Monday, August 27, 2007

Whole Lot of Shaking

SJF • Proper 16c • Tobias Haller BSG
See, I am laying in Zion a foundation stone, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation: one who trusts will not panic.

The last few weeks have been striking for the number of natural disasters that have struck various parts of the world. In addition to the earthquake in Peru, fires in Greece and out west, we saw Hurricane Dean sweep through the West Indies and on into Mexico, with devastating rain, wind and flooding.

I can also personally attest to the effects of the somewhat milder tropical depression that blew through San Antonio when Brother James and I were there two weeks ago. San Antonio is in the middle of what is normally a desert; so when they get 10 inches of rain in an afternoon they literally don’t know what to do with it. The streets and drainage systems were never designed to deal with that amount of water arriving that quickly.

Earlier in the week something had happened to us on our arrival, which at that time left us a good bit angry with the car rental company. We had reserved a sedan; but on our arrival the car-rental company had literally nothing to offer us — their parking lot was empty and according to their records they weren’t expecting a return of a sedan until the next morning! Just as we were lecturing with them about this incompetence — and believe me, you don’t want to be on the receiving end of a lecture on business practice from Brother James! — someone returned a Dodge Durango SUV, which they offered us in place of the sedan — at no extra cost! Of course, the Texans thought this was a wonderful idea: who would prefer a sedan when they could get a big bad-ass SUV? Realizing it was pointless to argue — and that their cupboard was otherwise bare — we decided to take the SUV just so we could be on our way and begin to enjoy the vacation.

Well, needless to say, that SUV came in mighty handy when the floods came. You might say we were crazy to be a driving around in that kind of weather — but this was a Texas vacation — goll-darn-it — and we were plumb set on enjoying it. And I can tell you, we passed by many a flooded-out or stalled sedan as we managed — in our SUV — to ford the streams that flowed across many of the highways, filling all the low spots up to the bumpers.

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Today’s readings all speak of a world turned upside down, a world shaken to its foundations, a world rocked and rolled, and tested to the uttermost. And the tester here is not just wind and water, but the Lord God, the Almighty. What the Lord God is testing is the human heart — the extent to which people will place their trust in God alone, and what happens to them when they fail that test in a number of ways. Some place their trust in something other than God; others reject God out of hand; and still others seem to think it’s enough to have a nodding acquaintance with God rather than to be a member of God’s household. All of these are in for a surprise when the big shake-down comes.

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In the reading from Isaiah we hear of people who instead of trusting in the Lord God have made lies their refuge, and falsehood their shelter. They have even made a deal with death, an agreement with Sheol — which is the old Hebrew name for hell. But, as they might say in Texas, “What the hell kind of a help are lies and falsehood going to be in the face of Almighty God?” And it’s not as if God doesn’t offer them something better. God is offering them a foundation stone, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation — established by God in Zion. And one who takes a stand upon that stone will never be threatened; while the refuge of lies will be swept away by hail and the shelter of falsehood overwhelmed by the waters — and the covenant with death will be annulled, and the agreement with Sheol will not stand. God will test them with the line of justice and the plumb-line of righteousness — and all the lying substitutes will be swept away.

It doesn’t have to be that way — they are offered the sure foundation laid in Zion; but still they choose to live in houses of straw, in a refuge of lies. It’s as if, in the face of a coming flood, the Lord has offered them an SUV but they still insist on having a Cooper Mini!

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The Letter to the Hebrews shows an even stranger kind of response — not even accepting a substitute, but just refusing to accept God and God’s demands. The author refers back to the people of Israel who, gathered at the foot of Mount Sinai and terrified by the thunder and flashes of lightning, begged God to be silent — or to speak only to Moses and leave them alone. One can understand the response, foolish as it is — who would not be terrified at the descent of God to that mountaintop; and the blazing fire and darkness and gloom? And so the author offers Zion once again — a fantastic but beautiful vision of angels in a festive assembly, with God and all of the saints gathered around, and at the heart of it the Lord Jesus himself, speaking not with words of terrifying authority, but with love. Anyone would be foolish to reject that welcome.

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And yet, as our gospel shows, there were those who did reject that welcome when Jesus came to them, just as there are those who reject that welcome to this day — those who refuse to see in Jesus Christ the welcoming and forgiving mediator and advocate for the whole world.

Let us, though, be clear: even this welcome contains a warning. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem — to holy Zion — and as he passes through the towns and villages, any number of people nod benevolently or invite him to dinner, but do not seek to become members of his household, that is, disciples. They are somewhat like the people you hear of even today, who will say that Jesus was a very good man, and that his teachings of love and forbearance are quite wonderful — they stop short at Jesus the humanitarian, without ever coming accept Christ the Incarnation of the living God — himself the precious cornerstone, the sure foundation.

For Jesus Christ is not simply a human example of holy living — someone to be admired, the way you might admire the work of an artist. Rather Jesus Christ is the Son of God, one in whom we are made able, by the power of God at work in us, to do as he did, to follow in his footsteps; to take up our cross day by day. We are not called to be admiring art critics, but hard-working apprentice artists in his school. As he says in another passage that resonates with today’s Gospel, it is not enough to simply call him Lord, but to do as he says. It is not enough to honor him with our lips if we do not serve him with our lives.

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The great testing waters of God’s judgment will come upon us in this life. Will we pass the test? Will we be found stalled-out or flooded in an economy car built out of lies and falsehoods? Or will we be secure in the SUV — that’s the Saving Universal Verity — the ultimate and universal saving Truth that God provides for us in Jesus Christ? Will we cover our ears to God’s persistent voice speaking to us, or open them, and our hearts as well, to listen to his voice and to do as he says? Will we do more than simply speak well of him, do more even than eating and drinking with him here at this Table, by going forth from this place into the four corners of the world to carry the message of salvation and do the works of mercy as his disciples, as members of his household, doing the work that God would have us do day by day and year by year?

There will be a whole lot of shaking going on one day. Whether you fall or whether you stand will depend on the foundation upon which your feet are fixed. Choose rightly, and stand firm with Jesus Christ our Lord.+

Monday, August 06, 2007

All Things Come of Thee

Saint James Fordham • Proper 13c • Tobias Haller BSG
Above all clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.

The late Methodist Bishop Edwin Hughes once delivered a rousing sermon on the subject of “God’s Ownership” of all that we think of as ours. It went over very well, except in the eyes of one particular member of the congregation. This man was one of the wealthiest in town, and the sermon simply didn’t sit right with him. So, rather than merely button-holing the bishop in the narthex or at the church door, he invited him to lunch at his estate. He was sure he could set the bishop straight. After the luncheon, he took the bishop on a tour of his lands, showing off his gardens, woodlands, and farm. Finally, he confronted the bishop, and said, “Now, are you still going to tell me that all of this land does not belong to me?” The bishop paused, and then with a gentle smile asked, “Will you be able to ask me the same question in a hundred years?”

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The wisdom of the bishop’s response is evident. If you’ve ever watched the TV shows about the great mansions and estates of the financiers and hotel magnates, the oil barons and stockbrokers, you know that with very few exceptions these great properties are now no longer held by the original owners, nor even their descendants. Whether Boldt Castle in the Saint Lawrence River, or Gillette Castle in Connecticut, San Simeon in California or Wave Hill right up in Riverdale, all but a few are now owned and operated by — guess who — the government, serving as parks or museums. Right here in the Bronx, Saint James Church is among the four oldest landmark buildings still in use for their original purpose — and all four of those buildings are churches — which may well give you a hint of where I’m heading with this sermon! For the church of God endures, while human possessions crumble and fade. All of the old private homes are now museums or parts of public institutions, whether the Van Cortlandt estate just a couple of miles north of us; or Gustav Schwab’s mansion — the only one even still standing from the founders of Saint James Church (he was the man who gave us the wonderful stained glass in our sanctuary) — but his own home is now a part of the Bronx Community College campus. or take another example connected with Saint James’ history: Peter Valentine’s house up in Bedford.

Our connection with it testifies to the transitory nature of personal property: Saint James Church is built on part of the farmland that once belonged to Peter Valentine, farmland that went from where Fordham Road is now all the way up into Bedford Park and from University Avenue all the way down to Webster Avenue, at the edge of Fordham University. Over the years, starting with his son, the land was divided up into smaller parcels, until there is no Peter Valentine estate left, and not a single farm (unless you count Ms. Stewart’s garden out behind the church!) and even Valentine’s home, on it’s little plot of ground, smaller than our front yard, is now the site of the Bronx Historical Society.

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Today’s Scripture readings address the same issue: the temporary nature of the relationship we have with possessions, with what we like to think of as “ours.” Both wise old Solomon and our Lord himself tell us that whatever we have, whatever we own, is ours only temporarily. Vain efforts such as that of the woman who was buried in her Cadillac only go to prove the truth of the old saying, “You can’t take it with you.” I mean, really, you can’t! Whatever we have of worldly goods are just that: of this world, and destined to stay in this world when we have left it.

Now this fact might fill you with pessimism and something very close to despair, as it did old Solomon; or you might react with horror, as the man in Jesus’ parable no doubt reacted when God’s sentence fell thundering upon him. Solomon sought joy in his wealth and power; he built a great empire, and gathered many possessions. Yet in the end he was left with bitterness; his gathered wealth could only slip through his aging fingers. He knew that he would have to leave it all to someone who would come after him, who might well be unable to appreciate it. He had built up Israel’s kingdom to the largest size it ever attained, and yet what use was it, since he knew that those who would follow him would be unworthy — and indeed, shortly after his death the division and loss began. Solomon was like a wine connoisseur who has amassed a cellar of vintage wines, but who knows he will have to leave it to his drunk of a nephew who couldn’t tell a priceless vintage port from a pint bottle of Thunderbird!

The rich man in Jesus’ parable, less wise than Solomon, can’t see what’s coming until God calls him up short. He gathers and gathers his goods, tears down small barns to build bigger ones, stores up his riches, and is just ready to begin enjoying them when God snatches his very life away.

In neither case do the owners actually enjoy their possessions: Solomon’s present joy is overcome in fretting about the future; and the rich man, who has taken no time to enjoy his goods but deferred his enjoyment in great plans for the future, suddenly finds he has no future left.

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So where is the good news? Is despair or horror the only answer to this dilemma, the fix of finitude and finality in which we find ourselves if we misunderstand the relationship between our selves and our possessions? Is there a way out of Solomon’s self-centered despair, that couldn’t bear the thought that someone less worthy than he might enjoy his wealth? Is there a way out of the selfishness of the rich man, who was so short-sighted he didn’t even consider his own mortality?

Of course there is, and Saint Paul outlines the key to liberation in his Letter to the Colossians. The way away from selfishness lies in discovering the new self, the new self that takes no delight in mere wealth, the new self that does not depend on things for its identity, but finds a new identity in the image of its creator.

The things from which this new creation liberates us aren’t just external possessions — though that is where liberation starts. Saint Paul begins by urging us to set aside such external things as the objects of greed, but then he also bids us set aside more internal matters of the heart, such as anger, wrath, and malice. It’s hard sometimes to set these things aside — you know that. Have you ever been angry with someone, so angry with them that even after they apologized you wanted to be angry with them just a little more, not able to let go of that anger because you’d gotten so comfy in it, so warmly and self-righteously indignant? But you know, sisters and brothers, that letting go of that anger is so much better, that joy and love is so much more pleasurable than even the most justified revenge.

Yet still it is hard to let go of these negative feelings, sometimes, and if that is hard, how much harder to let go of the other things from which Saint Paul goes on to offer liberation. In a bold move that must have astonished his hearers, Paul goes beyond the negative and hurtful things that we can put aside with God’s help, and assures us that in the new self we can even set aside aspects of our selves so intimate that most of us can’t help but see them as intrinsic to our identity. We are so used to hear talk of our “ethnic identity” — something as close to us as our skin. How many wars have been fought, how many lives have been ruined or lost because of the amount of pigment in our skins! How much wrongheaded pride, how much slavery, how much spiteful and irrational hatred has been focused on the color of human skin, down through our sorry history?

Yet Paul assures us that even our troublesome skin can be stripped off like a piece of worn-out clothing, whether white or pink or yellow, black or brown. There is no more Jew nor Greek, barbarian nor Scythian, slave or free, Saint Paul assures us, but only Christ. We can strip off this old worldly identity, and clothe ourselves anew in him, and assume a costume that reflects our true identity as his children. We can put on the new clothes of compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience. We can, above all, clothe ourselves with the new skin of love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And this new clothing, this imperishable identity, will never wear out, never fade, never be taken from us.

Unlike the fields that go to seed, the barns that moulder and collapse as year leads into year; unlike the stately homes, surviving for a while as museums of what was; unlike the old clothes that shrink or wear out; unlike the pride of place or rank or race, of status or of station, which must be left behind before we can stand before the judgment seat of God; unlike all of these transitory things, the seal of our new self in Christ will last for ever.

When we have put on the imperishable garment, the new skin of the robe of the newly baptized self, the gracious renewal of our selves in Christ, we will be prepared for eternity, properly dressed for the heavenly banquet. When we are clothed in Christ — in compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience, and above all when we are clothed in love — when we are clothed as we have never been, we will be clothed as we shall ever be.+