Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Heirs of the Spirit

Saint James Fordham • Lent 2a • Tobias Haller BSG
What is born of the flesh is flesh, what is born of the Spirit is Spirit.+

As you know, this is Black History Month, and various programs on TV and elsewhere have been sharing some of that rich history with us. Another way you can look into that history is by going on-line to the Archives of the Episcopal Church, where you can visit an exciting exhibition called “The Church Awakens: African Americans and the Struggle for Justice.” (You can find the internet address in today’s bulletin.)

However, this year, due to Lent starting so early, and overlapping with Black History Month, we are also given the opportunity to reflect on some powerful Scripture lessons in the context of our heightened awareness of race and kinship. These are the matters of flesh and blood that offer so much promise and yet have caused so much division and led to so much injustice and anguish down through the years.

And the problems with racism are apparent from the very foundation. For right there in the book of Genesis, we are shown God choosing Abram, making him the father of a great nation, a “chosen” people — a clan to be given God’s special care and attention, who would pass that inheritance down in the flesh of their bodies, carrying the blessing in their blood, and literally marked in their flesh with the sign of circumcision. As to the Canaanites who live in the land that Abram’s people will possess, well, they’re expendable second-class citizens in this view of things. They will be wiped out as inferior people, pushed aside to make room for the chosen ones, the blessed ones who will spring from the seed of Abram. For it is to his offspring, and to his alone, that God promises the blessed land.

This was a view that many Israelites found comforting in the years that would follow. Surely it is true that believing yourself to be blessed is a comfort when you actually find your life not going well. When you’re down and out the memories of a golden age when your ancestors were on top can help salve your wounded pride. Race pride, pride in your kin and your heritage, in this sense, is a sort of consolation prize.

And this promise of being chosen comforted the people of Israel through their slave years in Egypt; it kept them going in their captivity in Babylon, and it inspired them when the time came to rebuild the temple in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah.

But something else began to happen to the Jewish people while they were in Babylon. Slowly some of them began to find their perspectives broadened as they saw new things in this bigger world, beyond the old borders of the Holy Land, and their minds were stretched by a small group of inspired men and women who were touched by God’s spirit and given the gift of prophecy.

Now, as I believe I’ve said before from this pulpit, prophecy is not about making predictions like a psychic friend or supermarket tabloid! Prophecy isn’t something you can get for $1.95 for each additional minute! On the contrary, prophecy is about being able to see the world clearly, to be able to see the truth and to speak it boldly, even when it means getting into trouble for it.

And the truth that began to dawn in the minds of the prophets, most especially the prophet Isaiah, was that there had to be more to God’s plan for the earth than just blessing this small tribe of Israelites. The prophets began to see that Israel was not to be the end of salvation, but the beginning, and that from Israel light would spread to enlighten all the nations of the world. The prophets began to see that it wasn’t a matter of just one race and clan, but of the whole human family — whose common kinship after all traced its way back to Adam and Eve. It wasn’t just one people who were the object of God’s redeeming love and care, but all people everywhere.

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Such was the message of the prophets, but, as we know, the words of prophets are often ignored. And sure enough, after the end of the captivity in Babylon,

when Israel got back home and started rebuilding the Temple, they soon fell into the old “us-versus-them” mindset that has plagued racists and nationalists of whatever complexion or clan from the very beginning. One of the first rules they put in place, for example, was “no intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews.” Laws as strict as the old anti-miscegenation laws of the American South, Nazi Germany, or Apartheid South Africa were put in place, to restrict and nullify such “impure” marriages, such “race mixing,” especially when Jews had married women from the hated remnants of the Canaanites and Moabites who still eked out a sad existence on the fringes of Jewish society.

It took another anonymous prophet to raise a voice at that point in history, and we only know this prophet from the story this wise person recorded, a very short story in one of the shortest books of the Bible, so small it is easy to lose it between Judges and Samuel— the story of Ruth. This wise prophet told that story to remind all those so keen on stopping intermarriage that Ruth, the grandmother of the great king David himself, had been a Moabite.

Sadly, this beautiful story of love and inclusion was lost on the nationalistic zealots, and the racists had their way, rebuilding the Temple, ultimately defeating the hated Greeks and establishing a Jewish state once more, until the Romans dealt the final crushing blow to Jewish pride in Jewish ancestry and blood.

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And it was in those days of Roman rule that once more voices began to be raised, one voice in particular, that of a humble carpenter who lifted up the prophecies of Isaiah and dared to suggest that they were being fulfilled even then. Jesus dared to challenge those of his day who regarded Samaritans as less than human outcasts — and we’ll hear more about that next week! In today’s Gospel, one of the Jewish leaders comes to Jesus by night, curious to hear more about this radical message that seems to overturn so much that he held dear.

Now, to give Nicodemus his due, at least he makes the effort. Later in the Gospel he would be bold enough to speak out to defend Jesus, but at this point his confidence in Jesus is partial, so he comes to him in secret.

I can’t help but think of Nicodemus as I would of a well-meaning white liberal coming to visit Dr. Martin Luther King during the bus boycotts; some white Montgomery businessman with his heart in the right place, but worried about his reputation, offering to help — as long as nobody finds out!

But Jesus answers Nicodemus as I’m sure Dr. King would have answered such a well-meaning but fearful person. What is born of the flesh is flesh, what is born of the Spirit is Spirit. You must be reborn from above, from the Spirit. You’re still hanging on to that flesh of yours, full of pride in heritage and blood, when what is truly needed is liberation in the Spirit, freedom to move where you will and say what you think and stand tall and proud not because of who your earthly parents were, or where you were born, or where you went to school, or how much money you make, or what color you are — but because you have a Father in heaven who pours out his Spirit upon you.

This is the Gospel message: that salvation does not lie in race or in matters of flesh and blood and heritage; it does not lie in who your parents are or where you were born; it doesn’t even lie in the works you do or the laws you follow. Abraham showed us that, he whose faith — not his works — was reckoned to him as righteousness. No, salvation comes by grace through faith, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the new birth as a new person who is a child of God by adoption, not descent. Only one has come down from heaven, Jesus the Son of God, and it is he in whom all our racial, ethnic and national differences are swallowed up in salvation, when we are baptized into him by water and the Holy Spirit.

For in him there is no east or west, no north or south, black, white, yellow, brown or red. In Christ there is one great fellowship throughout the whole wide earth, in which, thanks to the grace and mercy of God, through the generosity and abundance of his Holy Spirit given in baptism, we have been blessed to find ourselves numbered. And so to him, whose power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine, to him be glory from generation to generation, not in the flesh, but in the Church, and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever.+

Monday, February 11, 2008

Doubt That Kills

Saint James Fordham • Lent 1a • Tobias Haller BSG
The tempter came to him and said, If you are the Son of God…

Today is the first Sunday in Lent, and just a little while ago we sang a long litany that included a striking petition: our earnest appeal to God that we might finally one day “beat down Satan under our feet.” Satan is, of course, the Adversary, in particular humanity’s Adversary, from the time he misled Eve in the garden to the day he tempted Jesus in the desert, the greatest troublemaker there ever was. The trouble Satan makes comes in the most part through what he tempts us to do.

As I say, he’s been at it an awfully long time. Right from the beginning, Satan has been at his work of temptation. In the garden, as a snake in the grass, he tempted Eve. We all know what that led to. Later on, he tempted Jesus in the wilderness, coming at him at the end of a long and weary fast, when he was weak and famished, hitting him when he was down. In both of his assaults on humanity — humanity at its very beginning and at its culmination — Satan tempts his victims to doubt.

Now, doubt is not an entirely bad thing. A little healthy skepticism is an important part of common sense, particularly when you get an email telling you someone has found $10 million in an abandoned account and if you just send them all of your private information they’ll do the transfer for you. Right. Some doubt can save you from some trouble. But the person who doubts everything is in some ways as much a fool as the person who doubts nothing at all. Some doubt, then, makes common sense. But the doubt towards which Satan tempts Eve and Jesus, and all of us — every man, woman and child since — is not the reasonable doubt of common sense, but the unreasonable doubt that assaults both who we are and who God is.

This is the doubt that kills: to doubt God and God’s promises, and to doubt ourselves at the very core of our being. These two doubts, so pointless and so hopeless, are the doubts Satan lays before us, setting his snare: Who am I? and Where is God? These are the doubts that lead to despair and death of the soul. They make us feel like less than we are, and also rob of us of trust in the only one in whom we can become more than we are, leaving us high and dry in the desert of despair, of loss and isolation, ready prey for Satan to snatch us up and carry us off to hell. These are the two sore points that Satan has worked away at endlessly and tirelessly since Eden, and they leave their marks on the human soul like the twin punctures of a serpent’s fangs.

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The crafty serpent came to Eve, and the hidden assumptions behind the advice he gave to her planted those seeds of doubt. “You will be like God...” the serpent said. But Eve was already like God, made in God’s image and likeness. Satan put his advice in the future tense and conditional mood, as if to say, “You are not like God now, but you could be, if only you eat the fruit.” So the serpent led Eve to doubt herself, her own likeness to God, her very being. He made her feel like less than she was, and then offered a way to feel better about herself.

Does that sound familiar? Haven’t women and men been caught by the same nasty doubts ever since? How many products are are marketed precisely by making people feel bad about themselves and then offering them a quick solution. The modern day serpents whisper to us that we are too fat or too thin, that our hair is the wrong color, or not shiny or plentiful enough, and on top of that — we smell bad; and then offer us the diet plan or exercise machine, the hair color or shampoo or baldness cure, — and the mouthwash and deodorant. Satan was, it seems, the first creature to get someone to use a product they didn’t want and didn’t need. And he did it by getting Eve to doubt herself.

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He also got her to doubt God. That’s the second fang in the serpent’s mouth. Satan’s crafty temptation to Eve calls God a liar — “You will not die; you will become like God! God hasn’t told you the whole story! And how can you trust him if he isn’t on the up and up with you? Who is this God, anyway? Where is he? But look at that fruit; it’s a sure thing! It’s right here... Where is your God?” And Eve, without responding to the devil, silent in the face of the doubts he has raised, takes the fruit.

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How strong is the power of doubt! Eve has known God’s blessings all her short life. She’s never even been out of the garden, in which God has been such a gracious host. She has been cared for and watched over, God graciously providing for her every need. Yet against her whole short life’s experience, she is prepared to listen to the hisses of a snake in the grass, and turn from God in mistrust, without so much as a word.

Again, doesn’t this sound familiar? How many relationships have been wrecked through a casual bit of unfounded or malicious gossip? How many reputations have been ruined by false accusation, by devilish doubt ready to leap out against even the most trusted, most belovéd person, pouncing like a rattlesnake. Oh yes, Satan is still busily at work, and ever since Eve, people have been giving in in silence to the doubts that chill the heart and kill the soul.

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Yet Jesus shows us a different response to Satan and the doubts that Satan spreads. Satan confronts Jesus in the wilderness, and he bares the same two fangs of doubt he’s chewed on people with since time began. “If you are the Son of God...” he begins each assault. If? If? Is Satan trying to get Jesus to doubt that he is the Son of God? You bet he is! And with his one-two punch Satan follows up with temptations that try to poke holes in Jesus’ faith in God’s providence, God’s protection, and God’s authority.

But Jesus, unlike Eve, knows that silence will not do to clear away these powerful doubts. Jesus knows that just ignoring Satan won’t make him go away! The hissing of doubt must be answered, the murmur of doubt must be silenced by the voice of faith. And so Jesus answers every doubt that Satan raises. He will not let the devil have the last word, and it is Satan who ends up retiring from the field, silenced at last by Jesus’ rebuke.

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Jesus talked back to the devil, to the one who tried to get him to doubt God and to doubt himself. We too can talk back to the devil, whether he appears in the guise of friend or family member, co-worker or public figure, or as that more familiar devil, that nagging little voice within you. You’ve heard him — don’t deny it! He is that little voice of insecurity who tells you you are less than you know you are, or that bids you not to trust the Lord with all your heart and soul and mind and strength.

To the voices that seek to whittle you down, to cut you into little pieces, to nibble at your insecurities, you can boldly respond, “Quiet! I am a child of God, loved by God and made in God’s image!” To the little devils who spread rumor and distrust, you can boldly respond, “I’ve known my friends far longer than I’ve known you, and I trust them more than I trust you.” And to the deep, evil voice that asks us “Where is your God?” we can confidently respond, God is with us, among us and within us, and we can go nowhere out of his providence, his protection, and his power.

We can talk back to all of these faithless chatterers, internal and external; and with bold words of rebuke beat down Satan under our feet. And there are few more choicely worded rebukes to the talkers of doubt (within and without) than these from Ella Wheeler Wilcox, with which I close:

Talk faith. The world is better off without
Your uttered ignorance and morbid doubt.
If you have faith in God, or man, or self,
Say so. If not, push back upon the shelf
Of silence all your thoughts, till faith shall come;
No one will grieve because your lips are dumb.+

Monday, February 04, 2008

Don't Tell It In The Valley

SJF • Last Epiphany A • Tobias Haller BSG
Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

Today is the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, the season of “showing forth.” It was a very short season this year, only four Sundays counting Epiphany itself; yet some significant things have already been shown forth to us these few weeks. We have seen how God hides and reveals himself, and come to understand how utterly known to God all of us are — known through and through, and loved by the one who made us in his own image.

We have heard gospel readings describe Christ’s showing forth to the world. A dove settled on him at the river Jordan, showing John that Jesus was the one he waited for. John’s followers answered Jesus’ call to “come and see,” and Jesus himself went to the far reaches of Galilee of the Gentiles, and netted himself an assortment of fishermen, who left their nets and boats and families behind, to follow him. But on this last Sunday before Lent, Jesus is revealed in a different light, and delivers a paradoxical command to three of those fishermen.

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First, the revelation. Jesus is revealed for a moment in his full glory. He had promised his disciples, in the verse before our gospel for today begins, “There are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” Peter, James and John get a preview of Jesus’ divine majesty, a down-payment on the final fulfillment. No wonder Peter wants to stay on the mountain!

However, not only don’t they stay on the mountain, but Jesus issues a strange command as they are coming down from the heights. “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” And we wonder, Why reveal, then conceal? Why reveal the good news and then order them not to tell it? I spoke two weeks ago about how God plays hide and seek with us, and this may be yet another instance. But I think there is more to it in this case.

And the “more” begins in our Old Testament reading. Here too is a mountain on which God is revealed, though not in human flesh, but in cloud and majesty and awe, carving the Law in stone. God gives this written revelation to Moses, who brings it to the people. And we all know what happens. The people are not ready to receive God in the form of sublime and righteous laws. God is ready to meet them half-way, to enter into a covenant with them. But they don’t want to go half-way; they don’t want even to be near the mountain. They will reveal themselves to be happier with a god they’ve made themselves, a golden calf they can dance around, who won’t do anything for them— but who will ask nothing of them.

So God is faced with a dilemma. God loves humanity, and sends Moses with the Law, a covenant into which the people were invited, but which they reject before the ink is even dry, so to speak. So God sends the prophets, like Elijah, reminding the people of the promises, of the love, of the forgiveness that awaits them if only they will turn to God and forswear their foolish ways.

What happens to the prophets? Some are heeded—briefly. But others are beaten, some killed. So God decides to send his own dear Son — not a letter, not an ambassador, but one who shares his being, one who is God— one who is glimpsed in majesty on the mountaintop by three disciples, and will only later be revealed in the mighty act of resurrection from the dead.

This is why Jesus orders the disciples not to tell the people about what they have seen on this mountain... until after. The people already have Moses, for the Law is read week by week in the synagogue. The people already have Elijah and the other prophets, whose deeds and warnings are also recounted. Jesus knows that this is not enough— the Law and the Prophets alone cannot save. Following rules and hearing warnings will not save people — they don’t need another teacher or lawgiver: they are too hardheaded to be instructed. They don’t need to be taught, but rescued; not instructed, but saved! And that goes for us too. What is needed is for someone to rise from the dead, mighty in power and strong to save.

So what happens on the mountain is the preview, not the feature presentation! It is a private screening, to encourage the apostles — not for general release! And even what they see on the mountain is not enough — it is not salvation, but promise. Peter wants to stay on the mountain, to bask in the momentary glory, to live in the promise rather than the fulfillment.

But God has other plans: When Peter offers to build three shelters, God speaks, “This is my Son. Listen to him.” God is saying, The Law and the Prophets, Moses and Elijah, have had their day and did their part, but now you have the Son himself: listen, and do as he says. There is something better even than this to come.

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Saint Paul understood this difference well, a lesson learned at great personal cost. He had been a man of the Law and the Prophets, but he learned that, in the light of the resurrection, all his learning was just so much rubbish. Jesus is working along the same line when he tells the disciples to keep the vision secret until he has risen from the dead. Don’t give away the ending, he’s says, perhaps the first spoiler alert! The best part — the important part — is still to come— but not before suffering, pain and death. Jesus does not tarry on the mountain. He goes down to the challenges still waiting. For he knows that only through his death and resurrection can people finally be saved. The promise is not enough — there must as well be performance.

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We, too, have our mountaintop moments. Like Peter, we are tempted to remain in them, enjoying them, trying to make the experience last. But we too have challenges awaiting us. The parish church is one mountaintop for us. We come each week, hear the words of the Law and the Prophets, and of Jesus, and then go out on our way. Surely, it is good to be here. We feel restored, renewed, encouraged and comforted.

But all of these feelings are meant to impel us to action, not as ends in themselves. We receive the promise in order to equip us for performance, in God’s name. It would be easy to stay in the comfort of community, but we are challenged and equipped to go out to face a world in need.

It is good to be here, and we need a weekly return to our mountaintop: just as Christ himself went to hills to pray. But he also went back to the valley for ministry. We are fed by the Law, the Prophets, and the Gospel; but we know that the Law is without power to save on its own, that the prophecies will pass away, and that the gospel will perish if there is no one to preach it. So we are reminded today that we have a mission, a mission to all the world. We go back to our weekday lives equipped with gifts of the Spirit, as ambassadors of Christ.

Us? Ambassadors of Christ? Yes, us! We have been transformed, changed into messengers of Christ, so that what is unchanging may be revealed through us. The great news is the resurrection has happened — we are not bound like James and John and Peter, to keep it secret until it happened — for it has, praise God! We live in the time of “until after” — Christ is alive! That is the Gospel, the Good News. And so we’ve received the commission to tell it out, to tell abroad the Good News that salvation has come, and we are its heralds and ambassadors.

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Christ came down from the mountain to a valley that led towards Calvary. He didn’t stay on a mountaintop with three booths, but marched steadfastly on toward a little hill with three crosses. But there is more; do you see it? As we begin our Lenten pilgrimage, as we enter the valley of challenge before us, keep your eye on the mountain there ahead —— not the little hill called Golgotha, but the mountain that rises behind it, the New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven like a bride adorned for her bridegroom. Though Lent is about to begin, we know the end of the story, the greatest story ever told, we know that Christ is alive, risen from the dead and powerful to save, and we — we servants of God — equipped with that knowledge and filled with the Holy Spirit, we can go forth from this place on our mission, empowered to tell that story and do great works in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.+