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.

+ + +

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.

+ + +

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.

+ + +

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.

+ + +

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.

+ + +

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.”

+ + +

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.

+ + +

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.

+ + +

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!”

+ + +

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.

+ + +

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.+