Sunday, July 22, 2007

Only One Thing

St James Fordham • Proper 11c • Tobias Haller BSG
Jesus said to Martha, “One thing is necessary…” +

Have you ever been a dinner guest in someone’s home, only to find that your hosts are so busy tending to the cooking, the serving, and the cleaning up that you feel as though you might as well have gone to a restaurant without them? In spite of their good intentions to make the meal pleasurable, your hosts have missed the point of your visit: you were there for them, not for the food, however good it might be. The meal was only the vehicle for the real purpose of your visit, your fellowship and friendship your time of sharing, the companionship of company.

Well, this misplacement of the purpose of hospitality is what happens in our Gospel reading for today. Martha, dear, eager, hardworking Martha, taking pains to please her special guest, gets distracted from the guest himself, caught up with the many details of first-century Palestinian cuisine. This is long before the gas-range, and the refrigerator, to say nothing of the microwave and Wonder Bread.

We get a glimpse of the meal preparations needed in the reading from Genesis, a detailed description of just how much work was required when you had a dinner guest in the ancient Near East. If you want bread, you have to bake it — you don’t just run around the corner to the Associated. You want beef stew? Well, the recipe starts: “Run to the herd, take one calf, tender and good…” I guess the closest we come these days to that sort meal preparation is when we go to Red Lobster and get to see our future dinner swimming in a tank in the lobby! However, back in those days — little changed from Abraham’s to Martha’s — every aspect of meal preparation took much longer, before all our modern appliances.

So we can be sure there is plenty of work for Martha to be distracted by in preparing a meal for her special guest; and one can easily understand the testiness in her tone when she complains that her sister is just sitting there while she does all the work. Jesus, however, gently reminds this hard-working woman, that in the midst of all her busyness, she has neglected the one thing that is really important: his presence there in that household.

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All preparation has a purpose, though it can be difficult to keep our eyes and hearts on that purpose. How do we remain attentive to Jesus in the midst of our all-too-busy lives? How do we find the time to sit at his feet while all around us there is so much to do?

I believe we will find the answer in that reading from Genesis. All the preparation that Abraham, his servants, and his wife make for the trio of guests — whom Abraham rightly recognizes as no ordinary visitors — all of these preparations lead up to an announcement. And the announcement is so off-the-wall, so unexpected, that Sarah literally laughs out loud when she hears it.

It is a birth announcement, among the strangest ever heard: this ancient couple — Abraham nearly 100 years old, and Sarah in her early nineties — this aged pair will soon be the proud parents of a bouncing baby boy. No wonder Sarah laughs! How could a child come from the withered loins of an old man, the dry womb of an ancient woman? Lift the tent-flap and peek into the tent: You can picture the grin spreading on those parchment cheeks, the desert-engraved fan of laughing wrinkles spreading from the corners of her eyes, over the blushing giggle: “Now that I’m old, and he’s even older, shall I have pleasure from the old fellow still!” This was, after all, long before Viagra!

But the Lord is more miraculous than any modern pharmaceutical, and he gently chides her, having heard every word even though she is in the tent. And, ever considerate, the Lord even misquotes her, when he speaks to Abraham, — who, we must assume, is a little hard of hearing — to forestall Abraham taking offense at the suggestion he might not be up to the task of fathering a child. So, instead of God saying, “Why did she say, ‘Shall I have pleasure?’” God asks, “Why did she say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child!’” But then God goes further and says, “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? Sarah shall have a son!”

Of course, Sarah hears all this through the tent-flap. And does her laughter stop then? Does she choke for a second on a sob or a gasp, a hope she’s long forgotten? Sarah has grown old — old and childless. Desperate for a son, she’s already taken what she thought was the last resort: allowing her husband to sleep with her slave girl, hoping to experience surrogate motherhood through someone else. But now, now the Lord is promising that from her own womb a son will be born. She herself will give birth, and her dream and Abraham’s dream will be fulfilled.

This is, for Abraham and Sarah, the one thing necessary: an heir of their own flesh and blood, who will fulfill God’s promise already made to Abraham, the promise that with their son God will establish an everlasting covenant.Gen 17.19

All preparations, you see, have a purpose; and God’s preparations were far longer in the works than even those for the most elaborate banquet. Think of it: All of God’s work in creation, and then the Flood that wipes it all out to start over, after the massive cleanup; all God’s patient care for Abraham as he wandered far from home; and human labor too: all their work to prepare the meal for the divine visitors, all the hustle and bustle and to-ing and fro-ing that Abraham and Sarah undertake; all of this work, divine and human, crystallizes in this revelation of God’s promise, this one necessary thing, this one precious piece of news, this announcement of a new birth.

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All preparations have a purpose. When Jesus gently chides Martha, he is helping her to see that the generous purpose for all her work was to allow him to sit, and then for her finally to sit down too, at her sister’s side, to focus on the one necessary thing: the one great and wonderful piece of news: Jesus is here.

So too, all our labor of worship and devotion is of no use to us at all unless Christ is born within us, unless we too can say, Jesus is here. Our labor to bring Christ to birth in our hearts is like the labor of a woman in childbirth. It is this labor that Paul describes in his letter to the Colossians. He rejoices in his sufferings for the sake of those for whom Christ will become present by means of that pain, bringing to birth the mystery hidden for ages and generations but made manifest to the saints, which is, as Saint Paul says, “Christ in you.”

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All preparations have a purpose. All labor and pain and suffering can lead us to consciousness of the presence of Christ with us and in us. Each of us bears Christ, in our own flesh — completing what is yet to be completed, each suffering and labor pain we feel joined with the suffering of Christ himself, Christ made present, Christ born in the midst of pain, but revealing glory and mercy in that very birth.

All preparations have a purpose, and God’s purpose for us, through our whole life long, through all our busyness and occupation with many things, through all our labor and work, through our devotion and praise, through our suffering and pain, and even through our doubts and fears — as Sarah doubted, and the disciples feared — God’s purpose is that Christ himself be born in each of us: and that we be with him where he is — he, who is himself the one thing needed, the good portion, and who can never be taken away from us. And so, as Phillips Brooks wrote in his immortal hymn, “O holy child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray; cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today. We heard the Christmas angels, the great glad tidings tell; O come to us, abide with us, our Lord, Emmanuel!”+

Monday, July 16, 2007

Very Near To You

SJF • Proper 10c 2007 • Tobias Haller BSG
Grant, O Lord, that your people may know and understand what things they ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to accomplish them.+
In his short story, “The Fruit at the Bottom of the Bowl,” Ray Bradbury describes what happens to a man who loses track. It begins with the main character of the story standing over the body of the man he has just murdered. No one else is around, no one has seen him come, and no one is likely to see him leave. Still, he realizes he has left traces of himself in the form of fingerprints all around the living room. And so he finds a cloth and begins wiping the arm of the leather chair, and then the top of the table; and, of course, the glass from which he had enjoyed a drink. Then there’s the door knob of the library — and he’d better do the one on the inside as well. And the front door, both handles. And did he touch the edge of the doorway when he came in? Give it a rubdown just in case. And that marble-topped table in the foyer — did he set his hand on the top of it when he passed by?

He sets to work, polishing everything he can think of — even things that thinking should tell him he hasn’t touched; but he can no longer be sure. He even polishes the fruit at the bottom of the bowl which gives the story its title, and completely loses himself in his effort to wipe away any evidence that he had been there.

When the police finally arrive — I don’t recall the detail from the story; perhaps because the murdered man has missed an appointment — they enter the house and find it gleaming. Every surface is polished within an inch of its life. Martha Stewart would be put to shame! Then, hearing some noise from upstairs, they find the murderer, frantically polishing coins from a chest in the back corner of the attic.

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Now, what, you may ask, what does this have to do with the Good Samaritan? Well, the resemblance begins as our gospel passage begins, when a lawyer asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life — that is, how do I escape the human predicament of guilt and wrong, just like the man who tried to wipe away his fingerprints? Jesus throws the question right back at him, essentially saying, “You’re the lawyer; what does the law say?” And the lawyer quotes the well-known Summary of the Law — and it is good to note that Luke puts this summary, a combination of two verses from Deuteronomy and Leviticus, into the lawyer’s mouth. Jesus approves this summary, but then the lawyer wants to justify himself and asks, “And who is my neighbor?”

It is a reasonable question for the lawyer to ask. Does it mean neighbor literally — the person who lives next door? Or could it mean people who live as much as two or three doors away? Or anyone in the neighborhood? And just where is the edge of the neighborhood — where does Fordham become
Kingsbridge Heights or edge over into Mosholu or Norwood? Is it just this borough, or the whole city? Do I just wipe my fingerprints off the doorknobs and the glass, or do I have to go rummaging in the bottom of the fruit-bowl, or climb the ladder to the attic?

Seen in this way, the question is, What is the limit of one’s responsibility? In my sermon last week I mentioned Marley’s plaintive statement, “Mankind was my business.” But Scrooge, even after his reclamation, didn’t try to save all of mankind, or even everyone in the good old city of London! He helped Bob Cratchit, and Tiny Tim, and many others — but not everybody. And the people in the Titanic’s lifeboats, who didn’t row back to rescue other passengers, weren’t expected to rescue everybody — but they could have rescued somebody.

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In his response to the lawyer, Jesus shows by way of a parable the kind of response he expects. We know nothing else about the Good Samaritan apart from his being a Samaritan and being good. All we know is that unlike the priest and the Levite, he doesn’t ignore the man he comes across on his journey. As far as we know, he’s not an ambulance driver or a homeless shelter coordinator or a social worker going out searching for injured or homeless people to see to their needs. He simply responds to the needy person who is actually in his path. And that’s important — not in his neighborhood (after all, he’s from Samaria) but in his path. The presence of this wounded man on the road is an opportunity for ministry — a ministry rejected by the priest and the Levite, even though they were on the same path, but an opportunity for ministry to which the Samaritan responds. And he is the one about whom Jesus says to the lawyer, “Go and do likewise.”

The message to us, then, is that God will provide us with opportunities for ministry, too; and when those opportunities arise, God expects us to take advantage of them. We are not to cross to the other side and pass by.

While God will give us such opportunities to do good, God does not expect us, either as individuals or as a congregation, or even as an entire church, to solve all the problems of the world — to wipe out to world hunger, and poverty, and disease — on our own. But God does give us the opportunity to feed someone, to help someone who is down on his luck, and to offer care and comfort to someone who is sick. We cannot on our own solve all the problems of the world; but individually we can help to address the needs of other individuals — and they are our neighbors no matter how far away they live. And in the long run every generous act will contribute to the net balance of good in the world, even the smallest act of kindness adding to the blessing. And enough grains of sand will eventually make an island. Enough good done will go far to making the world a better place.

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There is an old story that is such a cliché I’m hesitant to retell it, but it is so to the point that I will. There was a man who would walk up and down the beach every day picking up stranded starfish on his path, starfish that had washed up beyond the reach of the waves, and gently toss them back into the sea. A person who watched him doing this for awhile said to him, “Why are you wasting your time throwing those starfish back into the sea? There are thousands of them! What difference do you think it makes?” The man looked down at the starfish in his hand, paused for a moment, then tossed it into the sea, and said, “It makes a difference to that one.”

The simple fact is, God doesn’t ask the impossible of us. God doesn’t expect us to save the world — he already did that almost 2000 years ago, and he did it while nailed to a cross. But God does expect us to love him and our neighbors; and to show that love by treating all whom we encounter with that same respect and care that he showed for the whole world. God does not give us more than we can handle. His law of love is not incomprehensible or far away — you don’t have to go running up to heaven to find it; you don’t have to cross over to the other side of the sea to hear of it; you don’t have to rummage in the bottom of the fruit-bowl or climb the rickety ladder to the attic to find it. The law of love is very near to us, in our mouth and in our heart. And our neighbor, to whom God wills we show that love is near us in spirit and in fact.

Whether that neighbor is the person sitting next to you in the pew, a person to whom a kind word or smile might just make their day; or whether that neighbor is a child in Dabalo parish 85 miles north of Dodoma in Tanzania on the other side of the world — a child who now has a new school uniform and shoes, and books and pencils and paper, and a good breakfast every day, because someone here in this parish chose to help — God gives us neighbors aplenty to love and serve as we love and serve him. The law of God is not too hard — it is very near to us, as near as our nearest neighbor, as far as our hearts can reach.

As the wonderful old Ghanaian hymn says, “Neighbors are rich and poor, neighbors are black and white, neighbors are nearby and far away. These are the ones we should serve, these are the ones we should love. All are neighbors to us and you. Jesu, Jesu, fill us with your love, show us how to serve the neighbors we have from you.”

Grant, O Lord, that your people may know and understand what things they ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to accomplish them; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.+

Monday, July 09, 2007

Bearing the Burden

St James Fordham • Proper 9c • Tobias Haller BSG

Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.+

I imagine that many of you here this morning saw the film Titanic when it came out a few years back, or perhaps one of the earlier versions such as A Night to Remember, or if you haven’t, you at least know the story of that tragic disaster. The story strikes close to home in this parish — for as I recently learned one of the survivors of the tragedy, Colonel Archibald Gracie, was the grandson of one of the founding members of this parish. He was a hero of that terrible night, staying on board the ship helping people into the lifeboats right up until it sank, and survived because he managed to catch hold of one of the capsized collapsible boats, and under the guidance of one of the ship’s crew, stand — yes I said “stand” — along with about thirty other survivors balanced on the hull and tilting from side to side to keep the upside-down boat steady against the swell; until they were rescued by the Carpathia.

But another aspect of this tragedy, perhaps even less well known until the most recent film version portrayed it, is the fact that all but one of the lifeboats refused to row back after the ship had sunk, to gather more survivors from the water. Most of the lifeboats were far from full, some less than half — such was the haste and unpreparedness of the evacuation. There was plenty of room to save dozens of other lives — but only Lifeboat Number 14 turned back, seeking out survivors floating and slowly freezing to death in the icy waters.

The rest of the lifeboats remained distant, out at the edge of the wreckage, but not so far that those lucky enough to have made it into them were unable to hear the cries for help, cries that slowly weakened, grew hoarse, and then weak, and then silent, until all that was left was the quiet lapping of the water, the creak of planks, the bump of flotsam against the sides of the boats in that calm, cold, cold water. The survivors were left to contemplate in silence the imponderable weight of their guilt.

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“Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” This is Saint Paul’s word to us this morning. “Bear one another’s burdens.” I’ve pointed out to you before how well the nave of this church lives up to its name — for this church building is like an inverted naval vessel, a boat turned upside down with its ribs becoming the roof-beams — as upside down as that capsized boat that saved the lives of 30-some people along with Mr. Gracie’s grandson. And sure enough our roof used to leak like a sinking ship until we fixed the big holes in the roof there, and there, and there!

But there is a deeper truth to this — and that is that the church has long been known as the vessel of salvation, a lifeboat — even an upside-down one — that saves from a dying world. And if this is so — and I believe it is or we are wasting our time — then the church cannot be a lifeboat that hangs back on the edges of the shipwreck, half-empty, ignoring the cries of those in need.

Why, after all, did the Titanic’s lifeboats hold back? Why did all but those in Lifeboat Number 14 close their ears and their hearts to the cries for help? The sad answer is they were afraid: afraid that if they went back, those still in the water would cling to the boats, would swamp them and sink them, and that all would founder and drown.

Yet Lifeboat 14 did not founder; it did not sink; it saved a precious few more who otherwise would have surely died. The risk that one boat took could have been taken by most of the others, and how many more would have lived to tell their children and their grandchildren the story of that fateful night?

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Does the church act the same way from time to time? Do we, the church’s members, fear that if the church grows too much we will lose something, something precious? I have heard of parishes that want to stay small because they like the feeling of everybody knowing everybody else. I have heard of parishes that want to stay small because a few people like to have the last word on this or that, and the fewer the people, the easier it is for them to keep control. I have heard of parishes that fail to reach out into their communities so that they can preserve their “identity.”

But my dear brothers and sisters, what identity is worth having if it is not the identity of Christ? Of what use is our “Anglican identity” if it does not serve Christ. The harvest is great and the laborers are few: can the church stand idle and fail to send out workers to harvest the abundant wheat, simply because it would rather harvest rye?

We cannot choose what voices will cry out to us from the cold and darkness that surrounds our lifeboat. We can only hear their cry, and choose to help them or ignore them. “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”

Paul continues his admonition, “all must carry their own loads.” This may seem at first a contradiction. Is Paul saying, Mind your own business; take care of your own lifeboat?” Well, yes, in a way, he is. The problem is, we don’t always know what our lifeboat is, what the heart and soul of our life itself is; we don’t know what our business is half of the time, we are so busy minding it.

Jacob Marley from Dickens’ Christmas Carol learned too late what his business was, and from beyond the grave he warned his old colleague Ebenezer Scrooge. When the old miser complimented Marley’s ghost on always having been a “good man of business,” the angry ghost rose to his feet, shaking the chains he had forged in life, and cried out in anguish, “Business? Mankind was my business!”

Well, mankind is our business, too. The proper use of a lifeboat is to save lives, to save as many lives as it can, not to row about half-empty in the dark, while people freeze to death. The business of being human is involvement with what matters to humanity, the human community in which “no man is an island,” and in which we all have a responsibility for the well-being and the salvation of our brothers and sisters. Remember, it was the first murderer who asked, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” There are no innocent bystanders — and we all have the option of helping those in need.

So surely it is true, we all must carry our own loads: but our most important burden is the burden of our neighbor. It is, in fact, our neighbor himself.

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One day a student asked the great anthropologist, Margaret Mead — who, by the way, was an Episcopalian and participated in the creation of our present Book of Common Prayer — a student asked Mead what she regarded as the earliest sign of civilization. Was it an axe-blade, an arrowhead, a fish-hook, or something more sophisticated, such as a musical instrument or a pottery bowl? She answered, “A healed human femur.” Not something made by a human, but something human: a healed human leg-bone; not an artifact, but a part of someone who once lived and walked this earth, until the leg was broken, and given time to heal.

She explained to the surprised student that where the law of survival of the fittest reigns, a broken leg spells certain death. When you can’t make it on your own, you die. But a healed leg-bone is physical evidence that someone cared. Someone else gathered food for that injured person until the leg was healed. Someone cared for that person until they were able to care for themselves. Someone expressed what Mead regarded as the first sign of civilization: compassion.

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One cold night in 1912, a group of people by all other standards considered civilized, by many standards considered the very cream of society, failed to fulfill the law of Christ, the law of compassion, the law of love. In the face of tremendous need, all but one of the lifeboats drifted in idleness and half-emptiness.

The world is in no less trouble now than the Titanic was that night. People are dying all around us, dying spiritually and physically, and calling for our help. Some have given up hope, and aren’t even crying out any longer. Our little lifeboat, our little church, as leaky as it once was, may seem too small to do any good: but look around. Our vessel isn’t foundering upside-down; the leaks have been repaired — and there is still plenty of room.

Inviting new people to join us will involve some risk. We may find that the newcomers will have different favorite hymns than we do. We may find that they don’t share all of the same traditions we do. We may find ourselves challenged — but we will also find ourselves blessed. For in bearing one another’s burdens, we will be fulfilling the law of Christ. The harvest is plentiful, the laborers few. And who dares stand idle on the harvest plain?+

Monday, July 02, 2007

Where are you going?

SJF• Proper 8c • Tobias Haller BSG
Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.+

Have you ever given someone directions, and then realized too late, after the person is on their way that you’ve left out some important detail, some turn of the road, or an important landmark? Well, I know I have. I’ve also been known to yell out, Turn left here; left, left — all the while meaning right! We all like to think we know where we are going, or at least hope that others think we know where we are going. Some people — men, in particular — will often drive for miles out of their way rather than ask for directions! We like to know where we are, and where we are headed. If you ask for a map and someone hands you a blank piece of paper, you are not likely to be amused.

Yet this seems to be just what Jesus does today, when an unnamed “someone” comes up to him and says he will follow Jesus wherever he goes. Jesus answers him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Now, Jesus knows full well where he is going: he is going, as he tells the unnamed “someone”, “nowhere” — a very particular nowhere. For the days have drawn near for him to be taken up. His datebook is marked, his appointment set and calendar confirmed: Jerusalem, Good Friday, three o’clock in the afternoon — crucified, dead and buried just outside the city walls. Jesus is headed for the great “nowhere” called death, death on the cross.

And who really wants to follow him there? Who of the folks so eager to be with Jesus in today’s gospel would go with him if they knew his destination? And how many of us are ready to take up our cross and follow him, as last week’s gospel reading told us to do? Are we free enough to take up that yoke of service, to crucify our expectations and desires for the sake of the kingdom of God?

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Jesus encounters three people in today’s Gospel: the enthusiast, the postponer, and the half-hearted. And the answer to all of them, and to all of us, is the same: stay with Jesus come what may; don’t delay in seeking him. And trust in him with your whole heart: for only in him is salvation to be found. Jesus shows us, in this Gospel, the place, the time, and the way in which we should follow him.

First comes the willing enthusiast, ready (it seems) to follow Jesus wherever he goes, only to fade into the background when Jesus says that following him will not lead to security, but risk. How many of us remember the early days when we first discovered the faith, and the consolations it brought? And then came those dry spells, when God seemed distant, and prayer and worship seemed routine; and we lost our sense of direction for a bit, perhaps even losing sight of Jesus himself for a time. Thank God we stuck with it, persevering through the dry valleys until we reached the refreshing springs again.

Yet as I look out and see the empty spaces in this very church, I can’t help but wonder, how many have yet to find the way to the water of life! And what can we do to help? This is a challenge, a challenge as great as the one that Jesus issued to the man who said he’d follow him anywhere. If you would follow Jesus anywhere, then at least follow him somewhere — here to the church, where he has promised that when two or three are gathered he will be in their midst. And wouldn’t it be nice if it was two or three hundred — and it can be if we reach out with the same enthusiasm with which we come in. For we know that this is the place where Jesus is.

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Next comes the postponer. Now, this point is easy to miss: the man is not saying, My father just died so let me bury him. That would be over and done with by sundown, according to the law. What this man is saying is, Let me wait until my father dies, and I come into my inheritance, then I will follow you. And Jesus’ response to him is a warning: if you are not free enough to give up the hope of your inheritance now, you will not be free to give it up once it is in your hands. The wealth of this world is dead baggage that will drag you down, in anticipation or in actuality. Drop it now, put it down now, and go and proclaim the kingdom that cannot be bought with money. Lay aside the earthly burdens that will tie you down with a false hope or a burdensome certainty — and be led by the Spirit’s tether, God’s Spirit that will lead you to God. Now is the time.

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Finally we have the half-hearted soul, the one with divided loyalties. And this is the hardest challenge: who would leave home without so much as a goodbye? Yet the teaching Jesus proclaims here is not to be rude to your family, but to remain focused on the goal. There can be no half-hearted disciples in the kingdom of God. Those more interested in looking over their shoulder to check if the world approves of them, will lose sight of Jesus, the only one whose approval, in the final analysis, counts. This is how we should follow Jesus: not beset by insecurity, not looking over our shoulder, but whole-heartedly, keeping our eyes fixed on him. He is the Way.

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And so it seems that the map that Jesus gives us is not so blank after all. No, it is all too clear! This is the place, now is the time, and he is the way. Foxes have holes, and birds have their nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head. He himself is the place, and the time, and the way, a map first displayed on a little hill outside the walls of Jerusalem, a map spread out and nailed to a cross, a map that shows us salvation in the flesh of Jesus Christ, in whom we have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires, and live in the power of the Spirit, in the kingdom of God the Father, to whom be glory now and for ever.+