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!

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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.

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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!+