Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Who Has Known?

SJF • Proper 16a • Tobias Haller BSG
How unsearchable are God’s judgments and how inscrutable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord?

Thomas Aquinas was one of the most brilliant minds of his generation. He is also considered by many to be the greatest systematic theologian ever to have written. Theology is, as another great theologian, Saint Anslem, said, “faith seeking understanding.” But a systematic theologian is not just someone who wants simply understanding guided by faith, or who sketches out a few articles, or writes a few books. A systematic theologian wants to cover all the bases.

And Thomas Aquinas very nearly did it. His great work was called Summa Theologica, which could be loosely translated as “Everything You Always Wanted to Know about God and just about Everything Else”! In its thirty-eight treatises, thousands of articles, tens of thousands of responses to every conceivable objection, Thomas Aquinas set out to systematize all of knowledge in his search for God.

This great work remains unfinished, however. Oh, Thomas didn’t die before completing it. On the contrary, he stopped work on it at the very height of his productivity.

Why? Well, one day in early December 1273, Thomas, who was a Dominican priest, was celebrating the Holy Eucharist. And by the way, a Dominican in this case isn’t somebody from the Dominican Republic, but a member of the order of Saint Dominic — an order founded specifically for the purpose of preaching and study — and Thomas Aquinas was one of the best.

Well, that early December day Thomas was celebrating the Eucharist, and in the midst of the service, he stopped cold — or perhaps I should say, stopped warm. For something he couldn’t describe — even with his remarkable ability to categorize and elucidate — something happened to him in the midst of that holy sacrament, something so amazing it completely overpowered him. He caught a glimpse of the infinite God he had tried so hard to pin down, and he decided never to write again. Hisfaithful secretary tried to encourage him to take up the work again, to bring his monumental work to completion. How much more might he perfect it in light of his recent experience! But Thomas replied, “I can do no more. Such things have been revealed to me that all I have written now seems to me to be like so much straw.”

Like his namesake, Thomas the Apostle, Thomas Aquinas saw something that made all of his questions fall apart, as he fell to his knees in adoration of his Lord and his God. The one who had spent most of his life picking things apart, dividing them up into categories and organizing them into systems, confronted the One before whose utter unity and singularity all his systematic complexity collapsed like a house of straw.

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Paul wrote to the Romans, “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments, and how inscrutable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord?” Who has known? Thomas tried to know the mind of the Lord, and what the Lord showed him that cold December morning, made him realize he didn’t know anything at all! Everything he thought he knew turned out to be so much mattress stuffing, the labor of his life turned into dust.

But don’t misunderstand this story. Thomas wasn’t unhappy about this development. On the contrary, he treasured it. Because, in addition to his effort to know God, Thomas had also devoted himself to another effort, an effort to love God.

In addition to the dense philosophical argumentation of his theological works, Thomas also wrote poetry, spiritual poetry in the form of love-songs to God. Nowadays the pages of the Summa Theologica are rarely opened outside the walls of seminaries and philosophy departments — in fact, between Fordham University and Saint James Parish, I’d be willing to venture that Thomas Aquinas’ name is spoken more in this little corner of the Bronx than almost anywhere else! But the love-songs, ah, the love songs Thomas wrote are still sung in churches all around the world. Five of them are included in our own EpiscopalHymnal, and we’ll be singing one of them at the offertory today. These hymns attempt to capture that longing for the invisible, incomprehensible divinity who lies invitingly beyond our reach, beyond our grasp — but not beyond our love and worship.

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We do not know what Thomas saw during the Holy Eucharist that December day, but I’d be willing to venture that God rewarded this faithful seeker more because of his love than his intellect; rewarded him with a glimpse of the unseen verity he had so long humbly adored. It was Thomas the lover, not Thomas the theologian, who finally caught a glimpse of his beloved Lord, and one look was enough to do him in. He saw his Lord in the very bread and wine he had lifted up day by day. It was in the Holy Eucharist that the weak human intellect, and weaker human senses of taste, touch, and vision, were overwhelmed by the outpoured Love of God, the veil was parted, and Thomas beheld that Love, however briefly, face-to-face.

And so can we. We cannot all be theologians, at least not systematic ones. And, thank God, we needn’t be; we aren’t expected to. But we can all love God. What is more, we can share in this holy mystery, this precious gift of the Holy Eucharist, in which our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ assures us that he is present. Here at this earthly altar we taste heavenly food, as Jesus gives us his Body and Blood, this spiritual food and drink of new and unending life in him.

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Years ago, when I was beginning to consider giving up my career in the theater to serve the church, an actor friend of mine told me he thought I was making a terrible mistake. He was an agnostic, a rather badly burned ex-Roman Catholic who had lived through the worst of a very restrictive upbringing. He didn’t believe in God — but did believe in flying saucers. He thought humanity was created and guided by space aliens, for some reason known only to them. He was always full of the latest news on sightings of space ships, as proof of the existence of the aliens he believed in instead of God. One day I told him I really didn’tput much stock in the whole theory of aliens, and he said, “O.K., then, when was the last time Jesus appeared?” Almost at once I said, “Last Sunday morning, on the altar at Trinity Episcopal Church!” So perhaps it is fitting that he finally got a recurring role
in Star Trek: The Next Generation, and I ended up here!

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Whether space aliens have been here or not, I trust that Jesus has been here, and is here, and will be here, till even this type and shadow ends and ceremonies cease, and we behold the glory unabated, face to face. That is the truth, if we are prepared, with loving hearts, to accept it. Jesus comes to us today, hidden with, in and under bread and wine. We are granted a glimpse of Christ’s presence, a glimpse granted to those who love him, to those who seek him, and who seeking, loving, find.

I would like to end this sermon with the words of Thomas Aquinas, the words of one of his love songs to God written about eight years before his life-changing experience of 1273. The song ends like this:

Jesus, whom now hidden, I by faith behold,
what my soul doth long for, that thy word foretold:
face to face thy splendor, I at last shall see,
in the glorious vision, blessed Lord, of thee.

Never give up looking for God — who has never given up on you. Seek, and love, and you shall find.+

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

To Live Faith

SJF • Proper 15a • Tobias Haller BSG
Jesus said, “Great is your faith; let it be done for you as you wish.”

Our gospel today portrays a woman with both great faith and great perseverance. Her story reminds me of my favorite film, also a study in perseverance, by the great Japanese film-director Akira Kurosawa. It’s called Ikiru, which means “To Live.” I was just telling a some members of the parish about it at coffee hour a few weeks ago, and I want to share something of it with all of you today, as it speaks very eloquently to our gospel message.

The main character in the film, Mr. Watanabe, is a civil servant in the public works department of a big city. The time is a few years after the Second World War, when Japan is beginning to rebuild from its devastating defeat. Watanabe spends his whole life working — but he accomplishes very little. His days consist almost entirely of shuffling papers from the in-basket to the out-basket, dutifully stamping each of them with his rubber stamps, but accomplishing nothing at all of practical use. Most of the folks who come to his department get the run-around and are sent off to a different department in City Hall. (Does any of this sound familiar?) Watanabe’s staff have given him a nickname, The Mummy — and he looks like one and has just about as much joy out of life.

Then, one day, he discovers he is dying, and has only a few months to live. He doesn’t know what to do — so he tries different things, going through all the stages of the process of coming to terms with this new reality: denial, anger, and fear. He gets drunk and sings sad songs about how short life is; he tries to reconnect with the son he loves but can’t relate to — but he finds no any answers.

Then one day he has a revelation, and it is as if he has been reborn. A young woman from his staff, who had quit working in the office when she couldn’t take the boredom any more, has gone to work at a toy factory. She shows the old mummy one of the toys she makes, and says at least she knows that somewhere a child will be made happy because of something she has actually done. And in a flash, Watanabe realizes that he can do something with his life, he can make a difference in these last few months that he has to live; he can really live, and do something.

Back in the office, he grabs a paper off the top of his stack, and he sets about trying to accomplish something in City Hall — getting a fetid swamp drained, one that has been making children sick in a local neighborhood, and having a playground built in its place.

Of course, no one else at City Hall is interested in doing anything either. But ultimately they can’t resist this persistent toothpick of a man looking at them with huge sad eyes — sitting opposite their desks and refusing to move until they pull out their own rubber stamps to sign off on the aspects of the work under their control, and needed to proceed.

In one scene, Watanabe confronts a mob boss who has a politician in his pocket. The big yakuza in the shiny suit looks down at this dried-up little shrimp of a man and says, “Don’t you know I can have you killed.” And Watanabe looks up at him, and breaks into a huge smile — he has no fear of death, you see; he knows he’s going to die but he has just begun to live. This completely freaks out the mob boss, and gives him such a start that he relents. The playground is built, and Watanabe lives just to see it completed, and then dies, knowing he has accomplished something: he has lived.

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Our gospel today shows us another example of such persistence, persistence and faith even in the face of resistance. And the resistance comes from a surprising place, for it shows us Jesus in a light that is so unlike him it may take us a while to appreciate what is going on in this passage. A Canaanite woman cries out to Jesus asking him to save her daughter. Jesus gives her the cold shoulder — not saying a word. The disciples complain, and Jesus says, essentially, “Not my people, not my problem.” She kneels before him, refusing to give up, and begs for his help. And he then says something so shocking it is hard to believe it comes from the lips of our loving Savior, “It isn’t fair to give the children’s food to dogs.’

Yet still she persists, this unrelenting woman with the sick child, who will be driven away neither by silence, by complaints, or by insults: she reminds Jesus that even the dogs get scraps. And finally, after ignoring her, shrugging her off, and even insulting her, Jesus relents, and acknowledges her persistence — and her great faith; and her daughter is instantly healed.

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Great faith — an interesting contrast to our gospel of last week, where Jesus dealt with Peter’s “little faith.’ How interesting that Jesus should find little faith in his own disciples, but great faith in a Canaanite — one of the remnant of the hated people whom God had told the Israelites to cast out of the promised land. One cannot help but compare Saint Peter, untrustworthy Saint Peter, the one who would deny his Lord three times before the cock crowed, with this poor pagan woman who persisted three times in imploring help for her sick child. Who has the greater faith? It’s easy to see, and Jesus confirms it by responding to her appeal.

In the same way, years before, Isaiah had assured people who thought they had no hope, and no reason to hope, for inclusion in the life of salvation, that their faith too would be rewarded. To the eunuchs and the foreigners — outsiders and outcasts, people not allowed to be part of the assembly of the faithful, not allowed to set foot on the Holy Mount and enter the courts of God’s Temple — where the sign said, “No Gentiles Past This Point” — Isaiah assured them that God would give them a special blessing, a monument and a name, and accept their sacrifices in a house that would not just be for the children of Israel, but a house of prayer for all people.

And then, years later, Saint Paul would write to Gentiles in Rome, with much the same message — assuring them that the littleness of faith shown by those of his own people who had not accepted Jesus, was only so that mercy could be shown to the Gentiles — themselves once people of no faith, now blessed to be included in the wide embrace of salvation. Where before only the children of Israel were assured of a life in the world to come, now others would be ushered in, brought into the kingdom and the wedding banquet by the Son and Bridegroom himself.

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So why was Jesus so hard on this Canaanite woman — was it to test her, and the disciples, to see what she and they would do, to see whose faith was stronger — and perhaps to shame the disciples’ little faith with her great faith? We do not know, but I think that’s as good a guess as any. Jesus knew Isaiah backwards and forwards — you recall he read from it at the beginning of his ministry. He knew that salvation was not just for Israel, but for all the scattered flocks — all of them God’s creation, the God who hates nothing that he has made.

So just as Jesus at first, before feeding the multitude, challenged the disciples to give them something to eat, when they just wanted to send them away, so to here he has an eye on the disciples. And isn’t it striking just how often the disciples wanted to send people away? When people brought children for Jesus to touch — send them away! When the hungry crowds hungered for food — send them away! When people were doing works of power in Jesus’ name even though they weren’t part of the apostles’ band — let us call down fire from heaven to destroy them! Those apostles sure seem to have thought that less is more, the fewer the better, even though in each case Jesus tried to show them a better way.

So too here no doubt he had a watchful eye on them to see if their generosity might be awakened by this persistent woman’s plea, or his refusal. Of course, just as they complained that there wasn’t enough to feed the multitudes, that it was annoying to have all those children coming to Jesus, or that people were doing works of wonder even though they weren’t part of the “in crowd,’ so here they complain about the woman bothering them — their little faith showing in every move they make, every step they take — and Jesus is watching them.

As I say, we cannot get into Jesus’ mind, or know for sure why he did what he did. I find it hard to believe he was being intentionally cruel to this poor woman — it seems very out of character. And we know he set many tests for his disciples, and perhaps this was one of them. Ultimately only God knows.

What we do know is that long ago a mother cried out for someone to save her child, and she persisted in her cry, and her cry was heard, and her child was healed. Great was her faith, and great the blessing that it brought her.

May we too show such faith, both in seeking the help of our Lord and God without resting, persistent in appeal and great in faith — but also in doing better than the disciples did — and helping all those in need, both near and far, our own people and people from afar: all of them God’s very own. For we have been given the power to live — the power to make a difference in other peoples lives and our own, rather than to spend them shuffling papers from the in-box to the out-box of our lives. Let us take courage in the knowledge that though our lives are limited, our days numbered, while we live them they are ours to use — to live or to waste. Let us then, share abundantly in the life that is not ours alone — not just the scraps and the crumbs, but the full course meal of loving fellowship: shared with all from near and far in this house of prayer for all people — the house of God, to whom we give honor and glory, now and for evermore.+

Monday, August 04, 2008

Making Ends Meet

Saint James Fordham • Proper 13a • Tobias Haller BSG
Jesus said, They need not go away; you give them something to eat. They replied, We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.

Has anyone here ever lived through a time of scarcity? Perhaps you lost your job or were out of work; or if you were working you were always struggling to meet the bills. I remember my own childhood in a large household with six kids, Mom working hard as a housewife at home, and Dad working as a schoolteacher in a time and place where schoolteachers made far less than they deserved. It was a family of hand-me-downs and making do, of bargain hunting and vacations that mostly meant staying with my grandmother in Boston, after the long drive up from Baltimore. In fact, one of my earliest childhood memories is of what seemed to me to be the amazing complexity of the ramps coming off the GW Bridge and onto the Major Deegan, just a hop skip and a jump south of here. So our paths have crossed before, at least as far as the Interstate is concerned!

But I know I’m not alone in having lived through some hard times. I’m sure many of us here can testify to living through that kind of scarcity. Just as I’m sure that with the rising fuel and food prices, not a few of us are feeling the pinch right now, living through our own present time of scarcity — whether anyone wants to call it a recession or not, we are living through the midst of it, whatever it is called.

The fact is, though, that however bad things seem to be, however much we need to tighten our belts to live through these hard times, we do in fact live through them. We come out the other side, somehow having made ends meet. However short the resources, somehow they seem, in the long run, to meet the need.

Today’s gospel is a gospel for such times — and timely in that it comes at this time. It is a reminder to us that even when our resources seem to be meager —
— barely enough for a small family to survive on, five loaves and two fish — somehow the grace of God will provide what is lacking, and will make ends meet after all.

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There is, of course, a bigger lesson here — an eternal lesson about much more than bread and fish; about much more than a miraculous picnic in the desert. In fact, it is a lesson about salvation.

For in the miracle of the feeding of the five-thousand-plus people, Jesus didn’t just make ends meet. It wasn’t a case of cutting the cake into enough pieces so that everyone got at least a little. No, Jesus went so far beyond making ends meet that there were twelve whole baskets of leftovers even after everyone ate and had their fill.

Think about that. Imagine five-thousand-plus people attacking a buffet at a parish luncheon, each one piling his or her plate as high as humanly possible, then going back for seconds or thirds, and eating so much that they are fully and completely satisfied, and couldn’t eat another thing, just lying around leaning back in their folding chairs — why, some of the men have even unbuckled their belts — unconscious, and as we used to say in Baltimore, “bloated” — and yet the buffet is still full, with enough to serve a second seating! This is not just about making ends meet — but about exceeding all that can be asked or imagined.

Now, it won’t surprise you, given the sequence of parables we’ve been hearing in the gospels these past weeks, that this whole passage isn’t really about food — Jesus wasn’t really in the catering business — rather it is about the abundance of God’s grace. It is not about just making ends meet, just making it, by the skin of your teeth, but about the overflowing grace of God.

The key to this is in the first lesson from Nehemiah. The historian Ezra recounts the well known story of how bad his ancestors were — and I remind you, no other nation on earth takes such delight in portraying its ancestors as such wicked cusses as do our spiritual forebears the children of Israel. Most people, you know, like to portray their ancestors as good decent folk, but the historians of Israel weren’t shy at all about recounting their failures and foibles. Ezra reminds his brothers and sisters about the awful stiff-neckedness of their ancestors, how they rejected the one who saved them, ready to go back into slavery rather than trust God to bring them through the desert to the promised land; ready even to turn from the living God to worship a thing made by their own hands, a cast image of a calf, and to have the gall to say, “This is our God who brought us out of Egypt” — I mean, really! To think that their own melted earrings and bracelets and necklaces could do that!

And the amazing thing, the abundant thing, that God does — in spite of all of these blasphemies — is to continue faithful to them even when they proved so faithless to him; not to abandon them when they were ready to abandon him, but to remain with them in a pillar of cloud and a pillar of fire; and even more, to see to their sustenance with miraculous bread from heaven and water from the rock.

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This is the great good news of God: that even when things go rough, even when the cause of their going rough is our own doing, even when we work hard at our own destruction — still God is faithful to us, and forgiving, ever gracious. Saint Paul captures this stirring feeling of the abundant and insistent grace of God in that beautiful passage we heard today: that nothing, no nothing on earth can take God from us, nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ. Can hardship or distress? No, it can’t. What about persecution, famine, nakedness or peril? Nuh uh. How about the sword — that’s a tough one, isn’t it. Can violence and death separate us from God? Why not at all: “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth” — did I forget anything? Well if I did — “nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Only got two fish and fewer than half a dozen loaves — sit down to supper, for Jesus is here. Made mistakes in your past, losing hope in God, and ready to give it up and call it quits? Look out the window, the pillars of fire and cloud are still there waiting for you. Turned away from God and worshiped idols of gold, or fame, or success, or addiction, or violence? He knows; he knows. But he’s still there — still here — waiting for you — with your supper prepared and the table set.

This is the abundance of God’s overflowing grace — the only thing you can compare it with is an unending banquet, a picnic for eternity, the church buffet that never stops. For Jesus doesn’t just make ends meet — he is the End, the goal, the final point, as much as he is the Beginning, the source of light and life. He is Alpha and Omega, the first and the last — he is the cause of our seeking him as well as the goal whom we seek; he is the one who gives us hunger and thirst so that we may appreciate the food and drink that satisfies them, and that he also provides. And that food and drink, my friends, is not just bread and water, not just loaves and fish. It is his own Body and Blood, given for us and for our salvation, to feed us unto everlasting life.

And nothing can stop those ends from meeting — not our own insecurities or lack of resources; not anyone else trying to obstruct God’s access to us, or ours to God; no power on earth or under the earth can keep those ends from meeting.

So thanks be to God, who always makes ends meet — our end is in him, and by his grace, and his grace alone, we have been saved, and made inseparable from the one who created us, from the one who saved us and feeds us with his Body and Blood in the Holy Eucharist, and the one who sanctifies us with the outpoured grace of the Holy Spirit. To God be the glory, in whom all ends meet, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, now and forever more.+