Tuesday, December 20, 2005

This Old House

SJF • Advent 4b 2005 • Tobias S Haller BSG

The Lord spoke through the prophet Nathan and said to David, “The Lord will make you a house. When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name.”
I’m sure that most of us here have seen at least one episode of the PBS TV series “This Old House.” For anyone who hasn’t, it involves a group of experts with a big budget doing massive renovations on different houses of different styles in different parts of the country. One can get quite an education watching this program and learn a good bit about plastering, woodworking, electrical installation, roofing, and heating and air-conditioning. Almost, I must say, as one can learn by being the vicar of Saint James Fordham!

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But on this last Sunday of Advent we are called to think of a different kind of house, or rather two different kinds of houses: one of them indeed something like those on “This Old House” or even more like Saint James Church, made of stone and wood and plaster; but the other of a different sort altogether, made of flesh and blood.

Both of these houses are referred to in Nathan’s prophecy to David. King David, you may recall, had wanted to build a permanent house for the ark of the covenant — a grand temple of stone and cedar as a suitable dwelling place for that powerful and dangerous vehicle of the presence of God. The ark had been carried through the wilderness and housed in a tent and a tabernacle — but never in a house of stone except for that brief time when the Philistines stole it and put it in the temple of their false god Dagon. The wrath of the true God came upon them almost as dramatically as in the Indiana Jones movie about that self-same ark. The Philistines of Ashdod couldn’t get rid of that ark of the covenant soon enough, stricken as they were with plagues, and the statue of their deity Dagon fallen flat on its face. So eventually — after trying to palm it off on four other Philistine cities with similarly disastrous results — they sent it back to Israel with gifts by way of apology.

Given that, one might think twice about building a house for the ark of God to rest in. But David had a mind to build just such a house. However, as he would soon learn, God had other plans, and instructed Nathan to tell David that he was not the one to build God a house of stone. This task would fall to his offspring; as indeed it did when Solomon built the temple that his father had only dreamed of.

But Nathan also spoke of another kind of house: that house of flesh and blood I mentioned a moment ago. The Lord said that he would make David a house: meaning a house in the sense of a royal heritage, a dynasty, like the House of Windsor or the House of Hanover. This royal lineage would not be a house of stone, but a house of living flesh and blood, a chain of inheritance and a royal bloodline that would be passed down from generation to generation. David would not end like Saul — a king with no one to succeed him. No, David would be the first monarch of a kingdom that would last for ever, a royal house that would stand for all time.

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So what happened? Within one generation after David, due to Solomon’s infidelity — as he was led into idolatry by his many pagan wives — the kingdom of David that was to last for all time ceased to be. The kingdom was first divided, the Twelve Tribes split up like a torn and ruined garment, and then after many years of ups and downs, taken off into captivity — Israel first and then Judah, and after returning home from Babylon only marginally ever able to reestablish itself for a brief time, before the Romans finally smashed it once and for all.

And that might have been the end of it all but for one thing. And that is the other house I spoke of: the one of living flesh and blood, of ancestral descent in the royal line. For God would raise up a Son of David, not Solomon, but long after Solomon and his immediate heirs had lost the earthly kingdom. And the throne of this Son of David would endure for ever — for his throne is notan earthly throne, but a throne set in heaven.

So it was that the angel Gabriel went forth to that town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a young woman engaged to marry a man of the House of David. Her name was Mary, and it is said of her that she too was reckoned to be of David’s line — since the angel assured her that Joseph would have nothing to do with the conception of this child but would be his foster-father, and yet that the Lord God would give this child the throne of his ancestor David — his ancestor through Mary “according to the flesh” (as Saint Paul would say to the Romans), even more importantly than through Joseph by adoption.

And so the house into which this child was born was no mere house of wood and stone; it was a house of flesh and blood — this old house of flesh and blood that traced its lineage back long before David, long before Moses, long before Abraham and the patriarchs, back to the beginning when flesh and blood was first made from the clay of the riverbank, and the breath of God breathed life into it, and it became a living soul.

This old house of flesh and blood had seen much damage since those early days; the telltale damage that came from the disobedience of Adam and Eve — the cost of deferred maintenance when we get our priorities out of order. Yet God kept his promise that this old house of flesh and blood could be renovated and restored.

And just as in the TV program “This Old House” the homeowners give the producers permission to come into their homes and do their work of restoration, so too the restoration of humanity begins with just such permission being given. Undoing the disobedience of Eve and Adam, Mary of Nazareth says the words that open the door to transformation: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Mary opens the doors of this old human house and lets God in, to do his wonderful work.

God could make this old house new: working in human flesh the wonder of the incarnation, so that within the womb of Mary of Nazareth, in that house of flesh and blood God himself would be pleased to dwell: the son of God, now in flesh appearing.

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This renovation can happen in our flesh too, this same renewal can come to our own blood — our dilapidated houses can be restored and rebuilt. Our renewal can take place when we allow our Lord and God, by his daily visitation, to purify our consciences, to enter our hearts and take up residence there, in what at his word and work can become a mansion prepared for God to dwell. One of my favorite hymns — and we’ll be singing it at the end of our worship today — contains the wonderful verse addressing God in just this way: “Come, abide within me; let my soul, like Mary, be thine earthly sanctuary.”

God wants this invitation. God will not force this restoration upon us: God has given us the dangerous gift of free-will and we can choose to bar and bolt our doors and pull down the shades and turn out the lights and pretend we’re not at home when he comes to the door and knocks. We can pretend we’re perfectly happy with the falling plaster and leaking pipes and peeling paint of our unrestored spiritual selves.

Or we can accept God’s offer to make us new, to restore and renovate us after his own image, in the likeness of his Son, adopting us through him into that royal lineage of the House of God. God wants our tumbledown bungalows to become palaces and temples and mansions of his habitation. God wants us commoners to be adopted into the royal family, to share with Jesus in the royal priesthood of the kingdom of God. And God will do it if we let him. For he is, as Saint Paul said, “able to strengthen us according to the gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed.” May we be strengthened to accept his invitation, day by day to invite his visitation, opening our hearts to say with blessed Mary: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Tidings of Comfort and Joy

SJF • Advent 2b 2005 • Tobias S Haller BSG

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.
Comfort is one of those words that has unfortunately, over time, almost completely lost its original meaning. When we hear the word comfort the first thing that is likely to come to mind is an overstuffed sofa or one of those space-age mattresses we keep seeing in the commercials on TV — you know the ones: where people can balance wine glasses or drop bowling balls next to you, but you can just go right on sleeping because the bed is so, well, comfortable.

But that’s not the original meaning of the word comfort. The original meaning of comfort is “to make strong” — to fortify. It is about taking heart and being encouraged, being strengthened with resolve and given hope that there is better to come. Comfort is not about feeling warm and cozy, it is about facing the future with trust in God and hope in one’s heart, no matter how bad things might have been in the past, or how they might appear at the present. It is a call to be prepared and strong for the good of the days to come.

Let me give you an example of what I regard as a proper use of the word comfort in this old-fashioned sense. When Bloody Mary came to the throne of England in 1553, and reestablished Roman Catholicism as the state religion, the Anglican bishops Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley knew that they would not be long for this world. Sure enough the two of them were burned at the stake on October 16, 1555. As they were about to die that terrible death, Bishop Latimer spoke his famous last words, “Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man; we shall this day light such a candle by God’s grace in England as (I trust) shall never be put out.” Clearly comfort is not about being cozy but about being courageous even in the face of such a terrible end, to “be of good comfort” in the knowledge that the flames of present suffering will pass, and the glorious hope of the future awaits.

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So it is that when God commands Isaiah to speak words of comfort to Jerusalem and its people, it is not to say, “Make yourselves at home.” On the contrary, the prophet here is telling the people that the day of liberation has come — they need no longer make themselves at home in Babylon, as once they did. Rather, in these tidings of comfort and joy they are being recalled to their own homeland. God will prepare a way for them in the wilderness, leveling every mountain and filling in every valley, evening out the uneven spots, and planing down the rough ones, to make a broad, clear highway for his people. And God himself will be their shepherd, leading them in his might, and even carrying the lambs close to his breast. These are words of great comfort to people in captivity, words not just to make them feel good, but to live in hope and strength for a better time.

Saint Peter offers similar encouragement in our Epistle today: explaining that the Lord’s delay is not neglect, but patience; He doesn’t want anyone to have any excuse for not being part of the great procession into the new creation, the new heaven and new earth. This world — this Babylon, if you will — is set to expire, and it will dissolve in a flash of fire. So this time of God’s patience is for all of us to be prepared, to be ready, to be courageous, to be comforted with the knowledge of God’s redeeming love for us, and the salvation given in Jesus Christ.

John the Baptist greets us with such words of strong comfort as well: quoting Isaiah and thereby reminding the people of that ancient comforting promise of liberation — not right now, he tells them; not yet — but soon! John is speaking to Jews suffering under the heel of a foreign occupying power: the might of the Roman Imperium with itslegions and fleets. John offers words of comfort to a people ground down by the kind of corrupt government that such a colonial system is apt to promote: the soldiers who abuse, the tax collectors who gouge, the politicians who connive and the judges who turn a blind eye to the poor and favor the rich.

John offers comfort to those on the receiving end of these various injustices, and a warning and a call to repentance to those who practice them. He preaches the word that Paul would take up later: God is patient, but do not presume on his patience. Be strong either to endure or repent: and take comfort in the coming of the Lord.

John appears as a prophet and advance man for the big show that is coming to town — and we’ll hear more about that next week. There is much to hope for, much more to come, much more that will be revealed — so, John is telling the people, take comfort and be prepared.

So it is that all our scripture today speaks to us in the same accents: take comfort — be strong. Be prepared for the Lord who redeems you, and who will come to liberate you from all captivity, who will make the way clear before you, so that you too might be led on your way to the new heavens and new earth, and be at home at last in that place of righteousness.

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Let me close with a story about another great Anglican, Charles Simeon, who was one of the founders of the Church Missionary Society. He could be called a “theologian of comfort,” from the one end of his life in the church to the other. At the beginning of his adult life in the faith, he had much difficulty in preparing himself to receive the Holy Communion, Back then Communion was something you might receive only a few times each year, and much was made about being in a proper frame of mind — perhaps we’ve lost something of that sense of the importance of preparation to receive Communion. There were many devotional guides, little booklets to help with the individual Christian in preparing for “this awful mystery” — and unfortunately for Simeon the devotional guide he used put all of its weight on law, humiliation, unworthiness and obedience as the ways rightly to approach that holy sacrament. This did little but make Simeon feel miserable. Fortunately he came across another devotional guide that took an entirely different approach, a truly evangelical approach in the sense of bringing him tidings of comfort and joy, the good news of the gospel. This book stressed the fundamental truth that the law cannot make one righteous, but that it is only through Christ, and the sacrifice he made of himself once offered upon the cross for our salvation, that we are washed from sin and prepared to welcome him, and be welcomed by him. We don’t have to become worthy — indeed we cannot: it is Christ who makes us worthy! This comforting assurance liberated Simeon, and inspired and strengthened him not only to make his Communion, but to become one of the great evangelists of the Christian faith, spreading the truly good news that, as Isaiah said, we have served our term, and our penalty is paid, and that our Lord has redeemed us.

The end of Charles Simeon’s life reflected this same strong consciousness of comfort. As he lay dying, he greeted the people gathered around his bedside with a bright smile and cheerful sense of comfort and joy. He asked the gathered friends and family, “What do you think especially gives me comfort at this time?” As they did not wish to hazard a guess, he cried out, “God’s creation! For I ask myself, Did God create the world or did I? And I must answer, He did! Now if he made the world and all the rolling spheres of the universe, he certainly can take care of me. Into Jesus’ hands I can safely commit my spirit!”

It is this consciousness of comfort, this acceptance of the tidings of comfort and joy, that God calls us to this Advent time, and on through Christmas, and on through into the rest of the life God gives us, until we too find our way to get ourselves up the high mountain, hearing the voice of theherald of good tidings lifted up, not fearing, in the knowledge of comfort, and hope in God’s promise, and ready to take our place in the new heavens and the new earth, where righteousness is at home, and where we too at last shall be at rest with our Lord and our God, to whom all praise be given, henceforth and for evermore.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Not for Wrath

SJF • Proper 28a • Tobias S Haller BSG

God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or sleep we may live with him.
We come now to the last chapter of The First Letter of Saint Paul to the Thessalonians. Over the last few weeks we have heard about how much Saint Paul loved this congregation, and how much they loved him in return. And last week we heard of the comfort he offered them about those who have died, who have fallen asleep in the Lord, and who await his coming with the sound of the trumpet and the call of command.

In this closing chapter, Saint Paul takes up that practical question which many Christians before and since have asked. When will the Lord come? And Paul gives the same answer that Christians first learned from the lips of Jesus Christ himself: the Lord will come at a time when no one expects it, like a thief in the night. When things seem peaceful and secure, then suddenly the judgment will come, and the wrath of God will fall upon all those unprepared for his coming.

This is indeed bad news for those who are unprepared. Our Old Testament reading today paints a picture of the terrible day of wrath that will attend the Lord’s coming. A day of bitterness, a day of warriors crying aloud, a day of distress and anguish, of ruin and devastation, of darkness and gloom. It is a day upon which the people who have done wickedness shall be stricken and walk about as if they were blind. The prophet assures us of a coming day of wrath, a day of mourning, a day of darkness and judgment.

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But Saint Paul reassures us that while the day of the Lord’s coming is bad news for those who sleep the drunken sleep of apathy — who, as the prophet says, say in their hearts, “the Lord will not do good, nor will he do harm” — while this day of wrath is bad news for those who can’t tell good from evil, it is good news for those who are prepared and who have placed themselves in the care of Christ. Those who believe inChristare not in darkness, to be taken by surprise at the Lord’s coming. For them it is not a day of wrath, but a day of redemption and release, a day of judgment, yes: but not a judgment of condemnation, but of acquittal.

For those who believe are not asleep in darkness, but awake in the light, they are observant and watchful, they are ready and prepared for the coming of the Lord. We spoke last week of the form this preparation takes: the oil of hope that is stored up by the wise to light the lamps to welcome the Lord at his coming. And this week Saint Paul again refers to hope, this time as a helmet of salvation, part of the Christian uniform along with the breastplate of faith and love. These three virtues, as Saint Paul would assure the Corinthians, these three Christian characteristics of faith, hope, and love are our shield and protection against the day of wrath, our preparation for the Lord’s coming. The light of faith and hope conquer the darkness of doubt and fear, and love — as the old saying goes — conquers all.

So it is that we are fully equipped — children of day and light, ready for the arrival of our Lord and dressed for the occasion in our fine garments, with our lamps trimmed and ready. He has given us all that we need to be ready for him. And woe to us if we do not make use of all he has given us.

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That is the theme of our gospel parable today: the story of the rich man going on a journey and leaving his property in the care of his servants. Some are given more, and some less — but all are given something. The good and trustworthy servants make something more out of what they’ve been given, so they are able to show their profit to the master when he returns.

But that third servant; what are we to say about him? Even knowing that his master is a shrewd character who tries to maximize his investments, even reaping profit on the side from wherever he can get it, this third servant has nothing to show except what he started with. In spite of knowing how interested his master is in reaping a profit, this servant has done absolutely nothing to advance his master’s interests. No wonder the master is amazed at this fearful servant — a man afraid to put the talent to work, and content to bury it in the ground.

As Saint Paul assures us, that servile fear represents the opposite of hope, the hope that takes a risk and trusts that good will come. Ultimately, Paul is telling us, as Jesus is too, that people get what they expect, they get what they deserve: if they live in fear, their fears will be realized. If they live in hope, their hope will be rewarded. “Perfect love casts out fear” — and the love of God calls us to that perfection of faith, that light of hope and that love for God and neighbor that are nourished and supported by our Lord and his promise. Perfect love, and the faith and hope that go with it, cast out fear as light casts out darkness.

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We have all been given talents, my sisters and brothers. We all have been given the wherewithal to do something for our Lord. Some may have more and some have less, but all of us have something to work with. And most important among the things we have is our participation in the Christian household, the church. We have been adopted by our heavenly father, and made children of light, so that we need not fear the darkness. God has given us the breastplate of faith and love, and the helmet of salvation. Should we not put them on? Should we not be dressed for the occasion? Should we not live lives of hope and trust, willing to put to work the talents God gives, rather than sitting back simply content that they have been given? Isn’t it clear that God wants to find us busy when he comes, not asleep at the switch? Isn’t it clear that God wants not complacency, but hope? Not satisfaction, but zeal? There is a warning in our Lord’s words, “Not all who call me Lord, Lord, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but those who do the will of my Father who is in heaven.” (Matt 7:21) Doing God’s work, working God’s will: that is the task for which God gives us the talents and skills of faith, hope and love.

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Some years ago, a minister encountered a member of his church who (as they said in those days) was “a backslider.” The minister said to him, “ I haven’t seen you in church for a long time.” The man responded, “Well, the dying thief didn’t go to church and Christ accepted him.” The minister pressed the point, “But you used to help out at the soup kitchen; won’t you come lend a hand again?” But the man said, “The dying thief didn’t help out at any soup kitchen, and the Lord accepted him.” The minister countered, “Well do you at least read your Bible every day?” But the man kept to his principles and said, “The dying thief didn’t read the Bible, but the Lord accepted him.” And so finally the minister said, “My, it looks like the only difference between you and the dying thief is that he was crucified with Jesus!”

My friends, our faith is not meant to lull us into the sleep of complacency; our hope is not meant to be treated like an insurance policy tucked away in a drawer; and our love — if we do not express it to our neighbors as to ourselves — if it bears no fruit, it will convict and condemn us on the last day. God gives us these things to put them to use: our faith, our hope, and above all, our love. He gives us these things on loan to be used for his purposes, not ours. God gives us talents and skills, all of us differently, but each of us valued in the sight of God for what we can do for him and for his kingdom, and for our brothers and sisters. The Lord has given us all of this, and he wants a return on his investment. These talents are ours on loan: like the tools handed out in the morning at a construction site — tools to be used through the course of the day, to do the work God gives us to do. Let us not, like the lazy servant, be found only able to give back what he gave with nothing more to show. Let us rather use what God has given us — our faith, our hope, and our love — to increase his kingdom here on earth, that when he comes again in power and great glory, we may be with him forever in heaven.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

The Oil Supply

SJF • All Saints’ Sunday 2005 • Tobias S Haller BSG

We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those that died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.
On this All Saints’ Sunday we continue with our reading from the First Letter of Paul to the Thessalonians. In this chapter, Saint Paul finally gets to the main theme of his correspondence. People in this congregation, as in many others, had been eagerly awaiting the return of Jesus, the promised second coming. And the problem for believers was that this second coming appeared to them to be delayed; and what is more, a number of the members of these congregations had died, and those who remained were concerned about their fate.

In speaking of those who had died, the people of those days, including Saint Paul, used language that isn’t well reflected in our present translation — they would say “our dear brother or sister has fallen asleep,” much as someone today might say that someone has “passed away” or “gone home.”

The English priest Colin Stephenson tells a story of a visit he paid to a convent of Anglican nuns some years ago. At the door he asked the sister who answered if he could see the Mother Superior, who was an old friend. With a lowered voice, the sister said, “Mother is playing the harp in Jerusalem.” Father Wilkinson answered, “Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that; when did she die?” The sister then suppressed a little laugh, and blushingly explained that every room in the convent was named after a place in the Holy Land, and that “Jerusalem” was the music room, and that Mother Superior was in fact playing the harp there!

Even within the scripture we see how this kind of polite language could cause confusion from time to time; you mayremember how in John’s Gospel Jesus refers to Lazarus having “fallen asleep” and the disciples say, “Lord, if he has just fallen asleep he’ll be fine.” Jesus has to correct them and tell them he means that Lazarus is dead — and yet, even given that, he will awaken him.

And this brings us to the problem that faced the Thessalonians and Saint Paul. What happens to those who “had fallen asleep” — who had died before the Lord’s return? Were they lost for ever? Would they rise again like Lazarus? What was to be their fate?

So Saint Paul reassures this congregation. He reminds them that Jesus himself died and rose again and that their friends and family members who had died will also rise again from death at the coming of the Lord. Those who are still living will be joined by those who have died, when they rise from the dead at the sound of the trumpet and the call of command, and the whole congregation of God’s faithful people will be joined together to meet the Lord and be with him for ever. These are the words of encouragement and hope that Saint Paul gave that congregation, and they are words of hope that have been repeated many times since to many other congregations. I have said them myself, right from his pulpit; they are central to the Christian faith, and are, perhaps more importantly, the substance of the Christian hope: Death is not the end! This is one of the reasons we celebrate the feast of all the saints each year; and to drive the message home, the message of new life in Christ, All Saints’ Sunday is also one of the four baptismal Sundays of the church year: when we remember that we who are baptized into his death shall share with him in a resurrection like his. This is the word of the Christian hope.

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But we hear today also a word of warning. Our Gospel today also refers to those who fall asleep, who awaken at the call of the Lord, but of whom only some are ushered into the banquet as friends, while the others are shut outside like strangers. And although our text ends with the admonition to “Keep awake,” that does not seem really to be the point of this story. All of the bridesmaids, after all, fall asleep as the bridegroom’s arrival is delayed. (I will note this has to be a first: I’ve never officiated at a wedding where the groom was the one who was late!) But be that as it may, the real issue here doesn’t seem to be whether the bridesmaids stay awake or fall asleep, but rather if they’ve got enough oil for their lamps. The smart bridesmaids bring along an extra supply of oil; the foolish ones just bring the lamps along with whatever oil is already in them. The lamps burn down, the bridesmaids fall asleep, and suddenly the bridegroom comes. Uh oh! Talk about the problems of an oil shortage!

Over the years people have interpreted this parable symbolically: the lamps indicate wisdom and the oil knowledge; or the oil symbolizes righteous deeds stored up in anticipation of the last judgment. But it seems to me that it isn’t necessary to chop and slice and dice this story quite so fine in order to see the point that Jesus is making, as in the old Boy Scout motto: Be prepared! Or as Saint Paul would say, not to be like those who have no hope, but to be encouraged and prepared and hopeful for the coming of the Lord. The foolish bridesmaids seem to have thought, “Well, the bridegroom might come or he might not. I’m just going to bring my lamp as it is.” The wise and hopeful ones said to themselves, “He will surely come, so I will be prepared with extra oil so that whenever he comes I will be ready.” They lived in hope.


Well, the Lord’s coming is delayed — has been delayed for 1,950 years or so; many, many Christians have fallen asleep. The question is: what did they do before they fell asleep. Did they, through their lives, live in hope? For all of us, we know, will end up being summoned — joined with that great throng that has gone before: all of us will be called forth to show what our lives were like; the secrets of the each heart will be laid bare, most importantly: did we live in hope? Those whose lamps burn brightly, who, as Christ says in the Sermon on the Mount, have bodies “full of light”; who above all have prepared themselves to be with God for ever by their faith and by their hope, who “have built their hope on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness” — these will enter the banquet hall to rejoice with the bridegroom at the never-ending feast.

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Author Paul Adams notes that on the Niagara River, upstream from those mighty waterfalls that have formed the background to many a honeymoon, the river is actually peaceful, calm and navigable. But at a certain point on the calm part of the river there is a small bridge under which the water flows downstream towards the mighty waterfalls, and on that bridge there are two signs posted. The first says, “Do you have an anchor?” And the second sign says, “Do you know how to use it?”

This is the message of our Gospel today: Do you have a lamp? Do you have oil for it? I trust and I hope that you do. I trust and I hope that you, and all the others we remember today who have worshiped God both in this church and in other churches in other places and at other times have stocked away a supply of oil — the oil of hope in Jesus Christ. “I do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about all those who have fallen asleep, so that we might not grieve as others do who have no hope.” We have hope in our Lord and God, trusting not in our righteousness but hoping and trusting in his manifold and great mercy. And this hope is our supply of oil to anoint our hearts, to brighten our countenance, and to light our lamps — so that when the trumpet sounds and the voice of command calls forth, we may rise to new life, and bear our lamps on high and enter that heavenly city, Jerusalem the Golden, there to rejoice for ever with the Bridegroom, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.+

Thursday, November 03, 2005

The Father’s Day

SJF • Proper 26a 2005 • Tobias S Haller BSG

Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, “As you know, we dealt with each one of you like a father with his children, urging and encouraging you and pleading that you lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.
We continue this week with our extended look at the First Letter of Saint Paul to the Thessalonians, and it follows through on where we left off, with yet another emphasis on his love and care for these folks, who must surely have been very special to him.

Last week Paul used the image of a mother nursing her children, and this week he portrays himself as the other parent, the loving and caring father who encourages and urges and pleads with each of his children to do the best they can, living a life worthy of God and God’s kingdom. As I reflect on this with you, I wonder if we are hearing an echo of the Lord’s Prayer here in Saint Paul’s letter. Could this have been a reminder to the Thessalonians, who must have used that prayer each day as every Christian did? Isn’t this a reminder of God the Father, whose kingdom we pray each day will come, who loves us and cares for each of us, giving us our daily bread; and who encourages us to be our very best by forgiving us our very worst, even as we forgive those who sin against us?

In our Gospel passage today, Jesus also alludes to the prayer he committed to his disciples, when he reminds them that they have one Father — the one in heaven. Jesus does this to contrast good fathers and bad. As I said a few weeks back when we were talking about mothers, there are good mothers and bad — as Isaiah assured us, some mothers might even forget or abandon their nursing child. But God is different: God is all good, through and through, better than any human parent, father or mother. Ultimately, only God is the perfect parent, who will never forget or forsake his children.

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Jesus feels so strongly about this, that he drives his point home by saying, “Call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father— the one in heaven.” What he means by this is that no earthly father cancompletelyfulfill that role the way only God can — to be not only the giver of life, but the preserver of life, even unto the life of the world to come. No human father or mother can be quite as good as God, who in Christ is willing to give up everything to save the life of his children. To emphasize this teaching about our perfect Father in heaven, our scriptures lay before us today examples of imperfect fathers on earth, from bad to worse.

We start with the worst: the false prophets who lead the people of God astray; who give false but comforting prophecies of peace as long as they get something to eat, but declare war against those who put nothing into their mouths.

I don’t know if any of you have been following the cable TV series, Rome, but there was a good example of exactly this kind of thing in an episode a few weeks back. When Julius Caesar entered Rome with his army, even though he was breaking Roman law he wanted to be sure that he got the blessing of the religious authorities — the pagan priests who, according to the Roman religion, were supposed to be able to tell the future by watching how birds flew. Yes, I know that sounds odd, but that’s what they did. Well, Julius Caesar invited the chief priest to a dinner party, and as a matter of casual dinner conversation indicated how a very large sum of money might find its way into the accounts of this chief priest’s wife. Much winking and nodding ensued. And sure enough when Julius Caesar came to the Temple on the day appointed to foretell the future, sure enough the birds flew in the right direction— with a little help from a several servants out of sight behind a wall, dropping a brick outside the cage of birds and furiously waving their aprons to shoo them the right way!

Apparently it was the same in the Israel of Micah’s day: as long as you crossed the palms of the prophets with enough silver they would be sure to give you a good word: they were bribable judges, and priests for price, giving oracles for money.

And things weren’t any better hundreds of years later in Jesus’ day. The primary difference appears to be that the bribery was in a somewhat less obvious form. Rather than monetary bribes, the Pharisees and scribes received a less tangible honorarium: the place of honor at banquets, thebest seats in the synagogue, people bowing and scraping to them in the street and in the market, and being called Rabbi, which means teacher, or Abba, which means father. And it is also clear that these guys had absolutely no concern for the people who honored them. On the contrary, they placed heavy burdens on their shoulders, but didn’t even lift a finger to help them with them. One might well ask why the people put up with this — but you might just as well as ask why the Romans thought you could tell the future by watching birds! Maybe people just like getting good news even if they’ve paid for it; or maybe people like being told, “Do this; do that” because it relieves them of the burden of having to take personal responsibility for their lives.

Whatever the reason, this kind of bad fatherhood had been going on for a long time. And all of these bad fathers have one thing in common: they are interested only in themselves. They are only concerned about others for what they can get out of them: food to fill their mouths, money to line their pockets, seats of honor at the banquet, and salutations on the sidewalk.

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How different, Jesus tells us, how different, Saint Paul assures us, is our God and Father in heaven, who sets for us the model of all good fatherhood. Paul shows us one crucial aspect of what a good father is like in this passage from First Thessalonians: notice how quickly he shifts from the language of being like a father, to the language of being a brother, and then even to the point of being the child: as he says that when he lost touch with the Thessalonians even for a short time he was made like an orphan by being separated from them.

So too Jesus calls for this inversion of hierarchy: if you want to be the greatest then you must be the servant. “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

This is the great inversion of the order of the world that took place in the Incarnation itself. Unlike the scribes and Pharisees who sit in Moses’ seat, but don’t get up to lift a finger to help anyone; Jesus left his heavenly throne and came down to be with us as one of us, to be our brother, to serve and to save a fallen people. In a certain sense he descends from his heavenly father’s side and becomes the child of all humanity: the Son of Man — think about that odd expression by which Jesus speaks of himself so often — the Son of Man, humanity’s child, the one who leaves his Father’s heavenly throne and comes to earth — as we will celebrate in a few weeks’ time — as a vulnerable infant in a manger.

This self-sacrifice stands in stark opposition to the self-interest of the bad fathers in our readings today. A good father not only lifts a finger to help his children; he will do everything he can to save them, even at the cost of his own pain and suffering.

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Not too many years ago, one fine summer day, a father was out driving in the country with his young son. As they drove along with the warm breeze coming through the car window, a bee flew in on the wind. It buzzed around inside the car, terrifying the child, because he was allergic to bee venom — and a sting could send him into shock or even kill him. Without a moment’s thought, the father reached out and grabbed the bee, squeezed it in his hand, and then tossed it out the window. He looked over at his son, whose eyes were still wide with fear and confusion. Then the father showed his son his hand, on the palm of which the stinger had penetrated, and the venom sack still pumped by reflex. “You don’t have to be afraid of that bee any more,” he said. “I’ve taken its sting for you.”

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This is what a good father will do for his son. This is what Christ did for us all. This is what we are called to do for each other. May God give us the strength to lead lives such as this, lives worthy of God our Father, who has called us into his own kingdom and glory. Thus every day can be our Father’s Day: the Day of our Father who is in heaven, to whom be ascribed all might, majesty, power and dominion, henceforth, and for evermore.

The story of the father, the son, and the bee is adapted from Adrian Uieleman.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

The Fair Trade Alliance

SJF • Proper 25a • Tobias S Haller BSG
Saint Paul wrote the Thessalonians, “As you know and as God is our witness, we never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed.”
We continue this week with our exploration of the First Letter of Paul to the Thessalonians, picking up with chapter 2. Last week we heard about how proud of this congregation Paul was, for they knew that God had chosen them even as they had chosen to follow God, turning away from empty idols to embrace the living message of the gospel.

Saint Paul continues the theme of his love for this congregation in the second chapter. Here he describes himself as being like a nursing mother tenderly caring for her children, dealing gently with them and providing for them, and most definitely — to get to my theme for today — not taking advantage of them but rather dealing with them fairly and generously.

It might seem odd that Paul would even have to mention such matters as fairness, and go further in appearing to offer a defense for his actions. The sad fact is that some things never change. There is nothing new under the sun, and that includes fraudulent evangelists bilking people of their money, and snake oil salesmen promising miracles but doing nothing but instantaneously emptying their victims’ pockets and purses: now you see it; now you don’t! And the scam artist is gone in a flash.

The modern world has put a new spin on some of this extortion through our wonderful world of telemarketing, Internet fraud, and identity theft. How many of us get several emails a day purporting to come from the widow or lawyer of some Nigerian or Saudi businessman, asking for help delivering them of the uncomfortable millions of dollars they have stashed away somewhere, and if you help you will get ten percent or more, because you are such a wonderful Christian soul. Before these frauds became so common as to be laughable, I know of a bishop in another diocese who fell for one of these scams and handed over his bank access numbers to effect the transfer — and was rescued from disaster just in time by a well-informed member of his diocesan board! I don’t know about you, but I find these hoaxes particularly offensive because they cloak themselves in the language of “Calvary greetings in the Lord” and the effort toportray the hoaxer as a poor suffering widow with cancer — who just happens to have ten million dollars!

As I say, there is nothing new in all of this. There was plenty of monkey business going on back in the days of Saint Paul — and then as now believers were often the victims of slick operators who played on their faith, and on the call that we hear in the Book of Exodus: to care for orphans and widows. The idea of wolves in sheep’s clothing — or scam artists in widows weeds — is nothing new, and as Saint Paul points out there were those who made use of flattery to worm their way into position to take advantage of believers.

One example of this that we know from the Acts of the Apostles is that of Simon the Magician — who tried to buy the power of the Holy Spirit from the Apostles so he could go into the apostle business for himself. And there were other shady evangelists roaming the Mediterranean with words of flattery and trickery — Saint Paul would elsewhere call them “the super-apostles!” — and their greedy outstretched hands were ready to take advantage of anyone swept up by their message.

As our Old Testament reading shows us such chicanery and selfishness were abroad in the world long before Saint Paul was a twinkle in his father’s eye. Moses had to enforce God’s law against pawnshops and loan sharks taking the shirt off someone’s back or charging them interest such as only a modern credit card company could dream of. Oh, yes indeed, what’s old is new! People have been taking advantage of other people for just about as long as there have been people on this earth.

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So Saint Paul is anxious to remind the Thessalonians of his plain dealing with them, his working with them with gentleness and care, and his determination to share with them, not only the gospel of God’s salvation, but even himself, to give himself to them. This is what I might call a “fair trade alliance” — Saint Paul gives the Thessalonians the gospel, with love and care, and the people of that congregation offer affection and respect in return. This is why Paul uses the imagery of a nursing mother with her children: what more intimate and gentle image can there be for actually giving of yourself? And all the mother expects in return is the love of her children — she isn’t nursing her children for ulterior motives, but just because theyare hers.

In this, of course, Paul is following not only the commandant of our Lord Jesus Christ, but his example. For Christ not only taught, as we see in the gospel today, that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves, but he gave himself up as a ransom for many, for the salvation of the world. The trade, you see, is fair, but it is not completely balanced, at least not according to the scales of human commerce. A mother gives life to her child, and a nursing mother continues that gift. How can a child possibly repay that? What can you give in return for your life? The most the child can do is to love and respect and care for the parent — but the gift of life only flows in one direction, from the parent to the child.

The same is true in our relationship to God: God gives us life and is the source of our being. What we are called to return to God is our love — with all our heart and soul and mind. We are called to dedicate ourselves to God, who not only gives us life at our birth, but who gives us new life in Jesus Christ — so we owe a double thanks. And the only way even to approach a balance in this fair trade alliance is to offer ourselves, our souls and bodies, as a holy and reasonable sacrifice to God, dedicating ourselves to his service, and walking before him in righteousness all our days.

And as Christ has taught us, and as Saint Paul so well understood, the highest righteousness we can follow is not punctilious observation of the fine points of the Law of Moses, but living in the life-giving Spirit of Christ: to follow in the path Christ laid out for us, loving God with all our heart and soul and mind, and our neighbors as ourselves. We are called to follow the way that Saint Paul commended in his life with the people of Thessalonica, dealing with each other fairly and gently, not seeking advantage and certainly not with greedy intention or trickery, but being as fair and generous as we possibly can with each other. We sang to God in our opening hymn, “Thou dost give thyself to me, help me give myself to thee.” There is no better way to give ourselves to God than by loving and honoring him, and by loving each other as much as we love ourselves. That, my friends, is a fair trade.

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Let me close with a parable about such a fair trade. Once there were two brothers who lived at opposite sides of a field their father had left to them when he died. In the center of the wheatfield stood the threshing floor they also shared. Each day at the end of the harvest they would separate the wheat from the chaff at the threshing floor, and then evenly divide the grain. One of the brothers was single, the other married with many children. One evening, as he was heading back to his home at the far side of the field, the single brother thought to himself, “This division of the wheat isn’t fair to my brother. I live alone, and only need to feed myself, but he has a family to care for.” So he turned around, and beginning that night and each night thereafter he stealthily crossed the field to his brother’s house, and put a large portion of his share of the grain into his brother’s granary.

That same night, as the married brother too was heading home, he thought to himself, “This equal division of the grain isn’t right. I have children who will provide for me in my old age, but my brother has none. I should return some of the grain to him, so he can sell the surplus and have resources to hire servants when he is too old to work in the fields.” So he too turned back and crossed the field stealthily, and unloaded a large portion of his grain.

This went on for some time, and each brother wondered why his grain supply never seemed to be more or less than it had been before. Then it happened one moon-bright night that the brothers stumbled into each other near the threshing floor, and when they realized what each had done, they embraced and then burst into tears, and then to laughter. And it is said that the place they met, and that threshing floor, in latter years became known as a holy place, and as the town grew to take up the fields and surround that spot, a great church was built that stands to this day.

May we, my brothers and sisters in Christ, be as generous with each other as these two brothers were, loving our neighbors as ourselves, as gracious as was Saint Paul to the people to whom he proclaimed the gospel, and give thanks and glory to our loving God, who has given us life and salvation, through Jesus Christ our Lord.+

The story of the two brothers is adapted from Donald J. Shelby.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

The Cross-Shaped Life

In memoriam Patrick Ignatius Dickson BSG

Saint John’s Getty Square Yonkers • Tobias S Haller BSG

From now on, let no one make trouble for me; for I carry the marks of Jesus branded on my body.+
Towards the end of William Shakespeare’s tragedy, King Lear, the old man comes stumbling onstage, bearing his dead daughter Cordelia in his arms. One of the horrified onlookers asks, “Is this the promised end?” Then a few moments later, as Lear struggles towards his own death, and finally breathes his last, that same onlooker says, “O, let him pass! He hates him much That would upon the rack of this tough world Stretch him out longer.”

Certainly Patrick Ignatius was stretched out on a rack of tough suffering these last few years. Given that frail physique, already stretched so thin he almost disappeared when he turned sideways, I was amazed at how much of a licking he could take and still keep ticking — and with such Timex-like regularity and patience. For us to wish him still here would be to wish more suffering for him. Instead, in God’s mercy, his pain has finally found its promised end.

That day came as we knew it would. More importantly, as Patrick knew it would, so that we who miss him can take some comfort in knowing what Patrick knew: he knew his promised end; he knew the answer to that age-old heart-felt plea, Lord let me know my end and the number of my days. And as that end drew near, he was prepared and fortified and ready.

To know one’s end does not come easily. The knowledge of what manner of death one is to diedepends upon living a life so dedicated and so consecrated that the end comes not as a shock or an interruption, but as a natural and fitting conclusion to a life as surely aimed towards that end as Robin Hood’s arrow is to the bull’s-eye.

For this end, this promised end, is not simply a termination but an accomplishment, not a stop but an arrival at the point towards which the whole of life has been guided. This end comes because the Christian has put on Christ, has embraced Christ, and him crucified, and has thus been transformed into his likeness and into his shape. It is by living the cross-shaped life that you come to know the manner of death you are to die, and to take comfort in that knowledge, so that from then on no one can make any trouble for you. In the knowledge of your end in Christ, your arrival at this promised end, in the accomplishment of this ultimate sign of the cross, all else falls away to insignificance. In the light of the cross of Christ, in the life shaped to its discipline and its beauty, all things find their meaning, and in its shadow, nothing else matters.

So what does it mean to live a cross-shaped life, like Paul to bear in your own body the marks of Jesus branded, to be crucified to the world even as your world has been crucified? What does it mean to be made to fit the shape of the cross, and of the one who hung upon it, lifted up so that he might draw that whole world to himself and transform it into his likeness?

It means a life of dedication, a life of service, a life of humility, a life of deference, a life of patience. It means a life of kindness and concern, of firm resolve combinedwith gentle disposition. It means walking in the light, with both eyes open, keeping both eyes on the promised end, upon the cross, free from distraction by the petty dissensions of the old world and its obsessional concerns with advantage and power and control — what old King Lear called the “court news”: “who loses and who wins, who’s in, who’s out... packs and sects of great ones that ebb and flow by the moon.” It means knowing what is truly vital and vitally true, and holding fast to it, if need be nailed to it, come what may.

For ultimately it means sacrifice, my friends — which is not suffering, but sanctification — not the mere dedication of the old but its transformation into the new life, the new creation; not the laying down but the lifting up of life. It means death to self before the self dies, and the embrace of the living hope of resurrection present and active even in the midst of that death, even the death of the cross, with voices raised and singing alleluia even at the grave.

Those who knew Patrick Ignatius could see all of this at work in him long before his final illness. We were blessed that the trajectory of this man’s life intersected ours and arced through it with such clarity, sure of his end as he was of the promise. For Patrick Ignatius, the cross was not merely a symbol, it was a sacrament — a real presence of his Lord, an effective instrument of that promised end. He embraced it and shaped his life in accord with it — stretching out his arms in love. Our brother in Christ — now in Christ even more perfectly and completely — our brother in Christ hasgiven us all an example — which is what saints do.

Do you think me hasty so to canonize him? Do we need to wait for a few miracles and some certificates from the hierarchy? Need we frame a resolution for the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music to submit to the tender mercies of the General Convention’? Give me, I pray, a break.

For, rather, dare we not, we who saw the arc of his life pass through ours, extrapolate the end of his trajectory? His life was shaped to the cross and the man who hung upon it: pierced through the side by the wound of charity that strikes the heart and breaks it too — and opens the fountain of love. Pierced by the wounds of dedicated hands that do the work God gives them to do, and feet that walk in the way of the Lord’s walk, the way of that self-same cross. We have seen a life marked and branded with the signs of the cross as clear as the stigmata; we have seen a life lived in the way of the cross, lifted up, not for the whole world, but for those who have been blessed to share a portion of this pilgrimage, stopping station by station with the bended knee and confessing tongue of prayer and dedication.

Patrick Ignatius set us an example, and we are called to follow: To form our daily intentions, to direct our daily actions, to take the cross of Christ as our template and our goal.

This is the cross of Christ in which we glory, towering over the wrecks of time. This is the cross of Christ, standing as high above the valley of death’s shadow, as Christ stands high above all creatures, worthy to be lifted up precisely because he was willingto descend to those depths and die for those he loved.

This is the cross that stands above all controversy and dissent, all pride of place and privilege, all earthly wealth and power, the need to possess, the need to control. This is the cross that transforms the world by confounding its values and turning it upside down, undermining the easy ploys of manipulation and deceit by which the children of earth think to barter their lives and better their lives.

This is the cross to which Patrick Ignatius shaped his life, and which we are called to share. Now and every day. May we find strength to take up that cross each day and so embrace it, that we too, with trusting hearts will know our promised end and find our goal, the arc of our cross-shaped lives fitted neatly into the places prepared for them from before the foundation of the world, in the everlasting comfort of the peace and mercy, the knowledge and the love of God, through Jesus Christ our Lord.+

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Clothed in White

SJF • Burial of Riley Kenneth Francis • Tobias S Haller BSG

Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.”+
Who are these, robed in white? This is one of the many questions that were addressed to Saint John the Divine in his vision of the world to come, a question asked, like all of them, by someone who already knew the answer. And when John politely pointed that out, the answer was given: “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple.”

I draw upon this text today, because we are marking the death of one who, clothed in white, stood here in this church, before this altar, this earthly shadow of the heavenly throne of God, and worshiped him, perhaps not day and night, but certainly week by week quite literally for decades. The Sundays on which Ken Francis was not here, either in the choir or in the sanctuary, were few and far between. He stood at my left hand, as he stood at the side of Father Basil Law, and Fathers Mercer, Pfaff, Scott, Lau, and Boatright, and the many other priests who have had the privilege of sharing in that ministry. He stood at the side of Bishop Taylor, whom we are blessed to have with us today, and at the side of Bishop Moore, and Sisk, and Dennis, and Martin, and others who have served in this diocese and beyond.

Some of these priests and bishops have gone before, just souls made perfect by the one who is perfect, and they too, we fervently trust, now are clothed in white and stand before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple. And I trust and hope that they number among them our friend and colleague Riley Kenneth Francis.

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My trust and hope is not simply based on the idea that people get what they deserve; that a good man like Ken will simply find his reward because he deserved it; that a good and faithful servant will hear those words of comfort from his master, “Enter your master’s joy.” No, my friends, my trust and hope is based on something a bit firmer than that, it is based on the trust I place in our Lord Jesus Christ, who said, “Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away.”

There is a powerful comfort in these words, in the assurance that our future fate does not rest primarily upon how well we’ve done in minding our P’s and Q’s, but rather on how much we have loved our Lord and each other. This is, after all, what he told us he wanted us to do — to love him with all our heart and mind and soul and strength, and to love each other as much as we love ourselves, doing to others as we would be done by. That’s it. That’s how we come to Christ — there is no other way. Remember Jesus doesn’t say to us, It’s my way or the highway. He says, I am the highway! And anyone who follows that royal road, he will never turn away.

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We are here today, some of us perhaps in a church — any church — for the first time in a while. Bear in mind the importance of what you do, and how best you might honor the man we commemorate here, the man we commend to the God he served so faithfully, week by week, here in this choir, and there by that altar. He was no stranger to God, and God will be no stranger to him. He is not one of those to whom God might say, “Why don’t you ever call?” He is not one of those to whom God might say, “Long time no see.” He is certainly not one of those to whom God might say, indeed has promised to say, “I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers.”

Rather he is one who served his Lord and God and sought him out, who worshiped him here on earth and will rejoice to worship him in Heaven. He is one who relied on the firm promise of God that he will never drive away one who seeks him out.

You may remember the story of Saint Thomas More, who was condemned to death during the reign of Henry VIII over his disagreement with the king about his divorce and second marriage, and the succession to the English throne. Perhaps you saw the film of some years ago, A Man for All Seasons. As Thomas stood on the scaffold he kept the tradition of giving the executioner a tip — this had the practical consequence of helping ensure that he would chop off your head with a clean, neat cut, rather than hacking at you. As Thomas gave him the coin, he said, “Do not fear, you send me to God.” One of the clergy standing by said, “Are you so sure, Sir Thomas?” And Thomas replied, “He will not refuse one who is so eager to go to him.”

Thomas, you see, rested his hope upon that same promise, that anyone who comes to God, he will never drive away. I’m sure some of you remember how the old hymn goes: “The soul that to Jesus hath fled for repose, I will not, I will not desert to its foes; that soul, though all hell shall endeavor to shake, I’ll never, no, never, no, never forsake.”

That is the promise my friends, the promise from Jesus himself. “What more can he say than to you he hath said, to you that for refuge to Jesus hath fled.”

There is nothing more to say. Nothing more than his word is needed, my friends. If you don’t trust him, who can you trust? If you do not place your hope in him, in whom can you hope? Jesus’ word was good enough for Saint Thomas More, it was good enough for Saint John the Divine, was good enough for Ken Francis, and it’s good enough for me! Is it good enough for you? I hope it is. I hope that this day will not simply be a day that marks the end of the life of a good friend, but a day that renews your connection with an old friend, a friend who has longed to hear from you, a friend who has longed to see you in his house, and at his table. You know who I mean.

Our hope and trust is that our Lord will welcome Ken Francis into the eternal dwellings. May we too — all of us — one day rejoice to hear the words of welcome, the words of comfort, when we rise at the last day may we enter together into his temple where wewill hunger no more, and thirst no more; where the sun will not strike us, nor any scorching heat; where the lamb will be our shepherd and will lead us to the water of life and wipe every tear from our eyes; and together, clothed in white, with all the blessed ones who have gone before and who shall yet come upon this blessed earth, we will worship him night and day before his throne, and give him glory for ever and ever.+

The Choice

SJF • Proper 24a 2005 • Tobias S Haller BSG
For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.
Beginning today and for the next four weeks we will be reading portions from the First Letter of Saint Paul to the Thessalonians. This gives us the opportunity to explore aspects of Saint Paul’s teaching in relation to a specific congregation, as he addressed its needs and concerns, and shared his vision of the gospel.

It is important to bear in mind that we are receiving these writings secondhand; that we are in a very real sense reading someone else’s mail. The early church collected these documents and circulated them because of the teaching they contained, and the apostolic authority they expressed. But for us to understand them it is helpful for us to remember that Saint Paul, and in this case his colleagues Silvanus and Timothy, originally intended these letters for the specific congregations to whom they wrote. In fact, this First Letter to the Thessalonians ends with the admonition, “I solemnly command you by the Lord that this letter be read to all of [the brothers and sisters].” We in the present day are hearing letters written nearly two thousand years ago, and to persons other than ourselves — and yet still we find them meaningful.

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So what do these early apostles have to say to this early congregation — and to us? The first thing that is clear in the passage we heard today is that Saint Paul is busting his buttons with pride over this congregation. (Let me add that I know how he feels!) Not only have these people been faithful in spite of persecution but they have spread the word of God far beyond their own little world, and word of them, and of their faith in God, has resounded to such an extent that Paul is hearing echoes of it from every corner of the church. So this congregation of Thessalonians, like the Philippians about whom we’ve heard in the last few weeks, was among Saint Paul’s success stories — unlike the troublesome and troubled Corinthians and Galatians! Paul sums this up in a wonderful phrase: that this congregation is “beloved by God.” God has, he assures them, “chosen you.”

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What a wonderful thing it is to be chosen. And I don’t just mean as in “God’s chosen people.” I mean the more everyday human things, like being chosen by your boss to do a difficult task because only you have the skills to do it. Or think of the joy that blossoms in the heart of a young person at the school party, when the one you’ve been trying to get up the nerve to ask to dance comes up to you and does the asking.

Being chosen is wonderful; and it forms a crucial element in the history of God’s people. But as I said a moment ago, it goes beyond God’s chosen people. In our reading from Isaiah today, God does a very astonishing thing. He chooses Cyrus the king of Babylon to be his agent of deliverance. And he doesn’t only choose him, he anoints him — a privilege normally reserved to the Jewish kings. And God does this to show just how far he will go to save and deliver his original chosen ones, the people of Jacob, the people of Israel.

Now in theological terms this kind of being chosen is called election. That sounds a little cold, a little technical, and certainly I might say, as we approach election day, a little too political! Still, the point is made: God chooses whom he pleases; he elects to select, and his chosen ones belong to him and cannot be taken from him. There is no impeachment from this kind of election!

God’s chosen ones belong to him and to no one else. This truth is what lies behind the incident in our gospel passage today. “Give to the emperor the things thatare the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Jesus is making a fundamental point here: money may belong to Caesar — after all its got his picture on it! But people belong to God — and God’s image is not just stamped on the surface, but goes down deep to the depths of the heart, where the capacity to love finds its resting place. As Saint John would say, “God is love,” and our resemblance to God shines forth most clearly when we draw upon that capacity to set aside our own needs and desires, and give of ourselves for others.

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Now you might well ask, how do we know that God has chosen us? And the answer for us is the same as the answer for the Thessalonians. We know that God has chosen us because we have chosen him. After all, we are here, aren’t we? There are hundreds of other things any of us could be doing on a Sunday morning other than gathering here to be together and to be with God. And yet, here we are.

It was the same with the Thessalonians. When Saint Paul came to them they welcomed him and his message warmly. And what is more important they turned their backs on the countless idols of their culture, the manufactured gods and goddesses of wood and stone that did nothing for them but asked nothing of them. They turned away from these lifeless, empty things, to serve the living and true God. They chose God, and God chose them. And oh, the blessedness and the comfort of that choosing.

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Some years ago a psychologist in Jerusalem undertook an experiment to test how well mothers know their newborn infant children. She selected 46 mothers all of whom had given birth from between five hours and three days before, and all of whom had breast-fed their child. The mothers weren’t told ahead of time that they were going to be tested, so they didn’t have a chance to study up— they were just ordinary mothers chosen at random from the maternity ward. The psychologist blindfolded each mother and then brought her into a room where there were three sleeping infants, to see if she could tell which was hers. And perhaps you will not be surprised to hear that nearly 70 percent of the time the mothers made the correct choice — they could tell which child was theirs simply by feeling the infant’s hand.

Well, what I want to say to you today, is that God does better than 70 percent. God knows his own, and his own know him — 100 percent of the time! The bond that connects us with God is deeper even than the bond between a mother and her child. As the prophet Isaiah said, “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.” Let’s face it, mothers do sadly sometimes neglect their children; it is one of the tragedies of life. But God is different; God will never — “no never, no never forsake!” — those whom he has chosen.

So let us rejoice today, my brothers and sisters in Christ. Let us rejoice that we have been chosen by God even as we have chosen him. Let us rejoice that God surprises us by choosing us even as he surprised Cyrus of Babylon and equipped him to do great things. Let us rejoice with Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, and the church of the Thessalonians, with whom we share the fellowship in Christ that transcends time and space. Let us rejoice that when all that belongs to Caesar and to Caesar’s world has decayed and rusted and crumbled, we who belong to God will be with God forever, the King of kings and Lord of lords, to whom all glory is most justly due, henceforth and for evermore.+

The story of the psychologist’s experiment with mothers and their newborns is from Craig Brian Larson’s Contemporary Illustrations.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Holding Fast

SJF • Proper 22a • Tobias S Haller BSG
Paul wrote to the Philippians, Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind; and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you. Only let us hold fast to what we have attained.
Comedian Emo Philips tells the story of a man who was crossing a bridge one evening, and came upon a man sitting on the ledge ready to throw himself off. The stranger went up to him and said, “What’s the trouble.” The other said he had given up on life and wanted to end it all. The first man asked, “Don’t you believe in God?” “Of course I do; I’m a Christian.” “Oh, so am I; protestant or catholic?” “I’m a Protestant.” “Me too! Which branch?” “Baptist.” “Me too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist.” “I’m a Northern Baptist.” “So am I! Which conference?” “Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist, Great Lakes Region.” “Me too! Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879 or Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?” He answered, “Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912.” At which point the stranger pushed the man off of the ledge and shouted after him, “Die heretic!”

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Isn’t it strange how often the Christian Church is riddled with division instead of blessed with unity. When God looks for justice, he finds bloodshed; when he seeks righteousness, he finds instead the outcry of blame andcastigation. As you know, the fabric of our Anglican Communion is being pulled and tugged in every direction, so that some fear it is near to coming apart. I don’t intend to get into the issues that are causing these divisions — because of two sad truths. First, people sometimes seem to find things to disagree about just so they can have a disagreement. Second, the things people disagree about at one point in Christian history almost always come to be seen later on as unimportant or insignificant, so that sometimes you can hardly believe people argued about such things, and even persecuted each other because of them.

Maybe it is just that people are disagreeable at heart, and Christians are no exception. Christians have been disagreeable folk for as long as there have been Christians — in Saint Paul’s day they argued about circumcision and whether a Christian could eat meat from a pagan butcher-shop. Who worries about such matters today? At the Reformation a big deal was made about whether lay people could drink from the chalice and if it was appropriate to conduct worship in a language that the congregation understood. Today the major opponent of such things back then — the Roman Catholic Church — does both! So what was the problem? Hardly a matter of eternal truth, or it wouldn’t have changed. I guess this is where we hear the old excuse: “It seemed important at the time.”

Of course, divisions like this are not unique to Christianity. There have been squabbles and divisions within Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism. And the division between Shi’ite and Sunni Muslims lies at the heart of much of the trouble in Iraq. But Christians, my friends, we’re the ones who are supposed to be able to get along with each other. We’re the ones of whom it is supposed to be said, “See how they love each other.” Sosurely our disagreements should be all the more rare — and all the more embarrassing when they happen. When God looks to the church for the fruits of life in the spirit, why should he ever find instead the bitterness of a thorny brier-patch, and the withered wild grapes that yield no wine, no joy.

Saint Paul dealt with a number of difficult churches during his ministry. The squabbles of the Corinthians and the Galatians nearly drove him to distraction. The Philippians, on the other hand, although they dealt with some of the same issues, seem more or less to have been able to keep themselves from splitting up into various factions. And their secret lay in the fact that they held on to what was really important, as Paul says, holding fast to what they had attained in Christ — embracing the cross with all its shame, and as we heard in the reading last week, letting the same mind be in them which was in Christ, who instead of exalting himself, emptied himself.

Paul picks up the same theme this week — hold fast to what you have attained, which is a single-minded life in Christ. Don’t get distracted by those who set their mind on earthly things and make themselves enemies of the cross of Christ. Such people focus only on the outside, the physical, what Paul would elsewhere call “the flesh” but here even more pointedly calls “the belly”: their minds are set on earthly things; obsessed with their own needs, their own concerns, their own opinions — and in this case it amounts quite literally to navel-gazing!

We Christians are called to set our minds on a higher plane, on the spiritual level, on heaven — the place in which our true citizenship is found. By holding fast to that which is true and good and permanent, even if there is disagreement or if people think differently about anything, it will all be made clear in the end. Note thatPaul is not saying, Don’t disagree. He knows people better than to ask that! What he does say is, If you disagree, hold fast to God in Christ and he will help you see your way out of the disagreement in his own good time. Avoid making the issue of disagreement the center of your lives; avoid focusing on what separates, but rather to hold fast to Christ who is the true center of your lives — for he will reveal the truth at the right time. In the retrospect of the kingdom, we will see how trivial and temporary were all the things that tended to divide us; and that what has endured is what always mattered most. We will see that what seemed important at the time, in the long run was not important at all. Only Christ matters, and he is the center who will hold the church together.

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Anyone here who has ever braided hair knows that you can’t braid with just two strands — you need three to make a braid. If you remove the third strand the whole braid will come unraveled. Christ and the heavenly call in him is like that crucial third strand without which the church will fall apart. To use our gospel language, Jesus is the cornerstone, without which the house cannot be built, and which if removed will cause the downfall of that house. But if he is the building’s sure foundation, that house will stand against time and tide.

God has put us here on this good earth as his church, in order that we might do his will and bear fruit worthy of redemption. He has prepared the ground for us, and set us to the task before us. He expects a rich harvest, my friends, when he comes in glory. Let him not find us arguing among ourselves, or worse, conspiring to snatch at the harvest for our own, trying to possess and control the riches of his blessing as if they were our inheritance and birthright. There is one alone to whom the harvest is due, beloved; so let us not be swept up into dissension, distracted by conflict, but rather work to dedicate ourselves, holding fast in submission to him, the rock of our salvation and the center of our lives, so that the people of God may bend the knee as one, and bring in a rich harvest to the honor and glory of our Father in heaven, in the power of the Holy Spirit, through Jesus Christ our Lord.+

Sunday, September 11, 2005

The wonders of his love

SJF • Proper for 9 11 2005 • Tobias S Haller BSG

(Is 61:1-4; Ps 31:1-4,21-21; Rom 8:31-39; Mt 5:1-10)

They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.
Little did our liturgical commission know, when we chose the readings and wrote the prayers for this anniversary of September 11, 2001 that before the ink would be dry on the Sunday bulletins another disaster of even greater proportions would have struck our country. Four years ago, who among us did not watch with horror, either in person or looking at our television screens, as those twin towers slowly collapsed upon themselves in a truly awful display. And how many of us did not have a similar feeling just a short while ago watching that rainbow colored pinwheel spinning on the weather-map, filling the Gulf of Mexico from one end to the other. I watched with growing concern as the outer edges of that pinwheel brushed against Florida and the Gulf Coast, moving slowly and inexorably northward, bearing down on New Orleans with menacing deliberation, spinning like a technicolor buzz-saw.

Truly we have seen horrors we never would have thought we’d see in these last few years — devastation, hardship, distress, injustice, famine, nakedness, peril, and the sword. All of these things have come, and yet the people have endured.

And more than endured. Even now, a mere handful of days after the greatest devastation ever to strike our land, ancient prophecies are being fulfilled. The ruins are being built up, the devastations raised, the ruined cities repaired — in New Orleans, in Gulfport, in Biloxi, and at the site of the World Trade Center.

Yes there have been disagreements, there has been a share of blame passed around, we have seen exposed the depths of racism and classism that still in infect our country — and yet... in the midst of it all the blessed ones still take their stand. The poor in spirit inherit the kingdom, the mournful are comforted, the meek receive theblessing of their inheritance, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are filled to satisfaction in knowing that the right will be done. The merciful give and receive mercy, and the pure of heart see the face of God in those they serve, even as those they serve see the face of God in them; for such peacemakers are rightly called the children of God and bear his likeness.

For ultimately, my friends, it isn’t about the buildings; neither the great twin towers that stood so proudly, nor the towering edifice that will take their place, nor the little frame houses on the Gulf Coast swept from their foundations as cleanly as crusts and bones and remnants are scraped from a dinner plate. No, it isn’t about the buildings.

Just the other day on CNN I saw film clip of the holy Eucharist celebrated last Sunday on the site of Saint Mark’s Episcopal Church, in Gulfport Mississippi. The beautiful old church was completely gone. All that was left was the flat foundation. If you knew no better you’d think it was a tennis court. But the parishioners had set up a folding table as an altar, and managed to scrape together enough lawn chairs and deck chairs and folding chairs to hold most of the congregation. And the priest, Fr James Bo Roberts, with tears in his eyes and choking voice said: “I want you to imagine the beautiful church that once stood here: a beautiful white frame building, with a tall steeple. And inside picture the woodwork of the pews, and a red carpet, and the cushions. And I want you to know that that’s not Saint Mark’s Church and it never was. ‘Cause I want you to take a good look to your left and your right, and look at all these nasty people sitting next to you, dressed in all manner of ways, and some of them haven’t shaved for days, and I want you to know that that’s St Mark’s Church.”

Truer words were never spoken my friends. We learned after the destruction of the World Trade Center that those twin towers, as powerful as symbols as they were, were not New York City. New York City — the spirit of New York City — was in the people of the city. New York City was in the police and firefighters and emergency medical technicians who risked their lives — many of whom lost their lives — in the work of rescue and recovery. The City was in the restaurant owners who opened their doors for weeks on end providing free food and hot coffee to those working at the pit. The City was in the clergy and lay people who served as chaplains and counselors to those bereaved. The Spirit of the City was in all of these people who said, we will not be defeated; we will prevail, we will rebuild; this is the living spirit of New York City.

For the spirit of our city, of any city, lives in its people or it doesn’t live at all. The spirit of the French Quarter in New Orleans, for all its wrought-iron balconies and charming street corners, doesn’t live in those buildings and squares. It lives in the heart of the music and the soul of Mardi Gras, in the confluence of the Creole with the Cajun, the zaydeco, Louis Armstrong’s gravel voice and soaring trumpet, and the tales of Boudreaux and the mischief he got up to — I gar-on-tee!

It has always been this way, beloved. The spirit of Jerusalem was not in the Temple — no my friends, that Temple was torn down and is no more! And in the New Jerusalem that is to come, John the Divine saw no Temple in the City. But the living spirit of that holy city is in the holy people still; it is in the hearts of God’s faithful people wherever they are, in whatever city, in whatever state or nation.

The spirit of the church doesn’t live in stone and stained glass, as beautiful and inspiring as they are. The spirit of the church lives in the people of the church or it doesn’t live at all. The spirit of God, the spirit of Christ, lives within us — and that is why nothing can separate us from him. Hardship, flood or famine, assaults by enemies, or assaults by the forces of nature — “no, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us... and nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

And this is why I say, in spite of all the pain and suffering of 9/11, in spite of all the pain and loss caused by the dreadful hurricane Katrina, in spite of the destruction of of the Temple, and in spite of all the hardships endured by the people of God in the centuries since, this is why I say the Lord is wonderful and blessed are his works. The Lord is wonderful and great, and he has shown me the wonders of his love in a besieged city. He has shown me the wonders of his love in a city besieged by enemies who struck down our towers, by raising up brave souls to rebuild the devastations, and to comfort the wounded and to bury the dead. He has shown me the wonders of his love in cities besieged by walls of water, by tempest and wind and wave, in the courage of those who gathered up the homeless, who brought them food and water, and carried them to shelter.

And most of all he has shown me the wonders of his love in a city in which the powers of politics and religion conspired to kill an innocent man and put an end to his teaching and ministry. For those powers did not prevail. The love of God is stronger than the hate of man. The weakness of the Son of God is stronger than the power of the world. And the power of God, who can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine, is stronger than the forces of nature or the forces of human sin — stronger than death, stronger than life, than angels or rulers, than that which is or that which is to come, than the powers in the heights or in the depths, stronger than anything else in all creation.

This, my beloved, is wonderful — the wonders of God’s love in a besieged city. We are always under seige in so many ways. Danger and illness await us even in the most peaceful times, and in these unquiet days who knows what assault may come against us from earthly foes or the forces of nature. But have no fear — be not oppressed nor brokenhearted; leave off mourning and sorrow, and faintness of spirit; for the day of release has come, the day of liberation and gladness, freedom and release, purchased for us, my brothers and sisters, outside the walls of that other city long ago, on that little hill called Calvary. It was there that the Son of God bound us to himself with the bond of his sacrifice, when he gave his life as a ransom for many, besieged as he was by his own people who conspired with the Gentiles, who crucified him outside the city walls. It was there that Christ Jesus died for us, who was raised, and who is at the right hand of God to intercede for us. It was there that the cross of Christ first towered over the wrecks of time, it was there that the cross was planted, to display the glory of the Lord, and the wonders of his love.

So let us rejoice and give thanks for the remembrance of his saving grace, for liberation in him from the tyranny of sin and the oppression of mourning. Let us raise our eyes and our hearts, filled with the Spirit of God to do the work God gives us to do: to rebuild the devastations and repair the ruined cities, to lift up the poor and the refugee, the prisoner and captive, and to bring the Good News of God’s salvation to the world, through Jesus Christ out Lord.+

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Jealous to be Zealous

Saint James Fordham • Saint James Day 2005 • Tobias S Haller BSG
The mother of the sons of Zebedee came to him with her sons, and kneeling before him, she asked a favor of him.+
At first glance our Gospel reading this morning does not appear to portray our patron Saint James or his brother John, or their mother Mrs. Zebedee, or for that matter the rest of the apostles, in a very kindly light. At first glance we seem not to be among the founders and leaders of the church, but back in elementary school with a group of youngsters arguing about privilege and position. The “mama’s boys” Johnny and Jimmy and their pushy mother are trying to butter up the teacher and get the best seats at the school assembly, and the rest of the classmates are pouting and fuming, wriggling in their seats in indignation and whispering or passing notes to each other.

That is what seems to be happening in our gospel reading. But that only goes to show just how misleading things can be when you take a Scripture passage out of context. And that is what has happened with this reading appointed for Saint James Day. Those who appointed this text started the story with Mrs. Zebedee and her boys coming up to Jesus. But that isn’t the real beginning of the story. If we step back a few paces to the verses that come just before our appointed gospel passage today, we find ourselves reading today’s text in an entirely different light.

The preceding verses read, “While Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside by themselves, and said to them on the way, ‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified; and on the third day he will be raised.’ Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to him with her sons, and kneeling before him, she asked a favor of him.”

That changes the picture a bit, doesn’t it? The Zebedee family come forward in response to some very disturbing news about condemnation and death, flogging and crucifixion. This places the text much more in the atmosphereof the other scripture readings for today as well.

The other passages are full of predictions of death and suffering, similar to the ominous words of Jesus that preceded the Zebedee family’s request. Look at poor Baruch. He’s Jeremiah’s secretary, just doing his job, taking down the old priest’s horrifying prophecies of doom and destruction, and when he expresses his anxiety and woe, the Lord tells him, through Jeremiah, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!” God is going to break down everything he’s built, and pluck up the rich planting he has planted, the whole countryside. The Lord tells him, Don’t look for a comfortable escape, Baruch, for disaster is coming — although you will escape with your life.

Then in the reading from Acts, the prophet Agabus comes to the Christians in Antioch — the first group of believers who went by that name — and delivers the bad news that a great famine will come over the whole world. And what is the response to this bad news? Do the Christians of Antioch decide to look after themselves, and hoard their supplies against this future famine? Do the merchants among them decide, like Joseph when he was prince of Egypt, to store up the grain so they can sell it at a profit when the famine comes? No, on the contrary, they determine, each of them according to their ability, to send relief to their sisters and brothers in Judea. How fitting it is that those who were the first to be called “Christians” should also be the first to come up with the idea of Christian relief! And this willingness to serve and to sacrifice, to risk everything in the great cause, gives us a clue to the meaning of our Gospel reading.

The lead-in to our Gospel is a promise of suffering and death, similar to the promises of the prophets Jeremiah and Agabus. And this casts a different light on the personalities in our gospel reading. The analogy shifts from the schoolroom to the battlefield. We are no longer dealing with a scene in which the mother of two schoolchildren wants top seats for them at the assembly. No, here the commander has just told his troops, lined up before him, that they are about to undertake a suicide mission. Although eventual success is promised, it will only come through suffering and death. And two soldiers, together with their hard-as-nails mother, step forward to volunteer, knowing that a cup of bitterness lies before them on the path that they have chosen, and that they are willing to drink it down.

This places the anger of the other apostles in a different light, too. Their zeal is like the zeal of the Christians of Antioch, who in the face of a famine step forward to help others rather than thinking of themselves first. James and John have stepped forward in their zeal, and the other apostles too are willing to lay down their lives for Jesus — it’s just that they were slower to step forward, and they resent that James and John may have scored some points by getting there first. This is the jealous anger of “why didn’t I think of that?” But even more, this is the anger that is jealous to be zealous: to be the one seen as willing to put his life on the line, to be seen as one who excels in generosity, in courage, in self-sacrifice.

All of the apostles are eager to volunteer, but James and John have stepped forward first, with their heroic mother.

How many times in human history has such a scene been played out? How many valiant women have stood forth with their sons or husbands, ready to fight to the death if need be. As I think of this I see the faces of the early martyrs, of Blandina or Agnes or Perpetua, boldly entering the arena where the savage beasts awaited them. I see the faces of brave women standing in the doorways at Masada, ready to die rather than accept domination by the Romans. I see the faces of women brought to these shores as slaves, fighting for freedom, and their strong and proud daughters after them, like Sojourner Truth, who continued the fight; and I see the long gone the faces of the women of the native tribes who stood ready to defend their lodges to the death, though armed only with lances against the rifles and cannon of the invading “longknives.” I see the faces of women standing with their families at the gates of Auschwitz, or Freetown, or Monrovia, or Darfur, standing ready to defend, and ready to die.

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Such is the courage of Mother Zebedee and her sons. However, as Jesus rightly points out to them, the job is already taken; the position has been filled and will be filled first by him: it is the Son of Man who came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom formany. He is no armchair general, nor one who stands well behind the lines as his troops go forth to suffer and die. No, he is at the head of the assault on the forces of evil and wickedness that have assailed humanity from the days of Adam. As to who will be second or third behind him, who knows who it will be but the heavenly Father, who governs and appoints all things in their place and time.

As it would turn out, James would in fact be the “first among the Twelve to suffer death for the sake of Christ,” but Stephen the deacon would be the first of all to suffer death on account of his witness to Christ, stoned to death for the sake of the Gospel, even as that Gospel was just beginning to be preached. James would follow in Stephen’s footsteps some few years later, when King Herod Agrippa saw that he could win points with the people by suppressing the church, and he had James killed with the sword. But James’ brother John, the last surviving Zebedee, on the other hand, would live to a ripe old age in exile on the island of Patmos. Who knows which seat he or James or Stephen now enjoys in the heavenly kingdom, a kingdom of which God gave John a glimpse of revelation before he called him home?

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What does the Scripture say to us, then, this morning, this Saint James Day. It tells us first of all that there will be hard times. Death and suffering are a part of life, some times worse than others. We live in a material world, and matter corrupts and perishes — nothing lasts forever, whether flesh or stone! And in the midst of suffering and decay and perishing, in the midst of time and trial, we can chose to step forward to offer what help we can: the companionship of Baruch, the alms and contributions of the Christians of Antioch, the courage of James and John and their bold Mother, the zeal of the apostles.

When a parish comes together to address a problem, as the good people of Saint James Church have done and are doing in gathering resources to repair this building, which represents our heritage and patrimony, we are seeking to outstrip each other in virtue, in service to God through service to his church.

This is the lesson for us, and it is one we have learned well. When faced with the challenge, many have come forward, and many more will do so as the example of those who have gone before inspires them to be jealous to be zealous, jealous with the zeal of our patron Saint James, who stepped forward to the challenge and gave his life for the sake of the church. May God continue to bless us as we seek to serve him and each other, in zeal and humility, to the honor and glory of his Name.+