consultation some of what her work is.

Her parish, which is called “All Saints,” when she came there about 18 years ago, had about 25 members. And the first thing she did, to challenge that congregation, was to challenge them much as Jesus the Pharisees — to suggest that what they needed to do was to look out to their neighborhood, to see what was going on, and to try to meet the needs of some of the people in that struggling, difficult neighborhood. And they began a very modest feeding program, having a hot meal served once a week.

Well, 18 years later, that church now has over 600 members, and they serve, still, one day a week, 400 people: a hot meal every Tuesday. They listened to the Lord, who challenged them, and told them to look beyond themselves to their neighbors.

And what I want to do is challenge us, here at St James Church, to do the same. As you know, some years ago, we had a dinner served on Thanksgiving Day — to homeless people and whoever was in the neighborhood. We stopped doing that a few years back and switched to Christmas, and I have to say the Christmas meal was not nearly as successful. I think one of the problems being that by the time it gets into December it’sgotten very cold, and people aren’t out on the streets — God knows where they have gone, but they aren’t out there. But on Thanksgiving, they still are. And I would like to challenge us once again to do what we did a few years ago, and open our doors and welcome people in to eat in our parish hall, now that the hall has been restored and prepared, we really have no excuse not to do it.

And I’m reminded of a wonderful hymn, which we’re not singing today because this just came to me this morning, the text of which says:

For the love of God is broader than the measure of Man’s mind,

and the love of the Eternal is most wonderfully kind.

If our love were but more faithful we should take him at his word,

and our life would be thanksgiving for the goodness of the Lord.

I’m sure you recognize that hymn. And I would like to challenge us today — and I’m doing this with the mind of honoring Bonnie’s parish, All Saints — with All Saints Day coming, and you’re having in your bulletin this morning an envelope for our annual All Saints Day remembrance, where we remember those who have died, our families and friends, and we normally put that money into our endowment fund, which is a wonderful thing, and a help for our future the church. But I would like to suggest that this year we take that offering that is dedicated to our own personal saints, our friends and family who have gone before us, and dedicate that money, and any other money we can raise, to put on a really splendid Thanksgiving Day celebration, and welcome people from far and wide, our neighbors in the Bronx, to come in and have a hot meal on a cold day.

Will you do that with me, will you do that, my friends. And next week I will ask for your help — and I’ll have a sign-up sheet prepared at the back of the church for those willing to pitch in, perhaps to cook something and bring it on that day. And the funds we raise will go to buy supplies and food, and whatever we need to help feed the hungry on that day.

Are you with me, my friends? Shall we allow God to challenge us and allow the love of God to grow in our hearts so that we can open our doors to our neighbors, who are less well off than we are? Let us do that, friends. It is what Jesus wants from us, and it is in his name we pray; in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

To Live Faith

SJF • Proper 15a • Tobias Haller BSG
Jesus said, “Great is your faith; let it be done for you as you wish.”

Our gospel today portrays a woman with both great faith and great perseverance. Her story reminds me of my favorite film, also a study in perseverance, by the great Japanese film-director Akira Kurosawa. It’s called Ikiru, which means “To Live.” I was just telling a some members of the parish about it at coffee hour a few weeks ago, and I want to share something of it with all of you today, as it speaks very eloquently to our gospel message.

The main character in the film, Mr. Watanabe, is a civil servant in the public works department of a big city. The time is a few years after the Second World War, when Japan is beginning to rebuild from its devastating defeat. Watanabe spends his whole life working — but he accomplishes very little. His days consist almost entirely of shuffling papers from the in-basket to the out-basket, dutifully stamping each of them with his rubber stamps, but accomplishing nothing at all of practical use. Most of the folks who come to his department get the run-around and are sent off to a different department in City Hall. (Does any of this sound familiar?) Watanabe’s staff have given him a nickname, The Mummy — and he looks like one and has just about as much joy out of life.

Then, one day, he discovers he is dying, and has only a few months to live. He doesn’t know what to do — so he tries different things, going through all the stages of the process of coming to terms with this new reality: denial, anger, and fear. He gets drunk and sings sad songs about how short life is; he tries to reconnect with the son he loves but can’t relate to — but he finds no any answers.

Then one day he has a revelation, and it is as if he has been reborn. A young woman from his staff, who had quit working in the office when she couldn’t take the boredom any more, has gone to work at a toy factory. She shows the old mummy one of the toys she makes, and says at least she knows that somewhere a child will be made happy because of something she has actually done. And in a flash, Watanabe realizes that he can do something with his life, he can make a difference in these last few months that he has to live; he can really live, and do something.

Back in the office, he grabs a paper off the top of his stack, and he sets about trying to accomplish something in City Hall — getting a fetid swamp drained, one that has been making children sick in a local neighborhood, and having a playground built in its place.

Of course, no one else at City Hall is interested in doing anything either. But ultimately they can’t resist this persistent toothpick of a man looking at them with huge sad eyes — sitting opposite their desks and refusing to move until they pull out their own rubber stamps to sign off on the aspects of the work under their control, and needed to proceed.

In one scene, Watanabe confronts a mob boss who has a politician in his pocket. The big yakuza in the shiny suit looks down at this dried-up little shrimp of a man and says, “Don’t you know I can have you killed.” And Watanabe looks up at him, and breaks into a huge smile — he has no fear of death, you see; he knows he’s going to die but he has just begun to live. This completely freaks out the mob boss, and gives him such a start that he relents. The playground is built, and Watanabe lives just to see it completed, and then dies, knowing he has accomplished something: he has lived.

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Our gospel today shows us another example of such persistence, persistence and faith even in the face of resistance. And the resistance comes from a surprising place, for it shows us Jesus in a light that is so unlike him it may take us a while to appreciate what is going on in this passage. A Canaanite woman cries out to Jesus asking him to save her daughter. Jesus gives her the cold shoulder — not saying a word. The disciples complain, and Jesus says, essentially, “Not my people, not my problem.” She kneels before him, refusing to give up, and begs for his help. And he then says something so shocking it is hard to believe it comes from the lips of our loving Savior, “It isn’t fair to give the children’s food to dogs.’

Yet still she persists, this unrelenting woman with the sick child, who will be driven away neither by silence, by complaints, or by insults: she reminds Jesus that even the dogs get scraps. And finally, after ignoring her, shrugging her off, and even insulting her, Jesus relents, and acknowledges her persistence — and her great faith; and her daughter is instantly healed.

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Great faith — an interesting contrast to our gospel of last week, where Jesus dealt with Peter’s “little faith.’ How interesting that Jesus should find little faith in his own disciples, but great faith in a Canaanite — one of the remnant of the hated people whom God had told the Israelites to cast out of the promised land. One cannot help but compare Saint Peter, untrustworthy Saint Peter, the one who would deny his Lord three times before the cock crowed, with this poor pagan woman who persisted three times in imploring help for her sick child. Who has the greater faith? It’s easy to see, and Jesus confirms it by responding to her appeal.

In the same way, years before, Isaiah had assured people who thought they had no hope, and no reason to hope, for inclusion in the life of salvation, that their faith too would be rewarded. To the eunuchs and the foreigners — outsiders and outcasts, people not allowed to be part of the assembly of the faithful, not allowed to set foot on the Holy Mount and enter the courts of God’s Temple — where the sign said, “No Gentiles Past This Point” — Isaiah assured them that God would give them a special blessing, a monument and a name, and accept their sacrifices in a house that would not just be for the children of Israel, but a house of prayer for all people.

And then, years later, Saint Paul would write to Gentiles in Rome, with much the same message — assuring them that the littleness of faith shown by those of his own people who had not accepted Jesus, was only so that mercy could be shown to the Gentiles — themselves once people of no faith, now blessed to be included in the wide embrace of salvation. Where before only the children of Israel were assured of a life in the world to come, now others would be ushered in, brought into the kingdom and the wedding banquet by the Son and Bridegroom himself.

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So why was Jesus so hard on this Canaanite woman — was it to test her, and the disciples, to see what she and they would do, to see whose faith was stronger — and perhaps to shame the disciples’ little faith with her great faith? We do not know, but I think that’s as good a guess as any. Jesus knew Isaiah backwards and forwards — you recall he read from it at the beginning of his ministry. He knew that salvation was not just for Israel, but for all the scattered flocks — all of them God’s creation, the God who hates nothing that he has made.

So just as Jesus at first, before feeding the multitude, challenged the disciples to give them something to eat, when they just wanted to send them away, so to here he has an eye on the disciples. And isn’t it striking just how often the disciples wanted to send people away? When people brought children for Jesus to touch — send them away! When the hungry crowds hungered for food — send them away! When people were doing works of power in Jesus’ name even though they weren’t part of the apostles’ band — let us call down fire from heaven to destroy them! Those apostles sure seem to have thought that less is more, the fewer the better, even though in each case Jesus tried to show them a better way.

So too here no doubt he had a watchful eye on them to see if their generosity might be awakened by this persistent woman’s plea, or his refusal. Of course, just as they complained that there wasn’t enough to feed the multitudes, that it was annoying to have all those children coming to Jesus, or that people were doing works of wonder even though they weren’t part of the “in crowd,’ so here they complain about the woman bothering them — their little faith showing in every move they make, every step they take — and Jesus is watching them.

As I say, we cannot get into Jesus’ mind, or know for sure why he did what he did. I find it hard to believe he was being intentionally cruel to this poor woman — it seems very out of character. And we know he set many tests for his disciples, and perhaps this was one of them. Ultimately only God knows.

What we do know is that long ago a mother cried out for someone to save her child, and she persisted in her cry, and her cry was heard, and her child was healed. Great was her faith, and great the blessing that it brought her.

May we too show such faith, both in seeking the help of our Lord and God without resting, persistent in appeal and great in faith — but also in doing better than the disciples did — and helping all those in need, both near and far, our own people and people from afar: all of them God’s very own. For we have been given the power to live — the power to make a difference in other peoples lives and our own, rather than to spend them shuffling papers from the in-box to the out-box of our lives. Let us take courage in the knowledge that though our lives are limited, our days numbered, while we live them they are ours to use — to live or to waste. Let us then, share abundantly in the life that is not ours alone — not just the scraps and the crumbs, but the full course meal of loving fellowship: shared with all from near and far in this house of prayer for all people — the house of God, to whom we give honor and glory, now and for evermore.+

Surprised by Grace

Saint James Fordham • Lent 3a • Tobias Haller BSG
God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. - Romans 5:5

Grace is amazing — as amazing as water in the desert. Today’s readings show us two acts of amazing grace, two desert oases in our Lenten pilgrimage, as we examine the dry patches in our lives and discover some surprising water-springs.

The children of Israel received water from rock— the last place anyone would have looked. They had looked in empty river-beds, where they thought it should have been, rather than in the rock, where they were sure it couldn’t be. What was their problem (and do we share it)? Why don’t we find what we are looking for?

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First: we can look for the right thing in the wrong place. There’s an old joke about man crawling about under a lamppost late one night. A passing cop asks, “What’s all this then?” The man explains he’s looking for his watch. After helping him for a few minutes, the cop asks, “Are you sure you lost it here?” He answers, “No; I lost it up the street.” “Then why in thunder are you looking for it here?” Said the man, “Well, the light’s much better here.”

Are we that foolish? Do you remember the old song about looking “for love in all the wrong places”? How often do we do things we think will make us popular or well liked, rather than the things we really enjoy? How many people start drinking or smoking or using drugs so that they can be in the “right” crowd? It is good to be loved, but there are healthy ways and unhealthy ways to seek it.

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Second: we can possess the gift and not know it, or even reject it. Have you ever walked around looking and looking for something only to discover that it’s right in your pocket. Or even worse, have you ever been sorting out your mail and accidentally thrown away an important letter that got mixed up with the junk mail or the empty envelopes? It is possible to have all you could possibly need and yet not know it, or even lose it, through carelessness or lack of awareness.

God was never quite good enough for the wandering Israelites. They treated him like one of those envelopes from Publishers Clearing House — you know, the ones that tell you you’vepossibly won a million dollars, and you get all excited, but then you open it and find out it is about magazine subscriptions, and you throw it away. The treated the wedding invitation as if it were junk mail. They were never satisfied: When God gave them water from the rock, they asked for bread. When they received bread from heaven they complained there was no meat to go with it.

Are we that foolish, that ungrateful? How often, when blessed with life, health, reasonable success, and so on, do we hunger for more? There is a chilling judgment on this kind of selfishness in Psalm 106: “God gave them what they asked, but he sent leanness into their souls.” Leanness of soul, hunger that can never be satisfied but always craves more, is what keeps people looking for the right thing in the wrong place, and not knowing or accepting the gifts they’ve received, or even throwing them away.

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Let’s turn now, though, to some good news, to look at a figure from the Gospel. She’s an unlikely character who found grace in an unlikely way. She shows the same tendencies to look in the wrong place, or for the wrong thing, but she accepts the gift with enthusiasm. We don’t know her name, only that she was a woman of Samaria.

Jesus asks her for water. This is natural: he has no bucket, and he is thirsty. The surprise is that Jesus has living water for the woman, even though he asks her for well water.

Her response to the surprise is to try to “trim the mystery down to size” as all of us do, when confronted with the amazing. We human beings can turn the most beautiful poetry into prose at the drop of a hat. When offered the best things in the world we often try to tame and limit them. We like to put easy handles on big ungainly ideas like “Love” and “Peace” and then think we understand them because we’ve given them those short little one-syllable names. Well, love and peace are hard work, as a look at our lives or the world will tell us, and just because you can say the words doesn’t mean you can put them into practice; just because you can talk the talk doesn’t mean you can walk the walk.

When Jesus offers the woman living water, she asks “How can you offer me living water? You don’t have a bucket!” Then, when Jesus brings up the subject of her husband, she adopts another standard strategy to avoid taking a hard look at her life — she starts to talk “religion.” Here she is, a Samaritan woman, with a real live Jewish prophet cornered: what an opportunity to get a few quick answers.

Does this sound familiar? “Gee, Doc, I know this is a wedding party, but I’ve been having these funny pains in my left elbow for a while now...” Well, here’s the Samaritan woman’s opportunity to get some questions answered by an expert — and to avoid the uncomfortable look at her own life that Jesus has brought up. And, if you’re going to change the subject, there’s never been a more popular subject to change it to than religion!

Yet her question is superficial, as is so much talk about religion. “Where is the right place to worship?” — that’s the question she wants settled. Christ answers that the “where” isn’t important, but the “how” — true worshipers worship in Spirit. This answer about the Spirit confuses her, much as poor old Nicodemus was confused in our Gospel reading last week when he was told he needed to be born into the Spirit that moves where it wills, to be born again, born from above. The Samaritan woman too doesn’t understand, and says, “Messiah will make it clear.”

Then comes the climax, the turning point of the story, of her story and ours: Jesus says, “I am He.” He is Messiah, talking to her right there! That moment is portrayed in one of our stained glass windows,

right over there, just as Jesus tells the woman that he is what she has been looking for. Now, we’ve got some lovely stained glass windows here at Saint James — and this isn’t one of them! This was an American window made by a well-meaning craftsman trying to imitate the kind of work you see in the German stained glass windows in the sanctuary. The architectural details in his effort end up looking more like bananas than pinnacles. Still, look at the Samaritan woman’s face, caught in the moment of recognition, as she looks up just as Jesus points to himself and says, “I am he.”

There is some real skill showing through the artist’s vision of that moment, isn’t there? And what a moment it was: “I am he, the one speaking to you right now.” He is the real fount of living water brimming up in the middle of the desert of her life.

And hers is the proper response — she goes off to the city to spread the word. She doesn’t stake a claim to the living water: she doesn’t try to cap the well, she goes off to tell the town the good news. She becomes the first non-Jewish evangelist, the first to spread the Good News to the outcast and despised people of Samaria, the Good News that the Messiah has come not just to the Jewish people, but to them as well, to a people despised on account of their ancestry and their beliefs. Like Andrew, whose first act was to find his brother, this woman spreads the good news throughout the town, and a whole thirsty community is enabled to drink in the living presence of the Messiah among them.

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This story shows us several things about grace, most importantly that grace is undeserved. It is a gift, not a wage. Neither we nor the Samaritan woman nor the children of Israel earn it — we sometimes even refuse it without knowing it — we often avoid it as if it were hurtful. We sometimes pass it by as if it were not there. Grace is a gift, not a wage. It takes us by surprise. We don’t earn it. The only thing we earn, our only wages in our sinful state — well, as we are reminded in this Lenten season — the wages of sin is death.

But as the everlasting good news of Eastertide reminds us: the gift of God is life, life in abundance, like water in the desert. God’s love was poured out for an unlikely woman with a questionable past by a well in Samaria. And God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

For the gift and giver are one and the same: the giver is the gift. Jesus gave himself, gave his life for us, even while we were sinners. We’ve earned only death: we’ve worked hard for it — instead we are given a gift of life. And that is the wonderful and amazing surprise of grace: it’s what grace means — not getting what you deserve for your failings, but being forgiven in spite of them.

Christ continues to pour these gracious gifts upon us, through word and sacraments. We receive that grace, mediated through outward and visible signs. And the first of these, the one by which we first come into unity with Christ and the church, is the water of baptism, which flows into the desert of our lives.

We are the vessels for that water, vessels of clay made by the potter’s hand, ready to be filled to the brim with grace. The woman at the well said that Jesus had no bucket for the living water. But he had her: she would be a receptacle of grace, and carry it carefully back to her city, not spilling a drop, to quench the thirst of other yearning people, to invite them to the well of living water that is Jesus Christ.

The water of baptism is the same living water that burst from the rock to quench the thirst of the wandering children of Israel, the same living water that Jesus promised to a lonely woman by a well in the Samaritan outback, the same water in which you and I were baptized, and in which children and men and women will continue to be baptized until sacraments shall cease and we are one in Spirit and in Truth.

As we continue our Lenten pilgrimage, think on the gift of grace we have been given: how it is unexpected; how it is undeserved; how amazing grace is, that through word and sacraments we have come to know the One who is “indeed the savior of the world.”+

Don't Tell It In The Valley

SJF • Last Epiphany A • Tobias Haller BSG
Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

Today is the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, the season of “showing forth.” It was a very short season this year, only four Sundays counting Epiphany itself; yet some significant things have already been shown forth to us these few weeks. We have seen how God hides and reveals himself, and come to understand how utterly known to God all of us are — known through and through, and loved by the one who made us in his own image.

We have heard gospel readings describe Christ’s showing forth to the world. A dove settled on him at the river Jordan, showing John that Jesus was the one he waited for. John’s followers answered Jesus’ call to “come and see,” and Jesus himself went to the far reaches of Galilee of the Gentiles, and netted himself an assortment of fishermen, who left their nets and boats and families behind, to follow him. But on this last Sunday before Lent, Jesus is revealed in a different light, and delivers a paradoxical command to three of those fishermen.

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First, the revelation. Jesus is revealed for a moment in his full glory. He had promised his disciples, in the verse before our gospel for today begins, “There are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” Peter, James and John get a preview of Jesus’ divine majesty, a down-payment on the final fulfillment. No wonder Peter wants to stay on the mountain!

However, not only don’t they stay on the mountain, but Jesus issues a strange command as they are coming down from the heights. “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” And we wonder, Why reveal, then conceal? Why reveal the good news and then order them not to tell it? I spoke two weeks ago about how God plays hide and seek with us, and this may be yet another instance. But I think there is more to it in this case.

And the “more” begins in our Old Testament reading. Here too is a mountain on which God is revealed, though not in human flesh, but in cloud and majesty and awe, carving the Law in stone. God gives this written revelation to Moses, who brings it to the people. And we all know what happens. The people are not ready to receive God in the form of sublime and righteous laws. God is ready to meet them half-way, to enter into a covenant with them. But they don’t want to go half-way; they don’t want even to be near the mountain. They will reveal themselves to be happier with a god they’ve made themselves, a golden calf they can dance around, who won’t do anything for them— but who will ask nothing of them.

So God is faced with a dilemma. God loves humanity, and sends Moses with the Law, a covenant into which the people were invited, but which they reject before the ink is even dry, so to speak. So God sends the prophets, like Elijah, reminding the people of the promises, of the love, of the forgiveness that awaits them if only they will turn to God and forswear their foolish ways.

What happens to the prophets? Some are heeded—briefly. But others are beaten, some killed. So God decides to send his own dear Son — not a letter, not an ambassador, but one who shares his being, one who is God— one who is glimpsed in majesty on the mountaintop by three disciples, and will only later be revealed in the mighty act of resurrection from the dead.

This is why Jesus orders the disciples not to tell the people about what they have seen on this mountain... until after. The people already have Moses, for the Law is read week by week in the synagogue. The people already have Elijah and the other prophets, whose deeds and warnings are also recounted. Jesus knows that this is not enough— the Law and the Prophets alone cannot save. Following rules and hearing warnings will not save people — they don’t need another teacher or lawgiver: they are too hardheaded to be instructed. They don’t need to be taught, but rescued; not instructed, but saved! And that goes for us too. What is needed is for someone to rise from the dead, mighty in power and strong to save.

So what happens on the mountain is the preview, not the feature presentation! It is a private screening, to encourage the apostles — not for general release! And even what they see on the mountain is not enough — it is not salvation, but promise. Peter wants to stay on the mountain, to bask in the momentary glory, to live in the promise rather than the fulfillment.

But God has other plans: When Peter offers to build three shelters, God speaks, “This is my Son. Listen to him.” God is saying, The Law and the Prophets, Moses and Elijah, have had their day and did their part, but now you have the Son himself: listen, and do as he says. There is something better even than this to come.

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Saint Paul understood this difference well, a lesson learned at great personal cost. He had been a man of the Law and the Prophets, but he learned that, in the light of the resurrection, all his learning was just so much rubbish. Jesus is working along the same line when he tells the disciples to keep the vision secret until he has risen from the dead. Don’t give away the ending, he’s says, perhaps the first spoiler alert! The best part — the important part — is still to come— but not before suffering, pain and death. Jesus does not tarry on the mountain. He goes down to the challenges still waiting. For he knows that only through his death and resurrection can people finally be saved. The promise is not enough — there must as well be performance.

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We, too, have our mountaintop moments. Like Peter, we are tempted to remain in them, enjoying them, trying to make the experience last. But we too have challenges awaiting us. The parish church is one mountaintop for us. We come each week, hear the words of the Law and the Prophets, and of Jesus, and then go out on our way. Surely, it is good to be here. We feel restored, renewed, encouraged and comforted.

But all of these feelings are meant to impel us to action, not as ends in themselves. We receive the promise in order to equip us for performance, in God’s name. It would be easy to stay in the comfort of community, but we are challenged and equipped to go out to face a world in need.

It is good to be here, and we need a weekly return to our mountaintop: just as Christ himself went to hills to pray. But he also went back to the valley for ministry. We are fed by the Law, the Prophets, and the Gospel; but we know that the Law is without power to save on its own, that the prophecies will pass away, and that the gospel will perish if there is no one to preach it. So we are reminded today that we have a mission, a mission to all the world. We go back to our weekday lives equipped with gifts of the Spirit, as ambassadors of Christ.

Us? Ambassadors of Christ? Yes, us! We have been transformed, changed into messengers of Christ, so that what is unchanging may be revealed through us. The great news is the resurrection has happened — we are not bound like James and John and Peter, to keep it secret until it happened — for it has, praise God! We live in the time of “until after” — Christ is alive! That is the Gospel, the Good News. And so we’ve received the commission to tell it out, to tell abroad the Good News that salvation has come, and we are its heralds and ambassadors.

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Christ came down from the mountain to a valley that led towards Calvary. He didn’t stay on a mountaintop with three booths, but marched steadfastly on toward a little hill with three crosses. But there is more; do you see it? As we begin our Lenten pilgrimage, as we enter the valley of challenge before us, keep your eye on the mountain there ahead —— not the little hill called Golgotha, but the mountain that rises behind it, the New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven like a bride adorned for her bridegroom. Though Lent is about to begin, we know the end of the story, the greatest story ever told, we know that Christ is alive, risen from the dead and powerful to save, and we — we servants of God — equipped with that knowledge and filled with the Holy Spirit, we can go forth from this place on our mission, empowered to tell that story and do great works in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.+

Dying on Easy Street

SJF • P21c • Tobias Haller BSG
Alas for those who are at ease in Zion, and for those who feel secure on Mount Samaria...

You probably all know the expression, “Living on Easy Street.” It means everything’s going your way; you’ve got it made; everything’s coming up roses and daffodils, as Ethel Merman used to sing. You haven’t got a care in the world and all your needs are provided for, because you are living in the lap of luxury.

Sounds like the folks Amos is talking about in this morning’s Scripture reading, doesn’t it? They lie on beds of ivory, lounging like regular couch potatoes, dining on tender lamb and veal, entertaining themselves with the latest pop tunes and performing cool musical improvisations; savoring vintage wine not just from cups but from bowls, and getting oil massages as they luxuriate in comfort. They are living on easy street like nobody’s business.

And, “Alas,” says Amos — “alas for those who are at ease in Zion, and for those who feel secure on Mount Samaria.” For while they are enjoying themselves and taking their ease, things are afoot that will shake their comfortable world to its foundations. The Assyrians are coming, and at their coming there will be warfare, destruction, defeat and eventual exile — and the revelry of the loungers will pass away. They are not, after all, living on easy street — they are dying on easy street.

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This is a powerful lesson — for us today as much as it was in the days of the prophet Amos. For it addresses a human failing that we are no less liable to in our day than they were in his. And that is the failing of complacency, the kind of complacency that gives in to comfort and relaxes into a kind of nearsightedness that not only doesn’t see danger coming, combined with a kind of farsightedness that makes us oblivious to others who are nearby, and who areno danger to us at all.

We see that in our Gospel today: the story of the rich man who ignored the poor man who sat just outside his house. This rich man was living on easy street. He dressed like royalty — in those days purple cloth was earmarked for the Imperial household. He feasted not just off and on, but every day.

But out on the street — not easy street but the real hard-paved, dusty street — there was a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing for something to eat — lying there in misery at the gate while dogs came by and licked his sores.

Well, Lazarus died — no surprise there — but at his death God sent angels to carry him to Abraham’s side. The rich man died too — also no surprise; with all his daily feasting he probably ate and drank his way into heart and liver disease: a perfect example of dying on easy street. But instead of angels, what does this rich man get? — the torment of Hades, and the oblivion of being forgotten, even his name having passed away with him, to be known to us only as “a rich man.”

Now, it’s not as if he hasn’t been warned of his fate. As a Jew, even if he wasn’t particularly observant, he would have been familiar with the law of charity — that one is to be openhanded and generous, and to help the poor and the oppressed, the widows and orphans, the sick and the suffering; in short, to love one’s neighbor as oneself. The problem is that his own self-comfort had blinded him to the dis-comfort of the neighbors all around him — even something as obvious as a dying man lying at his very gate — and you can’t get much closer to home than that. No, he had been warned countless times of his duty to love his neighbor as himself; and instead of that he’d spent his wealth on himself, clothing himself in purple and feasting everyday — while Lazarus suffered at his doorway, half-dressed and starving.

The warnings were there for him and all to see — which is why Abraham gives the rich man some hard news down in Hades, when he has the nerve to ask Abraham to send Lazarus on an errand to his five brothers, to warn them of their fate. And the bad news is — Sorry, but they’ve already received the only warning they are going to get: the teaching of Moses and the prophets — the teachings about loving one’s neighbor, and helping the poor and oppressed.

And, if I can extend Abraham’s warning, he might well have said — “And by the way, you didn’t pay any attention to Lazarus when he was right outside your door every day; so why do you think your brothers would pay any attention to him either? Do you think they’ll listen to this dead man, even if he returns from the grave, when they don’t listen to Moses and the prophets, who were once alive but now are here with me as well— for though they died, their words live on and are preached week by week in the synagogue. All of you had your chance to heed the words of the dead and behold the lives of the living — and you ignored both.”

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That’s what living on easy street can do to you. We can get so comfortable that we forget the most elementary lessons of the faith: to love God and neighbor. Comfort — even relative comfort, not just luxury — can take our minds off of our duty to those less fortunate than we are.

I dare say none of us here are wealthy — since they discovered chemical dyes in the 19th century purple cloth has been no more expensive than any other color; and I very much doubt that any of us here feasts every day.

Yet even if we don’t consider our daily meals to be feasts, there are parts of this world of ours where people would be glad to eat the scraps that fall from our tables, places in the world where a loaf of fresh bread is considered a delicacy, and a few ounces of meat a feast worthy of a monarch.

We don’t really appreciate how good we have it — until we turn and consider those who have less. And thanks be to God that members of this parish have made that effort, and continue to do so. The message we heard wasn’t from a dying man at the gate, but from the voices of children calling to us from half-way around the world, from Dabalo in Tanzania: and we heard their call, and we answered and sent them help. Just this past May fifty-three children received the gifts that members of this parish provided for them, gifts they still enjoy as they are fed in body and mind, dressed in new school uniforms and with shoes on their feet and food in their stomachs, and books and school supplies to support their minds as well as their bodies.

I just received an email this week from the project manager in Dabalo, which included this message from the children — “May God bless our supporters in America also for our breakfast every morning!” Think about that — when was the last time you thanked God or anybody else for the fact that you were able to have breakfast! We have it so, so easy here on easy street. Perhaps this will be a reminder to us to give thanks more often. And to be of even greater help.

It seems such a simple thing to do what Saint Paul advised in the good counsel we heard today: to do good, to be rich in good works, generous and ready to share. Thus we store up “the treasure of a good foundation for the future,” to “take hold of the life that really is life.”

We don’t have to give up living on the easy (or at least comfortable) street we live on — we just need to be aware of the people out on that street, out by our gates, or on other streets not so well paved as ours, even those half-way around the world. Neighbors are near and far, and they have been given to us by Jesus asan object for the good he has equipped us and enabled us to do. None of us is asked to do more than we can — but only what we can, with the help of God, which is surely to do more than simply live, but to help others live as well.

May our ears be always open to the calls for help, may our hands be always full of the means to give that help, may we press forward in service to help and minister to all whom we can, by God’s grace, through Jesus Christ our Lord.+

Very Near To You

SJF • Proper 10c 2007 • Tobias Haller BSG
Grant, O Lord, that your people may know and understand what things they ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to accomplish them.+
In his short story, “The Fruit at the Bottom of the Bowl,” Ray Bradbury describes what happens to a man who loses track. It begins with the main character of the story standing over the body of the man he has just murdered. No one else is around, no one has seen him come, and no one is likely to see him leave. Still, he realizes he has left traces of himself in the form of fingerprints all around the living room. And so he finds a cloth and begins wiping the arm of the leather chair, and then the top of the table; and, of course, the glass from which he had enjoyed a drink. Then there’s the door knob of the library — and he’d better do the one on the inside as well. And the front door, both handles. And did he touch the edge of the doorway when he came in? Give it a rubdown just in case. And that marble-topped table in the foyer — did he set his hand on the top of it when he passed by?

He sets to work, polishing everything he can think of — even things that thinking should tell him he hasn’t touched; but he can no longer be sure. He even polishes the fruit at the bottom of the bowl which gives the story its title, and completely loses himself in his effort to wipe away any evidence that he had been there.

When the police finally arrive — I don’t recall the detail from the story; perhaps because the murdered man has missed an appointment — they enter the house and find it gleaming. Every surface is polished within an inch of its life. Martha Stewart would be put to shame! Then, hearing some noise from upstairs, they find the murderer, frantically polishing coins from a chest in the back corner of the attic.

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Now, what, you may ask, what does this have to do with the Good Samaritan? Well, the resemblance begins as our gospel passage begins, when a lawyer asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life — that is, how do I escape the human predicament of guilt and wrong, just like the man who tried to wipe away his fingerprints? Jesus throws the question right back at him, essentially saying, “You’re the lawyer; what does the law say?” And the lawyer quotes the well-known Summary of the Law — and it is good to note that Luke puts this summary, a combination of two verses from Deuteronomy and Leviticus, into the lawyer’s mouth. Jesus approves this summary, but then the lawyer wants to justify himself and asks, “And who is my neighbor?”

It is a reasonable question for the lawyer to ask. Does it mean neighbor literally — the person who lives next door? Or could it mean people who live as much as two or three doors away? Or anyone in the neighborhood? And just where is the edge of the neighborhood — where does Fordham become
Kingsbridge Heights or edge over into Mosholu or Norwood? Is it just this borough, or the whole city? Do I just wipe my fingerprints off the doorknobs and the glass, or do I have to go rummaging in the bottom of the fruit-bowl, or climb the ladder to the attic?

Seen in this way, the question is, What is the limit of one’s responsibility? In my sermon last week I mentioned Marley’s plaintive statement, “Mankind was my business.” But Scrooge, even after his reclamation, didn’t try to save all of mankind, or even everyone in the good old city of London! He helped Bob Cratchit, and Tiny Tim, and many others — but not everybody. And the people in the Titanic’s lifeboats, who didn’t row back to rescue other passengers, weren’t expected to rescue everybody — but they could have rescued somebody.

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In his response to the lawyer, Jesus shows by way of a parable the kind of response he expects. We know nothing else about the Good Samaritan apart from his being a Samaritan and being good. All we know is that unlike the priest and the Levite, he doesn’t ignore the man he comes across on his journey. As far as we know, he’s not an ambulance driver or a homeless shelter coordinator or a social worker going out searching for injured or homeless people to see to their needs. He simply responds to the needy person who is actually in his path. And that’s important — not in his neighborhood (after all, he’s from Samaria) but in his path. The presence of this wounded man on the road is an opportunity for ministry — a ministry rejected by the priest and the Levite, even though they were on the same path, but an opportunity for ministry to which the Samaritan responds. And he is the one about whom Jesus says to the lawyer, “Go and do likewise.”

The message to us, then, is that God will provide us with opportunities for ministry, too; and when those opportunities arise, God expects us to take advantage of them. We are not to cross to the other side and pass by.

While God will give us such opportunities to do good, God does not expect us, either as individuals or as a congregation, or even as an entire church, to solve all the problems of the world — to wipe out to world hunger, and poverty, and disease — on our own. But God does give us the opportunity to feed someone, to help someone who is down on his luck, and to offer care and comfort to someone who is sick. We cannot on our own solve all the problems of the world; but individually we can help to address the needs of other individuals — and they are our neighbors no matter how far away they live. And in the long run every generous act will contribute to the net balance of good in the world, even the smallest act of kindness adding to the blessing. And enough grains of sand will eventually make an island. Enough good done will go far to making the world a better place.

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There is an old story that is such a cliché I’m hesitant to retell it, but it is so to the point that I will. There was a man who would walk up and down the beach every day picking up stranded starfish on his path, starfish that had washed up beyond the reach of the waves, and gently toss them back into the sea. A person who watched him doing this for awhile said to him, “Why are you wasting your time throwing those starfish back into the sea? There are thousands of them! What difference do you think it makes?” The man looked down at the starfish in his hand, paused for a moment, then tossed it into the sea, and said, “It makes a difference to that one.”

The simple fact is, God doesn’t ask the impossible of us. God doesn’t expect us to save the world — he already did that almost 2000 years ago, and he did it while nailed to a cross. But God does expect us to love him and our neighbors; and to show that love by treating all whom we encounter with that same respect and care that he showed for the whole world. God does not give us more than we can handle. His law of love is not incomprehensible or far away — you don’t have to go running up to heaven to find it; you don’t have to cross over to the other side of the sea to hear of it; you don’t have to rummage in the bottom of the fruit-bowl or climb the rickety ladder to the attic to find it. The law of love is very near to us, in our mouth and in our heart. And our neighbor, to whom God wills we show that love is near us in spirit and in fact.

Whether that neighbor is the person sitting next to you in the pew, a person to whom a kind word or smile might just make their day; or whether that neighbor is a child in Dabalo parish 85 miles north of Dodoma in Tanzania on the other side of the world — a child who now has a new school uniform and shoes, and books and pencils and paper, and a good breakfast every day, because someone here in this parish chose to help — God gives us neighbors aplenty to love and serve as we love and serve him. The law of God is not too hard — it is very near to us, as near as our nearest neighbor, as far as our hearts can reach.

As the wonderful old Ghanaian hymn says, “Neighbors are rich and poor, neighbors are black and white, neighbors are nearby and far away. These are the ones we should serve, these are the ones we should love. All are neighbors to us and you. Jesu, Jesu, fill us with your love, show us how to serve the neighbors we have from you.”

Grant, O Lord, that your people may know and understand what things they ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to accomplish them; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.+

Bearing the Burden

St James Fordham • Proper 9c • Tobias Haller BSG

Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.+

I imagine that many of you here this morning saw the film Titanic when it came out a few years back, or perhaps one of the earlier versions such as A Night to Remember, or if you haven’t, you at least know the story of that tragic disaster. The story strikes close to home in this parish — for as I recently learned one of the survivors of the tragedy, Colonel Archibald Gracie, was the grandson of one of the founding members of this parish. He was a hero of that terrible night, staying on board the ship helping people into the lifeboats right up until it sank, and survived because he managed to catch hold of one of the capsized collapsible boats, and under the guidance of one of the ship’s crew, stand — yes I said “stand” — along with about thirty other survivors balanced on the hull and tilting from side to side to keep the upside-down boat steady against the swell; until they were rescued by the Carpathia.

But another aspect of this tragedy, perhaps even less well known until the most recent film version portrayed it, is the fact that all but one of the lifeboats refused to row back after the ship had sunk, to gather more survivors from the water. Most of the lifeboats were far from full, some less than half — such was the haste and unpreparedness of the evacuation. There was plenty of room to save dozens of other lives — but only Lifeboat Number 14 turned back, seeking out survivors floating and slowly freezing to death in the icy waters.

The rest of the lifeboats remained distant, out at the edge of the wreckage, but not so far that those lucky enough to have made it into them were unable to hear the cries for help, cries that slowly weakened, grew hoarse, and then weak, and then silent, until all that was left was the quiet lapping of the water, the creak of planks, the bump of flotsam against the sides of the boats in that calm, cold, cold water. The survivors were left to contemplate in silence the imponderable weight of their guilt.

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“Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” This is Saint Paul’s word to us this morning. “Bear one another’s burdens.” I’ve pointed out to you before how well the nave of this church lives up to its name — for this church building is like an inverted naval vessel, a boat turned upside down with its ribs becoming the roof-beams — as upside down as that capsized boat that saved the lives of 30-some people along with Mr. Gracie’s grandson. And sure enough our roof used to leak like a sinking ship until we fixed the big holes in the roof there, and there, and there!

But there is a deeper truth to this — and that is that the church has long been known as the vessel of salvation, a lifeboat — even an upside-down one — that saves from a dying world. And if this is so — and I believe it is or we are wasting our time — then the church cannot be a lifeboat that hangs back on the edges of the shipwreck, half-empty, ignoring the cries of those in need.

Why, after all, did the Titanic’s lifeboats hold back? Why did all but those in Lifeboat Number 14 close their ears and their hearts to the cries for help? The sad answer is they were afraid: afraid that if they went back, those still in the water would cling to the boats, would swamp them and sink them, and that all would founder and drown.

Yet Lifeboat 14 did not founder; it did not sink; it saved a precious few more who otherwise would have surely died. The risk that one boat took could have been taken by most of the others, and how many more would have lived to tell their children and their grandchildren the story of that fateful night?

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Does the church act the same way from time to time? Do we, the church’s members, fear that if the church grows too much we will lose something, something precious? I have heard of parishes that want to stay small because they like the feeling of everybody knowing everybody else. I have heard of parishes that want to stay small because a few people like to have the last word on this or that, and the fewer the people, the easier it is for them to keep control. I have heard of parishes that fail to reach out into their communities so that they can preserve their “identity.”

But my dear brothers and sisters, what identity is worth having if it is not the identity of Christ? Of what use is our “Anglican identity” if it does not serve Christ. The harvest is great and the laborers are few: can the church stand idle and fail to send out workers to harvest the abundant wheat, simply because it would rather harvest rye?

We cannot choose what voices will cry out to us from the cold and darkness that surrounds our lifeboat. We can only hear their cry, and choose to help them or ignore them. “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”

Paul continues his admonition, “all must carry their own loads.” This may seem at first a contradiction. Is Paul saying, Mind your own business; take care of your own lifeboat?” Well, yes, in a way, he is. The problem is, we don’t always know what our lifeboat is, what the heart and soul of our life itself is; we don’t know what our business is half of the time, we are so busy minding it.

Jacob Marley from Dickens’ Christmas Carol learned too late what his business was, and from beyond the grave he warned his old colleague Ebenezer Scrooge. When the old miser complimented Marley’s ghost on always having been a “good man of business,” the angry ghost rose to his feet, shaking the chains he had forged in life, and cried out in anguish, “Business? Mankind was my business!”

Well, mankind is our business, too. The proper use of a lifeboat is to save lives, to save as many lives as it can, not to row about half-empty in the dark, while people freeze to death. The business of being human is involvement with what matters to humanity, the human community in which “no man is an island,” and in which we all have a responsibility for the well-being and the salvation of our brothers and sisters. Remember, it was the first murderer who asked, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” There are no innocent bystanders — and we all have the option of helping those in need.

So surely it is true, we all must carry our own loads: but our most important burden is the burden of our neighbor. It is, in fact, our neighbor himself.

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One day a student asked the great anthropologist, Margaret Mead — who, by the way, was an Episcopalian and participated in the creation of our present Book of Common Prayer — a student asked Mead what she regarded as the earliest sign of civilization. Was it an axe-blade, an arrowhead, a fish-hook, or something more sophisticated, such as a musical instrument or a pottery bowl? She answered, “A healed human femur.” Not something made by a human, but something human: a healed human leg-bone; not an artifact, but a part of someone who once lived and walked this earth, until the leg was broken, and given time to heal.

She explained to the surprised student that where the law of survival of the fittest reigns, a broken leg spells certain death. When you can’t make it on your own, you die. But a healed leg-bone is physical evidence that someone cared. Someone else gathered food for that injured person until the leg was healed. Someone cared for that person until they were able to care for themselves. Someone expressed what Mead regarded as the first sign of civilization: compassion.

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One cold night in 1912, a group of people by all other standards considered civilized, by many standards considered the very cream of society, failed to fulfill the law of Christ, the law of compassion, the law of love. In the face of tremendous need, all but one of the lifeboats drifted in idleness and half-emptiness.

The world is in no less trouble now than the Titanic was that night. People are dying all around us, dying spiritually and physically, and calling for our help. Some have given up hope, and aren’t even crying out any longer. Our little lifeboat, our little church, as leaky as it once was, may seem too small to do any good: but look around. Our vessel isn’t foundering upside-down; the leaks have been repaired — and there is still plenty of room.

Inviting new people to join us will involve some risk. We may find that the newcomers will have different favorite hymns than we do. We may find that they don’t share all of the same traditions we do. We may find ourselves challenged — but we will also find ourselves blessed. For in bearing one another’s burdens, we will be fulfilling the law of Christ. The harvest is plentiful, the laborers few. And who dares stand idle on the harvest plain?+