Monday, June 30, 2008

HIgh and Low

SJF • Proper 8a • Tobias Haller BSG
The Lord of hosts has a day against all that is proud and lofty, against all that is lifted up and high.

In today’s reading from the prophet Isaiah we hear a warning theme that runs through Scripture from beginning to end — watch out for pride. This is summed up in the well known proverb that sometimes gets condensed into even shorter form: “Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.” It is a warning to know who you are and where you stand in the scheme of things, and not to act bigger or place yourself higher than you ought.

When it comes to height, it seems, from Isaiah’s point of view, that the Lord doesn’t like big things. I have to say, this is a passage dear to the heart of a short person! The Lord, Isaiah tells us, is against all those big, tall and high things: big trees, whether oaks or cedars; high mountains and lofty hills; towers and fortified walls; even the tall ships; and finally, and this is perhaps the point, against the haughtiness of people and the pride of everyone — for the Lord alone is to be exalted.

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Ultimately, when it comes right down to it, the problem with pride is that it gets things out of proportion, and out of touch with reality. It is bad enough when the small imagine themselves to be big. But as Isaiah reminds us, it is just as bad when the big imagine themselves to be bigger than they are. Sure, mountains are big and trees are tall — but the Lord, who formed the mountains with his hands, and whose breath can strike down the trees of the forest, is higher and mightier than them all. When we forget that — all of us, tall or short — when we “get too big for our britches,” we are falling prey to the sin of pride. And God’s answer will be to trim us down to size. How much better to know where we stand in the order of things, rather than risking being brought low by raising ourselves up too high. How much better is humility than pride!

As you probably heard, Tim Russert, host of NBC’s Meet the Press, and a fixture recently on CNN’s panel of the “best political minds on television, was felled by a heart attack just a couple of weeks ago. I always liked watching Tim Russert even when I disagreed with him; not only did he have a sense of humor, but he also wouldn’t let politicians off the hook — Republican or Democrat — if he caught one of his guests being less than completely forthright he would press them and pin them down, and not leave them any wiggle room at all. He seems to have been a very honest man himself, and expected that honesty — that deep engagement with reality — from others.

This is a likable trait — knowing who you are and not puffing yourself up — and it was likable in Russert: he knew who he was, and what his role was — in many ways he acted much as a prophet did in biblical times: not calling attention to himself as a personality, but doing his job at trying to get the real leaders of the world to be truthful — not an easy task and one of the reasons that prophets often go unrewarded or punished.

Russert once told a story about himself that revealed his ability to keep a proper perspective. He was a Roman Catholic and had served his parish as an altar boy, and as a newsman he wanted very much to convince Pope John Paul II to appear on the Today Show. He was granted a private audience — just him and the pope — and he hoped this was his chance. Of course, as he was ushered into the presence of the head of the Roman Catholic Church, the spiritual leader of close to a fifth of the world’s population and over half of all the world’s Christians, he found himself almost speechless — quite a change for this normally self-confident man — and as he found himself tongue-tied, he simply blurted out, “Bless me, Father.” The pope smiled and put his arm around Russert’s shoulder, and asked, “You’re the man called Timothy, from NBC?” Russert answered, “Yes, Your Holiness.” The pope nodded, and observed, “They tell me you are a very important person.” Somewhat surprised, Russert stammered out, “Your Holiness, you and I both know there is only one very important person in this room.” The pope smiled, nodded, and said, “Right.”

If this is how a relatively important person (whose death was noted by many fellow reporters and commentators), if this is how an important person reacts to being in the presence of an undoubtedly more important person (the leader of a church whose death was noted even more widely)— how much more ought any human being think twice about how he or she stands before the presence of the Lord?

In fact, dare we even stand? For as the prophet Malachi said in a passage made memorable through the music of Handel: “Who can stand when he appeareth?” If even mountains fall at his feet, if even the mighty oaks and cedars topple before him, if the ships of the sea are tossed to and fro — how can we poor mortals dare stand in his sight?

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And yet, we have another assurance — an assurance promised to us children of Adam, through the Son of God himself. It is not something we rely upon because of who we are, any office we hold or any family we may be part of. It isn’t because of who our parents are; it is not because of any skills we may have, or any wealth or property we may have acquired. It is not even because of any righteousness of our own.

It is only because of him his death, his burial, and his resurrection. It is only because he stooped down from the heights to the depths of the grave itself, to save us, that we have any right at all to stand before him. For “if we have been united with him in a death like his” — not our physical death but our baptism into his body, the Church, the assembly of the faithful — “so too we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” Our old prideful self has been crucified, died and is buried — we have lost our old lives by taking up the cross day by day to follow him into whom we have been baptized — and the newly redeemed self will rise with him. We will stand at the last, with him, only because the cross is holding us up.

So the cross is our reliance — the one tall thing that God allows, the only one that stands: the saving cross that towers over the wrecks of time. Before that cross, the sign of humility, all the proud mountains and hills are brought low, all the mighty oaks and cedars tremble, every haughty tower and fortified wall crumbles to dust, and every tall ship founders and fails — and all our human pride, when we allow it to be crucified by taking up that cross to follow the one who died upon it, is taken up by grace, transformed and redeemed by his righteousness. For those who have chosen the humble path and died with him in baptism, and so are dead to sin, will by the blood of the everlasting covenant live with him, and that for ever, through him who offered himself for us in great humility, even Jesus Christ our Lord.+

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Choosing God

St James Fordham • Proper 6a • Tobias Haller BSG
The Lord said to Moses, “If you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all peoples.”+

How many choices have you made today? That may seem like an odd question, and you may not even be aware that you have made any choices. But you have, I assure you. Every minute of our lives we are all making choices, some as insignificant as which shoe to put on first, left or right; some a bit more important, such as what clothes we will wear.

Even more important — and because you’re here I know what choice you made — was the choice not to lay in bed this morning with the Sunday paper, or to go to the mall or the cricket field, but to come to church.

The thing about choices is that if you choose one thing, you don’t choose something else. You can’t, as the old saying goes, have your cake and eat it too. If the right shoe goes on first, the left waits its turn. If you wear the blue dress, the red one stays on its hanger. And if you’re here in church, you are not still in bed, or at the mall or the cricket pitch, or enjoying a quiet snooze by the seaside. Making one choice, accepting one option, means that all the others go unchosen; and unlike the choice with pairs of shoes, where it is either the right or the left, many choices you make stand against many, many other possibilities, which become, in the moment you choose one out of many, a multitude of unchoices.

As we choose, moment by moment and day by day, we create, as it were, a trail of choices marked out on the map of all possible choices, a silver trail glimmering on a velvet field of innumerable possibilities passed by, innumerable paths not taken; so that if we were to look back through time and space we could see our lives drawn out like strings of pearls, each choice in each moment glistening in the early morning light. And we could say, That is my life. For the choices we make form the sum not just of how we are dressed, or where we may be, but indeed describe who we are. We become who we are by the choices we make, by the paths we choose to take, by the singular things we choose to do as well as the multitude of things we choose not to do.

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What our readings today show us is that God makes choices, too. God tells Moses that even though the whole earth belongs to him, he has chosen Israel to be his people, to be a priestly kingdom and a holy nation, a treasured possession. That means, among other things, that all the other nations of the earth have to stand by and wait for the right time, until the coming of Christ fulfilled what the prophet had promised — that light would eventually come to all nations, a light to enlighten the Gentiles. The light would have to shine somewhere before it could shine everywhere.

In the Gospel reading, we see Jesus even intentionally delay that process, soft-pedaling even the spread of the Gospel itself. He looks out on the crowds and sees them like sheep without a shepherd. But instead of sending all of his followers out to all of the world — to all those other nations apart from Israel — he chooses only twelve, and tells them to be very choosey about where they go: not to the Gentiles, not even to the Samaritans, but only to recover the lost sheep of Israel.

This is the same Israel that God chose long before, when he plucked Abraham from the midst of the populous land between the rivers, and sent him off to a country he’d never known; the same Israel that God chose when he swooped down on eagle’s wings and rescued them from slavery in Egypt. God, and the Son of God, choose and choose again, and seem to know exactly what they want, and when they want it. And what God wants, what Jesus wants, is what we all want, when it comes right down to it.

What God wants is a people who will hear and obey his voice, a people who will choose to enter a loving relationship, and return that love. What Christ wants is to gather the lost sheep of the twelve tribes of Israel, to gather the stricken flock lost in a world that has lost sight of God, and he chooses twelve apostles to gather that flock, to spread that word, the good news that the kingdom of heaven has come near. Once that is done, there will be plenty of time to spread the message further.

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The fact is, you have to start somewhere before you can act everywhere. And Jesus shows the wisdom of a strategic thinker, for he knows that the best way to grow is to build a firm foundation — as we were reminded a few weeks ago when we heard about the houses built on rock and on sand. So the choosey Jesus chooses the twelve, to send them out to prepare the way by first recalling Israel to its true vocation as God’s chosen. And, as we see from the advice he gives them, what Christ seeks is to be welcomed. In the long run what God chooses is to be chosen in return.

For Abraham chose God after God chose him. He could have said, “No thanks, God, I’ll stay here in Chaldea. I’m comfortable here; I know my neighbors and they know me.” Moses could have remained in Egypt as Pharaoh’s right-hand-man, the Dick Cheney of ancient Egypt: “Look God, I’ve got a great job here; I’m second in the kingdom to Pharaoh, and if I play my cards right I might even get a pyramid after I’m gone.” What power he might have held if he hadn’t chosen to follow God’s call, to choose what was comfortable rather than what was right! And look at the apostles themselves: Matthew could have chosen to stay at the custom house, collecting taxes and making a good living; Peter, Andrew, John and James could have stayed by the seashore with their nets.

And Judas.... well, here is someone who did finally make the other choice, as Matthew reminds us. Even though God had chosen him, offering him a hope and a glory that was yet to be, to be one of the twelve foundation stones of the new Jerusalem, Judas chose instead the short-term security of silver across his palm. And his choice shaped who he was and what became of him as surely as it shaped the lives of the other eleven, of Moses and Abraham, and of us too.

For you and I have made choices as well. We could have chosen to stay in bed this morning, or gone to the mall, the Van Cortland Park or Orchard Beach. But these choices we make, in response to the choices God has made, form us into a different sort of people, not just people who are a nice enough bunch of folks, but a people who is holy, a royal priesthood, a chosen nation that chooses God right back. We are who we are because God has chosen us, and because we have chosen him in return. And that is what it means to be partakers in the kingdom of heaven.

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We are who we are by the choices God has made, and by the choices we make in return. We can choose to wander and stray — see, the door is open, and nobody’s got a gun to your head holding you a hostage here in church. We don’t live now in the days of the early church when being a Christian could cost you your life. We don’t live in a place where being a Christian can mean assault, or being thrown in prison. We live in a place and time when being a Christian requires very little — yet how many are reluctant even to part with that little of their time, talent and treasure? We are free to choose the comfortable cushion and worship at the Church of Saint Mattress if we want to. We can slip off to the mall or the park or the seaside. I’m old enough to remember when the stores were closed on Sunday; not so much because the merchants respected the Lord’s Day as due to the lack of customers who did respect Sunday. And I remember — how many of you do too? — when Macy’s broke the barrier and was the first store to open for business on Sunday. Maybe they heard there was someone outside with thirty pieces of silver to spend! Oh, yes, we have many choices we can make.

This is Fathers’ Day, and we know that fathers can choose to be good fathers, sons to be good sons. Or they can follow the way of neglect and abdication, of abandonment and disdain. Oh yes indeed, there are many choices.... But by such choices we shape what kind of people we are, and what kind of future we will enjoy, in this life and the next. May we always choose the way that brings us ever closer to the one who chooses us: the Son of God, the Son of his Father in Heaven, Jesus Christ our Lord.+