Tuesday, December 26, 2006

The Inn Crowd

SJF • Christmas Eve 2006
And Mary gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. +
It is one of the most disconcerting and unpleasant experiences one can possibly have — to reach the end of a long trip, get to the hotel, and discover that your reservation has been released to someone else, and to be told that there is no room available. It appears over-booking has been around just as long as the hotel business, a lot longer than the airlines, and it looks like the innkeepers in Bethlehem were no more generous than many others before or since. They lived in the world of first come, first served, and their No Vacancy signs must have been written in letters of Greek, and Hebrew, and Latin.

So when Joseph and the very pregnant Mary — I miss that old expression “great with child” — when the weary couple arrived at the inn that night in Bethlehem, they were told there was no room for them in the inn. And so they spent the night out behind the inn, in the stable, so tradition (not the Bible) tells us — though it’s the logical place to find a manger, out in the stable with the animals that fed from it.

There was no room for Mary and Joseph and the newborn Jesus in the inn. Well who was there room for? Who was the inn crowd that cold winter night so long ago?

We have to admit that just as the Bible doesn’t specifically mention the stable, only the manger, so too the Bible tells us nothing at all about the inn or its inhabitants, only that there was no room there. You can look as long as you like, but you won’t find any further details. All it says about the inn is that there was no place for Joseph and Mary, no place for her to bear her child, no crib for him to lie in — only the manger for which tradition supplies us with a likely stable as a setting. Even the innkeeper who features so prominently in many a Christmas pageant isn’t mentioned by the Bible. He is a logical addition to the story, but as far as the Gospel is concerned he isn’t even an off-stage voice.

So, again as far as the Gospel is concerned, the people who were in the inn that winter night so long ago, all of them, whoever they were, the whole inn crowd, have been utterly forgotten, utterly lost to history, their names wiped out, the memory of them perished, all evidence of them gone, as if they never were. The inn crowd, you see, missed their chance to be remembered for ever, they missed their chance to have their names appear in the Bible along with Augustus and Quirinius, along with Jesus and Mary and Joseph.

Who were they? Well, use your imagination — another kind of Christmas gift God gives us. Who might the people in the inn have been, besides the logically necessary innkeeper. The rich couple who might have told the innkeeper, “Oh, we can make some room in a corner here — why not put some of our luggage out in the stable and let this poor couple have a corner of our room”? No — they are forgotten.

Perhaps there was another carpenter or craftsman there that night, someone who would recognize Joseph by his calloused hands. He could have taken that hand in fellowship, and squeezed in a bit on his narrow bed, or slept on the floor. But no — he has faded into mist.

Then remember, too, that the reason Joseph was on this journey was to enroll in the census, here in the town of his heritage — the town must have been full of his relations: so perhaps someone in the inn that night was a cousin, or even an uncle, someone who might do a favor for “family.” But no, in this case, blood was not thicker than water, when the well of charity itself ran dry — and if a relative was there, he or she is now forgotten.

And that innkeeper himself, so busy with his work that he couldn’t find the time to maybe offer a cot in his own room or in the corner of the bar — he is only remembered to us as an inhabitant of our imagination and our Christmas pageants, even the job title “innkeeper” is absent from the recorded text.

The innkeeper kept his inn, all right, kept it for himself and those inside it, all of them anonymous guests of an anonymous host. And all of them are forgotten. There was room for them in the inn, but no room for them in the story. And the story is important — for who of us when he or she dies is remembered any other way than by the passing down of the story of our lives? Without the story, the inn crowd is lost and gone forever.

But what about the “out” crowd? Ah, now that’s a different story. And it is a story. That’s the point. It is a story told around the world in every human tongue. It is a story told each year as the world turns under a winter moon, a story that has been told and will be told again and again until our old world stops its turning once and for all. For as long as there are children to sing, and parents to teach, and watchers to watch, and preachers to proclaim, the story of the “out” crowd will be told.

And we will adorn our altars and table-tops with crêches that commemorate that stable, and there won’t be an inn in sight. And the figures of the shepherds and the wise men and the angels will be there too, remembered in our story and song, and in our pictures and our pageants and our crêches — — all the whole wonderful crowded and blessèd world that was too big and too good and too marvelous to fit in any old inn, all the goodness and grace of God poured out from heaven on high, all the abundant blessing that couldn’t find room in an inn, — but found plenty of room to spread out on the fields in which the shepherds watched, to spread abroad in the heavens filled to overflowing with angels, to shine far beyond the horizon in the light of a star that would bring wise men from the ends of the earth to worship a child born to be king.

There was no room in the inn for all of these, but there was room enough in a world that had waited long to receive them. There was room enough in hearts that were open, and there always will be. And so, tonight on this most holy night, we remember and tell that story again, we remember and celebrate those shepherds and those angels, we look forward to the arrival of those wise men, and we remember most especially the mother and the father turned away from the inn in which they found no room, and the little child that mother bore and laid in a manger, that little child of whom the angels sang, that little child whom the shepherds worshiped, that little child whom we now glorify, Jesus Christ our Lord. O come, let us adore him. +

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

Monday, December 18, 2006

In the Pink

SJF • Advent 3c 2006 • Tobias Haller BSG
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.
We come to the third Sunday of Advent, the one that takes its name — Rejoice Sunday — from the words of Saint Paul to the Philippians, that wonderful phrase that composers like Handel, Purcell and Mozart have set to such bouncy tunes over the years. It is also the day on which I get to put on this rose-colored vestment — and I do have to admit that due to fading over the years it is more pink than rose. But it is special for me, because it is the vestment I wore at the very first Holy Eucharist at which I was the celebrant, having been ordained to the priesthood on the previous Saturday; today is the ninth anniversary of my first celebration of the Eucharist. At the end of that first celebration, I was able to follow another old custom for priests on such an occasion, and present my mother with a single rose— God rest her now as she awaits the resurrection to which we all look with eager hearts.

So you can see that this day is quite a special one for me, and I rejoice with you as I rejoice with Saint Paul, and Handel and Purcell and Mozart, and with Jerusalem itself, picking up that theme of celebration on this rose-colored day in the midst of a purple Advent. It is wonderful to feel so “in the pink” and filled with a spirit of exultation and joy.

But then... then comes John the Baptist. Oh my, if ever there was a party pooper, if ever there was a dark cloud on the horizon, if ever there was someone to rain on our parade — it has to be John the Baptist. For just as we are settled into a rosy-cozy pink rejoicing, here comes John the Baptist with his black-and-blue bruise of condemnation: “You brood of vipers!” he thunders at the crowds who have come to be baptized by him. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”

John the Baptist certainly does come on like gangbusters — he threatens all the trees that don’t bear good fruit with being cut down and thrown into the fire. But then... then he does a turnaround himself. Perhaps John is feeling a bit in the pink himself. For after this stunning and shocking introduction, what does he go on to ask? “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” He tells the tax collectors to collect only the tax owed to them, and tells the soldiers not to extort anyone by threats or false accusation, but to accept and be content with their wages. It’s almost as if John the Baptist were trying to be, in himself, both the bad cop and the good cop — on the one hand threatening disaster, but on the other applying a modest and reasonable approach to good behavior. After all the wild apocalyptic shouting and cursing, there comes a quite reasonable and rational request.

I’m reminded of something that happened once in the days of live television. This was long before “Saturday Night Live” was considered revolutionary for going before the camera and actually performing live for ninety minutes. In the early days of television, before the advent of videotape, everything was live. And one broadcaster got the idea of presenting the horror classic “Frankenstein” live on TV with some famous Hollywood actor probably a little past his prime — I don’t recall now if it was Lon Chaney jr, or perhaps even Boris Karloff. In any case, in one of the scenes, the Frankenstein monster was supposed to burst into the room and make a wreck of it, picking up tables and chairs over his head and smashing them to the floor. Of course the tables and chairs were made of lightweight balsa wood and were designed to break apart when the monster dashed them down on the ground. However, since props were expensive, the actor understood that in rehearsal he wasn’t actually to break the furniture.

Unfortunately for the broadcaster there was a glitch in the programming schedule and word did not get through to the actor playing the monster — he apparently thought they were doing a dress rehearsal when in fact the broadcastwas going out live to millions of homes. And so those millions of people saw the Frankenstein monster break through the door, growl inarticulately, hoist a chair over his head, growl some more, and then carefully replace it on the floor; and then do the same thing with table — lifting it above his head with grunts and groans and angry growls and then putting it back in place with a delicate touch. Eventually, at the scene-break word got through to the mortified actor, and for the rest of the evening the Frankenstein monster behaved in a more monsterly manner. It wasn’t a dress rehearsal, it was the real thing.

But it was a dress rehersal for John the Baptist; and so it is for us — he knew it, and so do we. In spite of all of John the Baptist’s shouting and cursing, he knew that the end was yet to come — this was the dress rehearsal. He wasn’t actually going to be chopping down any trees, separating wheat from chaff himself. These were tasks reserved for someone else. John knew for certainty that he was the stand-in, the stuntman for the real star who was yet to shine in his brief time upon the stage of this world. And we too know that the end is not just yet — and that it isn’t our task to wreck the furniture and declare that the end has come. We aren’t the members of a doomsday cult keen on hastening the coming of the end: after all, as the prophet Amos said, Woe to those who call for the day of the Lord!

Rather we know that we, like John, are called upon to build up, to challenge and be challenged to do the right thing: not to wreck the furniture but to share a coat with one who has none, to share food with those who hunger, to take no more than we need or are owed, and above all not to bully or berate others.

For we too are stand-ins for the star who is coming. We too are not worthy even to untie his shoes. We may baptize with water — we do it on a regular basis right over there in the font! But the one who came and is to come — Jesus our Lord, the star of the show, baptized with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Only he is qualified to separate the wheat from the chaff. As eager as some in the church are to declare who is wheat and who is chaff, who is bearing worthwhile fruit and who isn’t, they are presuming mightily and getting well beyond the role they are meant to play. All of us in the church are extras, stand-ins, and understudies — and none of us should dare presume to step into the spotlight and take the leading role.

And you know what? That is good news! That is something to rejoice about. We don’t have to play God’s part — and that’s good news because none of us are that good actors! We don’t have to save the world — if we simply do the ordinary things that justice and love demand it will be enough. If we have two coats, to share with those who have none; if we have plenty of food, to share it with the hungry. To take no more than our share, and to share what we have when we have it. And that is good news, isn’t it? It is the good news that John the Baptist preached and proclaimed to the people, with many exhortations. It was good news then and it is good news now — as we continue to rehearse for the great performance that is to come.

We don’t have to save the world! Someone else did, and will do so again. We only have to do what he said in the meantime: love one another as he loved us. So let us rejoice, brothers and sisters, in the knowledge that what God asks of us is within our capacity to do. Let us continue in prayer and supplication and thanksgiving, doing what God asks of us, and has empowered us to do. All things come of God, and of God’s own we return to God and share with our brothers and sisters. And in doing this God’s peace, which surpasses all understanding, will guard our hearts and our minds, in knowing that we are doing as God wills, and in accordance with the will of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Monday, December 11, 2006

All Dressed Up

SJF • Advent 2c • Tobias Haller BSG
Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem, and put on forever the beauty of the glory from God. Put on the robe of righteousness that comes from God; put on your head the diadem of the glory of the Everlasting.
I’m going to start my sermon today with a question. I won’t ask for a show of hands, but I do want you to be honest with yourselves when I ask it. Ready? How many of us here have ever made use of the snooze button on our alarm clock or radio? How many of us here — if any — can honestly say that when the alarm clock goes off in the morning we pop right out of bed like a firefighter ready to jump into the boots at the foot of the bunk, strap on the uniform and slide down the brass pole?

Or put the shoe on the other foot: how many of us here haven’t stood at the foot of the stairs or down the hall, calling for the third or fourth time to a son or daughter or niece or nephew or grandchild, “It’s time to get up!” And how many of us have been on the other side of that call — enjoying the extra few moments in bed even more than the whole night that went before?

Well, I don’t think I am alone in this! It is, after all, a law of physics — Newton’s First Law, no less: a body at rest tends to remain at rest unless some outside force acts upon it. And in this case whether the force is an alarm clock or an insistent elder who has made breakfast and is beginning to threaten applying a most definite force to your most recumbent body — there comes a time when you know you actually do have to rise and, if not shine, at least feebly glimmer.

The next thing is that you have to wash and get dressed. And if it is Sunday, you know that you will be expected to put on, not just lounging-about-the-house clothes, not just everyday work or school clothes, but your Sunday Best. You will be expected not just to get up and get dressed, but to get all dressed up.

Nations and peoples act the same way as individuals, of course. Nations and peoples are, after all, just collections of individual people — prone to the same errors and bad habits; the same laziness and reprobation and backsliding — and sometimes the number of people can multiply the problem rather than correct it.

When someone comes along and says to the people, “It is time to get up and get dressed,” it is a rare thing indeed for the people to respond the first time around. It takes repeated calls and repeated warnings before most nations will rouse themselves to do what is right, to do what is just — to do what God calls them to do.

We see this clearly laid out in our Scripture readings today. Baruch calls on Jerusalem to put off her widow’s weeds, to arise and get herself ready and put on her party clothes — assuring Jerusalem that the path is going to be cleared, the hills made low and the valleys filled in, to bring about restoration and rebirth, a new life to the sorrowful land.

But, of course, Baruch wasn’t the first prophet to use such language. Years before, Isaiah spoke in exactly the same way, calling on Jerusalem to awake and arise and put on her beautiful garments. He also described God’s massive earth-moving plan — leveling mountains and filling valleys to prepare the way for a grand procession.

Nor, as we see from our Gospel today, was Baruch the last prophet to use such language. For here is John the Baptist, once again a prophet arising in that old tradition, dressed in the garments of Elijah, announcing once more the promise of God’s highway construction plan — and calling on the people to open their eyes to see the coming salvation of God — and if not to get dressed, at least to prepare for it by the washing of baptism, a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

Israel needed to hear this wake-up call over and over. For it seems to be a part of the prophet’s fate not to be listened to — hence the need for repetition. People don’t want to listen to the prophets’ warning: remember what happened to John the Baptist! Try too hard to shout-out God’s wake-up call and you’ll get your head handed to someone else on a platter!

Yet Israel desperately needed to hear that repeated wake-up call. And we do too. That is in large part why we continue to hear these passages of Scripture year by year, every Advent hearing anew the call and the promise: the call to rise and shine, and the promise that the new bright garment of grace is there ready for us to don when we have washed away our sins, repenting our past ways and preparing for the great time that lies ahead. We are told that the way is clear — mountains leveled and valleys filled in — not just for God to come to us, but for us to go with God.

The question is — are we ready? Have we risen and washed, and are we dressed? Or are we still lying in the warm cocoon of slumber, with a pillow over our head to shut out the light? Well, we’re here in church — it’s true! But we all know how just as a body at rest tends to remain at rest, a body in motion will tend to stay in motion once it gets moving. So what I want to challenge you and me to ask ourselves this morning is: are we really awake and ready, or are we only sleep-walking? We are dressed up — but have we someplace to go? Are we truly motivated, or only going through the motions? Do we take advantage of this Advent time to examine our hearts and minds, to dig down deep and clean out the rubbish of old habits; to rub the sleep from the corner of our eyes, sweep up the old sins we’ve gotten accustomed to, or the old ways of the world we’ve come to accept as given?

For the world and its peoples love inertia — love to stay at rest, or move along predictable pathways, running downhill instead of mounting the heights. I was listening to a BBC reporter grill UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan earlier this week; and much as I admire Annan, I must say the BBC reporter was playing prophet to his Jerusalem — again and again asking, What use is the UN if it can’t actually do anything to stop the genocide in the Sudan? The powder-blue helmets look very nice, but what use are peace-keepers who don’t keep the peace?

And I would amplify that question, as the genocide continues there in the Sudan, and Northern Uganda is torn with violence, and civil strife is brewing in Nigeria. Do we ever learn? What use is it to say, “Never again” when the powers of this world just press the snooze alarm and say, “Just once more, please”; when the prophets call upon the powers of this world to lay down their swords, and the nations say, “How’s that again?” How many genocides does it take for the world to realize that if it keeps going that way there will be no one left?

The Secretary-General was not without his answer, however, and it was a good one, a realistic one, if not an optimistic one. He said that the UN can only do what people are willing to do. It is not an all-powerful force that can bend the world to its will. As I noted earlier, just as the world is made up of people — and since people are fallible the world makes mistakes — so too the UN is just what it claims to be: it is made up of all those nations, and if those nations individually don’t have the will to act — they will not act collectively. Bodies at rest will remain at rest unless an outside force is applied; bodies in motion, in motion — headed down the same old valleys of disaster.

And this is why, in the final analysis, we will not be able to solve our problems on our own. We will not because we cannot. An outside force is needed, just as Newton said. So this is why, in these last days, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born for us to be with us, born among us — but not merely one of us, but also the power of God incarnate, his way prepared by generations of prophets repeating the same message. Only God in Christ can finally and perfectly rouse us from the slumber in which we lie, even as we seem to be awake. Only he can truly waken us with his bright light, and wash us with the cleansing power not only of water but of his blood, and of the Holy Spirit’s fire. Only he can strip us of the robes of sorrow round us, and clothe us anew with the wedding garment we were meant to wear from before the foundation of the world.

And then, how can we not follow through? How can we not join our voices and raise them, calling out for Righteous Peace and Godly Glory. How can we not call for justice and work for justice, demand that peace be made, and that the innocent no longer suffer — we who have wakened, and who are called upon to rouse our sisters and brothers who still slumber in a world of violence and mischief, a world of hatred and fear, of ignorance and rebellion?

Sisters and brothers, a voice cries out for us to prepare the way of the Lord. A voice calls us to arise and shine and put on our festival garments, to climb to the heights to proclaim what we see. That voice has been calling for a long time, through Isaiah and Baruch and John the Baptist, and countless other prophets since. They point the way to the one who was, who is, and who is to come — the great External Force that can move all our bodies from rest — even from the rest of death — and put them into motion for his purpose, who has called us not merely servants but friends, and clothed us for the wedding banquet.

Let us then this season heed the prophets’ warnings, forsake our sins, be clothed with the garments of righteousness, and greet with joy the coming of our Redeemer and the Redeemer of the world, even Jesus Christ our Lord.+

Monday, November 27, 2006

Not from this world

SJF • Proper 29b (Christ the King) • Tobias Haller BSG
Jesus answered Pilate, “My kingdom is not from this world.”
This week we come to the last Sunday after Pentecost, before we launch into Advent next Sunday. But today’s Gospel, instead of anticipating the season that is about to begin, provides us with a reminder from last spring. Rather than peering forward to the purple of Advent, the Gospel reading looks backwards across the whole long green season after Pentecost, back past the seven white weeks of Eastertide, to the purple of Lent. Here we are six weeks from Christmas and it might as well be Good Friday, as far as the Gospel is concerned.

For there is Jesus, standing before Pilate, answering his cross-examination with the full knowledge that his disciples are powerless to defend him, that his own people will cry out for his death, and that the colonial agent of the Roman emperor will soon hand him over to the executioner.

Pilate has heard strange accusations raised against this itinerant preacher. But what he sees before him hardly matches the things he’s heard. So Pilate asks Jesus, “Are you the king of the Jews?” And the answer Pilate gets, on Good Friday or on the Last Sunday after Pentecost, is always the same: “My kingdom is not from this world.”

Not from this world ? The old translation reads “not of this world.” And I’m glad the current translators made this change, because if you didn’t know any better, when you heard “not of this world” you might think Jesus was saying he was from another planet, that the Gospel was like the strange stories you see in the National Inquirer: “Space aliens from other worlds are here and working for the government in New Mexico.” File that one with the stories about Elvis still being alive!

For surely Jesus doesn’t mean anything like that when he says his kingdom is not from this world. He isn’t saying he is from another world, any more than that his rising from the dead is simply a matter of someone still being alive whom everyone thought was dead, like Elvis. The Gospel is not the stuff of tabloids; it is not something to be glanced over as you stand at the checkout in the supermarket; the eternal Gospel is the message of salvation.

So what does Jesus mean when he says that his kingdom is not from this world? What he means is that his authority, his right to rule, doesn’t come from the world, but from God. Jesus’ kingship is not from the world but toand over the world — and his kingship comes from God.

Look at the language in the reading from Daniel: the one “like a human being,” — and here I think the translators of the have done us a huge disservice by no longer using the evocative phrase, “Son of Man” — this “human being” comes to the Ancient One and he receives “dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.” Jesus, whom the church identified with the Son of Man in Daniel’s vision, derives his authority from God. He isn’t the King of kings because the kings or the people of the world elected him, or because the people of the world obey him, or because the people of the world follow him. His kingship isn’t from the people of this or any other world, from their obedience or their approval or their support.

Because that’s the kind of kingship that can be taken away: when the people don’t want to follow such earthly kings, history shows us they quickly get rid of them. One needs only look to the recent reversal of power in our own Congress to see how easily those in positions of worldly power, depending on worldly support, can slip from their thrones — or in this case, committee chairs — in a day.

And even real kings — who in their day thought that their power came as a matter of divine right — are also uneasy in their seats when the economic or political system they govern gets beyond their control. And that can do more than simply force an abdication! When the French got tired of Louis XVI, they chopped off his head. When the Soviets triumphed over the Czar, they wiped out his whole family, gunned down in a moment of horror in a crowded little room. What goes round comes round, though, for how long ago was it that the statues of Lenin were pulled from their pedestals, and smashed to bits? And dare I add to this list the similarly toppled image of Saddam Hussein, a man who likened himself to Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, reduced to hiding in a spider hole and now condemned to death — more like the unhappy Belshazzar than Nebuchadnezzar. The world, you see, is fickle! It weighs kings in the balance and finds them wanting. Those who are kings or dictators from this world can lose their kingdoms in a single night, and the handwriting on the wall is spelled out against them in letters high and broad, and it doesn’t take a Daniel to understand their meaning.

But Jesus’ kingship is different. It doesn’t rest on the power of the people, on popularity or approval ratings. Jesus’ kingship is eternal. For Jesus’ kingship comes from God. It is not a kingdom from this world, but a kingdom from heaven. Jesus is the king of salvation, who is to rule the world, whether the people follow him or not.

On this last Sunday of the church year, we celebrate the fact that Christ is king whether we, or his disciples, or the Jewish authorities, or Pilate, or the Romans or anybody else anywhere wants him to be king or not. His kingship is not from the world, it is not from us, or from anyone else in this world — on the contrary, his kingship is over the world and over us and over everybody and everywhere else — not just on this world, but all the worlds and suns and stars of space. His kingship was over the Jewish authorities who saw him as a blasphemer, and over the Romans who saw him as an insurrectionist. And he is over us whether we obey his lordly rule or not.

That is the reason Good Friday rings in our ears: because nowhere is the kingship of Christ more clearly seen than on the cross. For here, though stripped of every quality that might adorn a human king, the kingship of Jesus is undiminished. It doesn’t matter that his followers have abandoned him; it doesn’t matter that his own people have betrayed him and stand there cursing him; it doesn’t matter that the Roman power-brokers have him nailed as a common criminal, and have added insult to injury by posting a mocking notice that this miserable specimen is the best king the Jews can come up with.

The irony is that Pilate’s mocking joke was on Pilate as much as on the temple authorities: Jesus was and is the King — not only of the Jews but of Pilate too — the King reigning from the cross, a throne more precious than the golden thrones of tyrants, and infinitely more lasting than a rule based upon the tastes and desires of an electorate.

Now, you might be thinking, Wait a minute. Isn’t what happened to Jesus like what happened to Louis XVI, or to the Czar. You might even go so far as to observe that Jesus was tried and sentenced to death, and so was Saddam Hussein. And it is certainly true that all of these worldly leaders were stripped of the worldly trappings of majesty, and were killed or are awaiting death.

But, my friends, there is a difference — a difference that matters in a deeper way than we could conceive, if we didn’t already know it. The kingship of those worldly rulers really was from this world— and their death is the end of their story. When their worldly power — power derived from worldly sources — and their life, is taken away, they have nothing left.

But Jesus’ story didn’t end with his trial, or with his death on the cross. Yes, he was stripped of any semblance of worldly power, stripped to his bare humanity. We say it every week in the Creed, “For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried.” But we don’t stop there, my friends — if we did we might as well close up shop and head home right now — we don’t stop there, and that is what makes all the difference. For after the memory of Good Friday comes the promised dawn of Easter. “On the third day he rose again.”

Such a simple phrase, but it makes all the difference, doesn’t it? Those seven words can’t be said of any other king, no matter how great. And the creed doesn’t stop even there — as the TV ad says, “But there’s more!” “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.”

His kingdom will have no end. Yes, there’s the crucial difference: the cross isn’t the end of the story. Unlike the guillotine or the gunfire that ended the kingdom of King Louis and the empire of the Romanoffs, unlike the noose that may one day end the life of Saddam Hussein, the cross is not the end, for the kingdom of Christ shall have no end, for Jesus Christ is the End, just as he is the Beginning — the Alpha and Omega, who is and who was and who is to come. Jesus Christ, begotten of his Father before all worlds, rose as firstborn from the dead, and he will come again; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and nailed him to the tree, “shall the true Messiah see.”

And what about us? What are we to do in the meantime, before his coming in great glory to judge and rule the world? Well, we have a kind of kingship too. It says so in the passage from Revelation we heard this morning: we have been made kings and priests to serve the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

And we know now what it means to be made a king and servant after the image of Christ. It doesn’t mean a lovely golden crown upon your brow. It doesn’t mean a comfortable seat on a throne. It doesn’t mean standing on a pedestal. It means taking up the cross, the sign of Christ’s kingship, a kingship not from this world, but a kingship that lasts for ever in spite of all this world has done to reject it.

We, you and I, have been made kings and priests — and servants — in the likeness of Christ crucified. And we have been given our orders — serve the Lord! — take up your cross! It is the sign of the great Servant King, who will come to judge and rule the world.

Advent is about to begin. The King of kings is coming, and when he does, may he find us his servants busy bearing our crosses day by day, and spreading the good news of the kingdom of our God, and of his Christ, for he shall reign for ever and ever.+

Monday, November 20, 2006

Reading Lesson

SJF • Proper 28b • Tobias Haller BSG
Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ.
A few weeks ago a priest friend of mine sent me a short note. He is writing a book about the Bible, and how it is used in the church. His note got me thinking, and the collect for today continued my thinking. Because one of the questions he asked me was, “Why don’t Episcopalians know the Bible better?” I agreed with him that this was true of many Episcopalians, and offered a few suggestions as to why this might be the case. I told him how shocked I was to discover in seminary that some of my classmates had never read some of the lesser prophets, to say nothing of the Wisdom literature. But then I also told my priest friend that my congregation did not in general fit that sorry rule.

For while it is sadly true that many Episcopalians never open a Bible from year-to-year, I know that many of you in this congregation read your Bibles regularly. I know this because when I visit members of this congregation at home or in the hospital, I will very often find a Bible sitting by the bedside — or even in someone’s hand! And from the look of the worn covers and page edges, I can tell you don’t just grab the Bible as an emergency lifesaver when you’re feeling low, but you read and study it on a regular basis!

I also know that this congregation has a close relationship with the Bible based on things I’ve observed in our Sunday worship. Our worship shows me that this congregation has a firm grasp on the five steps laid out in our collect for today: to hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the Scripture.

I can see how carefully you listen to the proclamation of the written text — and I can see how you will follow along with the text printed in the bulletin, combining hearing and reading in one step.

I also note how you mark the text — and mark doesn’t mean to get out a highlighter or pencil and adorn the printed page. To mark in the sense our collect means it is to pay attention, to heed what is said or written rather than to ignore it. And it is also in worship that I can see this happening, right before my very eyes. I’ve noticed how you respond to my sermon whenever I refer to the scriptural text. You may not even be aware of it, but every time I see you do it, it makes me proud. For whenever I refer to the scripture reading for the day I see many of you immediately look to the bulletin to find the text to which I am referring. And you do this, I know, not to check that I’m not making things up, but rather to mark the text: to make a mental note of it by seeing the words to which I refer.

If you’ve ever watched artists drawing a portrait or painting a scene, you will see them look back and forth between their subject and their work. They are marking the scene or the subject in order to set out a true likeness or a recognizable landscape. And it is the same with the Scripture. When you hear someone say, “The Scripture says such-and-such,” it is wise to look to the text and see that it really does say what is claimed. One of my favorite seminary professors would challenge students when they made claims about the Bible, by saying, gently, “Show it to me in the text.” Often they would discover that it wasn’t in the text at all! So this is how we mark the texts of Scripture — paying attention to them, as if our Lord were saying, “Mark my words!”

Which brings us to learning. In the first sentence of our gospel today there is a wonderful phrase, a parenthetical comment which says, “Let the reader understand.” (By the way, did you notice how you looked at the text?) Understanding is important — learning what the text means, what it meant to whoever spoke or wrote it, and what it means to us who hear, read, and mark it so as to learn it. Learning, as we all know, doesn’t just mean memorization — although it is wonderful to have a good memory so as to be able to have portions of Scripture at one’s disposal in one’s mind. This is a skill that comes with constant exposure to Scripture by reading it on a regular basis. This is one of the reasons I can refer to Scriptures that are not in the readings for the day with the confidence that you, who have been exposed to Scripture through your own study and reading, will know what I’m referring to.

The Scripture writers themselves did this all the time: for they were writing for people who knew the Scriptures well. Our gospel passage today refers to the book of Daniel, for example, both the abomination that makes desolate, and the idea of understanding the words of the book. The passage we heard from the Letter to the Hebrews alludes to the prophet Habakkuk, “The righteous one will live by faith.” (This was a very popular quotation, by the way; Saint Paul quotes it twice, once in his Letter to the Romans, and once to the Galatians.) My point is that the Scripture is full of these kind of cross-references, quotations and allusions, woven together like cloth with woof and warp — but if you only know the shreds and patches of isolated passages, you won’t have learned to grasp the whole fabric of Scripture.

So it is sad, but true, what my friend observed: many contemporary Episcopalians simply haven’t learned the Bible all that well, because they haven’t marked it, or read it, or even heard all that much of it. The three short portions that they hear on Sunday may be their only experience of the Bible: and believe me, that little hearing and reading will not be enough to learn the Holy Scripture! It would be like thinking you understand dressmaking on the basis of having looked at some fabric swatches.

For as our collect says, there is more than hearing, reading and marking to be done, even more than learning: we are called upon inwardly to digest the Word of God. What a stunning image; for when you digest something it becomes part of you, incorporated into you, a part of your body and your being. That is the level of intimacy that God wants with us — to have the Word of God within us, in our heart and mind and body — so that we may love God with all our heart and mind and soul and strength.

This is a kind of skillfulness to which God calls and invites us. And acquiring a skill takes a lot of hard work, effort and repetition. Just hearing three bits of Scripture once a week willcertainly not do it. I can guarantee you that even reading the whole Bible through once will not give you the kind of skill God wants you to have. Even reading it twice or three times will not do it. Rather it is the daily exposure to the Word of God through study and reading and reflection that incorporates it into your heart and soul like the food you eat becomes part of your body. So I commend to you regular daily Bible reading, especially through the church’s Daily Office, which is laid out in the Book of Common Prayer starting on page 936 — a program of daily prayer and Scripture. The Daily Office will lead you through all the most important parts of the Bible over a two-year period — and not only you, but the thousands of people throughout the church who will be reading the same passages each day — as if we we’re all part of a huge church without walls — which, if you think of it, we are! That may seem like a big effort, but as with any skill, no matter how hard it may seem at first, it becomes much, much easier with practice — I’ve been doing it for about thirty years myself, so I can testify — that it comes to the point where it may not seem to take much effort at all — it is just part of my day. And when the Scripture becomes part of you, by being a part of your day, you may not even notice it: God’s Word will just be there, resting in your mind and ready to be recalled, a quiet source of inner life of which you may be no more conscious than you are conscious of the beating of your heart.

A 19th century religious sage of Eastern Europe once observed a tightrope walker at a town fair and said, “He makes it look so easy; yet what a degree of skill it takes to walk that rope. If only people would apply themselves to walking in God’s path with such devotion!”

This is the skillfulness to which God invites us through the Word — the Word of God spoken so that we might hear it, written so that we might read it, preached and proclaimed so that we might mark it, studied so that we might learn it, and finally taken inwardly into ourselves to nourish us and help us grow into the stature of Christ, the living Word of God, to whom we ascribe, as is must justly due, all might and majesty, henceforth and forevermore.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Every Three Seconds

SJF • Proper 27b • Tobias Haller BSG
The widow said, “As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.”
In the midst of a terrible famine, God sent the prophet Elijah to a widow, with the promise that she would feed him. When he arrived, she greeted him with the words I’ve just quoted — a testimony to her dire condition, resigned to cook one last meal before she and her son starved to death. Of course, this story had a happy ending, because God kept his promise to Elijah, and the widow found that she never lacked for flour or oil.

It’s a wonderful story; wonderful because exceptional. As Jesus himself would later point out, many widows suffered during that famine, but it was only to this one that Elijah was sent. And the sad truth is, there are many widows still: many widows and many men and women, and many, many more children who will either lay themselves down tonight in hunger — to find, in sleep, a temporary escape from the gnawing pain in their stomachs’ pit — or who will, as the widow expected, die.

It is a sobering thought, so sobering I scarcely dare to think it. So let’s try to snap out of it. I’d like you to snap your fingers with me — every three seconds. Snap two three, snap two three... and as we keep snapping our fingers, I want to bear in mind that every hour 1200 children under the age of five die somewhere in the world, die from preventable causes like hunger or disease. Snap two three, snap two three... Every time we snap our fingers a child somewhere dies who didn’t have to die. Someone’s son or daughter dies whose life could have been saved by some food or some medicine. Snap two three, snap two three...

I told you it was a sobering thought, and we didn’t snap out of it, but deeper into it. It is a waltz of death — this finger-snapping in three-quarters time — and the dance of death goes on and on. And Elijah doesn’t come.

But someone else can come instead. I said these deaths were preventable — deaths due to lack of food or medicine — if only “someone” will act. And I will be even bolder still: there are lots of other problems facing this world that are preventable if only “someone” will act. But aren’t we someone? What could we do if we only set our hearts and minds and hands to action?

At the beginning of this new millennium, the United Nations established a series of audacious goals for the world: The Millennium Development Goals. They were eight in number:

1) Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger;
2) Achieve universal primary education;
3) Promote gender equality and empower women;
4) Reduce child mortality;
5) Improve maternal health;
6) Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases;
7) Ensure environmental stability; and
8) Develop a global partnership for development.
Eight steps to a new world; and as a further audacious step, the United Nations said, we will accomplish all of this by the year 2015.

Now you might well feel like that widow of Zarephath, confronted by Elijah asking for supper, when you know all you’ve got is a handful of flour and a few drops of oil. How in the world can we accomplish this by 2015?

Well, the United Nations has an answer. It will take about $178 billion each year. That is a lot of money. But if it is spread out, and everyone does their fair share, it can be done. And what is that fair share? If all of the developed countries would just dedicate seven-tenths of one percent of their gross income to this cause it would be enough to accomplish the goals. Seven-tenths of one percent — that’s less than three quarters out of $100; if you make $25,000 a year you could set aside seven-tenths of one percent just by putting a quarter in a jar when you left your house in the morning and another quarter when you got home at night every day. No one is asking anyone to be like that other widow whose two pennies amounted to everything she had! We are literally talking about nickels and dimes: and the amazing thing is that if every Episcopalian did this, set aside just seven-tenths of a percent of his or her income, Episcopalians alone could nationally raise $354 million a year!

We have to ask ourselves what value we place on human life — not just our own lives, but the lives of so many others. What after all is the value of a human life?

You may have seen the old thriller The Third Man with Orson Welles. He plays the ultimately selfish man: an affable man with the sour name of Harry Lime, who makes his living by selling watered-down penicillin in post-war Europe, watered-down medicine that kills those whom the real thing might save. In a climactic scene, Harry’s friend Holly Martin finally tracks him down, and confronts him in the bus-sized gondola of a huge Ferris wheel, high above the city of Vienna, looking down on the people below who look like just so many dots. Martin asks Lime, “Have you ever seen any of your victims?” As the gondola rocks in the autumn breeze, Harry Lime responds, “You know, I never feel comfortable on these sort of things. Victims? Don't be melodramatic. Tell me. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money, or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare? Free of income tax, old man. Free of income tax...”

What a chilling and cynical view of human life! To tally up each death not as a loss to the world but in terms of personal gain. And yet, if we simply hold back all that we have when we could afford to help save a life — if we stand idle when it is in our power to help another even at some cost to ourselves — do we not engage in the same kind of self-serving bookkeeping? If we hold on to our handful of meal and few drops of oil — we may have our last meal; but what then?

Just last week we talked about us spending some money on ourselves — spending about $40 apiece to refurnish our parish hall. And we still want to do that — if for no other reason than that we use that parish hall as a part of our ministry — including feeding the hungry on Thanksgiving Day.

But I would like to suggest to you today that there is something else we can do to stop that finger snapping dance of death — and isn’t that more important than almost anything else you could imagine? To save a child’s life — and even more, to provide for their education — not just a life but a good life?

Our bishop has presented us an opportunity to enter into a partnership with the Anglican Church in Tanganyika through a program called The Carpenter’s Kids. I don’t need to tell you much of Africa has been devastated by the AIDS pandemic — villages have been wiped out and families destroyed. And among those who suffer most are the AIDS orphans, of whom thereare over 2.5 million in Tanzania alone. Our diocese has entered into a cooperative venture with the Diocese of Central Tanganyika, a venture that partners parishes in New York with parishes there. Each parish in partnership finds 50 people willing to contribute $50 a year each for five years. And you might ask, What can $50 do. Well, I’m very glad to say, that like that handful of meal, or those few drops of oil, or those two pennies tossed into the treasury by a faithful widow — $50 can do all whole lot more in Tanganyika than it can in New York! $50 a year — that’s less than a nickel and a dime a day — will send a child to school, buy them shoes and two school uniforms, and books and school supplies, and provide breakfast every day for the whole year. That one life that will be changed — one life that could have been another finger snap — changed forever literally by nickels and dimes. If we as a parish can find fifty people willing to support this project, the fifty neediest children in a parish in Tanzania will receive that aid. Fifty of us here will change fifty lives there.

I’m not asking you to make this decision today — but I am asking us all to think about it in the context of our overall stewardship — what we spend on our own families, what we spend to support our church, and what we might spend to join in reaching those Millennium Development Goals, by focusing our effort on The Carpenter’s Kids. The pledge forms for the Carpenter’s Kids program are at the back of the church. I invite you today, if you’re moved to do so, to take one away with you and read through it. If you want to participate, to be one of the fifty, bring the form back and give it to me and I will hold it — along with mine — until there are fifty — and if there are more than fifty so much the better. But when we have reached fifty, I will send our joint application to the Bishop to enroll us as a parish in partnership, and then receive the first year’s offering at a special ingathering.

The problems of the world can seem overwhelming — yet even the greatest problems can be solved by people of goodwill doing what they can. I won’t say it’s as easy as snapping your finger. I will say it is as easy as nickels and dimes, and I will say it is something I know that I can do; it is something I know that most of you can do. The question is, will we do it?+

Thursday, November 02, 2006

At Your Service

SJF • Proper 25b 20006 • Tobias Haller BSG
God will not overlook your work and the love that you showed for his sake in serving the saints, as you still do.
In today’s Gospel, a blind man is brought to Jesus, and the first thing Jesus says to him is, “What do you want me to do for you?” And the blind man’s response, quite naturally, is “My teacher, let me see again.” This morning, however, I’d like to turn the text around a bit, in light of our other readings, and pose the question another way. When people come to God, as we do week by week, and day by day, we often come to him with an implicit or an explicit need, something we want God to do for us.

But among us are also mature Christians, committed and dedicated members of the church — as opposed to those still on soft food, like the new church members described in the Letter to the Hebrews — and these dedicated church members approach God more like a soldier reporting for duty, or a worker reporting for an assignment, and ask God, “What do you want me to do for you?”

Now this question, revealing as it does the idea that we can do anything at all for God, is at the heart of one of the hottest debates of the Reformation, the question of faith versus works. The radical reformers insisted that works were useless for salvation — and they used part of the Scripture from the Letter to the Hebrews to support their argument. Our reading today affirms that repentance from what it calls “dead works” is a foundation of the Christian faith. The radical reformers insisted that nothing we do could earn us salvation; that all works, whether liturgical works like prayer or worship, or corporal works of mercy like visiting the sick and feeding the hungry, all of these were so many worthless nothings in the eyes of God. Faith alone mattered, faith and God’s grace that snatches us worthless sinners from the jaws of Hell.

And to a certain extent the reformers were right. We are not saved because we pray and worship. We are not saved because we do works of mercy. God saves us because God loves us, not because we have earned his love, but because we are his, purchased with his own blood on Calvary’s tree.

However, where the reformers went too far was in making it seem that the works of prayer and the works of mercy are worthless, not just as means to purchase salvation, but worthless period. And this most surely goes too far — as radicals often do! And it is surely not going far enough — something radicals also often fail to do. For if you read on in the passage from Hebrews, on a few lines past the reference to “dead works” you find this important witness to how much God values what we do on his behalf, as servants in his kingdom: “For God is not unjust; he will not overlook your work and the love that you showed for his sake in serving the saints, as you still do.”

The reformers went too far when they discounted all human worth, insisting on humankind’s total depravity and God’s unmerited grace, to the exclusion of the very clear scriptural witness that when we approach God with the question, What do you want me to do for you? he has a whole long list of things he wants us to do, starting with, You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and your neighbor as yourself! And that takes work!

Where the reformers were right, of course, is that we are not saved by our works. But strange as it may seem for me to say it, salvation shouldn’t preoccupy Christians all that much, since we believe we are saved by Jesus already. Because I often travel on public transportation wearing my clerical outfit, from time to time I’m asked the question by a well-meaning evangelical: Are you saved? Now, by that question they mean, have I accepted Jesus as my personal savior. In any case, I always answer, Why yes I am! Then they will usually ask, When? meaning, when did I accept Jesus. But since I don’t think my salvation depends on what I do with Jesus — but with what Jesus did for me — I will say, Well, I was saved about two thousand years ago, just outside the city walls of Jerusalem. For my salvation is not hinged, thanks be to God, on my poor ability to respond to God, but on what God did for me: I believe all Christians are saved, because that is what Jesus came to do! It is not for me to call my Lord a failure! So the important question for us as Christians, given our assuredness of salvation in Christ, is not, when did it happen, but what are we going to do about it!

Some years ago, I heard about a famous Southern Baptist preacher, imbued with the strict reformed theology, who was asked what he thought about Mother Teresa. As he sat comfortably behind his gigantic desk in his richly furnished office, He said that if Mother Teresa hadn’t turned accepted Jesus as her Savior then all her good works amounted to nothing at all. Well, maybe that’s true. But it seems to me that we should assume that on the basis of her life of humble service, she must have turned her heart over to Jesus, and then went about doing a lot more than just sitting behind a thirty-five-square-foot desk! We might rather well echo the words of John F. Kennedy in a religious context: Ask not what God can do for me — but what I can do for God!

Salvation — what God has done for me — is an unmerited gift, but anyone with good manners knows that in response to a wonderful gift, at the very least you send a thank you note! How shall we show our love to God — what shall we do for God — in thanksgiving for the precious saving gift we have received? How shall we do as God asks: how show our love for our neighbor, whom God has given us as a means to witness to and practice God’s love, to make God known throughout the world, so that every corner of God’s green earth can sing, My God and King!

+ + +

We are saved by grace and justified by faith. The blind man who knelt at Jesus’ feet heard the word of salvation: “your faith has made you well. “ But in gratitude for his salvation and justification, he responded by following Jesus on the way, walking in the holy and sanctified way that Jesus laid out for him and for all of us, the royal road of love of God and neighbor. When we follow in this road, having already been saved and justified, when we take up the tasks God has prepared for us, we are sanctified. Justification by faith prepares us for this burden, just as soft food and milk help a young child to mature to the point where solid food is suitable. Salvation is the gracious act of God picking us up from where we have fallen, healing us so we can get back to work, just as the healing of the blind man’s vision enabled him to see, and seeing, to follow.

And this following is the life of sanctification, the life of holiness, in which works are not worthless, but necessary if we are to “stand up, stand up for Jesus, as soldiers of the cross,” walking in the way and along the path that Jesus has prepared for us to walk in — like good soldiers who have reported for duty, and who have received their marching orders. Strengthened and equipped by God, we take up the tasks God has given us to do, the works of righteousness, the works of service to the saints. The saints, you see, serve each other, as well as serving those on the outside, the strangers and sojourners who haven’t yet heard the good news, or who have heard it so badly preached or practiced that they want nothing of it.

This is a great responsibility: to do the works of prayer and mercy in such a way as to let light shine where it has never been seen. God cares about what is done upon this earth that he created and redeemed. And the great honor that God has done for us and with us, since Christ first put on human flesh, is to adopt us as his children, to commission us as his servants, working together with Christ to extend the reach of grace.

For God does care about what goes on upon this earth. God saw, as Isaiah says, how little justice there was upon the earth, how there was no one to intervene. And so God intervened himself, with his own arm winning the victory, putting on righteousness like a breastplate and a helmet of salvation upon his head.

But that was then. This is now. Since Christ came, we too have been found worthy to join God as commissioned servants — as soldiers of the cross. What does Saint Paul say in his Letter to the Ephesians? That we, yes we, frail creatures of flesh, and feeble as frail, should put on that breastplate of righteousness, that helmet of salvation: God’s armor not only in the sense that God gives it to us, but in the sense that God once wore that very armor himself! God is giving us his own armor to carry on this mission and ministry. So we, we children and servants of God, have a task to do and work to be done.

This is a great responsibility, a responsibility that comes with spiritual maturity, a thankful response to the knowledge of salvation. It is astonishing, but it is true; it is awesome and hard to believe, but it is the gospel truth: God has commissioned us as co-workers, recruited us as soldiers for the spread — not of war — but of peace. As we each appear before God to ask, “Lord, what do you want me to do for you?” may we each and all be strengthened by the Holy Spirit: to do the works of prayer and mercy, until God’s kingdom comes, to love God as we serve him and our neighbors, to the glory of his Name.+

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Our Truest Life to Find

SJF • Proper 22b 2006 • Tobias S Haller BSG
From the Book of Genesis: “But for the man there was not found a helper as his partner.” +
The second chapter of the Book of Genesis presents us with a marvelous example of God’s generosity and care, and the extent to which God’s children have the responsibility to make decisions, and how God abides by those decisions once they are made.

God created Adam from the clay of the riverbank, breathing into him the divine life and spirit. And God planted the beautiful garden of Eden, and placed Adam in it, to tend it and care for it as God’s gardener. And God looked down upon this peaceful creation and instead of smiling at its goodness, frowned slightly and shook his head a little, and for the first time in the whole narrative of creation said that something was not good. “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” And taking more clay, the same stuff he’d made Adam from, God set to work.

But what did God make? Not another human being, but rather all of the animals of the field and the birds of the air. And God brought all of these creatures to Adam, for Adam to approve and accept, but still, there was not found a helper as his partner. Only then did God put Adam to sleep and take, not more clay, but some of Adam’s very own body, and make for him a helper as a partner, one like himself. And Adam recognized this kinship immediately, and rejoiced that at last here was one like himself, one who could truly be called his mirror image, bone of his bones and flesh of his flesh.

The wonderful thing about this narrative is that God gave Adam such respect, and abided by Adam’s judgement as to who in all creation was to be his helper and partner, one truly like himself. God did not force Adam to be content to live alone as a solitary hermit in the garden. God did not force Adam to be happy with just the animals to keep him company. God did not take offense when Adam shook his head at all of these other creatures, and found none to be a suitable partner for him — for even though they were made from the same substance he was, they were still too different in form. God did not force Adam to do anything, but allowed him the freedom to choose the one who was like himself in substance and in form, as a partner and a helper. God used no force in this: but allowed freedom, and this Scripture shows us clearly, as our Gospel hymn said, that “force is not of God.”

+ + +

Well, you know the rest of the story. Adam and Eve lived in the garden only for a short time. One of those animals Adam had rejected as an unsuitable helper and partner didn’t take too kindly to the rejection, I suppose. It was the creature God made with some of the leftover clay, the one any child knows is the easiest thing to make with a lump of clay, rubbing hands together as the snake takes shape between them — just as the Gary Larson cartoon shows God creating the snake and saying, “Gee, these things are a cinch!” The serpent wriggled in and did his dirty work, sowing the seeds of discontent and pride, taunting with the fear of death, tempting with the promise of divinity, leading Adam and Eve to disobedience. The serpent dangled temptation before them, and they bit. And so the caretakers got evicted from the garden. And for thousands of years human beings continued to stumble about in their ignorance and pride, fearing death and yet unable to escape it, no matter what they did, alternately sinned against and sinning, unable to find righteousness even though God tried time and time again to show them how.

God would not, you see, simply force people to be good, any more than God forced Adam to accept Eve. God wanted people to be good from the inside, good from the heart, not just coated over with a whitewash of proper behavior, but deeply loving, deeply just, deeply free — and yet deeply responsible.

God gave the people a law written in stone, and the people disobeyed it. God sent the people prophets and teachers, but they ignored them or mistreated them. God gave the people kings and most of the kings turned out to be worse than the people!

But finally, in the fullness of time, God decided to do something similar to what he had done way back in Eden. God would not this time send the Law. God would not send a prophet or teacher. God would not send a king, at least not the kind of king people were used to. God would not even send an angel.

God would instead give to humankind one who was human, a human being like Adam himself, but one who was also divine, one who was God incarnate. God would choose incarnation — being made flesh.

And as of old when God took the raw material from a human being, from Adam’s side, this time God took from the flesh of a young woman named Mary all that was needed to make the one who was for a time made a little lower than the angels, one not ashamed to call men and women his sisters and brothers, for he shared in the same human flesh as they did. “He sent him down as sending God; in flesh to us he came; as one with us he dwelt with us, and bore a human name.”

+ + +

The human name he bore is Jesus, which means Savior. The divine name he bore is Emmanuel, which means God with us. He was and is our Saving God who is with us, who shared with us in mortality and pain, shared the weakness of human flesh, so that he might redeem and save that human flesh. He suffered death so that he might destroy death for ever, and destroy the one who, as the Letter to Hebrews says, had the power of death, the devil who ages before had snaked his way in, to enslave humanity by their fear of death.

Jesus, our Savior, is also our brother, for he taught us to call God our Father. We who share in the flesh of Adam also share — through Jesus — in the Spirit of God. The old serpent can do nothing to us any longer if we do not let him. He’s done his best to do his worst, and he failed utterly when Jesus broke the power of death and was raised to life again. And we who are united with Jesus in his death, are also given the power to rise with him in his life.

We can still refuse. God respects our freedom too much to force us to follow the path he so desires for us. And there are those who would rather listen to a serpent’s lies than to God’s own truth. There are still some so possessed by their fear of death that they have forgotten how to live. We look at a world in which we see that all things are not under human control — disease, crime, famine, injustice still seem to rule. Some seek long life or wealth, or pleasure or fame, but rarely find happiness. But we do see Jesus, the human one who suffered, the human one who died, who gave up everything and yet who through the power of God triumphed over everything, and now is exalted over all things.

We too can confront all the shallow promises of the world, to find that none of these things in themselves will answer our deepest need. In none of these things can we find our true and final happiness whatever the snake may say to the contrary. It is only in Jesus — God from God, light from light, true God from true God, that we recognize our own true human self — the perfect image of humanity made after God’s own image and likeness. God offers us the option, and has no wish to force us to choose life rather than death. God invites us to find our truest life in him, and has shown us the way, but he will not force us on that path. In this is our hope, in this is our challenge. As we make our choices, let us always remember the words of our Gospel hymn, and choose rightly: “Not to oppress, but summon all their truest life to find, in love God sent his Son to save, not to condemn mankind.” +

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Suspended Judgment

SJF • Proper 21B • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
There is one lawgiver and judge who is able to save and to destroy. So who, then, are you to judge your neighbor?
We continue our reading this week from the epistle of James; and doesn’t it strike you once again how closely James follows the teaching of Jesus? We saw a few weeks ago how James echoed Jesus’ reminder of the royal law of Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” And in today’s reading James echoes another of Jesus’ teachings, “Judge not lest you be judged.”

This is an important reminder for us in the world as well as in the church, for it addresses a very common tendency. And I don’t just mean the tendency to judge others. It goes deeper than that, down to whatever it is that drives our desire to render such judgments.

What I’m talking about is the tendency we all have, upon feeling that we’ve achieved some goal, to look back on those who are still struggling with a certain degree of — well, contempt is probably too strong a word, though it may sometimes take that form — but a certain degree of self-satisfaction that seems to relish saying, “I’m better than you are.”

I suppose smugness sums it up in its least nasty form; a kind of pleasure mixed with just a hint of malice. This vice doesn’t have a name in English, and so it is a bit hard to pin down; I suppose it is kin to the feeling the Germans call Schadenfreud — pleasure at someone else’s misfortune. But even without a particular name we know this vice well, this vice that is the mirror image of envy. In envy we despise others because we lack what they have. Here envy is turned about into a kind of pleasure in succeeding where others have failed, or in having what others lack. Even for want of a name, it is no less a vice than envy, and it is similarly ridiculous, and similarly dangerous.

As for the ridiculousness, I recall a hilarious scene in the film comedy, The 12 Chairs, in which chubby comedian Dom Deluis plays a renegade Russian priest who, on hearing an elderly woman’s confession that she hid the crown jewels in one of a set of dining room chairs “before the Revolution,” sets off on a quest to recover them. At one point he wrestles the last chair, the one that must have the jewels, from another treasure hunter, and in his ecstatic joy climbs his chubby self up a sheer cliff, to the pinnacle of a stone tower in the desert, waving the chair over his head and chanting, “God likes me! God likes me!” Of course, when he rips the upholstery open and finds there is no jewelry inside, his estimation of God’s approval slumps considerably.

So much for the ridiculousness of this vice — and laughter is a good defense in our efforts to resist the devil — for he has no sense of humor. But this nameless vice is no less dangerous than those that do have names, like envy and pride, it’s close cousins. In its most innocent form, it may simply be an expression of gratitude — “there but for the grace of God go I.” And if an honest thanksgiving for a grace received, perhaps it is not so bad. But you can see, I’m sure, how easily this sentiment can glide over into the Pharisee’s, “I thank God I am not like other men.” If misery loves company, then success seems to enjoy solitude, looking down on those who have failed.

The problem with this vice, even at its most trivial, is the provisional nature of all our successes. Who can say, ultimately, who has succeeded until the trial is over and the final verdict rendered? Who is to say that because I stand today I may not fall tomorrow? However well I may judge myself to be positioned on the chessboard of life, I don’t see the whole chessboard the way God does; and in life’s card game I don’t know what cards the other players may have, however good the hand dealt me — in short I am in no position to judge even myself let alone anyone else, in God’s great scheme of things. And it is also good to remember that God is more than a mere kibitzer in this game of life!

The proper attitude for us to adopt, rather than judgment, is as James suggests, for all of us to submit ourselves to God, in our awareness that God is watching over us as we journey through this life; to resist the devil, yes — but not to critique other people’s struggles with that selfsame devil, except to help them when and how we can; to draw near to God so that he might draw near to us — again without worrying how close or how far others may be, but rather — if we feel we are ahead — not to gloat in self-satisfaction, but to use our advantage to throw out tow-lines from the stern of our little boats, to pull others on board; to cleanse our own hands before we presume to try to wash someone else’s. And above all, not to speak evil against another or to judge another.

For we are not judges in God’s court; we are not even plaintiffs — we are defendants, all of us. So, as James says, who are we to judge our neighbors? The pot may call the kettle black, but the cook puts them both on the fire!

This theme is taken up in our gospel today in a different way, but one that is much to the point, in our Lord’s commandment to place no stumbling block in the way of one who believes in him — to create no difficulties for others in their journey to God. We are called to consider to what extent our judgment of others places a stumbling block in their way. To what extent does one person’s disapproval discourage others, or even worse lead them to despair, rather than reformation. Think for a moment of how the other poor sinner felt when he overheard the Pharisee’s words, “I thank God I’m not like other men, even like that one over there!” Who is really helped by someone saying to them, “You can never do anything right.” Does this kind of attitude really help to bring reformation — even assuming we can tell who needs it more than we do? We see only the outside, after all, not the inner workings of the heart. Two weeks ago we heard James’ warning about not being overly impressed by a richly dressed person or turning away one dressed poorly: for the Lord looks on the heart, not the haberdashery.

A story is told of a gentleman traveling by ocean liner discovering himself to have been berthed in the same cabin with a fellow passenger he thought looked suspicious. So he went to the purser and asked if it would be any trouble if his gold watch and extra cash were kept in the ship’s safe. The purser responded, “No trouble at all sir, especially considering that your cabinmate has just asked for the same service.”

When we presume to judge others we are just as likely to be mistaken in our judgments; and as our Lord promised, we will be judged by the same standards we apply to others. So best not to make such judgments — best not to look at others doing their best to serve the Lord and say, “Let us stop them, because they aren’t one of us.” Jesus has powerful words to say against those who place a stumbling block in the way of others seeking to do their best to follow him — powerful words of a terrible fate: to have a millstone tied around your neck and to be cast into the depths of the sea. If you are moved to be high-handed towards another — cut off that hand, for that high-handedness will bring you down. If you are moved to kick another when he’s down — cut off that prideful foot and root out the spirit of judgment from your heart, for that foot will trip you up. If you are moved to roll your haughty eye at someone else’s failings — tear it out, for that eye will draw you to the place where all judgment is reflected back to you and you see yourself as you really are, with all your imperfections revealed, and that eye will weep at the sight. For it is better for us to enter life maimed or lame or half-blind than to end up in that place of dreadful perception, forever to contemplate by the sultry light of unquenchable fire the many causes of stumbling to which our judgment gave occasion.

So when the spirit of judgment rises in your heart, cast it out and instead of judging, forgive. Instead of laying a stumbling block, bring that cup of water to the one who faints with weakness. If I am truly better off than he or she, this will show it, and this alone. So let us speak no evil against another, brothers and sisters, but rather place ourselves under the same mercy we desire for all, the mercy of the just judge, the judge eternal, throned in splendor, who alone can purge us and our land of bitter things, and whose dominion alone can bring healing; the one who is our everlasting judge, but who is also our only mediator and advocate, Jesus Christ our Lord.+

Monday, September 18, 2006

Faith On Show

SJF • Proper 19b • Tobias S Haller BSG
Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead... Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.
Most of us have probably heard, or perhaps even used, the expression, “He wears his heart on his sleeve.” This describes someone who is transparent in his emotions — there is no doubt about how he feels, or what he thinks. Sometimes people aren’t aware of how much they reveal through their body language or facial expression — the unspoken outward eloquence that lets everyone around them know how they feel inside.

Other people, on the contrary, are adept at concealing their true feelings, either by nature, as a part of their personality, or by intent. One of my seminary professors — now a bishop — was skilled at preserving this kind of inscrutable expression. It was a little frustrating sometimes for me to converse in tutorial meetings with him, because it was impossible to tell from his facial expression or body language what his inner reaction was to anything I said. Only when he spoke was his judgment on my paper or my assignment made clear. He preserved this poker face as a way of getting me to articulate what I really felt or thought, quite apart from his opinions one way or the other — remaining seemingly impartial to allow me either to dig myself deeper into a hole of error, or mount up on eagle’s wings — and only at the end would I know how well or poorly I had done in my presentation.

Sometimes people will preserve a“great stone face” in order to let others know that they can’t get to them. They will maintain a stiff upper lip, or a brow of adamant, enduring insults without showing any reaction at all. We have an example of this in our passage from Isaiah this morning — the Prophet suffers disgraceful insults, but sets his face like flint. And he does this because of his faith in God, his trust that God is on his side and will vindicate him and not allow him to be put to shame for ever. Boldly he says, “Let them confront me. It is the Lord God who helps me!” — thus strong is his faith, which is not shown by making faces, but by setting his jaw, remaining steady and immovable.

The irony is that this action reveals faith rather than concealing it. Isaiah’s face, set like flint, in its very immobility and endurance — keeping his face steady and not wincing at the insults of those who pull at his beard — in not showing pain he shows his faith.

Faith is shown in many ways — primarily, as James writes in the epistle, through the good works to which it gives rise. James does not suggest there is any conflict here between faith and works — rather they go together as naturally as melody and rhythm combine to create a song. “Faith without works is dead,” James assures us, and by this I suggest he means that it isn’t really faith if it doesn’t produce positive and visible actions. If what I think is my faith gives rise to no real work, it may simply be a pious feeling — a sentimental impulse rather than a commitment, rather like the difference between feeling homesick and actually returning home! For the proof is in the pudding, as the saying goes; or as our Lord would say, “A tree is known by its fruit.” So James and Jesus both attest to this truth: if you say you have faith, let your faith be shown by what you do to fulfill “the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”

A true and lively faith will show itself not simply in a our demeanor — how we appear, how we seem to be — but in our actions. And we are warned in our reading today about judging others simply on the basis of their appearance — not to be overly partial to a person who shows up dressed in fine clothes, while turning away or turning aside the poor person who is not so well dressed. Though the outer appearance is important, it is not simply the appearance of clothing, which one can put on or take off, but rather being clothed with the good works that arise from a true faith, a heart of faith worn on the sleeve — whether that sleeve be silk or denim. It is not fabric, but faith, that is the concern — and the faithful man in poor clothing is worth a dozen finely dressed but spiritually empty peacocks. It is very easy, after all, to put abig silver cross around your neck, to dress up like a Christian with a load of Christian bling — but that’s not what Jesus meant when he said, Take up your cross and follow me!

Our gospel passage today shows us Jesus himself submitting to this rule of not simply relying on appearance — however wonderful — but getting into action. What has immediately preceded the event recounted today is his transfiguration on the mountain, where he appeared to Peter and James and John on the mountainside, marvelously transfigured in raiment white and glistering: a preview of the resurrection for these chosen three. You will recall that Peter was so moved by this experience that he wanted to stay on the mountain. But Jesus brings them down, down to the midst of a city in turmoil, and to a clutch of the remaining disciples unable to cast out the evil spirit that has beset a child. And what does Jesus say to them? What does he call them? “You faithless generation.” The point is that they cannot do the work because they do not have the faith. “All things can be done,” Jesus assures them, “for the one who believes.” (Remember, Jesus had said that even a mustard seed of faith could move mountains!) But faith is needed before the work can be done — the inner strength must be there before the outward act can show what was within; there has to be gas in the tank in order for the engine to run; the seed precedes the tree.

The problem is, for whatever reason, even though they have seen Jesus perform many miracles, even though they have received his assurance that they too will do such things in his name, even though he has explicitly commissioned them to do such things as casting out demons — still, when he is away from then even for an afternoon, the disciples begin to have doubts, they begin to lose their faith, and so can no longer do the very works they have been given to do. Without faith, they can do nothing.

And are we any better? Do we not also sometimes lose our confidence? Do we not sometimes dress up as Christians even though our hearts aren’t in it? Do we not sometimes even let our doubts show? Do we not sometimes feel as if our Lord has gone off and left us on our own, leaving us with problems that make us feel helpless, not knowing what to do? Let’s be honest, folks — haven’t you felt that way sometimes?

And yet although Jesus may give us a stern look when we confess this fact, he will also smile upon us when we say that prayer that a father said so long ago, a father who turned to him for help to save his child when the disciples could do nothing. “I believe; help my unbelief!” For even this cry of need is in itself an act of faith — for who cries for help to one who can not give it? And by crying out to God even in our darkest moments, even in our weakest moments, we are placing the heart of our faith upon our sleeves — the heart of the faith which puts its trust in God, a faith which places its dearest needs in the hands of God who alone can deliver and save. This is true repentance, my friends — not just confessing our weakness, but turning to our Lord and God and calling for help.

We know that God will help us when we call out: that is the substance of our faith. We know that if he rebukes us with a harsh countenance from time to time, that as we confess our weakness so too his regard toward us will soften to a smile, and he will grant our request according to our need.

But remember — he demands the same of us. “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what good is that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” We are called, all of us, to be like God, who shows no partiality, called to fulfill that royal law, to love our neighbors as ourselves — not judging by mere outward appearances, not showing partiality, not refusing the cry of the poor and weak when they call out to us no less than we ourselves cry out to God — but bearing the fruit of good works nourished by a lively faith.

Help then, O Lord, our unbelief;
and may our faith abound,
to call on you when you are near
and seek where you are found;
that, when our life of faith is done,
in realms of clearer light
we may behold you as you are,
with full and endless sight.
(Henry Alford, Hymn 209)

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Not to fight

SJF • Proper 17b • Tobias S Haller BSG
Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand on that evil day, and having done everything, to endure.
We come this week to the last portion of Saint Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, from which we have been hearing readings over the last two months. He begins with that word beloved by congregations with long-winded preachers, “Finally.” There is an old saying that when an Anglican preacher says “Finally” you’re within moments of the end, but if it’s a Baptist don’t get your hopes up!

When Saint Paul uses this word, he does so in a double sense — not only is he coming to the end of his letter but he is also talking about a more important “finally,” the end of days. He is talking about the final struggle, the last battle, and how Christians are to be prepared, finally, for this conflict.

He begins by advising the people of Ephesus to put their trust in the Lord, and to put on the whole armor of God. God’s armor, mind; not human armor. For, as he assures them, the coming battle is not going to be against human foes — enemies of flesh and blood — but against the disembodied forces of evil that pervade and perfuse the very system of the world. It is not the evil of individual people, the wrong they do or the sins they commit, against which he calls the Christian to be armed. Rather, it is against the system of wrong, the structure of evil itself, that Paul calls the Christian to take a stand.

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What is this system of evil, the cosmic power of this present darkness? One of the TV shows I’ve enjoyed watching over the last few years is The Sopranos. If you’re not familiar with it, it is not about a choir; it’s about a New Jersey organized crime family — but rather than focusing simply on the criminal aspect, as many television programs and films have done in the past, this one shows the family side — not just the Family with a capital F, the Mafia, but the flesh and blood family of a crime boss and his wife and their two kids — and his girlfriends (for he is unfaithful)— and their aunts and uncles and nieces and nephews and cousins, the whole mob of them.

And one of the things that’s most fascinating about this world of organized crime is the extent to which those who inhabit it — these flesh and blood people — find themselves forced into doing things they really don’t want to do, things they wouldn’t do if they had the choice, and which aren’t even, in many cases, to their advantage, and which usually don’t make them happy. They are compelled to do these things because of the system in which they are trapped — the system of unwritten rules of respect and revenge, of blood and of honor, and that old Italian word vendetta.

The irony is that they are fully aware of this paradox, this entrapment in a system against which they struggle helplessly. One of them often amuses his cronies by doing an imitation of a character from one of their favorite films, The Godfather — and isn’t it odd that these supposedly real-life gangsters would spend their time watching gangster movies! — “Just when I thought I was out, they pulled me back in!” Flesh and blood cannot escape this system, even if they are bold enough to try. For the system is based on obligation. One of the phrases that comes up more than once in this series is, “Tony, you have to do this!” And what Tony Soprano has to do usually involves gunfire, an unscheduled trip to the pine barrens in the trunk of a Mercedes, or an impromptu burial at sea.

And so these organized criminals find themselves trapped in a system which brings them little joy and much suffering: unable to break free from the rules and obligations that create so much needless suffering and pain. Even Boss Tony’s wife, with her fabulous house and lavish jewelry, more than half the time looks like she’s smelling something bad. These folks have become slaves to the system that they thought would serve them, slaves to the rules that have become their rulers. They have learned too late that the system of the mob — in their case with a capital M — the system that allows one to do things one would fear to do alone, or have too many compunctions to do alone — the system of mob violence wreaks its own violence upon those who give themselves over to its systemic power.

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Our gospel reading today gives us a picture of a similar kind of bondage to a discipline, in a religious form. One might observe that organized crime and organized religion have one thing in common: organization! Both are systems. The Pharisees and scribes have enlarged the system, adding to the already compendious law of Moses, with their own interpretations and traditions. And they should not be entirely faulted for this; for the law of Moses was already over a thousand years old in their day, and had been conceived for nomadic, rural culture. Since that time great cities had been built, and many features of the law were no longer easily observed, so new interpretations had to be made. The problem is that in making these interpretations the Pharisees often strayed not only from the letter of the law but from its spirit.

Jesus reads them the riot act in today’s passage, when they cluck their tongues and shake their heads over the disciples eating without washing their hands first — and it is important to note that this is not about cleanliness but about a ritual form of handwashing that pious Pharisees performed before eating whether their hands were dirty or not.

For the Pharisees, no less than Tony Soprano, are so caught up in their rules and regulations, that they end up, as we know from how the gospel develops, plotting against Jesus because he is upsetting the system which governs their lives. The system, which was meant to bring holiness and awareness of God’s continual presence, has become instead a means to assail the Son of God himself. The system has become more important than the God it was intended to serve.

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By the time of Saint Paul, sacred and secular systems are hard at work against the infant church, synagogue and praetorium united against them, and Christians are being persecuted — some of them by their own sisters and brothers, parents or children, as Jesus had said would happen. The whole system of the world seems to be against the church: the rulers of the state, and the heads of the religious establishment. So Paul advises the Christians to take up the whole armor of God, to be able to stand on that evil day.

And note the most important thing he says — or rather, doesn’t say. The Christian is to put on all of this armor: the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shoes of the gospel of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the spirit. And yet, clothed in this whole-body armor, armed with this supernatural weapon — the Christian is not to fight, but to stand; and standing, to pray.

What Paul has learned — from his own experience of kicking against the goad until God struck him literally senseless — is that the only way to beat this system is to stop: to stand still and strong, armed and protected, but not fighting; not responding with anger against anger, with assault against assault, with vengeance taken for wrongs done, respect extracted for slights endured, but rather with endurance and witness and patience — hoping all things, bearing all things. This is the way to break the cycle of violence, to stop it once and for all by not giving in to the rules that say you have to have your compensation, you have to have your revenge, or “Tony, you have to do this.”

Finally — and I really am coming to the end — the strength to confront the powers of this world can only come from outside this world — the strength to stand against the system can only come from outside the system — for it is from within the system that all the trouble comes: fornication (by which Jesus means idolatry), theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, and folly. The system will keep on churning up this muck because that is all it can do, and the only way to avoid being pulled back in is to stand in God’s armor, and to pray. The only way to stop it is to stop, to break the cycle by refusing any longer to stay on the mad carnival ride that is the system of this world.

When one person, or a few people, are willing to stand up and say, “No more,” the world and its system can be brought to a halt. When one person, or a few, are willing to stand and endure, armed with God’s protective grace against all the forces that assail them, systems of evil can be overthrown — undone by their own corrupted powers.

So be strong, beloved in Christ, strong in God’s power and not your own; armed with truth and righteousness, shod with the gospel of peace; shielded by faith and crowned with salvation — and bearing God’s Word as your spiritual sword. Pray, sisters and brothers, pray, and persevere; for the battle belongs not to the strong or the fleet, but to those who stand and endure; in the Name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, henceforth and for ever more.+