Sunday, December 26, 2010

Life from Life

SJF • Christmas 1 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.+

Merry Christmas! I don’t know about you, but I usually find the reading from the beginning of John’s Gospel to come as a bit of a surprise on the First Sunday after Christmas; perhaps especially when it is the day after Christmas. Instead of hearing one of the Gospel accounts from Luke or Matthew actually describing the events of the Nativity, the church assigns today this theological reflection in the form of prose poem — the prologue to the Gospel according to John the Theologian (or Saint John the Divine, as we are more accustomed to refer to him because of our cathedral here in New York!)

But this theological reflection comes at a good time and is a good reminder of something crucially important to our lives as Christians. The Nativity Gospel passages with the infant in the manger, the animals standing by, the shepherds and the angels, are the stuff of greeting cards as well as of the Gospel. But the prologue to John’s Gospel is of a different sort entirely — not the kind of thing one is likely to find depicted on a Christmas card! Although I did reproduce on the back of our bulletins today and in larger form at the back of the church, an icon of the Nativity which might make it on to a Christmas Card. In addition to showing the shepherds and the child Jesus, and Mary and Joseph and all the rest, it also includes that crucial element that relates to John’s Gospel: that beam of light coming down out of heaven and resting on the Holy Child. This is exactly why we proclaim this Gospel on the Sunday after Christmas, whether the next day or six days later, to remind us in the midst of all the rest of the Christmas imagery — the shepherds, the angels, the animals in the stable, the manger, and Mary and Joseph and the infant Jesus — this Gospel comes to remind us of who that infant Jesus is: the word of God, now in flesh appearing; the true light which was coming into the world: a light that would be rejected by some, but who, to all who would receive him, he would give the power to become themselves children of God. Like himself they would not be born to this inheritance of Godhood by blood or by the will of the flesh or the will of man, but by God and through God and for God. The life of God himself would become their life — our life.

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Scientists tell us that life is almost inevitable given the proper conditions — or as was recently discovered with a life-form based on arsenic, perhaps even improper conditions! They are probably right, but not for the reason they may think. While I am not a creationist — I have studied far too much science to imagine that the universe is only a few thousand years old, and I completely accept the fact that life on earth not only has evolved but is still evolving — as I say, while I am not a creationist, I do see the irreplaceable hand of God at work in the beginning of life, and the establishment of the conditions that could allow that life to evolve and develop and flourish. And that is true whether on the unlikely chance that this island Earth is the only place in the universe where life has sprung forth and developed; or whether there is life on countless other planets circling the billions of billions of stars in this vast universe, or any other possible universe that may exist in some other dimension. There are, we are reminded, many mansions in our Father’s house. And there is every possibility of intelligent life on other worlds — and I say “other” advisedly, since the evidence of intelligent life on this planet is not always so obvious.

I take my cue for this view that life springs from the source of all life — and had and has its beginnings in that divine origin — from that short verse in the prophecy of Isaiah that we heard this morning: “for as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up.” Life does not come from what is dead, but from the source of all life. And this is true of the life that springs forth at the beginning of this world and every world where such life came to be or comes to be, as the hand of God apportions to each and every atom its particular characteristics and valences that cause them to unite to form things capable of living — and behold, they live.

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And the same is true of us. Without the hand of God reaching out to us, we would never have come to life. Without the grace of God our life would not be worth living. We live because, as the old hymn says, “because He lives”: not only to face tomorrow, but to face today! Jesus who comes to us today, the day after Christmas, is the same Jesus who came to earth 2,000 years ago — but he is also that same Word of God who at the very beginning of the universe some 14 billion years ago set it all in motion. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.” Jesus Christ, the son of God, who came to earth at Bethlehem on that cold winter’s night, that silent night, that night the angels sang, is the same Jesus Christ who is with us today — in our fellowship and our holy Communion, and in our hearts. And because we have received him into our hearts and have believed in his name, we have, through him, become children of God, not born of the flesh but of the spirit — the spirit of God. He brought our flesh to life through the amazing complexity of universal and evolutionary growth, from the time the universe was first created and made capable of sustaining life at all; and he has brought us to spiritual life through his Son. We are only able to be born a second time, just as we were only to be able to be born the first time, because of God. And for this second birth, God has sent the Spirit of his son into our hearts to cry out, “Abba, Father.”

Without God’s touch, without God’s command, the universe would not have come to be; and when it came to be it would not — could not — have brought forth life but for God’s prevenient grace so to have ordered it as to be capable of forming the complexity and richness that life requires. And so too, we who live because he lives, would have remained an inert collection of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and a few other assorted elements — were it not for his life and his light coming to be within us and shining upon us when each of us was first born, as he was, a human child. And were it not for his having come among us as a child, we would not be capable of that second birth, that second life in him and through him, that makes us heirs of everlasting life.

He has brought us to life, for he is the life of the world. He has brought us out of darkness into light, for he is the light of the world.

And so, as we continue to celebrate this feast of Christmas — remembering that Christmas season does not begin on Thanksgiving Day, but on Christmas Day, and ends on January Sixth! — let us take these next days, take the time — which is God’s gift to us as well — to ponder the great mystery of creation and of life itself: that in this vast and almost timeless universe, we children of God are gathered here because God lives and shares his life with us — and came to us as one of us that we might live again, and become children of God, and have his life in us for ever.+


Naughty or Nice

SJF • Christmas Eve 2010 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The grace of God has appeared... training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly.+

I don’t know about you, but this short quotation from the letter of Paul to Titus sounds a little bit like the requirements to get on Santa Claus’s A-list. It sounds a bit like a checklist for avoiding coal in one’s stockings come Christmas Day, and assuring sugar-plums instead. It reminds me of a line in a hymn we won’t be singing until next spring, “There is a green hill far away,” which assures us that Jesus “died to make us good.”

And Lord knows we need to be made good — left to our own devices we are more likely to accumulate a long list of mistakes and missteps, and even misdeeds, in spite of our sometimes best efforts to be as good as we possibly can. But I assure you — and if you don’t believe me just watch the evening news — the old saying is true, “there is none perfect, no not one.”

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Once long ago there was a Christian theologian who thought otherwise, and developed the most easy-going and optimistic of heresies. His name was Pelagius. (I hasten to add, in fairness to him, that it is very likely that more is attributed to him then he actually said — but he’s been pinned with it and blamed for it and what’s done is done!) The heresy to which he gave his name — or to which his name was given — is called Pelagianism. It is the veritable Pollyanna and “Look on the SunnySide of the Street” of heresies. It is the idea that if we really work as hard as we can, by our own efforts, we can overcome all of the human tendencies to selfishness and pride and envy and lust — and all the rest of the things that get us on the naughty list — that brew in every human heart. Pelagius is the Dr. Phil of theologians, who tells the depressed “just cheer up,” the manic to calm down, the suicidal to think twice, and the addicted to “just say ‘No.’” Pelagianism is a very attractive notion, you see; that’s why it has been around for 1400 years or so; it is a kind of do-it-yourself salvation, the bargain-rate Ikea of furnishing your very own mansion in the kingdom of heaven. It’s very popular.

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Well, as many a parent will likely discover in the next few days, DIY and following the simple list of instructions for assembling a bicycle or a bookcase, or plugging in that new BluRay player and expecting it to work, or installing that new piece of software isn’t really all that easy on your own. I confess I have trouble getting the cellophane off of a DVD! And if the simply mechanical — or electronic — can be such a challenge, who would imagine that salvation could be so easily obtained without the help of a Savior!

We may want to be nice with all our hearts, but our hearts are the problem, aren’t they? For the heart can be impatient, and demanding, and fickle, and capricious; the heart can be selfish, and jealous and prideful — and envious. Watch a group of children opening their toys on Christmas Day and see if they don’t carefully take note of what the other children get — and see the wheels spinning and the little value calculators churning away behind those innocent little faces!

The simple fact is Pelagius or his interpreters had it wrong: salvation is not a do-it-yourself enterprise, not a simple matter of just trying to try harder. We need help; help — in fact the situation is worse than that — we need to be rescued; and fortunately, deep down, those of us here tonight know it.

For it is precisely to the people who sat in darkness that a great light appeared. Salvation was not a case of coals to Newcastle or ice to Eskimos, or a mere leg up to people who could have made it on their own if left alone. Salvation was a rescue from the ditch into which we had steered ourselves — the ditch into which we continually steer ourselves when we’re left alone. Salvation was liberation from the burden of slavery — slavery to each other and to our own appetites, which, left to themselves, had brought us no satisfaction but only continuing hunger for more.

Salvation was — in that powerful image from Isaiah — like the end of a war when a country is liberated from oppression. I think of that image — I’m sure you’ve seen it — a short clip of documentary film from the end of World War II when the allies liberated one of the concentration camps. It’s only a few seconds long but it tells the story that has been going on since the beginning of time. It shows one of the camp prisoners, horribly thin, painfully thin, dressed in the shabby thin striped uniform that was the only protection from the cold, being lowered onto a stretcher by soldiers’ caring hands. He is weeping with joy and clenching his hands and shaking them — shaking them in gratitude for having been saved. Have you seen it? I think of that image as I read the line from the prophet:
“For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire!” The war is over, and in the midst of a cold winter the refuse of war will be used to warm those rescued from disaster.

And how? Isaiah answers: a child has been born for us, a son given to us. Authority rests upon his shoulders, and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. That’s how. That’s what it takes to lift us from the failings from which we could never lift ourselves, never free ourselves.

Not a help line phone call to someone stationed in New Delhi, not a printed sheet of instructions in the flat box that somehow promises miraculously to become a bookcase, not the vapid encouragement of a huckster promising a quick fix, or a trainer tell us just us to try harder — but a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.

We celebrate his birth tonight, in that little town of Bethlehem; for his coming into the world changed everything — not all at once, but beginning there and then — and because of his birth then, and his birth now every moment we allow him to be born in us today and every day — in our hearts — we can indeed do all that he empowers us to do — through grace. Not because we are doing it on our own, but precisely because we are not on our own any more, not only with him in our hearts but with each other in the Church which is his Body on earth, continuing his work in accordance with his will.

So let us rejoice, my friends and kin, let us give thanks that our Helper and Redeemer has come to us to save us. He will bring about in us all that we could not do on our own. He will establish and uphold us with justice and with righteousness from this time forward and forevermore.+


Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Zinger

SJF • Proper 29c 2010• Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
For in him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

When someone tells you a story that has a surprise ending, whether humorous or shocking, pleasant or painful, that ending is called a “zinger.” Whether it’s a hilarious punch-line or slap in the face, when you get hit with it, you know that you’ve been “zinged.”

Well, the passage from Saint Paul’s Letter to the Colossians that we heard today ends with just such a surprise, just such a zinger. It starts off talking about glorious power and the joyous inheritance we await with the saints in the light — the light of God. It continues through words of deliverance and rescue, and then launches into a radiant description of the Son of God, in all his might, majesty, power and dominion. The passage builds and builds in its cosmic magnificence, one of the clearest testimonies in the whole New Testament witnessing to the divine Sonship of Jesus Christ — not merely a human being but Eternal God Incarnate — but then, suddenly, on the last five words, we are shocked to be called back to the horrors of Calvary, and the shedding of Christ’s blood on the cross.

Saint Paul no doubt intended this to be a zinger: an abrupt bit of shock and awe to remind the grateful Colossians — and us — just what their and our deliverance cost. I said a few weeks ago when I preached about Zacchaeus that we’d be returning to this reminder of Good Friday in the midst of the autumn — and sure enough here is this zinger: a reminder of Christ’s passion and death right on schedule on the last Sunday after Pentecost in the last year of this first decade of the 21st century.

And our gospel text today picks right up at the scene to which Saint Paul has brought us. It is as if Saint Paul were the usher who has guided us at first through a magnificent lobby or antechamber such as you might see in a great palace befitting the king of the universe: the stones of the polished floor and the marble columns and magnificent decorations themselves seem to sing of grandeur and majesty. And then our usher Paul guides us to the massive and gorgeous bronze doors — surely we expect an even grander sight as the doors open to reveal the king’s throne room.

Instead, comes the zinger. Instead of finding ourselves at the royal throne we expected, Paul has ushered us in to join a crowd of people standing by and watching the pitiful spectacle of a man nailed to a cross, dying the death of a criminal between two other nameless felons condemned to death. We can hear the sounds of the leaders scoffing, “He saved others; let him save himself.” We can make out the mocking sign hanging above that sacred head, sore wounded, “This is the King of the Jews” — Pilate’s exquisitely double-edged insult both to Jesus and the Jews — his cruel and pointed way of saying, “This is what happens when you mess with Rome.”

Finally, we hear the voice of the thief who comes to the defense of Jesus when the other thief derides him, and challenges him to save himself and them. And the second criminal doesn’t even ask to be saved — he just says, Remember me. And then comes one last zinger, the last word for our gospel today: “Today you will be with me in paradise.”

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So it is that today we are faced with a double zinger, the great paradox of the nature of God and the nature of humanity, united in one person in Jesus Christ the Son of God and Son of Man, the one through whom and for whom all things — and that includes us — were created and have their being, and through whom and by whom God reconciled to himself all things — and that includes us again. To put it in the perspective of Martin Luther’s two most famous hymns — we affirm that God in Christ is both our Mighty Fortress and the one whose sacred head was wounded by a crown, not of gold but of thorns. He is our Creator and our Redeemer, so we owe him a double debt.

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I want to close with an old story; it’s so old that no one knows who first told it. It happened a long, long time ago, in the days before there were big toy manufacturers, long before Toys ‘R’ Us, long before television tempted all of us to spend more than we could afford. Back in those days children were often happy enough a set of wooden blocks, or with a toy they made themselves.

One young boy worked hard at making a model sailboat, and she was a beauty. But one day when he was sailing his prize model boat in the stream that ran at the back of the family field, a sudden thunderstorm and gust of wind blew up, and blew the boat out of sight downstream. Though he looked and looked for it along the bank, he couldn’t find it and after a few weeks he accepted the fact that it was lost.

Then a month later he was in the town with his parents, helping with the weekly shopping. And across the street, he saw in the window of the local curiosity shop, a model sailboat that looked mighty familiar. He asked his father’s permission and ran, dodging the horse-drawn carriages — I told you this was a long time ago — across the road to the curiosity shop, and pressed his face against the window. Sure enough, that was his boat. He pushed open the shop door and the shopkeeper came out from the back room as the bell tinkled to announce the arrival of a customer. “That’s my boat in the window,” the boy said proudly. “Is it now?” said the shopkeeper. “And here I thought it was mine! I bought it from a gentleman who brought it in last week, and I paid good money for it.”

The boy persisted, “But Mister, it’s my boat. I made it with my father’s toolkit, and the sail came from one of my mother’s old worn out aprons. And here’s the name I painted on it — The Royal Crown. That’s the name I gave it and I christened it out in the out behind our house.”

The shopkeeper was not convinced. “Well that’s as may be, but I paid a dollar to the man who sold it to me, and just to be fair, I will do the same to you: I’ll be glad to let you have it at that same price.”

The boy’s heart sunk. In those days a dollar was a lot of money. He knew he had some pennies in his piggy bank, saved from what he made doing chores and helping out, but he didn’t think he could possibly have as much as a dollar. But he obtained the shopkeeper’s promise that he would hold the sailboat until th boy could came back to town the next week.

Oh, how he itched and squirmed on the way home that day, waiting to see how much he had in his piggy bank. When he got home, with shaking hands, he opened the stopper and poured out the pennies on the dresser — would there be enough? He kept shaking, shaking, hoping to hear the sound of another penny rattling in the piggy-bank. And then began to count slowly and carefully — 85 86 87 — he could see that he was running low — 92 93 94 — he kept on going — 99 100 — just exactly what he needed, but everything that he had!

The next week he carried the coins in an old mason jar, as he proudly pushed open the door of the curiosity shop, and put the payment on the counter, and received the sailboat from the shopkeeper. Cradling the boat carefully in his arms, he said, “You are mine twice now: I made you and I bought you.”

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So beloved, we are to Christ; he holds us in his arms; he made us and he bought us — and that’s the zinger to end all zingers. He is our creator and redeemer, he made us for himself, and when the winds of sin blew us off course and carried us far away, he sought us out and found us, and bought us with everything he had, his life itself — purchasing our salvation by the blood of his cross.

And so, we don’t belong to ourselves any more— however independent we might feel at times. No, beloved, we belong to God: we were made by God and for God, and we were sought out and bought back by him through the shedding of his blood. We are his people, not just the sheep of his pasture but the citizens of his kingdom. Come then and let us offer our thanks and praise to him who made us and saved us, our Creator and Redeemer, even Jesus Christ our Lord.+


Sunday, November 14, 2010

Family Values




SJF • Proper 28c 2010 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends...
There appears to be a contradiction between two of the Scripture readings appointed for today. The prophet Malachi says that God will send the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes, and that he will turn the hearts of children to their parents, and parents to children, so that he will not come and strike the land with a curse. But in the Gospel according to Luke, Jesus says that before the temple is destroyed, a time of testing for the disciples will take place, in which even parents, brothers, relatives and friends will betray the believers into the hands of kings and governors, and some will be put to death on account of their faithfulness to Christ. Both prophecies concern the people of one’s own household — parents and children — with Malachi prophesying what sounds like a happy meeting of minds and hearts, and Jesus speaking of betrayal and treachery. So which is it?
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Well, my friends in Christ, that is not a trick question! Nor would I pose you such a puzzle if I didn’t think there was an answer. In fact, I want to use these passages as a warning against careless Scripture reading — and taking isolated texts out of their context. In short, what I want to help you to see for yourselves, is that the texts are not contradictory — although understanding their harmony involves knowing a bit more about the scriptures, and the broader context, with greater depth. As the poet Alexander Pope wrote in the early 18th century, “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing,” and we had best, as he suggested, “drink deep” if we are truly and well to understand. He was speaking of secular knowledge — but the advice goes double for Scripture! And I hope you will not mind this sermon taking the form of a bit of Bible study, in keeping with the collect for the day, with its mandate to read, mark learn, and inwardly digest the Scripture. And I hope we don’t end up with indigestion!
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Let us begin by taking a look at these texts in their historical context. Malachi is the last book of what we call the Old Testament. On the basis of the situation Malachi describes it likely comes from the time of the reconstruction of the nation after the Babylonian captivity, the time of Ezra and Nehemiah. So when Malachi refers to Elijah, and foretells his coming — he is harking back to a figure from the time when the kingdom was divided and the kings both north and south, were, as my grandmother used to say, no better than they should be. He is harking back to a heroic figure who spoke out against corruption in high places some hundreds of years before. This would be like an American referring to George Washington or a Haitian to Toussaint L’Ouverture.
The return of the prophet Elijah was to mark a new beginning for Israel. And Malachi prophesies that Elijah will come “before the great and terrible day of the Lord.” How long before, however, remains the question. But one thing the new Elijah will do is “turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents.”
When we turn to the Gospel, we find the disciples asking Jesus when the temple will be destroyed. He tells them that the precise hour is not known, and further that they are to trust no one who tells them that they come in his name and proclaim that the time is near. He further warns them not to be terrified when they hear of wars and revolutions taking place — these are not signs of the imminent end. As he goes on to say, nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be earthquakes, and famines and plagues, and even portents and signs from heaven. But before all of that happens, Jesus promises that many among them will be arrested, persecuted, imprisoned and tried — in some cases betrayed by parents and brothers.
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Obviously Jesus is speaking before the destruction of the temple, as that is the topic of the disciples’ question. Some suggest that he is speaking generically — not of a specific destruction of the temple but of the general fact that whatever humans build will one day fall to dust. For instance, I can promise you — I prophesy! — that one day the Empire State Building will no longer stand, and I cannot tell you the day or hour of its fall; but I can tell you that some day it will not be there any more; and the same goes, might I suggest, for the Cathedral Church of St John the Divine, where we had our diocesan convention just yesterday; in fact, because it’s built directly over a major fault, I can guarantee you it is going to fall to ruin, some day. It reminds me of what the old hymn says,
Mortal pride and earthly glory,
sword and crown betray our trust;
though with care and toil we build them,
tower and temple fall to dust.
But that Jesus should be making such a general observation of the frailty of all human efforts seems unlikely to me — for Jesus surely would have clarified he meant that when his disciples asked, “When will this be.” It is much more likely that Jesus is referring to a much more violent destruction, as actually took place in the next generation. The temple was burned by the Romans in the year 70, which brought an end to its use for worship. And then the whole city was leveled in the next century, and a Roman temple, a pagan temple, was built on the site of the Jewish temple — a desolating sacrilege indeed.
Now, this historical placement of the texts still leaves us with a bit of a puzzle — and conflicting “family values” so to speak. As is so often the case, it isn’t merely the historical, but the biblical, which will set us on the path to understanding.
One of the great gifts of Anglicanism to Bible study through Archbishop Cranmer, back in the days of the Reformation, was to advocate using one portion of Scripture to help understand other parts of Scripture. That turns out to be the case, right here. It isn’t just the historical, but the biblical itself that will set us on the path to understanding. The key is the figure of Elijah himself, whom Jesus affirmed had already come in the person of John the Baptist. Luke makes this explicit in the first chapter of his Gospel, right on the first column of text, where the angel appears to Zechariah and promises him a son who will act in the spirit of Elijah, and then the angel even quotes the very passage from Malachi we read this morning. It is also worth noting that in Hebrew Malachi means “angel.” And so the angel redelivers Malachi’s message about the one who is to come in the spirit of Elijah. So from Luke’s perspective, Malachi’s prophecy has been fulfilled. Elijah has come — in the person of John the Baptist.
This allows us to establish a kind of time-line: Elijah, that is, John the Baptist, comes — and he does indeed preach a baptism of repentance, to families, parents and children, and all of the society, to reconcile and embrace a life of service and obedience and fairness. Then Jesus takes up his ministry of preaching the Gospel of love, and telling us again and again that our true family is not the family of blood and guts, but the family of the Spirit, the family of God. Then Jesus is betrayed, crucified, and most importantly, raised from the dead. And after his ascension, but before the destruction of the temple, comes the beginning of the persecutions — which Luke will go on to record in the second half of his work, the Acts of the Apostles.
It is a hard time, a time of betrayal. It is a time when families once again forget John’s teaching and Jesus’ teaching, and start to turn on each other, and eager to save themselves, or divided over what is the true faith, betray children, parents, brothers and sisters to death. The apparent contradiction in the prophecies is resolved as a sequence of how people — people as individuals or as families — will act differently under different circumstances.
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Different times and different pressures can and do make people and families act in different ways — the same people who may act virtuously with kindness and love one day may the next turn vicious — as resources grow short, as different temptations arise. The moral point in all of this is that the family itself ought not be the focus of our virtues, of our values. Yes, you heard me right — the family itself is of no absolute moral value: there are good families and bad families, families who act well, and families who act poorly. There are families who will love and protect and turn their hearts to one another, and there are those who will harden their hearts and betray each other, depending on the circumstances — and sometimes, sadly, it can be the same family! Like the temple itself, like the church itself — if a family is not doing God’s will and providing a context for doing God’s work — it is of no intrinsic, absolute value. It is what we do, and how we do it, as members of a family or of a church, that is of value.
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As that hymn I quoted earlier continues, “But God’s power, hour by hour, is my temple and my tower.” Put not your trust in earthly things, temples or towers, or people, or families — but in things heavenly. If you want your family or your church to be a place of virtue and love, set your mind on God, and God’s will — whatever the pressures of the day. Hold fast, keep hold of that anchor line to God, who is steady and firm, and a sure foundation for your faith and your life. As Paul counsels the Thessalonians, addressing them as members of God’s new family, the church: “Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.” Base all of your actions upon the love of God and the love of neighbor — including the closest neighbors: the members of your own household — and you will be expressing the family values of the family of God. And at the time of testing, because you have placed your trust in God first, and loved your neighbors as yourselves, you will be safely brought through the great ordeal, to rejoice forever in that temple not made by hands, the temple which is the Body of Christ himself; to whom we give eternal praise and glory, with the Father, through the Holy Spirit.+


Monday, November 01, 2010

Risky Business

SJF • Proper 26c• Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jesus said, “Zacchaeus, make haste and come down; for I must stay at your house today.”

While the Gospel is full of people whose lives were changed by contact with the saving power of Christ, I’ve always been attracted to the story of Zacchaeus, the tax collector from Jericho. And that’s not just because Zacchaeus is the biblical hero of short people! Rather it is because of the wonderful risk that Zacchaeus took, and the answering risk that Jesus took in response to it.

This biblical event is like one of those old medieval paintings with two panels facing each other, each of which tells half of the story, but which also reflect each other in meaning or theme.

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The first panel shows us the little tax-collector climbing a tree, getting up above the crowds so that he can see Jesus. Now, it is important to think for a moment about what prompted this little man to do this; tax collectors normally don’t climb trees! We can be sure that Zacchaeus has heard something about Jesus, maybe only the noise of the crowd, but wants to know more. The text does not tell us what exactly he has heard; perhaps he’s heard about the healing miracles, or the wise teaching Jesus has given as he has moved from town to town. Perhaps he’s heard that this Jesus has gotten on the wrong side of the Pharisees — which is the neighborhood he himself lives in and knows quite well! Or perhaps he’s heard of the experience of his colleague, the other tax-collector Levi, who invited Jesus to his home for dinner and ended up with the name Matthew. Perhaps Zacchaeus has heard about some of the stern stories Jesus has been telling about rich people and their fate — the same stories we’ve been hearing in the gospel over the last few weeks — and being a rich man himself, is perhaps becoming a bit worried about what might lay in store for him! Or perhaps all he hears is the noise of the crowd and naturally wonders what is going on to cause such a commotion.

Whatever the impulse, it is enough to inspire this little man to action. Being a short person myself, I can understand the frustration he must feel when the crowds block his view. When I was in England last week, in London, I missed most of the changing of the Guard. Not the big show at Buckingham Palace but at the Horse Guards nearby; and not on the parade ground where they troop the colors but in the inner courtyard, where are there are just two horses and 14 guards — but still only saw the two on horseback, because I was at the back of the pack! I got a better view, to be honest, of the backs of peoples hands as they took pictures with their cell phones.

So I understand what it is like. But more importantly, I can also understand the power of the call of Christ that must be at work in him to allow him to set aside any sensitivity over his height, and take a risk. This little man — rich though he is — you must understand, is not a popular man in Jericho; he is an outcast in his own town no matter how rich he is; as I noted already, he is a man considered a hopeless a sinner by the religious leaders. And no tax collector, good or bad, is ever particularly popular with those from whom the taxes are collected. It wouldn’t be too far off, if we were to do a modern version of this story, to picture Danny DeVito in the role of a local loan-shark or swindler. That is how the people of his time regard tax-collectors, who make their living not so much by the legitimate collection of taxes, but by bribes and extortion, and the hand that goes this way — you know what I mean: behind the back, under the table! Out of sight. Such people — people who make their treasure that way — treasure as well what little respect they get — remember how important respect was in the world of the Godfather! — and to risk the ridicule of climbing a tree, risking the contempt they already know from their neighbors.

What must be the power of the grace of God at work in this tax-collector that he risks making a fool of himself by climbing a tree so he can see Jesus. He knows he will look ridiculous, but he doesn’t care. He wants to see Jesus, and so he nails his pride to that tree. Perhaps he knows, somewhere in his heart, that this is the most important thing he ever does in his life; the most important thing: to see Jesus Christ.

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That’s the first panel of this picture. The second panel shows us Jesus doing something equally surprising and equally risky. He calls Zacchaeus and tells him to come down, and invites himself to the tax-collector’s house to be his guest.

Jesus flies in the face of convention in doing this, as outrageous in Jericho as he’s been elsewhere in his ministry, mingling with folks the Pharisees and scribes think are beyond the pale, the riff-raff, the low-down. But Jesus is, after all, only doing what he was sent there to do: bringing salvation to a son of Abraham dispossessed by his self-righteous brothers. Jesus flies in the face of custom and tradition, and evokes a change in a man who was thought past hope. The change in Zacchaeus, the thankful response to salvation crossing his threshold, as he turns his life around, literally turning his riches around and returning half — half — to the poor, and four times over to anyone he has wronged. He experiences true wealth, the sure and certain knowledge of God’s love and forgiveness, the Good News in all of its fullness, compared to which all the treasure he has accumulated over the years is, as Saint Paul called his learning and pedigree, so much rubbish.

But that is still to come. For now, the panel shows us Jesus calling Zacchaeus, and the tongues start to wag at once: “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.” You’d think by now the religious leaders would have gotten the message, but clearly they still haven’t got a clue. They don’t understand who Jesus is, why he is there, what he is doing, what risks he is willing to take. All they see is their own outrage: that nasty little sinner Zacchaeus, and Jesus going with him as his guest. In the panel painting you can see them heading off to dinner, while the crowd stands in a huddled group off to the side, shaking their heads and clucking their tongues.

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That’s the second panel. Now I have a surprise for you. Maybe not such a surprise if you’ve seen those medieval panel paintings. Because just as in a medieval altar piece, these panels fold open, to reveal something else. When we fold open those two panels, a third panel is revealed, that draws the themes of the first two into one. It shows us someone else taking the greatest risk of all; someone else lifted up high, someone else regarded by the crowds as a sinner, ridiculed, jeered at, mocked at. It shows us the crucified Christ. For the same Jesus Christ, accused for dining with a sinner would himself one day be lifted high upon a tree, not so that he could see us, but that he could be seen. Hanging there in the shame of the cross, he would once again be called a sinner by the leaders of the people, but be justified by God’s love for his only begotten Son when he raised him from the dead. He would reveal himself thus to the whole world for the sake of the whole world. He would open the treasury of true riches that cannot be stolen by thieves, corrupted by rust or moth, or stored up but never used for the good they could have done, if only we would use them. Jesus reveals his love in his death, not just for the sons of Abraham, but for every son and daughter of the living God, his Father in heaven, and our Father in heaven. Jesus reveals himself as the friend of sinners who seeks out the lost and will not rest until all are gathered at his feet to fall in worship and adoration, to marvel at this one man whose death brought life and immortality to many. And so the central panel shows Christ in glory upon the cross, the tree he climbed for us, not so that he could see us, but that we might see him, and be drawn to him, and be saved by him.

But for now let us close the panels — in our gospel readings, Jesus is still on the road, and Calvary lies up ahead, where we will revisit it in a few weeks, when on the last Sunday before Advent we will once again look upon the king in his glory upon the cross. Let us return to that scene in Jericho, the one on the outside of the panels, with Zacchaeus going off to dinner with Jesus, as the crowds mutter in the background.

The Gospel does not record if or how Jericho changed because of Christ’s visit to Zacchaeus’ house. Jericho may not have changed, but one of its citizens did, and we have seen the beginning of that change in the gospel. But going forward from that do you not think that from then on guests at Zacchaeus’s table were treated differently, as they treated him differently, now that he had changed from being a corrupt tax collector to one who went out of his way to pay back four-fold anyone he’d ever wronged. Regardless of how high or low, we can be sure that they were greeted with joy, and respect, treated with humility, and served with open hands. We can also be sure that Zacchaeus retold that story time and again, the story of the day he risked making a fool of himself for Christ’s sake, climbed a tree to see the king of glory as he passed, and shared his table with the one who would one day take the greatest risk of all, and share himself with the whole world upon the cross. May we too risk the embarrassment of seeking Christ and being Christians in a world that seeks its own way instead of the way of God, today and every day of our lives, risking being Christians even if people think we are foolish to be so, climbing a tree if need be, and striving to see Jesus, and welcoming him into our hearts, to the glory of God the Father, through the power of the Holy Spirit. +


Sunday, October 10, 2010

Shame on You!

SJF • Proper 23d 2010 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
“Was none found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”+

One of the first things that Paul the apostle wrote to the Corinthians was the reminder that God uses the foolish to shame the wise and the weak to shame the strong. Judging from today’s Scripture readings, we can also be sure that God uses the foreigner to shame the native-born.

We see this first in the story of Naomi and her daughters-in-law. As you may recall, a man of Bethlehem in Judah takes his wife Naomi and his two sons to live in Moab. The two sons marry Moabite women — but then all of the menfolk die, father and sons, leaving three widows: Naomi and her two Moabite daughters-in-law. Naomi decides to return to her husband’s ancestral home in Judah, and tries to dissuade the two foreign women from following her there, as their chances for marriage would be slim, especially under the rule that required a childless widow if at all possible to marry her brother-in-law or close relative. To add to that, Moabites were looked down upon in Judah as ancestral enemies, going back to the days of Balak, and that would likely stand against their marriage prospects too.

In spite of Naomi’s urging, in spite of the unlikelihood of finding a husband, and in spite of the harsh way in which a Moabite immigrant woman might expect to be treated in Judah, one of the women pledges her loyalty in that beautiful and moving passage we heard. Ruth will neither give up nor turn back. She will cling to Naomi like a vine on a trellis, pledging that even death itself will not be able to part them. What daughter-in-law has ever pledged such loyalty to a mother-in-law?

Of course, there is much more to this story. Ruth does in the end discover a distant relative of her late husband; she finds Boaz, who because of Ruth’s loyalty to him and to Naomi marries her. She bears him a son — and that son, it turns out right at the end of the story, is none other than the grandfather of King David!

Imagine how that punch-line must have sounded in the ears of proud Judeans: David’s great-grandmother was an immigrant Moabite — a foreign-born member of one of Israel’s ancestral enemies. For Moabites had once long before treated the wandering Israelites themselves as lower than dirt and wouldn’t let them so much as set a foot in Moab on their roundabout way to the promised land; and in latter days the songs of Israel would declare, “Moab is my washbasin” — and yet here it turns out that our greatest hero, David the King, David the Deliverer, is part Moabite, and wouldn’t even have been born at all had it not been for the loyalty of a woman of Moab, Ruth, in not turning back from Naomi. And perhaps a feeling of shame might rise in the heart of any Israelite who had ever mistreated a foreigner.

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The message is brought even closer to home in the gospel passage about the ten lepers, only one of whom — and a Samaritan at that — gives thanks to God for the gift and grace of healing that all then of them receive at the hands of Jesus. And if there is any doubt at all as to the point of this incident, Luke sets the stage by specifying that this incident takes place in the border-country, between Galilee and Samaria; and Jesus spells it out: “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except the foreigner?” Remember that Samaritans were hated by the Jews of Jesus’ time as much if not more than their predecessors had hated the people of Moab. Yet the Samaritan distinguishes himself as the only grateful one among the ten, foreigner that he is; Luke emphasizes the fact, yet again, by pointing out his nationality. And Jesus hammers it home to the shame of the other nine (in absentia) but also to challenge and shame the prejudices of those listeners who would have regarded all Samaritans with contempt. That goes double for the Galileans, who, as that opening phrase in the Gospel reminds us, stand in relation to Samaria as Texans do to Mexico.

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And so it is — from the time of Abraham’s wandering from his home between the rivers to live in a foreign, strange land; through the time of Moses as an exile in Egypt; to the roundabout wanderings of the children of Israel as they sought to return to the land of promise — every last one of them a non-native immigrant; to the special grace and favor shown to Ruth the faithful Moabite; to the return from exile in Babylon; to the stranger and the foreigner and the outcast, who are promised protection by the Law and the Gospel: the message is clear. If you mistreat a foreigner or an immigrant, shame on you.

Now, in this congregation I know I am speaking to many immigrants, or people closer to being the children of immigrants than David was to his great-grandmother Ruth. How many here this morning were born on other shores? How many are the first generation native-born here in the United States, or the second, or the third. And how many of you have faced the scorn of those who look down on you for your nationality or your ancestry, for your language or your race? I know that some of you have felt this, and those who have so treated you ought to be ashamed of themselves, in this nation of immigrants — a nation in which only a tiny fraction can truly claim to be people of the land, rather than the descendants of the foreign-born who arrived as colonists or immigrants.

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You know that I rarely if ever preach on political subjects. I prefer to preach the gospel and let it speak for itself, and for that gospel to speak in your own hearts as you form your own opinions about the state of things in the world. But I hope you will forgive me as I tell you that I cannot help — both as I read our Bishops’ Pastoral Letter, that is included in your bulletin this morning, and even more-so as I read those Scripture passages and am reminded of God’s great care and love for foreigners and immigrants, and of Galilee with Samaria just to its south — I cannot help thinking of that wall being built along the border between Texas and Mexico. Of course, both our bishops and I are fully aware of the real concerns and issues, to ignore which in this era of terrorism and economic crisis would be irresponsible. But a wall! I cannot help but think of the one built long ago in China to keep the Mongols out, or the one being built to divide Palestinians from Israelis, or the one of which President Reagan said, “Mr. Gorbechev, tear down this wall.”

There is something about a wall, you see, whether meant to keep people in or out. It seems to be the last resort, the confession that we just don’t know what else to do — as if we’d really tried everything else, every other way of dealing with the problems we face. As the great American poet Robert Frost once wrote, in response to the old saying, “Good fences make good neighbors”:

“Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.”

And it’s not what Robert Frost or Ronald Reagan or you or I or even the bishops of the church might say about such a construction that’s important. What is important is, what would God say about it? The United States has a very mixed history when it comes to how it has treated immigrants: and it does not take a degree in social science or American history to see how skewed and selective the flow of immigration has been, how favorable to some nationalities and races, and how difficult for others. Some of you here have no doubt faced some of those difficulties, even more stringent than the abuse my own great-grandparents faced (as far from me as Ruth from David) when they fled the Irish famine to come to a new land filled with opportunity — but also with prejudice and unfairness.

That was then, and this is now. What would God say about it now, say to this nation’s leaders, or to this nation as a whole? Or to us? “Shame on you”?

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Whatever the leaders of this land might do, whether they feel the shame or not, we at least as individuals can vow never ourselves to treat a stranger or sojourner, a foreigner or an immigrant as anything other than a fellow pilgrim in a world in which all of us are but temporary visitors and resident aliens. Our true homeland, after all, is above — at least that is our hope! But in the meantime, in our sojourn here, here in our own exile, we have the opportunity to begin to practice the gracious fellowship that welcomes all into the household of God, not as foreigners but as sisters and brothers, all of us tegether — not just one in ten, but the whole assembly — giving thanks to God, for the grace that we have known through him. We can realize our hopes for a future heaven in how we act here and now, as another great poet, William Blake, put it, to see “Jerusalem builded here...” on our own shores and see righteousness prevail through our own exercise of fairness, justice and equality. If we do this, we will, as Saint Paul said to Timothy, have no need to be ashamed.+


Sunday, October 03, 2010

Living Faith

SJF • Proper 22c •Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The righteous live by their faith.+

Although the Old Testament reading this morning ends with encouraging words, “the righteous live by their faith,” the lead-up is far from comforting. Who can hear this passage about terrible destruction and warfare and not feel that the prophet is talking about our own times rather than the ancient years gone by. The sorrow and terror is kept alive by the continuous wars and rumors of wars in the Middle East, in Afghanistan and even the actual land of the Chaldeans the prophet refers to — Iraq. Even into the most innocent-seeming things in our lives — baseball!

Did any of you see Ken Burns’ documentary this past week, the last episode of his documentary history of baseball, aired just this past week? Even there we were treated to images of the fall of the towers on 9/11. And seeing those images again, and hearing word of past and present destruction, the falling towers, the burning, the warfare, the continuous threats of further terror — why, I just heard this morning there’s a travel advisory on for Europe — I felt like the prophet, when he lamented to God — or at least would like to speak out to Ken Burns! — “Why do you make me see wrong-doing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise… Be astonished! Be astounded! For a work is being done in your days that you would not believe if you were told.”

How many of us, on those dark days nine years ago, felt such feeling of disbelief as we watched the TV news coverage, thinking, “this simply can’t be happening; this can’t be real”? I felt like it again this past week, watching the baseball special — seeing those towers fall once again. And how many times since, watching the evening news, do we shake our heads, astonished and astounded at the horror, that such behavior can be carried out, much of it in the name of religion.

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The prophet complained to God, much as we are tempted to do, Why is this happening, Lord? “How long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save?” Why do you look on the treacherous and are silent when the wicked swallow those more righteous than they?” How many of us have said or thought such things ourselves over the last years? How many times have we wanted to plant ourselves on the rampart, and demand an answer from God.

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And yet God is not silent. God does give us an answer, as he gave an answer to the prophet Habakkuk, the same answer now as it was then. It is an answer for the ages. It is an answer so important that God tells Habakkuk to write it in letters so big that even someone running by will be able to read it, we might say, to post it like a giant billboard by the superhighway so that no matter how fast the traffic goes by the message will not be missed. And the message is this: Justice will prevail. The unrighteous proud will fall; but justice will prevail. “If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay… The righteous live by their faith.”

That is God’s everlasting promise, the promise of the power of faith over evil, of right over wrong. Faith will triumph in the end; although it may be delayed, it will not be denied. Faith is life abundant, and nothing can ever conquer it. Faith is what we live by, the source of our trust in the God who is our life. Faith endures.

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So what does it mean to say we live by our faith? Doesn’t it mean that our faith is an actual source of our life, something that keeps us alive, because it is alive?

To look at the other side, I am reminded of a short scene in Shakespeare’s comedy, Twelfth Night, in which Viola asks the joker Feste what he does for a living. He says, “I live by the church.” She responds, “You are a churchman, then” — meaning a minister. He answers, “No, I do live in my house, and my house is by the church, and so I do live by the church.” That is not what the prophet means when he says we live by faith: faith isn’t just something convenient in your neighborhood, something you can pick up or put down as you please. No, faith is not just near you, it is in you, inside you, the source of your life, something without which you would be dead.

And because faith is living, because it is alive, faith can be passed on.

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The Saturday after the 9/11 attack I baptized a child right here in this church, right there in that font — though it was over there at the time! That child is still here, still coming to church week by week, coming to this altar rail week by week to be fed with the bread of heaven. And that simple action then and that continued action now says to me the same thing: even in the midst of tragedy and wrong, the tragedy of almost a decade ago and the tragedies that have happened since, life goes on: the life that is nourished and fed by faith. The life of faith goes on, the new life in Christ that begins in baptism goes on in the Holy Communion, and can never ever be taken away from us. Faith is alive! Write it in letters a mile high, my sisters and brothers: faith is alive and we live by it and through it.

It lives in us, and what is more, we pass it along to those who come after us, who make up the church make up the living body of Christ on earth, the blessed company of all faith-full people. And neither the Chaldeans nor the terrorists can stop it, no matter how much they try.

The life of faith goes on, passed from hand to hand like the sandbags that hold back the flood of evil from swamping the world. Faith lives, and is transmitted by the faithful. Paul reminded his own young disciple Timothy of this, reminding him about how his faith first lived in his grandmother who passed it along through his mother and on to him. And Paul recalled Timothy to that faith, as we today are recalled to our faith in the face of much opposition: called to rekindle the gift of God that is within us through Baptism with water and the Holy Spirit, “for God” as Paul told Timothy, “did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.”

This is the miracle of faith and this is the power of faith. Faith lives, and is passed on generation to generation, even as the older generation passes away. Faith lives and is passed on from person to person, as the church takes on new members and grows in strength and power, fed with the bread of heaven and nourished with God’s abiding presence.

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Now it is true that sometimes we may not feel as strong in our faith as we would like to be. We are challenged, the world faces us with sinister evils sometimes. We look around, as Habakkuk did, and tremble and maybe even doubt. How many people lose their faith amidst the storms, and cast about seeking a savior other than the One Lord? How many turn to the cheap substitutes that seem to offer the ready answer rather than the living faith that endures and in which alone salvation is found? How many refuse the faith when faith is all that can truly give them life?

One such doubtful man once fell off a cliff, but happened to catch a tree limb as he fell. He hung there a while, yelling out, “Is anyone up there?” A voice came back, “I am here. I am the Lord. Do you have faith in me?” The man called back, “Yes, Lord, I have faith, but I can’t hang on much longer.” And the Lord replied, “All will be well; if you have faith you have nothing to fear. Just let go of the branch.” The man paused, then called out again, “Anybody else up there?"

It is no good calling for other help when faith in God alone will save us. We live by faith, and not by sight — faith that God is up there on the cliff as we hang from the branch, even though we cannot see him; faith that God is below us to catch us as we fall, even though we cannot see him; that God surrounds us — above, below, to our left and to our right — and will never let us go. Other helpers have we none: we depend on God alone, our faith in him is our life in this present time and is our life beyond death, beyond the grave, into the world to come. The righteous live by their faith.

And it doesn’t take a whole lot of faith, you know. Just that little bit the size of a mustard seed. For that little seed gets planted and gets watered in baptism. And when I sprinkle the congregation with water from that baptismal font four times a year on the festival days, and I preach God’s word week by week, I hope to water your faith — and mine too — so that it may flourish and grow and become so large that the birds can nest in its branches.

For we bear the word of God in our hearts, and we hear the word of God each week, not just to divert ourselves from our daily lives during the week, but to give those daily lives the faith-full meaning they would never have without that weekly reminder. Faith is what we live by. Even if it is as small as a mustard seed, the power of God’s Word and Sacraments will help us to grow, reminding us all of our own part in Christ’s church, as we too pass that faith along to others. By that faith we will do the great deeds that are required of us all in these violent days. Such is the power of faith, and such is the power of our Lord and God. He will not stand idle, nor remain silent. If he seems to tarry, wait for him; he will surely come, he will not delay. He will increase our faith within us, and give us the assurance of his justice and his power to save.

So let us, as God said to Habakkuk, write our assurance large, let us write our faith in letters big enough for runners to read them, big enough for the people caught up in the rat-race of this world to pause and be recalled to the truth and life and light of salvation. Let us shout from the ramparts so that all can hear. Above all, let us each and every one wear our faith in our faces, our faith shining with trust in our salvation, so that when we go forth from this place, we may be lights those who dwell in the dark places of fear and violence, to bring the hope and power of faith to those who need to know the greatness of our Lord and God. To him be ascribed all might, majesty, power and dominion, henceforth and for ever more.


Sunday, September 26, 2010

You Can Go to Hell

SJF • Proper 21c • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.+

When I was a child, one of the major features of Sunday afternoon, after coming home from church, was the Sunday newspaper, most especially the funny pages. I remember one of the features vividly: not a comic strip but a single large cartoon panel. And what it showed week by week was a satirical view of what life was like down in Hell. It took the approach of the Lord High Executioner from Gilbert & Sullivan’s Mikado: “Let the punishment fit the crime.” One of these cartoons stuck in my mind. This was the panel that showed what happened to people who smoked too many cigarettes. In Hell they were locked into stocks like those from a Puritan New England village. And with heads sticking out through the hole, they were forced to smoke old mattresses rolled up like giant cigars, one after another for all eternity.

This cartoon series was part of a venerable tradition, going back to the ancient Greeks. Many a Greek myth portrayed the sufferings inflicted upon people in the afterlife for their sins in this life: Sisyphus was cursed to push a boulder up a hill only to have it always roll to the bottom again just as he got it almost to the top; Tantalus was doomed to unending hunger and thirst, chained in a pond which would drain away when he tried to bend down to take a drink; and unable to reach the branches rich with fruit, just above his head.

Much later, the great Italian poet Dante populated his Inferno with all sorts of sinners. And these too suffered fates in keeping with their crimes: the lustful burning in unquenchable flames, the misers buried up to their chins in garbage, and the worst of all (in Dante’s mind) the traitors, literally being chewed on for all eternity by the greatest traitor of all, the treacherous fallen angel Satan himself.

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I’m sure that all of us have been tempted, in light of the horrors we hear in the news, to picture visions of Hell, populated with any number of contemporary villains, suffering all sorts of fates reflective of their crimes. It gives a certain satisfaction to know that even if villains get away with their crimes in the here and now, there is a terrible punishment waiting for them in the there and then. The human imagination of such justice has endured for thousands of years, from the Greeks, through Dante, and even in the funny papers.

So when we heard our gospel today, we were on familiar ground — or rather under it. Jesus describes this unnamed rich man suffering torments not unlike those of Tantalus, surrounded by flames, and in an agony of thirst. And we’d be tempted to think that the rich man must have been a great villain, to warrant this punishment.

After all, Sisyphus the perpetual rock pusher was a master swindler who (according to the myth) even tricked the grim reaper and locked him in a cupboard for a while. And forever-thirsty Tantalus was worse — he was punished with unending hunger and thirst because he murdered his own son and, to test the wisdom of the gods, invited them to supper and served them his son’s body cooked in a stew, to see if they could tell and avoid eating the cursed dish. So too with the traitors chewed upon by Satan in Dante’s vision of the Pit of Hell: Brutus and Cassius betrayed Julius Caesar, and getting the worst of all, Judas who betrayed Christ, the epitomes of treason and treachery.

So it is natural to think that the rich man in our parable must have been very wicked to end in Hell. However, Jesus has prevented us from taking that view before hand. He’s already told us about this rich man. We are not told that he is a great villain, a murderer, a terrorist, a traitor. What was his crime? What did he do to warrant such a terrible punishment? Why did he go to Hell?

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Jesus offers us only bits of evidence concerning his life: he is rich, he dresses in purple and fine linen, and he feasts sumptuously every day. He is a rich man who enjoys his riches. So why should he be doomed to an eternity of torment?

We find an answer to this question by looking at that passage from the book of the prophet Amos. Here too we find the easy rich at ease in Zion, and those who feel secure further north on Mount Samaria. They lie on beds of inlaid ivory, they eat the best cuts of meat, drink fine wine, are anointed with oil and spend their time fiddling on musical instruments. This is what they do; but that’s not what gets them into trouble. It is what they don’t do that is the problem. What they don’t do is grieve over the coming destruction of Israel.

The sin of these people isn’t that they enjoy their riches, but that they ignore the fact that their country is going to Hell in a handbasket, and them with it. Their doom lies not in the fact that they live in comfort and spend their time making music, but that they live in comfort even while the doom is advancing, ignoring the prophets, plucking their harp-strings and singing their tunes when what God calls for, as Amos has told them, is for justice to roll down like waters, and righteousness as a flowing stream.

And this helps us to see the sin of the rich man in our Gospel. It isn’t that he is rich, or that he enjoys his riches. His sin lies in the fact that while he is enjoying his riches there is a poor man lying at his gate, about whom he does nothing. The sin of this rich man is that he ignores what is going on right on his doorstep, ignores the poverty and pain that he has every opportunity and means to alleviate — but instead keeps his wealth for himself and his dinner guests. The rich man’s sin is the sin of omission: it lies in what he doesn’t do.

And amazingly he keeps on not doing it! Even in Hell, even wrapped in flames and parched with thirst, the formerly rich man still doesn’t get it. He has the nerve to ask Abraham to send Lazarus, of all people, to dip his finger in cool water to bring him comfort. Ah…now finally he’s noticed Lazarus, he’s finally noticed the poor man, the poor man who lay at his doorway all those years. Now at last he sees the person he stepped over to get through his gate, he sees the “invisible man” whom he treated like “Mr. Cellophane” all those years. Finally he’s taken notice and what does he want? He wants Lazarus to wait on him! As greatas the chasm between heaven and hell, between Abraham’s bosom and Hades — surely there is also a great chasm in this rich man’s understanding!

When Abraham finally explains it all to him the rich man finally seems to grasp his situation, and calls out for a warning to be sent to his brothers who are still living — perhaps the first thoughtful thing he’s ever done, although now too late. If only Lazarus might be sent to warn them! But he receives the chilling answer that an adequate warning has already been given. The Law and the prophets have already laid out the whole duty of humankind: to love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself, to pursue justice and righteousness, as Saint Paul told Timothy, to do good, and to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share. There is no secret password to salvation, no complicated hidden riddle to solve — and unlike that old joke about Saint Peter making it hard on some people getting into heaven, no one is expected to spell chrysanthemum! No, my friends, what God asks has been laid out for all to see, given in the law, reinforced by the prophets, and summarized by Jesus Christ himself: to love God with your whole self, and to love your neighbor as yourself. And you are unwilling to hear that warning, even a warning from one risen from the dead will do no good. You can go to Hell, if you want to.

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These are hard words; this is a hard lesson; but it is also an additional warning to us. God has told us clearly how to go to Hell if we want to, how we can pave the way to eternal death with every missed opportunity to help our sisters and brothers. Every week, we confess our sins, we acknowledge that we have not always heeded God’s warning to us. We acknowledge that we have sinned against God not only by what we have done, but by what we have left undone. We explicitly confess that we have not loved God with our whole heart, and that we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We say those words, every week. Do we mean them? We have this weekly reminder before us, this weekly summary of the law and the prophets, this weekly confession of what we have failed to do.

And further, if we don’t want to go to Hell, God has provided us with the ultimate warning, a warning from the one who was in fact raised from the dead. He, the Risen One, has told us what to do, and we ignore his warning and omit our duty at our peril and to our loss. Hear, O my people, the Lord our God is One Lord, and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and your neighbor as yourself. Let those who have ears to hear, hear.+


Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Who Is Your Master

SJF • Proper 20 2010 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.+

In this morning’s reading from the Old Testament, the prophet Amos describes a stampede of greedy merchants who are ready to trample on the needy. So eager are they to sell their wares that they can hardly wait for the new moon to be over or the Sabbath to end, so that they can offer their goods for sale. And even once they begin to sell, they cheat — with false measures and false weights, and doctoring their grain with the sweepings off the floor.

This short passage evokes many memories for me. The first, brought to mind by the verse about the sweepings of the wheat, is of my grandmother’s refusal ever to buy tea in tea-bags — she would only buy loose tea — because she insisted that the people who made tea-bags only used the sweepings off the floor instead of good quality tea. I can vividly recall her shaking her head and clucking her tongue at this minor villainy by the tea-merchants of the world. So it was always loose tea in her home! The irony is that she really didn’t drink that much tea, and far preferred coffee. And the further irony is that the brand of coffee she preferred was actually a mix of coffee and chicory — which itself was originally a root roasted by those who couldn’t afford coffee, and later as a cheap way to stretch your coffee budget! My grandmother, it seems, rejected one economical adulteration only to embrace another.

Second, and more importantly, I have lived in New York long enough to remember the day when stores decided to remain open on Sunday; under the Blue Laws dating back to colonial times — and I don’t go back quite that far! — the merchants were not allowed to trade on the sabbath; fancy that! It was in the early 70s that one of the big department stores — I think it was Macy’s — until then like all stores except pharmacies closed on Sunday, announced that they would be open for half a day on Sunday. The other department stores expressed indignation — but they quickly followed suit — and shirt, and tie, and a second pair of pants! In very short order all of the stores were open on Sunday; and not just for half a day, either. And now, 40 years later, you will even find liquor stores open on Sunday — the last of the old Blue Laws has faded like a pair of old jeans, colorless and threadbare, and torn at the knees — and I can guarantee you not from praying.

The third memory I have is not of merchants but of customers — not sellers but buyers. And here it turns really serious: a matter of life and death. It is the image of that crowd of over-eager shoppers who trampled someone to death a few years ago when a big Costco or Wal-Mart opened its doors for a sale — in this case it wasn’t the merchants who were in a stampede, but the customers trampling on each other — you would have thought they were refugees in flood-ravaged Pakistan fighting over a bag of rice, to see those people desperate to get the latest sale item off those well-stocked shelves in the big box store.

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Now, what do all of these — from the prophet’s curse on wicked merchants, through my grandmother’s rather milder distaste for the cheapness of the tea-companies, to the impatient sabbath-breaking retailers, and the mad rush of customers trampled and trampling in that big box store— have in common? The key is our gospel text, which speaks to the impossibility of trying to serve two masters, and that pointed aphorism, “You cannot serve God and wealth.”

The way I pose the question today is, Who is your master? By “master” I don’t man a literal slave-owner — though some of the forces at work in this fallen world can practically enslave us if we let them. What I’m getting at is, “Who or What controls your life?” What person or institution or entity do you find yourself spending your time serving? “Whom do you serve?” Let’s look at the examples I cited earlier.

Starting with the Scripture: the wicked merchants cursed by Amos are only interested in serving themselves. They care nothing for the poor, from whom they will squeeze the last penny they can get, and sell them adulterated goods at that. They worship at the shrine of the false god wealth, or to use the old Aramaic name, Mammon. Surely, the true God, holy and righteous, will never forget their deeds, as Amos says, nor forget whom they chose to serve instead of God.

And my grandmother, God bless her, whom did she serve with her somewhat unreasonable belief that tea in bags was necessarily inferior to tea in a tin, or that coffee dosed with chicory was better than coffee pure and simple. Was she a slave to these mistaken notions, these fears of being cheated, and by paying a premium price both for tea and supposedly “fancy” French coffee (which was really part coffee and part chicory, and went back to the days of the Franco-Prussian war when the French couldn’t get coffee imports and so roasted the roots of chicory plants instead) in the long run wasn’t she only serving the tea and coffee companies?

And those department stores that first dared to break the Sabbath — of course they might have said they were merely serving their customers; of which they certainly had plenty! But weren’t they in fact serving themselves, by creating more opportunities to reach into the pockets of those customers? Remember, the classic pitch of the con-artist or the scammer isn’t, “I can help you” but rather “You can help me. I need your help.” As indeed you can, if you fall for the scam-artist who tells you she is a poor widow stuck with millions of dollars from her late husband in Ivory Coast and needs your help to transfer the funds!

And what of those who trample each other to death in that mad rush in the big-box store? Who were they serving but the merchants, almost literally human sacrifices to the great god Discount, the golden calf of the cut-rate special — and that cost-cutting yellow Smiley Face begins to look more and more like a leering skull smiling down on the chaos and rampage below?

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“Whom do you serve?” You cannot serve both God and money, God and wealth, Jesus assures us, as a simple statement of fact. A life fixed on bargains, a life spent worrying and being anxious about the things that are passing away, as the collect says: attaching your heart to the things that are passing away; a life spent worrying, “am I being cheated,” even worse a life spent cheating in order to amass gain at the expense of others, or being so cheated, or so set on capturing the last toy on the shelf or the biggest flat-screen TV that you don’t care that you crush another person to death under your feet — what kind of life is that? Whom do you serve? Who is your master?

Ask yourself that question every day of your life, every step of your journey. Whom do you serve, who is your master? Whom do you serve with all your heart and mind and soul and strength? Into whose hands do you want to commit your life, your future, and your hopes? To whom do you owe your very life, your soul, your being, and your strength? Such a one is worthy of your service, and will, at the end of days welcome you, you who have been faithful, even in little things, into the eternal homes.+


Monday, September 06, 2010

Beyond the Call of Duty

SJF • Proper 18c 2010 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love.+

Some years ago, a mother sought to teach her daughter about stewardship. Before the worship began, she gave her daughter a dollar bill and a quarter, and told her, “It is up to you which of these you put into the offering plate.” All through the sermon, the mother watched her child considering the possibilities seriously; holding the dollar in one hand and the quarter in the other, looking back and forth between the bill and the coin and furrowing her tiny brow in concentration. Finally, when the collection began and the ushers passed the plate into the aisle, the child nodded to herself vigorously. Then with great deliberation she placed the quarter in the offering plate, and sat back with a contented smile. After the worship ended, the mother asked, “Why did you decide to put in the quarter instead of the dollar?” Her daughter responded, “Well, I was going to put in the dollar; but then the priest said, ‘God loves a cheerful giver,’ and I thought I’d be more cheerful if I kept the dollar.”

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Much Christian stewardship, and many Christian stewards, take this subjective view about giving to the church: how does giving make me feel? This is the “If it feels good, do it” school of Christian giving. Problem is that while some people may feel a glow of discipleship when they give generously to the church, too many others — like the child in the story — feel instead a glow of satisfaction at having held on to as much as they possibly can.

Our gospel this morning presents us with another view of stewardship, a view based not on feelings but practicalities: the examples of considering how much it costs to build a tower or to wage a war. This is the “Balance the Budget” school of Christian giving. It does have one particular advantages over the “Feel Good” theory. It is more engaged with the reality of what it costs to maintain a church. But it has a down-side too, in that giving to the church can be commercialized. Just as with the feel-good giver, this view is focused not on God or the church, but back on the giver, as it appears to say, “Yes, I support the church, for what I get out of it.”

In the nineteenth century when this church was built congregations often raised their funds through a true “Balance the Budget” technique. The annual cost of running the church was figured out, divided up, and if you wanted to be a member of this church, you paid a fee based on your share of that divided total cost. And this fee was in a very practical form of pew rental — you couldn’t just sit anywhere you wanted in the church, as we do today. If you came to Saint James Church in the nineteenth century, you sat in the pew you had bought with your annual pew fee, the pew your family rented — that’s why they have those little brass tags at the end of each pew, with a number, and a few of them still with the names of the families. And in those days the church-wardens were the ushers and “warden” carried as strong a sense it does in a prison. If you hadn’t paid your pew rent the wardens would know it; and you would be shown to the back of the church to stand until after the sermon, at which point you would be ushered up here to the seats on the side, where pews used to be before our remodeling; that was the “Peanut Gallery.”

Eventually people realized that this commercial approach wasn’t really Christian stewardship. It was more like the behavior of the Pharisees, who took the best seats in the synagogue. And there was also a growing sense that if people began to think of giving to the church simply as exchange for what they got, a kind of “give and get,” they would come to see the church as if it were just another shop on the street where you paid your money and took your choice, as if the church were a kind of vending machine that dispensed spiritual satisfaction to those who put their money in the slot. Such an attitude transformed believers into customers.

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Ultimately both of these views of stewardship run aground on the astounding statement with which today’s gospel passage ended: Jesus said, “None of you can become my disciples if you do not give up all your possessions.” How shallow both “feel good” and the “balance the budget” look in contrast to that astounding claim that Jesus makes upon us! While some of us here in this church devote a significant portion of our income to the church — the ten percent of the biblical tithe, yet how shallow even the most generous giver must feel in light of that astounding charge from Jesus: “None of you can become my disciples if you do not give up all your possessions.” What is five or ten percent compared to all! Even after we do our part with what we give, most of us are left with ninety or ninety-five percent — or more! So what could Jesus mean by this astounding, ultimate demand?

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We will find our answer to this hard question in the second reading we heard today — one of the longest Scripture readings we have in our worship — almost an entire book of the Bible in a single reading: all but the last four verses of Paul’s letter to Philemon.

This letter tells a deeply personal story of how important this young man Onesimus had become to the elderly Paul as he suffered in prison. And it also shows Paul trusts that when this runaway slave returns to his master with this letter in hand, he will not suffer the penalty imposed on runaways. No, Paul trusts that Philemon will welcome Onesimus back no longer as a slave, but as a brother in Christ; for the slave has become a Christian while with Paul, perhaps even a deacon — as Paul’s words suggest when he describes how Onesimus has served him. Now it is also clear from this letter that Onesimus had not been a very good slave — in addition to having run away, he had been, as Paul says, “useless” — making a bit of a joke out Onesimus’ name, which in Greek means Useful. Upon his return, he will live up to his name and be “useful” indeed as a brother in Christ; he will be more than a slave, not less. Paul assures Philemon that he is not demanding this: he wants Philemon to do a voluntary good deed, not something forced — even though Paul reminds him that he owes him more than he can possibly account for, in that wonderful flourish at the end, “I say nothing about your owing me even your own self” — echoing the teaching of Jesus.

You see, what Paul is saying is that Philemon can have his cake and eat it too! He can have the free service of a good and useful brother in place of the half-hearted work of a useless slave, by giving up the control of being a slave-master over him, in exchange for the cooperation of working with him as a brother in Christ.

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And it is that “giving up” that connects us back with that hard saying of Jesus: “none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all of your possessions.” We don’t just owe God our possessions, after all, but, as Philemon owed Paul, our very selves! Yet Jesus does not say, I’mtaking your life — he wants us to live our lives in service to him, not throw our lives away. So too he doesn’t ask us to “give away” all of our possessions, but to “give them up.” And the difference is suggestive: this is about surrender, not commerce. He wants us to “give up” to him, to “surrender all” to him! It is about our learning how to loosen our grip on what we have, treating it not as something controlled by us, but as ultimately coming to us as a gift from God — as indeed our very lives come as a gift from God’s endless generosity, and he wants us to give them up to him as well. We are called to treat what we have been given, what we have been blessed to possess, with the same kind of liberty with which Paul counseled Philemon to treat his former slave Onesimus, and to do so voluntarily, not under compulsion or solely as doing our duty, but as going truly beyond the call of duty into the realm of the freedom of the children of God — where there are no more slaves, but we are free — free because we have given up, we have surrendered all to God.

We are not called simply to balance the books and pay our share so that we get what we pay for and what we think we deserve. Friends, I can assure you that if we all got what we deserved we would be neither cheerful nor proud!

But when we treat all we have been given — including our very selves — not as “ours” to control any more but as the free gift of a generous God, then we too can find ourselves going beyond the mere call of duty to maintain the church, to the mission of spreading God’s kingdom, the kingdom of freedom, in which all are God’s children.

Yes, it is our duty to maintain our little corner of the God’s kingdom here on Jerome and 190th Street, to do what it takes to financially support this building But we are called to do so much more; we are called to be God’s servants, not slaves working only because they have to, but children of God who work so hard because they love their Father in heaven, and love their brothers and sisters so very much, knowing that everything comes from him as well.

If this spirit of generosity and freedom can fill us all who knows what might happen? Let me tell you one thing. Onesimus the runaway slave remained a Christian. He became so useful in the church that decades later he shows up again in Christian history — as the bishop of the church of Ephesus! Who would have thought that a useless runaway slave could become such a useful servant of God?

When we give up and surrender all to God, who knows what he might make of us? When we go beyond our own contentment and merely feeling good about ourselves; when we go beyond just the call of duty to balance the budget; God will surprise us with his amazing grace, doing infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. To God be the glory, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.+


Sunday, August 22, 2010

Dorothy's God

SJF • Proper 16c 2010 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Our God is a consuming fire…+

If we were to imagine our Scripture readings today as items on a supermarket shelf, and then to take a look at the list of ingredients, we would find: sheer terror, sweeping hail, sprinkled blood, consuming fire, strange deeds, alien works, weeping and gnashing of teeth. I don’t know about you, but when I read a label like that I place the box back on the shelf, and look for one with fewer calories and less fat.

Today’s readings confront us with a God who is completely unlike us— whether thundering like a volcano on Mount Sinai, or in a technicolor spectacle with a cast of thousands on Mount Zion. So we find ourselves, you and I and every human being since Adam and Eve, gently returning this God to the shelf, and going off in search of the diet section. This God is just too rich and heavy; we’d rather just have an apple.

History ever since that apple in the garden is full of lo-cal religion, and the Letter to Hebrews cites another example. We’ll hear the full account itself in a few weeks, but I’m sure you remember it. The children of Israel, have been brought out of Egypt with mighty works, assembled by God in a holy place where they might be changed into a new people. They behold God’s majesty from afar, and God does them the great service of hand-carving his word in stone with letters of fire, entrusting it to Moses, who brings it to the people in a physical, visible form that can be seen and touched — for God deeply desires to be in Covenant with them. But Moses finds — what? — that the people have already lost their faith that God can deliver the goods. They turn from the living God to the works of their own hands, where they think they can take charge, in a faithless exercise of their own selfish self-determination. They want more control. They are happier with a manufactured god, a golden calf who won’t do much of anything for them— but who will ask nothing of them.

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Manufactured gods can take many forms. Politics has always played its part: from the time Isaiah refers too, when the rulers in Jerusalem vainly promised safety because they’d done a deal with death, through all the schemes that politicians have produced ever since: from the Divine Right of Kings to the Dictatorship of the Proletariat; big government or small government; Tory or Whig; Democrat or Republican; Tea-Party Independent or Party Loyalist.

The truth of the matter is, that behind all of these tin-plate gods, and all our more personal household gods, there lurks the fearsome knowledge, deep-down, that these substitutes can’t really replace the noisy, alien God on the mountaintop. Deep down we know that golden calves are powerless. But we put up with their powerlessness, and even in the long run try to whittle God down to size, to seek to treat God like one of these powerless Gods: to put God in a box. So we nurse the hope that as we approach the fearsome mountain we will discover that God will turn out, after all, to be a nice old man hiding behind a curtain off to the side. What we all want in the short run is a God like Dorothy’s Wizard of Oz.

We know that the special effects are our human substitutes for God, they are only special effects; they don’t really do anything; they don’t really change anything. But then, we don’t really want to be changed, do we? We just want what we want. We maybe don’t mind some external alterations, but we don’t want to be changed, transformed deep down where we need it most, right in our hearts. So we go for the superficial answers of artificial gods, of a carnival huckster turned “wizard.”

And the nice old wizard — the phoney religion — appears to deliver at first. Everyone seems to get what they want: a brain, a heart, courage, even a trip home. The short-run god appears to deliver.

But what happens in the long run? We know the disappointing answer. Artificial gods cannot save. The crash diet doesn’t work. The government, big or small, centralized or federalized, communist or capitalist, can’t solve the problems of the world, far less satisfy the inner needs of the human heart — where all of the world’s problems have their start. Artificial gods can’t provide us with what we need in the long run— just as artificial food can’t nourish us.

Artificial gods can only provide artificial blessings: love as mechanical as the Tin Man’s clockwork heart; courage as cheap as the Cowardly Lion’s plated medal; wisdom as thin as the Scarecrow’s diploma; and a home that there’s no place like, because there never was such a place.

The short-run solutions of artificial gods don’t last. What happened after Oz? Did the Tin Man go through a mid-life crisis and succumb to metal fatigue; did the Lion with his new-found courage perish in a fatal bungee-jumping mishap; perhaps the Scare-crow had a nervous breakdown? And Dorothy— or rather, let’s call her by her adopted name, Judy Garland; because even that wasn’t her real name, which was Frances Gumm — we know what happened to her: “home” for her became a sanitarium; and the false gods of drugs and alcohol got her in the end. The short-run, make-do, lo-cal, no-fat, man-made gods don’t work.

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So then, are we left with no other choice than the mighty fortress God, the One of Sinai and Zion? Yes, I’m afraid that’s it, my friends; for salvation lies on the mountain — for only there is the sure foundation that offers opportunity for change, the kind of change that means life: deep down change — right here — where change needs to begin. It is in God’s nature to shake things up— God is not safe, as C. S. Lewis said — God shakes us up, God shakes the world up, not to destroy it, but to set it, and us, right. God is like the cosmic Dad who fixes the TV by giving it a miraculous bang on the side. God is like the cosmic Mom who cleans the throw rug by briskly shaking it out the back window. God is the cosmic Lover who grabs hysterical humanity by the shoulders and gives it a shake — and brings it to its senses.

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But there is even more to this mystery. There is more than the fire and the flame, the lightning and the thunder. It turns out that God is behind the curtain after all. Not the deceptive and concealing curtain behind which the Wizard of Oz hid, but the curtain of the temple, torn open from top to bottom, revealing our God to be — not a carnival humbug with ready explanations and inadequate answers — but a naked, wounded, suffering figure nailed to a cross, forgiving those who nailed him to it: one who shakes us up in the depth of our being and changes us through and through, through the power of his loving, transforming, sacrificial forgiveness. What can be more upsetting than for someone whom you have hurt to say, “I forgive you”? That is what changes us, deep down.

Behind and within the earthshaking mystery, behind and within the utterly different, we discover someone who is utterly the same. We meet someone who ate at people’s tables, who taught in their streets — this same Jesus, of one being with the God who thundered on Sinai’s height, who was praised and will be praised on the hill of Zion, and who finally appeared in the scandalous and transforming power of his saving and forgiving death on that third hill, Calvary.

What is more, Jesus comes among us still — do you know that? — and deigns to be our guest. He eats at our tables— do we pay attention to his dinner conversation? He teaches in our streets — but are we too busy to take notice of what he says? His brothers and sisters are all around us, and as we do to them, we do to him. Do we reject the God who comes to us as one like us, as surely as those at the foot of Sinai rejected the God who revealed himself to them as something so unlike them? We do so at our peril. The Summary of the Law bids us love God and neighbor.

Our call is to remain rooted in God, safe in the mighty fortress amidst the storm, trusting that God will change us so that we can change the world, the world in which we meet God and neighbor. We are called to strive for the real well-being of every man, woman, and child whom we meet, in the knowledge that all of them are made in God’s image.

Our faith is not perfect, nor is our performance. We are still in the process of being changed, and we struggle and resist that change. We still try to keep God at arm’s length. The problem is, it’s very hard to pass through the narrow door to life with our arms held out in stubborn refusal to be led or carried. Our arms can be put to better use: to reach out to each other, to feed and clothe, to hold and if need be to carry each other. When we do so we are touching another child of God, and we change each other as God has changed us.

We have come this morning, after all, to something that can be touched. Not stone tablets hewn from a mountainside, but the responsive hands of our neighbors that clasp ours in peace.

Our hands in just a few minutes will join around this banquet table, hand to hand with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, and all the folk from north, south, east, and west, gathered with the spirits of the righteous made perfect. And so, let us give thanks, offering to God an acceptable worship — as we have been accepted — to the only God, living and true, who dwells in light inaccessible, but who deigns to dwell with us as one of us as well.+