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 24, 2008

Human Worth

St James Fordham • Proper 7a • Tobias Haller BSG
Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.

What is a human being worth? It used to be said that if you reduced a person down to the chemicals that make up the human body you’d have just over a dollar and change worth of carbon, sulphur, nitrogen, potassium, and so on. But one day a doctor pointed out that organic compounds, not chemical elements, are what you should go by to determine the value of a human being. Our bodies are, after all, more than mere combinations of chemicals, but rather intricate producers of complex biological compounds. Some of the hormones and secretions we generate in our bodies are very valuable, only recently synthesized by virtue of the advances in molecular biology and genetics. On this basis, the doctor calculated that just a handful out of all of them were worth over $6 million. Quite a difference from the buck-fifty we were once told we were each worth, adjusted for inflation or not!

However, I still think the doctor fell short on estimating the value of a human being. We are certainly worth more than a few jars of elemental chemicals, but we are also worth more than a few vials of steroids, hormones, and factors our bodies produce.

To reduce human worth to this sort of inventory — even the valuable inventory of a medical supply company — is like saying a painting by Van Gogh is worth more than one by Rembrandt because the paint is thicker. The worth of a great painting has almost nothing to do with the amount of paint that makes it up, and everything to do with the painter, with the love and the care of the artist who created something that others could value. We human beings are worth more than all of the chemicals on all of the shelves of all of the DuPonts and Dow Chemicals of this world. We human beings are worth more than all of the inventory of GlaxoWellcome-SmithKline and Pfizer put together. And that is because the artist who created us took great pains over us — took the ultimate pain over us — and finished us off in perfection to the last detail, down to the number of hairs on each of our heads. Worth more than sparrows? You’d better believe it!

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Yes, indeed, we’d better believe it, even though sometimes it may seem so hard to believe, this idea that each and every one of us is a great work of art by the greatest artist. As G.K. Chesterton once said, “Everyone matters. You matter; I matter. That is the hardest thing in theology to believe.” It is hard to believe, and sadly, we human beings don’t often act as if we believed it. We treat each other as less than who we are. It’s hard to remember that the person who cuts us off on the highway is a child of God. It’s hard to remember that the mugger and the addict and the prostitute are supremely valuable in the eyes of God. It is so easy, as it were, to hold the telescope backwards; to look through the end that makes everyone else look small.

I’m sure you are all familiar with Charles Dickens’ classic story, “A Christmas Carol” — most likely because you’ve seen one of the many film or TV versions of it. Most of these version leave out one of the most powerful statements in the story. When Scrooge’s heart begins to soften, as he begins to show the first glimmer of concern for little Tiny Tim, he asks the Ghost of Christmas Present, “Will Tiny Tim will be spared.” The Ghost responds by quoting something Scrooge had said that very day when he was asked to contribute some money to save the lives of the poor: “If he be like to die, he had better do it and decrease the surplus population.”

Scrooge hangs his head in shame; and that is where most of the dramatizations end the exchange. But Dickens pressed the point, and put powerful words into the mouth of the Ghost of Christmas Present, a bit too strong for popular entertainment, but not out of place in a sermon. The Ghost fixes Scrooge with a stare, and says, “Man, if man you be in heart, not adamant, forbear that wicked cant until you have discovered What the surplus is, and Where it is. Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be, that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man’s child.” Powerful words that cut to the heart.

And of course, Scrooge needed to be cut to the heart — he needed a kind of spiritual heart surgery: to have his heart of stone replaced with a heart of flesh. And he had vision problems too, Old Scrooge did: The same vision problem that afflicts so many of us, the inability to see the value of others, especially those deemed the poorest and weakest. This is what comes from looking through the wrong end of the telescope.

In just the same way, but long before telescopes, it was hard for people to see a wandering preacher, convicted and sentenced for having gone too far, stripped and nailed to a cross to die in agony — hard to see in that pitiful figure the perfection of human nature. But this is the challenge we have been given: to acknowledge the presence of the supremely worthy even in those whom the world counts as worthless, and to acknowledge them before that world, so that it might have its vision cleared and finally see, and believe, and have its cold heart melted and warmed to life, and realize just how supremely valuable is every human being made in the likeness and image of God.

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For our Lord himself became one of us — and not among the great and wealthy, but among the poor and lowly, to show us that our human worth does not consist of the abundance of our possessions or our position in society. Had he come as a mighty monarch, proud to win over the crowds by pouring out wealth upon them, it would have been very easy for them to accept and acknowledge him as Lord.

But he did not do so. He came among us as a member of the lowest class of people, the common people who toiled and worked with their hands to make a living. Even when he worked miracles, he gave the people not gold, but at the most bread and fish, and wine for a wedding party — consumables for use, not treasure for accumulation. In short, God did not bribe us or try to win us over when he came to us in the person of Christ. He came to us as one of us, as one of the least of us.

And he came not merely as one of the least of us, but for the least of us: as we heard in our reading from Romans last week, he came not only for the least of us, but for the worst of us — for all of us, while we were still weak, while we were still sinners. Which is, of course why we should never presume to judge anyone else’s sins — for all of us have fallen short; and yet God still loves us and forgives us.

That is why we who acknowledge him — with the expectation that he will fulfill his promise and acknowledge us before his Father in heaven — why we must also acknowledge our fellow human beings — all of them, including the poorest and the weakest, the most admirable and the most reprehensible — as sisters and brothers in the great human family. We dare not single Jesus out and neglect the rest of his family — for as we have done to the least of them, we have done to him.

This gives added weight to his warning that whoever denies him before others will be denied by him before his Father in heaven. For it is not only the poor we deny when we turn away from them — in doing so we are denying Jesus himself.

We have the choice — but it’s a package deal: we cannot embrace Christ unless we also embrace our sisters and brothers, we cannot claim his forgiveness of our sins unless we also forgive those who sin against us, who are his children as much as we are. To deny them is to deny him. We dare not turn aside from or presume to judge the least of these — each and every one worth more than many, many sparrows.

We are each and every one of us so valuable, that a sage of the Eastern church once said, “Before every human being there go ten thousand thousand angels shouting, ‘Make way for the image of God.’” How the world would be changed were we to treat each other — all of us, high and low — as worth what we are in the eyes of God. May we always, every time we encounter another person, open our eyes to see another child of God, open our hearts to embrace them, and open our ears to be able to hear the voices of those angels reminding us just how much each and every one of us is worth; for, to echo Tiny Tim, God has blessed us, every one.+

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.+