Sunday, February 14, 2010

Understanding God

SJF • Last Epiphany 2010 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.+

Paul the Apostle, in that beautiful passage we heard today, acknowledges the incompleteness of our knowledge about God. “We know only in part,” he assures us, and even what we do know is like a reflection in a dusty mirror, a dim vision of the heart of reality that is too much for our eyes to take in.

The simple fact is that, as the old hymn said, the full truth of God’s love — for God is Love — “is broader than the measure of man’s mind” — beyond our full comprehension.

Have you ever tried to get a good look at the Empire State Building from 34th street? Well, if you have, you know you can’t see much. Standing at its base, you are too close to take it in — it is so overwhelming. Even from across the street you are still too close, and if you get further away other buildings will obstruct your view. The only place to really get an idea of what how tall the Empire State Building is is to go blocks and blocks away, or even to Brooklyn or New Jersey — where you can then see it rising far above all of its neighbors.

Well, if this is true of a human construction, how much more of the creator of the world and all that is in it? We know from our reading of Scripture that Moses talked with God face to face — though even then we also know that God must have toned down his glory so that Moses would be able to converse with him. The one time Moses asked to see God in all his glory, just prior to the passage from Exodus that we read this morning, God told Moses he could not bear it and live, and so God made Moses stand in a cleft of the rock, with God’s own hand upon him until the fullness of God’s glory passed by, and only then did God take his hand away and let Moses see God’s back — the back of God’s glory — and that was enough to cause Moses’ face to shine with the reflection of that divine light. And ever after Moses had to wear a veil over his face, so that even this reflection of the back of God’s glory would not be too much for the people to bear.

And in our Gospel today, three of the apostles witness the revelation of God’s glory manifest in Jesus on the mountain-top; but even then the cloud of God’s presence mutes and filters and overshadows the dazzling scene — so that they might not be struck dead at the sight of God’s full glory revealed.

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So how can we come to any understanding of God? Well, first of all, as the doctor said, “Take two tablets and call me in the morning!” Moses comes down from his meeting with God, his face glowing from the encounter, but also bearing those two tablets of the covenant in his hand, God’s word, written by God’s own hand, ready to be delivered to the people. In this we may understand all of Scripture to be meant — all of the Word of God delivered to us in the Law and Prophets and Writings, in the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles, and their letters, and the visions old and new.

And yet, just as the people couldn’t bear to look at Moses’ face, so too people then as now find even the second-hand glory of God’s Word in Scripture hard to understand — it will come as no news to you that there are as many different interpretations of Scripture as there are believers. There is an old Jewish saying that if you don’t like how your rabbi interprets the Scripture, you can always find another rabbi; and that in a room with five rabbis you’ll find at least six different interpretations. The same is surely true of Christians as well.

In fact, Christians can’t even on the whole agree on what the Bible is, let alone what it means, as Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Orthodox, and Protestants disagree about which books of the Old Testament are to be included in the Bible — books accepted by Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox as a part of their Bible are considered Apocrypha (suitable for reading but not for doctrine) by Anglicans and Lutherans, and not even included at all by Protestants. That’s why you’ll find different editions of the Bible with different books in different places, and sometimes going by different names.

Beyond these differences in the content of Scripture, in what the Bible is, we come to the various interpretations of Scripture. And here too, there is wide difference of opinion both between churches and within them. Every church will have a different understanding, or many different understandings, different shades of interpretation.

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So, how do we know which we should follow? Ultimately that question is rhetorical, as surely people will follow the interpretation that makes sense to them, that seems to speak to them, or else, as in the saying I quoted before, they’ll go off to find another rabbi — or priest or minister or church.

But I think there is some guidance to be found in what Saint Paul says in that passage from First Corinthians, about the need for love as the standard by which we judge whether our understanding and interpretation is in accord with God’s will. For as Paul says, even if he could speak as eloquently as an angel, or in miraculous tongues, or with powerful prophecy, or with an understanding of all mysteries and all knowledge — if his understanding and speaking and teaching were not based on love, it would all be for nothing. If his teaching or preaching or his prophecy did not ring the note of love, it would be like a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And what kind of teaching would that be?

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Saint Augustine of Hippo was one of the early great expounders of Scripture. He had been a young man-about-town, living the high life, but he experienced a conversion and became a Christian towards the end of the fourth century. (He credited his conversion to the prayers of his mother, Saint Monica, and you can see them conversing in our stained-glass window in the corner.)

Augustine had a fundamental rule when it came to interpreting Scripture, and it was based on Saint Paul’s advice, under the governance of the love commanded by God — the love of God and neighbor. Augustine wrote: “If it seems to you that you have understood the Scriptures, or any part of them, in such a way that by this understanding you do not build up the twin love of God and neighbor, then you have not understood them... If on the other hand you have made judgments about [Scripture] that are helpful for building up this love, but for all that have not said what the author you have been reading actually meant ..., then your mistake is not serious, and you certainly cannot be accused of lying.” (On Christian Doctrine 1.36.40.)

This was Augustine’s standard, and it was wisdom then as now. Does how you read the Scripture, understand the Scripture, and teach the Scripture build up — or to use the old word, does it edify? Is your understanding set upon the firm foundation of the love of God and neighbor? That is a sound foundation, and Augustine makes clear that even if your interpretation of the Scripture might depart from what Moses or Isaiah or Saint Paul himself may originally have intended, you will not go far wrong if that interpretation leads to a greater love of God and neighbor. Love is the key that unlocks the Scripture, and that is true all the time, not just on Valentine’s Day!

For ultimately, love is God’s message, what God has been trying to get across to us from the very beginning — from the very first time God wrote with God’s own hand anything down to instruct the people, on those two tablets of stone, which I hope you will notice in the first tablet, the first four commandments how we are to love God (honoring God alone, not having idols, respecting God’s name, and keeping the Sabbath) and in the final six telling us how we are to love our neighbors (by honoring our parents, not killing, cheating, stealing, lying, or coveting).

And if we needed any further instruction, after all of that, Jesus himself provides us with a summary of the law of the two tablets as the very instruction that Augustine would later take as his key to interpreting the Scripture: to love God with your whole self, and to love your neighbor as yourself. On these two, as he said, hang all the law and the prophets — that is, all the rest of Scripture.

As another old hymn puts it, “What more can he say than to you he hath said?” Do you want to understand the Scripture? Do you? Let me repeat to you what God himself says in today’s Gospel in reference to Jesus, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”+

Monday, February 08, 2010

The Net Effect

SJF • Epiphany 5c 2010 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jesus said, “Put out into the deep water and let out your nets for a catch.”+

In spite of being the son of a carpenter, and perhaps being a carpenter himself, our Gospel reading this morning shows us that Jesus was quite a fisherman as well. This story involves another fisherman named Simon bar Jonah — a disappointed fisherman at that. He’s spent the whole night for nothing, and now faces the tedious task of washing and stowing the nets that let him down the night before even as he pulled them up — empty. Talk about adding insult to injury! But Jesus pays no mind to the grumbling Simon. No, Jesus just goes on preaching and teaching, sitting there in the front of the boat as Peter grumbles and fumbles in the stern. And this is how Jesus shows himself to be a master fisherman — for he too fishes for people.

Now, there are all kinds of fishermen in the world. You may have seen the sports fishermen who catch huge swordfish from the stern of powerboats — the fisherman’s equivalent of wrestling or in keeping with today, football. But there are also trout-fishers, the fishing world equivalent of archery — whose work is marked by the delicacy with which they cast the line, the gentleness with which the fly is twitched floating on the surface of the current, making it seem a natural treat to tempt a trout.

Jesus is a trout-fisher as opposed to a sports fisher. And the fish he’s after in this Gospel passage isn’t among the crowds on the shore — they’ll get caught in the big net later on, tended by someone else. No, the fish Jesus is after is right there in the boat with him. It’s Simon himself, Simon son of Jonah, no less. How’s that for a coincidence?

I’ve mentioned before that in Greek the first letters of the phrase “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior” spell out the Greek anagram IXΘYC, the Greek word for fish. People in the early church used the sign of the fish as a secret code for the fact that they were Christians. Some people still do the same with bumper stickers. So in our Gospel this morning we have Jesus, whose title spells out “fish” angling for Simon the fisherman who in this case is the fish Jesus is after, just as Simon’s father’s namesake, Jonah, once got caught by a fish, and later also became a fisher of men when he went preaching to Nineveh. This is some fish story! And before it is fully told, Simon will be sent, sent to fish for people all around the banks of the Mediterranean sea. He will have received a new calling.

And in today’s Gospel we see how Jesus places this important call. Jesus plays out his line, trailing the lure as he teaches and preaches. For while he speaks to the crowds on the sure, he is also targeting Simon, there in the boat with him. Simon seems to be a bystander, such is the craft of Jesus the fisher of souls. Simon doesn’t even know he’s being lured! He just sits there tending his nets, and the words of Jesus — what they were we’ll never know — they come to him second-hand, or so it seems.

Then, suddenly, the spell is broken. Jesus turns to Simon, and instead of asking to be rowed back to land, as we might expect at the end of the sermon, he tells the fisherman to put out to the deep and try for another catch.

You can well imagine what thoughts went through Simon’s head at that point. “A carpenter is going to tell me how to fish?” But something in Jesus’ command gets through, and out they go. Simon lets down the nets — nets he’s just finished cleaning — and suddenly grace breaks through, and there are so many fish he doesn’t know what to do with them, and the boats are almost swamped. And Peter, knowing now that he’s been caught, falls to his knees and appeals to Jesus to throw him back. But it’s too late. Jesus has caught his Big Fish who will become the Big Fisherman, and tells him not to be afraid, for he will now start his true calling, his calling to fish for people.

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Calling. That’s a simple English word for what sometimes gets called a vocation. Sometimes the “calling” is literal, and audible “calling out” in spoken words. Simon in our Gospel this morning gets an express verbal command; Gideon in our Old Testament gets the same; Paul on the road to Damascus got the same; Joan of Arc heard voices in the ringing of the church bells telling her to put on armor like a man and go to Orleans and tell the king to start acting like a king.

But most people in the history of the Christian faith don’t receive their calling in such a direct and literal and audible way. God whispers to our hearts more often than shouting in our ears. And just as Jesus appointed Simon to go out and fish for people, assigning him a task rather than doing it all himself, God continues to work through angels and ministers of grace, apostles and evangelists and preachers and teachers, members of our own families and friends we’ve known for years, and sometimes casual acquaintances we hardly know, or even a stranger — to gather in the people of God, to pull in the nets into his great ark of the church.

For as I’ve pointed out before, our church is a great ship, literally. Look up into the vaulting of the roof at those ribs. We’re a great upside down boat, and you are sitting in the nave. That’s why they call it “the nave.” We are on naval maneuvers! Our church is a boat turned upside down, a great boat that sails between heaven and earth. And there are nets cast out through the portals of this church that stretch off into the world, to bring in a catch.

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All of us here this morning have a calling, even if we are not entirely sure what it is or what it will be. Sometimes you have to listen very carefully to hear God’s voice speaking through the many messengers God sends out. Other times it may be as clear as a trumpet blast.

And we can’t be sure where the call will lead us. Simon Peter walked off and left the nets, the fish, the boats, and everything else. A man who thought he would spend his whole life long plying the nets by Galilee, ended his life in Rome crucified upside down, as upside down as his world had been turned, and as upside-down as he and the other Christians had turned the world— we Christians who sail the ship of the church upside down in the waters of heaven.

The call of God has “a net effect.” When we respond to God’s call it will make a difference in our lives; as Paul said in the epistle this morning, “I am what I am by God’s grace.” That grace, that call will make us be what we are, though it may change what we do: even if the calling is not to something new, but the rediscovery of something old. Sometimes God redirects a person’s skills say, from catching fish to catching people. And sometimes God opens our eyes to see God’s grace in the calling we’ve already got, the precious uniqueness of a skill we thought was common and ordinary. For there is nothing insignificant in God’s great world, and the net God casts is very fine, and doesn’t miss a single fish.

Of course, when we hear the word vocation we often think of vocation within the four walls of the church, an on-board ministry, so to speak. Not everyone, though, will be called to be a sailor, or a steward or purser — the world needs travel agents and tour guides and hotel managers too! And what I want to say to you this morning is that every calling of God is a holy calling, and every act done in the Name of Jesus is a work of the kingdom of heaven — on board the boat or out in the ports and harbors of our journey. The church is the ark of salvation, but some of us are also called to go out, out into the deep places of the world, where the Spirit of God moves where it wills, touching hearts that are hungry and thirsty for the Word from beyond the worlds, who made the world and everything in it, and who calls that whole world to himself.

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I mentioned Joan of Arc a moment ago, how she received a commission to go to the king and tell him to start acting like a king. Well, about a thousand years ago, King Henry the Third of Bavaria, thought he had a calling to become a monk. He’d been an effective monarch, but he also felt a strong sense that God wanted him to devote himself to a life of prayer. And so he went off to the local abbey, to meet with the wise old Prior. And right off, the Prior, who was very wise, said, “You know, your majesty, you’ve been a good king; but kings aren’t generally accustomed to accepting orders from other people, and here in the monastery, as you place yourself under obedience to me and the other senior monks, you may find the vow of obedience is much more difficult for you than the vows of poverty and chastity.” King Henry said he understood, but he persisted. “I know it will be difficult. But I wish to give my life to God. So I will obey you as you command.” “Will you, then, your Majesty, do as I tell you?” said the Prior. “I will,” he answered, “with all my heart.” And so the wise old Prior said, “Then go back to your throne and serve where God has put you.”

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Sometimes the call of God will send us off to the other end of the world, and sometimes the call of God will send us right back to where we’ve always been. But in any case, as we do God’s will for each of us, each of us being what we are through the grace of God alone; whether we see new things or see old things anew; the net effect is that our world will be changed, as we are empowered to change the world around us. God is calling each of us to be all that we can be, or to make new use of what we already have, for it all comes from God, after all, new or old. We may find ourselves, like Simon son of Jonah, leaving all that is familiar behind us on the beach. We may, like Henry of Bavaria, find ourselves returning to an old task with a new sense of purpose and commitment. In any case and in every case, God is calling us, and may all of our work in response, all of our calling and vocation, be to the glory of God alone, to whom we give thanks, and in whose Name we pray.+

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Prophet Without Honor

SJF • Epiphany 5c 2010 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jesus said, No prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.+

Once, long ago, there was a great city named Troy. And a Trojan prince fell in love with Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world, and stole her from her Greek husband. This led to a great war, the Trojan War, as it came to be called. Helen was the woman whose face launched a thousand ships — and it had nothing to do with whacking them with bottles of champagne! No — these were warships sailing from the Greek “coalition of the willing” to lay siege to the great city across the sea in Asia Minor, in a war that would drag on for a decade — and stop me if is beginning to sound familiar!

In any case, you probably remember the famous strategy by which the Greeks won the war. After nine years of fighting, they pretended to give up, and left a giant horse as a peace offering. The Trojans took the bait, and wheeled the horse into their fortified city. That night, the Greek soldiers hidden inside the horse crept out, opened the gates, and let in the rest of the army — who had just been a few miles out to sea — and the city fell in flames and destruction.

Now, what made this particularly tragic is that the people of the city had been warned in no uncertain terms, but they paid no attention to the warning. The Trojan king had a daughter, Cassandra, who was cursed with a terrible gift: she could foretell the future, but only on the condition that no one except one old man would believe her — and no one believed him either. So while Cassandra yelled from the highest parapet of the city, warning her people not to be fooled about that horse — Beware of Greeks bearing gifts! — no one believed a word she said. They thought the Greeks had gone, and they had won. What they thought was a trophy turned out to be a weapon of mass destruction — and they hauled it themselves right into their city.

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In today’s Gospel we also witness doubt and destruction turned against the prophet himself. Jesus is in his hometown. The people have heard of the wonders he’s done in other towns and can’t quite believe it. Someone starts the word going around, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?”

Imagine the buzz and whisper through the crowd. “Isn’t this the same Jesus we used to see playing with mud-pies when he was a little boy? Isn’t this the same Jesus who had to be taught how to read and write on this very synagogue porch? Don’t you remember his Bar Mitzvah? And remember the first time he tried to make a chair in his father’s workshop? And that time that he gave his parents grief, when he got lost in Jerusalem and ended up in the Temple?” And in that buzz and chatter, Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus the Christ — who has just delivered the message of salvation, that the hope of Israel has dawned; that as we saw last week, that the words of Scripture have been fulfilled in their hearing — by means of wagging tongues this Jesus is whittled down to a little boy with muddy hands, an awkward youth trying to handle a saw, a nervous boy reading a Scripture passage for the first time, or a bad little boy lost in the big city, and causing his parents grief. Instead of receiving his message that the Scripture is fulfilled in their hearing, it’s as if all the congregation can find to say in response to this divine revelation is, “My, doesn’t he read well. What an improvement from when he was a boy!”

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No, no prophet is honored in his hometown. Cassandra couldn’t get her people to listen to her warning. “She’s the king’s daughter; naturally she’s over-excited about these things, worried about the war in which her whole family is involved — after all, her brother started it all when he ran off with Helen!”

And as for Jesus — he would not find ready hearers among the people of his own hometown. So he would carry his mission elsewhere, to other towns, to people who hadn’t known him, people free from preconceptions and expectations, from prejudices and the familiarity that breeds contempt — to people ready to hear because not only was the message new to them, but the messenger as well.

Saint Paul had a similar experience. His own people largely rejected him — even the rest of the Apostles were clearly uneasy around him, and though Peter and he shook hands, it was only so as to agree to go their separate ways: Paul would spend most of his ministry preaching and teaching Gentiles in the same Greek cities that centuries before had banded together to launch those thousand ships.

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Why is it that people can’t seem to accept the word of salvation from those closest to them? Why are missionary churches so often more vital and vibrant than those that are domestic?

I mentioned the old saying, “Familiarity breeds contempt.” But it also breeds expectations. We think we know what those we know best are going to say, so we don’t really listen to them, we don’t really hear them even when they say something we don’t expect to hear. Expectations drown perceptions, and when they do, it becomes impossible for us to see what is right before our eyes, to hear what is being shouted in our ears.

An old friend of mine, a print shop manager, used to keep the front page of a copy of the Daily News on the bulletin board up behind his desk. And whenever he interviewed people for proofreading jobs, he would ask them to read the banner headline aloud. And most would read the simple three-word headline, in letters four inches high, “Liz Taylor robbed.” And they wouldn’t get the job. Because what the headline said, was “Liz Talyor robbed.” T-a-l-y-o-r. A typo! How could anyone — from the original typesetter to the publisher of the Daily News — miss a misspelling in letters 288 points high? Simply because it wasn’t what they expected, and expectations, even the expectations of skilled proofreaders, can drown their perceptions.

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John the evangelist, in the prologue to his Gospel, said, “Jesus came to his own, and his own received him not.” They couldn’t hear what he was saying to them, because they knew who he was, and where he came from; or thought they knew where he came from. They couldn’t accept the good news he tried to tell them, because they thought they knew it all already, just as they knew him already.

In our gospel from Luke, Jesus tried to show them the way out, that they needed to become like foreigners, like a Phoenician widow or like a Syrian general if they were truly to understand the amazing grace of God. These were stories from their own tradition, from their own Scriptures, and they knew them backwards and forwards, but they had missed the point until Jesus made it — and when he made it they didn’t like it, if they even understood it. For the people of Nazareth didn’t want to become like foreigners in their own country! Instead they became enraged and hustled Jesus off, ready to throw him off the cliff. But they couldn’t lay hold of him with their hands, any better than they could lay hold of his message with their ears. He passed right through the midst of them, just as his teaching had gone in one ear and out the other, so he passed through the midst of them and went on his way, on to the other towns, on to new ears better tuned to hear a new message, and to be astounded by the authority with which he spoke.

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Can we here at Saint James Church become, as it were, foreigners in our own land, strangers in our own church? Can we be willing to hear the message of Jesus regardless of who it comes from — from one of our own or a stranger? How often has Jesus passed through our midst but not been seen? How often have we passed him by in the street without knowing it? How often have his words slipped past our ears, or in one ear and out the other, because we’ve treated them as the same old story instead of hearing them as the good news?

On a more personal level, can we hear our spouse or child or colleagues, really hear them, really pay them the respect we should pay to even a stranger, a messenger with important news, and not face them with a kind of “Oh-I-know-what-you’re-
going-to-say-already” attitude — talk to the hand — that misses the heart of the matter? Who knows what gracious word may come when you least expect it? Who knows what familiar voice may speak a word of salvation in your ear.? We dare not say, “It is only a boy... or my wife... or someone I’ve heard a thousand times.” For the word of God is always new, whoever it comes from, and it can pierce the soul and light up our hearts if we will allow it to do so.

Let us pray. Dear Lord, be at home with us in exile here, as our own familiar friend, and help us hear your good news, whether it comes from neighbor or stranger; open our hearts and minds and ears, to hear you when you speak, to embrace your word in our hearts, to love and serve you all our days, until we come to our true homeland, where with the Father and the Holy Spirit, you live and reign, one God for ever and ever.+