Monday, April 28, 2008

Athirst for God

Saint James Fordham • Easter 6a • Tobias Haller BSG

For thee, my God, the living God,
my thirsty soul doth pine;
O when shall I behold thy face,
thou Majesty divine.

As many of you know, Jerome Reservoir a few blocks north of us is closely connected to the history of this church. It was built starting in the late nineteenth century as part of a new water supply system to meet the clamorous thirst of the growing metropolis just south of here: the New York City of which, in those days, the Bronx was not yet a part. (Back then we were still part of Westchester County.)

Jerome Avenue running past our doors is named for Leonard Jerome, the Wall Street wiz and horse-racing fan who lived just across the street, about where the Post Office now stands. (He was also Winston Churchill’s grandfather, and rumor has it, though the parish records don’t confirm it, that his daughter Jennie was baptized here.)

Mr. Jerome owned much of the property around here, and where Jerome Reservoir now stands he built Jerome Park, the racetrack where the first Belmont Stakes was run in 1867. When the thirsty throngs in Manhattan called for more water, that spot was singled out as of a perfect size and shape to convert into a reservoir, and so it was. Our additional parish connection is through two members of this parish, Hugh Camp and Mayor Franklin Edson, who appointed Camp to the team for the design of the new reservoir (at the time the largest in the world) and the new aqueduct system that would convey plentiful water to the people of New York City. The water came from the Croton system upstate, making a brief stop at the Jerome Reservoir before continuing on its way through the aqueduct underneath Aqueduct Avenue just up the hill from here.

And all of this in response to thirst — the thirst of people for clean, pure water. We all know from personal experience what ordinary thirst means; and we also know the effects that global warming has had on the supply of what you need to satisfy that thirst. If you pass by Jerome Reservoir with any frequency, you will note that unlike former days, it is now rarely more than half-full, and is often as dry as a proverbial bone.

Drought brought on by a lack of water can be a terrible thing — and we’re lucky that this past year broke the string of dry summers we’ve had for a while now.

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But there are worse things that a drought of water. Think for a moment how much worse would be a drought of God — the drying up of knowing God’s presence and grace, the receding and sinking of the pools of spiritual nourishment, drained away, lost and gone, replaced by the sandy desert or dry lake-beds of desolation. People have a built-in need for God, a thirst for God, in whom, as Saint Paul assures the Athenians, we live and move and have our being. Imagine what a drought of God would mean— to be cut of from life, motion, and ones very being, withering like a parched plant in a desert.

Saint Paul compliments the Athenians — a rare thing for this often grumpy saint — he praises them for their religious impulse, for their effort to search for God, even if they do not have a clear idea as to who God is and how to find, know, and love God. Still, Paul credits them with seeking and searching for God, groping for God, much as a persistent tree will send its roots out in search of life-giving water. The search for God is a universal human reality, Saint Paul assures us, as in our human thirst for the divine springs we seek, grope and explore to find the source of our being and life, like people roaming the fields with spiritual dowsing rods, or searching the empty sky for the sign of a cloud, seeking the signs of God’s presence, the quenching of our spiritual thirst with the living water of God’s being.

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Yes, people need God and seek God. For without God we dry up, wither, fail, and die. Jesus uses the image of the Vine and the Branches to make this clear. Just as in the past weeks we’ve heard Jesus refer to himself as the “gate” for the sheep, and the “way” to the Father, so today he assures us that he is the “vine,” apart from which we branches are useless and fruitless, able to do nothing at all but wither and dry up, good for nothing but firewood.

Anyone who has done any gardening knows this well. If you cut off a branch, you cut off its life-support system. No branch can thrive on its own, whether a branch of a vine or a tree. Without the source of life, the connection to life, there is no life.

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And God is the source of our life. In him we live and move and have our being. He is the reservoir from which we draw the water of life, the vine from which our nourishment flows. Disconnected from God, we wither, fail, dry and die — just as if you cut off the aqueduct there will be no water in Manhattan. Without the source and without the means to transmit it, no water will get through to quench our thirst.

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Sometimes people will say they have no time or place for God in their lives. How wrong they are, for it isn’t that God isn’t in their lives — it is their lives that aren’t in God! They are cut off, wandering in a desert, and the oasis of earthly success is just a mirage. They struggle to reach that green and welcoming spot on the horizon, only to discover it is not an oasis, but just more dry and dusty sand, a tempting vision created by reflected heat. Meanwhile, their connection to the vine has been cut, and though they may not feel it yet, soon their leaves will begin to wilt and wither. Their hand-made idols will be of no help to them, and they will merely cling to them like the dead vines cling to a ruined and forsaken building.

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But the good news is that God the True Vine is merciful, even to those who think they can live apart from God, even those who think they can bear fruit without being connected to the vine, even those who worship the idols of their own making.

We’ve all known people who devote themselves so whole-heartedly to their careers that they have no time for anything or anyone else. They imagine that they are self-sufficient, not realizing how much depends on others, how much depends on God. Yet the merciful God does not forsake even these preoccupied, self-centered people. The merciful God allows some hardship to come their way, some drought, some thirst, some pain that recalls them to themselves, and recalls them to him. God overlooks human ignorance, and prompts the ignorant and thirsty heart to repent, to seek, to grope its way back, to turn to the true spring, to quench its desires in the cool water of grace, the cool water of baptism into Christ.

And when even we who are incorporated into Christ get so preoccupied with our work that we forget who we are part of, and who is the source of our life; when we begin to rely too much on our own gifts, become too proud of our own work and our own accomplishments, Jesus gently reminds us who he is and who we are. He is the True Vine; we are the branches.

Hugh Nesbitt Camp and Franklin Edson were both successful men of their generation. They were the cream of high society, risen to the very top. But they knew on whom their success — and not only their success, but their very living, moving and being — depended; someone far greater than themselves, someone apart from whom they could do nothing. If you cut off the flow, the water will stop. If you cut off the branch from the vine, it will dry up and die.

It is fitting that the man who assisted in the design of New York’s water supply system, is remembered here at Saint James Church in that stained glass window, The True Vine, here in the church where he worshiped the God he loved and served, the source of his ability to live and move, to love and serve his fellow citizens.

It is a reminder we can do nothing apart from God. Apart from him we will wilt, wither, dry, and end in the flames. But in him; ah, in him we draw the sweetest draft of satisfaction from the pure source of life itself. In him we branches are nourished and strengthened to bear much fruit. And if we get too confident of our fruitfulness, he will prune us back, and we will bear even more fruit — such is his care for us. So rejoice, sisters and brothers, that our Lord has recalled us to himself and to ourselves, reminding us who we are and whose we are. He is the end of our drought; he is the gentle rain upon our desert-weary hearts, the spring that appears in the midst of the wilderness to quench our thirst and satisfy our deepest needs; he is our reservoir and his cross is our aqueduct, bringing us new life; he is the true vine in whom we find our nourishment and shade, from whom we derive our life, our movement, our being — and our fruitfulness. Let us rejoice in that life, and bear much fruit, so that all may give glory to God, the source of all being, henceforth and for evermore.+

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Chosen and Precious

Saint James Fordham • Easter 5a • Tobias Haller BSG
…like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house.—1 Peter 2:5

Today we are called to think about one of the strangest ideas in all of Scripture: living rock. Remember your high school geology class: igneous rock comes from lava, sedimentary rock is made of layers of clay, and metamorphic rock arises from the action of heat and pressure on the other two kinds. That’s your science refresher course for the day! But whatever kind of rock you’re talking about, rock is as dead as dead can be.

In fact, there are countless legends and fairy tales of people cursed by being changed into stone. It is a fear buried deep in our collective unconscious as a symbol of death, coldness and finality. You may remember Medusa, the young lady who was so beautiful that her pride led her to think herself more beautiful than the goddesses. Mistake. They cursed her so that she ended up nut just ugly but ug-LY! As they say, she had ought to stop chasing parked busses. How ugly was she? Well, she could turn you to stone if you got one look at her ugly mug and serpentine hair-do. She was ugly enough to petrify — literally.

On the other hand, there are the stories about statues coming to life, marvelous legends, myths and fairy tales, where the curse is reversed by a blessing. My favorite is The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which actually formed a part of my reconversion to Christianity as a teenager. Perhaps you saw the film version a few years ago. The imaginary land of Narnia is enthralled by a wicked witch who has cursed the land so that it is always winter but never Christmas, and she has punished anyone who opposes her by turning them into stone. Her prisoners return to life when the Great Lion comes to breathe upon them and lick them back to life, like a mother cat licking her kittens.

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So perhaps it isn’t so strange after all that this idea of living stone should be in Scripture. As with all else, it starts with Jesus, whom Peter, in our reading this morning, describes as the cornerstone for God’s temple. And the building-stones of that temple are ourselves, our souls and bodies, reasonable and holy, transformed into building blocks for God’s house. We are called to be living stones!

This is what Easter is all about: life coming to what is dead. The dead stone is rolled away, and the living Rock of Ages is revealed. And just as Jesus Christ is the Church’s one foundation, the cornerstone chosen and precious, so we are called, through Baptism, to be the living stones building up the New Jerusalem.

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I began this sermon by reminding us where rock comes from. Let’s revisit that a moment. One particular kind of rock is built up from sediment. Dust of the earth, or sand of the hills, and fragments of organic matter, washed away by rainfall, flow downstream to the sea, settle and become a deposit of clay. And over the years, that clay hardens into sedimentary rock. You need look no further than our own slate roof, which millions of years ago was a lake-bottom in Vermont.

The surprising things is that as more time goes by, and shale or slate or sandstone that lies deeper in the earth is compressed further, and heated by the pressure of the layers above, it can change into yet another kind of rock: it undergoes metamorphosis. Sometimes, if all the factors are just right, the compressed and heated sediments become precious rock — gemstones, jewels — diamonds and rubies and sapphires.

Now, as we are reminded on Ash Wednesday, we are dust, and to dust we shall all return. We are also clay taken from the riverbank, molded, and given the breath of life by God himself. And water flows over us — the water of Baptism flowing from the same living rock that quenched the thirst of the children of Israel as they wandered in the wilderness.

They doubted God could give them water from the rock, no doubt a reasonable doubt. But God is not particularly fond of reasonable doubts or reasonable doubters, and that generation was punished by not being allowed into the Promised Land. They put God to the test, though they had seen with their own eyes all the mighty works he had done in Egypt and at the Red Sea. If he made the sea into dry land, could he not do the reverse, and bring water from the rock?

But not only did that Rock become the source of water, of life and salvation for all who believe, it also became the head stone of the corner. The stone that the builders rejected — the stone that didn’t fit their plans, that seemed to big or too small, or the wrong shape — became the very heart of the building.

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Peter was the first to proclaim Christ as Messiah, head and cornerstone of the new Israel. And Jesus reminded him that his name “Peter” means “the rock” — and a few verses later Jesus called Peter “a stumbling block” too! Surely these words must have been in Peter’s mind when he wrote the Letter from which we heard today! Peter was one of the twelve foundation stones of Christ’s Church, but he had also been a stumbling block. He is a perfect example of the old advice, If you can’t be part of the solution at least don’t be a problem! Get with it or get out of the way! Be of good use, not just an obstreperous obstacle.

This is a warning for us as well. Just as Peter got in Jesus’ way, just as the children of Abraham, the chosen people precious to the Lord, doubted in the wilderness, we too — people of God by adoption, people who “once were no people” — could stumble if we were to fall into “malice and guile and insincerity and envy.”

To help us avoid this Peter reminds us of the wonders to which we are called in Christ. Chosen and precious, a holy priesthood, a chosen race, a holy nation, we declare the wonderful deeds of the One who gives us life everlasting. Each of us is unique, chosen and with something precious to offer — a greater purpose to serve other than just getting in the way. Each of us is marked out with our own special place, just as each stone in this church has its own place, its own shape and size.

Back in the nineteenth century there was a craze as wealthy businessmen, hungry for antiquity in this new land, bought castles and cloisters in Europe, had them disassembled, crated up, and shipped to America for reassembly. As the castles were taken apart stone by stone, each stone was labeled and marked, so that each could be put back in its place when the time came. We are like that, each marked as Christ’s own forever in Baptism, and each with our own place in the new Jerusalem, a place which no other stone can fit so well as we. For the stones at the top of the wall couldn’t be there if it weren’t for the stones under them holding them up — each has its place and its function. Well, Jesus, by his grace, takes us lifeless stones and raises us up as children of Abraham and children of God! Each of us is unique, yet all work together in the new building plan. Once we were no people, but now we are God’s people, children of Abraham by adoption.

And like the wandering Israelites our spiritual ancestors, we are in the presence of the living Rock Jesus Christ. We have passed through the Red Sea of Baptism, and have been washed in the stream of living water that flows from the side of the Rock. Through the incomparable gift of grace, we have stand in the presence of the One who is a temple that was destroyed and rebuilt in three days — the temple of which we are invited to become part, living stones built into a spiritual house, the cornerstone of which is the Rock of Ages, the Rock of Salvation.

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This is our call: to be living stones built into a spiritual house. But we often feel, in moments of distress and depression, that we are still just dust and clay. How can we be living stones, as he is?

Through the movement of water, bits of earth and clay are broken off and washed down to very deep places. Pressed with the weight of the earth, these bits and pieces are transformed into rock, and sometimes into gemstone. In time, further washing of water uncovers the rock and exposes it to the light of day. This is death and rebirth, the death and rebirth that comes to us in Baptism by water and the Holy Spirit. Baptism breaks us up and washes us down to the very depths, in unity with Christ’s death. The heat and pressure of the Holy Spirit continue to form and shape us, metamorphing us into the image and likeness of Christ, the living Rock. In moments of grief, frustration or depression, we can remember that throughout our lives God is working to mold us, to break us, to form and reshape us.

For God does not just create us — God recreates us, redeems us and makes us new — no longer dust but living stones.

The dust that is buried becomes the rock that emerges, or the gems that are quarried and mined. The stone and gems are brought forth from darkness into the marvelous light. The stones — living stones, all of us, you and me and all the saints of ages past and yet to come — are carved and polished and set in precious metal. A new temple, a New Jerusalem, is built, with firm foundations, a house with many mansions, with each of us in our place — a place appointed us from before the foundation of the world — with Christ the head and cornerstone, standing bright and clear in the eternal light of a never-ending Eastertide. Alleluia, the Lord is risen. The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!+

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Signs of Our Times

SJF • Easter 2a • Tobias Haller BSG
God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations; I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.”

Our Gospel hymn assures us that “we walk by faith and not by sight.” It refers, without a doubt, to Doubting Thomas, the disciple who lived by the old motto “seeing is believing.” Jesus assures Thomas that those who believe without seeing are indeed blessed; and so we earnestly hope they are — for we are numbered among those whose faith in Christ is not based on a personal encounter, not on seeing, but through hearing the lively word preached, the good news told to all nations.

And yet we too have signs and sights to go by. We are not left completely in the dark, depending only on the spoken word to find our way, as if the Christian faith were a sort of blind man’s bluff, or pin the tail on the donkey, or a child’s game of “you’re getting hotter, you’re getting colder” as we feel our way guided only by these spoken instructions. No, we have visible signs that God has given us, signs that help us to find the way, to find the one who isthe Way, the Truth and the Life.” God has not left us totally without evidence.

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And so it has always been, even for earthly matters. From the very beginning human beings have learned to read the signs of the world around them, to tell from the way the wind is blowing or how the sky or the sunset looks what the weather will be. The islanders of the South Pacific Ocean even learned to navigate that featureless expanse. On the pages of an atlas it may look like nothing but blue, the islands mere pinpoints smaller than their printed names; but those islanders have learned to find their way by watching the shapes of the waves on the open ocean — truly a miracle for us landlubbers, for whom all waves look more or less alike. The sea is very good at keeping its secrets!

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So it is quite natural for poor old landlubber Noah to feel completely lost at sea, even after the rains have stopped. Everywhere he looks is water, no sign of land, just the monotony of the clearing sky and the lapping waves spreading off to the featureless horizon, as far as his eyes can see. And strangely enough, God — who before the flood has been in regular conversation with Noah — God is now silent, no longer instructing Noah what to do next.

So Noah goes to the birds — literally! He gets the idea to send out a raven, and then a dove, to see if they can find any foothold in this watery world. We don’t know what becomes of the raven, but the dove comes back, finding nowhere to set down — a sign that the flood still covers the ground. So Noah waits, and then sends the dove out again, and this time back she comes with a fresh olive leaf — a sign that the waters have drawn back enough for the trees to begin to show their branches. And again Noah waits, and lets the bird free once more, and this time she doesn’t return — a sign that the waters have receded and the dry land has appeared, and the bird has found a place to take her rest. Then, and only then, does God break his silence — acting a bit like proud parents who stand by and silently watch their children work out a hard problem by themselves, and only when the problem is finally solved speaking words of congratulation. “Go out of the ark,” God says. And then, to punctuate the end of this era, God sets his sign in the clouds, the glorious rainbow, as a sign and a testimony of his covenant promise never again to destroy the whole earth by a flood.

All of these signs were significant long ago — but what do they mean for us? God has kept the promise of his covenant, and we are not deluged by a flood of waters to wipe out all the world; though I’ll tell you the folks who lived through Katrina, and in the present floods out in the midwest might not feel that way.

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But are we not in the midst of another kind of flood, another kind of incessant rain — not a flood from God to destroy the world, but a flood from the world to try to drown out God? Think about that for a moment.

The world has grown more and more turned in upon itself, the selfish and self-seeking world of pride and riches and power, and this selfish world seeks to drown the people of God, pulling us into its whirlpool of acquisition, drawing us under into the quicksand of greed and selfishness.

We look about, and all around us we are assaulted by waves of terrorism, fear and anxiety. I don’t know about you, but I can no longer hear a jet plane fly overhead, or see one flying low through the sky quite the same way as I did prior to September 11, 2001.

We lie awake at night and hear the drumming rain of anger and racism and hatred, incessantly muttering the same old lies, the same old cutting and wounding falsehoods — the incessant muttering of hatred only briefly silenced when, as comedian Jon Stewart said, someone like Barack Obama has the courage to address us as if we were adults.

But comes the dawn, the mutterers are back at work with their incessant rain of criticism and negativity. We awake in the morn a look out the window — you know the window I mean: the electronic one, that TV screen through which we see so much of the world, running all day long like a spigot of criticism and carping — we look through that window to see the continued drizzle of confusion and despair, of hunger for the word of God, of disillusion and deceit, and we are moved to shout out, “Are there no signs left for us to see? How long, O Lord?”

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And then we remember Noah, how he too must have felt as he watched the featureless sea, longing for a word from God now that the long rainy time was over. And like him, we send out the dove of hope — a pilgrim to assay the state of the world. And when she comes back we know it is too soon. It is not yet the time for us to step out into action. But we don’t give up hope; we just keep still for a time. We wait a bit and then we send her out a second time, our hopes launched again into a world of disappointments, and this time she brings back that precious olive leaf, that first glimmer that we are not alone, that even if the time is not yet fully ripe, still there is emerging somewhere a green promisethat will one day bear fruit. And our hope is renewed, and we wait in stillness for yet another opportunity. And then we send her out a third time, and learn that the world is ready at last, ready for us to get out of the ark, to be about the work God gives us. Our hope then impels us to action.

And if there is any doubt, any temptation to hold back rather than to march forward, God then speaks to us with the command to go forth, forth into the world in the power of the Spirit. And if we are afraid that the flood of the in-turned world, the selfish world, the false and fearful world, will drown us, or the rains of hatred or the drizzle of confusion and doubt dampen and dismay us, God sets his sign in the cloud to assure us that never again, never again will such things trouble us. Never again will we need to fear the selfish world, the rains of hatred or the drizzle of despair. For God has set his sign in the clouds for all to see.

And the sign he has set for us is now no longer the ephemeral and fading rainbow of Noah’s day. No, the sign in which victory is assured is the shining cross of the Risen Christ, the standard and ensign that flies on high, the banner of salvation raised over the world, the sign, as Peter said, of a victory and inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled and unfading, kept in heaven for us, who are protected by God’s power through faith for salvation. This is the sign our blessed Lord has left us, the sign of his saving cross, the sign in which we glory as it towers over the wrecks of time, as the light of the gospel story gathers to it and around it.

For when the woes of our earthly life threaten to drown us, when the world’s false promises deceive us and the persistent badgering of the babble and draining fears of the worldly city annoy us — the sign of the cross shall never forsake us. This is our standard, this is our sign, the sign for our time and for all times, the sign of the new and everlasting covenant — the cross of our Lord and savior Jesus Christ. And this is our story and this is our song, that Jesus Christ our savior, through that cross has won the final victory over death for all who believe, and to whom we give, as is most justly due, all praise and honor and glory for ever and ever.+