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 Bless├Ęd, and the one who was “the Forerunner” and first proclaimer of the Lamb of God.

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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.+


Monday, October 05, 2009

Common Life

A sermon from Saint James Church Fordham

Proper 22b 2009 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
For the man there was not found a helper as his partner.+

The second chapter of the Book of Genesis presents us with a marvelous example of God’s generosity and care, and the extent to which God’s children have the responsibility to make decisions, and how God abides by those decisions once they are made.

You no doubt remember the events that lead up to the events described in our reading from Genesis today. God created Adam from the clay of the riverbank, breathing into him the divine life and spirit. And God planted the beautiful garden of Eden, and placed Adam in it, to tend it and care for it as God’s gardener. And God looked down upon this peaceful creation and instead of smiling at its goodness, frowned slightly and shook his head a little. And for the first time in the whole narrative up to that point God said that something was not good.

And what was that? Was it something God had made? No; it was something yet unfinished, something yet to be made. “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” And taking more clay, the same stuff he’d made Adam from, God set to work.

Now, this next part of the story is something many people forget, so I’m glad it was included in this morning’s reading. For what was it that God made out of that additional clay? Not another human being, but rather all of the animals of the field and the birds of the air. And God brought all of these creatures to Adam, for Adam to name, approve and accept. But Adam did not find among them a helper meet or suitable to be his partner.

Only then did God put Adam to sleep and take, not more clay this time, but some of Adam’s very own body, to make for him a helper suitable to be his partner, one like himself. And Adam recognized this kinship immediately, and rejoiced that at last here was one like him, another human being, one who could truly be called his mirror image, bone of his bones and flesh of his flesh.

The wonderful thing about this narrative is that God gave Adam such respect, and abided by Adam’s judgment as to who in all creation was to be his helper and partner, one truly like himself. God did not force Adam to be content to live alone as a solitary hermit in a garden. God did not force Adam to be happy with just the animals to keep him company. God did not take offense when Adam shook his head at all of these other creatures, and found none to be a suitable partner for him. God did not force Adam to accept them, and didn’t get offended and say, “Who do you think you are to turn down what God has provided.”

Rather God allowed Adam the freedom to choose the one who was like himself, his own flesh and blood, as a partner and a helper. God used no force in this: but allowed freedom, revealing, as our Gospel hymn said, that “force is not of God.”

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Well, you know the rest of the story. Adam and Eve lived in the garden only for a short time. One of those animals Adam had rejected as an unsuitable helper and partner perhaps didn’t take too kindly to the rejection. It was the creature God made with some of the leftover clay, the kind of animal any child knows is the easiest thing to make with a lump of clay — just as the Gary Larson cartoon shows God at his work table rolling out the snake and saying, “Gee, these things are a cinch!” Cinch it might be, but it opened up a whole can of worms! The serpent wriggled in and did his dirty work, sowing the seeds of discontent and pride, taunting with the fear of death, tempting with the promise of divinity, leading Adam and Eve to disobedience. The serpent dangled temptation before them, and they bit.

And so the caretakers got evicted from the garden. And for thousands of years human beings continued to stumble about in their ignorance and pride. Humanity lived under the fear of death, yet unable to escape it, no matter what they did, alternately sinned against and sinning, unable to find righteousness even though God tried time and time again to show them how, by giving them the Law and inspiring the preaching of the Prophets.

God would not, you see, simply force people to be good, any more than God forced Adam to accept Eve. God wanted people to be good from the inside, good from the heart, not just coated over with a whitewash of proper behavior, but deeply loving, deeply just, deeply free — and deeply responsible for the choices they made in that love, justice and freedom.

Just as God had a few false starts in creation, so too there were false starts in this re-creation. God first gave the people a law written in stone, and the people disobeyed it and rejected it. God sent the people prophets, but they ignored them or mistreated them. God gave the people kings and most of the kings turned out to be worse than the people!

But finally, in the fullness of time, God decided to do something similar to what he had done way back in Eden. God would not this time send the Law. God would not send a prophet. God would not send a king, at least not the kind of king people were used to. God would not even send an angel.

God would instead give to humankind one who was human, a human being like Adam himself, but one who was also divine, one who was God incarnate. God would choose incarnation — being made flesh — our flesh.

So as of old when God took the raw material from a human being, from Adam, this time God took from the flesh of a young woman named Mary all that was needed to make the one who was for a little while to be made a lower than the angels, one not ashamed to call men and women his sisters and brothers, for he shared the same human flesh as they — as we. “He sent him down as sending God; in flesh to us he came; as one with us he dwelt with us, and bore a human name.”

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The human name he bore is Jesus, which means Savior. The divine name he bore is Emmanuel, which means God is with us. He was and is our Saving God who is with us, who shared with us in mortality and pain, shared the weakness of human flesh, so that he might redeem and save that human flesh. He suffered death so that he might destroy death for ever, and destroy the one who, as the Letter to Hebrews says, had the power of death, the same devil who ages before had snaked his way in, to ensnare and enslave humanity by their fear of death.

Jesus, our Savior and our God, is also our brother, for he taught us to call his Father our Father. We who share in the flesh of Adam also share — through Jesus — in the Spirit of God. The old serpent can do nothing to us any longer if we do not let him. He’s done his best to do his worst, and he failed utterly when Jesus broke the power of death and was raised to life again. And we who are united with Jesus in his death, are also given the power to rise with him in his life.

We can still refuse God’s offer. God respects our freedom too much to force us to follow the path he so desires for us. And there are those who would rather listen to a serpent’s lies than to God’s own truth. There are still some so possessed by their fear of death that they have forgotten how to live. We look at a world in which we see that all things are not under human control — disease, crime, famine, and injustice still seem to rule. Some seek long life or wealth, or pleasure or fame, but rarely find lasting happiness. But we also see Jesus, the human one who suffered, the human one who died, who gave up everything and yet who through the power of God triumphed over everything, and now is exalted over all things.

We too can confront all the shallow promises of the world, promises offered in the devil’s accent, to find that none of these things will answer our deepest need. In none of these things can we find our true and final happiness whatever the snake may say to the contrary. It is only in Jesus — God from God, light from light, true God from true God, that we recognize our own truest human self — the perfect image of humanity made after God’s own image and likeness. God offers us the option, and will not force us to choose life rather than death. God invites us to find our truest life in him, and has shown us the way, but he will not force us on that path.

In this is our hope, our freedom, and our challenge. As we make our choices, let us always remember the promise of our Gospel hymn, and choose rightly:“Not to oppress, but summon all their truest life to find, in love God sent his Son to save, not to condemn mankind.”+