Monday, December 22, 2008

A Mansion Prepared

Saint James Fordham • Advent 4b • Tobias Haller BSG

Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself.

Well, it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, isn’t it? A white Christmas. Of course, here in New York it’s been looking a lot like Christmas since Halloween. It used to be that Santa Claus had the decency to hold off until the end of Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade — just like in the movie “A Miracle on 34th Street.” Nowadays if Santa showed up as late as Thanksgiving store-owners would accuse him of dragging his heels! Nowadays they start talking Christmas before Hallowe’en! How long before Santa Claus backs his sleigh into the Easter Bunny, I don’t know!

But the church does know, and knows better. We’ve got this time called Advent — an anticipation of Christmas, but also an anticipation of that great day when the Lord will come again in glory. For three Sundays we’ve heard news of that second coming: warnings about keeping awake and being alert, having our house in order, and preparing God’s way. The collect today continues the call for preparation, getting our house in order so that we might be “a mansion prepared.”

But on this the last Sunday before Christmas, we begin to turn our attention from the second coming back to the first coming. This Sunday in our gospel we travel back to that quiet little village in upstate Palestine, up in the lake country, up in Galilee— so far from Jerusalem that they called it “Galilee of the Gentiles.”

We travel back two thousand years to Nazareth, and find a young woman about to receive the surprise of her — and everybody else’s — life. An angel suddenly appears out of nowhere, and addresses her as if she were royalty. Mary at first is simply speechless. The angel reassures her, tells her not to be afraid, and tells her she is going to have a baby who will become great and will rule over the house of David.

Mary catches her breath, and calmly, and no doubt with some dignity informs the angel that such an event is unlikely, since she is an unmarried virgin. So the angel finally tells it all: she will be overshadowed by God’s Holy Spirit, and the child she will bear will be called Holy, as well, the Son of God. Before Mary can get in an objection, the angel tells her about her cousin Elizabeth. This woman, well past the years of childbearing, is soon going to have a baby, too; for nothing is impossible for God. Mary pauses for a moment, and then says those famous words, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord, let it be to me according to your word.”

Think for a moment what went through Mary’s mind before she answered the angel. Life was harder for an unwed mother two thousand years ago than it is today. She could have been cast out of the village, even been stoned to death, if Joseph had chosen that course of action. Elizabeth’s miracle was different — an old woman long said to be barren getting pregnant must have made for plenty of winks and nods and pats on the back for her equally old husband Zechariah.

But Mary’s situation was nothing to congratulate her or Joseph about. There wouldn’t be smiles — except sarcastic ones — along with clucking tongues, shaking heads and wagging fingers. Instead of congratulations there would be humiliation for Joseph and Mary both.

And yet, this is how God chose to enter this world. What is God telling us by choosing this embarrassing and scandalous Incarnation?

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The collect for today helps us answer that question. “Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself.” The thing we ask in this prayer is, Lord, help us to clean our house and get it in order for your arrival. That’s the Advent theme. We gather up the dusty old things we’ve moved from shelf to shelf but not used for years. We give away things we’ve outgrown, finally throw away things we’ve held on to “just in case” for so long that we’ve forgotten what the case was. Sometimes we have to part with something we’d like to keep, to make a difficult choice. Perhaps we’re moving to a smaller apartment, or making room for a new arrival.

It is this kind of difficult choice Mary had to make. God asked a very great thing of her. She wasn’t asked to accept a blessing that would bring her honor. She was asked to risk losing the one thing that gave her honor in her society — her good name — and because God asked her for it, she said, “Here am I, your servant.”

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Are we as willing to give up things when God asks us to? I’m not talking about bad habits — we ought to give those up in any case. I’m talking about good things that we hold on to, sometimes so tight that we can’t open our hands to receive the better things God has in store for us. It is risky to give up one’s good reputation to answer God’s call to seek righteousness. But sometimes that is what God calls us to do.

In “Miracle on 34th Street” you may recall that a young lawyer risks his reputation to do what’s right. He’s quits his job at a big law firm to defend an old man who thinks he’s Santa Claus. Something moves that young lawyer, something purifies his conscience not to do the safe thing, but the right thing.

People like that do exist outside of Hollywood. There are lawyers and doctors who give up six-figure salaries to open clinics and legal-aid offices. Ms. Campbell organizes a group of doctors and dentists to go down to Jamaica every year, to help in straitened circumstances. But it happens in the church, too. The Episcopal Bishop of Louisiana has just asked to be permitted to resign his post. In the process of working with people down in Louisiana in the recovery from Hurricane Katrina he has come to realize that is that kind of work he wants to do: helping people rebuild their lives; not spending his days behind a desk, paper-pushing and managing budgets.

I’m also reminded of four Roman Catholic bishops, some years ago in Colombia, who moved out of their episcopal palaces into the slums, into the barrios, to live with the people. They took off their fine ecclesiastical robes and put on guyabera shirts. The political bosses and crime-lords didn’t like the idea of poor people being inspired. For as Mary’s song assures us, when people become aware of their situation, — in what liberation theologians call concientización, a kind of “conscience raising” that is a particular form of purifying one’s conscience in an awareness of what is going on in the world — when poor people become educated to the truth of their situation, the mighty will be cast down from their seats, the poor and lowly will be lifted up. Such people are a danger to the status quo. and a film was made about those four bishops, called, “Such Men Are Dangerous” — two of them were assassinated; they took great risk, they were dangerous to themselves as well as to the establishment — as indeed we all can be when we are inspired by the Gospel to purify our consciences, and speak out against the abuses by the mighty.

And once, long ago, a young woman risked her reputation and her life to answer an angel’s greeting with the words, “Here am I; let it be to me according to your word.” So it is that God challenges us, to be willing, like Mary, to risk our reputations if it means we can serve him more effectively. God calls us to purify our conscience so that we can see what God wants of us.

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And God wants a lot. God wants us. Not just our service, not just our obedience, but us — our souls and bodies. God asked Mary not only to risk her reputation but to offer her self to become the means of Incarnation, to conceive in her womb a son who would be named Jesus.

And that is how our Collect ends. Why do we purify our consciences? Why do we put our house in order? Why do we risk our reputations to follow God, to do justice and work righteousness? So that “Christ at his coming may find in us a mansion prepared for himself...” A mansion!

Well, we know what Jesus found at his first coming — not a mansion. Not a hotel; not even a Holiday Inn, but a stable. But I’m getting ahead of myself — it’s not Christmas yet; we haven’t yet gotten to crowded Bethlehem, with no room at the inn. No, today’s Gospel tells us of something nine months earlier, that bright spring day when an angel walked in on Mary and changed her life — and our lives and the life of all the world — forever. Then God chose, and still God chooses no place so fitting to dwell as in a humble heart — a heart emptied of all the extra furniture of pride and reputation.

As God called Mary, God calls us to become his dwelling place; that we may, as our opening hymn said,“Fling wide the portals of our hearts.” God calls us to be people who show forth God because God dwells in us, in our hearts. God calls us every day, and enables us every day by the visitation of the Holy Spirit, to purify our consciences, to open our hearts, so that we may become Christ’s dwelling place.

Our closing hymn today will include a prayer, “Let my soul, like Mary, be thine earthly sanctuary.” God wants each of us to be his dwelling place, and a humble, loving heart, will always have room for God. You know, we can after all extend the Christmas season throughout the whole long year not so that the stores can stay open, but so that our hearts can stay open, every day.

May God’s grace come upon us abundantly as we anticipate Christ’s coming, in this time of thankful and humble gratitude for his having once come, so long ago to a city far away to a young woman ready to receive him. Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us, as he found in our sister Mary, a mansion prepared for himself. +


Monday, December 15, 2008

A Man Like John

SJF • Advent 3b • Tobias Haller BSG

When the priests and Levites from Jerusalem asked him, “Who are you?” he confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.”+

As it comes round every year, we’re back to “Rejoice Sunday” again, regular as clockwork. And this year we really do get to hear some readings that sound like something to rejoice about! That reading from Isaiah is full of wonderful promises to Jerusalem — wonderful promises... You know, I can’t help but think, with all of the rhetoric of the not-so-long-ago presidential campaign echoing in my ears, how much this could sound like the exaggerated promises of a politician, if you wanted to hear them in that way: two chickens in every pot and two cars in every garage.

Look at the promises Isaiah relates — everybody will live to be over a hundred years old, and reap the rewards of their labor. They shall not plant and another reap; even the nature of wild animals shall be changed in God’s peaceable kingdom; the wolves and lambs will eat from the same trough, and lions will learn to do with hay.

Surely such promises only could come true in the kingdom of God, in the new Jerusalem. No earthly politician would dare to promise such peace and prosperity, such a complete reversal of things as we know it. I mean, what kind of politician would dare to say, “My friends, I’m going to make everyone wealthy!” Well, some might...

Even so, the promises seem very high, when we look at the economic situation of our world, the state of war and terrorism. It is so very easy to see how far we are from the promised new Jerusalem of which Isaiah speaks. And it would be tempting to turn to follow a prophet or politician who promised us everything, assured us that straw can be spun into gold, and that wealth will somehow miraculously trickle down — not from God, but from the wealthy, so that everyone will have their share. How tempting to think that universal health care will somehow just happen, that there will no longer be an infant who lives but a few days, or an old person who doesn’t live out a lifetime.

Those are the kinds of promises people want to hear, the kinds of promises they look for in a politician — or a prophet. And many will give in to the demand, and tell the people just what they want to hear.

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But not John the Baptist. John was different. The people wanted to fit him into their box. They were looking for the Messiah, and they wanted John to be the one. But John knew his limitations. He knew who he was, and who he wasn’t and what his task was: to prepare. He was sent by God to challenge the people, to shake them from complacency, and begin the process of reestablishing a just and humane society. He made no impossible demands, and he made no impossible promises: he just told people with a closet and pantry full of food and clothes that they should share with those who had none. He assured the people he was not the Messiah, but was the one sent with a message to prepare, and call the people to live, so far as they could, righteous and generous lives, for the good of all.

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I am old enough to remember another John, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, though I was in grade school the year he was elected, and in junior high the day he was assassinated. I still can see the face of Mr Stakem, my civics teacher, poking his head through the doorway into algebra class. I sat right along the wall, so all I could see was his head sticking into the room, and saying, “Mr Elliott, I’m sorry, but I have something very important to tell the class. The President has just been shot.” And then disappearing. And a half-hour later the announcement came over the PA system that the President was dead, and we were all sent home. Quite a day...

So I remember John Kennedy; and even as a youngster, I could see he was different from the other president I’d consciously known; though being very young I really didn’t know him very well — Dwight Eisenhower, known as “Ike.” Ike was an old man with a bald head, often in the hospital because of his heart problems; but John Kennedy was a young man with a full head of hair, strong and handsome and athletic. Ike and Mamie Eisenhower looked like folks from my neighborhood, like my great-aunts and uncles; but John and Jackie Kennedy looked like movie stars.

John Kennedy spoke differently, too. And I don’t just mean his accent — after all, though I grew up in Baltimore my Mom was Boston Irish, so I was used to hearing the sounds of “why doncha go pahk the cah.”

It wasn’t his accent, but his words themselves, not just how he spoke but what he said. As young as I was, I could hear the challenge and hope in his voice, together with his realism — not empty promises, but a call to responsibility. How powerful that challenge was: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” His voice echoed with others of his generation, the voices of Martin Luther King Jr and John’s brother Bobby. These were prophetic voices, like John the Baptist, not saying,
“I’m going to do it all for you” or “Don’t worry about anything, it will all take care of itself” or “If we just help the rich to stay rich some of the crumbs will fall from the table and everybody will get what they need.” No, these were voices that said, “I’m not your savior, but I’m here to challenge you to do the right thing. I’m here to tell you to get your act together and work with me to build a just society. I’m here to shake things up, and unworthy as I am, to challenge you to do all in your power to make the world a place prepared for God’s coming kingdom — to prepare the way of the Lord, to make his paths straight. I may not get there with you, but I have a dream today...”

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I don’t need to tell you that I heard a similar voice speak out in the campaign leading up to the election, and I’ve heard that same voice since. It is the voice of the man our nation chose, by a significant margin, to be our next President. He too could have offered the easy promises of wealth to the rich trickling down to us below; of health care provided universally but without cost. But he has taken a page from John’s book — John the Baptist and John Kennedy — to be straight with us, to challenge us, and call us to stand up to the challenge. It isn’t about him. It is not he upon whom we’ve pinned our hopes — except the hope that he will inspire us to do our best, not to ask what he can do for us, but what we can do for each other, working together, helping to turn our hopes into action to make this land, this world, a better place.

He is challenging us to “make straight the paths” of this land so that the poor and weak do not stumble. He is calling us to sacrifice and contribute to the good of all so that a fair and equitable health care system can be instituted, so that, God willing, no more shall there be an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live a lifetime. He is calling us to a world in which one does not plant while another harvests the crops, to a world in which the worker is compensated fairly, without regard to age or gender or race, and in which the laborers receive the fair return of their labor. He is calling us to a world in which those with much will indeed be challenged to share what they have — as John the Baptist did when he said that the one with two coats should share with the one who has none, and the one with plenty of food should do the same: and that’s not socialism; that’s the Gospel!

Barack Obama is no more the Messiah than was John the Baptist — but both of them call us to our better selves, to responsibility and willingness to bear each others’ burdens, so that all might benefit. We live in difficult times no less than did John the Baptist, times of war and want, of poverty and need, and of greed and selfishness. We cannot by our own efforts bring about the kingdom of God — but we can make straight his paths. We can prepare the way. We can all be men and women like John.

I give thanks to God, and pray for his continued blessing, upon our new President, who we hope at last can succeed in calling us to this high — and I dare say it — holy — endeavor. Let us work together with him, with our congress, with our fellows throughout the world, brothers and sisters, to hasten the day when justice, freedom, and peace, shall be the watchwords of our nation and our world. Let us make straight our Lord Messiah’s path, and rejoice at his coming, even our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.+


Monday, December 08, 2008

Do you hear the voice?

Saint James Fordham • Advent 2b • Tobias Haller BSG

Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid…+

In today’s readings from the Holy Scripture a number of voices speak out to us, from the dialogue portrayed in the prophecy of Isaiah, through the sage advice of the Apostle Peter, and concluding with the proclamation of John the Baptist. And while these voices speak different words, they bear a single message.

The effect is like that of a chorus from Handel’s great oratorio Messiah — and who can hear that passage from Isaiah without thinking of Handel’s setting? He must have particularly loved this passage, for there are about six sections of his masterpiece that come from just this one text! You know how in these choruses the various voices enter at different times, each singing its own melody as the fugue twists and turns its way. But then, suddenly, of the voices all come together on a single phrase of the text, all of the voices lining up — “For the mouth of the Lord has spoken it” — with one clear message. Well, our lessons today have the same effect, and out of the richness of all these voices, there emerges a clear message that speaks to us today after that long gap of nearly two and a half thousand years. Be comforted, be patient, and repent. This is the message God is sending us through his messengers Isaiah, Peter, and John the Baptist.

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Isaiah says, Be comforted, for your prison term is over, and your Lord will gather you up as a shepherd carries the young lambs in his arms. Peter says, Be patient, because the Lord is giving everyone time, as much time as is needed, to come to repentance. Which brings us to John the Baptist, who says, Repent and be baptized, that your sins may be forgiven.

These messages weave together in a single strand, depending on each other, because there is no use repenting unless there is comfort and hope that repentance will lead to salvation. If the situation were hopeless, if we were simply dead in our sins, if the prison door has clanged shut behind us forever already, then there is no point either in repentance or good behavior. That is why the message of hope and comfort from Isaiah and Peter is so important.

Be comforted, Isaiah says: and that’s a little hard for us to understand, because for us “comfort” has to do primarily with mattresses and easy-chairs. But that’s not really what comfort means when Isaiah says, “Speak comfortingly to Jerusalem.” It doesn’t mean coziness, but encouragement, strengthening the heart and soul to stand up and endure, not lie down and go to sleep! Take courage, Isaiah is saying, your prison sentence is over, and you’ve been released, given a second chance to start again, a new life, a life in which the obstacles are being leveled, the mountains torn down and the valleys filled in; you can begin a new life in which God himself will lift you over the hard spots, carry you in his arms if you will let him, over the rough spots you are not able to cross on your own. This is the voice of encouragement so sorely needed by anyone who is discouraged, in their life, or by their sins.

Some folks, even in the church, think it’s enough to make people feel bad about themselves because they’ve failed and fallen. But that is not repentance; that is only remorse, and unless the message gives some hope, some comforting encouragement, beating people over the head with their sins will only lead them perhaps as far as remorse, but it may also lead to despair. The church’s true task is not simply to tell people they’ve sinned and fallen short — as indeed we all have — but that there is hope, there is a promise, there is a way out and a way forward. There is, as John the Baptist promised, a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and there is, as Peter promised, time in which to take advantage of that opportunity. The prison door has not clanged shut, it has swung open, and it is up to us to lift up our heads and walk forward into a new life.

That is what repentance is all about: not wallowing in sorrow for the past, but turning around towards the hope of tomorrow. And sometimes all that is needed is a comforting word, an encouraging word, a voice that speaks to us in our sin and our sorrow and reassures us that all is not lost; that it is not too late; that there is hope; that there is a way forward, a way out of our past errors, freedom from the prisons of our own devising.

God’s voice is the voice of comfort and encouragement, that calls us to patience and repentance, to accepting our redemption rather than despairing in our sin. The voice of God is the voice that tells us we are not worthless creatures, but beloved children, precious in his sight. And our joyful response to that voice, that voice that warms our hearts and renews our spirits, is repentance, the acceptance of our salvation.

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There was once a little girl of eight named Mary Ann who felt awful about herself. Mary Ann was born with a cleft palate and a harelip. It affected her speech, it marred her looks, and since she’d started school her life was a misery as she saw the faces of her classmates curl in imitation or twist in disgust. When some of the more charitable youngsters showed concern and asked her what had happened to her lip, she would make up a story and say that she’d fallen on the sidewalk and cut herself on a broken bottle. That didn’t change how she looked, but pretending it was an accident, something that had happened to her, not something about who she was made it fell a little less awful.

Mary Ann felt terrible most of the time at school, and was sure that nobody liked her. There was someone, however, whom she liked very much, Mrs. Leonard, the second-grade teacher, a short, plump lady with a wonderful smile and bright eyes that sparkled with their own inner light. Mary Ann was too shy to say much to her, though, fearing that even Mrs. Leonards’s bright smile would fade if she were forced to look too long into Mary Ann’s face.

Well, every year the school held a hearing test. This was some time ago, in the days before hi-tech equipment, and the test consisted of a simple screening procedure. Each student would come into the empty classroom and stand at the back of the room facing the wall, turned away from Mrs. Leonard who would sit at her desk at the front of the room. She would whisper some short phrase, which each child would then repeat back. Nothing complicated, just some short phrase like, “The field is green” or “The cat chased the mouse.” And if the child repeated the phrase correctly it was deemed their hearing was o.k.

When Mary Ann’s turn came she entered the room and stood with her back to Mrs. Leonard, facing the wall at the back of the room, glad Mrs. Leonard couldn’t see her face, glad she could simply stand and listen for the words, repeat them, and then be out from under what seemed like a terrible focus of attention. Moments passed as she waited to hear the words, words she would later realize that God had placed in Mrs. Leonard’s mouth, seven words that changed Mary Ann’s life, right then and there. Into the stillness of that room, Mrs. Leonard whispered, “I wish you were my little girl.”

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“Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,” God tells his prophet. “Speak tenderly.” Comfort here, strengthen her; give her a new life. God’s tender voice is the voice of comfort and encouragement, the voice that calls us to patience and repentance, the voice that calls us to accept our redemption rather than to despair in our sin. God’s voice is not a voice that beats us into the ground, that tells us we are unworthy, stained from birth with original sin,
worthless, hapless creatures scarcely worth his notice. No, God’s voice is a tender voice of comfort and encouragement. God’s voice says to each and every one of us, not only do I wish you were, but You are my own beloved son, you are my own beloved daughter, you are my own beloved child.

May we hearken to that voice, patiently listening for it in the midst of the turmoil and noise of this world. May we listen patiently, in the knowledge that God is seeking us out, as we await the words that can change our lives, words of comfort and encouragement, so that we might repent and accept our salvation, and “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity.”+


The story of Mary Ann Bird is freely adapted from her book, The Whisper Test.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Awake in the Middle of the Night

Saint James Fordham • Advent 1b• Tobias Haller BSG

Jesus said, Therefore, keep awake; for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly.+

Anyone who has raised a newborn child, or been around one, knows what it is to be awake in the middle of the night. Infants have their own internal clock, and when that clock says “feeding time” the automatic siren goes off, harder to ignore than the most annoying car alarm. This usually happens just as you are in the midst of a particularly restful sleep, something that you’ve not had too much of in the last few weeks, as you tend to this new, small, noisy houseguest with the demanding appetite and the loud voice. Babies know how to keep you awake in the middle of the night.

The season of Advent is upon us. And as we look towards Christmas just a few weeks ahead of us, we are reminded that a baby is due, a very special baby. And over the next few weeks we will be reflecting on what this special baby means to us, and what the man this baby grew up to be means to us. For this baby is no one other than Jesus Christ.

I said that having a baby in the house can keep you awake in the middle of the night. Well, this baby, this Christ Child, is a baby that keeps the whole world up in the middle of the night. At his first appearing, announced by the star to the wise men, announced by angels to the shepherds in the cold midwinter, Jesus broke the silence of that silent night with his first birth cry, the first breath taken by the Word made flesh. Thirty-three years or so later that same voice was raised in Jerusalem’s Temple precincts, warning his disciples to keep awake, to keep alert for the coming of the master who would shake the world.

How important it is to be awake when the master comes, to be ready to stand up, ready to welcome him! And the only way to be ready, is to be ready, as the old Scout motto has it, to “Be Prepared.” Preparedness, by its very nature, is not something you can do at the last minute!

We are called to be awake, alert in the middle of this world’s long night. But we are also called to be awake in the middle in another sense. Have you ever watched an outfielder in a baseball game, or a goalie in a soccer or hockey match? They have to be “awake in the middle” — awake and alert in the middle of the patch of territory they are assigned to protect and guard. They have to be watchfully alert and ready to move, back and forth, free to catch or deflect the ball or the puck whenever it comes, wherever it comes from.

That’s the kind of “being awake in the middle” I’m talking about. The particular “middle” we are in is the middle Jesus speaks of, the middle between his first coming among us as a child, and his coming again in power and great glory, the middle between his first advent and his second.

We are also, right now, in the midst — and I hope it’s the middle in that we may be coming out of it before too long! — of one of the worst global financial crises in living memory. And most of us are “in the middle” between the people who predict dire catastrophe, and those who think it will all work out if we just leave it alone, or who think we can fix it by continuing to pour more money down the hole. We are in the middle between those who foresee total meltdown and another great depression, and those who see an eventual healthy recovery. It is hard to be prudent, and take appropriate precautions, without giving in to the extremes at either end.

Then there’s the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some even see in our struggles there a fulfillment of ancient prophecy; that Armageddon and the second coming is right around the corner. Well, as I’ve done before I’ll do again, and assure you that they are definitely wrong, for two reasons. One is common sense and the other based on Scripture.

First, these are in large part the same people who had everybody hoarding canned goods as the clock ticked down on December 31, 1999 just under a decade ago. I’ve still got a case of bottled water under the table in my living room, and the bottles have begun to squeeze up because the water is evaporating through the plastic! Remember that? Well, some of us were here at Saint James Church that night, and the Lord did come among us — though not in cloud and majesty and awe, but in the quieter way he’s been coming to Christians for as long as they’ve gathered in twos and threes in his name to break bread and to pray.

I also do not believe those who claim that our current struggles over the Middle East represent the fulfillment of ancient apocalyptic writings, because Jesus himself, in today’s Gospel — known as the “little Apocalypse of Mark” (and isn’t that nice, it’s just a “little” Apocalypse!) — Jesus himself says, “About that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” So those who claim to know when Jesus is coming are claiming to know something that neither the angels nor Jesus himself knew! The very reason Jesus told his disciples to be alert, to stay awake, was because even he couldn’t tell them exactly when he was going to come again— since that secret was known by the Father alone.

Jesus didn’t know when he was going to come again to judge the world, only that he was going to come again to judge the world. And so he said, Be alert, keep awake.

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At the other extreme are those who act as if the world will never end, that the last judgment is just a bit of folklore that a sophisticated modern person should discard along with other quaint legends. But this error by the secularists misses the mark just as much as the error by the doom-sayers who repeatedly try to pin down the second coming and always have an explanation as to why their predictions are wrong.

If anything is clear from our Gospel it is that, as the bumper sticker puts it, “Jesus is coming, Look busy!” To dismiss the Second Coming as simply a fable robs the universe of purpose. We believe that God had (and has) a purpose, an aim in Creation, and anyone who’s pitched a ball knows that if you have an aim,you have a target. God had an aim as he cast creation into being, as it arced on up through the history of the chosen people, on to the coming of Christ at his incarnation, and on forward toward an as-yet-unknown future when he will come again and make the whole creation new. To deny the Second Coming robs the First Coming of its significance, and makes creation a literally aimless exercise.

So it is, my brothers and sisters, that we are called to keep awake in the middle between these two extremes; neither thinking we’ve got the timetable for the last judgment in our pockets, nor imagining that there is no last judgment coming. No, we are called to stay awake in the middle, in the middle of the night, in the middle of our lives, in the middle of a world that alternately panics or ignores. We are called, and we have been warned, to be alert to our salvation when it comes. For that is God’s purpose, God’s aim for us, that we might be saved.

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During his great Antarctic expedition, the explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton left a small group of men behind on an island off the coast, assuring them he would return. But every time he made the attempt to get back to the island, the sea-ice blocked the passage. Then one morning, perhaps due to a shifting current, a passage opened in the pack-ice and Shackleton was able to get through. He found his men on the island ready, packed and waiting, and they quickly scrambled aboard the ship with all of their gear. No sooner had the ship reached safety than the ice crashed back closed behind them. They had only been saved because they were ready to be saved. Shackleton, somewhat in awe at the narrow escape, said to his men, “It was fortunate you were all packed and ready to go!” They said, “It wasn’t fortune, sir. We never gave up hope. Whenever we saw the sea was clear of ice, we packed up and said to each other, ‘He may come today.’ And today, you came.”

+ + +

Jesus may come today. He may come next month; he may come a million years from now. When he comes isn’t for us to know. That he will come is the substance of our faith. And because we have faith that he will come, but do not know the hour of his coming, we are called to be awake in the middle of this world’s long night. We are to keep awake, to be alert, for we do not know when the cry of alarm will sound, the last trumpet blow, the king return in glory. May we be found ready for our rescue, prepared to grasp our Savior’s outstretched hand.+


Monday, November 24, 2008

The Dividing Line

(Please forgive the occasional cough on the audio; I was recovering from a chest cold!)

Saint James Fordham • Proper 29a • Tobias Haller BSG

When the Son of Man comes in his glory… he will separate people from one another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.

Someone once said that the world is divided into two sorts of people: the sorts of people who divide the world into two sorts of people, and those who don’t. Well, it would seem from today’s readings that the Son of Man, when he comes in power and great glory, will turn out to be exactly the sort of person who divides the world into two sorts of people: those who are blessed by his Father, and those who are accursed. There is no middle ground, no room for compromise, and no appeal. This is nothing other than the Last Judgment.

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When I was five years old I had my appendix out. This was in the days before HMOs, so I had a good long week in the hospital to recuperate, and I can tell you it was very boring after the first few days. The most boring thing was that although I had a coloring book, I had only two crayons: and they were green and yellow-green. And however much I tried to get those two crayons to express other colors, all I was left with was green and yellow-green, darker or lighter, but still green without relief.

In today’s Gospel, everything is similarly monochromatic, tinged with the sharp and angry tone of the wrath of the Son of Man, without any hint of relief, any hint of anything other than his bright green judgment, clear and cutting, as sharp as the edge of a crisp blade of grass, or the fine green edge of a palm branch. There is no variation of shade, no warm autumnal reds or golds to take the edge off the kryptonite-like, piercing green judgment of the just judge.

The Son of Man is the final judge, seated in the last court from whom there is no appeal. Everyone, from the day laborer on up to the President will stand before him. And each one who stands there, and that includes each and every one of us too, will receive either a complete acquittal and reward, or a death sentence.

This is not the world of “both / and” but most definitely and finally “either / or.” Either each of us will find ourselves among the blessed, or we won’t.

This judgment is so terrible and terrifying that when we hear about it we must wonder what can be the cause for such a great reward, or merit such a final punishment. Surely the punishment must fit the crime and the reward fit the good behavior. It seems so unfair, so merciless, for God to consign people to the burning rubbish-heap for having failed to do such trivial tasks, such simple actions. Surely such punishment is for the wicked tyrants, the stereotypical Hitlers and the Stalins, for the mass-murderers and terrorists.

But Jesus is unflinching in his judgment. Consigned to the flames along with mass murderers and torturers, is the store owner who didn’t give a piece of bread to a homeless man; the man who was too busy to visit his sister when she was in the hospital; the woman who wouldn’t visit her son as he lay dying of aids; the lady who kept her closets full of clothes she never had the time to wear instead of giving some of them to the thrift shop; and countless, countless others; and maybe you, and maybe me. It just doesn’t seem fair to consign people to the destructive fire for such trivial reasons, for failing to do such simple things, things we would have done if only we’d known.

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If only we’d known. Hmmm, but we do know, don’t we? And that is why God’s judgment is fair, after all. It is not as if we have not been told that whatever we do to the least of God’s children we do to our Lord. It is not as if we have not been told exactly what God wants us to do for each other: to do as we would be done by. And that is why God’s judgement is fair, and that is also why in the long run it is also merciful.

It is merciful because the way to avoid the death sentence is so easy. That is the good news in our Gospel today. What it takes to get into the kingdom of heaven is to do as we would be done by. God has told us and assured us that he will reward with the kingdom of heaven those who simply feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, give drink to the thirsty, visit the sick and the prisoners, and clothe the naked. We don’t have to walk around the world at the equator on burning coals. We don’t have to climb a holy mountain and fast for forty days on bread and water. We don’t have to whip ourselves with knotted cords and wallow in repentance. All we have to do is treat with dignity and charity those whom God places in our path, not turning aside from those in need, but meeting their need with outstretched hands and open hearts.

+ + +

God’s judgment is terrible, but it is fair, it is just, and it is merciful. That is the good news. God has told us what he expects of us. This passage in Matthew was meant to warn the nations — that is, us — to give us fair warning that Jesus’ brothers and sisters were coming to visit, to bring the good news, and it was in how they and us treated those ambassadors of Christ that they would establish their future — joining the blessed in eternal joy, or departing into the flames of destruction. The warning was simple: treat others as you would yourself be treated.

The problem is that most people would rather think that God has impossible expectations for us, that God expects us to be perfect and never do anything wrong, but that God will be merciful when we fail and forgive us and let us into heaven.

But that simply is not the Gospel — or at least not the whole Gospel — as our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ has delivered it to us, through his ambassadors, through our many fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters in the faith. Although it is quite true that God would rather that we not sin, and that God will forgive us when we do sin, when it comes right down to it the Gospel isn’t primarily about our sin and God’s forgiveness. That has been dealt with — Jesus took care of that for us — remember? when he forgave even those who crucified him? — he did it on the cross, a full, perfect, and sufficient oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world: and as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.

But what kind of life? That’s the question. The Gospel isn’t about our sin and God’s forgiveness so much as it is about what we do with our lives once we sinners have been forgiven. Having been made alive, what do we do with our lives? How do we set our hearts, as the hymn says, “to finish God’s salvation?”

Rather than set us impossible tasks and then have mercy on us when we fail, God has been merciful to us beforehand, and set us a simple task from the start. How much simpler can you get than, “Do unto others as you would be done by”?

It is our response to this command from God that will determine our final place with the sheep or with the goats. We have all been forgiven, saved through the great work of Christ accomplished on the cross; but the second part of the work of salvation, our finishing of salvation, lies in our hands, and most especially in what we do with our lives in relation to each other.

We have been forgiven our sins, but do we forgive others who sin against us? We have been provided with daily bread, but do we give food to the hungry and drink to the thirsty, however inconvenient their asking, and however frequently they ask? We have been given the blessings of hearth and home and nation, but do we welcome the stranger and make those most unlike us feel comfortable and at home in our presence? We have been protected and clothed and warmed, but do we provide clothing for those who lack it? We have been comforted by the visits of friends and strangers, but do we visit the sick and those in prison, or sit at home browsing the Internet or answering our e-mail, or drowsing in front of the TV or caught up in a video game? These are such simple things, my sisters and brothers, such simple things to gain or lose heaven by.

The judgment of God is terrible, but it is fair, and just, and it is merciful. It is terrible in its finality, as the world is divided into the blessed and the damned. But it is fair and just in that we have been asked to do no more than we would be done by. And it is merciful in that we have been given ample warning. Oh that today we would hearken to his voice!


Sunday, November 09, 2008

As those who have no hope


St James Fordham • Proper 27a • Tobias Haller BSG

We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.+

Out in the hot, dry, Arizona desert, there are 27 dead people waiting for resurrection. They aren’t the inhabitants of a Christian cemetery, waiting as all the faithful departed do for the coming of that great day when the trumpet shall sound and the dead shall be raised incorruptible. No, these are 27 people who have had themselves put into a deep-freeze of liquid nitrogen in the hope that science will one day find a cure for whatever it was that ailed them, as well as a way to restore their frozen tissue without irreparable damage.

Such is their hope. And the cost? They’ve paid a pretty penny for this deep-freeze, $120,000 each — except for a few of them who decided to save a bit, and took the option, for a mere $50,000, to have had only their heads frozen. Talk about cut-rate pricing! If I want a brain freeze I can just drink a Mickey D milkshake too fast. I suppose these particular blockheads — I think it’s no insult to call them that now, is it? — I suppose they were the most optimistic among the “frozen people” since they expect science will be able to grow them new bodies or build them one like Robocop.

+ + +

Saint Paul wrote to the church at Thessalonica, “We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.” Now, the frozen people in Arizona clearly had hope before they died and were deposited into their giant Thermos flasks. They had the hope that they would one day be thawed, healed or repaired, and live again.

But what a foolish hope, and what a pointless promise. Even if they could be thawed, reanimated, and healed, how much longer do they imagine they could live after that? Bodies may live a long time, but they don’t preserve the vigor of youth. However well we care for our bodies, they weaken and fail. There’s a lesson in the fable of the man who was granted his wish of eternal life but forgot to add eternal youth and was cursed to become a dried up husk of a creature scuttling about the passageways of his great-great-grandchildren’s palace. Until, the legend tells us, the gods took pity on him and transformed him: and that’s where the grasshopper came from! A long life without the health to enjoy it is not a blessing, but a curse.

And even beyond that, even if these newly thawed-out bodies could be kept young forever, what does “forever” mean? After all, the world is going to end someday! And I don’t just mean in a biblical sense based on ancient prophecy, but in cold simple scientific fact. Some day our sun, and every sun that shines in every corner of the universe will either explode or cool down to a cinder. Some day billions of years in the distant future, science assures us, the whole universe will die in the cold embrace of entropy, as all energy drains away and even the atoms that make up everything in the physical universe collapse from sheer exhaustion and decay into the virtual nothingness of a cold, absolute zero. Those who hope for immortality in the physical world through science are cheated of eternal life by that very science: they may live a long, long time, but not for ever. Nothing physical lasts forever — all matter is corruptible, and all flesh is as the grass of the field — and flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of heaven — and those whose hope for immortality is based simply on the survival of their physical bodies are doomed in their ignorance. Haven’t they ever seen a zombie movie — dead bodies walking, but falling apart even as they walk?

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Saint Paul counsels us, “We do not want you to be uninformed about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.” Our hope, hope for ourselves as well as all our beloved who have died before us, our hope does not rest upon the some-day maybe-if-we’re-lucky promises of science but on the eternal, absolute and make-no-mistake-about-it assurance of Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior. What does the old song say? “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness!” The one we hope in doesn’t wear a white lab-coat, but a crown of thorns, and Jesus Christ doesn’t just offer us opinions and options and possibilities but a sure and certain hope — and all other grounds are sinking sand.

Jesus Christ is our secure hope. Because he’s been there. Jesus descended to the dead and rose again the third day. He knows what it is like to feel life drain from him, with the blood he shed on Calvary. This was no near-death experience. Jesus didn’t just come near death. He died! He was buried, and lay in the tomb for a sabbath rest, until by God’s power he was raised from the dead.

Because we share in his death through Baptism, we will also share with him in his resurrection; which is not the reanimation of a corpse, but a whole new creation in the resurrection body, the body that is more than flesh, full of the eternal power of the Spirit, alive with the life that comes from above.

Saint Paul describes the scenario, and whether it happens next week, next year, in a hundred or a thousand or a billion years, this is how it will happen. The Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, and the trumpet shall sound, and those who have died in Christ will rise, and those who are alive will join them, caught up into the mystery of the new life, transformed into his likeness without ever even having had to leave the old one behind.

“The Lord will descend with a cry of command.” And do you know what his command will be? Can you guess? Don’t you think it will be, “WAKE UP!” Christ will call to life all those who have died, and call those who live to new life in him. “Wake up!” will be the watchword, and the trumpet blast and the cry of his voice will be loud enough to wake the dead, literally! As was said to me recently, “On that great day there’s gonna be a whole lot of earth turned up at Woodlawn!”

“We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.” Our hope as Christians is not that we will simply be thawed out, simply be mended to walk about as reanimated corpses, but that we will be given new spiritual bodies, spiritual bodies that can live for eternity long after the merely physical universe decays into the thin gray neutrino soup that scientists foresee billions of years from now. Long after this universe has dissolved, what is eternal shall remain, God and his children, wakened at the sound of the trumpet, and at the call of his Son, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.

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Winston Churchill saw his nation through the terrible war years when he was at an age at which most people are happily retired. In addition to being a statesman and world leader and amateur oil-painter, he was also a devoted churchman and staunch believer in the promises of our faith. There is a persistent unverified rumor — which I have done nothing to discourage! — that his mother, Jennie Jerome, whose father used to live across the road now known as Jerome Avenue in his memory, was baptized here at Saint James Church!

Churchill’s faith and hope were reflected in the funeral service he planned for himself. It took place in Saint Paul’s Cathedral, which had stood throughout the Battle of Britain and the Blitz as a testimony to the church’s presence in a world gone mad, its great dome rising above London’s flames and smoke, defying Hitler’s bombers and rockets. Churchill, as befits a military man, arranged that as his funeral neared its end, a lone bugler high in the dome of the cathedra would begin to play the universal signal for day’s end, the tune we know as “Taps.” I’m sure that melody brought tears to many eyes that day, as it has in so many other places and times.

But old Sir Winston had a more profound message to convey in his funeral. Before the last notes of Taps had faded, another bugler at the opposite side of the dome began another tune, another melody with a very different message: the other bugler played “Reveille”!

“We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.” Our hope, and the hope of countless Christians who have gone before us, all the saints, prophets, apostles and martyrs, all our dear beloved friends and family in Christ, our hope is that at the end the last melody will not be Taps. It will be Reveille! Those who have fallen asleep will wake at the trumpet blast. Those who have died will rise. And, as Saint Paul wrote, those “who are left will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever.”

When He shall come with trumpet sound,
O may I then in Him be found;
Dressed in His righteousness alone
Faultless to stand before His throne.
On Christ the solid Rock I stand;
All other ground is sinking sand —
All other ground is sinking sand. +

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Varieties of Service

Proper 26a & All Saints’ Sunday • Tobias Haller BSG
Jesus said, the greatest among you will be your servant.

All our readings today address the theme of service, and it is fitting to reflect on that theme, in light of our annual celebration of the lives of the Saints — both the great historic saints of the church, and our own more personal saints, whose lives had such a great impact on our own. This impact, historical or personal, resonates down the years — from lives of those who touched so many other lives. And this resonance, this impact, is due to how these saints served.

What does it mean to be a servant? For it is in being a servant, in serving, that people leave a mark for the good on all whom they encounter, and all whom they serve. How people of the church’s past, or of its present — around the world or in this parish — serve their neighbors and their Lord, will determine the future of our world, and the future of this parish, both their immediate future, and how they will stand fifty or a hundred or a thousand years from now.

The problem with the word servant is that for most of us these days it is just that, a word. There was a time when almost every household among the well-to-do had live-in servants. And even among the middle class it wasn’t unusual to have what they used to call “help” or “someone to do” once or twice a week. But nowadays about the only place you see servants, even on TV, is on Masterpiece Theater. The world of maids in starched aprons and butlers in tail-coats is far from us.

However, there is one kind of servant with which we are familiar, and it goes back long before butlers and chambermaids. These servants stood at their masters’ tables, served them their meals, filled their empty goblets, and cleared away the dishes after each course. This most ancient kind of servant is still with us, though today we call them waiters. And since we’ve all experienced good and bad waiters, it seems appropriate to look at the servants in today’s readings in that light.

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The prophet Micah starts us off with the portrait of the kind of waiter who is only interested in the tip. If you’ve ever had a terrible waiter and left a small tip on that account, you’ve probably encountered the sort of waiter who as Micah says, “declares war against those who put nothing in their mouths.” These servants only work for their pay — they have no devotion, no vision, no vocation or calling. It’s just a job as far as they’re concerned. And if they can get away with substandard work, they will. Probably the less said about waiters like this the better; and so let’s move on to the next sort.

The gospel takes us from the ungrateful waiter to the haughty maitre d’. Don’t the Pharisees and scribes of today’s gospel sound an awful lot like a snooty waiter? They are unwilling to lift a finger, they do everything for show, and are all dressed up and placed in the position of honor, to be greeted respectfully.

It may seem odd that a servant would be in a position to look down on a patron, but that is the odd circumstance one finds in certain posh dining establishments, like the one I described a few weeks ago where “proper attire” is required and the maitre d’ is the guardian of gentility. He is the one who has the power to admit only those deemed worthy to dine, looking down his nose at anyone who doesn’t show him proper respect, but groveling before the rich and famous. Unlike the first sort of bad waiters, who couldn’t care less about the job as long as they get a good tip, this kind seem to care more about the appearance of the job, the perks and titles, and honors and esteem, the fancy suit and the stylish boutonniere, than they do about actually seating the guests and seeing that their meals are served. Their focus isn’t upon those whom they serve; it’s on the whole role-play of importance and appearances, what Shakespeare called “the game of who’s in, who’s out, who’s up, who’s down.”

Finally, though, we turn to Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians. And here we find at last a servant whose attention is properly directed. All Paul cares about is those whom he serves. It is their happiness and their joy that is important. This sort of waiter is always there when needed, not someone whose attention is impossible to attract. You will find this kind of waiter filling your glass before you even notice it is empty; offering suggestions on what is a particularly good dish; ready to serve and eager to make you comfortable. And not because there’s a big tip to be looked forward to, but because the waiter simply enjoys seeing you enjoy yourself.

This is the kind of service one rarely encounters. It’s the kind of service loving parents provide for their children. And Saint Paul uses such imagery, family imagery, in describing his work among the people of Thessalonica, his brothers and sisters for whom he toiled so hard, and who, when he was separated from them, he missed as an orphan misses his parents.

This is the kind of service to which our Lord calls us all: service not for profit or gain, except the profit and gain of our brothers and sisters as they reap the fruits of the Spirit. It is not service for show, for honors and titles, but service that lifts up others without thinking about itself.

This is the service of the saints — the big important famous ones from church history, as well as those personal saints who touched our own lives with their immediate presence. Such saintly service finds its end in the happiness and joy and well-being of those who are served; such a servant finds glory and joy in the act of service, and in knowing that the service was rendered to a good end, that it has done some good.

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I want to close with a remembrance of such a servant — not a saint of the church, but of the world. He has touched all of our lives though we may not think about it. But if you ever drink a glass of milk, you should give thanks to the man who gave his name to the process that made it safe to drink: Louis Pasteur.

Pasteur was one of the greatest scientists of all time. He was numbered among the top 100 most influential persons of the last millennium. He was among the first who championed the notion that germs cause disease, and developed treatments for scourges such as anthrax. As I alluded to, he invented the process we now know by his name, pasteurization, by which beverages are kept safe and healthful for our tables — and though we think first of milk, the process was originally applied to beer and wine, which the French considered far more important!

Pasteur also discovered the first successful treatment for rabies, which in his day was a deadly affliction that killed thousands every year. He had worked on the vaccine for some time, and was about to try an experiment on himself, when a young boy of nine, Joseph Meister, was savagely bitten by a rabid dog. Joseph’s mother begged Pasteur to try the new and untested vaccine on her son, who would surely die in agony otherwise. Pasteur, a patient servant, administered the vaccine for the next ten days, in progressively stronger doses. His experiment worked, and young Joseph Meister lived. Not only did he live, but he continued in a form of service himself — working first as a janitor and later for decades as a tour guide in the Pasteur Institute, completed just a few years before Pasteur died.

For Pasteur was already old when he saved Joseph Meister’s life. After years of people saying he was crazy, he had finally become a national hero, with the great Pasteur Institute just completed, funded by contributions from all over the world. As a new national hero in old age, public plans were being made for his tomb. (You know the French love to build fabulous tombs for people whom they dissed for most of their lives!) Pasteur was asked what he would like to have as an epitaph: some acknowledgment of pasteurization, that saved the French brewing industry? A few words to serve notice that this was the tomb of the man who proved that germs do after all cause disease, and who found a way to combat some of the most deadly? What would be a fitting epitaph for this great man?

Pasteur said that if it were up to him, there would just be three words engraved on his tomb, three words that would sum up what his mission had been about, three words that summarized the service he had rendered: “Joseph Meister lived.”

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For a servant can focus only on his wages; a servant can focus only on his prestige and office; or a servant can focus on those whom he serves. I know what kind of servant I hope to be; I know the kind of servants whom we remember as saints in the church and saints in our own hearts and homes. May God give each of us the strength to serve in humility and humbleness ofheart, that we may one day be remembered not for who we were, but for who and how we served; through Jesus Christ our Lord.+


Tuesday, October 21, 2008

God's Choice and Ours

Saint James Fordham • Proper 24a • Tobias Haller BSG
For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you.+

I have spoken before about God’s attributes: the characteristics of God; God’s wisdom and power, and God’s love; you know, I’ll never get tired of preaching of God’s love, and I hope you never tire of hearing me do so! But another characteristic of God, a thing that God does, time and again, is this: God chooses.

This power to make choices is such an important part of God’s nature, that we enshrine it in our Catechism, in our definition of what it means to be made in the image of God. The Catechism asks, What does it mean to be created in the image of God? And it answers (on page 845 of your Prayer Book), “It means that we are free to make choices: to love, to create, to reason, and to live in harmony with creation and with God.”

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So the freedom to choose is an important quality of God as God, and of us children of God, made in God’s image. And what I’d like to examine this morning is the nature of the choices God, and we, make. How does God choose? Well, first of all, although we share this capacity, we are assured that God does not choose as people do. God plays no favorites, as alluded to in that passage from Thessalonians: God is impartial. So it is that God often chooses what we would not expect to choose if we were in God’s place.

Of all the nations of the earth from which God could have chosen, from the great tribal kingdoms of Africa, the powerful rulers of Asia and Mesopotamia, of Egypt so old they were into double digit dynasties two thousand years before the birth of Christ — of all of these, God chose not a single one, but little Israel: wanderers and nomads with little more than their tents, herds and flocks. And God chose to journey with them in the wilderness, dwelling amongst them in a tent, just like them.

Later, God chose little David: the youngest son, the shepherd boy, not an impressive grown-up like his brothers, but a boy no more than 14, to be the king of Israel. Centuries later, that same chosen people Israel prayed for deliverance from captivity in Babylon. And God chose as his messiah, his anointed one, not a descendent of David, but Cyrus, the gentile. Cyrus, king of Media and Persia, was chosen to end the proud rule of Babylon and send the captives home.

Then came perhaps the most unlikely choice of all. For his own coming among us, God chose to be born, not in the royal palace, but in the barn behind the inn in the suburb of Jerusalem called Bethlehem. It is as if the visiting dignitary came for a state visit — not to the United Nations, not to City Hall, not to Manhattan even, but to a borough on the edges — dare we say it: maybe even to the Bronx?

Yes, my brothers and sisters, God has chosen us! The royal visitor is here with us, as he promised he would be where two or three are gathered in his name. As with the people of Thessalonica, and of all the gentiles, God has chosen to be with the unlikely. Yes, beloved, God has chosen us, and that means we are among what is called “the elect.”

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Now, election is a difficult doctrine. It caused a whole lot of trouble back during the Reformation. It seems exclusive and prideful at first glance, as if to say, “we’re God’s favorites and you aren’t.” But that is to miss the wonder of God’s choice. It isn’t that we should place ourselves in the position to judge others, to look down on those we might think God has not chosen (for until God chose us we were not chosen either, and who knows what God may do tomorrow — remember, God shows no partiality, and is patient and generous, and the latecomers at the harvest get the same pay as the early ones who worked all day). Rather we should take comfort — spiritual strength — from this knowledge, without looking down on anyone else, or doubting their call from God.

But how do we know we are among the elect? What is election, anyway? Well, first of all let’s remember that election is not something we have done, it is something God has done: as I said, God chooses; God elects. That word election is, of course, very much in our minds at this season — in a very different context. But what does it mean in the context of the church? Our English word election derives from a Greek word which means “chosen, summoned, called together.” It is the source of the word ecclesia — the assembly chosen and called together by God, the church. You hear a modern form of it in the word eclectic. In home decorating that describes decor with all sorts of styles mixed up together — and if that isn’t the church I don't know what is! If you have any doubt just look around at this place and the people in it — from the stained glass windows to the people in the pews, we are an eclectic bunch, gathered here literally from the corners of the world.

So being elect means being part of the church, this odd assortment of all sorts and conditions, brought together in one place, to worship one Lord through one faith. And the way we enter that fellowship of one faith in the one Lord is through the one baptism — the same the world over. Whether our baptism is an adult choice, or (as in most cases) a choice made by parents and godparents, baptism is election to salvation and eternal life.

Now, down through the history of the church — as I said, back at the Reformation — some have said: isn’t my choice involved? There are and have been denominations that insist on what they call “believer baptism” — only adults are to be baptized, and only when they’ve asked for it. This led to conflict among 19th century Anglicans, and led to the departure of those who felt that baptism somehow didn’t really “take” on infants and children.

The problem with this view of baptism is that it calls God’s grace into question; it puts the burden on the individual, and leaves nothing with God — or the church, through which God continues to act. For the church in its apostolic faith teaches that God’s grace acts as much on a week-old child as it does on me, just as Jesus Christ was God Almighty even when he was an infant in the manger!

Yes, our choice is involved, in living a good and righteous life and walking in God’s ways once we’re old enough to walk, but only after God has made the first move, acting through the church in its many members, working as Christ’s Body on earth. God chooses us through the church, and then it is for to us to live up to that responsibility in the church. We who bear God’s image belong to God — no less than the coin with Caesar’s likeness belonged to Caesar — much good it did him.

We belong to God who saves us, with our will, without out will, even sometimes against our will. Many of us were brought to the font literally kicking and screaming. I’ve wrestled with a few right over there! But anyone who’s ever rescued a drowning swimmer knows by the way they sometimes struggle you’d think they didn’t want to be saved. But God’s grace, and God’s choice, is stronger than human panic and fear, whether we are three weeks, three months, three years, three decades or three score year and ten years old. God has chosen us and saved us.

How do we know? Because we are here. We are justified by faith and cleansed in Baptism, clothed anew with that wedding garment I spoke about last week. And... where does that leave us? Are we all dressed up with no place to go? Not at all. Baptism is the beginning, God’s choice of us. What are we to do in return? What is our choice?

People down through history have wanted to make it harder than it is: they want to impose fasts and long faces, austere disciplines and sacrifices. But we are assured again and again that God desires mercy, not sacrifice. How do we “render to God the things that belong to God”? There’s no secret here, my friends; we’ve been given the answer in advance. “Love the Lord with all your heart and mind and soul and strength, and your neighbor as yourself.” Certainly hard enough to do sometimes! We are often tempted to anger, to lack of charity, to impatience. I said we were chosen, not perfect!

But if we trust God, he will make up for our lack of charity. The God who chose us is the same God who will fill us with his love, and help us to love others. How do we know we are on the way to God? Because God has promised it, and because we want it. We really want it — for who would want to choose death when life was within their grasp. We belong to God, and God will never turn away that which belongs to him.

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Sir Thomas More was the chancellor of England back at the time of the Reformation I referred to a moment ago. He tangled with Henry the Eighth when he wouldn’t give in and accept Henry’s divorce and remarriage. Whether we agree with his reasoning, we can honor his courage and his commitment to the promises he had made. In spite of Henry’s and his own family’s pleas, he stuck with what his conscience told him he must do, refusing to be a “man for all seasons” who would go which way the wind was blowing, and for that he came to the headsman’s block. You may remember the scene from the movie, Man For All Seasons. In accordance with the custom, the man who was about to chop off his head knelt before him to ask his forgiveness. And Sir Thomas said to him, “Fear not, you send me to God.” The Archbishop, standing by, asked “Are you so sure?” And Sir Thomas responded with heartfelt words, “God will not refuse one who is so blithe to go to him.”

God will not refuse us, who are so eager to go to him. He has chosen us already. We belong to him, marked with his image, and he has washed away our sins in baptism and so brightened and restored the image we had at our birth; he feeds us with his body and blood in the eucharist. We have been delivered from the bonds of death and the wrath that is coming. God has chosen us, and we belong to him. No one can take us from him. God will go before us and level the mountains, God will break in pieces the doors of bronze and cut asunder the bars of iron — delivering us from the bondage to sin and death — God will give us the secret hidden treasure of eternal life, that we may know that it is God the Lord who has chosen us, and called us, each and every one, by name.+


Tuesday, October 07, 2008

The Best-Laid Plans

Saint James Fordham • Proper 22a • Tobias Haller BSG
There was a householder who planted a vineyard.

A little girl, five years old, kneels in the middle of the kitchen floor, building a house of bright wooden blocks. It is a beautiful house. There are round, green pillars at the front door. Windows on each floor are framed by blocks of yellow and orange, and topped by bright red lintels. Just as she is about to place the finishing touch — the blue, notched chimney block — on the roof of the house, the door opens and her mother comes in with an armful of laundry. As the door closes, the floor shakes and the house collapses in ruins — no house now, just a pile of blocks: yellow, red, green and blue. The little girl jumps up, and in frustration kicks the blocks that go sliding across the floor. Then, looking at her mother, she bursts into tears.

We have all known disappointments in our lives — some minor, some deeply painful. From earliest childhood, when we first begin to have expectations, through the shattered dreams of adolescence, and the dashed hopes of adulthood, our best laid plans often don’t work out.

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Today we have heard two stories about vineyards — and about failed hopes. Isaiah sings a tragic song about crop failure. We need not look far to find parallels for this story, what with droughts and hard winters, to say nothing of the collapse of the virtual crop known as the stock market, or the changing climate. A modern day folk singer protesting farm foreclosures or ecological disaster is singing in the spirit of Isaiah; because the song is about more than vineyards; it is about plans going awry, and a world misused.

Isaiah’s beloved, for whom he sings this song, is a careful planner. The land is fertile; the ground is cultivated with care, the stones are cleared away. The property is fenced to keep out the foxes. The vines themselves are choice. In the middle of the property a wine vat is prepared, and a tower is built as a home for the workers. The vineyard owner, looking over the scene, smiles and savors in imagination the taste of the rich sweet wine.

But when harvest time comes, what does the vineyard yield? Wild bitter grapes, good for nothing. Like the little girl whose house of blocks collapsed — like many of us who suffer disappointments — the vineyard owner reacts with violence: tearing down the fence, breaking the walls, trampling the vines under foot, letting it go to wrack and ruin. The vineyard owner even makes it stop raining.

Wait a minute! How can the vineyard owner make it stop raining? Who has the power to do that? Suddenly, with this one phrase — “I will command the clouds” — Isaiah reveals that this song isn’t about agriculture, but about God and Israel and Judah. God is the owner who looks — not for grapes — but for justice and righteousness: justice as sweet and righteousness as fortifying as wine. Instead God finds the bitterness of strife and bloodshed, the stench of injustice.

This song isn’t about farming after all, or natural disasters like drought and hard winters. This is a song about sin: the human tendency to misuse even the best advantages for selfish ends. God delivered the tribes of Israel out of Egypt, and brought them to a fertile hill, a land of milk and honey. They were given the Law as a guardian and watchtower, to keep them on the paths of righteousness.

Instead, injustice and crime are the rule. Sinful humanity thinks of itself first, and in place of a pleasant harvest of righteousness and generosity, only grapes of wrath grow upon the stunted vines.

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Selfishness and greed are even more evident in the second vineyard story that Jesus tells. It starts in the same way, with a carefully planned vineyard. Then the owner leases the vineyard to tenants, and goes off to another country. When harvest comes, the owner sends servants to collect the share of the produce that constitutes the rent, but finds the workers have decided to keep the whole harvest for themselves. They beat and kill the servants, and then even murder the owner’s son when he is sent to set things right.

Selfishness and greed — but surely folly, too. What can these tenants be thinking? What could possibly lead them to believe they can keep the whole harvest for themselves, not even turning over the portion due as rent? How can they imagine that by killing the son they could gain the inheritance? What can possess them?

Well, what possesses anyone acting out of greed? Look around at the world and you will see. God gives us the good earth to live in — but we pollute it with waste, we deplete its resources, we warm it to a boil and then wonder where have all the glaciers gone. Look at the financial crisis: a mixture of greed and misplaced optimism, of thinking you can cut corners and not have to abide by any rules, and squeeze the fruit until it gives more juice than it contains, and even to wager on derivatives that gain when everyone else loses. No wonder we are in a pickle.

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God gives humanity the ability to choose between right and wrong — yet we often place our own needs, our own best laid plans before those of others. As a result, the physical and human worlds both are spoiled. We look “for justice, but behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold, a cry!” Fallen humanity clutches the harvest to its breast, crying out like a five-year-old, “Mine! Mine!” and failing to see that what it holds is a harvest of dry and stinking weeds.

Greed and folly make the harvest turn sour. Like the manna of the wilderness, the harvest cannot be stored up, but must be used and shared day by day. If you try to keep it, to possess it as your very own, it will rot. God promised that the bread from heaven would be there daily, but the untrusting souls who tried to store it overnight ended up with rot.

St Paul wrote to the Christians of Philippi about such people: “Their end is destruction, their god is the belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.” The greedy focus on their own plans without regard for others.

This is the attitude of the earthly minded. But the earth itself is good — it is God’s own creation, created it for our benefit. What turns the earth bad is our selfish misuse of it. When the earth becomes an end in itself — only good for what we can dig out of it, grow from it, or make of it — the earth itself will rebel — has rebelled — against us. If we go on trying to squeeze every last derivative penny from a stock market based not even on stock any more, but on futures, options and indexes — well, our future is bleak, our options few, and the index is the skin of our teeth. When we begin to think of the harvest as ours, rather than God’s, it will turn sour. If our best laid plans leave God, and God’s children — the whole of humanity — out of the picture, we are as foolish as those who worship their bellies, or who think that by killing servants or son, they will inherit the kingdom.

If, then, we are to lay our plans well, if we are to build on a firm foundation, then God must be at the heart of our best laid plans. The earth is available for our use and benefit, but it is the kingdom of heaven that should concern us ultimately. The market is there to trade in, the banks to invest in wisely and prudently — not in wild speculation but in sober judgment — but the place our dearest treasure should be stored is not here on earth, but with our Father above.

To do so, we must face for a time away from the earth, lifting our eyes toward heaven, and pressing “on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”

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Seven hundred eighty-two years ago yesterday, a man died whose whole life focused on heaven, but who delighted in things of the earth. Few have so embraced the simplicity of Christ’s life, and few so relished the glories of God’s creation. Yet Saint Francis of Assisi understood the secret of moving amid his fellow creatures — men and women, the sun, moon and stars, the rivers and animals, especially the animals — while keeping his eyes fixed on Christ. He even knew the greatest secret of all, the secret the vineyard tenants did not know. They thought that killing the son would wreck the owner’s plan; that Christ’s death was the collapse and ruin of God’s best laid plans for the world.

But out of death came life. Christ’s death was not the failure of God’s plan, but its culmination. As Saint Francis knew, death is not the end. We joined our voices with his in our opening hymn, based on one of his poems: “Even you, most gentle death, waiting to hush our final breath... You lead back home the child of God, for Christ our Lord that way has trod. O praise him, Alleluia.”

As we pass — as we must — through that narrow door of death into the wide expanse of the kingdom of heaven, may we bear a rich harvest of fruit, the fruit of a life lived in generosity and fellowship with all of our brothers and sisters, ready to present it to the owner of the vineyard. The Lord will welcome us, as he has always planned, with open arms, the same arms he once spread out for us and for the whole world, upon the hard wood of the cross.+


Thursday, September 25, 2008

God's Justice and Ours

Saint James Fordham • Proper 20a • Tobias Haller BSG
Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more, but they received the same daily wage.+

According the unwritten laws that govern the entertainment industry, and the time-tested response of audiences, every action-adventure movie ends with the villain getting his just punishment. And the more villainous the villain, the more terrible his end, and the louder the audience cheers. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. Think of the James Bond movies: whether it’s the evil Doctor No slowly sinking into the boiling bath of his atomic reactor, or the sinister Auric Goldfinger being sucked out through the shattered window of his private jet, the movie villain dies a terrible death, and the audience cheers.

Come on, admit it! That’s part of the fun of a really exciting action-adventure film: seeing the terribly wicked punished, and the courageous righteous rewarded. The only time an audience will put up with a villain getting away at the end is when they know for sure that a sequel is in the works. Most of the time what a movie audience looks for is that satisfying release that comes when the villain meets his demise, in proportion to the extent of his villainy. That’s what justice is all about.

The prophet Jonah represents just such an audience. God appoints him to warn the wicked city of Nineveh that it is going to be destroyed. And after his reluctant false start, and intermission in the belly of a great fish, Jonah finally delivers the message of doom, God’s promise to destroy the wickedest city on earth. Jonah is ready to see God’s justice prevail.

But when the people of the city repent, and God decides to be merciful, Jonah gets completely bent out of shape. He can’t believe it! He goes up the hill outside town and arranges himself a mezzanine seat, waiting to see what will happen. Perhaps there is one more reel to this film and God is just building up the suspense! God can’t be serious, Jonah thinks. Nineveh is the most awful, wicked, villainous city in the world. What difference that they’ve repented? This isn’t the way it’s supposed to work out! The bad guys are supposed to get smashed.

And when it turns out that the movie is over, Jonah is practically on the point of asking for a refund, when God teaches him a lesson about mercy, stunning him to silence when he finally sees God’s mercy for an entire city in comparison with his own shallow sorrow for a shrub. God also reveals to him the selfishness that often lies at the heart of such rushes to judgment. After all, the shrub was sheltering him — he didn’t give a damn about the hundreds of innocents who would perish in the downfall of Nineveh.

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Justice is a funny thing. We want justice for ourselves when we think we’ve been wronged, when we haven’t gotten our fair share. And we want justice that punishes the wicked. We want the “tit-for-tat,” the quid pro quo, actions followed by consequences. In short, we want the books to balance out at the end of the day.

But as God showed Jonah, and as Jesus showed his hearers in the parable of the Generous Employer, that isn’t the kind of justice God dishes out. In spite of our wanting to see all the accounts of good and bad tallied up and dished out accordingly, that just isn’t the way God works. God is simply not a bookkeeper.

Neither is God’s justice like human justice. You know how justice is portrayed in a court-house: Blindfolded, in one hand she holds a sword and in the other a balance-scale. These symbolize three aspects of earthly justice: impartial, decisive, and punitive. But God’s justice is different. God’s justice is not based on blindness, but on the opposite: complete knowledge. God’s justice is not based on weighing the pros and cons, but always tips the scale towards the disadvantaged, the oppressed, the disenfranchised.

God is like the generous merchant who sees a poor woman hunting for coins in her purse, and ignores what the scale says, giving her an extra portion. God is not like that other character who appears in December, Santa Claus, who keeps a list of who’s good and bad, and rewards them accordingly. God knows who is naughty and nice, but he doesn’t come to us as a fat man in a red suit with switches and coal for the wicked, but comes to us all in love and forgiveness with his own Body and Blood.

And though God does have a sword in hand, it is a sword raised only to cut down those who will not receive God’s mercy, who refuse to see themselves as needing mercy, who stand unrepentant in their own self-righteousness. God’s justice is always, and I mean always, combined with God’s mercy.

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And it’s a good thing it is. If God’s justice were not tempered with mercy, then who in this imperfect world could stand? God does not dole out rewards and punishments solely in relation to what we have done or failed to do. He does not simply give us what we deserve. As Jack Benny once said when he was presented with an award, “You know, I really don’t deserve this. But then again, I have arthritis, and I don’t deserve that either!” No, God does not simply give us what we deserve. God is not a blind dispenser of justice, but a generous and merciful Father who loves us, even when we fail to do what is right. For while we clamor for justice, all of us, even the best of us, stands in need of mercy.

Mercy may not always seem fair; but it is good. Mercy may not always make sense to us; but it does to God. And perhaps that is why, at our best, mercy touches us so much. Even when it doesn’t make sense, perhaps especially then, mercy suddenly appears where it seems most unlikely, and we get a glimpse, as Jesus said, of the kingdom of God.

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Just such a glimpse happened in the midst of World War II, in the depths of some of the heaviest fighting, as the allies were edging into German-occupied territory. American infantryman Bert Frizen was a scout, a dangerous job, out on the front edge of the advance.

In the stillness of an early morning, his patrol came to the edge of a field, unaware of a German battery hidden behind a hedge at the other side. Bert edged out of the woods into that field, and as he reached the half-way point, the Germans opened fire, ripping into Bert’s legs. The American troops withdrew to the woods, leaving Bert out in the field, struggling helplessly in a small stream, as the shots careened overhead. Dizzy with pain, he looked up the stream-bed, and saw a German soldier crawling through the mud towards him. Helpless, Bert closed his eyes and waited for the inevitable pistol shot or stab of a bayonet.

After what seemed an unbearably long time, nothing happened. He opened his eyes, and the German soldier was kneeling at his side. Bert then noticed that the shooting had stopped. To his amazement, the German stood, and bending low, hoisted Bert over his back, and carried him back over the muddy field to his fellow-Americans behind the trees at the field’s edge. Then without a word, the German turned and walked calmly back across the field to his own troop.

I wish I could say this story ended there. But it didn’t. There was one more reel to this film. The battle recommenced, and men died on both sides. But for a moment, perhaps only for five minutes, something of the kingdom of God came to be on that sodden field.

What happened didn’t make sense. All the rules of war, the balance sheet marked in blood, the righteous ire of the allies and the fierce nationalism of the Germans, all that passes for human justice and common sense was eclipsed by an act of mercy, an act of mercy that silenced the guns, on both sides, if only for a moment.

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So it is that God silences the pious indignation of Jonah. So it is that God forgives and shows mercy to the sinners of Nineveh, as well as to the innocents who don’t know their right hand from their left. So it is that God pours out his generosity to those who worked only a fraction of the day. So it is that God confronts those who think they’re special and deserve extra, when all they’ve done is what they agreed to do. So it is that God, instead of treating us with blind justice, shows us the mercy that not only sees through us but sees us through. So it is that God, instead of giving us our just deserts, in mercy gives us what he knows is best for us. And so it is, dear sisters and brothers, as our final reel plays out, that we ought to be merciful to one another, in the Name of him who shows such mercy to each of us.+


The story of Bert Frizen is from an account by Chuck Holsinger reported by Lynn McAdam.

The Uplifting Low-Down

posted at In a Godward Direction

The Many and the One

posted at In A Godward Directon

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

The Life Preserver

SJF • Proper 17a • Tobias Haller BSG
Jesus said, Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?

Years ago there was a scene in a disaster movie that sticks in my mind. I can’t remember if it was The Towering Inferno or Earthquake — but it took place in a skyscraper during a disaster. Everyone is rushing to the elevator to try to escape the building. One man is the last to arrive, and when he finds he can’t squeeze in, he grabs a woman from inside, drags her out, and then takes her place — and the doors close. Well, you can guess what happens — the elevator cable breaks and the car plummets to the depths, killing all the passengers. The message is clear — that selfish man, in an effort to save his life, lost it.

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I don’t think that’s the kind of saving and losing that Jesus is talking about in our gospel today; though he is speaking of matters of life and death — eternal life and eternal death, in fact. It is in how each and every one of us takes up our own cross day by day to follow him that we will lose and find our lives. What this means, in part, is losing control over our lives, and control over the lives of others. Our call is not to think about ourselves, but to get to work doing the work God intends us to do.

This is a consistent message in the teaching of Jesus. Remember the parable of the servants entrusted with various amounts of money? The master expects them not simply to save it by burying it in the ground, to return just what he gave, no more, no less. Only the servants who take the risk are rewarded, and the one who saves the money instead of risking losing it, receives no reward for his lack of effort — and loses even what he has. No, Jesus is clear that whatever is entrusted to our care in this life is to be put to use — not saved for a rainy day.

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Our reading from Romans shows this process at work as Paul tells of the gifts each member receives. These gifts are meant to be put to work for the good of the whole body.

Prophets are to prophesy, in proportion to their faith. That is, the one with much faith will be able to proclaim it more eloquently to encourage others, helping their faith grow.

Ministers — that is, those called to serve — are expected to serve, to get to work, and not treat the ministry like some kind of honorary title. It is always a ministry to the needs of others, placing them ahead of ones own needs — like the mother who prepares dinner for her family but doesn’t sit to eat until all have been served.

Teachers are to teach — and anyone who teaches knows that the more you teach the more you learn: the more knowledge you give away the more comes back to you.

The exhorter is not to take it easy and assume that everyone else will do as they ought without any exhortation. If you watched any of the Olympics, you will remember those anxious, watchful exhorters standing on the sidelines — the coaches, without whose help those athletes would never have made it so far. The hard work comes back to them, too. Who is the first to greet the athletes when they step off the platform, if not the coach — whether to comfort those who didn’t do as well as they hoped, or to rejoice with the winners!

The giver is to give — generously and not under compulsion; and by giving, giving up control over what is given — giving freely for the spread of the kingdom, the upbuilding of the church. Those who give this way are like those in the proverb: “Cast your bread upon the waters and it will return to you.”

This is about so much more than money, my friends. As easy as it would be to turn this into a stewardship sermon, this is not just about the offering of treasure, or even of time and talent. It is about self-dedication. The giver is to give with that same sense of sacrifice as did Jesus himself — who gave himself for us, not counting the cost.

We all give, and we all receive — not just of our time, talent, and treasure; but of our selves, our souls and bodies, as a reasonable, holy and living sacrifice to God. This builds up Christ’s kingdom and makes it strong and resilient .For just as the relay race depends on every member of the team, so too the church depends on all of its members doing their part.

And what goes for the members goes for the leader. The leader is to lead with diligence — again that means with care and concern, not for him or herself, but for the good of those being led. The leader is to lead, confident in knowing that the leader too is led by the ones who have gone before, and who it is the leader follows even in taking up the cross of leadership day by day.

And finally, the compassionate are to be cheerful. Now, you might not think that compassion is either a gift or a ministry, but believe me it is: for to be compassionate means to be able to feel with others — to share their griefs and help them carry them. In this way the compassionate help others to bear their own crosses, their own struggles and burdens.

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You will notice in all of this how none of these gifts are solo ventures — they all involve others, they are all woven together into the fabric of the church, the body of Christ. In this the church lives — lives the life of the one who died for it, who died for us, the members of his body.

And it is with that in mind that I want to return to the literal life and death matter of which Christ speaks. For in all to which Saint Paul calls the church, all of those things with which we have been gifted, Christ was there first, and to the ultimate degree.

For the prophecy with which he prophesied was that of his own death and resurrection, in accordance with the Scriptures, and the faith he had was his faith in God that he would be delivered through death, and bring us with him. The ministry of service he undertook was as the servant who suffered for our sake. The teaching he taught was the eloquent testimony in his own flesh and blood, his body given for us unto eternal life; and the exhortation he gave is the same one we repeat week by week in our solemn worship: as he exhorts us to Take and Eat, to Take and Drink, of his body and his blood — the most generous gifts of the most generous giver.

Finally, his leadership was exemplary — given to us who profess to follow him whatever the cost, in the way of his compassionate offering of himself, for the sins of the whole world.

So it is, you see, a matter of life and death. Few of us will ever be called actually to lay down our lives in this way, to give our lives to save another. But you never know. In January 1982, Air Florida flight 90 crashed on the runway at the edge of the Potomac River. There were six survivors in the icy water, clinging to the plane’s tail with frozen hands. The rescue helicopter could only save one at a time, as it lowered a life preserver on a cable. Every time it lowered the line to save another person, a middle-aged man in the water passed the life-preserver to someone else. On helicopter’s sixth return, the one that would have saved him from the water, Arland Williams was gone — exhausted and freezing, he had slipped beneath the water.

I cannot help but think that Arland was lifted up by an even more everlasting life preserver than the one he passed to five other people on that cold January day. He was preserved unto eternal life in doing what Jesus would call the greatest act of love, mirroring Christ’s own act in giving himself to save others.

We may not be called — I hope we never will be — to suffer such a fate even if it brings such a hope of glory. Rather may we spend each day in those smaller acts of giving — giving ourselves for the good of others, losing our lives for their sake in little ways, in all those ministries which we share together in this wonderful church.

And if by chance we are graced to do more — actually to find ourselves in a situation where our life is asked of us quite literally, may we have the courage to lose it in the knowledge that God will give it back to us, and we will find a greater reward than we can either ask or imagine. As Jim Elliot, a missionary who was murdered in South America, said so eloquently, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” We cannot keep our lives, preserve our lives or save our lives; come what may, they will some day come to an end. But we can give our lives, in a daily process of parting with each moment in service to others — to gain the greatest gift, the everlasting gift, the thing we cannot lose: everlasting life in Jesus Christ our Lord.+