Monday, February 27, 2006

Clash of Symbols

SJF • Epiphany 7b 2006 • Tobias S Haller BSG
You have not bought me sweet cane with money, or satisfied me with the fat of your sacrifices. But you have burdened me with your sins; you have wearied me with your iniquities. I, I am He who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.
Over the last weeks you can’t have helped but to hear of the violent reactions to political cartoons featuring the Prophet Mohammed published in a Danish newspaper, and since widely reprinted. The violence in response to these cartoons has led to considerable property damage and even the loss of several lives. Some American and European critics — including many Muslims — have noted that the rioters are only ratifying the accusation of one of the cartoons, the one showing the Prophet’s head as if it were a bomb.

But before we Christians in American become too comfortable upon our high horses, clucking our tongues at what many see as the over-reactions of religious extremists, we would do well first to recall how we behave when our own cherished symbols are abused or defamed.

It is no secret that Americans react strongly to the burning of the American flag, and some support legal restrictions to defend this symbol as if it were more than fabric — as if it were the fabric of our country itself.

Or you may recall the to-do not so many years ago when a figure of a crucified woman was exhibited in the Cathedral as part of the UN Decade of the Woman — not as a religious symbol but as a metaphor for the depth of suffering women have endured down through the ages. This sculpture — which was not in a chapel but in an art exhibit — was denounced by some as blasphemous and monstrous.

New Yorkers don’t have to go very far to find something blasphemous if they want to — you may recall the offensive photograph of a crucifix in jar of human waste that was put on display in a deliberately provocative exhibit in lower Manhattan, or the painting of the Madonna daubed with elephant dung that hung in the Brooklyn Museum, and the outrage and protests that followed — not as violent as those against the Danish embassies, but just as angry.

Symbols are powerful, even if their power derives only from our own desire to honor them, or be disturbed at their dishonor. But when we give them this power, and react in this way, do we not come perilously close to violating the purpose for which the law against such images and symbols was given? When God spoke from Sinai and said that we were not to make graven images, it was to the end that they not become the objects of worship. God said, “You shall not make graven images; you shall not bow down before them or worship them.”

So when the Muslim rages at the insult to an image of the Prophet, when the patriot protests the burning of the flag, when the Christian seethes at the sight of a sacred symbol defaced or defamed, have these things not become, to some extent, idols?


As you know, I am an iconographer, in my spare time — which I don’t have much of these days! I find it a helpful devotion to “write” icons in the time-honored technique of tempered pigment on a wood and plaster base, and we have a number of them here in the church. In our day we tend to take such sacred images for granted. But in the eighth century, there was a protest against such icons, in which the “iconoclasts” (as they were called) argued that such images were idols. The defenders of the icons said that they were reminders of the truly holy — and that the honor paid to them was not intended for the wood and pigment, but for the one who was represented by these physical means. Any honor given to the icon was transferred to the person portrayed in it.

And therein lies the connection: the symbol is the transmitter of honor to the thing symbolized. And so it is the same with dishonor. This is part of the reason so many are so upset about the abuse of such images of the Prophet, the nation, or of God, for the insult to the thing of paper, wood or cloth is somehow transferred to the sacred reality which cannot be portrayed.

But might it not be even worse? When anger steps up to rage, when disagreement flares to violence — is this telling us that there is more at work? Is it a dangerous overstepping into a twisted form worship — have these physical representations themselves become so sacred that we dare not offer them an insult, or tolerate anyone else doing so? Have they indeed become idols?


In his novel, Silence, the Japanese Christian author Shusaku Endo describes the terrible era of religious persecution in feudal Japan. The Shogun had invited Christians into the country, but as this new religion began to take hold, he began to be see it asapolitical threat, and instituted a vicious crackdown, including the torture and crucifixion of many Christians. In the novel, a Portuguese priest is forced to make a terrible decision. In order to prevent further torture and execution of the converts in his flock, the magistrate demands that the priest, the leader of that congregation, publicly defame an image of Christ. A bronze plaque is nailed to a piece of wood, expressly designed and created for this purpose — to show one has abandoned the faith by trampling upon it. If the priest does this, it will destroy his authority in the community. But if he does this, the magistrate tells him, the flock will go free, and those who have been tortured will be given medicine for their wounds. If not, they will continue to be tortured and crucified.

As the priest gazes on this image of Christ lying at his feet, he weighs the matter in his heart and mind. Should he do this to save their lives? He looks into the eyes of the bronze image. It is not beautiful as conventional beauty goes: it is the ugly and tortured face of the crucified Christ, the one who bears the sins of the world. He regards it in all of its vulnerability, until finally he chooses to save the flock at the cost of his own position as a leader, even as a Christian. As Endo puts it:

The priest raises his foot. In it he feels a dull, heavy pain. This is no mere formality. He will now trample on what he has considered the most beautiful thing in his life, on what he has believed most pure, on what is filled with the ideals and dreams of man. How his foot aches! And then the Christ in bronze speaks to the priest: “Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.”

Who is our God? What is our nation? Who are our prophets? If they cannot bear an insult — or if we cannot bear the insults given to their shadows, their images in paper, wood, and paint — are they what they seem to be, and are we? Have they become idols and we idolaters indeed?

God in Christ bears the shame heaped upon him by those who know not what they do; God in Christ bears the pain inflicted upon all of his images — not just the ones of wood and bronze, of pigment and plaster and paint, but the truly important ones, the true likenesses, the ones of flesh and blood: the brothers and sisters demeaned and defamed day by day in this fallen world of idols. As we do it to the least of them, we do it to the one whose image they bear.

For we have not worshiped him as we ought to have — giving thanks for all he gives, the flowing springs and the food in due season, which we humans are too self-obsessed, to caught up in our own idolatries, to appreciate. We have not brought him our offerings, but rather continue to burden him with our sins, wearying him with our iniquities. When we see healing and forgiveness come from an unlikely quarter to someone we might think not worthy, we cry out, “It is blasphemy!” as readily as we do when things don’t go our way, or when our cherished idols are insulted.

Yet he bears it all — he who has the power to forgive all of our sins because he bears all of our sins. He blots out our transgressions for his own sake, and no longer remembers our sins any more. He bears it all, saying to us, “Trample — for this is what I came to do, to bear the sins of humankind, who know not what they do.”

Such is the sacrifice and love of God, that he allows us to tread and trample in our ignorance and in our folly. He will bear with us when we err, and forgive us when we sin, and free us from the paralysis that binds us.


He has done this, and he will do it. His capacity to forgive far exceeds our capacity to sin. But need we put him to this test? How much better, dear sisters and brothers, how much better to live as he would have us live, to give our God some rest from the need constantly to suffer, some respite from the sins that make him mourn: to respect and reverence one another — to hold dear the precious images of God who surround us everywhere we turn, the men and women and children who are the members of God’s family, and treat them as God would have us do. How much better to respect one another’s traditions and beliefs — to challenge them if we must, but with humility and in the knowledge that we too make mistakes.

As it took four strong friends to carry that paralyzed man and let him down through the roof, we too need each other to find the way to the healing that is offered, to free us from the paralysis that binds us to our dearest idols. Let us work together, friends, ripping off the roof if need be, to do God’s will in this as in all else. May God help us to turn from wrong and insult, from clinging to idols towards mutual respect for God’s true likeness in each other, in forbearance and righteousness. When in the power of Godthis healing comes, all will rejoice and glorify God, and say, “We have never seen anything like this!”

Thursday, February 09, 2006

It is Well with my Soul

SJF • Epiphany 5b 2006 • Tobias S Haller BSG
The man of God said to his servant, “Look, there is the Shunammite woman. Run at once to meet her, and say to her, Are you all right? Is your husband all right? Is the child alright? She answered, It is all right.”
I don’t know about you, but somehow that modern translation doesn’t quite ring in my ears the way the old one did: “Is it well with you? Is it well with your husband? Is it well with the child? She answered, It is well.”

But whether “all right” or “well” — what a strange thing to say — given the fact this woman’s child has just dropped dead out in the field, and is now lying cold and still in the little room that she and her husband had prepared for the holy man. As she is quick to remind the prophet, she didn’t ask for this child; it was a gift God gave her, which he then seemed to snatch away. Yet still she trusts, still she says, It is well. And therein lies her great faith.

For her trip to see the man of God isn’t simply a trip to the complaint department, a chance to berate this man of God, and God himself, for having deceived her by giving her a wonderful gift and then snatching it away. If a desire to say “I told you so” is all she is up to, we would hardly remember her story today. No, she has a greater cause and a greater hope than this, for her trip to the man of God is not simply to complain but to appeal. And she will not be denied. When she says, “It is well,” she is making a radical affirmation of trust, trust that God doesn’t play this kind of game, and that God will do something to set this situation right. This is her trust and her faith.

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I almost titled this sermon, “Be careful what you don’t ask for.” This woman doesn’t ask for this child — it’s the servant Gehazi’s idea. She doesn’t ask for this child to be born, and yet he is born. And when he is stricken and taken from her, she appeals to the man of God, and throughhim to God himself — to restore what has been taken from her — the life of this child — even though she never asked for him to be born.

But who of us asks to be born? Who of us can ask to be given the gift of life before we have received it? And who of us can ask for our own life to be restored after we have lost it? When we lie, each of us someday, still and cold — in a small upper room, in a hospital or hospice bed, alone or surrounded by our family, it will not be for any of us to say, Let me be restored. But it may be for us, my beloved brothers and sisters in Christ, to have said those other important words: it is well with my soul.

It is well: these are the words of faith, the faith that knows that whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s — that even when we sleep in death there is a restoration yet to come, not merely a restoration to this transitory life, this life of aches and pains, of suffering and weakness — even if it is also a life of joy. No, it is well — because the restoration that is to come is assured by the same Lord who gave us our being at the beginning. The Lord who formed our souls and implanted them and brought them to life, is the same Lord who will raise our corruptible body from death. So we can say with confidence, It is well, it is well with my soul.

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Our gospel passage today shows us why this trust is well-founded in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ — even though we do fall sick, even though we continue to perish and die — still it is well. For our gospel shows us, that even though Jesus does cure Simon’s mother-in-law of her fever, and cures many who are sick with various diseases in that town — still, at the end of that day, after spending the night in prayer, he speaks plainly to his disciples, telling them that his mission is not simply to heal a few people here or there, but rather to set in motion the great saving message that will reach to the four corners of the world — for that, as he says, is what he came out to do.

The mission of Jesus and his church, although it includes caring for the sick and the suffering, does not limit itself to this gracious and important task: the mission of the church is not merely for the bodies of the few sick it can reach, but for the soul of the whole world which it can embrace. The church works and strives in its mission, and reaches out in the knowledge that even if we cannot heal every sick person, or save every injured person, yet still — it is well! It is well because in spite of death and injury, God reigns. It is well because in spite of suffering and loss, Jesus lives — and in him we too will live and reign for ever.

This is the testimony of faith that we hold as Christians, faith like that of the woman from Shunem. We do not ask for the gift of life before we are born, nor — once it is gone — can we of our own efforts call it back. And yet, it is well, it is well with my soul. For we know that our Redeemer lives, and that at the last he shall stand, and with our own eyes we shall behold him, who is our Savior and our Lord, and who is on our side as Mediator and Advocate. This is nothing less than the hope and faith in the resurrection unto eternal life — not the mere recovery from illness that we all might hope for when we fall sick or wounded — but the restoration to new life that can only come when the seed that is planted perishes and the new life springs up green and fresh from the earth. And as Saint Paul assures us: the new life will not be like the old, but incomparably greater.

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Let me close with a true tale that ties all of this together. In 1873, Mrs. Anna Spafford and her four small daughters sailed for France. In the middle of the Atlantic, tragedy struck, and the ship on which they were sailing was rammed by another vessel that split the ship in two. The terrified mother and her children were swept into the sea, as the ship sank beneath the waves. Fifty-seven people survived the disaster, and Mrs. Spafford was among them. But when she reached port, it was her sad duty to send a cable to her husband, Horatio, back in Chicago, a simplenote consisting of two terrible words: “Saved alone.” Horatio set sail to bring his wife home, he too crossing the Atlantic; and it was on that ship, as it sailed over the waters in which his four children had drowned, that he sat in his cabin and wrote the words to an immortal hymn:

When peace like a river attendeth my way,

When sorrows like sea-billows roll,

Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say;

“It is well, it is well with my soul.”
Now, you might think that was the end of the story. But it isn’t. The Spaffords had two more children, a son and a daughter — yet tragedy seemed to dog their path as the little boy perished from scarlet fever when only three years old. It was then that this unhappy couple chose to travel to the Middle East, to Jerusalem. Spafford wrote to a close friend, “Jerusalem is where my Lord lived, suffered and conquered, and I, too, wish to learn how to live, suffer and, especially, to conquer.”

So it was that late in 1881, the Spaffords became founding members of what would come to be known as the “American Colony,” in the Old City of Jerusalem.

And in the city that saw Christ’s resurrection, a different kind of rising came about: for in the Spafford’s home, expanded and growing with wing upon wing added, for years after, and even up to this day, a refuge for sick and orphan children was created and thrives: the Spafford Children’s Center. New life came from death.

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Is it well with you? Is it well with your husband? Is it well with the child? It is well. It is well with many children today because the Spaffords — in the power of faith and following the example of their Lord — turned their tragedy to good. It is well with the souls of many today because God gives us the power to turn to the light he gives, in the hope he offers, for the ends he desires. It is well with my soul, my friends, for he has taught me to know it, and to say it. And I trust that you will join me in this, now and for years to come, to place your trust and faith in our Lord and God, who raised Jesus Christ from the dead and who will raise us too! It is well, my friends — it is well, it is well with my soul!+