Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The Baby Who Bears

Christmas Eve 2007 • SJF • Tobias Haller BSG
For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders.+

How much can a baby bear? This is a question for all parents in the congregation, and for older brothers and sisters who may have been drafted to babysit when a new arrival came. How much can a baby bear? Well, if you know babies as I know babies (being the oldest of six children and often drafted as a babysitter) you know that babies are not the most patient sort of people.

But they are among the most honest. You know where you stand with a baby; you don’t have to guess; their intentions and opinions are unmistakable. When a baby is wet, or hungry, or colicky, the baby will let you know. Babies are among the fussiest of people, so when I ask, How much can a baby bear? the answer would appear to be, Not much!

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Yet tonight, this special night, we are told once more, as people have been told for two and a half thousand years, of the arrival of a baby who would bear everything, a baby who would take upon himself the whole weight of a fallen world. This little baby would take up the yoke of our burden, the bar from across our shoulders, and carry it with authority and ease — this amazing baby with the amazing names: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace, Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior.

What a burden for a tiny child to carry! What a weight of responsibility to place upon a baby. And it would be, if this were just any baby. But this is not just any baby. This baby is special, marked as different from the very beginning. He was marked as different from any other newborn child, by wonders on the earth and signs in the heavens above: angels singing, stars shining, dreams and visions. But he was also marked as different by a very special sign, a sign that tells us volumes about who this baby was.

The wise men from the East were given a sign in keeping with their station. Eastern sages would naturally seek a sign in the stars, and so they received a suitably high-class, stellar guide to lead them to the child. But we’ll hear more about that in two weeks.

For tonight, we’re not dealing with eastern sages so impressive they came to be known as kings. No, tonight we’re dealing with simple shepherds, and the message, the sign, that they receive. The angels gave the shepherds a distinguishing mark to identify this one baby from among any others born that night in the overcrowded town of Bethlehem. And the sign was this: — he would not be lying in a decent cradle, in a decent house, warm and cozy by the fireside, but be found wrapped in pieces of cloth and lying in a manger.

You know, we hardly ever hear the word manger except at Christmas, so we tend to forget what a manger is. Let’s be blunt, as blunt as the Gospel: at his birth our Lord and Savior was wrapped in pieces of cloth and lying in a feed-trough in a barn. The sign the shepherds received was one they would recognize: the child would be like one of them, living rough, out in the cold. How much can a baby bear? This baby bore far more than most newborn children would put up with, right from the beginning; just as, when grown to manhood, he would bear far more than the sons of men are accustomed to accept.

That yoke of our burden, that bar across our shoulders, would become a cross this child would bear when grown to full estate. As Paul told Titus, “He it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify for himself a people of his own...” How much can a baby bear? This baby would bear the sins of the whole world!

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Chuck Colson is a man who knows about sin, and about redemption. As you know, he was one of Tricky Dick Nixon’s henchmen in the Watergate fiasco, and he went to prison for his part in the plot. As you may also know, he experienced a change of heart and turned his life around, and became a spokesman for the power of God at work in us. I certainly don’t agree with everything he stands for, but on this we agree: God can work wonders even with unlikely material.

In his book Kingdoms in Conflict, he tells of that power of God at work in a child — and I want to share that story with you tonight as a challenge and a testimony: that if a child can show forth the power of God, surely we can do so too. In December 1983, in the city of Philadelphia an 11-year-old named Trevor Ferrell saw on the TV news a report on homelessness in his own city. He was astounded to learn that some people don’t have houses to live in. He asked his parents about this, and they admitted it was a tough world out there, but also agreed that their young son should learn more about it if he wished. So they drove downtown. As they drove past city hall, they saw someone huddled over a sidewalk grate for warmth. Think of that — just a block away from the seat of power and authority in one of the great cities of this great country, a man has to huddle over a sidewalk grate to keep warm, snatching at the shreds of second-hand warmth that ooze from underground — heat so little needed by the city it can afford to just let it leak out into the cold night.

Trevor asked his parents to stop and he went over to the man, and held out a blanket to him, saying, “Sir, this is for you.” Then man looked with some surprise, and then, taking the blanket, said, “Thank you; God bless you.”

This was a life-changing experience for that family. Over the next weeks, they continued nightly visits downtown, helping out a few people each time — and clearing their home of unused blankets and clothing. Word began to spread, and other people joined them, contributing a van and food and more clothes. What had started with one little boy became a campaign. Lots of people were fascinated by it and drawn to it — odd, isn’t it, that just doing what Jesus said we should do should make the news and attract so much attention. But it did. And when the likes ofMother Teresa and Ronald Reagan heard about it and asked the boy why he did it, the answer was simple and obvious Trevor said, “It’s Jesus inside me that makes me want to do it.”

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Well, if an 11-year-old from Philadelphia can do so much with Jesus inside of him, how much more can and did the Son of God incarnate himself, in human flesh appearing! That little body, that little baby, lying in a feed-trough in the middle of winter, out in the barn behind the inn with “No Vacancy” plastered to the door — that little body, that little baby, embodies all the past of a struggling, fallen humanity, and all the hope of deliverance for the future. The newborn Christ is like the narrow point of an hourglass — small and fragile, connecting the sins of the past with the hope of the future. He is the point at which all that’s been said and done for good or ill is narrowed down to rest upon his shoulders, to be carried forward in sacrifice and grace, to be borne up in endless possibilities. This is why the Christ Child is the center of hope: he is the present upon which both past and future rest, like the two arms of a balance beam, or a yoke, or the arms of the cross.

How much can a baby bear? This baby, this Christ Child, can bear us all in his everlasting arms. And even as we are held by him, so too he is held by us, inside of us, as little Trevor said, in our hearts to warm us and work his power in us. So let us then, beloved in Christ, be born anew this Christmas night; let us lay the grief of the past upon the shoulders of this Wonderful Counselor, this Mighty God, this Prince of Peace; let us feel his warmth in our hearts, and not keep it to ourselves, but open our hearts to others, and our closets and pantries and pocketbooks and wallets — to help all of those our sisters and brothers who share in Christ’s image but have yet to share in the bounty we enjoy; and let us look toward the dawn of a new birth of hope, of joy, and of believing in him — who is the only-begotten of his heavenly Father, even Jesus Christ our Lord.+

Monday, December 24, 2007

The Human Sign

Saint James Fordham • Advent 4a • Tobias Haller BSG

The Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, “Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.”

In the days before the Internet, before television, and long before they started showing commercials in movie theaters, one of the most effective and common kinds of advertisement was called “the sandwich board.” Nowadays sandwich boards have returned with their original purpose, whiteboards or blackboards standing like little A-frames outside of restaurants with the specials of the day written in chalk or multi-colored marker.

Once long ago, some unknown restauranteur got the bright idea to make this fixed sign mobile, and for a few dollars a day, hired a man to wear this sign over his shoulders, and walk up and down the crowded street. No doubt the first few times this happened people were astonished and took notice, and even followed this odd human signpost back to the restaurant for lunch or dinner. But eventually, as more and more cafes took up the idea, and the streets became as crowded with human signposts as with potential customers, the effectiveness wore off, and sandwich boards went back to their place by the doorway.

Although I must confess that just a few weeks ago I encountered someone, not with a sandwich-board, but holding an old fashioned sign on a stick, on the corner of Fifty-Second Street, pointing the way to Hamburger Heaven hidden half-way down the block. (And the hamburgers were heavenly! But I’d never have known about the restaurant without that sign on a stick.)

I noticed the sign chiefly because it was unusual. Most places have given up on the “walking” sandwich board or the hand-held sign. We’ve seen the same kind of fading effect with the banner ads that appear on websites and intrude into our e-mail. The more we see them, the more they become a nuisance, and finally a bore, so that we hardly even see them anymore. We employ other software to prevent their even appearing! And as with the passing of the sandwich boards, new means of advertising have to be sought out. Just as the human signposts of the last century were soon out of work again, so too the internet ad companies struggle and founder to find new ways to purvey their virtual wares.

This is one of the inherent problems in advertising, and with signs of any sort. They may catch our attention at first, but after a while we become used to them, become bored by them, so that they cease being signs — that is, being significant — and just become a blur in the background.

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And yet still we long for signs. There are few things worse than being lost out on the road, map in hand, but without a single street sign to let you know where you are, so that you can use the map to find out how to get where you want to be. You know those signs in shopping malls— the ones that are so helpful because the first thing they show, the first thing you look for, is that all-important arrow and the words “You Are Here” — words that show you where you are so that you can figure out how to get to where you want to go. And with the increasing use of Tom-Toms and Garmins and other such electronic GPS marvels, we can carry around an electronic map that always shows us to be at the center of a virtual world, and will even tell us where to go!

God knows we long for such signs, signs that tell us where we are, to help us find the way to where we want to be. This is so not just in our ordinary daily life but in our spiritual journey as well. If only there were a GPS that monitored our spiritual location and told us how to get to where we needed to be!

God knows just how much we need such pointers on the way, so much so that once long, long ago, God commanded King Ahaz of Judah, worried half to death over the new alliance between Syria and Israel to his north, to ask for a sign from the Lord his God. When Ahaz refused to ask, God said through the prophet Isaiah that God himself would provide a sign. And this sign would not be a wonder of fire from the heavens, nor a pillar of smoke arising from the depths of the earth, but something different, something human, a human sign. A young woman, already pregnant, would have a child, and give him the singular name Immanuel, which means “God is with us.” And before that child would be old enough to reject evil and choose good, God would deal with Israel and Syria by bringing disaster upon them in the form of the king of Assyria, who would destroy them both and carry their inhabitants off to exile.

Now, this human sign must have been just as, if not more, startling than walking sandwich boards the first time they appeared, and for precisely the same reason. We are not used to human signs. In those days people were used to signs made of stone or wood or cast metal, as much as we now are used to signs made up of lights or flashing on the screens of our computers or the GPS on the dashboard. We are not used to signs made of human flesh and blood.

But this was precisely the sort of sign that God chose to give to King Ahaz, the sign of the infant who would not be grown out of childhood before the world would radically change and two kingdoms fall. And more importantly for us, this is the sort of sign that God chose to give again some seven hundred years later, a sign to another Judean faced with doubts, though of a more domestic nature, but a sign that would be as high above Joseph’s worries as those concerns were below the affairs of state that so sorely troubled King Ahaz.

For Joseph’s concern with Mary was of a private, household nature: he had discovered his wife-to-be was pregnant. Being a kind-hearted man — but no fool — he had decided to deal with the matter quietly, saving her and her parents, and himself, serious embarrassment. Yet within this little domestic drama in first century Palestine, a story so low-key it would scarcely make the cut in a modern soap opera, within this family drama God suddenly enters in, raising it from domestic to cosmic. For the angel of the Lord appears to Joseph to tell him that this is no ordinary human situation. No, this is quite extraordinary — nothing less than the power of God made real in human flesh. This is completely unexpected and unusual — nothing less than the entry of the Holy Spirit into the daily lives of men and women through the actions of ordinary men and women, and most especially through the birth and life of one extraordinary child who would grow to become an extraordinary man. And they would call him Emmanuel — God is with us — and they would name him Jesus — Savior!

So it was that God, who once spoke in visions and celestial signs, in this latter age spoke to us in person — in a person, his own beloved Son, begotten of a woman through the power of the Holy Spirit, born to be God with us, and to save us from our sins. God in Christ marks the world with an indelible sign: You are Here, because he is “God with us,” and he shows us how to get to where we need to go, because he is the Way, the Way who leads us in peace to salvation.

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So it is that we have received a sign from the hand of God, but not a sign fixed to one place like the signs outside of restaurants. This is a sign that moves where it wills and reaches us wherever we may be — it is the very spiritual GPS I spoke of before, the thing we most need when we stray from the path. And guess what — we all got one for Christmas. It is right here in our hearts, if we will let Christ in; and if we listen to his voice, he will tell us how to follow him. This is a sign that seeks us out and finds us to tell us that there is something to eat and drink of which we did not know. There is food for salvation, there is a table spread and places set for us, and we need do no more than follow this human sign back to the banquet, the festival meal of those called to be saints.

On this final Sunday of Advent, just on the eve of Christmas Eve, we begin to get the glimmer of that human sign’s arrival. Christmas is almost here. Let us not in the bustle of the packages and wrapping paper, in the shower of credit card bills that suddenly appear out of nowhere in the new year, in the crowd of myriad Santa Clauses and the preponderance of reindeers, amidst the trifling whimsey of elves and the militant cheerfulness of insistent jingle bells — let us not in the midst of this sensory overload neglect or overlook the one important sign that God has given us, that human sign, that infant sign, the sign of the child born in Bethlehem, born to be God with us, and to save us from our sins.+

Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Waiting Game

St James Fordham • Advent 3a • Tobias Haller BSG
The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains.+

This Sunday has a nickname, a nickname that has been around for a long time. “Rejoice Sunday” — or, in Latin, “Gaudete.” This Sunday is the Advent opening parenthesis that will find its mate next spring in Lent’s “Laetare” — or “Be happy” — Sunday; the pair of them sending a message not unlike Anglican songster Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” Into the midst of this royal purple season of Advent, a rosy intrusion makes its way, and the day takes on a rose-tinged hue — including the vestments. We are given a verbal and visual command: Lighten up! We set aside for a moment the stern admonitions of John the Baptist, calls to repent and flee the coming wrath of God. And we turn to a gentler vision of a more upbeat world to come, a world foreseen by the prophet Isaiah, a world whose reality began to take shape in the ministry of Jesus, a world in which blind people see, lame folk walk, lepers are cleansed, deaf people hear, dead people are raised, and the poor hear the good news.

This is the lighter side of Advent, the rose-colored glasses view of the life of the world to come: a laid-back, sunny afternoon kind of Advent, fresh with the surprising fragrance and color of a rose blooming on the verge of winter, the thirst-quenching miracle of a spring appearing and welling up in the middle of the desert of our lives.

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But there is another nickname for this Sunday, and it captures the other side of the Advent spirit. This Sunday is also known as “Stir up” Sunday, because of the phrase in the collect of the day: “Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us.” Now, that’s a more familiar kind of Advent, the Advent of breathless expectation, of the imminent nearness of the Lord’s coming. As Saint James says in today’s epistle, “the coming of the Lord is near... the judge is standing at the doors!” and it’s as if the door has opened and a sudden draft of frigid air has invaded the cozy warmth of our living room, setting the candles to flickering, and causing us to draw our scarves up around our shoulders.

The warning of our Lord’s impending arrival is likely to cause that shiver up the neck that is the unmistakable sign of the presence of the Holy. It is the physical intimation that the tremendous and mysterious is just around the corner, or standing just outside, knocking at our door.

However, lest we jump immediately to our feet, Saint James, somewhat paradoxically, also tells us to be patient. “Be patient, beloved, until the coming of the Lord.” So it is that on this Sunday we find ourselves caught in the middle, in the world of “already but not yet.” This is the paradoxical time of the church on earth; the in-the-mean-time, in-between time, the time between our Lord’s first coming and his second.

On this Sunday we are reminded that we are the Church Expectant as much as Militant: the Waiting Church, the Watching Church, who knows it has an appointment with its Master, but doesn’t know the date. And the advice James gives us, to be patient in the midst of anticipation, might seem a bit like the old army slogan: “Hurry up and wait.” Until, that is, we look more closely at the kind of waiting, the kind of patience, that Saint James advises.

The patient waiting that Saint James counsels is not mind-numbing waiting in lines at city hall, the bank, or the crowded shop in which everyone wants to pay with an expired credit card or with a check but no i.d.! It is not the anxious waiting by the telephone or the mailbox for a long-delayed but promised call or letter. No, the waiting patience Saint James counsels is the patience of a farmer waiting for crops to grow. “The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains.” That’s a very different kind of patience, a very special kind of patience, the patience of expectation, the patience of hope. For hopeful expectation is not merely waiting, it is waiting with a purpose and for a promise, a promise not of what we will do, but a promise of what will be done for us.

The purpose of a farmer’s wait, as well as its promise, is the crop. The farmer is purposeful in preparing for the crop, and looks to the promise of the harvest on the basis of his past work — the work of planting, and on the basis of God’s present and future work, the work of growth, nurtured through the sending of the early and late rains to nourish the seed as it lies in hiding underground and mysterious. There, in hidden darkness, it sends out roots long before the green blade spears its way through the clods of soil, and the miraculous sprouts of spring reveal what has been going on beneath the earth; and then on through the growth and ripening of summer to produce a crop a hundred-fold greater than the mere handfuls strewn upon the soil the year before. And this work of waiting, this waiting game, takes patience. It takes hope and confidence and trust — confidence and trust in the knowledge that while nothing may appear on the surface of the field until spring comes, that long before, throughout the patient waiting winter, God’s secret work is being done underground.

Nothing could be unhappier than an impatient farmer, a farmer without purpose or promise, a farmer who just can’t wait! This is a lesson that we human beings learned in the age of our innocence, when impatient Adam and Eve plucked the fruit of wisdom before its time, and learned by the sweat of their brows the hard truths of agriculture. For as human beings moved from being hunter-gatherers to farmers they began to develop for the first time a sense of time itself — and with it, the limits of their mortality.

For agriculture requires foresight and patience, it moves with the seasons, it marks the times of the rising and the setting of the sun and the waxing and waning of the moon; and takes account of the early and the late rains. When human beings took that step in their cultural development, they also took a step into a world in which time took on a different sort of meaning, a meaning with which they were engaged at the level of their own survival.

For a farmer who wants a crop come harvest time must plant at planting time, not the day before the harvest. And the wise farmer must plan to make use of the seasonal rains, working to intersect and mesh with the workings of the cosmos, the seasonal changes of the climate, the very movements of the heavens and the earth.

So the waiting game is part of the farmer’s job, not incidental to the task. Imagine an impatient farmer digging up the seeds to check their roots, or, when the wheat first pokes through the soil, grabbing hold of it to make it grow by tugging on it! All that farmer will do is damage and destroy the crop. The wise farmer is patient and knows that the work of growth takes time, and that there are other things to be busy with while waiting for the crop to sprout, grow, and ripen.

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We too, the Church of God, are in the waiting game as well. We sow the seed of the word of God in the fertile soil of the world, a world hungry for the bread of the good news, hungry for spiritual nourishment, but impatient and demanding in its clamorous hunger. Some religious leaders in our world respond with similar haste and impatience. And it isn’t only terrorists who push God’s hand as they imagine they can hasten God’s judgement, or fanatical cultists who seek to speed the day of the Lord with nerve gas or bacteria.

Some even in our own Anglican tradition have fallen into the impatience of haste, the urge to take upon themselves the mantle of the just judge, to purify the world (or the Anglican Communion, at least) by getting rid of those deemed less than righteous by their standards, who use the word of God not to feed the spiritually hungry, but as a hammer to batter those they judge as sinful. In doing this they have neglected the wisdom of Saint James. He warned the members of the church not to judge each other, not to grumble against each other, but to stand patiently before the tribunal of the Lord, the only truly and completely righteous one, the one and only just judge of the world.

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This is the Advent time in which we live, the secret, growing, waiting time of the Church. We live in the in-between time of purpose and promise, the time between the coming of our Lord as a child to Bethlehem, and his coming as righteous judge of the world and all who dwell in it. Whether we experience this in-between time as frustrating because we don’t see anything happening, or not happening fast enough, or as full of purpose and promise will depend in large part on our relationship with God and with each other.

If we are full of the spirit of vengeance, the zeal for judgement, we will find the waiting difficult. If we are full of the impatience that will not allow the subterranean work of God to accomplish God’s goals in God’s good time, if — obsessed with self-study and self-examination — we insist on digging up and digging up the seed to see how well it is doing, so that it never gets a chance to put down roots and grow; if we become consumed with grumbling about each other, judging each other, or angrily tapping our feet at God’s delay and forbearance, we will find our lives filled with anxiety and grief. But if we adopt the patient hope of the wise farmer’s waiting, placing our trust in God’s ultimate victory over all that is less than perfect even in our selves, indeed most especially in ourselves, if we carefully set our hands to our work of husbandry and watchful care, concentrating on the work God has actually given us to do — to feed the hungry with earthly and heavenly bread — we will find at harvest time a rich reward.

We will find that all the things we thought were wrong have been taken care of — by God. We will find that the people we thought so dense and dull, so blind they couldn’t see what was right in front of them, will see clearly — and we ourselves will see things that we missed while we were busy picking splinters from our brother’s eyes.

We will find that we can walk in places we had once avoided, or that we thought off-limits, and that those who couldn’t walk at all are dancing in the streets to music we didn’t even know was playing.

We will find that all the people thought impure, all the afflicted and all the stigmatized, will be freed from the marks of separation that distinguished the in-crowd from the outcasts, and no one will be able to tell who was who, we will all be so changed, so transformed into a new likeness.

We will find that those who seemed deaf to God’s word will be the most attentive audience of all; and we will find that all of us, dead in our sins, will be more alive than we ever dreamed or imagined possible, as we sing and rejoice together at the harvest of the good news, a harvest as paradoxical as a spring flowing in the desert, as unexpected as the blooming of a rose on the verge of winter, as miraculous as the birth of God in a manger or in our hearts. +

Monday, December 03, 2007

Fire Insurance

Saint James Fordham • Advent 1a • Tobias Haller BSG
You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to awake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near.+

“You know what time it is.” With these words, Saint Paul assures the Romans that the cosmic alarm clock has gone off, it is time to wake up; that the night is far gone and the day is near, by which he means the day of the Lord. And every three years, as the church works through its cycle of Scripture readings, we hear these same words on the First Sunday of Advent.

Immediate urgency is the theme of Advent, whose watchword is Watch! Wake up! Be on your toes! But because we hear these words of warning over and over year by year, we risk losing the sense of immediate urgency they are intended to convey. The events of the last few years have shown us that we had best indeed be on our toes — who would have thought that such a terrifying apocalypse would come falling upon us from the skies one sunshine-bright and peaceful Tuesday morning in September? And yet we risk becoming complacent, as the government continues to issue vague warnings about possible terrorist attacks, color coded but unexplained, with no specifics as to when and where or what or how. And our weariness at being constantly on the yellow or orange alert causes us to lower our defenses instead of raising them, and we become numb instead of sensitized.

We risk the same with Saint Paul’s message, and the even more chilling message of the gospel. We risk falling into a spirit of complacency because, after all, these warnings were given 2,000 years ago and nothing’s happened yet — or so we think. But look at the horror of the Gospel message, and see if it doesn’t relate to how you felt that Tuesday morning six years ago; see if it doesn’t awaken some of that feeling of terror.

People are going about their lives, minding their own business, just as in Noah’s day. They are busy at their places of work, in the field or in the home. And then the attack comes, the attack from on high, and the mortality rate is fifty percent, one of every two is taken! Doesn’t that fill you with dread, dread of the judgment ready to fall and you haven’t got your case in order; dread of the fire to come, and you don’t have fire insurance?

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Well, brothers and sisters, the good news in all of this is that we do have fire insurance, fire insurance against the judgment and against the fire of hell. It is the fire insurance that Saint Paul describes as the armor of light. With this armor we can fight fire with fire, fight the fire of hell with the fire of love. For the fire of love burns hotter and brighter and longer than the fire of hate and evil. The fire of love is fed by the power of God, the power of Love which fulfills the Law that spelled out death and judgement for us in letters of stone; the fire of love that transforms the dead letter of the Law into the living spirit of action and charity.

It is by the firelight of love that we stay awake and watch for the coming of our Lord. We keep that fire burning, that protecting light that keeps at bay the monsters of the night, the evil that seeks our hurt and harm, the evil that dwells in the darkness of human hearts, including our own. It is into that darkness that the light of the fire of love must shine if we are to be armed and ready with the armor of light in the strength of Christ, to be prepared for his coming. For the fire of love does not just illuminate, it cleanses and purifies and protects.

When a forest fire threatens to destroy a town, what do the brave fire rangers do? We saw them do it just a few months ago out west. It is something that seems illogical at first: they start another fire! They lay down a new fire in the path of the fire they want to stop, a controlled fire to burn up the fuel and create a barrier against the uncontrolled fire that is threatening to destroy the town. This is how you fight fire with fire, fight the fire of hate and hell with the fiery armor of light, the fire of love.

Do you have the fuel of resentment in your heart? Put it in the fire of love. Let the fire of love consume the fears and angers that nourish the fire of hate. Do you have a loved one enslaved by drink or drugs, a husband with a wandering eye, a wife that’s a trial to you, a job that you hate, a child that has strayed from the right path, or parents that quarrel and never seem to stop fighting, a friend or family member with whom you’ve had a falling out? Do you have any of these painful resentments, of these hurtful quarrels or jealousies, stored up in your heart?

Well, put your pain and resentment in the fire of love, and let love consume the fuel of resentment that nourishes the flames of hell. Let the fire of love create an armor of light to protect you and shield you from the power of evil, the power that destroys.

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Let us look well to ourselves, for we cannot control the acts of others — we can only choose not to resent, not to curse, not to respond in kind. We can choose rather to walk away from quarrels and contentions, to return harsh words with words of welcome and truth, and to look within our own hearts and burn up and away all resentment and hurt.

And as we look into our hearts, we will see and know far more our own guilt, our own wrongdoing, as we look to the dark spots in our own hearts, where there is plenty of fuel to burn. Shakespeare, the greatest English poet and dramatist, captured this human task in an unforgettable scene in his most famous play, Hamlet. The Prince was striving to raise his mother’s consciousness to the evil she had done, allowing herself to ignore the obvious murder of her husband, and worse, to marry his murderer. And Hamlet implored his mother to look into her own heart. When she did, she saw her sins and wept, and said to Hamlet, she felt as if her heart was being cut in two. At which Hamlet gave that sage advice, advice that echoed the Gospel warning, to throw away the worser part.

We are challenged this Advent, and every step of our Christian journey, to look into our own hearts and find what is wrong there, then to cast off that dark work, to tear out the worser part and burn it, along with all resentments, in the fire of love.

Do I nurse thoughts of hate? Do I place myself first in pride, taking another’s place just because I want it? Do I take more care of myself than my neighbor, taking advantage instead of giving freely? Am I inwardly divided in myself between what I know is right, and what I want in spite of it all?

Jesus tells the disciples, that of the two men in the field and the two women at the mill one will be taken and the other left. And we, as we wrestle with our own inner faults, are we not each of us like two people, two people wrestling to do good but wanting to be bad? Aren’t our hearts sometimes torn in two by our desires at war with our better conscience? So as Hamlet said to his mother: throw away the worser part, let it be burned in the fire of love. If we place all of our fears and failings in the fire of love, it will burn them up, to protect us and insure us against the fire of hell.

Whatever is wrong, whatever is a work of darkness, resentment or quarrel or jealousy, strike it down and burn it with the fire of love, the refiner’s fire that purifies.

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Look at the world. We hope for peace, yet the conflicts still continue; the world is torn asunder; nation lifts sword against nation like nobody’s business. Many have fallen into complacency, satisfied with half measures, for this is the way of the world, eating and drinking, making love and making war, unprepared for the coming end which will sweep it all away, just as in Noah’s day.

We have no excuse to be unprepared. We have received not only a warning, but a promise. For the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never overcome it and never shall, for the light of God burns bright with the fire of love. And we have been offered the shining armor of light that reflects God’s glory, a glory in which all of us can share through Jesus Christ, a glory into which we are baptized and sealed by the fire of love through the Holy Spirit.

God has revealed his glory to us, and given us a share in that glory, that fire of love that destroys the fire of hell, that armor of light that ensures our salvation, and overcomes the darkness of fear and death in the far gone night and the day drawn near, to reveal God’s glory in the face of Christ, the glory of the only begotten Son of the Father in heaven, full of grace and truth — and in whose Name we pray, Come, Lord Jesus, come!+

Monday, November 26, 2007

The King and His Cross

Saint James Fordham • Proper 29c • Tobias Haller BSG
The soldier mocked him... saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself.”

What does a king look like? We all carry pictures in our heads evoked by words, images that pop up when we hear a word like king. Many people, I’m sure, probably picture a figure like Henry VIII. Though if you’ve seen any of the TV dramas about Henry recently, you might have a very different image in mind. In an effort to promote a younger viewership, they’ve got actors playing Henry who look more like Brad Pitt than Charles Laughton — Henry as a hunk instead of a slab! But perhaps you are familiar with the famous portrait of Henry as a stately monarch standing defiantly arms akimbo vested in splendid and colorful robes.

On the other hand, kings are often more comical figures, subject to ridicule and caricature especially in our democracy. So perhaps instead you might picture one of those comical cartoon kings, the little chubby guys with goatees and tiny crowns perched on their heads, your average Dr. Seuss kind of king. Whatever image first leaps to mind when you hear the word king, I think I can guarantee that it will almost never be the image of a condemned criminal about to be executed.

We expect kings to be seated on thrones, not electric chairs. We expect kings to exercise their power in the freedom of their monarchy, not to be fastened down in the incapacity of bondage and death.

+ + +

Yet this is the central paradox of Christianity, the embarrassing scandal that made it and makes it so hard for some people to understand: that our king — and more than a king, the Son of God incarnate, Jesus Christ — that our king died on a cross, executed for insurrection against the Emperor, nailed up and hung out to die in naked agony on a rocky little hill outside the walls of a provincial city in an outpost of the Empire.

This was and is hard to understand. For some it was and is impossible. It was, as Saint Paul told the Corinthians, a scandal to Jews and a folly to Greeks — in short, to the whole world a notion that was absurd and tragic — the very idea that the one through whom all things were created should be so powerless! And that is because in most minds — then as now — kingship was and is associated with showing your power, especially power over others. To be a king is not just to be powerful, but to display that power through control, to have in your hand the power of life and death over others and to use it, to be able to shout out, “Off with his head,” or “I dub thee, Sir Wilfrid.”

At the very least, to be a king means to have complete power of self-determination: no one can judge or forbid the king anything. The King is the boss! As I said before, many people picture someone like Henry the VIII when they hear the word “king” — and Henry certainly was powerful and willful. He enjoyed exercising his power and his will, and nobody, pope, queen, chancellor or archbishop, better get in his way! Henry once wrote a little song about himself, and so we have his own testimony on this matter: “Grudge who will, but none deny; so God be pleased, thus live will I!” Or, to put it in more contemporary language, “Nobody crosses the king.”

+ + +

That is why it is so very hard for so many to see the kingship of Christ. Here is a king who is crossed. It is the cross that confounds our notions of kingship. Here on the cross is a man seemingly completely bereft of self-determination, literally nailed down so that he cannot move, stifled and in pain so he can hardly breathe. For those who see control and self-determination as the sign of kingship, it is the powerlessness and immobility of the crucified Christ that render him incomprehensible.

Many don’t understand him now, as they didn’t understand him then. And this is why the voices rang out through our Gospel today, echoing three times. “Save yourself!” cried the religious leaders, the soldiers, and even the criminal at Jesus’ side, three points of view representing the whole world, civilized and uncivilized.


The religious leaders, even while they acknowledged Jesus’ power to heal and save others, called upon him to prove himself Messiah by saving himself. They echoed the doubting words from the very start of his ministry, when the leaders of his hometown challenged him to do for them the same sort of miracles he’d done elsewhere. How ironic that religious leaders should show such a lack of faith!

Those who say, “Prove it and then we will believe!” fail to grasp that the kingdom of God is built upon faith, not evidence. The kingdom of God is based on love, not proof; freedom, not compulsion. The kingdom of God is not about force, but invitation — it is not make believe: no one is made to believe. But all are given the gracious opportunity to come to the banquet; to taste and see, and seeing, then believe. And so those who looked for proofs could not recognize the king when he came to them full of faith in his Father, full of love for them, came not to lord it over them but to set them free. Instead of being lifted up by its astounding and shocking glory, the religious leaders stumbled over the scandal of the cross.


The soldiers mocked Jesus, and said to him, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself.” These are the worldly wise. They don’t know from religion, but they do know from authority. They know Caesar; they know what kings look like and what kings can do. The soldiers who mocked Jesus as he hung on the cross knew what it meant to have power, to be able to issue orders, and take command. And they knew that this poor, naked, pitiful figure was no more like a king than either of the helpless criminals crucified to his left and his right. And so to these Gentiles the cross was simply foolishness, an absurdity to be laughed at, a sick joke at the expense of a madman who thought he was a king.

And so the civilized world, Jewish and Gentile, rejected the cross and the one who hung upon it, rejected its scandal and its folly.

+ + +

And what of the uncivilized world? They have a voice in this drama as well, in the person of the thieves, men who have rejected civilized behavior in return for satisfying their own needs and desires over and against those of society, who have chosen themselves ahead of others, breaking the golden rule of the social fabric.

So it is that finally, one of the criminals, himself condemned to death and hanging on a cross, challenged Jesus to save himself — and him — if he was the Messiah. The irony is that this criminal had it partly right. Jesus was there to save him, to save him and all who had erred and strayed, to save even those who nailed him to the cross, to save the entire world, for that is just how much his Father loved that fallen world, loved it so much that he gave his only Son — not to condemn the world, but that all might be saved. Jesus was there to save them all, but he could only do so by not saving himself.


It was in this act, in his not saving himself that his true kingship was revealed. It was his self-determined self-sacrifice that crowned his divine kingship. The only perfect individual ever born, the Son of God, the firstborn of all creation, for whom and in whom all things were created, made the one possible perfect act of self-determined self-sacrifice — not in showing his power over others, but in revealing his power, his power to choose for others. Only the offering of his perfect self in perfect sacrifice upon the cross could restore the royalty that once belonged to all humankind, made after the likeness of God’s Son, the express image of the invisible God. Only the act of a true king acting in true humility could bring peace to a world gone out of all control, through the misuse of the power to choose, God’s gift to his human children, spent in seeking to control others rather than in loving them.

Humankind had abused the royal power to choose, and robbed itself of its own majesty by choosing selfishly instead of for the sake of others. But one man, one perfect man, showed us there was another way. This, my brothers and sisters, is the royalty of Jesus: that he chose not himself but others, chose completely and utterly to give himself — for all of us. In Christ, and him crucified, the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, the King of kings and Lord of lords. Even if he was unrecognized by those who stood mocking in his presence, taunting him to save himself while he was busy saving them, his kingship is nonetheless real.

It is not the kingship of power, but the kingship of sacrifice, the kingship of the hero who saves someone else at the cost of his own life. Such heroism will be embarrassing or scandalous to those who wouldn’t think of dirtying their hands to help another; such heroism will be foolish to those who see power and control as the only marks of a person’s worth; such heroism will be outrageous to anyone who thinks only of himself at the expense of others.

But such is the heroic kingship of Jesus Christ, the heroism that chooses freely to give up its freedom so that others might be free. This is the kingship of Christ our King, through whom — in this one great act of self-determined self-sacrifice, laying down his life for all of us — God was pleased, as Saint Paul said, to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

Do you want to know what a real king looks like? You need look no further to see all might, majesty, power and dominion, than to that cross, that Christ, that King.+

Monday, November 19, 2007

Minding Our Business

Saint James Fordham • Proper 28c • Tobias Haller BSG
For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work…+

How often have you been asked questions like this: What sort of business are you in? What kind of work do you do? This is often one of the first things to come up when you meet a new person. In fact, in some times and cultures, what you do for a living was and is so connected with your identity that it becomes your name. Any us who bear names like Baker, Smith, Collier, Sawyer, Cooper, Taylor, Joiner, Miller, Porter and so on, can tell what one of our ancestors did for a living. My own ancestors, on my mother’s side, bore the name of Clark — so I know that somebody in my ancestry was a minister! Even today, though we don’t have names like Sidney Salesman, Sondra Surgeon or Clarence Computer Technician, work is — for many of us — such a part of our day-to-day experience that it can almost become our identity. We can lose ourselves in our work; we can “get married to our jobs,” and end up neglecting our real family. We can become so attached to our jobs that when retirement comes we don’t know what to do with ourselves.

Work, work, work… Hasn’t it always been that way? Looks like it! Those who study human prehistory see work as so much a part of human identity that they consider the discovery of tools — rocks shaped into hammers or knives or spearheads — as the marker that separates the subhuman from the human. As far as they are concerned, the earliest humans aren’t those who may have thought great thoughts, told wonderful stories, or sung songs deep into the night, but the ones who picked up stones to grind seeds or club animals.

You probably remember the opening scenes of 2001: A Space Odyssey. When the ape-man uses a bone to club a pig to death, he steps across the anthropological line in the sand and becomes a human being. Work, then, is deeply connected with human life, with the basic biological fact that food must be gathered and prepared, the young cared for, the old and sick helped: human society depends on work.

Yet who doesn’t have a love/hate relationship with work. I doubt if there is anyone here so fortunate always to love every moment of their work. Many of us, even those who enjoy their jobs most of the time, will find there are moments — or hours — of tedium, distress, or fatigue. And most people in this busy world of ours work in drudgery and hardship from the beginning of each day to its dreary, bone-tired end.

Most simply put, work is not play. As Sir James Barrie, the author of Peter Pan, once said, “Nothing is really work unless you would rather be doing something else.” Peter Pan, you may recall, was the boy who refused to grow up. He wanted to remain in the world of childhood where all the work is done for you; and the biological necessities of food, clothing and shelter are all provided by someone else.

There is more than a bit of this attitude running through our religious history. Most of our biblical texts come from a time when almost all work was drudgery. The story of Adam and Eve paints a picture of humankind in paradise created at first to do at most a little gardening, living off the abundant fruit of the trees. When they fell from grace, they took up work, the sweaty-browed tilling of the soil to earn their bread, and work was a part of the curse occasioned by their sin. So our work has long been seen as a part of that inherited guilt. Many in the Jewish and Christian traditions have understood freedom from work as a sign of God’s grace restored — and looked forward to that “Land of Rest.” +++ This is just what happened in the community to whom Paul wrote the letter we heard today. The Thessalonians, quick to grab the good news that the Lord was about to come, got carried away by it, and some of them began to act as if the world was literally about to end, giving up working for a living, and sponging off the church as they waited for the coming of the Lord.

A few went even further, claiming that the day of the Lord had already come! In their overenthusiastic conversion to Christianity, they’d gotten the wrong end of the stick. +++ Not that the stick wasn’t there to be grabbed! Paul himself, in his First Letter to the Thessalonians, sowed the seeds of this misunderstanding by emphasizing “that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night” and warning them all to “keep awake.” And unfortunately the urgency of his tone had the effect of convincing some of them that it meant they should close up shop and wait for the rapture!

So when Paul wrote his Second Letter to the Thessalonians, (in part to deal with the problems created by his First Letter) he used language much more like what we heard in today’s Gospel. Hold on! The end is not yet, and a whole lot of stuff is going to happen before the end comes; so back to work, people! +++ The same message holds today. We are a bit less frantic about the end of the world now than folks were just before the year 2000. I’m not the only one here, I trust, who stocked up on bottled water and extra batteries! Well, I think I’ve still got some of that vintage water in the kitchen cupboard — Chateau Hudson 1999!

But some people went whole hog — they really believed that not only might there be a few problems with utilities caused by the Y2K bug, but that the actual end of the world was nigh. They sold homes, gave up jobs, and traveled out into the middle of nowhere to wait for the Lord to appear in the clouds to come and fetch them. They were, to say the least, disappointed.

People have been led astray for centuries by some mistaken prophet or other, announcing that the Day of the Lord is near. Some still are led astray, even after all the failed promises. But we have received different instructions, instructions from our Lord, and Saint Paul. Jesus tells us to be like servants doing their jobs when the master comes home. Listen to today’s gospel with that in mind. “Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!,’ and ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be terrified, for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.”... “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.”

You see, when you read the text this way, Jesus is not saying these are signs of the end, but signs of the present! The world is a dangerous place and full of many terrible things, but the coming of the Lord will be unmistakable and swift and most importantly, without a sign and without a warning! What Jesus said is the Gospel truth: the world has seen countless false prophets arise; we have seen many nations rise against many others, seen terrible famines and plagues. We’ve even seen a comet fly through the heavens and smash into the planet Jupiter,
leaving a hole in it five times as big as the whole earth! And yet the end is not yet.

No, the Son of God will return without warning. Now, when someone says something is going to happen without warning, what should you do? What do the Scouts say? Be prepared! So Jesus tells us to be always ready, to be about God the Father’s business, as he was himself from his childhood on: doing the work God gives us to do and witnessing to God’s love and patience. As Saint Paul says, we are to work, and not to be weary in doing what is right. And “right” does not just mean morally right, but right in the sense of appropriate. When we find the right work, or when we work with a right attitude, an element of joy can enter it — true, there may be a good bit of drudgery, but if we can find the core happiness in being occupied, devoting even our secular work to God as we realize that our work is for the good of society — then our work can bring us joy, and be a gift to God’s glory. This lies at the heart of the stewardship of our talents: the work we dedicate and then do to God’s glory.

The great English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins was also a Jesuit — you know, the folks who run that little University down Fordham Road! The Jesuit motto is: To the Greater Glory of God. Everything — everything — is done with that in mind. Hopkins put it this way: “It is not only prayer that gives God glory but work. Smiting on an anvil, sawing a beam, whitewashing a wall, driving horses, sweeping, scouring, everything gives God glory... He is so great that all things give him glory if you mean they should.

Let us, then, sisters and brothers, so pitch our work to God’s glory — minding our business with the mind of Christ. Let us each of us do the work that we have been given to do, whatever it is, to the glory of God, finding in each act, however humble, some way to serve. Let us open our eyes and hearts and minds to see that work is a means to a greater good, and be found at work when the master comes. Let us mind our business by setting our minds and hearts upon it. Let us work each day as if God were our only boss, never wearying in doing what is right, serving each other to his honor and glory.+

Monday, November 12, 2007

First Fruits and Last Gifts

SJF • Proper 27c • Tobias Haller BSG
Now, he is not the God of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive…+

Today’s Scriptures touch our deepest fears. What does it mean to die? What does it mean to be “in the resurrection” — that strange phrase in our Gospel?

We might well seek to answer these timeless questions by asking another: What does it mean to be alive? You might think the answer is obvious. But ask a doctor what it means to be alive, and you’re likely to get a shrug in response. There was a time when the answer was easy: if your heart was beating, if there was breath in your lungs, you were alive; simple. But with advances in medical care, a heart can be restarted and kept beating for years. A ventilator can keep air moving in and out of lungs, even in the absence of anything you would recognize as “life.”

The truth is, we must look further to understand what it means to be alive. There is more to life than so many pounds of flesh, so many pints of blood, so much breath. What this something is, what life is, connects us with the world around us, far beyond the edges of our skin. Everything we do, every act we perform, makes waves in the universe like the wake of a passing ship — and who knows what effect those waves may have on other vessels, on other shores.

I’ve spoken before of the film, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” with Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey. He finds out the effect those waves had, how much he accomplished in that small hick town of Bedford Falls, without even being aware of it. When he was removed from the equation, everything about that little town changed. His one life touched so many other lives, saved lives, changed lives, changed the very shape of the town and even its name, a town that without him became hard, cruel and mean — a Potter’s Field in every sense of the word.

Every life makes many such waves, and the world is built up in the interaction and the washing of these waves.

+ + +

These matters of life and death touch on another deep question, the question of identity. What is the “me” about me; what is the “you” about you? Where is the edge of my life? Of yours? How far do the waves flow? Priest and scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, put it this way. “I am not the part of the universe that I control completely, but I am the complete universe that I influence in part.”

This is a deep truth. When it comes down to it, we do not control even our own bodies. As Jesus said, “You can’t make even one hair of your head turn black or white.” No, we do not have full control over our bodies, and death is the final proof of that fact, universal and unavoidable.

And yet, and yet… there is that influence, that wave that flows out from each of us, and reaches… how far? George Bailey learned how far the edges of his life extended — beyond his control but not beyond his influence — when Clarence the angel-in-training showed him what a gaping hole he’d leave in the world if he’d never been born. In the most memorable scene he sees his brother Harry’s grave in the snowy, windswept cemetery. George, never having existed, didn’t save his little brother from drowning as a child — and his brother didn’t grow up to save a whole troop-ship full of soldiers, lost when their ship was struck and sunk.

+ + +

How far do the waves of one life extend? And how far away in time and space are the lives those waves touch? Isn’t that influence, that being-able-to-be, to ring like a bell and let the sound go forth, to set up waves in the ocean of the world that reach uncharted shores, isn’t that a big part of what it means to be alive, to have a life, a wonderful life?

And the really wonderful thing is that those waves continue on even after our body lies in death. Yes, they do! The sound of the bell keeps rolling on, long after the bell has stopped swinging. “Their sound has gone out into all lands,” and “they still speak.” Old suffering Job has been dead for 3,000 years, but his words were written and inscribed in a book — and those words still move us today, waves of hope beating against the shores of our hearts.

And look around you at this church. Almost everything you see here was made possible, was given and dedicated, by or for someone who is now dead. And yet they are not dead, if by death we mean complete absence and silence. Behold, they live!

Even here below they are part of our present worship through the things left behind: the sound of the church bell, the images in the windows, the font in which children continue to begin their new lives, the altar at which we celebrate the feast, and the chalices from which we drink the precious blood of our Lord and Savior: all of these things continue to tell of the glory of God, and witness to the faith of those who have gone before, whose generosity in the past continues to serve our worship in the present.

Take this humble hymn-board — given to Saint James almost 100 years ago by Admiral David B Macomb. His story is not unlike that of Harry Bailey. A navy man, he served with Commodore Perry on the first entry into Japan. At the end of his life he was Commandant of the Brooklyn Navy Yard. He touched the far corners of the world.

But during the Civil War he did something even more important. During a gale off Cape Hatteras, his ship Canonicus lost control — the tiller rope snapped in the storm, and the ship began to founder. Risking his own life, he dove four times into the cold depths until he could refasten the rope to the tiller, saving the ship from the storm — and who knows how many lives he saved that day? In its own simple way, this hymn-board still guides our singing, and it as if old Admiral Macomb was joining in the song.

And each of us can do the same. Each of us can ensure that the rope stays fastened to the tiller of our lives, so that the waves continue to be felt in this place. In our present contributions, and by remembering this parish in our wills, we continue to serve even after we have died; we continue to provide for those who come after us, we touch life after life after life — we remain connected by these bonds of affection.

+ + +

There is, of course, more, much more to this than a stewardship sermon, more than me exercising my duty to remind you of the importance of making a will — as spelled out on page 445 of the Book of Common Prayer! There is much, much more to it, and it is spelled out in our Gospel, and in how that Gospel echoes the lives of so many people who knew and loved this church.

You know that we lost one such loving member of this church two weeks ago. Evelyn Balz was half a year past 100 when she died. She never married, and outlived most of her friends. She hadn’t been inside this church for years — but she never stopped being here in spirit, through her support. Her pledge envelopes came in on a regular basis — mailed in a bundle every few weeks, or given to me by her still strong hand when I would visit her at home. And her faithfulness and witness relate to what Christ tells us in the Gospel today.

It concerns the promise of the resurrection: a better promise than simply being remembered by descendants, friends and fellow worshipers after we are dead, a better promise of which Job caught a glimpse, but which came into full view in the life and death and rising of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. For after life and death, there awaits us a rising to life again, a rising that will sum up and multiply all the little waves of our lives into a great wave that will tower to the sky. His one life touches all our lives, all lives, all life itself.

The Sadducees don’t understand the resurrection. All they can see are the waves you make while you are alive, waves of a particular kind: your children. To die childless, like the woman they question Jesus about, like our friend Evelyn Balz, like how many people who never marry, or who never have children, to die this way, to the Sadducees, means your life amounts to nothing: the only afterlife they believed in was the biological life of your descendants, your flesh walking in someone else’s body. You can picture the smirk as they pose their mocking question about the childless woman and her fruitless marriages; you can almost imagine the air-quotes, In “the resurrection” whose wife will she be?

But Jesus is unperturbed by their disbelief in the life of the world to come. He tells them that those who attain the resurrection no longer need to worry about begetting children to serve as posthumous waves in the world, for they have passed through death, they cannot die anymore. They will continue to make their own waves as part of that great wave of the risen life in Christ.

The children of the Spirit have become part of the new life which does not rely upon biology — the life of the flesh — but upon God, in the life of the Spirit. Those who rise to the new life join with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, living again in the strength of the living God. Those who rise to the new life live like Job, in risen bodies and with new-seeing eyes experiencing and beholding the Redeemer who lives and stands towering over the wrecks of time.

And we too will know that risen life in Christ. We have heard the good news, the proclamation that death is not the end, and we look to obtain the glory of our Lord. We have known the truth of which John Donne wrote, that “No man is an island, entire of itself.” In Christ, we are all connected, you and me and Miss Balz, and Admiral Macomb, and all who called this their parish, whose worship filled these four walls with the praise of the living God, the God of the living, not the dead who was, and who is, and who is to come, Jesus Christ, our Lord.+

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Body Parts

SJF • All Saints’ Sunday • Tobias Haller BSG

God has put all things under Christ’s feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

Halloween is just past and so I can confidently say that in the world at large it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas! But I invite you today to put on the brakes a little bit, and hold back from the momentum with which the merchants of this world urge you to be swept along, and rest here for a moment on this All Saints Sunday. Today is something like one of those scenic view turnoffs on the highway towards the coming Advent, which is itself the church’s proper anticipation of Christmas. And the view is worth a stop.

The festival of all the saints also reminds me of graduation day — and the work involved in getting ready for the mandatory class photo. I went to a big high school, and my graduating class was about 500 strong, so it took a while to get the class photo organized. Even after it was taken the little faces in the picture were so small it was hard to pick out who was who. Yet each of us there on that day were individual souls, with our own gifts and talents — a gathered assembly, yet made up of many members.

But I would like to think of another image for All Saints Sunday, attractive as the mountaintop view, or the image of the saints as a graduating class may be — as the poet Dante pictured them sitting in a huge heavenly Colosseum forever giving glory to God. It is a wonderful image of the saints above — but I would like for us today to think about the saints below: that is, the members of what used to be called “the church militant” — those who still serve here upon this earth in anticipation of the day when we will serve the Lord for ever in heaven.

+ + +

When Saint Paul wrote about this earthly church and its relationship with God — which he did on many occasions — he also used many different images and symbols. Often at a wedding we will hear the passage in which Saint Paul likens the relationship of Christ and the Church to that of husband and wife. He also used architectural language in which he refers to Christ as the cornerstone and the church as the Temple built upon a foundation of the apostles and prophets. And he also spoke of the Church as a flock of sheep under the custody of shepherds — good or bad! — though that message to the Ephesians is only recorded as a speech in Acts of the Apostles, rather than in the Epistle from which we heard a reading today.

In that Epistle as elsewhere, Paul makes use of yet another image: describing the church as the body of Christ, of which all of the members form parts. You may recall that he made use of this image when he was trying to get the people in Corinth to stop fighting with each other — telling them how absurd it was for the various organs of the body to contend with each other rather than working together for the good of the whole body, under the direction of the head — who is Christ.

This is a very powerful image, and it makes a great deal of sense. For just as the various organs or parts of the body all work together for the good of the whole body, so too the church functions at its best when different people with different skills combine them to the good of the whole church. As Paul would say, not all are apostles, nor evangelists, not all have the gift of healing or the gift of prophecy — but each and every member of the church, like an organ of the body, has some particular function however humble or however exalted. And when all of these body parts work together the body is healthy and able to do all of the things of which each of the organs would be incapable alone — all of them needing their mutual support.

After all, if the mouth doesn’t eat, the stomach can’t be filled, and the other organs can’t be nourished through the blood that is pumped by the heart. If the muscles of the diaphragm do not move then the lungs do not breathe, oxygen cannot enter the blood, and the brain and other organs will soon shut down.

And so it is in the church: the various ministries function together — and it is the saints of God who carry out these ministries — to do the work of the church under the direction of God through Jesus Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit. And each and every minister — which is to say each and every one of us, whether a layperson, a deacon, a priest, or a bishop — all of us saints below and saints above — each is like an organ in the body of Christ.

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Saint Paul talked about the body parts working well — functioning at their best efficiency. But when we look at ourselves and those around us, we might well feel that we are not always doing our best, at least when judged by the world’s standards.

Fortunately, Saint Paul also assures us that we need not and ought not judge ourselves by the world’s standards. Rather, Saint Paul preached the gospel of the Cross — that God’s power is revealed in weakness. What the world calls defeat is actually victory. The head of the church, Jesus Christ himself, suffered, died and was buried. In union with him, the members of his body also suffer. And yet we are assured that even in our weakness and suffering we are still embodying the presence of God — even when we are unworthy servants, the one whom we serve is exalted.

And God will raise us up in him. We, the saints below, as feeble and frail as we sometimes are, will one day be exalted with him. This is a promise he himself has made and he ratified the promise in his blood.

When he speaks as he does in our Gospel today to the people who follow him, he assures them that their poverty is a blessing, for it certifies their possession of the Kingdom of God. Those who are hungry will be filled to overflowing; those who weep will laugh. And those who suffer harm, those who are hated, excluded, reviled, defamed and insulted on account of him, because they bear his name — they are to leap for joy. Not someday, he says, but then and there “in that day.” Their reward is great in heaven — not “will be great someday” but is great now.

What he assures us of is the fact that being a saint is something we are called to do right now, even in the midst of weakness and being less than perfect — it isn’t something that happens to a good person once they get to heaven. God’s kingdom is among us now, and we are citizens of that kingdom even now — even in our poverty and our hunger and our tears; even amidst the hatred, exclusion, and insult — just as Jesus Christ was Lord of the earth and Son of God even as he hung upon the cross.

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I want to conclude with a true story about two of the saints of the church now at rest, the Reverend Canon Edward Nason West, long a fixture at the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine, and a sister of a religious order not too far away from there, to which Canon West was chaplain. Canon West certainly had his failings and his eccentricities, and the sister I have in mind was also a good example of the kind of imperfect saint that all of us are. She was assigned as head of the order’s altar guild — though she didn’t have a real gift for it. But as a good obedient sister she kept at the task she had been assigned. Canon West was mildly annoyed that she could never quite figure out how to fold the linen corporal correctly, and he became a bit angry with her when she almost burned down the chapel as hot coals flew out of the thurible.

Well, this sister fell ill and it turned out her illness was terminal. And Canon West visited her in the infirmary quite often in those last few weeks. And one day she said to him, “Father West, I know I haven’t been very good on the altar guild.” Canon West stifled his agreement and simply nodded wisely. She continued, “I know I’m not perfect. I never did get the knack with the altar linens, and burnt that hole through the carpet in the sanctuary. I’ve never really been very good at anything. But I can do one thing — I can show how a Christian dies.”

This good sister taught the old priest a lesson — reminding him that God doesn’t judge us for our success; God doesn’t judge us on our ability to fold a linen correctly, or knowing how to swing a thurible without burning the church down; or however well we may preach or sing or serve. God loves us because we are his, and empowers us in our faithfulness, even when we are at our weakest. God does not look to our success, but to our faith, faith which remains strong even when we are weak. Just as Jesus Christ showed us what God is like most perfectly in his death up on the cross, so to, we his saints can show ourselves most like him even in our weakness and our death. For God’s strength is made perfect in weakness. Even when we are hungry, thirsty, or poor; when we are persecuted and excluded; even when we are dying — we shine as lights in the firmament, like stars appearing — showing forth the glory of God, whose strength is perfected in us.

You know the old song, I believe in the sun even when it’s not shining? Well Jesus Christ is the Son — the Son of God — even in his suffering and his weakness — and his death. And we who have a share in his sufferings, persevering as saints in the offices and ministries with which God has equipped us as members of Christ’s body — we shall also be raised with him. Our weakness is but a passing shadow — it cannot hide the sun for long, and makes it even more glorious in its reappearing.

So rejoice, my brothers and sisters, rejoice now even as we look forward to the day when all of our sufferings and weaknesses will be at an end and we are clothed upon with the resurrection in Jerusalem the golden. Even as we hope in Christ, so let us continue on the pilgrims’ way, continuing to do the work God has given us to do, called as saints, knit together in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of Jesus Christ our Lord.+

Monday, October 29, 2007

The Last Resort

SJF • Proper 25c • Tobias Haller BSG
O hope of Israel, its savior in time of trouble, why should you be like a stranger in the land, like a traveler turning aside for the night? You, O Lord, are in the midst of us, and we are called by your name; do not forsake us!

It is more than a little disconcerting that on the day we’re celebrating our dear friend and fellow parishioner Arthur Longsworth’s retirement, that the Scripture readings appointed for the day should be of such a gloomy character. But I think if we peer hard enough through the doom and gloom we will see that there is indeed a light at the end of the tunnel — and it isn’t a train heading in our direction!

I’m sure all of us have seen movies or TV shows in which a person on trial is losing his case, and his attorney recommends that he “throw himself on the mercy of the court.” That is, to a very large extent, what we see in all of our Scripture readings today — what it means to make use of the last resort, appealing to the mercy of the court.

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The prophet Jeremiah has long been recognized as the old master of doom and gloom. And he had good reason for it. He saw the fall of Jerusalem — not only prophetically saw it coming but actually saw it happen; he saw his hopes shattered and his worst nightmares realized. Yet even then — even in the midst of the destruction of Jerusalem, he knew that he could turn to God and throw himself upon God’s mercy.

His lament took an interesting form, however: the form of an appeal, an appeal to God’s own nature. Jeremiah reminded God — as if God could forget — that God has promised salvation, and that God does not loathe Zion; that God would not spurn, would not forsake, would not break the covenant with the people, even though they had failed to live up to their part of the bargain. Jeremiah knew that if the people repented God would forgive; he knew that God’s heart would be moved by the confession and the penitence of the people, and that it is God’s nature to forgive.

This reminds me of a very powerful scene in a Yiddish film that was produced in Germany just before the Nazi assault on the Jews began in earnest. In its own way it was as prophetic as Jeremiah.

The film is set in the previous generation, in Eastern Europe in the era of Fiddler on the Roof, when and where the main enemies of the Jewish people were Russians and Poles, not the Nazis. In this very powerful scene, a village has been reduced to rubble by a marauding band of Cossacks. They’ve burned down the synagogue, raped the young women and killed most of the young men in the village. One old man is left sitting in the midst of the devastation. And like a modern Jeremiah, he raises his voice to God in a lament:

Why have you done this to your people, O God? Why have you allowed this to happen? Down through the ages, again and again we are persecuted and killed for your sake! I will not be silent; I will raise my voice and cry out to you, like a child who calls out to its mother. “Mama, Mama; it hurts!”

That old man and Jeremiah both knew that God would hear this lament — though the response might be delayed, God the just judge would hear this plea, and ultimately save and deliver his people. When all else fails, when other defenders are ready to give up, when human justice fails, the only plea that makes sense is to throw oneself upon the mercy of the court of last resort.

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When we turn to the reading from Second Timothy we do find ourselves in something that sounds a bit like a retirement speech, Mr. Longsworth! Saint Paul reminds his young protégé Timothy that he has fought the good fight and finished the race. But even here he acknowledges that this was not done under his own steam — he reminds Timothy that it was the Lord who stood by him and gave him strength, even when others abandoned him. For far be it from Saint Paul to justify himself by his own works! No, if his work has been of any worth at all, it is because God has stood by him as the source of his life and his strength. God rescued him from the lion’s mouth and from every evil attack of those who tried to bring him down.

This is an important reminder to all of us as we seek to serve God and the Church. We can easily come to think that our work is our own, and become prideful and overconfident in it, forgetting that it is God, and God alone, who inspires both the will and the deed. This was, we must remember, precisely what got ancient Israel into trouble in the first place — as the people wandered away from serving the Lord, running after other gods and serving them instead of the one true God who was the source of their life, their savior in time of trouble. They treated God like a stranger in the land, like a wanderer in the night — and in return God treated them to exile, far from their native land, in captivity in Babylon.

Paul reminds Timothy — and us — that whatever good we do in the name of God comes from God. We are, all of us, in the last resort a bit like the child who asks Mama for a dollar to go and buy her a birthday card! Of course, Mama still appreciates the card; but as with all we do for God, God is the source of all the good we do. In the last resort, we have no other help but God.

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Finally, our gospel reading brings us full circle to something that looks very much indeed like that courtroom scene, in which one of the defendants literally throws himself on the mercy of the court while the other tries to protest his innocence or at the very least do a plea bargain. The Pharisee in this case is like a child who has forgotten that the dollar with which he bought his mother’s birthday card came from his mother. He’s very proud indeed that he tithes his income — that is, he sets aside that 10 percent — but he forgets thateverything he has, 100 percent of it comes from God — so anything he gives back to God is just like that birthday card. God may be pleased, but it’s nothing for the Pharisee to be proud about.

On the other hand, we have the tax collector — a man who may also have paid his tithes, but who also knows how far short he falls from all that he knows God wants of him and for him. He doesn’t even look up to heaven when he makes his confession, but stands apart with a lowered gaze and a hand clutched close to his chest. And he pounds on his chest as if by doing so he could hammer away at the gnawing pain of guilt — and in this knowledge he asks for mercy and forgiveness. He throws himself, in the last resort, on the mercy of the court. And — as we can be sure in answer to Jesus’ question at the end — he rises up forgiven and restored.

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This is the perspective with which God presents us this day: not to place our reliance upon who we are or what good we have done; not to try to avoid our responsibility for the wrongs we have committed, quibbling about this or that, straining at gnats of what is is, or trying to be let off the hook; but when all is said and done and we have finished our course, to place ourselves under God’s merciful judgment, knowing that he is himself our last resort just as he has been with us every step of the way. God’s love and mercy will never fail.

God will accept us as we are when we come to him as we are — honestly acknowledging our weakness and our complete dependency upon the One who is our Judge, but who is also our only Mediator and Advocate, Jesus Christ our Lord. +

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Perseverance of the Saints

Saint James Fordham • 24c • Tobias Haller BSG
Be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable…

We are now in a pilgrimage toward All Saints’ Day, and as we go, we will take some time to look at the theme of sainthood. The scripture readings today give us examples of one characteristic quality of the saints: persistence or perseverance. Saints — and that includes the big famous ones as well as the little less-well-known ones, the ones who have died and are at rest, and the ones who still crawl or walk or are carried on this earthly way — saints don’t give up, and they don’t give in. They persist; they persevere.

But their perseverance isn’t just stick-to-it-iveness, or dogged, bullheaded obstinacy. The saints persevere and persist in what is right, in what is just.

Consider the widow in today’s gospel. It’s clear she’s got a problem — though her cause is just, she’s been stuck in a town with a hard-hearted, hard-nosed judge on the bench, a man who doesn’t fear God or pay any mind to people. But the widow keeps coming to the court, demanding that her case be heard. She persists in her cause, perseveres in her pursuit of justice, and the judge, finally, gives in, worn down by her constant insistence that he do what is right. It’s easy to see the example of heroic sanctity in this widow’s struggle. One thinks of Harriet Tubman, or Saint Clare of Assisi, or Saint Elizabeth of Hungary, women with single-minded devotion to what was right and true and just, women who wouldn’t take no for an answer even from the pope or the king or the president, and who brought the machinery of inequity to a halt with their persistent resistance, grains of sand in the gears of injustice.

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But what about our other exemplary persistent person in this morning’s readings, Jacob. Jacob is not a completely attractive character, and hardly a saint. He isn’t particularly interested in justice, or even in doing what is right. He is far more like the parable’s judge than like the widow. He isn’t afraid of God, and as for people, he cheated his brother out of his inheritance. And if that weren’t bad enough he tricked his poor, old, blind father into giving him the blessing intended for his brother, whom he left high and dry with neither inheritance nor blessing. No wonder Jacob is worried what his brother Esau may do to him now that he is returning home after years spent in the next county with his father-in-law. He’s grown rich at his father-in-law’s expense, by playing fast and loose with the breeding stock he was supposed to be tending, doing an early form of genetic engineering to make sure he got the best of the flock. He’s built up a fortune, and he’s got a lot to lose if Esau looks for payback.

Jacob has reached a tension point in his life — what we’d now call a “mid-life crisis.” He’s made it rich through persistent conniving, but he’s about to have to face the music. Esau is heading his way with a small army, and Jacob is forced to stop and think what to do. And of course the conniving and deception doesn’t stop. Clearly willing to cut his losses, he divides his possessions, and is willing to risk losing half if he can keep the rest. Then finally he panics, and he sends the rest on ahead of him, across the river, until he is left all alone in the night.

And suddenly, into that solitude a stranger comes, a mysterious figure who wrestles with Jacob in the dark night of fear and distress. But even in the midst of his fear, Jacob’s old persistence comes to the fore. He doesn’t let go; he doesn’t give up. Even injured, with his hip out of joint, Jacob holds on to the stranger with whom he wrestles, this nameless opponent, through the dark night and into dawn.

And though he never finds out the stranger’s name, he himself receives a new name. This patriarch who strives and struggles with men and with God, finally pins God down by sheer persistence. For it is God with whom he wrestles, though Jacob doesn’t realize it until the match is over — and God blesses him with a new name: no longer Jacob, but Israel, the father of the nation that will bear his name.

Jacob persists through this unfavorable time. But something else happens to him. He is transformed. He is given a new name, a new name with a surprising meaning. For Israel — among other possible readings — means, “God perseveres.” Though God appears to lose the battle, God wins the war, the war that had been played out in Jacob’s heart from the day he cheated his brother out of his inheritance, and tricked his old blind father into giving him his blessing. God perseveres because in this night of struggle, as Jacob faces the impending loss of all that he’s gained through his shady deals, in the loneliness of that night by the riverside, Jacob is transformed from sinner to saint, from a heel who until then did nothing but take, into a patriarch who will learn what it is to give. By finally letting go of everything else he has, and holding on to God alone, Jacob emerges with a blessing far better than the one that he stole from Esau. Jacob won the wrestling match, but God didn’t give up: God won Jacob.

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There are many saints who fit this picture, men in mid-life crisis who find that God is the only sure foundation for their lives. I think of Saint Augustine of Hippo, who held God at arm’s length for so many years, until he finally gave in. As a young man about town he was famous for his prayer, “O God, give me chastity; but not yet!” You can see him in the stained glass window by the door in the Peace Chapel, talking to his mother, Saint Monica, a good example of that other kind of persistent saint, whose perseverance played a big part in finally changing Augustine’s mind, and bringing him to the fulness of the faith.

I also think of John Newton, whose name I have mentioned in the past. He was a slave trader, a man engaged in the worst sort of bartering in human flesh and lives. Yet one night in the hold of his slave ship in the midst of a terrible storm, he turned his life over to God, when he realized how wretched and blind he had been. And you will recall how he later became an Anglican priest, and wrote the best known hymn of all time, “Amazing Grace.”

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He is also a lesson to the fact that persistence in itself is not a virtue. For Newton continued in the slave trade for some years after his conversion — it took time for the full message to sink in, and had he persisted in that horrible trade instead of letting the conversion work, his persistence would not have been to his credit.

It is persistence in the right, it is holding on to God, that makes a saint. The saints are those who hold on to the right, or when they finally come to see that they have been wrong, let go and hold on to God alone — as God holds on to them. Those who, like Timothy — another saint from today’s readings — are fortunate enough to have been brought up from childhood in the right way, persist in that path even when the times turn unfavorable. And those like Jacob or Augustine or John Newton, who start off in the wrong direction, and work hard at persistently digging deeper into self-centered but comfortable oblivion, even they can be blessed with a crisis that turns them around, that robs them of everything they thought was theirs, of everything they have, so that only God is left for them to cling to, wrestling through the dark night — or dark weeks or months or years — until transformed by God’s persistent blessing.

For God does not give up, even on the worst of us. That is the great good news of the saints. That is the great good news for all of us — called to be saints. God persists, and even if we are tempted to let go of our hold on God, God will never let go of us, persistent and persuasive as God is. So let us give thanks to God, and give thanks for all the saints, the saints who fight for justice and the saints who just plain fight, the saints whose lives shine bright as a rainbow from beginning to end, persevering in the right, and also those who flare up in a sudden flash of redemption like a torch at midnight, transformed by God’s persistent and persuasive grace.

If we cling to God, God will not let us go. And saints who plant themselves on that firm foundation have chosen well indeed. The soul that flees to Jesus, to repose in his strength and his love, he will never desert to its foes — that soul, though all hell shall endeavor to shake, God will never, no never, no never forsake.+

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Dying on Easy Street

SJF • P21c • Tobias Haller BSG
Alas for those who are at ease in Zion, and for those who feel secure on Mount Samaria...

You probably all know the expression, “Living on Easy Street.” It means everything’s going your way; you’ve got it made; everything’s coming up roses and daffodils, as Ethel Merman used to sing. You haven’t got a care in the world and all your needs are provided for, because you are living in the lap of luxury.

Sounds like the folks Amos is talking about in this morning’s Scripture reading, doesn’t it? They lie on beds of ivory, lounging like regular couch potatoes, dining on tender lamb and veal, entertaining themselves with the latest pop tunes and performing cool musical improvisations; savoring vintage wine not just from cups but from bowls, and getting oil massages as they luxuriate in comfort. They are living on easy street like nobody’s business.

And, “Alas,” says Amos — “alas for those who are at ease in Zion, and for those who feel secure on Mount Samaria.” For while they are enjoying themselves and taking their ease, things are afoot that will shake their comfortable world to its foundations. The Assyrians are coming, and at their coming there will be warfare, destruction, defeat and eventual exile — and the revelry of the loungers will pass away. They are not, after all, living on easy street — they are dying on easy street.

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This is a powerful lesson — for us today as much as it was in the days of the prophet Amos. For it addresses a human failing that we are no less liable to in our day than they were in his. And that is the failing of complacency, the kind of complacency that gives in to comfort and relaxes into a kind of nearsightedness that not only doesn’t see danger coming, combined with a kind of farsightedness that makes us oblivious to others who are nearby, and who areno danger to us at all.

We see that in our Gospel today: the story of the rich man who ignored the poor man who sat just outside his house. This rich man was living on easy street. He dressed like royalty — in those days purple cloth was earmarked for the Imperial household. He feasted not just off and on, but every day.

But out on the street — not easy street but the real hard-paved, dusty street — there was a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing for something to eat — lying there in misery at the gate while dogs came by and licked his sores.

Well, Lazarus died — no surprise there — but at his death God sent angels to carry him to Abraham’s side. The rich man died too — also no surprise; with all his daily feasting he probably ate and drank his way into heart and liver disease: a perfect example of dying on easy street. But instead of angels, what does this rich man get? — the torment of Hades, and the oblivion of being forgotten, even his name having passed away with him, to be known to us only as “a rich man.”

Now, it’s not as if he hasn’t been warned of his fate. As a Jew, even if he wasn’t particularly observant, he would have been familiar with the law of charity — that one is to be openhanded and generous, and to help the poor and the oppressed, the widows and orphans, the sick and the suffering; in short, to love one’s neighbor as oneself. The problem is that his own self-comfort had blinded him to the dis-comfort of the neighbors all around him — even something as obvious as a dying man lying at his very gate — and you can’t get much closer to home than that. No, he had been warned countless times of his duty to love his neighbor as himself; and instead of that he’d spent his wealth on himself, clothing himself in purple and feasting everyday — while Lazarus suffered at his doorway, half-dressed and starving.

The warnings were there for him and all to see — which is why Abraham gives the rich man some hard news down in Hades, when he has the nerve to ask Abraham to send Lazarus on an errand to his five brothers, to warn them of their fate. And the bad news is — Sorry, but they’ve already received the only warning they are going to get: the teaching of Moses and the prophets — the teachings about loving one’s neighbor, and helping the poor and oppressed.

And, if I can extend Abraham’s warning, he might well have said — “And by the way, you didn’t pay any attention to Lazarus when he was right outside your door every day; so why do you think your brothers would pay any attention to him either? Do you think they’ll listen to this dead man, even if he returns from the grave, when they don’t listen to Moses and the prophets, who were once alive but now are here with me as well— for though they died, their words live on and are preached week by week in the synagogue. All of you had your chance to heed the words of the dead and behold the lives of the living — and you ignored both.”

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That’s what living on easy street can do to you. We can get so comfortable that we forget the most elementary lessons of the faith: to love God and neighbor. Comfort — even relative comfort, not just luxury — can take our minds off of our duty to those less fortunate than we are.

I dare say none of us here are wealthy — since they discovered chemical dyes in the 19th century purple cloth has been no more expensive than any other color; and I very much doubt that any of us here feasts every day.

Yet even if we don’t consider our daily meals to be feasts, there are parts of this world of ours where people would be glad to eat the scraps that fall from our tables, places in the world where a loaf of fresh bread is considered a delicacy, and a few ounces of meat a feast worthy of a monarch.

We don’t really appreciate how good we have it — until we turn and consider those who have less. And thanks be to God that members of this parish have made that effort, and continue to do so. The message we heard wasn’t from a dying man at the gate, but from the voices of children calling to us from half-way around the world, from Dabalo in Tanzania: and we heard their call, and we answered and sent them help. Just this past May fifty-three children received the gifts that members of this parish provided for them, gifts they still enjoy as they are fed in body and mind, dressed in new school uniforms and with shoes on their feet and food in their stomachs, and books and school supplies to support their minds as well as their bodies.

I just received an email this week from the project manager in Dabalo, which included this message from the children — “May God bless our supporters in America also for our breakfast every morning!” Think about that — when was the last time you thanked God or anybody else for the fact that you were able to have breakfast! We have it so, so easy here on easy street. Perhaps this will be a reminder to us to give thanks more often. And to be of even greater help.

It seems such a simple thing to do what Saint Paul advised in the good counsel we heard today: to do good, to be rich in good works, generous and ready to share. Thus we store up “the treasure of a good foundation for the future,” to “take hold of the life that really is life.”

We don’t have to give up living on the easy (or at least comfortable) street we live on — we just need to be aware of the people out on that street, out by our gates, or on other streets not so well paved as ours, even those half-way around the world. Neighbors are near and far, and they have been given to us by Jesus asan object for the good he has equipped us and enabled us to do. None of us is asked to do more than we can — but only what we can, with the help of God, which is surely to do more than simply live, but to help others live as well.

May our ears be always open to the calls for help, may our hands be always full of the means to give that help, may we press forward in service to help and minister to all whom we can, by God’s grace, through Jesus Christ our Lord.+