Friday, December 31, 2004

Waiting for God

SJF • Burial of Marilyn Cotton • Tobias S Haller BSG
The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul that seeks him. It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord. For the Lord will not reject forever.
About a dozen years ago, a group of elementary school children in Portland Maine were studying the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf Stream. You know, that’s the current that runs up from the warm Caribbean, along the east coast of the US and Canada, and then flows on across the ocean towards Europe — a river of warm water running through the chilly cold of the North Atlantic. Well, these school children decided to see if they could use this invisible stream as a means of communication. They wrote messages with their names and addresses on slips of paper, and put them into some old empty bottles. They sealed the bottles tight, and then handed them over to a friendly fishing boat captain, who took them out to sea and dropped them into the Gulf Stream.

For a long time nothing happened. Months went by — and you know, when you’re ten years old a few months is a long time! But then two of the students got letters — from Canada! Their bottles hadn’t traveled very far at all.

For some years nothing further happened. Maybe the bottles hadn’t been as tightly sealed as they thought. Maybe a big fish had come along and gobbled them up — like Jonah! Or maybe whoever found them just didn’t bother to answer the message.

Time passed; and then, one day, after the children had reached their teens, one of them got a letter from France: one of the bottles had made it all the way across the ocean and down to the coast of Normandy, where it had been found on the beach.

Jeremiah wrote, “It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.” Sometimes the wait seems long. Sometimes, since our prayers to God are like so many bottles cast adrift, we might be tempted to wonder if we will ever get a response. But we never give up waiting, we never give up sending off new bottles day by day and year by year, each one a prayer and a hope.

Marilyn Cotton never gave up on the Lord for whom she waited. In her many faithful years she cast many a message on the waters, many a prayer and many a hope, waiting, always waiting, for the answer to come back. Little hints did arrive from time to time, little indications that the message was getting through — you saw it in the joy she had in her eyes herein this church. Even when her earthly vision was fading she still caught sight of something better and brighter. It brought her here to this church, to this altar, week by week, borne on the warm stream of God’s love through the icy waters of this world of ours.

And then, last Sunday, her wait came to an end. God himself took her by the hand, guiding her along the path her many prayers and messages had gone, on up along that warm stream of God’s grace, on to the place of rest and peace — to that farther shore.

“For the Lord is good to the soul that waits for him, the soul that trusts in him.” He knows his own as his own know him. He’s received more of those messages than it may have appeared to us in our times of stress and loss and pain. In fact, he’s gotten every single last one of them. And it’s not that he ignores them — Oh, no! It is just that he is so very careful that not a single one be lost.

Marilyn — “Mame” — has left us, carried away in God’s own arms, to the place where there is no further pain nor grief, nor tears nor sighing, where vision is clear, and the heart rejoices. She has sailed on the course she charted inherprayers, along that warm stream of God’s love, to be with those who have gone before, to rest on that farther shore, and there in glory shine.

It is for us, still feebly glimmering in the midst of a cold winter — in the midst of a world of terrorism and tidal waves, of broken hearts and broken boilers — but Christmas! — to do as Marilyn did and resolutely keep on sending our messages, proclaiming who we are and whose we are — God’s children — sealing our prayers with the seal of faith and hope, and sending them out into the stream of God’s love. They will not go adrift. Not one of them will be lost. They will reach the hands of God. And though he appear to tarry, be not dismayed — he is patient and careful and will not miss a single one. We too one day will hear him summon us by name, and we will listen to his voice, and know it to be the voice of the one for whom we have longed. We will know that our messages have been received, and we have been received, for we will have heard from the one from whom we sought a word, the Word of God himself, now speaking his loving word to us.

We too one day will join with Marilyn and all our beloved sisters and brothers at the throne of God, where no hunger nor thirst nor heat will touch us, and where all tears will be wiped from our eyes. And there we will rejoice forever, with our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, our Good Shepherd and our King, to whom be ascribed all might, majesty, power and dominion, henceforth and forever more.

The story of the elementary school class experience with the Gulf Stream is based on a Reuters account.

Sunday, December 26, 2004

Power of the Word

SJF • Christmas 1 2004 • Tobias S Haller BSG

Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed.

Merry Christmas! It is a joy to see you all here on this Christmas Sunday morning. It is at this gracious time of the turning year that we most need each other, most need to hear the word of God, and most need to give thanks for the greatest word of all, the Word made Flesh, Jesus Christ, who came down at Christmas to be with us and to save us.

God spoke this word to us on the first Christmas long ago, a word of comfort and encouragement, a word that “met us where we were” and helped us get back on our feet.

It wasn’t always so, of course. Originally, as the old, old story goes, God wanted just to be with us, to stroll with us in the garden and take the evening breeze, to take it easy and treat us with the familiarity of a loving parent with loving children gathered around playing on the grass. But did our many-times-great-grandparents leave it that way? You know the story. Did they relax and take it easy and trust God? Nooooh! They went for the fruit salad, the one that God had told them was full of toxic ingredients and would do them no good. So it was that we lost that easy familiarity with God, that one-on-one personal relationship with our creator. We didn’t take him at his word, and so his word became a curse: our ancient ancestors were evicted from the garden of Eden, condemned to a life of hard work, pain in childbirth, and the ulimate sentence of death itself: fitting punishment for those who seek to become as wise as God before their time.

Now, God did not abandon us, of course, but did have to change the tone of his word to us. Instead of his own loving word delivered in person, he sent the Law and promise by intermediaries — Moses and the prophets — and the Law treated us as a disciplinarian does while the promise awaited fulfillment.. After all, we’d earned all the discipline God could hand out though our disobedience, and we were not ready for the promise! So the word of God became the words of the Law given through Moses.

We all know the power of words, how a word spoken in anger can resound and echo for years, nursed in a wounded heart to come back and bite you unexpectedly. And we know that a word of love spoken at the right time can do just the opposite, sometimes far more than we could imagine.

Let me give you a real example of what a difference there is between harsh and loving words, and what an impact they can have.

There was once a country church in a small village, where a boy was serving as an acolyte at the altar. As he was presenting the wine for the priest to fill the chalice, the boy accidentally dropped the wine cruet, and it shattered on the floor making a terrible mess. The village priest barely controlled himself and shouted out, “Leave the altar and don't come back!” Meanwhile, halfway around the world, in a great cathedral, a similar scene was being enacted. An acolyte was serving the bishop at the high altar, and in just the same way accidentally dropped the cruet of wine. The bishop paused and looked the boy in the eye, and with a smile said softly, “Someday you will be a priest.”

Well, you may say, such accidents must happen dozens of times. And so they have. And no doubt harsh or kind words have been spoken. But in this case, the first boy did leave the church and he never came back. His name was Jossip Broz, better known by his adopted name Marshal Tito, leader of communist Yugoslavia. And the other boy did become a priest. Fulton Sheen grew up to become a bishop, one of the greatest Christian communicators of the last century, the man who brought the Gospel to television.

So it is that the disciplinarian’s harsh words may well have the opposite effect from what was intended. The harsh command and the strict regimen do not produce the desired results. Saint Paul spoke eloquently of this in his letter to the Romans: how all the Law did was to make us aware of our sin, but did nothing to help us out of it.

And God knew this too, and more. God knew that his own harsh words to Adam and Eve, “Get out of the Garden of Eden and don’t come back,” would, in the long run, not bring an end to wrongdoing. Though our ancient ancestors had tasted of the fruit that gave them the ability to tell good from evil, still some of their descendants, starting with Cain their firstborn son, would chose the evil rather than the good. So God saw that further instruction was needed, that a time of preparation and discipline was needed to supplement the common sense that helps people to tell good from evil. And so God sent the Law to further instruct his people. But God also knew in his infinite wisdom, that times of discipline come to an end; and the time comes for the promise of freedom to be fulfilled as, instead a disciplinarian, God sends his own Son as a great high priest, to help us as one of us by showing us the way of forgiveness. So it is that God, in the fullness of time, when things were ready and ripe and receptive, sent another word in place of the Law of Moses, a personal word, a priestly word, a word of forgiveness, full of grace and truth, a word not spoken by the prophets, but by God himself, his own Word, the Word that was with God in the beginning, the Word that in some mysterious and incomprehensible way was God in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be!

God sent his Son, the Second Person of the Trinity, God from God and Light from Light, who was from before time and forever, down into the womb of the Virgin Mary, in which was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. This is God’s Word to us in these latter days. This is his Word spoken not by intermediaries or messengers, however gracious and righteous, but by God himself. This is God’s Son, born of a woman, born under the law to redeem us who lived under the law, so that we might be freed from the law of discipline and come into our promised inheritance as children of God, and, yes, as priests of his kingdom!

And because we are children of God and share in Christ’s eternal priesthood, — having been restored by God through the act of his Son coming among us as one of us — we are able to join with God’s Son in calling God our Father, through the power of the Spirit at work in our hearts.

So let us give thanks, my sisters and brothers, sisters and brothers of Jesus our Lord and Savior — let us give thanks this Christmas season for the greatest gift of all, the best word ever spoken, knowing that even if we occasionally fail and falter and drop a wine-cruet, God will look upon us with forgiveness and grace, and speak to us a word of comfort and truth, assuring us that nothing — nothing — can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

The story of Tito and Sheen is based on an account in James W. Hewett?s Illustrations Unlimited.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

What are you waiting for?

SJF • Advent 3a 2004 • Tobias S Haller BSG

Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient.

Over the last weeks I’ve been talking about some of the virtues we practice in this Advent time of year: love and welcome — not that the practice of these virtues should be limited to Advent, mind; but the church does call us to think on these things in a more intentional way in this time of preparation. So today I want to reflect upon a third virtue, the virtue of patience, which is a big part of what Advent is all about, this season of watchful waiting, not only for the coming of our Lord at the end of time, but for the more down-to-earth waiting for our own celebration of Christmas in a couple of weeks.

Waiting for Christmas is something children are well used to, though I dare say they have yet to master the virtue of patience in that regard. And sometimes adults aren’t much better! Now that the Christmas displays go up in the stores even before Hallowe’en, it seems like we have more pre-Christmas time to wait through than ever! And not all people handle the waiting equally well. If you’ve ever stood back and watched the shoppers at work at the sale counter, you might come to think that this was the season of impatience! It is sometimes just plain hard to wait, especially when you know what you are waiting for.

In a scene in last year’s comic film “Love Actually” a woman catches her husband at the jewelry counter of a high-class department store. He quickly conceals the purchase — because, as the audience knows, he’s buying a necklace for his secretary. When the couple return home, the wife can’t resist the temptation, and she takes a peek in the pocket of her husband’s coat as it hangs in the hallway. Sure enough, in a lovely small box is a very classy gold necklace. It’s years since he’s bought her anything so nice. She quickly returns the box to her husband’s coat pocket. Weeks later, on Christmas day, the family is gathered and the packages are being opened. The wife finds the box under the tree, and the husband says, “Oh I was hoping to save that for last. It’s rather special.” The wife, with a knowing smile, opens the package to discover, not the necklace, but a Joni Mitchell CD. Emma Thompson, the brilliant English actress who plays the wife, very capably expresses the mixture of disappointment, anger, bewilderment, and — remembering these are Brits — gratitude and a perfectly polite and gracious, “Oh it’s just what I wanted” — though of course she has to excuse herself for a moment to have a good cry as she realizes all the implications of what wasn’t in the box.

As we approach Christmas we too are waiting for Christmas presents of one sort and another, no doubt planning to buy things for our loved ones that we hope will express our love. But we also know that sometimes what we give will disappoint those to whom we give, just as, if we are completely honest, we will admit there have been times when we have been disappointed. Ultimately it isn’t so much about the gift itself, as about how well or poorly the gift matches our expectation. It all depends on what you are waiting for.

So what are we waiting for? And I don’t mean in terms of Christmas presents, but in the larger terms in which the church poses this question to us every Advent season, when we are called to remembrance of our “in the mean time, in-between time” situation, as we await the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. What are we waiting for as we wait for the Lord to come? What do you think is in that gift-wrapped box with our name on it?

Jesus himself asked much the same question of the messengers from John the Baptist, and of those who came out to see him and John the Baptist in the Judean wilderness. When John’s ambassadors asked Jesus if he was the one they were waiting for, he basically answered, “What you see is what you get! Let my actions speak for themselves. I am healing people of their inability to see or to walk or to hear; I am even raising the dead, and above all preaching the good news. Doesn’t this say who I am and what I am here for? If I am not the one you have been waiting for, then what are you waiting for?”

To those who had sought out John, Jesus posed the question, “What did you come out here to see? A reed shaken by the wind? Hardly worth the trip! Did you come to see somebody dressed like a prince — you’re looking in the wrong place! Did you come for a prophet — well you got the greatest prophet of them all — and yet remember he is just the advance man, the forerunner who prepares the way for the real main act.”

So what are we waiting for? What do we expect of God or from God? The answer to that question will tell us a great deal about how we understand God. “What are you waiting for?” — in this case — is another way of asking, “What do you think God is like?” For ultimately what we are waiting for is not something from God, but for God himself. So what are we waiting for? What is God like, and what do we expect from him?

Many people — not just today but throughout history — have been waiting for God to come as the judge of the world, with the expectation that the vengeful judgment will fall primarily on other people! A few of us, perhaps more aware of our own limitations and failures, are looking for a judge who will be more lenient, or even for an advocate who will speak in our defense! It was exactly of this that Job spoke when he said, “I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he shall stand, and I shall see him on my side.” It is a great comfort to know that we are not only waiting for a judge, but for a defender and advocate.

Another thing we hope for in the coming of the Lord is liberation from mortality and all that it entails. We are waiting for God who, as the prophet Malachi said, comes “with healing in his wings.” We are waiting for freedom from weakness of body and impairment of mind, liberation from death itself. Both of these hopes are testified to in the wonderful passage from Isaiah, where God comes not only with vengeance but with salvation and healing. Clearly Jesus had this passage in mind when he spoke to the messengers from John: you are seeing the eyes of the blind and the ears of the deaf opened, the lame walking and the mute singing for joy! The kingdom of God is among you, and blessed are those who can see it and hear it and walk in it, and who take no offense that it has come, not in the royal palace, but out here in the wilderness.

What are we waiting for? Whatever we expect God to be like when he comes again in glory, we already know what he was like when he came among us long ago: he came as a child born to a humble family, a child whom some proclaimed and worshiped, but whom others sought to kill. He came to us as one who brought liberation from bondage to disease and limitation, who brought freedom to the captives and capability to the incapacitated.

What are we waiting for? I’ll tell you what we aren’t waiting for: we are not waiting for a gift that will turn out to have been given to someone else. We are waiting for our Lord and our God, our Creator and Redeemer. “So be patient therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord.” Be patient like the farmer who waits for the early and the later rains to nourish the crop. Let us wait with that patience nourished by hope, with hope fortified by faith, and all bound up in and wrapped in and sanctified by love, the love of God for us his beloved, to whom he gave himself in ages past, and who is our hope for years to come, even Jesus Christ our Lord. +


Monday, December 13, 2004

Love fulfills the Law

SJF • Advent 1a 2004

“Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”+

We have come once more to the beginning of the church year: the first Sunday of Advent. This season is a time of preparation for our annual celebration of Christmas in a few weeks, the memorial of Christ’s having come among us two thousand years ago; but it is also a time of preparation for the second coming of Christ, which as I noted a few weeks ago, and as our Gospel reading today reminds us, will come at an unexpected hour — and so we are called, like the Scouts, to “Be Prepared.”

Over these next four Sundays I will explore with you several factors in this preparedness, this “state of readiness” in which our Lord calls us to be. And I want to begin this week with the age-old tension between the Law and the Spirit of Love, emphasizing Saint Paul’s teaching that love fulfills the law.

Many of you here work in various aspects of the field of medicine, as nurses, technicians and care-givers; and as I’ve often reminded you, our church has a long history of connection with the medical arts, including having the inventor of the modern stethoscope among our early lay leaders. So you may know about the ancient Greek and Roman physicians Hippocrates and Galen, and the traditional covenant made by doctors and other health care workers going back to ancient times. One cornerstone of this tradition is the counsel to “do no harm.”

That is well and good as far as it goes — certainly that is why we trust ourselves to the care of physicians, and often literally place our lives in their hands. But promising to do no harm is not enough for a follower of Christ. Our promise is not just to refrain from doing wrong, but to pursue the right; as Saint Paul says, and as our Collect today reminds us, not only to lay aside the works of darkness, but to put on the armor of light.

It seems so simple as Paul describes it. All those commandments about not doing wrong — you know, the Big Ten, of which he names four in our reading today (adultery, murder, theft, and envy)— all of these are summed up, he says, following Jesus own teaching, in the commandment “Love your neighbor as yourself.” For love naturally tends not only to do no harm, but to do good. And it does this without additional instructions or commandments. Goodness bubbles up naturally from love — just as the perverse will to do wrong can be provoked and incited by too heavy a reliance on law.

Perhaps you remember the old song, “Why did the children put beans in their ears?” You may also recall the answer to the question: “They did it because we said No!” Such is the perversity of human nature that we sometimes do — not only what we know we should not do — but what we really don’t want to do, simply because someone has told us not to do it. The minute the law is laid down, we have an urge to break it. Saint Paul described this process in his Letter to the Romans, and went on to say that the only way out was to return to love as the basis for human good — not more law. The more you lay down the law, the greater the natural orneriness of people will percolate to the surface — so the best approach is to appeal not to law, but to love.

For example, the autobahn, the German highway system, even though it has no upper speed limit, has fewer fatal accidents than our own highway system, with its strictly enforced laws against speeding. The rules of the German highway system are based on respect for other drivers and care in driving, not some arbitrary and external limitation on how fast you can drive.

Let me give you another example of this principle at work. The nineteenth century evangelist H A Ironside tells a story of his missionary work out in the wild west. He had a little school for young Indian men and women, who came to his home in California from the various tribes in Arizona. One of these was a young Navajo man, who joined the Bible class one evening. The group was discussing just this question of the Law and the Spirit of Love, and the thoughtful young man told this story. "Well, my friends, I have been listening very carefully, because I am here to learn all I can in order to take it back to my people. I do not understand all that you are talking about, and I do not think you do yourselves. But concerning this law and love business, let me see if I can make it clear. I think it is like this. When Mr Ironside brought me from my home we took the longest railroad journey I ever took. We got out at Barstow, and there I saw the most beautiful railroad station and hotel I have ever seen. I walked all around and saw at one end of the station a sign, 'Do not spit here.' I looked at that sign and then looked down at the ground and saw that many had spitted there, and before I could even think what I am doing I find I have spitted myself! Isn't that strange when the sign says, 'Do not spit here'?

Then I come to Oakland and go to the home of the lady who invited me to dinner today and I am in the nicest home I have ever been in. Such beautiful furniture and carpets, I hate even to step on them. I sink into a comfortable chair, and the lady says, 'Now, John, you stay here while I go out and see whether the maid has dinner ready.' I look around at the beautiful pictures, at the grand piano, and I walk all around that room. I am looking for a sign; and the sign I am looking for is, 'Do not spit here,' but I look around that beautiful sitting room, and cannot find a sign like this. I think, 'What a pity when this is such a beautiful home to have people spitting all over it — too bad they don't put up a sign!' So I look all over the carpet, but find that nobody has spitted there! And I wouldn’t think of spitting myself, the place is so beautiful and lovely.

So isn’t it strange that where the sign says, 'Do not spit,' a lot of people spit. But where there is no sign at all, in that beautiful home, nobody spit. Now I understand! That sign is the law, but inside the home it is the spirit of love. They love their beautiful home, and they want to keep it clean. They do not need a sign to tell them so. I think that explains this law and love business."

My friends, that does explain it. You will not — in spite of what the song says — hurt the one you truly love. For as Saint Paul told the church of Corinth, in that passage read at so many weddings:

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.

Love never ends, my friends, love never ends. As the young Navajo might have said, love doesn’t need a sign to tell it what not to do.

At this time of the year, we cast our minds upon the greatest love possible: the love of God shown to us in the incarnation of his blessed Son. God gave himself to us, fully and completely. This is the love we are called upon to emulate, this is the love we are called upon to express to one another, loving each other as God loved us— not because we’ve promised to “do no harm” but because the love we feel for each other in Christ leads us naturally to do what is right and good.

So as we approach this Christmastide, my beloved sisters and brothers in Christ, let us treat each other with the respect that young Navajo instinctively felt for the beautiful furnishings in that welcoming home — for surely we are worth much more than satin sofas and grand pianos! Let us treat each other with the deference and care that German motorists are schooled in before they ever sit behind the wheel — surely we are worth more than even the flashiest BMW! Let us treat each other with the same respect and dignity with which we too wish to be treated, loving our neighbors as ourselves, and giving thanks to God for the opportunity to join with one another in worship and praise of the One who is the source of all light and love, even Jesus Christ our Lord.+


Welcome to this new blog

Sermons will soon be posted to this blog, beginning with Advent 1 2004.