Thursday, September 24, 2009

God's Children

SJF • Proper 20b 2009 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jesus said, Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all. And he took a little child and put it among them.

If you’ve ever watched a couple of children playing with their toys you have seen human nature at work — at its best and at its worst. I have seen two children playing, each with his own toy. Then one of them tires of his toy and goes to the toy-box for a different one. Suddenly, the other child completely loses interest in his own toy. The toy the other child has taken is the one he wants, and the only one. Nothing else will satisfy him.

The first child rightly claims, “I had it first!” and the second counters, “But I wanted it.” And so the battle begins, the timeless tug-of-war fed by the desire to possess what someone else has, the need to have what someone else wants.

We put aside many childish things when we grow to maturity, but this tendency to covet what someone else has can stay with us all our lives. The grass is always greener in the neighbor’s yard, so the saying goes. And his wife may be prettier, his salary higher, his car flashier. Oh, there are all sorts of things that we find to be attractive primarily because someone else has them!

And it doesn’t stop with individual people. Whole nations are torn apart in struggles born of envy and desire, the envy of what another nation has, and the desire to possess it, the need to be — or envy — the biggest, the best, the brightest, the richest, the strongest. Imperialism, colonialism, conquest, and sometimes bald tyranny are what you get when a big nation acts like a selfish child, never having enough: a bully snatching up what smaller nations hold.

It is easy to point at the great tyrants of the past, to hold up Nazi Germany as an example of a powerful nation that invaded its neighbors. It is easy to shake my head in dismay over the never-ending squabbles of the English and the Irish, the Israelis and the Palestinians. But as an American,I must confess that my own country, has also shown this fatal weakness, this tendency towards acquisitiveness. You can dress it up in fancy words as they did in the nineteenth century, when they called it “Manifest Destiny” — that is, the doctrine that drove the westward expansion of the United States, because somehow it must be intended that this nation should stretch “from sea to shining sea,” and nobody better get in the way! The economic system built on slavery, the destruction of native cultures and peoples through forced migration or occupation, the fruit of conquest from wars and invasions — the United States has its share of wrongs to repent of!

But, as we learned to our horror on Nine-Eleven, envy and anger work both ways, and weapons of mass destruction and terrorism, can unleash horrors undreamt of a century ago. Saint James spoke truly when he said, “Where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.” Envy of the success and power of the United States, envy of the so-called “Christian West” — of all that has been achieved and gained and built — envy and hatred stewed in the hearts and souls of angry malcontents in the two-thirds world, until it boiled over. Small countries we once would have taken no notice of — sometimes not even countries, just a bands of angry, alienated and single-minded extremists — wreak havoc out of all proportion to any rational basis for their anger. This irrational anger isn’t even about gaining anything,

it is only about making those whom they hate suffer: not acquisition, but retaliation; not gain, but vengeance; the irrational hatred that says, I can never have what you have, so I will bring you down. And one child destroys the other’s toy out of envy, saying, If I can’t have it, you won’t either.

This is truly sour, green-eyed envy at its most poisonous. We see it reflected in our reading from Wisdom: the wicked plans of the malicious company, the evil crowd scheming to bring down a good and righteous man just because his goodness exposes their badness; their desire to take advantage of the widow and the weak, because they are unable to protect themselves. + + + What Saint James calls “these cravings that are at war within you” are not always so externally violent, not always so maliciously wicked, but they are always unattractive. Look at the disciples along the road in today’s Gospel: arguing about which of them is the greatest — and doesn’t that sound like something from the schoolyard! Now, at least the disciples are wise enough to be embarrassed about their argument when Jesus asks what they are up to. And Jesus gently corrects them, saying, Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.

It doesn’t matter how much territory you possess,

or how many toys are in your toy-box. What matters is having the willingness to serve, the willingness to wait, the willingness to set your own needs aside. What is important is the ability to say, Maybe you do need this more than me — I can wait my turn, I can accept my share when it comes round.

I said at the beginning of this sermon that in children you can see the best and the worst of human nature. I’ve talked about the worst you see in kids: the selfishness, the anger and the envy. But what about the best? After all, that’s what Jesus was talking about, what he intended when he set a child before the disciples, to shame their envy with innocence. Jesus wanted to emphasize the best in children as examples of simplicity and openness, to shame the disciples’ grown-up pride and envy. And I want to do the same to end this sermon, to tell you the true story of a child whose generosity is an example of the kind of transparent generosity that can shine through a child sometimes.

Little Johnny’s sister Mary had fallen ill and needed a blood transfusion. Mary had a very rare blood type, and Johnny was the only possible donor. The doctor approached the ten-year-old boy and explained to him how sick his little sister was, and how she needed blood if she was going to recover. He explained how rare her blood was, and how it was that Johnny had the same kind. The doctor then asked,“Would you be willing to give your blood to Mary?” Johnny’s eyes widened; he paused for a moment, then he swallowed and, knitting his brows said resolutely, “For my sister... sure.” The two children were prepped for the transfusion, Mary looking pale and listless, Johnny healthy and sound. Johnny looked at his sick sister and smiled. Then the nurse inserted the needle in his arm, and his smile faded. He watched his blood flowing through the tube, and looked over at his sister where she lay quietly. Minutes passed as the blood was collected; and as the process was almost complete, Johnny looked up at the doctor, and said, in a brave but shaky voice, “Doctor, when do I die?”

Only then did the doctor understand what Johnny had done, what a momentous decision this child had made. Only then did the doctor understand that this child had been willing to give up his life-blood — all of it — so that his little sister could live. The doctor reached out and touched the brave boy’s head, and said, “That’s all right, Johnny. We’ve taken enough to save your sister. You’ll be all right, too.”(1)

When Jesus calls us to be last of all and servants of all, he is not asking for our deaths, but for our lives. He is asking us to put others first, not to be envious of another’s success, but to rejoice in it. He is asking us not to base our self-worth on the number of toys in our toy-box but on how well we play with our brothers and sisters, how much we share what we have with those who have less. God asks us to turn from selfishness to generosity, from pride to humility. And God asks from us no more than he has given us to give, and he assures us that when we have given what we can with open hands and hearts, that we his children, like little Johnny, will be all right, too.+

Note 1. Based on Robert Coleman’s Written in Blood (Larson Illustrations 25)[^]

Be Opened

SJF • Proper 18b 2009 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Then looking up to heaven, Jesus sighed and said to the deaf man, Ephphatha, that is, Be opened.
Have you ever found yourself the object of someone else’s sharp accusation: You haven’t heard a word I’ve been saying! Perhaps at the end of a long day you’ve been sitting in front of the TV while your spouse has been telling you about what’s been going in their day — then there’s that sudden pause, not the pause that refreshes, but the one that alerts you to think, “Uh-oh,” followed by the magic words that bring us fully back to the present: “You haven’t heard a word I’ve been saying!”

Or perhaps you remember the experience of your school days, especially in that deadly time after lunch from one to three. I don’t know what Einstein or Stephen Hawking might say, but I think those hours had something to do with a distortion in the space-time continuum! Maybe teachers have a special gravitational force! Certainly you find yourself and your eyelids getting heavier and heavier the longer the teacher talks. You even find that your mind is getting further and further detached from your body. Then suddenly you hear the voice of the teacher say, “Miss Martin, can you answer the question?” And with an awful sinking feeling you know that not only don’t you know the answer, but you don’t know the question!

+ + +

These aren’t examples of being hard of hearing, but being hard of listening. When we find ourselves accused, “You haven’t heard a word I’ve been saying,” it isn’t quite true. We’ve heard, all right, we just haven’t listened. Unlike the man whom Jesus cured, it isn’t our ears that need to be opened, but our hearts and our minds.

Listening is more important than hearing — it is the reason we hear, the goal and end for which hearing exists. God has given us the gift of hearing so that we might listen, understand, and ultimately act to do his will. And yet how often, like a tired spouse at the end of a long day, do we allow our weariness to transform us from human beings into couch potatoes?

Is there such a thing as a pew potato? Haven’t we all known times when our Sunday morning worship, instead of filling us with energy to do God’s work, instead lulls us into a celestial snooze, contented to be in God’s presence, drifting on a spiritual cloud. Then, suddenly, something in the Gospel, some phrase in a hymn, I’d like to think maybe even a word from the preacher, pierces our hearts like a voice that says, “You haven’t heard a word I’ve been saying!” and we are called back to awareness of the importance of our call to serve the Lord our God: to be doers of the word, and not hearers only. Thanks be to God for that wake-up call when it comes, for this is one of God’s greatest gifts to us, the gift of awareness of his purposes for us, that we might become, as Saint James says in the epistle we heard this morning, “a kind of first fruits of his creatures” — that is, a result, an end, a purpose: For just as listening is the goal of hearing, the harvest is the goal of the planting. God does not plant the seed of his word in vain, but in order that it might bring in a plentiful harvest.

+ + +

Saint James describes a kind of spiritual deafness, and gives us helpful advice on how to avoid it. He begins, “Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak.” I’m reminded of an old proverb, one of my grandmother’s favorites: You were born with two ears and one mouth — so listen twice as much as you speak! And it isn’t just talking with your lips that can impede your listening: there’s body language and brain babble, too. Have you ever tried to talk to someone who was doing this? [hand on hip, looking into space, sighing] You know what it’s like. That’s mighty eloquent body language, and it tells me “I can’t hear you” just as effectively as the schoolyard version [fingers in ears, la-la-la]. The fact that you see one in the boardroom and the other in the schoolyard simply shows how universal is the tendency to not want to hear, to not want to listen.

Then there’s brain-babble. That’s what happens when you tune out the person talking to you and start listening to your own inner monologue instead — this is where we’re liable to be caught short when we lose track of the exterior conversation because we’ve been talking to ourselves on the inside, rather than listening to our brother or sister right there before us on the outside.

+ + +

Saint James mentions one more cause of spiritual deafness: “Be slow to anger,” he counsels. How hard it is to listen when we’re angry, particularly if the person we’re trying to listen to is the one we’re angry with! And what solution does Saint James offer? “Rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.”

That’s a gardener talking, you know, one who expects a good crop: Saint James is telling us to weed our hearts; to pull up anger by the roots, cultivating and tilling the soil of our souls to be pure good top-quality topsoil to receive the word of God when it comes to be planted, and able, then, to bear much fruit. Saint James counsels us to treat anger in our hearts as we would weeds in a flower-bed: out of place, and good only for pulling up and throwing out.

Then Saint James makes his final appeal: after you hear the word, don’t stop at being a hearer, but be a doer! Get into action! This is where the harvest comes in. Otherwise you’re like some silly soul who looked in a mirror and saw he’d forgotten to button his shirt or do up his fly, but as soon as he walked away from the mirror forgot what he had seen and walked out into the street half dressed.

We talked last week about being properly dressed for the service of God, dressed in the armor of God that is provided to all who believe in him. And this week we are reminded that those who hear and bear God’s word and prepare for action, but who never act, are, as the saying puts it, all dressed up with no place to go! It’s time to stop looking in the mirror and admiring how fine we look. It is time to get to work!

+ + +

As I told you a few weeks ago, the Secretary-General of the Anglican Communion has invited me to join with a group of four other theologians and leaders in reconciliation and peace-making from around the Communion, under the leadership of the Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church. Our task is to help the Anglican Communion engage in a process of listening to each other, meeting together as Christians should who care deeply about each other. Our first meeting is next week in London, and I will be traveling next weekend and so will be away from Saint James. I ask your prayers for my travel and our meeting. I will carry all of you in my heart — you who come, many of you, from different provinces of the Anglican Communion yourselves; and I will carry the other Saint James in my heart: that other Saint James, the one from whose Epistle we heard this morning, for he has much to say about listening.

I know that in all of this I have been equipped, as all of us have, with the armor of God and ears to hear. Brothers and sisters, we are all dressed up and do we have a place to go whether to London or Staten Island or Co-op City or just down the block! We have work to do, God’s work. We have a mission to accomplish, God’s mission to bring all people into unity with each other in Christ. We live in a world so full of noise that people have grown deaf to the sweet sound of God’s voice calling to them from afar, or even whispering in their ear. We live in a world so overgrown by the weeds of rank self-absorption that the seeds of God’s grace are finding fewer and fewer places to grow.

But we know that God has put the tools into our hands to go forth and help clear those weeds. He gave us the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shoes of the Gospel, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit. I’d like to see any weed stand up to that! And we know that God can use us to speak the truth in love, to speak even in a babbling, self-absorbed world, to put what we hear in church to work when we go to the world. To call for justice for the oppressed, for food for those who hunger, for freedom for the prisoners, welcome for the stranger, sustenance for the orphan and widow.

This is the message we carry to an inattentive world. We will speak clearly — but we will not have to shout or raise our voices. For with God’s implanted word in our hearts, we know how powerful it is when we simply pause for a moment, and then say to that world in God’s name, “You haven’t heard a word I’ve been saying.”+