Monday, January 15, 2007

All Those Gifts!

SJF • Epiphany 2c • Tobias Haller BSG

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit.
Last year my niece sent me a computer disk with scanned images from my mother’s collection of photographs. I remembered some of them, having looked through the box of loose photos many times while growing up. I’m grateful that before my mother’s death I was able to sit with her and ask, “Who is this” or “Who is that” to get the many relatives sorted out — and marvel at the way in which family resemblances can allow you to see your sister’s face in a faded sepia photograph of your great-grandmother as a child.

One of the pictures I remembered clearly was one my father took one Christian morning, and it showed the children coming down the stairs in our bathrobes and p-j’s: me, my younger brother, and two of my sisters — one more sister still too young to walk downstairs on her own, and another not yet born. My brother, who was about eight at the time, looks so cute in the picture — he is so excited he can hardly contain himself. His eyes are wide and his fists clenched, as he stands there in his Doctor Denton’s pajamas with a grin like to split his head open.

Of course, what all of us kids in the picture are looking at is the Christmas Tree, and more importantly, the gifts under it. All those gifts! Even a family of modest means such as my own was always able to muster at least two or three gifts for each of us — and with six children and two parents, plus the gifts for Grandma and the crowd of aunts and uncles whose presents we would deliver through the course of the week to come — most of the real estate under the tree was pretty well covered with packages wrapped with ribbons and bows.

The parents knew where the gifts came from — they had bought them with my father’s hard earned income — and with all those mouths to feed my dad spent most of his working life at two or three jobs at a time. All those gifts meant some sacrifice by my parents so that we children could have a wonderful Christmas. I think, by the time this picture was taken, I was old enough to know where the gifts came from; but my younger sisters and brother still harbored a belief in the man in the red suit. And even though our home didn’t have a chimney (a fact about which we tried not to talk too much) — the younger children believed that all the gifts came from Santa Claus. In one sense, even I knew there was a certain miracle in all of this — as I was becoming old enough to realize how little money my father made as a school-teacher, and why he worked nights at other jobs — yet under the tree were all those gifts.

Saint Paul the Apostle wrote to the members of the church in Corinth about just such a matter. He was talking about spiritual gifts, not Christmas presents, but he was making a similar point: that these gifts are miraculous, spiritual, and wonderful, and that they come from God. Even the simple gift to declare Jesus is Lord, for no one, he says, could possibly declare that Jesus is the Lord under his or her own steam. This is not the kind of thing one could think up on his or her own — such a declaration is the sign of the presence of God, a declaration made under the influence of God — a gfit from God. And so too all those gifts possessed by the members of the church — as I said last week, gifts that come to us as part of our baptismal heritage — all those gifts distributed among all the members, different abilities for different situations, all come from the same Lord, the same Spirit, for the common good. Whether the wisdom to teach, or the knowledge to discern, a deep faith or the power to heal, the gift of miracles or prophecy, or to speak in the language of heaven or to interpret it — all those gifts come from one and the same Spirit, Saint Paul tells the Corinthians — and us.

The reason for this Pauline reminder was due to some of the Corinthians beginning to treat the gifts not so much as gifts from God but as personal possessions. They’d begun to quibble and get jealous about each other’s gifts, and to compare and rate them like children on the first day back to school after Christmas: “What did you get?” (I have to admit this was part of how I first learned of the limitations on my family’s budget — as I compared the Christmas gifts I had received with some of the more lavish ones of my classmates.) So too, some of the Corinthians, like the schoolchildren, had begun to suggest that the simpler gifts — what might even be called the cheaper gifts — were less important, or perhaps not even from God at all. I mean, what does it take to say “Jesus is Lord.” Just so many words, right?

But what Paul is saying to them — and us — is, No; even that simplest acclamation of faith can only come from God, for it proclaims God, and no one can speak of God without God providing the faith that powers the proclamation. There is one Lord, one God, one Spirit — and the Spirit provides all those gifts, in all their variety, from the simplest to the most extravagant. And what Paul is trying to get the Corinthians — and us — to do is to turn from their seeming maturity — for they think they’ve become like wise older children who know that the Christmas gifts don’t come from Santa at all. Paul wants them and us to be truly mature — with the maturity that allows an adult to believe like a child; for as our Lord himself said, no one can come to him except as a child.

In this sense, Paul wanted the Corinthians — and us — to become like children, to realize that the gifts we possess come — not from our own deserving, and not from Santa, after all, but from someone else — and here it is helpful to switch to Spanish for a moment: no Santa, pero Santo — el Espíritu Santo: the Holy Spirit — whose color, I might add, is also red; but who brings us gifts far better than those our parents gave us, or that we deserve.

It is God who provides us with all those gifts, poured out upon us through the Holy Spirit because God loves us so very much. Remember, my friends, even when we learned that the gifts we received on Christmas morning came from our parents, it was love working through them that enabled them to go without for weeks on end so that we children might have more on Christmas morning. The gifts of God required God to give — and he gave his only Son for the sake of the world because he loved us so much.

All those gifts — the gifts of wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment, tongues and understanding, and even the simplest gift to say, “Jesus is Lord” — all the whole pile of presents piled under the tree: not the Christmas tree, my friends, but the tree of sorrow, which is yet also the tree of joy, upon which the greatest gift of all was hung — all those gifts come from God and for the good of God’s people. It is not for us — as it was not for the Corinthians — to compare and rank our spiritual gifts like envious schoolchildren, but rather to put them to work together for the good of the church for which Christ died.

Let us then employ all those gifts, as God has given to each of us and the Spirit empowered all of us together, that we, as our Collect says, illumined by God’s Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory, so that he may be known, worshiped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth.+

Monday, January 08, 2007

Washing Up

SJF • Epiphany 1c 2007 • Tobias Haller BSG
John said, I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming... He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
We ordinarily think of washing as something to be done after the completion of a particularly dirty job. If you’ve been working in the garden, hands in the dirt, you will want to wash as soon as you are finished — and you’ll be careful not to track dirt into the house, too! And we take special care after even messier jobs like working on a car engine or a piece of equipment, or doing a painting or varnishing job — I’m sure many of us know how difficult it is to get motor grease or house-paint off of your hands, and how many repeated washings it takes to get the stains finally cleared away.

Washing often marks the end of a task, the completion of something — as even Pontius Pilate observed, washing your hands of something is a way of saying you need have nothing more to do with it — it is water under the bridge and down the drain.

And so it is that baptism — which is a kind of washing — is undertaken to denote this same kind of ending. We baptize to wash away sin — both the original sin we inherit as part of our human reality, and any actual sin we have committed prior to our baptism. As with many an ordinary washing, we wash away the past, and the dirtier the past activity has been the more urgently we need to wash.

I’m sure all of us here have seen the signs in the lavatories of restaurants, intended to remind the employees of the health code: Employees must wash hands before returning to work. Note that this washing not only addresses the past, but looks to the future. It isn’t only about what you have just done — about which the less said the better — but about what you aregoing to do — not just about endings, but more about beginnings. And it is this other side of washing that I want to emphasize today: that it is not just about the dirty work that has gone before, but about the new tasks that lie ahead.

For this is the other side to baptism, the side that looks to the future. The washing in baptism is not just to mark the end of something — the old sins that are washed away. In fact, the main emphasis in the washing of baptism isn’t the past, but the future — the new beginning — the initiation into a new life to be lived as a baptized person, a member of the body of Christ, a new citizen of the heavenly country. This washing, which Christ himself undergoes before he begins his own earthly ministry, is primarily the mark of the initiation of a new chapter, a new work, a new life.

The difference between these two kinds of baptism are summed up in what John says about his own, and about the one that the Messiah will bring. John baptizes with water to wash away sin — and that’s that. He is continuing the mainstream Jewish practice — literally in the main stream! — the tradition of ritual bathing to wash away ritual impurities in a symbolic act — to wash away the various impurities that could and did come about through contact with things the Jewish law defined as unclean: mold or mildew, disease, blood and other bodily fluids, a dead body, or non-kosher food. Many pious Jews in those days were constantly heading for the bathhouse or the river to undergo a ritual cleansing from ritual uncleanness.

The twist that John the Baptist introduces — and he is not the first to do so — is to call on people of all sorts and conditions to undergo a symbolic washing not just for ritual faults of the body, but for the moral uncleanness of the heart: to undergo abaptism of repentance for the moral sins that really are more important and deadly than the merely ritual faults of touching something unclean. One of the reasons the Pharisees become so offended at this is their feeling that they have been so conscientious about avoiding ritual uncleanness that they don’t need to wash! They’ve come to see the ritual matters as most important, almost a protective against sin — and in the process, as Jesus would later note, neglected the weightier matters of the Law: justice and mercy and faith.

John also affirms that the Messiah will go him one better. The Messiah will not simply bring a baptism like John’s, to wash away old impurities and sins, but a new baptism in the power of the Holy Spirit and a cleansing fire that will make people into a whole new being — not just a fresh start in the same old way, but a new life in a whole new way.

But then, as we commemorate today, John gets — well, I won’t call it a “surprise” because he is expecting it — but he gets to experience what he had predicted. “The sinless one to Jordan came” and there before John’s eyes is the very one he had said would come. And this is the turning point of history: and it marks the change in the fundamental nature of baptism. For Jesus is without uncleanness or sin: there is nothing to wash away, nothing at all. It is, in his case, only about new life, the new beginnings, about that which lies ahead. In this sense, it is more like the washing that a surgical team does before an operation. It is the preparation for a new task, not the cleanup after an old one.

The baptism of Jesus marks this new beginning for the world: that baptism is about new life, a life filled with the Holy Spirit and the fire of faith, and initiation into thebodyof Christ himself, the church. And this is another way in which baptism is like the washing that a surgical team does before an operation. The team is focused intently on preparation for the task ahead — the delicate operation in which they are about to participate together. The members of that surgical team may have come from any number of other tasks before they gathered at the OR. But whatever they were engaged in before, they are all now preparing for a joint task that lies ahead, in which each of them — surgeons, nurses, technicians, assistants, anesthesiologists — will take up their particular part.

This reflects the nature of the church itself — in which we all have been washed in a baptismal initiation and preparation, and all are called to work together in the mission of the church, yet each has a task to fulfill: whether teaching, or building, or witnessing; whether working to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, or comforting the sick; whether preaching or serving, singing or reading, fixing a parish lunch or painting a parish hall — all of us have been washed in preparation for service, initiated and commissioned as ministers to take on our various ministries that join and mesh into the one great task of God’s mission: to restore all people to unity with God and with each other in Christ. And today we will add one more member to this task force, one more very young member to the team — who may at first be capable only of small things and simple tasks — but who will with God’s power and grace grow in love and service as the years pass.

So may we, all of us, commissioned and inducted and initiated in Christ’s service through our baptism, take upon ourselves the serious tasks to which God has called us, united in the mission of the church, that we may,at the end of our lifes’ journey, in the quiet at the end of the long day’s work, hear the voice of the one who spoke from heaven, assuring each of us, “with you I am well pleased.” +

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Light in Darkness

1st Sunday after Christmas 2006 • Tobias Haller BSG
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.+
Just the week before last the world turned a corner. A few days before Christmas something happened that changed the world for everyone. Now, I’m not talking about anything to do with politics, with the Sudan, or the Middle East, with a new Secretary General for the United Nations, or a new Congress about to take up its calendar of business in the new year. I’m talking about something more physical, something measurable that took place in the world, something that would have happened regardless of congress or the United Nations, regardless of the Sudan or the Middle East.

What I’m talking about is this. Just before Christmas, the earth reached a point in its year-long march around the sun, where the angle of the planet’s tilt against the sun’s beams was such that the hours of sunlight, — which had been growing shorter and shorter for us who dwell on the northern half of the world — stopped, turned in their tracks, and began to grow longer again. Imperceptibly at first, but minute by minute, from just before Christmas on until next summer, we will have more and more sunlight every day, day by day. The earth, which until a few days before Christmas had been walking its course around the sun hunched over like a man with his collar up and his coat pulled tight against the wind, the earth, which had been turning its back on the sun, began to turn around, to tilt towards the light.

John the Evangelist wrote, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” John tells us, in the prologue to his Gospel, that thoughthelight shines, there are some who do not see it shining. There are some who reject the light or ignore the light, or deny the light. Even though the light of the world was in the world, “the world did not know him.” It is as if the world wanted to continue that long winter of discontent, hunched over, coat pulled up, shivering, cold and miserable, unaware or uncaring that the light was beginning to shine.

The Greek philosopher Plato described the human condition in a similar way. People, he said, were like prisoners in a cave, chained so that all they could see was the wall opposite them. Behind and above them, at the mouth of the cave, was reality and daylight, But all the poor prisoners could see were the shadows cast upon the wall of the cave opposite them. And they were so used to looking at the shadows, that they came to forget that there was another world, a brighter, higher, more substantial world, behind and above them. All that was needed was to turn around to look at the light and life that was there awaiting them, behind and above.

That is what human beings need to do, according to Plato: to turn as surely as the old world itself turns, to turn from the shadows to face the light, the glory of ideal reality. There is a word for this kind of turning: it is called “conversion.” We might also say, repentance. It is turning around to face what before we had denied, rejected, or ignored; to turn away from shadows and face the light. As Plato put it, “Conversion is not giving people eyes, for eyes they already have; it is instead giving them direction, which they have not.”

Plato, of course, was not a Christian. He lived centuries before Christ was born, and never knew the light of Christ, and the possibilities for redemption that Christ would offer. For Plato, it was enough for people simply to turnthemselves around, on their own power, under their own steam. For Plato, all that was needed was for the prisoners to throw off their chains, to stand and turn around.

What Christ offered to the world was different. Christ was not simply a great moral teacher, like Plato, someone who would address the world like an impatient schoolmaster, a disciplinarian of the “Just Say No” school of thought, a lawgiver who would say, “Stand up straight, turn around, and see the light.” People had plenty of experience with such moral teachers, Gentiles and Jews alike had their Plato and their Moses, philosophers and lawgivers and countless moralists who offered their disciples the path of discipline.

But Christ was different, and would do something different. The Evangelist John probably never heard of Plato, but he knew the difference between Moses and Christ: that it was through Moses that the Law came, but that Christ brought grace and truth. Christ knew that people were unable by themselves to help themselves. He knew that wishing doesn’t make it so, and that though the spirit is willing, yet the flesh is weak. The prisoners had come not simply to tolerate their chains, but to enjoy them. They’d become cozy and comfortable in their prison. The prisoners had forgotten that the shadows were shadows, and that there was more to life than the shallow and insubstantial patches flickering and fluttering on the screen. Did I say “screen”? Hmmm. How many people even now are like those cave-dwellers, spending all their time staring at patterns on screens, living virtual lives in virtual reality, instead of actual lives in actual relationship with real, live brothers and sisters face-to-face? Humanity was — and apparently still is — so in love with shadows that it had come to hate,to resent, to deny the light.

So Christ, who is the light, did not simply command us to turn around to see him behind and above us. Instead he came down to us, The Word becoming flesh to dwell among us, pouring his light into our hearts. He came to the prisoners to set them free. As Saint Paul says, “In the fullness of time, God sent ... the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!”

When the light of God Incarnate is enkindled in our hearts, we no longer need to turn around, to turn this way or that, in order to see the light. Instead, we can see it shining out of each other, and the light that shines out of each of us can bring light to a darkened world. The light of Christ, enkindled in our hearts, can shine forth in our lives, and put the shadows to flight. The source of light, you see, casts no shadow of itself: the candle flame, the light bulb, whatever it is from which the light comes, casts no shadow, knows no darkness. The darkness can never overcome it. When the light of Christ shines in our hearts, there can be no shadow, no darkness there. When the light of Christ shines in us and through us and out of us, the world can come to see and know the presence of God in Christ, “the true light who enlightens everyone,” a light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not, cannot, and will not ever overcome it.

Christ is the light of the world, and he has poured his light into our hearts. Bear this light in your hearts, beloved, through what is left of Christmastide this coming week, through the turning of the year ahead and the many years after. As the old world turns toward and away from the light of the sun, may we never turn our faces from the light of the Son of God, and may that light of Christ glow in our hearts, and shine forth in our lives for ever.+