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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.+