Monday, May 24, 2010

Work of the Spirit

SJF • Pentecost C 2010 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.+

Today is the feast of Pentecost, marking the fiftieth day from Easter, commemorating that day on which the promised Spirit came down from heaven, blew through the windows, and landed square on the heads of the apostles setting them on fire. The Spirit found them gathered in one place, like a pile of tinder or a stack of kindling wood, not yet started on the ministry, not yet set on fire for the task that Jesus had called on them to do. The only thing they’d done since Jesus ascended into heaven was to choose a successor for Judas — and then they sat around waiting for God to show them what to do. They didn’t have to wait long, for God’s Holy Spirit came upon them like fire, and inspired them to action from inaction to courage and boldness from fear — and to work! A fire was lit that day that has not been put out since.

Just as what happened on the first Easter wasn’t merely something spectacular for that one particular Sunday morning, but marked the turning point for the history of the whole world, as Jesus our Lord was raised from the dead — so too what happened on Pentecost fifty days after Jesus was raised from the dead wasn’t just a spectacular pyrotechnic display for a single day. No, it was the beginning of something; what happened on Pentecost was a new beginning, so new that people call Pentecost the “birthday of the church.” For it was on this day that the disciples were converted from being followers into being leaders. They got “all fired up” and started into action!

And it is that conversion, that “firing up” I want to talk with you about today, for it is a conversion and an “ignition” to which we all are called and in which we are all empowered, if we will accept the call of God and the power of God to work in us as it worked in the apostles long ago, to convert us from simply following Christ to taking the lead and spreading the word, to build up the church for which Christ died.

For the work of the church is not just my job alone, even though I have been given a particular office and ministry — about which I spoke a few weeks ago. Nor is it only our organist Mr. Baker’s job or the choir’s job, or Br James’ or Mr Greene’s or Mr Korlai’s, or the acolytes — though some of them literally do carry fire around in the torches and the thurible — or the members of the Bishop’s Committee or the Men or Women of St James, or the members of the other parish groups. Rather the work of the church is everyone’s job, and everyone has a role to play in the spread of the Gospel, to carry that torch that was lit so long ago, and to build up of God’s kingdom. Nobody is off the hook; everyone is part of God’s inspired workforce for the work of the Holy Spirit; everyone.

Look what God says through the prophet Joel. There is no minimum age requirement, no , nor no early retirement neither — God’s spirit is poured out on all flesh, on old and young. There is no class or educational requirement — God’s spirit is poured out even on the humblest servant. And there is no sex discrimination either — and if there are even in this day and age people in parts of this world who think women shouldn’t serve the church, think how revolutionary it must have been when Joel spoke those words a thousand years before the birth of Jesus Christ! God’s Spirit comes to sons and daughters — and not just the daughters of the best families — but even female slaves are given God’s spirit to proclaim salvation. God is no respecter of persons! God lifts up the lowly and puts down the mighty. God was an equal opportunity employer long before Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, and God still has a job for everyone to do — everyone! — and will pour the Spirit lavishly upon them all, to equip them for that work. There is no job shortage, no being made redundant, no layoffs, no down-sizings, no golden parachute, no laying off or laying back — there is no unemployment in the kingdom of God: all are servants of the Lamb.

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You know, when people who are out of work, are looking for work, they go to the “help wanted” ads in the papers, or in these latter days, they search the Internet. Well, Saint Paul provides us with a kind of help-wanted ad for the work of the church in his First Letter to the Corinthians. Look at all these job opportunities! People gifted to speak words of wisdom, and words of knowledge; people with the gift to bring a healing touch; people with the astonishing gifts of working unthought of things, or the ability to speak the truth so clearly that people will be convicted in their hearts and souls — we call them prophets; those with the gift to look into the heart and discern the Spirit at work, and those who can speak or interpret the language of human beings or the language of heaven. And the only job requirement for all of these tasks is the presence of the Spirit, God’s Holy Spirit, that living flame and spark of divinity who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.

There are many, many gifts given to God’s people for God’s work. Note in particular one item from Paul’s list I’m saving for last: those who have the gift of faith — because that covers all the rest of us who may not be healers or teachers or prophets or miracle workers. We all have the gift of faith, and we are promised that even if our faith is as small as a mustard seed, it can move mountains more effectively than the biggest rig from Caterpillar Tractors or a ton of dynamite. Even if it is a flame as small as a spark, we all know — as the apostle James said — how great a pile of lumber can be set alight by even a tiny flame, a tiny spark.

So, fellow workers all of us, if I can (on the next to last Sunday in May) borrow and modify a phrase more often heard on the first of May: “Workers of the church, unite!” Who dares stand idle on the fruited plain: the harvest is ripe, and we have all the job skills we need to do God’s work.

Can you carry a broom? There’s plenty of cleaning up to do. Can you tell a story? There are young ears eager to hear the story of your faith, of our faith — the church’s faith. Can you sing? Lift up your voices, people of God! Shake the rafters with a joyous noise! Can you give? Who does not have the strength to carry his own weight, to share the abundance he or she has to help this church recover and rebuild from the times of narrowness, the times of fear? Who dares to stand before the throne of God and say, “God, I’ve got enough for me but I don’t have enough for you.”

Can you pray? Don’t let’s forget that, for it is something we all can do, young or old, rich or poor — to pray, even if it is as simple prayer, “Jesus, Lord, save me!” Pray earnestly, in season and out of season, pray that the Spirit will continue to bless, to inspire, to set us alight with divine fire, and pour out God’s gifts upon us.

After all, today is our birthday, the church’s birthday, and God is giving us a whole pile of birthday presents; today and every day, and all we have to do is unwrap them and put them to use! God’s gracious gifts keep coming, even before we can ask. This is the promise and the power of God, and his promises are sure, and his power is great — not only to save but to preserve.

We are no longer merely followers of our Lord — we are commissioned as leaders to carry forth his mission, and to share in his work, to do our share of that work. So be brave, sisters and brothers of the faith. Be strong in the knowledge of God. Rejoice, rejoice believers, for the Lord our God is a mighty Lord. Glory to him, glory to him, whose power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. Glory to him from generation to generation in the church, and in Christ Jesus our Lord! +

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Mediator and Advocate

SJF• Easter 7c • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jesus said, “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one.”+

Just between us, I’m kind of glad that the Sunday School and Youth have gone about their activities, because I’m going to mention something about childhood and youth that is probably best kept amongst the older generation. Though, seriously, I don’t know who I’m fooling, because almost all children really know it already; soon after learning to walk and talk, they have learned a powerful secret that will help carry them on through life and into their own adulthood. It is a secret that helped the children of Israel survive in the wilderness, and in the Promised Land in which they settled after their long journey. It is a secret that helped the Apostles deal with the difficulties they faced as the church began to find its feet and take its first tottering steps and begin and speak out against idolatry and injustice. And the secret is this: when Mom says No, Dad can be appealed to, to intercede, and maybe to get Mom to change her mind.

This is the secret art of advocacy, getting someone to advocate for you, to mediate for you and take your part, to speak on your behalf when it seems that the case may be closed and the judgement final. Having been serving jury duty last two weeks, and due to go back for at least another before the trial is completed — I’ve seen with my own eyes how important it is to have a good defense attorney: someone to serve as an advocate, to speak on your behalf, to make a compelling case. Even very young children learn fairly early on that No is not always the last word, and that a little skillful diplomacy, advocacy or mediation can get even a stern motherly or fatherly mind changed. The crucial thing is that the advocate must be someone who can speak to the one who has made the adverse decision, someone who has a relationship with the one who handed down that previous order, someone whose advocacy will have an impact, just as a husband might be able to influence his wife, or, as in the case of our Gospel today — the Son of God interceding on behalf his disciples, and those who will believe through their word — who knows he will be heard by his Father in heaven. He is not just speaking into the air, but into the ear of his loving Father.

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Imagine, if you will, a child who has just knocked over his mother’s favorite vase. Now, this child might well go to his mother right off and apologize. But a wise child might first go to his father, explain the situation, and ask for his help in preparing the way for the apology to his mother. And such a father might well tell his child to rely on the love that his mother has for him, even though he’s just broken her favorite vase.

I spoke last week of how important tradition is, how important history is for knowing where you’ve been and where you are, in order to understand where you’re going. That goes for our personal history as well, the history of our personal relationships — relationships that do not simply pop into existence out of the blue, but which are built up over time and enriched by experience. And few such relationships are as important as the relationships we have with those who brought us up from childhood — whether our own parents, or foster parents, or grandparents. Those relationships begun in childhood are the longest lasting, simply because they are the earliest to start.

And so, the father in my imagined scenario might encourage his son, by saying, “Do you think that your mother, who has loved you your whole life, will turn away from you now just because you broke a bit of crockery? No, she won’t do that, because of the love that has been there long before.” Not that a few helpful words from the father to the mother might not help, mind you! — that’s where intercession and advocacy come in — but the basis is the trust that relies on the relationship that existed long before.

And that is really how advocacy works. Most advocacy, most mediation, consists in reminding people of the “big picture” or the larger context of the situation. It’s not just the broken piece of crockery, but what might have led to that accident. Justice is not just about the particular minute act in question, but about the whole course of a life, with all its ups and downs, its failures and successes, seen in relation to the circumstances of the particular occasion. This was a point made by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor as part of her confirmation hearings. Some people didn’t like that way of thinking; they didn’t like to think that a woman who grew up in the South Bronx might bring a different perspective to the Supreme Court. Some people didn’t like it and thought a judge should preserve complete judicial blindness to the context of a person’s life and treat all actions in the abstract — as if they were pure acts suspended in space, apart from the actors who carried them out. But thanks be to God that God’s justice is not blind — based as it is upon complete and perfect knowledge not just of the individual actions that we perform, but of us, and of all of the contexts and conditions surrounding them.

This is why God is the ultimate just judge, and also — in Christ — the great mediator and advocate. He is the Lord of context, of inclusion, of the “big picture.” He is the Alpha and Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end, arching over the whole of creation and present in every place at every time.

God is infinite, but we are finite. God is without limit in time or space, while we have a beginning and an ending, and a specific place in the world. We human creatures, dust brought to life at the breath of God, aware of our limitations, need to be reassured from time to time that God still does take account of us, that God cares about us, especially when we’ve strayed and done wrong, and know we’ve done wrong, and rightly feel that God may turn from us.

Our collect today contains that almost heartbreaking appeal: “Do not leave us for comfortless...” And so we appeal in these moments of feeling desolated and comfortless, to Jesus our Lord, the Son of the Father, to intercede for us with the Father. We appeal to him to take up once more that great prayer that he prayed on the night before he suffered and died for us, that prayer not only on behalf of the apostles, but also on behalf of those who believe in him though their word, for us, who have received that word second-, third- or fourth-hand down through that long tradition of the church. He was praying for us as well that night: that we might all be one.

We crave the assurance of that unity, of God’s love for us, for that unity and peace in the embrace of God, like the embrace of a loving parent, that all is well; and yet we know we are far from perfect, we know we have erred and strayed, and not done all as we should do. So somewhat shy of standing before the majestic judge, we turn to Jesus, who, while he is our judge, is also our only Mediator and Advocate, and we ask him to intercede on our behalf, to restore our sense of unity with him and with each other, and with God, his Father and our Father. For it is unity that is our hope and God’s will for us: that we may all be one even as God is one. Our prayer is to be with Jesus where he is, for when we are with him who is one with the Father, we are with the Father too.

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I began this sermon by telling about children’s skill in obtaining an advocate to be with them on their side and speak on their behalf. Writer Carol Kent, in an interview in Today’s Christian Woman, tells of one such skillful child, her little boy Jason. They were eating breakfast together one morning; she was wearing a patched pair of jeans and a fuzzy old sweater, ready to do housework on her day off. The little boy looked up over his cereal bowl and said, “Mommy, you look so pretty today!” She was surprised, since she didn’t even have any makeup on, and said, “Jason, why would you say I look pretty today? I’m not even wearing my suit and high heels.” The child said, “When you look like that, I know you’re going away; but when you’re dressed like this, I know you’re here, and you’re all mine.”

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Well, Jesus is all ours. He is our mediator and advocate, and that’s a big “our.” It’s not just you and me here at Saint James; it’s not just all the Episcopalians or all the Anglicans; it is rather all for whom Christ prayed on that night before he died, all of those who would believe through the preaching of the apostles, all one in Christ throughout the whole wide earth. That is what Christ prayed for, and that is what God granted.

Christ came to us dressed in his housework clothes, and he knelt to wash the disciples’ feet. He came to us not in majesty and splendor, robed as a king or a conqueror, but as a humble worker — a carpenter from a small town out in the suburbs, a friend and companion of common folk, of fishermen and farmers, of clerks and shopkeepers and people who lived by their wits on the streets. And he was with them and he belonged to them as he is with us and belongs to us, and all of us together belong to God through him. He is our only mediator and advocate, and he has not left us comfortless, nor abandoned us— he is ours for ever, and we are his. And even in this present seeming-absence from us, in this in-between-time in-the-mean-time since his ascent into heaven and until his coming again in power and great glory to rule the world, he has sent his Holy Spirit to be with us, so that we might have him in our hearts, comforted with that spiritual presence until that great day when we are exalted to that place where he has gone before, that where he is, we may also be, for ever, and be completely, utterly, and finally and at last, one.+

Sunday, May 09, 2010

The Idol and the Servant

What has religion to do with idols? Plenty, if you're not careful!

SJF • Easter 6c 2010 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.

I want to talk to you today about idols: and by idols I don’t mean statues with five heads and a dozen arms — but the more insidious idols that can creep in around the edges of even Christian worship. These idols disguise themselves so well, that one can fall into worshiping them without knowing it.

Because we are not disembodied spirits, our worship requires physical expression: we need people, places and things. We are called, as the Collect says, to worship God in all things and above all things, so things play a part in our lives: our worship lives and our ordinary lives. In the church certain people are ordained to carry out special functions in our worship. Certain places, like this building, receive special honor, as a place where we gather to worship God. Certain physical things, such as the crucifix over the altar, serve to focus our worship. These people, places and things — the means of our worship — are not meant to be the object of our worship: God is.

Some years ago a priest friend of mine, who was wearing his clericals out on the street, was challenged by an aggressive fundamentalist. “Why do you Roman Catholics worship statues? Don’t you know that’s idolatry?” My priest friend said, “First of all, I’m Episcopalian, not Roman Catholic; but I will admit there are statues and images in my church. But before I answer your question, would you mind showing me your wallet?” Somewhat startled, perhaps expecting to be hit up for a donation, the man reluctantly took out his billfold. My friend said, “Would you open it for me, please. Ah — I see you have a picture of what I assume are your wife and children. Would you mind very much tearing it up and throwing it away?” The man said, “Are you crazy! I love my wife and family.” The priest responded, “But I’m not asking you to do anything to your wife and family. I’m just talking about a picture. It’s just a piece of paper.” The man — who still didn’t seem to get the connection, though I’m sure most of you have by now — said, “It isn’t the picture, it’s what it represents!” The priest said, “Well, it’s the same way with my church. We know the image of Mary isn’t Mary, and the one of Jesus isn’t Jesus. We don’t worship these images; we honor and respect them as reminders of the reality of which they are just representations and reminders: the real Mary whose obedience changed the world, and the real Jesus whose saving death on the cross purchased salvation for all of us sinners. And I’m no more willing to destroy these reminders than you are willing to do so to the picture of your family.”

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And that’s the truth. We know full well — or at least I hope we know — that this building on the corner of 190th and Jerome is not the New Jerusalem. For one thing, the New Jerusalem doesn’t require a new roof on the parish hall every 30 years! Also the New Jerusalem is lit by the light of the Lamb, not bu our lovely knew light-bulbs just installed this week. We know that the figure over our altar is made of brass and plaster, that the icons are painted wooden panels. We do not worship the physical things that we see, but we treat them with respect as reminders of the spiritual truths that cannot be seen.

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However, sometimes people in the church do become so attached to the people, places and things of the church — which are meant to guide us and lead us to God — that we lose sight of God himself. Have you ever received a birthday package so beautifully wrapped that you said, “Oh, I hate to open it!” Or been presented with a birthday cake so beautifully decorated that you said, “Oh, I hate to cut it!” I’ve heard people say those things many times. But did you ever actually leave the present wrapped, or the cake uncut? Anyone? I didn’t think so. But sometimes in worship, people get so caught up with the things of worship, that they stop there, just as it is, and fail to reach the reality behind them.

The pagan priest at Lystra — the priest of Zeus — and of course pagans were used to idols so perhaps this was natural — was ready to offer sacrifice to Paul and Barnabas, because of what they had done, and how they spoke. But the apostles cried out, “No! Not this! We are men like you! We have come to bring you the good news... to turn you from empty idols and point you to the God who made heaven and earth, the seas and all that is in them.” The apostles were there to get the people to worship the true and living God; they didn’t want to be set up themselves as idols of a new cult!

Yet many times since then, we Christians have “gotten stuck” on the things meant to guide us, like a car stuck in the ruts of the very road meant to aid our journey. When this happens, we make the error of traditionalism. And when we get stuck on a church leader or minister, we fall into what is called the cult of personality. And both of these are deadly to the church.

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First, a few words about traditionalism. It is not the same as tradition. Tradition is the heritage of our religious culture. Without tradition, we are like people with cultural amnesia, ignorant of our past. As I’ve said before, How can you do what Jesus would do if you don’t know what he did? Or what the Apostles did, or the other great saints and sages of the church’s history have done down through the years even to our own time? Tradition is a vehicle for our journey in faith, but it must be a living tradition, a vehicle which moves, which brings us somewhere, not becoming an end in itself. For that’s when tradition becomes traditionalism. As a wise man once said, “Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.” Traditionalism reminds me of that tragic character from Dickens’ Great Expectations, Miss Havesham, who was jilted on her wedding day, and lived forever in that moment, in a musty room still dressed in her wedding-gown, with an untouched wedding cake covered with cobwebs, nourished only by her thirst for revenge.

But tradition is not such a musty museum. Tradition is a vital thread of truth passed on from generation to generation, linking us back to the time when Christ first promised that even as he went away he would send another Advocate, the Holy Spirit, who would continue to teach the disciples everything, and, importantly, remind them of all he had said and taught and done. This is tradition as the gift of God himself.

So the Spirit works to help us keep tradition in focus as we learn about the road we’ve traveled since the days of Paul and Barnabas. We learn from our history by asking questions, with respect and understanding. For when we can no longer tell what greater truth something points to, it is no longer a tradition in any meaningful sense. It has become just one more thing; it has become a vehicle that goes nowhere; it has become an idol.

Sadly, the church has a long history of people getting stuck in ruts of traditionalism, so focused on the thing itself that they loose all understanding and perspective. Sometimes people get so attached to a tradition that they even resort to violence against those who disagree or sooner die than give it up!

I’m not exaggerating. In the eighth century, a monastery of English monks resisted the instructions from Rome that they begin chanting the psalms in the Roman fashion. And so the king stationed archers in the gallery of the monastery, and as the monks persisted singing their traditional English tunes, they were slaughtered in the choir where they stood.

Maybe you’ll say, Oh, but that was in the dark ages; the eight century; things have gotten a lot better. Well, things weren’t better a thousand years later! In 17th century Russia, the Patriarch of Moscow instituted changes in worship, and open warfare broke out — thousands of people died defending the “old ways.” Whole villages were destroyed, people were burnt at the stake in the hundreds. What changes so angered these traditionalists, these “Old Believers”? What earth-shattering reforms did the Patriarch insist were crucial to the faith? To make the sign of the cross with three fingers instead of two, and to say the Alleluia three times instead of once. And as those Old Believers went to the stake, they defiantly crossed themselves with two fingers instead of three. I guess they had the last word.

When people worship their worship rather than worshiping God through their worship, then worship itself has become an idol: an end in itself rather than a means to the highest end of all, which is God.

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The other side of the coin, shown in the story of Paul and Barnabas, is what happens when people start to worship the messenger instead of the one of whom the messenger speaks: this is the cult of personality I mentioned a while ago. We’ve seen this happen with televangelists who rise on the wave of popularity and then crash on the rocks of scandal. But it can also happen in more subtle ways: when ministers are seen as so central to the life of their congregation that they are valued not for what they do but for who they are.

And this is why I am glad to take this opportunity to remind you about what ministers are and what they do. This is in part a message for Sahra our seminarian who will soon be exercising ministry in the church, as an ordained minister of the church.

First of all, that word minister. People will use it with respectful tones. “Oh, she’s a minister,” they might say. So it may come as a surprise to learn that the word minister comes from the Latin word for servant. And it’s the kind of servant most of us are still familiar with: a waiter! So it’s nothing to get high and mighty about! It is about serving — about serving God and the people of God.

This is why all ordained ministers especially should take Paul and Barnabas as their model: it isn’t about us; it isn’t about who we are, but about the One whom we serve. And our primary service is to help the whole people of God to come closer to God and to each other in Christ, and then to go forth into the world in the power of God’s Holy Spirit, the same Spirit Jesus promised would come to the Apostles and guide them and lead them into all Truth.

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We as believers in the One God reject idolatry. We honor those who minister not for themselves but for the sake of the mission of God and its outreach to the ends of the world. Even as we gather in this place, we reach out towards the heavenly Jerusalem, of which this is merely a foretaste, to that place beyond where all symbols and traditions and ministries have their end and goal.

For in the New Jerusalem, there is no Temple. The Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are the Temple. There is no special class of ministers, for all of God’s people are kings and priests to God, a royal priesthood, and all of them also and at the same time servants of the Lamb. In the New Jerusalem there are no statues or images or icons, as reminders — for we will behold sanctity and divinity with our own eyes, lit by the lamp of the Lamb. In the heavenly city we shall no longer worship through traditions or customs, or things, or places, or with the help of ministers, but face to face with the one whom we adore, serving one another to the glory of God alone. God give us strength to persevere, that we may one day walk in the light of the Lamb, in the land in which there is no night, through Jesus Christ our Lord.+