Monday, June 25, 2007

Equipped to Serve

SJF • Proper 7c • Tobias Haller BSG
As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
In my sermon last week, I spoke about how the woman who came into Simon the Pharisee’s house and washed Jesus’s feet was reenacting a kind of baptismal liturgy. In today’s readings we have an even clearer exposition of that liturgy, including Saint Paul’s explicit reference to baptism.

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We begin with the Old Testament passage from the Prophet Zechariah. This prophecy has long been held to point towards both the crucifixion and the subsequent upwelling of repentance that would eventually bring many of the Jewish leaders into the church. The Book of Acts shows how the Apostles’ testimony to the resurrection convicted their hearts and enabled them to realize the generosity and graciousness of God. And the symbol of this generosity and graciousness is the fountain opened for the inhabitants of Jerusalem to cleanse them from their sin. Christians have seized upon this imagery from an Old Testament prophet and applied it to their own experience of cleansing and liberation, in that “precious fountain” that wells up “near the cross, near the cross.”

As with the woman who wept at Jesus’s feet, sorrow and contrition come before the cleansing fountain. There is an old theological word for this, which one hardly ever hears anymore except in the phrase, “I have no compunctions.” Compunction is that sharp realization that pierces you with the knowledge
of your own wrongdoing. I remember from my elementary school days a story that stuck with me — as I assume those who presented it intended. It was part of a good citizenship class, about good behavior and responsibility. It involved a bad little boy who liked to throw rocks at the passing passenger trains that ran near his home. And one day as he was throwing rocks in this irresponsible way, one of them shattered the train window, and the broken glass and the rock itself terribly injured one of the passengers. And it turned out to be the little boy’s father!

The compunction and sorrow of the people of Jerusalem is similar — as they realize that the one they have pierced, the holy one they have rejected and crucified, is as it were their only child, their firstborn. They are cut to the quick in this realization, that they have murdered their own child. It reminds me of Joe Keller, the father in Arthur Miller’s play, All My Sons — and perhaps Miller was thinking of this passage when he wrote the play. Keller realizes at last that his own shady business practices in selling substandard airplane parts to the military have resulted not only in his own son’s death, but the death of many other pilots — and he realizes with incredible pain, as the title says, that “they were all my sons.”

That is what compunction means — to be pierced by the knowledge of one’s own responsibility; to realize that, as Joe Keller’s younger son assures him, we all “live in the world” and are connected to each other, and bear intimate responsibility for and to one another.

When the people of Jerusalem realized what it was they had done, their flowing tears were answered by the flowing fountain of grace that rose up to cleanse and restore. And this continues to happen as that precious fountain flows in every baptism.

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The second stage of our Scriptural baptismal liturgy comes in our continued reading from Saint Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. It marks the first stage in being equipped for service, which follows immediately upon the baptismal induction: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ.” This may simply be symbolic language, or it may be one of the earliest references to the white robe that was given to those who were baptized, as a symbol of their new life — the same white robe, called an alb, from the Latin word for “white,” that all of us who minister in the sanctuary are wearing now.

This white robe not only symbolizes baptismal purity and renewal but it also serves the practical function of being a uniform. Uniforms are designed to obscure the individual differences of those who wear them, and to make them more, well, uniform! It would be very distracting if all of us serving at the altar were wearing our street clothes. It’s the same with the choir — who are now enjoying their summer vacation and not having to wear an extra layer or two on top of their street clothes!

But there is a greater significance to this uniformity when it comes to baptism — for the uniform is not just a white robe, but in a very special way it is Christ himself in whom we are clothed. We have become little Christs — Christians — for we have put on his uniform, his likeness. And that uniform covers not just our street clothes, but all of the other things that might identify or divide us one from another.

Saint Paul mentions three categories of distinctiveness that disappear under the uniform of baptism. “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Christ covers over and conceals these distinctions — ethnic, social and sexual — most of them still quite capable of causing division in our own day, so you can imagine how divisive these categories were 2000 years ago! But for the baptized person, for the Christian who has put on Christ, these distinctions cease to have any consequence for us, or any ability to distract us from our mission. They disappear under the uniform, so we can be about our work.

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And that is the next step, for as anyone knows, just getting the uniform isn’t enough to be equipped to serve. People can get all dressed up and have no place to go! And so when we turn to the Gospel for today we come to that last bit of the baptismal liturgy that equips those who are baptized to serve. It’s a simple thing — it happens so quickly in a baptismal liturgy you might even miss it — as the priest takes holy oil and makes the sign of the cross on the forehead of the newly baptized, saying, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever.”

By doing this, we realize what Jesus said to his disciples: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” To be baptized means to bear that cross — and that cross is the essential equipment for our service to God and to our neighbor. For it is the cross that reminds us of Christ’s great gift to us and to the whole world. But it is useful as well as emblematic: it equips us in the way of deference, of giving of ourselves for the good of others — the opposite of the selfishness that puts down others or takes advantage of them.

When Saint Paul would write to the Ephesians about the Christian equipment, he would talk about that whole suit of armor: the helmet, shield, sword, and shoes. But here in the Gospel, Jesus presents us with one all-purpose tool: the cross that each of us bears day by day — as we walk in its shadow o’er us — as a reminder of what he did, and of what we are called to do as his followers — to set our own lives, our needs and desires, to one side; to deny ourselves and seek to serve others to the best of our ability in the strength that God will give us, through the cross.

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And so we return to that place on Calvary, and take our stand near the cross, near the cross — where the precious fountain of grace rises up, and the waters overflow in which we have been immersed, and by which we have been cleansed. And we rise from those waters to be clothed upon from on high with the uniform of God’s service, given a robe, and crowned with the sign of the cross in the middle of our foreheads.

We have been commissioned, my friends, commissioned and equipped to do God’s work in the world. Let none of us stand idle, but trust in his spirit to empower us to do the work he has given us to do, “till our raptured souls shall find Rest beyond the river.”+

Monday, June 18, 2007

Good Housekeeping

SJF • Prober 6c • Tobias Haller BSG
Keep, O Lord, your household the Church in your steadfast faith and love, that through your grace we may proclaim your truth with boldness, and minister your justice with compassion.
I spoke last week of how little Saint Paul seemed to have learned from his teacher Rabbi Gamaliel when it came to being tolerant of those with whom he disagreed, and you can see some ripe examples of Paul’s intolerance in today’s reading from his Letter to the Galatians. He was clearly more than a little put out with Cephas — that’s Saint Peter — concerning what was to be required of Gentiles who joined the early church. Paul was not afraid to go toe-to-toe with Peter over this issue, and called him on his hypocrisy.

The fact is, Paul was right to call Peter on this; what is troubling is the way he went about it. Peter had “caved” to pressure from the traditionalist wing of the church — those who insisted that Gentile converts to Christ needed to observe the Jewish law in order to be Christians. This made Paul simply furious, and in this letter you see him in high ranting mode: if Jews can’t keep the law — and I’m talking about you, Peter! — how can you expect Gentiles to? Make no mistake about it, Paul did not make many friends with this kind of language; and one might go so far as to wonder if the cause of the church might have been better advanced with a more harmonious approach.

For as the collect with which we began the our worship today, and with which I began this sermon, affirms, we do indeed call upon our Lord to keep this household of the church steadfast in faith. We want to hold the faith that Saint Paul preached, that we are justified in Christ through faith, and not by the works of the law; that we are saved by Christ, and not by our own efforts to follow a set of rules — a set of rules that even those to whom they were originally given, the people of Israel, were unable to keep.

We want to hold fast to this faith; but we also pray for our household the church to be kept steadfast in God’s love. Faith and love go together, and we need them both. That is why the collect goes on to ask for the grace not only to proclaim the truth with boldness, but to minister God’s justice with compassion.

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There is a wonderful example of this ability to combine justice and compassion, faith and love, in our Old Testament reading this morning. King David has done something terrible — something that wouldn’t be out of place in an episode of the Sopranos. He fell in love with another man’s wife, seduced her, and then, when he couldn’t get her husband to sleep with her so that he might think that the child she would bear was his, sent the husband off into battle, and then arranged for the other troops to fall back and leave him exposed, so that he would certainly be killed in action. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to understand why it is that “the thing that David had done displeased the Lord.” And God sent Nathan the prophet to David.

And that’s where we see compassion mixed with justice. Nathan doesn’t confront David in Saint Paul style, going toe-to-toe and telling him what a terrible man he is, and what a terrible thing it is that he has done. Rather, Nathan tells David a story and then allows David’s own conscience to convict him — to open his eyes to the error of his ways.

It is one of the most powerful confrontations in all of Scripture, a powerful mixture of compassion and justice. God punishes David by taking the child who is the fruit of this adultery — and let us be careful not to interpret this as a punishment of the child, whom God takes to himself in his innocence. The punishment falls on David, to lose the child who might have been his heir, as Bathsheba’s next son, Solomon, would indeed be. David would later say, after the child of his adultery was taken up by God, “I will go to him, but he shall not return to me.” And so God’s justice is exacted, and yet by God’s compassion David is led not only to repentance but to an ever deeper understanding of God’s power and love.

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We see an even more eloquent example of this in the Gospel reading. The stage is set for a drama of contrasts: Simon the Pharisee, no doubt intrigued by what he has heard of Jesus, invites him into his home to dine with him. And a woman from the city, a sinner — and I don’t think I have to tell you what kind of a sinner she is — comes in and makes an incredible display of herself at Jesus’s feet. You may remember I’ve explained before that the reason she can stand behind him at his feet and wash his feet with her hair is due to Jesus lying on a couch at the meal, in the Roman style of that time. Had they been sitting at a dining table she would have to have been a contortionist!

Now, contortion or not, it takes no imagination to picture the look of indignation on Simon the Pharisee’s face. Pharisees, remember, are the people who are very fussy about observing the law — about not touching anything unclean, about washing your hands before eating, and making sure all the vessels are ritually pure. They are the Hyacinth Buckets — it’s Bouquet — of first-century Judaism. These are people who are trying to do the very thing Saint Paul told Saint Peter no one could do: follow the law in all its details down to the last jot and tittle, including how to fold your napkin after you’ve wiped your hands.

But Jesus, the ever-compassionate Jesus, doesn’t turn on the Pharisee and read him the riot act — which, as we know from other confrontations with Pharisees, he was perfectly capable of doing! Rather in this case he takes Nathan’s approach, and by telling a story that seems to be completely unrelated to the present situation, he gets Simon the Pharisee to convict himself. As a good teacher, he doesn’t spell out the answer to this moral dilemma; but provides the learner with the tools needed to understand it himself. He constructs a play within a play (or a story within the story) to catch the conscience of the Pharisee.

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We continue to pray that God will keep our household the church in his steadfast faith and love, so that we can proclaim God’s truth with boldness, and minister God’s justice with compassion. We pray this, but we often seem to lose the will to follow through on the harder work of helping people to help themselves in the moral dilemmas in which they find themselves — like Nathan and Jesus in our readings today. Too often in the church we hear voices raised that sound more like Paul or Simon than like Nathan or Jesus: quick to judge and condemn what they see as faithlessness, zealous and bold for the truth, and eager to see God’s justice carried out — but lacking in the love and compassion that would make their mission not only more effective, but more Christlike.

In doing this, as Saint Paul had the wisdom to realize about himself, they become noisy gongs or clanging cymbals: perhaps effective warning alarms to alert people to the very real moral danger in which they may find themselves; but ultimately less effective in actually saving people from themselves. Without love, without compassion, faith and justice lose half of their effectiveness.

Without love and compassion, the justice of the Pharisee would send that woman back out into the streets, to a life of sin and despair. Christ, in his love and compassion, allows this fallen woman not only to be with him where he is, but to minister to him, saved by her faith in response to his love and compassion.

Shall the church play the role of Paul at his most intolerant, or Simon the Pharisee at his most judgmental? Or shall we take the course of Nathan and of Christ and proclaim the truth in ways that those wounded by sin and despair can hear and be healed? Shall the church require its ministers to imagine themselves pure and free from sin by their own virtuous manner of life, by following the works of the law? Or shall it celebrate the ministry of those who do not sit in judgment but who, knowing their own weakness, lovingly and generously serve the body of Christ?

The woman of the city was no longer worried about her sins, which indeed were many, for she had turned to Christ. Nor does the gospel mention repentance — unusual for Luke who mentions it so often! Rather her tears reveal faith, hope, and love, flowing from the knowledge of forgiveness. We see in this incident the essence of the virtues incarnate in a woman thought by the Pharisee to be incapable of goodness, a woman who plays out the sacrament of baptism: with her voiceless confession of faith, the washing of her tears, anointing her Lord with fragrant ointment, sealed with the kiss of peace — and is then sent out in that peace to love and serve her Lord in the world.

Our Gospel today presents us two models for our encounter with Christ, and for Christian ministry. Here are two models for service to the body of Christ which is the church — the household of God. All who serve the Lord are sinners, yet all who serve the Lord are forgiven. Some will prefer to spend their time worrying about other people’s sins and whether the church can tolerate them. They will seek to obstruct their service, thinking all the while that they protect God’s body from the touch of unclean hands, and are simply being good housekeepers — like Hyacinth Bucket making people take off their shoes before entering her spotless house — if she lets them enter at all. Others will get on with the hopeful works of faith and love, of justice and compassion — the kind of good housekeeping that accepts the fact that there will be some cleaning up to do from time to time, because so many people have been made welcome in the house. Is there any question at all which of these Christ would rather have us do? +

Monday, June 11, 2007

The New Life

SJF • Proper 5c • Tobias Haller BSG
God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles.
Many of us here, at different points of our lives, have probably had the experience of starting over. Whether you call it turning over a new leaf, or starting a new life, I’m sure I am not the only one here who, after having had a career in one line of work, went back to college (or seminary, in my case) and took a new direction in a different field of endeavor. I know a number of you who have charted a new course in mid-life: who went back to school to get a master’s in social work, or in nursing, or to study some new emerging medical technology. Some of you left the land of your birth to come to this country in search of new possibilities in a new life. You began a new direction in your life — perhaps even such a different direction that you could call it a new life.


All of our scripture readings today describe new life. The Old Testament reading and the Gospel talk about new life literally — in both cases someone who has died is restored to life, two sons raised from the dead and returned to their mothers. These two readings form a kind of a golden setting for the gem of the central reading, in which Saint Paul tells the people of Galatia about his conversion, his new life which was such a departure from his earlier life in Judaism. The two outer readings, describing a literal new life, form as it were a “Saint Paul sandwich” — as that central reading from his letter to the Galatians tells of his figurative new life. And it is on the filling in this sandwich that I want to focus my attention.


Unlike some of us who’ve changed our course of life in middle age because we were dissatisfied with how our lives were going, or felt a call to do something different with our lives than we were doing — Saint Paul was perfectly happy with his earlier life. Make no mistake about it, he was a star! As he says, he advanced beyond many among his people of the same age, and was far more zealous for the traditions of his heritage than they. We know from other accounts that he studied at the feet of one of the greatest rabbis of all time, Gamaliel the Great — who himself appears in the New Testament when he advises the Jewish leaders not to take a violent approach towards this new way called Christianity, lest they find themselves in the position of opposing God’s will.

It is ironic, though, that however good a student Paul was, he didn’t pick up on his teacher Gamaliel’s cautious generosity towards new things. No, Saint Paul was what we would call today — and what he called himself then — “a traditionalist.” He wanted things to be the way they always were, and he didn’t like change, particularly change that challenged things near and dear to this heart. While his teacher Gamaliel would call for toleration, Paul was zealous in his intolerance, and proud of it. He was not just politely advising people not to pay any attention to the Christians, to leave them alone and let this strange movement sputter and die out. No, Paul was busily seeking out Christian believers, arresting them, and seeing to it that the harshest penalty possible was carried out against them: he saw to it that Christians were put to death. He was not just a sympathizer in the anti-Christian cause, he was a zealot, a ringleader. And he became famous for it: so famous that he could assume that the people in far-off Galatia have heard, no doubt, of his earlier life in Judaism — before his new life began.

The reason Paul has to explain all this, of course, is because of that change of direction he took, that new life he began to live after his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus. It required explanation because it was such a complete turnaround, such a change — as the Christians in Judea heard, “the one who formerly was persecuting us is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy.” This was not just a course correction: it was a 180-degree turn. It was a whole new life. It was like being raised from the dead. It was like being born again.

We hear stories of such amazing changes from time to time; many of them involving an encounter with Christ, perhaps not quite as literally as Paul’s encounter on that road to Damascus, but nonetheless real in its effect. I’m sure many of you here know about John Newton — the slave trader who began his conversion in the midst of a storm at sea, when the slave ship of which he was captain was in danger of sinking. There is an old saying that there are no atheists in foxholes, and the same goes for sinking ships! The thing is that John Newton followed up on his hasty intentions in the midst of a storm at sea, and eventually became an Anglican priest. He is remembered to us today chiefly because of his hymns, including what is considered the most popular hymn of all time, “Amazing Grace.”

But it is important to recognize that with John Newton, as with Saint Paul, the moment of conversion, the beginning of the new life, was followed up by, well, life. There was much, much more to Paul’s life and Newton’s life than simply the moment of conversion. In fact, conversion was an ongoing process throughout their lives. Throughout his ministry, Paul had his moments of intolerance, when his old impatient ways would come to the fore — just look at the later chapters of his Letter to the Galatians! — and he learned the hard lesson of patience in adversity.

And John Newton had to grow into his conversion, too. He did not, for example, immediately give up the slave trade after that stormy night and hasty conversion. It took a number of years for the light to break through completely, and for him to realize the error of his ways. He had a long way to go, and much more to experience, before he would join in the abolition movement with William Wilberforce, and help end the slave trade. And ironically, he did that in part by convincing Wilberforce not to enter the ministry, that is, not to change his course in life, but to remain as a member of Parliament, where he could work for decades to change the law of the land and eventually bring an end to the slave trade in 1807 — two hundred years ago last March.

But there was a long space of time between the stormy night of 1748 and Newton’s joining the abolitionists! Although something in Newton had changed in 1748 in the midst of that storm, although he had been born again that night, still there was much more to come as his new life took shape. He would later say that even after his conversion, “I was greatly deficient in many respects... I cannot consider myself to have been a believer (in the full sense of the word) till a considerable time afterwards.” Like any newborn, one who is born again has to grow into his or her new life, to come to maturity in that new life. It took years for him to realize that slavery itself was wrong, as Newton slowly learned the moral ABCs of his new faith, step by step, first crawling, then toddling, and finally walking tall and proud, in the full stature of Christ.

As Newton would put it, “I am not what I might be, I am not what I ought to be, I am not what I wish to be, I am not what I hope to be. But I thank God I am not what I once was, and I can say with the great apostle, ‘By the grace of God I am what I am.’” It is that amazing grace that not only starts us off on our new life in Christ, but teaches us the responsibilities that new life requires, and enables us to continue that life, a life that is lived, and lived out, in performing the actions of love and service that God commends — and commands.


All of us here have been born again in Christ — some a long time ago, some more recently. All of us are living a new life, far newer than just a different career or line of work, but a life that is new at its very core. And we are all of us still growing in that new life, still learning, still finding new opportunities to love and serve God and our neighbors. Few of us will make such a turnaround as John Newton, from slave trader to abolitionist. Few of us will have the impact on the world that Saint Paul or William Wilberforce did. Yet each of us has been given a gift, a precious gift of new life.

What will we make of it, this new life? The good news is that what we make of it need not be our own doing any more than the new start was our own doing. The grace of God in Christ is at work in us every day, not just the day we first encountered him in our hearts. After all, as Saint Paul affirmed, God set us apart before we were born the first time, and is surely with us after we have been born again in his name! He is there to work with us, and to strengthen us to do his will — always and everywhere. He is not just a life preserver to be called on when the boat is sinking! He preserves our life every moment of every day, our new life — the life he gave us when we were born again in his name.

The new life is a life to be lived, my friends. Our rescue was only the beginning, and life lies before us in a path that not only leads us to God, but upon which God is with us every step of the way. So let us live life to the full, and say in full assurance, John Newton’s powerful words, “The Lord has promis’d good to me, His word my hope secures; He will my shield and portion be, As long as life endures.”