Monday, December 28, 2009

Word Made Flesh

SJF • Christmas 1 2009 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
And the Word became flesh and lived among us.+

Merry Christmas! I say that because Christmas is not a single day — Christmas is that twelve-day-long season of the church year in which we are particularly reminded of a great invasion that took place long ago — when in fulfillment of the prophecies of old, God came to be with us as one of us, our Lord Emmanuel.

During the few years of his ministry recorded in the Gospels, Jesus taught and preached about why he came to us. He also told parables about himself as God’s emissary, God’s anointed one, the Messiah, God’s Son, sent from his Father’s throne on a mission to the world God loved so much. He told the parable about the king who sent his son to deal with those disreputable vineyard tenants, for example — a very pointed parable aimed in the direction of religious leaders who had turned the temple into a den of thieves. He told of the master of the household who came to check up on what the various servants were doing, especially in regard to how they treated each other — and that’s a very pointed parable that is a lesson to all of us! So it is that Jesus himself began a tradition of telling about his own mission among us through parables.

Last week, Brother James and I saw the new James Cameron film, Avatar. As you know from the news reports we were not the only people who went to the movies last weekend! The film has very nearly made up its very high price tag within the first weeks of its release. I promise that this sermon will contain no spoilers, for those who yet to see the film — I’ll stick to what has already been shown in the trailers and previews, which have been hard to avoid if you’ve wandered within five feet of a television during the last month or so.

The reason I think of this film at Christmas time is not only due to its having been released to coincide with Christmas — strange timing for what is really a summer blockbuster after all! It is because this film also deals with the theme of incarnation — and of what incarnation is for: sacrifice and justice and deliverance and healing. While it is far from matching up with Christian theology point by point, that film does capture the essence of a very vital and central element of the Christian faith — that God became one of us, and saved us.

As the evangelist John put it, “The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” And as he would continue in a later chapter, the Son of God came into the world, “not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”

So it is that the hero of the film, Jake Sully, is given a fleshy body like those of the people whose world he is going to inhabit. A body ten feet tall, with yellow eyes, and a long tail like a cat! It is also a body “not born of blood or of the will of the flesh,” though clearly at the devising and the will of man — the scientists grow the body for Jake in a giant test tube. More importantly for the theme of the film, Jake rejects and is rejected by “his own people” — us human beings — or at least the commercial exploiters of the peaceful planet and the military force set on displacing or eliminating the indigenous population.

I’ll let the comparison rest at that — both so as not to give away any more of the film, but also not to press my luck by drawing the analogy any closer than it already is. As with the parables themselves, it is a mistake to try to interpret most of them allegorically — that is, point by point — rather than drawing one major lesson from each of them.

And the major lesson I want to draw both from our Scripture and from that adventuresome movie is the same — that we have been rescued. And more than rescued: saved. We and our world have been saved by someone who is both one of us and yet who comes from beyond. God has come to us; the word which was at the beginning with God and was God, through whom all things came into being, and without whom not one thing that is came to be — this same Word and Son of God came to us as one of us, became human flesh and lived among us and allowed us for that brief time to see his glory.

And to do more than just to see. As Saint Paul wrote to the troublesome congregation in Galatia, through the power of God’s Holy Spirit, we have also received adoption as children of God, brothers and sisters of God’s own son, who was born under the law, born of a woman as all of us were, in order to redeem us and set us free from the bondage of sin.

Jesus came to us as one of us to save us from the mess we’d gotten into by seeking ourselves instead of honoring God and our neighbors. Unlike the tall blue people of Pandora, who seem to be able to get along not only with each other but with their whole planet, we human beings have been at odds both with each other and our planet almost from the very beginning. (Another point made in Avatar is that the humans are invading the peaceful planet of Pandora because they’ve practically destroyed their home-world — our home-world, the Earth. And any decisions about global warming taken last week in Copenhagen notwithstanding, that part of the story may well turn out to be true, 150 years from now!)

Clearly, we human beings have a way of making a mess of things, both on a personal and a planetary scale. But the good news of Christmas, is that it doesn’t have to be that way, or stay that way. God himself came to us to offer us a way out of this mess. And it wasn’t with arrows and flying dragons, it wasn’t with machine guns and armaments. It wasn’t alien creatures 10 feet tall, or mechanical suits twice as tall as that armed to the teeth.

It was as a child, born in a suburb of Jerusalem, during a time of confusion and injustice no less troubled than our own. And all who will receive him, who believe in his name, have power to become children of God, as he was and is. We can embrace that new identity received in him, clothe ourselves in his goodness, and set down both the swords we use against each other and the seemingly innocuous ploughshares with which we wound our weary planet. We can turn from using each other and our world only for what we can get out of it and each other, and instead seek to serve each other, to love each other and cherish each other as brothers and sisters should do, and to treat this earth, our island home, with greater reverence and care: it’s the only one we’ve got!

We have been given power to do this by God himself — God, who made us and this world of ours — for the Word became flesh and lived among us. We have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

Through that grace and in that truth we can proclaim our salvation — that we have been rescued and saved, redeemed and restored, and empowered so that we might be all that God intends us to be: his children — so that it is true when we cry out, “Abba! Father!” And so to Christ our Savior, and to his Father and our Father, let us give thanks for this great gift, the greatest gift, the Word made flesh, our Lord, Emmanuel.+


Monday, December 21, 2009

One Room Hearts

SJF • Advent 4c 2009 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
You, O Bethlehem, are but one of the little clans of Judah... but from you shall come forth one who is to rule in Israel. (Micah 5:2)

THERE’S SOMETHING IN US ALL that loves to see the underdog finally get ahead; to see the little guy bring down the big bully; to share the joy of the little shopkeeper who wins the lottery, of the hard-working housekeeper who inherits a fortune. This is the stuff of fairy tales: of Cinderella, raised from the dust and ashes of the hearth to become a princess; of the Ugly Duckling turning out to be a swan; of the Little Engine Who Could, finally making it over that steep hill; or, in keeping with the season, of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, shunned at first because of his odd and shiny nose, later turning out to be just the one Santa needs to accomplish his Christmas Eve mission.

Yes, this is the stuff of fairy tales, but it is also the stuff of salvation. For once, long ago, just about exactly three thousand years ago, — yes, I’m counting correctly! — in a little suburb of Jerusalem, a little town belonging to the smallest clan in Judah, a little town called Bethlehem, an unlikely young man came to the forefront of everyone’s attention: and his name was David, son of Jesse — the shepherd-boy who would go on to knock down that towering Philistine giant Goliath with his slingshot, and later would go on to become the king of all Israel.

The prophet Micah, remembering this savior from his nation’s past — much the way we might remember Abraham Lincoln or George Washington — spoke to his people in their present turmoil to comfort them with the promise of another king who would arise from this little town of Bethlehem. From this little suburban village, one would come forth who would be great to the ends of the earth. He would “feed his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.”

Such stories, such promises, give hope. It is wonderful when the tables are overturned and the haughty mighty ones are toppled, especially when that toppling is done by poor, simple souls lifted up from where they’ve been downtrodden for so long. It is so wonderful that it’s worth singing about. That’s what Micah did, and that’s what Mary of Nazareth did, too.

In today’s Gospel, little Mary, the carpenter’s wife, you know, the housewife — she lived just down the street — the working-class mother-to-be; she was spending some time away from her home up in the hill country, visiting her cousin Elizabeth, also soon to become a mother. And as soon as Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, she felt the child leap in her womb, the yet unborn John the Baptist already sensing somehow and announcing with a kick the arrival of his Lord hidden in his mother’s womb. And Elizabeth too was urged to prophetic utterance, addressing Mary as blessèd, as the mother of the Lord, a Lord only just recently and miraculously conceived, and yet already announced by his unborn cousin.

And that’s when Mary sang. The song she sang has been repeated since in every language on earth, sung to many melodies, throughout the world sung every day as part of the evening worship of the church, a reminder before bedtime that our God is a mighty One who does great things, who lifts up the lowly, who afflicts the comfortable and comforts the afflicted, who fills the hungry with good things, but sends the rich away empty; and who, above all, is faithful to his promises.

Mary’s song is the song of all the little people, of all the underdogs, of all the people who never got a fair shake finally winning their reward. In Mary’s Song is summed up all the history of God’s chosen people, loved by their faithful God even when they were unfaithful, chosen not because they were numerous or powerful, or great, but just because they were little and insignificant — as if God were saying, “I can work with anything. I’m going to take this lousy little tribe of people wandering around in the desert and from them will come the ruler of the universe...” whose coming we celebrate this week.

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There’s an advantage, you see, to being little! (I guess I should talk, right?) Little people can fit into places big people can’t. And I don’t just mean on the “D” train! Little people notice things that the big people are too busy to see, or too caught up in their own importance to notice; they keep their heads up. Little people know they need to keep their eyes open and look around. One Saint took this very seriously, Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, who was known as the “Little Flower.” She was a little lady, but because of that she knew she wasn’t cut out to be a great heroine of the faith, a martyr who would face death and torture rather than deny Christ, or a missionary called to go to far off lands. So she resolved to follow what she called “The Little Way”: to do every little daily task as if it were the most important thing in the world; to do the dishes as if they were the sacred vessels of the altar; to scrub the floors of the convent where she lived as if they were the paving stones of heaven; and to face all challenges and difficulties with the same sweet innocent smile, as she said, “We are too little to be able to rise above great difficulties; so then let us quite simply pass beneath them!”

Herein lies the great advantage that the humble and meek have over the rich and powerful: They pay attention to the little things, they listen, they keep their eyes open — they have to! They’ve learned to know how to avoid being stepped on; and it is no accident that when whatever it was that wiped out the dinosaurs wiped out the dinosaurs, the little mammals survived because they could slip through the cracks of disaster! The rich, the powerful who imagine themselves to be self-sufficient, fail to remember how dependent they are on others and on God, and so they lose their grip on what they have, and when the tables are turned, they slide from their thrones. It was precisely when Israel got fat and rich and comfortable and big that the people lost sight of God, and slid into exile or captivity. Only when reduced to the point that they could acknowledge their failings would they turn to God, their deliverer, in meekness and repentance.

The meek, unlike the proud, are receptive, open to God’s arrival. The great Episcopal preacher and bishop Phillips Brooks — who once stood in this very pulpit as he preached at the wedding of the third rector, Charles Tiffany — Phillips Brooks had that in mind when he wrote the words of that wonderful hymn we sang today, “where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in.”

And what is it that Christ enters into? We find the answer in the collect for today: “Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself.” Or, as Brooks put it in the same hymn: “O Holy child of Bethlehem descend to us we pray; cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today.” When we become little, when we become meek, God dwells among us, with us, and ultimately in us: truly Emmanuel: God-with-us.

God chose Mary to bear his Son as he chose Israel to be his people. It wasn’t because Mary was great, but because Mary was humble, meek and lowly, that God chose her. It was God who made her great, who did great things for her. It was God who lifted up his lowly handmaiden, and made her the mother of his Son.

That same meekness, that same humility is available to us. We can be like Mary — we can open our hearts to God and to each other, to welcome Christ, who is always willing to enter into a humble heart. If God — think about that — even God, could become so little, an infant lying in a manger, can not we too shrink ourselves? Can we not pare down our egos and our angers, engage in a fast of righteousness and shed the pounds of pride and resentment, freeing ourselves to run like happy naked children through the sprinklers of God’s abundant grace?

It is a challenge. It’s hard to become little when you’ve gotten used to living large — dieting and losing weight is hard! Israel learned that lesson, over and over again. And we stumble and fall, too. We’re so often told to act like grown-ups; that big is better; that maturity is judged by power instead of wisdom. But in God’s world, it is better, far better, to be like a child — didn’t he tell us that? It is far, far better to be like one of the blessed little ones who behold God’s face in everything they see.

So, brothers and sisters, let’s be little together. Let’s lose the weight of sin and selfishness. Remember, as the doctor said to the overweight businessman: “It’s either lose forty pounds now or lose two-hundred forty soon!” So let’s go on the diet of righteousness starting now! Let us sing Mary’s song, now, and on Christmas Day, and the day after that, and forever after. When we feel ourselves getting too big for our britches, let’s remember little Mary’s song. Let us join in the chorus of praise, the chorus of souls who magnify the Lord by acknowledging their own littleness, their voices echoing down the corridors of time and space. Let us watch with charity; and with faith hold open the door of grace. Let our hands help lift up the lowly, as we are lifted up ourselves; let our hands feed the hungry, as we are fed at the hands of God. Let us open our hearts, our simple, little, one-room hearts, which, by the grace of God, will become mansions prepared for his Son at his coming. “O come to us, abide with us, our Lord, Emmanuel!”


(Note: unfortunately the audio recorder cut off 2/3 through the sermon...)

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Carrot or Stick?

SJF • Advent 3c 2009 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
If there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.+

WE COME TO THE three-quarters mark of Advent, the Sunday known as “Rejoice Sunday,” when we switch vestments from purple to rose for the day. This Sunday takes its name from our reading from Philippians, beginning with those famous words, “Rejoice in the Lord always.”

We start with Zephaniah’s joyful command to the daughter of Zion to start singing in exultation, rejoicing that the Lord has granted full acquittal, rescued her from disaster, and restored her fortunes. Thus the tone is set for rejoicing right from the first reading. Then Paul continues the tone with that wonderful call to rejoice in the Lord always — it’s hard to hear those words without thinking of the wonderful bouncy setting that Händel wrote to portray the leaping joy of happy hearts.

Things seem to be running along in a happy mood indeed, and then suddenly the foot comes down on the brakes and we come to a screeching halt, as the scary figure of John the Baptist looms before us, holding out his hand and crying, “You brood of vipers!”

Just when we thought we were heading for a happy ending, here comes somebody talking about axes and fires and vipers and wrath. It’s as if we’d just settled down in the movie theater with the kids, ready to see Disney’s latest G-rated romp, but before the family fare can begin, the previews of coming attractions shock us with an R-rated sequel to Nightmare on Elm Street!

Why did those who chose our readings for this third Sunday of Advent change course in mid-stream, returning from rejoicing to the more common theme of Advent, violence and the coming day of the Lord? Well, one of the reasons is that they knew who they were dealing with— us! People who deal with people — whether politicians or managers or pastors — know that there are two sides to human nature. The upside is the willingness to be generous, to be truthful and honorable and worthy of praise. But the downside is always there — we live in a world beset by sin, and even the best person is far from perfect. And that downside of human nature includes selfishness, envy, pride, dishonesty, and all those other nasty things that hide under the paving-stones of even our best intentions. Yes, people may mean well, they may even do well much of the time, but none of us is so virtuous that we don’t need an incentive to move forward, and a corrective for our failings from time to time.

So we have, as it were, the carrot and the stick. There are other analogies: good cop, bad cop, for example. And what child hasn’t learned that if Mom says No, Dad may well say Yes, or vice versa! And so, in today’s readings, while Zephaniah and Paul hold out the carrot, John the Baptist swings the stick.

And if we look closely at what all three are saying, I think we can see that, while the messages at first seem to clash, deep down there is a single theme to their effort. Just as the carrot and the stick are both meant to get the donkey moving, just as the good cop and the bad cop are both working together to get the suspect to cooperate, just as Mom and Dad really both have the best interest of their child at heart, so too Zephaniah and Paul and John are all trying to move us in the same direction — Godward.

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Look closely at what John the Baptist is demanding, after all of those fiery and violent opening words. Is he asking those who come to hear him to walk barefoot over hot coals or perform difficult feats? No, in spite of his intensity, what he asks is not all that extraordinary or hard after all: that whoever has two coats should share one with someone who has none, that whoever has food should share it with the hungry. Now, that’s hardly terrifying, is it? It only seems natural.

And he goes on, telling the tax collectors to collect the tax — and no more; he tells the soldiers to be happy with their salary, and not to abuse or blackmail the citizens with threats or lies.

In short, all he’s doing is asking for the same kinds of things Paul does in his joyful letter to the folks in Philippi: be true, be honorable, be just, be fair. John is telling people to do the same things as Paul, and to do them in the same way — honorably, faithfully, and with respect. Though he wields the stick instead of dangling the carrot, his goal is the same, to move the people to be as good as they can be, to bring them to the spiritual place of justice, fairness, and unselfishness that we goes by the wonderful name, Righteousness.

The problem, of course, is that movement is needed! The donkey of human nature won’t budge, sometimes in spite of the carrot or the stick. In spite of all the encouragement to be good, to be true and fair and honorable, to be righteous, people still lie and cheat and steal.

In spite of being urged to share their food and clothing, there are still plenty of full closets and empty stomachs in this world of ours. In spite of urging those in authority to do their jobs justly and fairly, there is greed and corruption in the seats of power. All human beings, all of us, however good or wanting to be good, are, as the Collect for today says, “sorely hindered by our sins” — we desperately need God to “stir up his strength and come among us.” Our donkey cart has its wheels stuck in the ruts of a well-worn road — and we need more than a carrot or a stick or even both together.

And so there is more to John’s message, as there is to Paul’s. Both of them know that however big and tempting the carrot, however strong and threatening the stick, neither is powerful enough to accomplish what is needed. For that, not something but someone else is needed, someone whose coming John foretells and whose presence Paul preaches. John warns the people that Messiah is coming, the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire: the ultimate carrot and stick! And Paul counsels the people to rest assured in the peace of Christ, placing their hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. For it is Christ, the Messiah, who is the final cause of all rejoicing; it is Jesus of Nazareth who is the final goal of all our pilgrimage, with all of our ups and downs, all of our wrong turns and failures, all of our defeats and all of our victories — only he who can move us from our immobility.

He alone is the one who can push the donkey cart out of the ruts into which we have steered it, and he will do so with the same shoulder that bore the cross, and with his own wounded hands. He alone is the one who will bring us home, bring us home rejoicing, bring us home in peace. The good news of both Paul and John find their end and fulfillment in Jesus Christ, and after Paul and John have done their work as carrot and stick, to try to keep us moving in the right direction, it is Jesus Christ our Lord, and only he, who will stir up his power, and with great might come among us, bearing his bountiful grace and mercy in his own wounded hands, he will speedily help and deliver us, and finally bring us home. And so, to him alone who has the power to save us and deliver us, to him be the glory henceforth and for evermore.+


Mountains and Valleys

SJF • Advent 2c 2009 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The Word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness… +

HAVE YOU EVER experienced a grief so deep, been plunged into the depths of a despair or sadness so dark and unrelieved that you thought you would never get out of it? Or have you ever faced a difficulty so massive, a problem so insoluble, so impossible to get around or to get over, that you simply felt immobilized and helpless? I’m sure that all of us here have had such moments in our lives, such experiences, such feelings. But I am also sure, precisely because we are here, that somehow we found the strength to overcome whatever it was that plunged us into gloom, or blocked our ability to get on with life. Something happened to each of us to bring us up out of the depths; something happened to remove the obstacle from our path. Someone brought us a message of hope, someone’s simple word or action suddenly put things in perspective, and helped us out of the pit of despair, or helped us over the obstacle.

This is the message of Advent. Into the darkness, a light has shined; every valley shall be filled, every mountain and hill made low, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God. This was the message of John the Baptist, the Word of God that came to him long ago in a particular time and place, a time and place that the self-conscious historian Saint Luke is at such pains to pinpoint in our Gospel today.

What John was saying, and what Luke was saying, is that God acts. Things change — and not just because that’s the way of the world — but because God leads and guides and urges the world along, wooing us like a lover when we feel most unlovable, bringing us up from the valley of despair, helping us by taking our hand to lift us up over the mountainous obstacles we face, when we feel most helpless.

The reason John and Luke could be so confident that God acts is that they could look back over a whole long history of God at work in and with his chosen people, his chosen bride, Daughter Israel. John and Luke could look back to the prophet Isaiah, just as did the author of the book of Baruch. The prophecies in Isaiah encouraged Judah when the people were in captivity in Babylon, just as the prophecies in Baruch comforted the children of Israel when they were under the domination of the Greek Empire. Whatever the current state of things, these prophets promised, God would restore the fortunes of Zion. Jerusalem would put off her widow’s weeds, uncover her veiled head and put on the diadem of the glory of the Everlasting. Rather than being crushed by a mountain, she would climb it, stand upon the height and see her children coming home safe and sound.

God would set things right; God would act; things would change, as God had acted and things had changed before. Long before, God had moved the heart of Cyrus to end the captivity in Babylon, to allow the people to return from weeping by Babylon’s strand, to restore the fortunes of Zion, to rebuild the Temple. God had inspired the Maccabees to throw off the domination of Antiochus Epiphanes, that wicked man — to cleanse and rededicate that same Temple, and as a testimony to God’s presence with his people in those days, God had provided the miracle of the Hanukkah lights, oil enough to light the menorah in the Temple for eight days of rejoicing when it appeared there was only enough oil for one day.

So it was that John the Baptist could proclaim the old words of Isaiah with confidence, words whose significance would not escape his hearers: Israel had been liberated from Babylon, she had been freed from the domination of the Syrian Greeks; and she would be freed from the domination of the Romans, too.

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But John meant more than this. Those who saw John the Baptist only as a political zealot, proclaiming rebellion against Rome, would have missed the greater part of his message. He was not talking about the liberation of Palestine from Roman rule, the return of the scattered exiles. He was talking about far more: for he said, “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

John was not simply testifying to a coming political settlement, even a restoration of the Jewish monarchy, as so many Zealots hoped. Nor is this what Luke is getting at by reeling off all the names of rulers from Rome to the tetrarchies of Palestine. On the contrary, Luke is setting firmly in place one end of the great arch that will run through his Gospel and end in his account of the Acts of the Apostles, a great arch of triumph that begins in Palestine but ends in Rome; an arch of triumph that begins among the Jewish people, but ends among the Gentiles; an arch of triumph for the anointed one, the Messiah, to enter through and into historical fact, announcing the good news of salvation not just for the Jewish people, but to Jew and Gentile alike from one end of the known world to the other, so that all flesh would see it together.

This is the great good news of the first Advent: God is about to be revealed in human form, as a human being among human beings. God is about to appear as a particular Jewish child born in a particular Palestinian place, and we glimpse him today in the Gospel, grown to manhood some thirty years later about to be recognized and affirmed by John the Baptist, the herald of his coming, and all flesh — Jew and Gentile alike, slave and free, rich and poor — shall see the salvation of our God, in Jesus Christ our Lord.

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No, Luke is not just talking politics. Nor, harking back to the questions with which I began this sermon, am I simply talking about God as the answer to deep depression or despair, to feelings of helplessness or inertia, as if God was simply the latest anti-depressant! I, too, am talking about the salvation of God, the healing grace of God who not only anoints our wounded hearts and lifts our wearied spirits, who not only fills us with joy when all we can see is sadness, but who appears as a light in the darkness, glowing first as a tiny candle, that sends out rays that pierce the gloom, and illuminate the night of sin with celestial brightness, so that all humanity can and will one day finally see the salvation and grace of God that have come among us. God lifts our spirits not simply to the level of earthly comfort, but to heavenly joy, lifting us from the death of sin to eternal life.

For John’s proclamation, after all, was to a world caught up in sin, enslaved by sin; to which John offered a baptism of repentance and forgiveness. The human condition since the fall of Adam and Eve was such that everything had become an obstacle: life was a succession of deep, dangerous valleys and high, hazardous hills, unnatural boundaries that kept people separated from each other and from God. For that is what sin is: that which separates us from God and each other. And the church’s mission, proclaimed by John and begun by Christ, is to heal that separation.

John the Baptist echoed Isaiah and Baruch, crying out that one was coming who would level the mountains and fill in the valleys with their bulk. The very obstacles would thus become the means to movement. The mountains too high to cross would be torn down to fill in the chasms too wide to leap. The stones of the wall that people constructed to keep people separate from each other, would be reconstructed into a bridge to help them cross and enter in.

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This is the message of Advent. The salvation of God is coming, and all flesh shall see it together. We who have already seen, know and can tell who that salvation is; it is Jesus who is the bridge, the healer of the breach, the restorer of all that is broken. Jesus levels the mountain whose mighty bulk fills the valley of the shadow of death, making the way plain and level so that all might cross over. His own body, whose members we are, is the means of reunion, return and restoration. He is himself the healing of the wound inflicted when Adam and Eve first tried to separate themselves from God by becoming gods themselves.

For it is in Christ, that we find our true identity as brothers and sisters. It is in Christ that the valley of despair is filled and the mountain of resistance leveled. It is in Christ that the old divisions are overcome, in whom, as Paul said, there is no more slave or free, Jew or Greek, male and female. It is in Christ that the healing of salvation is begun and continued, in and through him.

As we traverse this Advent season, let us embrace the spirit of repentance that invites our Lord into our hearts, where he can work to remove the mountains and fill the valleys of our lives through the power of his love and the healing of his grace; that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer, to whom be all glory, now and for ever.+


Monday, November 30, 2009

Being Signs for the Times

SJF • Advent 1c 2009 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jesus said, “There will be signs in the sun, the moon and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves...”+

Today’s Gospel talks of the signs of the time, signs of the coming of the Lord. Our secular society has such signs, too. What if the New York Times business section were written in the language of the King James Bible?

It might read, “In that day, there will be lights strung from the lampposts, in the shape of stars and evergreen trees. And one like a son of man clothed all in red, with hair and beard as white as wool, shall be seated upon a moveable throne drawn by nine living creatures, each with horns, of whom one shall have a nose that shines with a light as of fire. And the merchants of the earthly city shall gather their wares together in competition, and shudder in anxiety and great trembling at the great beast whose secret name is Deficit (and who is signified by a number that increases year by year). And all the windows of the city shall be filled with merchandise of all kinds. And men shall number the days remaining unto them, wherein they might trade and bargain for these goods. When you see all these signs, you will surely know that it is almost Thanksgiving Day.”

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It has been, it seems, a very long time since those innocent days when the secular signs of Christmas did not begin until Santa Claus appeared at the tail end of Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. We’ve long since become accustomed to the secular Christmas season starting well before Hallowe’en.

But we — the Church — begin our approach to Christmas today, with the first Sunday of Advent, the beginning of the church year. So, Happy New Year!

But look at the readings for this morning — and then try to ignore for a moment the lights strung from lampposts, the decorations in store windows, the Christmas carols that have already begun to pour out of the sound systems and radios. Do these reading sounds very happy? Is there anything in the Scripture this morning that sounds like Christmas? Perhaps a little in Paul’s love-letter to the Thessalonians, but certainly not in the ominous language of Zechariah or Luke!

Advent is called a “little Lent” and the two seasons have much in common — both lead up to a feast of our Lord, Easter or Christmas. The purple vestments come out, and the purple hangings. But most importantly, both seasons lead up to the revelation of the Lord Jesus as King but an unpredictable, unexpected King: a child in a manger, he isn’t born like a king; a wandering teacher and preacher, he doesn’t live like a king; nailed to a cross, he doesn’t die like a king; and rising from the dead he does what no king before or since has ever done. In his birth and life and death and rising Jesus is the master of the unexpected — at least unexpected by those who have ignored the prophecy and promise of his coming again.

This coming again is the “Day of the Lord.” On that Day God will come as the King of the universe revealed in glory, lighting up the sky from one end to the other, astonishing the world, and the world’s rulers.

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So what is this Day of the Lord? Is it the “End of the world”? Yes, it is that, but there is another way of looking at it that is more useful for us in our daily life. There are religious sects and cults that spend much of their energy predicting when the physical end of the world is going to come. I’ve spoken of that often enough not to have to dwell on it again. Suffice it to say that such cults have cried wolf so many times, that even if they were right few would pay attention. The latest twist, of course, is a supposed Mayan prediction that 2012 will be the end of the world — and please pay no attention to the fact that real experts in Mayan studies assure us the Mayans said no such thing!

The more profound truth is that Jesus’ consistent message to us is not: “Try to figure out when the End is, then get ready just in time.” No, his consistent command to us is “Be ready for the End whenever it comes. Watch, and pray, for you know not when the master will return. Any housekeeper will tell you it is better to keep the house in good order rather than trying to clean up a sloppy mess on ten minutes notice that the in-laws are coming, or that your spouse is bringing the boss home for dinner!

And notice carefully that the “sign” Jesus specifies in the Gospel this morning — the crucial thing that will take place to warn us that redemption is drawing near — will actually be the “‘Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory!” The sure sign will be the thing itself: less than ten minutes’ warning!

So how do we stay prepared? What I’d like to suggest is that instead of thinking about the End of the world we look at it as the Day of the Lord. Since we will have little warning, it would be better for us to focus not on the world’s end, but instead upon our own end. And I mean that in both senses — both the end of our own lives, and our end in the sense of our purpose: to what end did God make us? — to think about the end of our lives.

Personal death is something we all face. It is, for each of us, the end of the world, the end of our world. Have you ever had an operation under general anesthesia? I remember having my appendix out when I was five, and the most astounding thing about it was the loss of time, the complete disappearance of time: I remember being wheeled into the operating room, I remember the cloth over my face, the smell of the ether — yes, this was a while ago! — and then I opened my eyes and I was back in the ward, with no memory whatsoever of any time in between.

Scripture refers to death as sleep. When we die, whether the end of the world is one year, or a hundred, or a million or a billion years away, we will awake in the blink of an eye to find ourselves at the throne of God, our whole life laid out for all to see. We will see the King in glory, and we will be seen. Will we be able to raise our heads, to look upon our King, our God, our redeemer?

Younger people will say, as young people always have — Me, I’m gonna live forever. And yes, as Christians, we will live forever — all of us here are born to eternal life. But we will also die first — that earthly, physical, sometimes painful, and always difficult new birth — all of us will go through death before we enter eternal life. So, the question becomes not, “When is the world going to end?” but “When is my world going to end, and how shall I prepare for it?” How can I help make every day I live a “Day of the Lord”?

I want to suggest that there are signs around us as to how we should live: and I want to highlight three of them. Live each day as if it were your first. Live each day as if it were your last. And (as Saint Paul said to his friends in Thessalonica): Increase and abound in love and charity to one another and to all. By living in this way we will not need to look for signs of a coming end, but we will ourselves be signs, signs for our times, and ends suitable to the end for which God created us, of what it is to live as a Christian; to live each and every day as a day of the Lord.

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How do we live each day as if it were our first? Part of the answer is forgiveness, being able to let go of the past. They say that to forgive is to forget, but most people find it far easier to forgive than to forget. People want to remember that they’ve forgiven you, and they want you to remember that they’ve forgiven you! How much better, how much more liberating, really to forget when we forgive, and when we are forgiven. When we say, “Think nothing of it,” to mean it, for others and for ourselves; to let the past be past, to let bygones really be bygone. And to start each new day as fresh as a newborn.

The sun will rise and set for each of us on our last day, some day. Let not that sun go down on your anger. We all have heard of families where a sister hasn’t spoken to her brother for many years, all over some incident long past, the details fading, only the hurt and the memory remaining. Then the brother dies, and it’s too late for either one to say, “I’m sorry” or “I forgive you” — too late, too late. The past has imprisoned them both, in the lack of forgiveness.

Forgiveness is at the heart of the prayer Jesus taught us. For we will all be forgiven as we forgive those who trespass against us. If we can forgive in this way, letting go of the past, we can start to live each day as if it is the Lord’s Day without all the baggage of past wrongs, and we will be transparent people, newborn people, signs for all to see, signs for our times of the forgiving love of God.

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So how do we live each day as if it were our last? Of course you can’t do everything all in one day; you can’t be sure that at your death there won’t be something left undone. But surely we can order our lives so as to do the most important things first. And by important, I don’t mean building the biggest house, or writing the greatest novel, or anything like that. I mean the really important things, like telling your wife how much you love her; showing your husband how much he means to you. I mean telling your children how much you cherish them; showing respect and love to your parents. These are the little but important things you can do — little things that make a difference. Don’t leave the little things undone; the big things will take care of themselves. In doing this we will be signs for our times, signs for each other and the world of the outgoing love of God.

My third bit of advice comes from Saint Paul: Increase and abound in love and charity to one another and to all. And this is where Christmas comes in. The surest way to abound in love and charity is to be generous to one another. And I’m not talking about generosity with physical things — although that has its place too — but being generous with yourself. That harks back to what I said before about being an “end” — the end for which God created you, to give a bit of yourself to others, as God did himself when he gave us his Son. As we look toward the day upon which God gave us himself, the greatest gift of all — his only Son — let us be as generous as we can with one another, giving of our selves. And in this way we will be living signs for our times of the self-giving love of God.

And one last thing: This year, this year don’t let’s let Advent end with Christmas. Let’s keep that expectant watchfulness — not so much a watchfulness for the “end of the world” as for the “day of the Lord” — as each day dawns, to make it a day of the Lord — the day when we will face the Lord ourselves, and in the meantime be signs of the Lord’s living presence here and now, every day. Face the Day of the Lord each day — as signs of the kingdom of God here among us. As the Baptismal Covenant reminds us, Christ our Lord is present in every one we meet and as we do to them we do to him.

So let us live each day as if it were the first day of our life; live each day as if it were our last, and abound in love for one another, as living signs for our times of the forgiving love of God, theoutgoing love of God, and the self-giving love of God. In doing so, let us join our prayers with that of Saint Richard of Chichester; which sums up so well what we are called to do in a spirit of Advent expectation:

Day by day, dear Lord, three things of thee I pray: to see thee more clearly, to love thee more dearly, to follow thee more nearly, day by day.+


Monday, November 16, 2009

Read Between the Lies

SJF • Proper 28b • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
False messiahs and false prophets will appear and produce signs and omens, to lead astray, if possible, the elect. But be alert...+

We have come to the time of year when it doesn’t take a prophet to notice the change in the tone of our appointed weekly scripture readings. The purple of Advent begins to glow in the distance, the flags of dawn are beginning to appear over the top of the hill, and word of the great King, who will come to judge the world, is beginning to echo down the corridors that in a few weeks will bring us to the start of a new church year. The language of the Daniel and the Gospel of Mark are heavy with apocalyptic visions, visions of what the old funeral hymn called the “Day of Wrath.”

The Gospel echoes Daniel and warns of the coming tribulation, a terrible time that will follow the appearance of the desolating sacrilege. However, at the end of the gospel, Jesus gives the disciples a most unusual warning. Jesus usually tells his disciples to believe and have faith, yet here he warns them to do just the opposite: to be skeptical and doubtful.

Of course, when Jesus told his disciples to have faith, it was faith in him and faith in God. Here he’s talking about false prophets and false messiahs — people so cunning and persuasive that they could even lead the elect astray. So Jesus puts the disciples on the alert: Don’t believe false messiahs who present themselves as the answer to the world’sproblems, who offer a quick fix and an easy solution. Don’t believe false prophets no matter how many wonders they produce.

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The world has seen plenty of false prophets and messiahs since Jesus spoke these words of warning. About a hundred years after Jesus’ time a zealot leader proclaimed himself to be the Messiah. He led a revolt that provoked a devastating response from the Romans, who wiped out the last Jewish presence in Jerusalem, and built a pagan shrine on the ruins of the Temple: an abomination of desolation on that holy spot.

And from then until now, time and again people have been misled by false prophets into mass suicide at the People’s Temple or Heaven’s Gate, people deluded by leaders who seemed themselves deluded into believing they held the keys to eternal life, but in the end only brought death.

Closer to home, I’m sure we’ve all encountered the more domesticated false prophets: not the ones who promise salvation, but the smaller, more modest rewards. Whether a smooth politician, a salesman with a clever tongue, a con-man out to bilk us of our last dollar, or an investment advisor who promises big returns even when the market is down, many of us have encountered such false prophets, and maybe been deeply hurt by them, when they “made off” with our pension.

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So, how are we to “be alert” as Jesus commands us to do? How are we to arm ourselves against false prophets and messiahs — especially seeing they can be so crafty, or so firm in their own self-delusion, as to lead astray even the elect? How can we tell a false prophet when we hear one, and be armed against the false prophecy? And how can we avoid getting caught up in the excitement of some new messiah, whose messiahship is in his own imagination or in the unfulfilled hopes of other people’s hearts? How can we be on our guard against even those in the church whose prophecy and speech are false?

Part of the key lies in how Jesus describes these falsifiers: they call out “Look, Here is the Messiah!” or “Look, There he is!” It comes down to a question of “here” and “there” — of “Look at me!” or “Look at that!”

The false messiah points to himself as the savior; the false prophet points to something else as the savior. Both of them imply that you can get a piece of the action, if only you will do as they say. They appeal to hungry people — and who isn’t hungry? Who doesn’t long for a better life, a brighter future, a greater happiness? We are all ready targets for these falsifiers, the purveyors of false dreams — for we all have dreams we wish would come true. The con-artists know the truth of their own gospel: “There’s a sucker born every minute.”

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But Jesus said, Be alert! We are presented with two promises: “Here I am, your messiah”; or “There, that is your salvation,” and both of these promises — if they point to anything other than Jesus — are lies. The evangelist Mark warns us, “Let the reader understand...” We would do well not simply to read, but to mark, learn and inwardly digest how, as Goodman Ace quipped, “to read between the lies.”

So let’s look at these liars more closely, reading between their lies. On one side you have the false messiahs who say, “Look at me!” They promise themselves as the answer to your problem: like the politician who promises that somehow he has the power to transform society. And how quickly, do the promises of the campaign evaporate and fade away as the legislative term begins! Be alert to the those who promise themselves as the answer to your problems. People should have been for suspicious of Bernie Madoff, for instance, and his one-man-band — but he was playing a tune that sounded very, very good!

On the other side are the false prophets who say, Look what you can get — if you do as I tell you! They appeal to our needs, to our hungers and desires, and they claim to know how to satisfy them. You run into this sort even in church! There are some who promise happiness, church growth, or a bigger budget if only you’ll follow their scheme, use their product or their program, or follow their rules.

Recently we have heard strident voices of revived fundamentalism both here and abroad, pointing fingers in judgment. These false prophets say that salvation lies in following the rules — their rules — and please pay no attention to the many rules that they themselves may violate. These latter-day false prophets of the “Do as I say and not as I do school” point to the rule book rather than to its author: missing the point that Saint Paul tried to make again and again: It isn’t the Law but the Grace of God that saves us. The savior is a person, not a program, and it is God whom we follow: in Christ who said, Love God and your neighbor and do not judge. So be alert to those who promise results, apart from the love of Christ, the love of God and neighbor, and the love which does not judge but casts out fear.

Be alert! says Jesus. We need to be alert as well to our own needs and desires, for the falsifiers appeal to them, to target them. Who would follow a messiah who said, I can’t do anything for you! The liars appeal to our needs, but then we find they can’t deliver. Worse, they consume the very people who follow them. They consume them, use them, and sometimes destroy them.

Bernie Madoff’s offer was as alluring but as ultimately destructive as the Gingerbread House that trapped Hansel and Gretel. How thoughtful of the nice old lady to make her house out of gingerbread, and to make it available to hungry investors... sorry, children. But the horrible truth was that the nice old lady was only interested in herself; she was a witch, and the only hunger the witch wanted satisfied was her own! Her Gingerbread House concealed at its heart the horrible oven heated to cook the children for her own supper.

This isn’t just the stuff of fairy tales, or even Ponzi schemes; sadly it is the reality of false prophecy at its worst. For the Gingerbread House had an even more chilling reality some 70 years ago in the “model concentration camp” — Theresienstadt, or Therezin. The Nazis set it up as a false front to conceal the horror of the Holocaust; they made it look like a summer camp, with music programs. The propaganda office even made a film in Therezin as late as 1944, showing the children from the camp performing an opera written by a fellow prisoner. Yet thousands of those very children would in the next weeks be put on trains and sent to the ovens at Auschwitz. And how many Hansels and Gretels, how many Rebeccas and Jonathans would perish to satisfy the hunger of a nation gone mad, caught up in its own false prophecy, convinced by liars and ultimately made desolate by its own abomination. Of the 15,000 children who passed through the gates of Therezin only 150 survived. That’s one percent. Look around you today here in this church. There aren’t quite a hundred and fifty people here today — imagine all but one being burned to death. Which of you would escape that desolation?

False prophets will appear and produce signs and wonders, false messiahs will proclaim themselves and lead many astray. But we have been warned and armed against false prophets and messiahs. We have been given the tools to “read between the lies” and to look, not to the false promise of a liar’s future but the true reality of God’sown present; God’s kingdom here on earth, if we will but open our eyes to see it, as Jesus said, “among us.” We have been blessed by our Lord and Savior with the Gospel truth, and a table set not with empty promises but with simple bread and wine — a sign greater than all the signs and wonders of all the false prophets that ever were — the sign of the Body and Blood of Jesus, with us and for us, here to feed our souls with the bread of heaven, to quench our thirst with the cup of salvation.

And this salvation is not some promised pie-in-the-sky of Heaven’s Gate or Jonestown, nor a quick fix for what ails you, but a testament in bread and wine transformed into the presence of God, living and true. For this is the table of the Lord. We have no need of false messiahs and prophets, for the Messiah, Jesus Christ, has already told us everything, everything we need to know: to love God and our neighbor, to break bread together and to drink from his cup at his table. No get rich quick schemes, no thousand-year Reich, no cosmic transport to the tail of a comet, but the radical reality of the here-and-now love of sister and brother in the family of faith, the kingdom among us. That is the great truth of Christ’s kingdom come, God’s good will done, right now, right here, on earth, even as it is in heaven.+


Monday, November 09, 2009

What have you got to live on?

SJF • Proper 27b 2009 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
All of them have contributed from their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had.+

Those of you who attended the Investiture ceremony yesterday at the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine, probably know that it took more than two pennies to build it! It stands today in large part as testimony to the lavish gifts of some of the wealthiest families in 19th and 20th century New York: the Fiskes, the Vanderbilts and the Astors among others. Close to home, we can say the same about our own church building, especially its beautiful windows. And you might also note that it is relatively easy for the wealthy to be generous.

Now, I’m not about to criticize the wealthy — at least no more than Jesus did. Jesus honored the wealthy when they gave openly in generosity. But in today’s Gospel Jesus is critical of the wealthy, on two counts. First, he condemns those whose wealth comes from “devouring widows’ houses” — the slumlords of the ancient Middle East, whose wealth came from squeezing money from the poor. Secondly, he is critical of those whose giving is out of proportion to their wealth. He criticizes those whose contributions, while presented with great fanfare, are only a tiny fraction of their assets, only a small part of what they could give if they were truly generous.

You’re probably thinking, this could turn into a stewardship sermon! As you know, I believe in proportional giving: giving a percentage, a tithe, of my income to the church’s work for the world and for God, rather than a fixed amount. This helps me keep my giving proportionate with the gifts with which God has blessed me. Otherwise I might get stuck at what I gave as a child, when I thought, reasoned, and contributed as a child, being so proud of what I put in the plate in Sunday School! And believe me, a quarter went a lot further back then! But that’s another sermon for another time. For though I suspect that those who chose this Gospel did so to coincide with stewardship drives — as important as stewardship is, this Gospel is about something much, much more.

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The key to that lies in the example of the widow. This widow doesn’t just pledge; she doesn’t just give proportionately, she doesn’t just tithe. She puts everything she has into the basket, everything she has to live on. When old Mother Hubbard got home, the cupboard was bare indeed! You might well say, that’s crazy! How would she pay her rent when the landlord showed up on the first of the month? If she put in everything she had to live on, where would her next meal come from?

To find the answer we need to look to that other widow we heard about today: that widow from Zarephath, down to her last handful of flour, her last few teaspoons of oil. In the midst of a famine, she has just enough to cook one last meal before she and her son starve to death. And along comes Elijah, and what does he ask from this starving woman? He asks for something to eat!

At first she shows understandable reluctance to share her last meal with this wild-eyed prophet. But for some reason she believes him, and does as he says: first feeding him, then making something for herself and her son. And she discovers that however much flour she takes from the jar, however much oil she pours from the jug, there is always more left! Though it looks like there’s only enough for two small cakes, every time she goes to the jar there is enough for three — enough for Elijah, for her, and for her son — and always a little left over.

It’s important to note the exact nature of this miracle. God does not grant that the woman would go to her cupboard and find it full of sacks of flour. God does not surprise her with a tub of oil in the corner of her kitchen. No, every day it is from the same old flour-jar and the same old oil-jug — each of which looks like it’s just about empty — that she is able to find just what is needed for the day — that daily bread — to receive it, and to give it, and to share it. She discovers in her need, just what she needs, and still she gives it up and shares it. Out of her poverty, out of her faith, generosity is called forth without end, an unending supply of johnny-cake in the midst of a famine — and that is more than enough and to live on!

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In the same way another widow walked up one day to the offering box in Jerusalem, and she put into it all she had. Though all she had was two small copper coins, she put them into the treasury, knowing and trusting that the Lord and God who had brought her that far would not abandon her — for in God was her trust, risking everything of value for the one who alone can give us anything of value — including life itself.

This Wednesday is the feast day of an early saint of the church, and his story is also one of generosity in the risky way of these two widows. Martin was a Roman soldier, and his feast coincides with Veterans’ Day. He lived not very long after the Emperor had first issued that edict permitting Christianity. The memory of persecutions was still vivid: so people were looked at very carefully before being admitted into the church. Preparation for baptism took many months, and candidates were literally scrutinized. Martin applied himself to becoming a Christian, working towards the day when he would be baptized at the Great Vigil of Easter.

One cold winter day a poor beggar called out to him, as Martin was riding through town. Martin looked down from his horse at this poor skinny man, threadbare and shivering. The problem was that Martin had no money to give the poor man. What could he do? Suddenly he had an idea. Perhaps he remembered the story he’d learned in his catechism class about Saint Peter and the man who begged at the Beautiful Gate in Jerusalem — it’s portrayed right there in the stained glass window at the south of our sanctuary. So, echoing Peter, Martin said, “I have no money to give you, but I will share with you what I have.” And with that, he took off his big military cloak and pulled out his sword. and neatly cut his that cloak in two, and half was more than enough to cover the skinny beggar. He draped the other half over his own broad shoulders, and rode on his way, wondering how he was going to explain this violation of the military code to his centurion!

Later that night, as Martin lay in the barracks wrapped in half of his cloak against the cold, he had a dream. Heaven opened to him, and he saw angels gathered around a figure he couldn’t quite make out. Then, as if aware of his presence, the angels turned to see him, and then stepped aside to reveal who it was in their midst. It was Jesus, wearing half of a Roman soldier’s cloak. And Jesus said to the angels, “This is my servant Martin, who while not yet even baptized, gave me this to wear.”

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When we give what we have with that kind of trust, with that kind of risk, without counting the cost, we come close to the kingdom of heaven. Giving that costs us nothing, that risks nothing, isn’t really giving at all. Selfless, loving self-sacrifice, giving that risks losing what you have to live on, finds renewal and replenishment, and abundant life itself.

And I want to close, if you will bear with me, with one last story, an example closer to home, and it relates to that stained glass window I mentioned a just moment ago, the one that portrays Saint Peter healing the man who begged at the Beautiful Gate. For that window commemorates both healing and generosity.

It was given in memory of Doctor George Cammann. He was a New York City physician who at the end of a long life of service retired here to the Bronx, and became an active member of Saint James Church, in its original modest wood frame building; he died a year before work on this building began.

He was famous in his day as the inventor of the first practical modern stethoscope, the one that connects to both ears. That binaural experience gave him the ability to hear things doctors had never heard before and he wrote the first instruction manual on diagnosing diseases of the heart and lungs based on what could be heard with this marvelous new invention.

Now, you might wonder why I’m mentioning him in this context of giving what you have to live on. It is because of a choice that Dr. Cammann made based in part on the kind of man he was and also what he knew; for, you see, he had used his new invention on himself. He had accurately diagnosed his own condition, and knew that he didn’t have long to live due to a calcified valve in his heart. He knew that every evening as he lay down to sleep, he might die in the night, and he lived each day in the consciousness of that fact.

The choice he made concerned his invention, too: he could have ended his few remaining years in far greater luxury and passed along a vast fortune to his children if he had patented his invention. But he listened to his heart and his heart told him what to do. He gave the stethoscope as a gift to the world, a gift of healing from which he refused to make a fortune. Because of that most people know the name Tiemann (the manufacturer) rather than Cammann (the inventor). Tiemann’s still in business — believe me. As I said last week, though, God knows — and that’s what counts.

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Each of us is called to give from what we have — not from what we wish we had. And when all is said and done, God doesn’t need our money, our flour, our oil; God doesn’t need our warm coats; God doesn’t need a stethoscope. We need these things, the church needs these things, the world needs these things, Elijah and the widow and her son needed these things; Martin needed these things, the beggar needed these things; sick and suffering people all over the world need these things — and it is because of human need that we humans need to be generous towards each other. It is only by giving up what we have, that we show ourselves to be truly generous. It is by giving up what we have to live on that we show our lives are worth living.

If we cannot give of what we have, of what we value, of what we need, how can we expect to give of our selves? For ultimately that is what God wants, not the money, not the time, talent and treasure, that you hear about in stewardship sermons that stop short of the kingdom of heaven. What God wants is us, our souls and bodies as a reasonable and holy offering. What God wants is us — our hearts most especially. Our wealth and our work are needed here on earth for the spread of God’s realm and the welfare of humanity, and God wants that realm spread, and humanity well cared for — you better believe it! God wants our hands to be at work to build up the world God loved so much that the Son of God himself came to save it; God wants us to lift up our brothers and sisters when they fall, to be generous in giving to the church and to each other; but most importantly God wants our hearts, and believe you me, God needs no stethoscope to hear the rhythm by which they beat, and knows the number of beats allotted to each!

When we have given away all we can to each other, everything we have to live on so that all might live; all the flour and oil, all the cloaks and medical equipment, all the millions in philanthropy, all the small copper coins thrown into the treasury — only when we have given away all of what we think belongs to us and discover thereby that it really all belongs to all of us — only then can we be free to hand ourselves, heart, body and soul, over to God as a final offering, and know the pure and unadulterated grace of God that has sustained us thus far, sustains us now, and carries us forth into the life of the world to come, through Jesus Christ our Lord.+


Monday, November 02, 2009

Countless Countless

SJF • All Saints Day 2009 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages...+

One of the things about optimists and pessimists is that they can look at the same thing but speak about it in entirely opposite ways. Is the glass half-full or half-empty? At home in my kitchen cupboard I have a wine glass that is etched with a line around the middle, and the words optimist and pessimist appear respectively above and below the line. The optimist says, “Hey, I’ve still got half a glass left” while the pessimist says, “I’ve only got half a glass left.” Each has the same amount, but one is content, the other despondent.

Today is All Saints Day, which falls on a Sunday this year. This is the day on which we remember all of the great saints of ages past. We also anticipate by a bit the celebration of the Feast of All Faithful Departed, which used to go by the name All Souls Day. And we do this in recognition of the fact that the saints are larger in number than just those few who are named on the church calendar. As the old children’s hymn says, “They lived not only in ages past, there are hundreds of thousands still,” and you can even meet them “in shops or at tea!” A saint is what every Christian is called to be. We are called to be saints, and that doesn’t mean sanctimonious, but being a member of the body of Christ — into which we will welcome a few more new members through the sacrament of Baptism in just a few minutes!

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There seems to be a paradox about all of this, however. And part of it lies in that reading from Ecclesiasticus, with which I admit I’ve always had a bit of difficulty, because it seems to contradict itself. The author sings the praises of those famous men who are remembered, and then says that some others are forgotten and have left no memory — and then turns around and says that “these also were godly men, whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten.” So which is it? Is the glass half full or half empty?

We will find our answer — as is so often the case — in the Gospel. Right at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus offers us a catalog of blessedness — of what it means to be blessed. We are so used to hearing this passage that we are likely to be unaware of how startling it must have been to the ears of many who first heard it. Even today, while I’m sure many will tip their hat towards the merciful, the pure in heart, and the peacemakers, you will find few who would agree that the poor, the mournful, or the reviled and persecuted are living in blessèd circumstances!

Jesus’s words are startling in part because the prevailing view then — and I’m afraid to say, now — is that your circumstances in the world are a reflection of how right you are with God. For many, then as now, health and wealth was a sign of God’s favor, and poverty or illness a sign of God’s judgment. If you don’t think that sentiment is still very much alive you haven’t been paying attention to the health care debates! Under much resistance to the urge to provide health care for every single man, woman and child, regardless of circumstances, there lies that old sneaking suspicion that if you were a better person you wouldn’t be in such a mess. That “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality is still very much with us — and it is particularly ironic to me that it is so often espoused by religious people who think they’ve got the Gospel on their side. The “prosperity gospel” maybe, but not the Gospel of Jesus Christ!

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In Jesus’ time, this way of seeing the world came largely from people who held that obedience to the Law of Moses — especially as they interpreted it — was the defining principle of what it meant to be a righteous person. They were eager to judge others, looking for specks in their neighbors’ eyes while ignoring the logs in their own. Jesus followed more in the tradition of the prophets — who see righteousness as a matter of internal disposition rather than in merely external compliance: good and evil come from within, as Jesus would say, out of the heart, as a tree’s fruit shows what kind of tree it is deep down. You know, you can’t cover up graffiti with just a light coat of whitewash — it will come bleeding through after a few days. You need to work from the inside out if you are to be righteous.

And so Jesus casts aside the false gospel of prosperity — and holds up the more challenging vision of the kingdom of heaven. It is not limited to those who, like the scribes, were rich enough to have the leisure to spend their days studying and arguing about the law and other people’s sins. Rather, as Jesus will go on to say in the mountainside sermon: God’s kingdom is open to any who are willing to seek him and his kingdom and his righteousness; and you are to seek those things first, and then to knock at God’s door and to ask for a handout from the Lord of the household. The gate may be narrow and the road hard that leads to eternal life, but Jesus assures us that it is there for all who seek it, who seek him, with all their hearts. While the scribes were busy keeping people out of the kingdom of heaven (or so they thought) for not observing all of the appropriate rules, Jesus points the way to eternal life, in him and through him, doing the Father’s will. The scribes are the pessimists and Jesus is the optimist!

+ + +

John’s vision in Revelation gives us a similar message. Initially the number of the servants of God marked for salvation does seem surprisingly small: 144,000 — a little over the capacity of the two Yankee Stadiums put together. It begins to look as if few indeed will be saved. But then John turns around and sees a multitude beyond counting, not just from the tribes of Israel, but from every nation and tribe and people and language: countless countless thousands of people. The kingdom of heaven is not a posh nightclub with a stern bouncer at the door — much as the scribes might have seen it. Rather, it is a huge expanse, so large that it can contain more people than can be counted. And of those countless, countless people too, it is said: they will no longer hunger or thirst — they are the blessèd who have come to the kingdom of heaven. Their tears are wiped away, they drink from the springs of the water of life, and worship for ever at the throne of God.

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And it is God who makes all the difference — getting back to that troublesome passage from Ecclesiasticus. Some people who have done good and gone to their reward have been forgotten — by us, but not by God! Even if they pass their lives unnoticed and uncelebrated, or even though people forget them, God will not. They are his, and he will not forsake his own. The treasure of their goodness — which is, after all, only the return on the goodness that God has already poured into their hearts— that treasure will be shared out and enjoyed in the kingdom of heaven, when they and all the blessed will be gathered in, at the time of the great harvest. God stores up all who seek him in his treasury, he calls them all to his embrace, even if their lives were lived in obscurity, even if they left no monument or memorial in this world.

Human beings may forget, but God will not. Human beings may be unaware of all the anonymous good done in the world, but God sees not as humans see and looks to the heart of each and every one of us. God is one who looks at all our half empty hearts, and by his grace supplies the difference.

+ + +

As I said at the beginning of this homily the number of the saints is far greater than the list of those on the calendar. All of us are called to be saints — and the one who calls us is the one who makes us so. Today he calls these children to join us as members of his body, the church. Some might say it’s only a drop in the bucket — if they want to be pessimists! I prefer to take the optimistic view and say that drop by drop the bucket gets filled! Our God is a God of abundant blessings, abundant blessings of which we may not be aware at the moment — when we are poor or mourning or hungry or thirsty for righteousness, or when we are persecuted or reviled, or when evil things are spoken against us falsely on account of our lives or our service to God our Father in heaven. It may not feel like blessing at the moment — but it is, and it so will be seen to be.

So let us then, as our Lord commands us, “Rejoice and be glad!” Not only do we still have half a glass full — but God has not stopped pouring yet!+


Monday, October 19, 2009

Front Row Seats


SJF • Proper 24b 2009 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to Jesus and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”+Last Sunday and next Sunday we heard and will hear Gospel passages in which people ask Jesus various things. Last week it was the rich young man asking what he had to do to gain eternal life. Next week it will be blind Bartimaeus asking for mercy. This week we hear Mark’s account about two of the earliest disciples, the fisherman brothers James and John, the sons of Zebedee, asking for front row seats — the seats of honor next to Jesus in his glory.

This Gospel has particular relevance for us because James is our patron saint, for whom Saint James Church is named. As you may know, the only stained-glass window of Saint James in the church is now walled up behind the altar — and we can only guess it is because when the altar was moved against the end of the church and raised on three steps, it cut the figure of Saint James off at the waist and people thought it looked a little odd.

Our patron saint is not completely without representation in the church, however. In the row of icons at the altar (which I reproduced in today’s bulletin) he is there at the far left, and his brother John is at the far right. So, in a way, at Saint James church at least, James and his brother John do have the honor of being to the left and right of Jesus.

But it is important to note that in most churches with icons, those places are taken by Peter and Paul, and in all churches with such an arrangement of icons, the most honorable seats in this portrayal of the heavenly banquet belong to the Blessed Virgin Mary and Saint John the Baptist. In other words, the church has long understood Jesus’s response to James and John as indicating that those seats of honor were reserved for someone else — for the one whom every age would call Blessèd, and the one who was “the Forerunner” and first proclaimer of the Lamb of God.

+ + +

Now, I don’t know about you, but I can well understand the other disciples getting annoyed with James and John when they rushed to the head of the class. We’ve probably all known people who put themselves forward, in the process of putting everyone else down. People might call them the “teacher’s pet” or a “crawler.” There is something offputting about this kind of ambition — an instinctive sense that it is inappropriate to push forward and try to take the front row seats, the best seats, the seats of honor.

Indeed, Jesus elsewhere advises against this sort of behavior: telling people to take the lowest seats at the banquet so that they might be honored in being asked to come up higher, rather than taking a high seat and being embarrassed to be asked to move down lower. Apparently James and John did not think this applied to them — they were, after all, part of the inner circle, along with Peter, who had been invited to go with Jesus to the mountaintop, and later those three would accompany him to the garden of Gethsemane. Maybe the trip to the mountaintop went to their heads!

Whatever the reason, whether pride or self-satisfaction or because of earlier signs of favor, James and John clearly overstep in their request for prime seating, and Jesus gently corrects them, and the other disciples as well, when they get bent out of shape in this unsavory contest of “who does Jesus like best.” Jesus doesn’t settle the issue and say anything about who will be seated where — and as with the seats at the banquet advises taking the position of a servant — of one who serves.

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As with all Gospel passages, however, there is more to this account. Notice what Jesus does predict concerning James and John. They will drink the cup that he will drink, and undergo the baptism with which he is baptized. And this is where our row of icons comes in again: for although the images of the saints and angels are ranged at the altar where we celebrate the earthly foreshadowing of the heavenly banquet, they are also ranged at the foot of the cross.

This is the cup that Christ would drink, the baptism with which he would be baptized: a cup he would earnestly entreat his father in Gethsemane to pass him by — while James, John and Peter were sleeping. But in union with his father’s will he accepted it, accepted death on the cross for our salvation, in union with us his brothers and sisters.

The prophet Isaiah had spoken centuries before of this suffering servant of God — the one upon whom the iniquity of all of us wandering sheep long since gone astray, would be laid. “He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.” Or as an old prayer has it, “By his cross and passion we come to the glory of his resurrection.”

Christ knew that this was what lay before him — the bitter cup and the baptism of death. James and John would indeed share in this with him — James would be the first of the apostles to die for his faith. And his brother John, though he lived to old age, would know the bitterness of exile on the island of Patmos.

And all of us who bear the name of Christian, if Christians we are, share with our Lord in his sufferings as we share in solidarity with all human suffering: doing our best to alleviate it as servants of the one in whose image every human being is made. This is the way that Jesus commends to his apostles, and through them to us: not to lord it over others as their masters, but to serve them as Christ served us and gave himself a ransom for many.

The Christian life is not about climbing the greasy pole to success, of clambering to attain a front row seat, to elbow others out of your way to get the places of honor. Rather it is about the ministry of service that stoops to wash the feet of the poor, that gives itself and spends itself for the benefit of others and their well-being.

But the Christian life is also not about envying those who do succeed or gain seats of honor and privilege, especially when that honor comes unexpected and as a surprise even to the one so honored. I think of some of the recent reactions to President Obama’s Nobel laureate. I very much doubt this is something he expected and he appears to have received it with grace; and I can’t help but hear in the voices of some of those who have said he doesn’t deserve it, the envious echoes of those other disciples.

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Neither pride nor envy are attractive human traits. Jesus would have us avoid them both. And the surest way to do that is to do as he said: to serve as he did, even if it means a bitter cup and a painful baptism. Few if any of us will be asked to go as far as the apostles and martyrs; but we can do our bit in patience and humility, in service to the least of our brothers and sisters.

And so, away with pride and envy. Our Lord and God has seats prepared for us, and though we know not where exactly they will be, we know that they will be with him, and that should be enough to satisfy us. What need is there for ambition when we have such promises from the living Word of God himself: that living, active word, sharper than a two edge sword that judges the thoughts and intentions of the heart; before whom nothing is hidden and to whom we must render an account; but one who is also able to sympathize with our weakness, as he has borne our griefs. With this Word of God for us, what can stand against us? As Martin Luther wrote,

That word above all earthly Powers,
no thanks to them abideth;
the spirit and the gifts are ours
through him who with us sideth:
let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;
the body they may kill; God’s truth abideth still,
his kingdom is for ever.+

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Goodness Gracious, Put It Down

Proper 23b • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jesus said to the rich young man, ‘You lack one thing...’+

Have you ever been shopping, and arrived home with your arms full of packages, only to be faced by the locked door, and the realization that your latch-key is in your purse or your trouser pocket? The only way to get into the house is to put the packages down while you get out the key and open the door. In effect, this is what Jesus said to the man who came running up to him in today’s gospel, asking him what he had to do to inherit eternal life.

This man, as the gospel tells us, had many possessions. You probably didn’t have to be a prophet to tell: no doubt he had a fine suit of clothes, maybe a couple of servants following him at a respectful distance. Here was the proverbial “man who had everything,” and yet Jesus knew he lacked the one thing he needed most of all. He was like a man accidentally locked in a storeroom full of canned food, starving to death because he didn’t have the one thing he needed — a can-opener. What this man needed was the grace to give up what he had so that he could follow Jesus. His arms were so full of his possessions he couldn’t set hold of the key to eternal life. He went away shocked and grieved — he couldn’t let go; he couldn’t put it down, though his life depended on it.

Now, it would be easy to say that this gospel only had to do with the wealth of this world — the physical possessions that weigh us down and keep us from following Jesus. We might remember poor old Jacob Marley in Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” He learned too late that the wealth that he should have used for the well-being of his community had instead became a “ponderous chain” he built up link by link in this life, and which kept him shuffling and clanking in his dreary afterlife, doomed forever to witness the suffering that he might once have eased — he “took it with him” and in the grave it kept him.

Yes, it would be easy for us to look at this gospel story as a warning for somebody else — for the rich — since few if any of us here are wealthy by the world’s standards. And it would be easy for me to turn the gospel on its head, and pat myself and all of us on the back just as the apostles did at the end of the reading.

But I would rather invite all of us to look at this message from the gospel a little more closely. Look more closely, and you’ll see that Jesus’ message wasn’t just about the wealth of this world, but about another kind of wealth, a kind of wealth that can get in our way and fill our arms with so many bundles we can’t make it through the door.

The man who came running up to Jesus was carrying more than gold and silver. This man was carrying a mountain of invisible packages, things he didn’t even know he was carrying. And they were good things, too! That’s part of the problem. This man came up to Jesus, knelt before him, and called him, “Good teacher.” And right off, Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good?” That should get our attention right away. What an odd thing for Jesus to say! But this odd saying of Jesus is the key to today’s gospel, to see that it is about more than money. What we have before us is nothing less than the difference between goodness and grace.

This man came up to Jesus with his arms full of his good deeds. And let’s make sure we’ve got that clear: he was a good man. He had done many good deeds. Jesus looked upon him and loved him. He was a model citizen, a faithful and obedient son of Moses, one who, as the prophet Amos said, “loved good, and established justice in the gate.” And yet his arms were so full of his good deeds, he was so proud that he had kept the law, that he couldn’t see the most important thing of all, the thing he’d neglected in his race to be a perfect “self-made man,” a good citizen.

The one thing he missed was the grace of God — a free gift that you can’t buy with all the money in the world, the free gift you can’t earn with all the good you do or try to do. This man was so conscious of his good works that he forgot his need for grace. As the collect for today reminds us, grace must “always precede and follow us” so that “we may continually be given to good works.” So that... Without that grace, no good can come.

This man thought the good works he did were his — he forgot that without God’s grace he could have done nothing at all worth doing. For not just his good works — but everything he was came from God. He thought himself a self-made-man, but he forgot that even his existence was owed to God, and God alone: God made him, and no one else.

And God would continue to give him all he needed. But when Jesus told him the one thing he lacked, to give up everything he was carrying and to follow him, trusting entirely in God’s grace and providence — not his own wealth, his inheritance, his skill, his wisdom — but in God’s grace, with no visible means of support, he just couldn’t do it.

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Have you ever sent someone on a shopping errand? Perhaps a youngster, or a brother or sister, or your spouse? You might say, “Oh, Alicia, would you run down to the store and get me a bottle of Pine-Sol?” And off she goes, and an hour later comes back with shopping bags brimful of all the wonderful things she’s found, the incredible bargains, and the once-in-a-lifetime offers — she’s got everything, except, can you guess? — the Pine-Sol! Now, she meant well; she made some wise purchases, perhaps she even saved you some money on a few bargains. But she didn’t bring what you asked for.

Jesus asks for one thing from us, one thing more than anything else — he wants our hearts, our trusting hearts — to follow him. Yes, he wants us to do good works, and he honors and welcomes those good deeds; he loves us for them as he loved the rich man in the gospel, who had done good with all his might from his youth on up. But Jesus, our gracious Lord, our savior who gives us grace without counting the cost, knows that our salvation is a gift that is in his hands to give. And with it all the rest will come, all those other things from God — the houses, brothers and sisters, and fields (with persecutions!) — all of that will come if we first give up what we have. We are not saved on account of our goodness — goodness has nothing to do with it, as Mae West once observed. Only grace — only Christ’s blood shed for us, can purchase our salvation — and this is a purchase Christ makes with what is his: his life, his blood, laid down for us. When we depend on our own goodness, on our own store of virtue, on our own spiritual riches, we are in danger of becoming too rich for Christ’s blood; and of forgetting that all the good we do comes from him in any case.

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Let me tell you a parable. There was once a man who wanted to become a great fisherman. He was a successful businessman, who had always dreamed of his retirement and the happy hours he’d spend fishing. So when he finally retired, he bought the most expensive fishing tackle, the finest high-tech carbon-fiber rod with the flashiest stainless steel reel, the most elaborate tackle and exquisite lures and lines of finest monofilament. And he went out to fish one day, but he couldn’t for the life of him catch a single fish. And to his amazement, when he looked downstream, there, in a quiet eddy of the very same stream, was a little barefoot twelve-year-old boy with a bamboo stick, a length of string, a can of worms, a bent safety pin — and a pile of fish! And the man yelled out, “How is it that a little kid like you with a stick and a piece of string can catch all those fish and I can’t get a nibble?” And the boy hollered back, “Well, Mister, I guess you have to be where the fish are!”

To be where Jesus is—that is the one thing necessary. And to be where he is, you have to follow him, right? — because he doesn’t stay still, does he? Jesus is on the move, and to follow him we need to be light on our feet, not weighed down with possessions or pride, but free to follow him where he leads. You remember the old hymn, “Where he leads me, I will follow; where he leads me I will follow...” Well, he’s leading; but are we following or just singing? We need that one thing — grace, the grace to follow him. It’s the same “one thing” Jesus told Martha — another person who had her hands full — remember Martha? — Jesus told her that “one thing” was needful: to be with him. That one thing is grace, the grace to be where Jesus is, to follow him and to accept what he offers: without this grace all the good deeds in the world will get you nowhere. But with this grace, we can go anywhere our Lord would have us go! Because he is marking the way before us, and all we have to do is be free enough to follow him.

This is the wonder of grace: It is impossible for us to save ourselves, but God, through grace, will save anybody who wants to be saved. With God’s grace, we need do only one thing: accept Christ’s invitation to follow him to the banquet. Light on our feet, we can follow him down the king’s highway, empty-handed and open-handed, ready to help our brothers and sisters, ready to do good, not because we win heaven thereby, but because the gracious good news of God is too good to keep to ourselves— and the more of it we give away the more of it we seem to have.

We have a choice to make. Would you rather enter into life empty-handed, or spend eternity with the camels parked outside — the camels who can’t fit through the gate? I think I know the answer. I know where I want to be, and I think you do too. “Where he leads me I will follow...”

So as you journey through this world, stay light on your feet and keep your hands free. Don’t stop doing good, but once you’ve done it, forget about it and put it down. You remember what Jesus said that in doing good we ought not let our left hand know what our right hand is doing. Don’t carry your good deeds around; keep both hands free to take Jesus’ hands in yours when he reaches down into the grave to lift you up to the risen life. If you do have too many possessions, if wealth is getting in your way, for the love of God, put it down. If you are conscious of your own good works, if you feel like maybe God owes you something because of your goodness, then for the love of God, and goodness gracious, put it down. If you carry anything, anything at all, then for the love of God let it be nothing other than the cross of Christ, the cross you take up each day as you follow him on the road that leads to the heavenly kingdom of his Father, to whom as is most justly due, we now ascribe all might, majesty, power and dominion, henceforth and for evermore.+