Sunday, December 25, 2011

You have a personal message waiting

The Original Word is reissued in a new edition, bound in flesh and blood -- and swaddling bands... a sermon for Christmas Day

Christmas 2011 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son.

When I was working on the 150th Anniversary history of Saint James Church, I had a good deal of material at my disposal. One of the most important resources was the 100th anniversary history, the “gold book” as it used to be called because of its cover. Actually I had a copy of this book from long before I came to be Vicar at Saint James Church, left to me as a bequest from my brother-in-Christ William Bunting, who served over at Saint Andrew’s Church in the east Bronx for over thirty years.

The only problem with this “gold book” is that it is what historians call a “secondary source.” The authors of this book handed along to posterity their own understandings of all that went before, tinted by the views of what was important to them at the time they wrote Even concerning its own time, the 1950s, it turned out not to be a reliable source for me today, as folks were so accustomed to things of their own time — the 40s and 50s — they did not think it important to record them, since “well, everybody knows that.” So, fifty years later, some important information was no longer recoverable to me, now, because everybody back then, knew it at the time and no one thought it was necessary to write it down.

Fortunately, the “gold book” was not my only source: I also had the parish records at my disposal. In the safe there were old papers and documents, what historians call “primary sources” — records from the actual times that things happened. And these records bear the mark of personal testimony and connection. Among them are letters from young soldiers serving in the First World War, writing from the horrors of the trenches to their priest back home in New York. There is the pencil entry in the parish record book, of the burial of the curate’s wife with no further comment — and it was only through correspondence with her great-granddaughter (now that’s a real primary source) that I discovered that the reason for the silence was the fact that she had taken her own life.

There are the more prosaic items like the last cancelled check to Tiffany & Co. to pay for the Saint Augustine and Monica stained glass window, probably the last surviving work of the great artist Louis Comfort Tiffany, or the receipts of sixty-five years earlier from the quarry for the very stones that form the walls of this church, signed and approved by the head of the building committee, Mr. Gustav Schwab.

And the difference between the secondary documents like the “gold book” and the primary sources like these handwritten notes, is that the primary materials speak for themselves, while the later records come second-hand, with interpretation and editing, and most importantly, omissions.

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John opens his Gospel with an affirmation that the Word was God and was with God at the beginning. This is the Original Message — the first “text,” if you will — that God spoke to creation, the Word through whom all things were made, the source of light and life, the primary source of all that is, but at that point seemingly distant, past and inaccessible to us in the present day. In between come the messengers, such as the Letter to the Hebrews refers to — the secondary sources — most importantly John the Baptist, who comes as a witness to testify to the light, and John the Evangelist, another testifier. But then, surprise surprise and Merry Christmas, the Word becomes flesh: not the secondhand word of a transcribed or translated message, but the Original Word itself, coming with all the power that it had in the first place: the primary source issued in a new edition, bound in flesh and blood — and swaddling bands.

The author of the Letter to the Hebrews affirms this, this distinction between the secondhand word from the prophets, to the word of the Son himself, the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being. This Jesus, this Son of God, this Messiah is no mere messenger: he is the message!

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Yet still, John tells us, some turn away — the Word comes to his world which owes its existence to him, yet that world refuses to know him. He comes to his own, but his own people do not accept him, or at least not all of them. Those who do, who accept the message, the powerful message, the personal message who has been waiting to be delivered from the beginning of time, waiting for the moment the right instant when it is meant to be spoken — those who accept this message, who believe in his name, receive power themselves to become children of God.

This is the miracle of Christmas, that the power and the person of God became a human child so that we — we might through him — become children of God. He came to us, not through interpretation or translation, not through secondary sources or a third party, but directly and personally. The Original Word, the Original Text, appeared in a new, living, cloth-bound edition — a Christmas present for each and every one of us. As the great old hymn says

He sent no angel of his host
to bear this mighty word,
but him through whom the worlds were made,
the everlasting Lord. (Hymn 489)

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Beloved, we have a personal message waiting. He’s been waiting for two thousand years, for us. Let us, once again, open our hearts to receive him, open our minds to learn from him, open our eyes to behold his light, which enlightens everyone who will receive him and believe in his name, even Jesus Christ our Lord. O come, let us adore him.+


Merry Christmas?

Word of a birth at the end of a war... a sermon for Christmas Eve 2011

SJF • Christmas Eve • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.

Merry Christmas! I say that especially this year because our readings this evening put me in mind of the soldiers returning from their service in Iraq, able to spend Christmas with their families at the end of this long war. Other members of the armed forces remain in danger, in Afghanistan and other troubled parts of the world, and they remain in our prayers as well. God give them a moment’s peace, even in the field, to pause and listen for the angels’ voices.

We tend to look back at the first Christmas through the lenses of sentiment and sentimentality — the memories of our own childhoods blending with the borrowed traditions of Victorian England and the New York Knickerbocker Dutch. Christian though we be, and as closely as we hold on to the mystery of the Incarnation, in our culture we cannot ignore the jolly old elf Saint Nicholas — even though, as history tells us, he was a Bishop and not an elf at all, jolly or otherwise!

The plumes of steam rising from pots of hot cider or from wassail bowls may fog our glasses’ lenses; the twinkling lights obscure or distract our vision, and the jingle bells impair our hearing — all the stuff of the secular Xmas may make it hard for us to see the somewhat stark realities of that first Christmas of long ago, and of the long stretch of years leading up to it.

During the Sundays of Advent we heard readings from the book of the prophet Isaiah, from those long years of preparation; and we pick up with him again tonight. He sets the theme of a new deliverance coming at the end of another war: a time when the people enslaved and oppressed are set free, the yoke from their shoulders and rod from their back is removed.

It is a vision like something out of the end of the siege of Stalingrad — the Nazis have retreated in defeat and the victors are sorting through the plunder: scavenging the abandoned tanks and weapons for ammunition; stripping the bodies of the dead soldiers of any valuables; the piles of discarded and abandoned boots and uniforms are used to light bonfires not just for celebration, but to keep warm in that hard Russian winter.

And into this scene out of a war movie there comes word of the birth of a child: an amazing child, a wonderful child; a child who is not only a child, but the son of God, the Prince of Peace.

When we turn to our Gospel reading the scene shifts, but not really all that much. Perhaps no longer quite the time of war or open warfare, as it is a time of peace. But it is a political peace in a very political world — a world of governors — even of places like Syria, much in the news even now — and emperors of Rome, and a worldwide census mandated and decreed by Imperial authority. If it is a world at peace during the time of Caesar Augustus it is only because Caesar has conquered that world and enslaved all of its peoples under the yoke of Roman rule, and the rod of his authority —it is peace at a price.

And again, into this less than perfect world, there comes the announcement of the birth of a child — not by a prophet speaking to the returned soldiers or the liberated captives, but by a host of angels speaking to shepherds out in the fields by night keeping their flocks.

Just as we can romanticize and sentimentalize Christmas, we can do the same to these shepherds. Lets first of all note that the gospel tells us that they were terrified. Wouldn’t you be? It’s the middle of a cold, dark night — dark as it could only be out in the country in the days before the lights of cities robbed us of the ability to see the stars. You and your fellow shepherds are out in the fields keeping watch over a bunch of sleeping sheep; it is quiet as only it can be out in the country where no traffic or elevated trains rattle down the street or planes fly overhead. You huddle down to keep warm with your blanket wrapped around you, probably half sleeping — for let’s be honest: I have no reason to believe that night-watchmen were any more likely to be able to keep awake all night back then than they are now — especially outside in the dark and the cold and the silence.

And into that cold and into that darkness and into that silence there suddenly breaks forth out of the heavens the glory of God and a company of angels. Who wouldn’t be terrified?

And so just as Isaiah’s announcement of the wonderful child comes into the midst of a war-torn scene, so this announcement by the angel of God comes in a time imperial power, mass migration of peoples to comply with the mandates of that power, and a terrifying message bursting upon an unsuspecting group of poor shepherds living out in the field, minding their own business, the sheep-minding business.

The message is that the child has been born, a Savior and Messiah, the child who is also the Lord. This is a message such as we long to hear at the end of another war, in another time when the powerful rule the world and most of us have to obey their demands and pay their taxes; when we must be registered and counted — even in a land as free as ours, where the political season and the campaigning, like the Xmas season itself, seems to start earlier and earlier each year, and where we cannot miss the fact that we appear to be appreciated more for our ability to vote than for any other exercise of our citizenship.

Yet this same message is the message we long to hear: of the end of war, of liberation of captives and an end to oppression.

And you know what? We have heard it. It is the Christmas message: not just a promise made to Isaiah or a revelation to some shepherds, but the same word brought to us through the proclamation of this gospel: Isaiah promised, the angels sang, Christ came, and Christ comes still — here, and now, with and among us as surely as he came to Bethlehem in Judea; with us in our hearts as surely as he was in the manger; with us in our hands as we hold the sacred bread that is his Body, just as surely as this newborn body was held in Mary’s arms.

“Christ is born today” — and every day — at the end of a war, in a time of peace; when shepherds watch and night-watchmen sleep; when emperors rule and candidates hustle for your votes; when the skies are silent and when they rumble with the flights of helicopters and jetliners; when the night is dark and when it glows with Christmas lights — or dazzles with the light of the heavenly host. This night, this very night, the wonderful child, the Lord Jesus, is born anew: O come, let us adore him!+


Sunday, December 18, 2011

Angelic Greeting

The drama of the Angelus... a sermon for Advent 4b



SJF • Advent 4b • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth...
Because Christmas falls on a Sunday this year — next Sunday — our Advent season is unusually long, and includes a full week between this, the last Sunday of Advent, and Christmas Day. But even a week seems far too short to jump from our Gospel account of the angel’s visit to Mary in Nazareth, to the birth of the child, conceived in that instant, in Bethlehem of Judea. And of course it is only the fact of liturgical time travel that gives us this drastically shortened one-week pregnancy. If we look back to March 25, the full nine months prior to Christmas Day on December 25, we will find this same gospel passage proclaimed on the feast of the Annunciation, where it most properly belongs. Still, every three years we get to hear this gospel on the last Sunday before Christmas — as a reminder of the momentous choice made by God, and the equally earth-shaking response made by Mary.
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Wrapped up in this gospel scene is another sort of Christmas present. Here it is that we find the origin of the prayer that many know by the name, the Hail Mary — or its Latin form, Ave Maria. It is also known as “The Angelic Salutation” because the angel Gabriel is the one who gives us the opening line of this famous prayer, right there in our gospel today, although we heard it in a more modern translation: “Hail, Mary, full of grace; the Lord is with you.” (We will get to hear the rest of this prayer on the Sunday before Christmas next year, when we hear of Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth, who says, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”)
Those two Scripture verses formed the original version of the Hail Mary as it was prayed for many centuries. (The part asking Mary to pray for us sinners now and the hour of our death was added by the Roman Catholic Church at the time of the Reformation.) The original form of the prayer comes entirely from the text of Scripture and is focused on grace and new life rather than on sin and death.
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And it is, after all, to that upbeat focus that this holy season calls us: it is the season of grace and new life. Now, there’s obviously much more going on in this gospel passage than just the angel Gabriel’s initial greeting. That is just what starts the encounter off, and the angel goes on to respond to Mary’s perplexity at the greeting, and further perplexity at the further explanation.
I’d like to look at this little scene of grace and new life through the lens of another prayer to which it gave rise. This prayer has formed a part of Christian culture for several centuries. It is connected with, and includes, the Hail Mary, but it plays out the whole scene as a kind of dramatic dialogue. It is a prayer that formed part of the daily life of many Christians, as they paused in the morning, and at midday, and dusk, quietly to recite this prayer to themselves as they heard the church bells toll. There was a time when it was commonly recited in many churches, including this one, but I think fewer and fewer have retained the memory of this pious and once popular devotion. You may know it by its Latin name, the Angelus, and you’ll find it printed on the last page of today’s bulletin, at the end of our worship, together with Millet’s famous painting of two farm-workers pausing in the field at the end of day to say the prayer together. We will use it today at the end of our worship as a prayer and a blessing.
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The prayer takes the form of a miniature three-scene drama in three couplets. The drama moves from the grace of invitation through acceptance and into its completion with the celebration of new life — much like those three readings from the book of the prophet Isaiah I spoke of on the last three Sundays.
The first couplet introduces the theme: greeting, grace and conception, setting the stage for what is to follow. The second, and pivotal, couplet represents the real drama in the story: as Mary accepts the angel’s news and what it might mean for her. In spite of her perplexity and confusion, she puts her whole trust in God, that God would not ask of her anything that she ought not do. Even knowing the impossibility of bearing a child while still a virgin, even knowing how the tongues would wag when an unmarried woman began to show her pregnancy — still Mary accepts God’s invitation and presents herself as open to the possibility: of becoming the mother of the holy child who will be known as the Son of God.
The final couplet, from the prologue to John’s Gospel, shows the completion and accomplishment of what has come before. Through Mary’s willingness to say Yes to God, Yes to the angelic greeting, the Word of God — the second Person of the Trinity, God from God, Light from Light, purely spiritual as God is Spirit, from before time and for ever — enters the world of matter and energy, and is made living, breathing, pulsing flesh, to dwell with us human beings as a human being. The life of God takes on human life.
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We observe this drama especially at this time of year, as we move from the invitation of Advent into the remembrance of the Incarnation on Christmas — in this last week of a short pregnancy from conception to delivery.
But this prayer, this Angelus, for many years served as a three-times-a-day reminder to people around the world, with the ringing of a church bell at morning, noon and dusk, to pause and remember and give thanks for this great mystery. I understand that the Irish radio still broadcasts the sound of the Angelus bell three times a day for the same reason, and perhaps you’ve heard the church bells ringing in your neighborhood from time to time that pattern of three times three, followed by nine bells during the saying of the final prayer. We will end our worship today with this traditional prayer, as a blessing and a reminder.
But I ask you not to let this be the only time you remember and give thanks for the mystery and blessing of the Incarnation that we will celebrate next weekend. Even if you do not hear the Angelus bell ring in the morning or at noon or at the close of day, let this sentiment stir in your heart, to give thanks to God, to the angel, and above all to Mary, for saying Yes to God when God asked of her a perplexing thing. May we too, always and everywhere, say Yes to God and serve him with such open, willing hearts, even when he asks a hard thing of us. Let our souls, like Mary’s soul, be the sanctuary of God, ringing bells or not, every day and every hour of our lives.+

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Arrival

The good news of Messiah, among us to inspire us to work his will. — A Sermon for Advent 3b

SJF • Advent 3b • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.

Over these first three weeks of Advent we have been hearing readings from the prophet Isaiah. And as I have said, they form a sequence almost like “ready, set, go.” The first showed Isaiah asking God why he did not show himself, and challenging and imploring God to do so. The second announced that God was indeed soon to show himself, and that unmistakably. And in today’s reading — a reading which, as we know from the gospel of Luke, Jesus identified with and proclaimed in the synagogue in his home town of Nazareth — in this reading the presence of the Spirit of God is formally announced: “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me...” It is good to recall that the Hebrew word for one who is anointed is Messiah.

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God’s promise is fulfilled in this prophecy. and it is a time of great rejoicing and celebration. The imagery is that of people getting dressed for a wedding. The groom puts on a garland and the bride dresses herself in her finest jewels. These are not things one does long in advance of the event — these are the outfits you put on only on the day of the wedding itself, like the tail-coat and the wedding dress. That is how we know that the great day has arrived — and when we see the bride and the groom so attired, we know that it is already here.

But note that even these fine outfits are but a shadow of the glory of the garments of salvation and the robe of righteousness with which God will clothe his people for the celebration of the Lord’s arrival. Not just the bride and the groom, but all the guests at the wedding banquet will be gloriously dressed. It is clearly something to rejoice about.

And so Saint Paul continues that word of rejoicing, urging those to whom he writes to rejoice always, to give thanks in all things, filled as they are with the unquenchable spirit of God and sanctified by the God of peace to be kept whole and sound.

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And yet... and yet. The arrival that Isaiah appears to celebrate did not come in the time of Isaiah. It happened centuries later in the time of John the Baptist. Isaiah’s words about the arrival of the Spirit of God were prophetic — even though, fired up with the sense of God’s imminent arrival, it seemed almost, almost, as if it was happening even then. It seemed that God would break through that very day, as if the bride and groom rose from their slumber and dressed for the wedding that would take place that very morning.

So eager were the people for this arrival in the days of Isaiah, and in the days of John the Baptist, that they looked for any clue, any sign, that God and his Messiah had come. You can see that in the grilling to which the priests and Levites subject John the Baptist. The arrival of the Messiah is so close that they almost feel that they can reach out and touch him — but as John assures them, he is not the one. The time is not yet, though as the song says, “soon and very soon.” John sets the stage, even quoting the prophet Isaiah, casting himself in the role of the one who cries out in the wilderness the very same words of preparation that we heard on the first Sunday of Advent — “make his paths straight.” He is coming.

And it is notable that someone else quotes from Isaiah — not just quoting but actually reading, as I said earlier. And that is Christ himself, who, when he was given the scroll of the prophet Isaiah to read in the synagogue of Nazareth, found the very passage we heard this morning. And he not only read from it about the spirit of the Lord God and the anointing that would proclaim the Messiah — he not only read from the scroll but declared that it was fulfilled, then and there, in their hearing, in the presence of all who heard him read it. It was a proclamation that Messiah had come.

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Soon after, John the Baptist, believing but no doubt wanting to be assured, sent messengers himself to Jesus to ask if he was indeed the one — much as others had sent messengers to John to ask if he was the one! And Jesus gave to John’s messengers an answer similar to the one John gave to those who sought him out: look at what I am doing. And in Jesus’ case, he once again cataloged those evidences of God’s presence similar to the promises made in the passage from Isaiah: sight to the blind, healing to the disabled, release to the prisoners and captives. To comfort John with the assurance that Christ was indeed the one who was promised, he did not engage in a point by point Scriptural argument, but displayed his works of power — the power of God’s presence at work in him and through him, performing the signs of liberation that the prophet had promised. The evidence of God’s arrival is God’s work. This isn’t talk any more, but action.

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And God wants the same from us — action. It is very easy to talk about how much we love God, love the church, love our fellow Christians. But God wants more than talk: God wants us to put our hands to work as well. God wants us to proclaim in word and deed that same message of deliverance from bondage that Isaiah preached, that John the Baptist promised, and that Christ at the last brought into being. We live in a world that is still full of brokenhearted people — disappointed in their hopes and frustrated or maligned in their efforts to be and to do all that God intends for them. We live in a world that is still oppressed and hungry for good news; a world that is held captive by lust of possession that still works desolation, binding those enthralled by wealth and fame in chains — that while they seem to be made of gold, are cold iron underneath and weigh them down to the depths.

We live, in short, in a world that desperately needs to hear the proclamation of the year of the Lord’s favor, of the Lord’s forgiveness, of the Lord’s deliverance, and above all of the Lord’s arrival.

Will you do that? Not only in word but in deed? Will you proclaim with your lips and in your lives that God has come among us, and is among us still. Will you proclaim that Jesus lives, and that he reigns in your hearts and strengthens your hands to do his will? Will you follow up that proclamation with the hard work that shows that you mean every word you say, that what you proclaim with your lips is what you live in your lives? We, like John, may not be worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. But we can, like John, proclaim, and by our actions certify, that God is with us, acting through us, mighty in power and strong to save: even Jesus Christ our Lord.


Sunday, December 04, 2011

Getting Ready

Isaiah's theme of preparing the human landscape... A sermon for Advent 2B

SJF • Advent 2b • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together.

We continue on this second Sunday of Advent with readings from the book of the prophet Isaiah. As I mentioned last week, these readings do not appear in our week-to-week worship in the same order as they do in the book of the prophet. But they do fall into a logical sequence as we’ve been reading them through the course of Advent and as we shall continue, almost as logical as “ready, set, go.”

Last week we heard Isaiah’s lament that God had abandoned and forgotten his people. We also heard his challenge to God to reveal himself, to tear open the heavens and come down, to shake the mountains and boil the sea if need be — to make himself known so that the nations might see, and tremble at his presence.

And today we hear word of God’s response. If, as I said last week, the initial appeal is like an injured child calling out for its mother to come and help, then today it is as if we hear the voice calling from the kitchen — I’ll be there in a minute!

God instructs the prophet to give the people a word of comfort, a word of assurance: God is most definitely coming and wants the way prepared, cleared, leveled out, all obstructions removed and a new four-lane highway built right through the desert so that God’s glory will be unmistakable when it is revealed, “and all flesh shall see it together” — as the text made unforgettable by Händel’s music puts it.

And there is a musical quality to this text today — just as last week we heard a dialogue, a duet of call and response between the prophet and God, so too in the midst of this text today there is a short interlude in the form of a duet — and I’m not going to try to sing.

The voice of God commands the prophet to cry out; and the prophet responds, “What shall I cry?” He then begins to fall back into some of that language of despondency and despair that we heard in last week’s reading. Shall I, the prophet asks, state the obvious: that people are as mortal as grass, as transient and frail and ephemeral as the flower of the field — living for a day or two and then parched by the heat of the sun or withered by the blast of a winter wind? Is that what God wants me to say? Where is the good news in that?

And in response, God orders not just the prophet but Zion itself and the holy city of Jerusalem to stand tall and proud and lift up voices full of strength as would a herald of good tidings, fearlessly crying out: Here is God! See, look! God is coming, the good Shepherd who will gather up the lost lambs, and lead the mother sheep.

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Today’s theme, then, is the primary Advent theme of preparation for the coming of the Lord. The apostle Peter reminds us that the coming of God will be sudden and unmistakable and that we are called to wait for that day, always being ready, always prepared by living lives of peace and purity and patience. And John the Baptist, while dressed in the costume of Elijah, fulfills the promise of Isaiah. He is the one who appears in the wilderness to call out for preparation — and indeed he does prepare the people with a baptism of repentance, to turn them back towards the place from which God will come, and the assurance that he is only the messenger and not the one for whom the promise was given; he is not the Messiah. No, he is not worthy even to take off the Messiah’s shoes, and while he has baptized with water, to prepare the people, the one to come will baptize with the Holy Spirit.

The preparation we are charged to undertake — as Isaiah makes clear — is a very personal preparation although Isaiah describes it in geological if not cosmic terms. The mountains that are to be removed and the valleys filled in to level out the way for building that four-lane highway for God’s coming are obstacles to us as much as they are to God. From the mountain of pride to the valley of despondency, these are obstacles that block God’s very entry into every human heart.

For that is where God seeks to enter in — through the empty desert of our needs and wants, past the fields of wilted grass and faded flowers of lost hopes and disappointments, filling in our deepest sense of inadequacy and weakness, as well as trimming down our pride and false self-sufficiency, leveling it down to size — past all these obstacles and impediments God seeks us out and bids us prepare for his coming by doing all we can — God giving us the power — to turn to him in faith, in hope, and with love.

For it is faith, as Jesus assured us, that can move mountains, even towering mountains of pride. It is hope that can guide us through the darkest valley, even the valley of the deepest sense of abandonment and despair, even the valley of the shadow of death. And it is love that will inspire us with the power of God’s own Holy Spirit to mount up on Zion and through the gates of Jerusalem to cry out to our beloved, Come, Lord Jesus Bridegroom, come! The Bride is ready. We have flung wide the portals of our hearts; Lord Jesus, enter in!+


Sunday, November 27, 2011

Blaming it all on God

One thing God cannot resist is his beloved saying, "You don't love me any more..." — a sermon for Advent 1b

SJF • Advent 1b • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSGO that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence... You were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.

We come today to the beginning of a new church year, on this the first Sunday of Advent. In the four weeks leading up to Christmas — which falls on a Sunday this year — we will be hearing many texts of Scripture dealing with the theme of preparation for the Lord’s coming, both his first coming among us in Bethlehem as a child, and the second coming when he will return in power and great might to judge and rule the world.

Today we heard, and on the next two Sundays we will be hearing, passages from the prophet Isaiah. I will be taking them as my primary theme for reflection in this season of anticipation.

It is hard to overestimate the importance of Isaiah both in Jewish history and in how the Christian church made use of his prophecies — many of which came in short order to be understood as explicitly related to the person and work of Jesus Christ. Passages from the book of Isaiah are threaded through our Advent and Lenten seasons in particular: for Isaiah is the prophet both of the Lord’s coming and of the Suffering Servant.

For the Jewish people, the prophecies of Isaiah were a source of comfort and reassurance in the times leading up to their captivity in Babylon and through it and beyond. So extensive are these prophecies that some modern scholars suggest that there may well have been two or even three different “Isaiahs” all contributing to this collection of prophetic writing over as long as four hundred years.

But my purpose here is not to engage in literary criticism or historical speculation — my interest is in asking what this text meant in its own time and what it means for us today.

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The text we have before us comes from the later chapters of the book of Isaiah itself. In its form it represents a good example of a fairly common biblical model: a personal encounter with God, combining elements of accusation, confession, and petition. Confession and petition we are all fairly familiar with — as it forms a major part of our own ordinary Sunday worship. But accusation? We Christians don’t normally display that Jewish characteristic of chutzpah — evident in people such as Abraham and Job and Jeremiah — to stand up and wag our fingers in God’s face.

But Isaiah does. In the first part of the passage he is basically saying to God, in a challenge, “Why don’t you show yourself if you want people to believe in you? Especially to those who deny you — those pagan nations that have been persecuting your people? Why don’t you act as you did back in the old days; when you tore open the heaven and came down like a mighty fire; when you split open the earth and made it quake?” Isaiah is challenging God to act as he did when he brought his people out of Egypt, when he brought about tumult and destruction in the land of Canaan, leveling the walls of Jericho, and delivered his people from the hands of those who sought to destroy them, bringing them to and settling them in a land of promise: that promised land of milk and honey.

Now, so far, in all of this Isaiah has been saying the kinds of things that appear elsewhere in Hebrew Scripture, especially in the appeals made to God in the Psalms. He is lamenting the fact that God seems to have hidden himself; that God is no longer manifest to the world, no longer helping his people. But then Isaiah says something rather astounding: “You were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.” I’m tempted to say, “Oh now it’s God’s fault!”

But fortunately, Isaiah doesn’t stop with blaming God for the sins of the people. As he makes clear in the rest of the passage, he is simply trying to show how completely dependent the people are upon God. Without God helping them, of course they fall into sin — without God’s constant help and support, even the best and most righteous of them is like a filthy cloth. The autumn season of this people is well underway: they’ve faded like leaves and their iniquities like the wind have blown them all away. They are like a tree that has been uprooted and removed from its soil. They are no longer planted in God, and so they wither away and perish. They have even given up praying — they are so disappointed and despondent because God has not shown himself for so long, has hidden his face from them for so long, that they have given up. They have despaired.

And then, of course, out of the depths of this despond, Isaiah turns to his affirmation: and yet you are our God. In spite of all of the feelings of abandonment, even of betrayal, God is still God and this people are the work of God’s hand. God is the potter and they are the clay. And Isaiah ends with an appeal to God to remember and forgive his people. The uprooted tree will be planted once again.

What Isaiah, and the other prophets and poets who wrote and spoke in the same way have learned is precisely how powerful are those words, “You don’t love me anymore”!

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This is the appeal that a loving God cannot and will not resist. For of course God loves this people, loves them as dearly as any lover ever did, loves them with the fiercely jealous love of a husband who suspects his wife has strayed, loves them with the powerful and protective love of a mother for her child in danger.

This appeal reminds me of a very powerful scene in a Yiddish film that was produced in Germany just before the Nazi assault on the Jews began in earnest. In its own way it was, sadly, as prophetic as Isaiah.

The film is set in a nineteenth century shtetl, in Eastern Europe in the era of “Fiddler on the Roof,” when and where the main enemies of the Jewish people were Russians and Poles, not Nazis. A village has been reduced to rubble by a marauding band of Cossacks. They’ve burned down the synagogue, raped the young women and killed most of the young men in the village. One old man is left sitting in the midst of the devastation, having rescued a precious Torah scroll from the fire. He sits in the ashes with the Torah scroll in his arms like a wounded child, rocking and weeping. And like a modern Isaiah, he raises his voice to God in a lament:

Why have you done this to your people, O God? Why have you allowed this to happen? Down through the ages, again and again we are persecuted and killed for your sake! I will not be silent; I will raise my voice and cry out to you, like a child who calls out to its mother. “Mama, Mama; it hurts!”

That old man, like Isaiah, hoped that God would hear and respond to this lament — though the response might be delayed, God the just judge — and even more the loving parent to these children — would hear this plea, and ultimately save and deliver his people. When all else fails, when other defenders are ready to give up, when human justice fails, the only plea that makes sense is to appeal to the highest court of all, before the judgment seat of the Almighty, even if it means calling out, “Don’t you love me any more?”

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So, while appearing to blame it all on God, this is actually an appeal to God, a way to evoke a response from God who will not ignore or reject the appeal of those whom God does love so much. It is an appeal to God to be God. For God is love, and is always more willing to forgive than we are to pray. So, then, let us pray that God will be God. And in our own times of trial, personal and communal, and feelings of loss or abandonment, kindle the fire of hope that God will save those whom he loves, and has called to be his own. That God will plant our leafless trees by streams of living water.+


Monday, November 21, 2011

Feeling Sheepish

The division of the nations, and God's threat and promise. A sermon for Christ the King, Year A.

SJF • Proper 29 2011 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness.

When I was a child, and behaved badly — at least the first time around — my mother and father would usually let me off the hook with a warning rather than a punishment. But they would always describe the punishment that would fall upon me the next time I behaved badly in the same way. And they would end that warning with a pointed reminder, “That’s not a threat; that’s a promise!”

Today’s passage from the Gospel according to Matthew is one of the greatest of the threats and promises made by Jesus Christ during his earthly ministry. It is a vision of the end of all time, when the Son of Man will return in glory with his angels to take up his place on the judgment seat, and judge the nations of the earth.

The passage portrays the king of heaven as a shepherd dividing sheep from goats, to one side and to the other. The sheep are told that they have done well even when they didn’t know they were doing so; and the goats are similarly told that they have done poorly, again even though they didn’t know what they were failing to do. And the doing or the not doing, whether by the sheep or by the goats, isn’t about how well or poorly they have treated their own kind, or about how the sheep have treated the goats or the goats the sheep. Rather it is about how they each and all have treated the members of the king’s family— and the least of them at that.

In other words, this vision of the final judgment contrasts with that portrayed in the book of the prophet Ezekiel. For the prophet, it is about the various members of the flock of sheep, and how the fat sheep have mistreated the lean sheep. The fat sheep have pushed and shoved and butted with their horns at the weaker animals and scattered them far and wide. And those pushy fat sheep are in for punishment when the shepherd judges between sheep and sheep.

So Jesus is using language similar to that of the prophet, but with a very different point. Obviously, as Ezekiel shows, it is wrong for the fat cats of this world to trod on the poor — the One Percent on the Ninety-Nine Percent — to take advantage of the weak, to push them out of the pleasant pasture to which all of the sheep are entitled.

But Jesus is making a rather different point — a more challenging point — and the threat and the promise are equally more demanding. It is not enough just to be good and fair to your fellow sheep and be content with your share of the pasture. It is not enough just not to butt with your horns or push with your flank and shoulder in taking advantage of the weaker sheep. The goats in Jesus’ parable suffer eternal punishment — and let’s be clear that that’s what Jesus is talking about here in his parable of the end of the world — they suffer this terrible punishment not because they’ve done bad things to the weak, whether sheep or goats, but because they haven’t done good things for those who needed good things done for them — and who those in need are, I’ll get to in a moment.

But first note that these goats are not punished because they’ve imprisoned people or stolen their food or stripped them of their clothing. They are punished because they haven’t visited those who were sick or imprisoned, or fed the hungry and given drink to the thirsty or clothing to the naked. They are not guilty of any great crime or tyranny, but of neglect.

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And now the other matter: who are those towards whom the sheep and goats have done or failed to do good? First we might well ask who these sheep and goats are. And the text reveals they are “the nations.” These are those of whom Jesus will speak at the very end of Matthew’s Gospel — and we are almost to the end with this chapter — when he orders the disciples to “go and baptize all nations.” The sheep and the goats are the people of the nations — those on the receiving end of the ministry of evangelism — the ones to whom the evangelists will go to bring good news and baptize. So the ones towards whom the neglect of the goats and the generosity of the sheep is shown, is not each other, not the nations gathered for judgment — but rather the disciples themselves, the “members of Christ’s family” — those who are sent to baptize and bring good news to those nations.

This parable, then, is not simply a lesson for Christians to be good to one another — to visit the sick and those in prison, to feed the hungry and clothe the naked — those are things we ought to do anyway under the commandment of Jesus to love God and our neighbor.

This parable is offered as a threat and a promise: a comfort to the disciples themselves, who in their coming ministry in the early days of the church would be going out into the world to carry out the commandment to baptize and spread the good news out there — out among all those sheep and goats of the nations. It is offered as a warning to those who would treat the disciples well or badly in their hour of need. Though they were ignorant of the fact that in relation to the disciples — by visiting and feeding and clothing them — or not — they had the king himself with them, in the person of the members of the king’s own family: as you have done it to the least of these, you have done it to me.

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Now, before we breathe a sigh of relief that this parable may be more about how we as Christians are to be received in the world when we bring the good news of the Gospel, than about how we are to behave towards one another, let’s not lose sight of the fact that we stand in relationship to one another much as the world stands in relationship to us. How we treat each other does matter — and it matters eternally — and that’s not a threat, that’s a promise. For if it is so vitally important that people treat strangers well, how much more important is it that we treat the members of our own family well. For all — all — strangers and family and friends — are under the rule of the great Shepherd of the Sheep. He is Lord of all. How we treat the members of the family to which we all belong is a judgment upon us — whether we know it or not. So the safest course is to do good to all, to visit and comfort those who are sick or in prison, to feed all of those who hunger and give drink to all who thirst, to welcome all strangers as well as all of our friends; and to clothe all who are naked.

As the beautiful prayer attributed to Saint Francis reminds us, “It is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.” Where else are we to comfort the sick than at the bedside of the sick? Where else are we to comfort those in prison except in prison? Whom are we to feed except those who are hungry? To whom shall we give drink but to those who thirst? And whom shall we welcome if not the stranger or the homeless who seek us out? These may well be members of the family of the king whom we do not yet know, long-lost relations or distant cousins who have wandered far from home — and we can welcome them back, and treat them as we ought. God help us if we fail to serve the king in the person of those who are least among the members of his family. And God bless us when we do. He has not only threatened; he has promised!+


Monday, November 07, 2011

Wedding Banquet

Saint James Fordham • All Saints Sunday 2011
The angel said to me, Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.

There is an old tradition that on the night before a marriage, the future bride and groom are separately wined and dined by their friends at bachelor or bachelorette parties — with perhaps more emphasis on the wining than the dining! Well, All Saints Day is the day on which the church celebrates the marriage supper of the Lamb. And since the marriage supper is yet to begin — we’ve received the invitation but it isn’t dated; we’ve just been told to be ready and alert — in one sense the church’s whole vigil here on earth is like a long bachelor or bachelorette party as we anticipate the great day to come. We who have yet to cross over to the life of the world to come, we in what is called the Church Militant (as opposed to the Church Triumphant), we who feebly struggle while they in glory shine, we, Christ’s body still at work, remember and give thanks for those who rest from their labors.

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Now one of the things about the parties surrounding weddings, is that the guests usually bring gifts for the new bride and groom. But what can we possibly bring as a gift for someone who has everything already! For the wedding we are talking about is the wedding of Christ and the Church, the wedding supper of the Lamb! And if anyone ever deserved the title The Man Who Has Everything, it is Jesus Christ, the one who draws the whole world to himself.

The answer is that Jesus wants one other gift, one thing we possess but which we can hold back if we will, or choose to let go of and give to him. And that is ourselves. We can choose to keep to ourselves, or we can choose to give ourselves to the one who gave us everything; we can give our selves, our souls and bodies, as a reasonable and holy sacrifice.

The Saints in glory, both the big famous saints with churches named after them, whose likenesses are enshrined in stained glass and icons, (or on the wall outside the parish office!), and the less well-known saints with likenesses preserved on our own little remembrance board there under the altar, the saints are those who gave themselves to God. And their example can help us to be as generous with ourselves as they were with themselves. The wonderful thing about the communion of saints — and I mean all of the saints, living and dead, including us here as much as the saints in glory — the wonderful thing about the communion of saints is that we help each other become gifts to God. We bear each other up when we are tempted to slide back and away from our best efforts to serve our Lord.

Ultimately all of us come to the wedding banquet carrying some of our brothers and sisters and being carried by others of them. No one gets in empty-handed! We are called and invited to the wedding, and we are to come bearing love for one another, which ofttimes means literally bearing each other up. The only wedding invitation we will have to show at the door to heaven is each other. No one gets in unaccompanied.

Remember the stern question that God asked the first murderer, and his cavalier response: Where is your brother? and Am I my brother’s keeper? Think of the sadness that pierced the heart of God when he heard those words in answer to the question, and left unsaid the response, “Of course you are." We are responsible to and for each other, connected through the bond of our common humanity. That bond is stronger than mere nationality or culture, and is fundamental and basic to our very being as human beings.

The weight of each other, as we bear each other and each other’s burden — as indeed Christ bears us — is the gentle and easy yoke of Christ. All of us are brothers and sisters in him, because it is through him that we become children of God.

What form that family will take, what we will become when we arrive, remains to be seen — it is not yet revealed. All of the blessedness that Jesus describes in the beatitudes is sometimes only perceived in that retrospective glance. In the present, most of those things are not pleasant while they are being endured! The road of sainthood is hard, no doubt about it. Being persecuted for righteousness sake is no bed of roses. It is only once we have arrived at the goal of the heavenly call — only when we look back to see our lives laid out in testimony, that we will see what a journey we have taken.

And more importantly, who has been with us and bearing us up along the way. What unknown hands lift burdens from our backs? What unknown saints walk at our sides and help us over obstacles of which we may not even be aware? Only when we’ve reached the goal will we be able to look back and see.

And what we will see will be worthy of the vision of Saint John the Divine. All the church through time and space, all the prophets and apostles and martyrs, all the saints in their festal company, and all the holy people of God will be displayed as a huge inverted wedge of souls and saints carrying and being carried by one another, an inverted pyramid that focuses its sharp, heavy point on a man nailed to a cross outside the walls of Jerusalem — who bears it all, with arms outstretched.

Though that weight pushed him down to the very depths when he descended to the dead, yet the power of God working in him raised him up again, and the power of God working through him can and will push that whole great pyramid of charity right on up and out of time and space and into eternity. And the first shall be last: the first fruits of the resurrection, Jesus the Bridegroom, is behind us urging us on, bearing us forward, ushering us into the banqueting hall.

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God is full of surprises. We thought we were coming to the wedding banquet as servants, then found we were no longer servants, but friends. Then we were surprised to find that the bridegroom would act as usher. But a far greater surprise awaits us. We had just settled into the notion that we were to be guests at the banquet, friends of the bridegroom. But it turns out that we are much more even than wedding guests. All this blessed company — ironically blessed in poverty, meekness, thirst for righteousness, hunger for mercy and peace, and even under persecution — all this company of blessedness will gather at the banquet, as more than guests: we are the Bride herself.

We, in company with all those who have gone before, the apostles, prophets, and martyrs, all the holy people of God, the blessed company of all faithful people, the saints militant and triumphant are the Bride!

This is the mystery we celebrate today. We and all our beloved ones, together with the unnumbered saints who have gone before us, participate in God’s great saving act in Jesus Christ our Lord. We as the Church in the communion of saints are eternally united to him by his gracious gift of himself once offered for us all — for what God has joined together shall never be put asunder. And so, to our Lord and God — and loving Spouse — let us with grateful hearts ascribe all might, majesty, power and dominion, henceforth and forevermore.+


Sunday, October 30, 2011

Minor Prophet

The truth may well be in the minority --- but with the power of God can turn the worlds upside down. A sermon for Proper 26a.

SJF • Proper 26a • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The sun shall go down upon the prophets, and the day shall be black over them; the seers shall be disgraced and the diviners put to shame....

We heard a reading this morning from the book of the prophet Micah. He is one of the “Minor Prophets” — one of the twelve whose much shorter works are gathered together at the end of the Old Testament after the big-league heavy-hitters Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel — each of whose works alone is longer than the twelve others put together. But they are none the less important.

Micah is one of these Twelve Minor Prophets, but in today’s reading he also appears to be in the minority among the other prophets of his own time — the ones whom he accuses of leading the people astray. These are the prophets for hire, who cry out “Peace” when they have something to eat, but declare war against those who put nothing in their mouths.

This stand-off among the prophets is not all that unusual — oftentimes in Israel’s history there was disagreement among those called prophets: some said one thing and some another, and it was often the case that the one telling the truth — the true prophet — was in the minority.

You may recall the story of Elijah at Mount Carmel, when he alone faced off against several hundred prophets of the false god Baal — ridiculing them as they danced about and cut and gashed themselves in an effort to induce their god to show himself. Or you might recall that Amos (another of the Twelve Minor Prophets) prophesied in the minority and was chided for doing so. At that he protested that he wasn’t even a prophet — just a shepherd who lived off the fruit of the land— until God called him to speak the truth to the people of that land.

Another early prophet, Micaiah — not to be confused with Micah — like Elijah also had to bring bad news of defeat to Ahab king of Israel, noting that God had sent a lying spirit into the mouths of four hundred other prophets who told Ahab that he would be successful. Talk about a minority of one! — and yet he was the only one who told the truth.

The sad fact is that there were often false prophets, like those against whom Micah protests in our reading this morning: prophets at a price, prophets who thought in terms of personal profit — with an “F I” instead of “P H E” — and who would give you what you wanted to hear, for a price — like the fortune-tellers who will always give good news so long as you cross their palms with silver.

For those against whom Micah speaks, it is all about the money: not just the prophets, but the rulers who take bribes to hand out the desired judgment; priests who teach falsely for a price, or prophets who give pleasing oracles of peace in exchange for silver or gold. Micah stands in opposition to all of this. Although the prophets and princes and priests can be bought, God will not be bought off, and will bring his truth, will bring his rule, and his judgment upon all who turn aside to evil ways. As Micah says in another passage from his writing: you cannot buy God off with sacrifices and burnt offerings — even going so far as to imagine that God would accept your own children in a human sacrifice. No, Micah says: what the Lord God requires of you — in that ringing phrase — “is to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”

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The situation is not all that different by the time of Christ. The authorities — in this case the scribes and the Pharisees — enjoy the privilege of their station. They sit in the seat of Moses — giving authoritative interpretations of the Law — but they fail to follow through on the Law’s harder teachings about justice, fairness and equity. The return they garner in exchange is not so plainly financial, but rather the literal “fringe benefits” — like those fringes that decorate their prayer shawls in an ostentatious show of self-righteous piety. They have the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at the banquets, and the respectful bows and curtsies in the street and the marketplace, as people nod to them and humble themselves and call them “rabbi.”

Jesus, like Micah before him, stands as a minority of one against this comfortable establishment. He knows — as indeed only the Word of God can know, as the one who sent the prophets in the first place — he knows that a prophet’s task is not to cozy up to power and prestige, but as Finley Peter Dunne once famously put it, to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

Those in the seats of power would later accuse the Christians of trying to turn the world upside-down. And indeed that is what they did, and what they were meant to do. A world in which even one child goes hungry or perishes from a treatable disease is a world that needs to be turned upside-down.

Our Gospel passage this morning closes with Jesus almost quoting his mother, Blessed Mary of Nazareth, who had herself spoken prophetically when she visited her cousin Elizabeth and said, “He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree.” This is what happens when the minority has God on its side — when the truth that they proclaim is not something they speak for what they can get out of it, or to please others or to gain their support from it, or to exalt themselves — but simply because it is the truth.

Telling the truth will often not win you friends or earn you praise or reward. It can get you into trouble, as it did Elijah and Amos and Micaiah and Micah... and Jesus — and as it did for the Apostles who spread the word of Jesus and his teaching, and turned the world upside-down, so that the rich and comfortable might slip from their seats — whether the seat of Moses or the prince’s throne — and come to learn what it is to be among the poor and disenfranchised of this world.

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Jesus ends his words in this morning’s Gospel with a warning to his followers. They are not to purchase honor with flattery, to take upon themselves high titles and the best seats in the places of earthly pomp and circumstance. No, they are to turn their hearts and minds — and ears — to the one in heaven, who is their Father, and to Jesus Christ who is their teacher and instructor.

We are called to be like the true prophets of old, who listened for the word of God — both for the unfolding of the written word of God, and for the teaching of the living Word of God in our hearts. The ancient prophets saw his day, far off and as in a vision, and were glad. We are fortunate enough to live in the days since his coming, and what is more, to continue to welcome him among us in Word and Sacrament. No better seat of honor, or more prestigious banquet exists than the one to which we have been invited and at which we are nowseated — not because of our worthiness, but by his grace. To him be the glory, now and for ever.


Sunday, October 23, 2011

Charity Does Not Stay at Home

A call for outreach...

SJF• Proper 25a • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
One of the Pharisees, a lawyer, asked Jesus a question to test him, Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?

There is an old saying that goes, “Charity begins at home.” You’ve probably heard that said from time to time. It usually comes up in a church context when someone on a vestry or church board suggests sending money or resources out to the mission field, and someone else points out that there’s plenty of work to do right where they are. And of course, that’s the problem with, “Charity begins at home.” It usually means, in practice, “Charity stays at home.”

When the Pharisees came to test Jesus, our Gospel today tells us, the lawyer among them asked him what the most important law was; natural question for a lawyer. And he answered, as many a Jew of his day would, by citing two laws from the Law of Moses. First, from Deuteronomy: that one must love God with heart and mind and soul and strength; and second from Leviticus: that one must love one’s neighbor as oneself.

What these two laws show us is that charity — love — does begin at home, with oneself and one’s immediate neighbors; but that it cannot stay at home. True love, true charity, reflects the compassion of God, and though it starts at home, it reaches to the ends of the earth — just as the love of God does.

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Charity begins at home: because if you do not love yourself you will not be a very loving person to anyone else. Many personal relationships go sour because people feel unworthy and unlovable, and they reject the love that others try to show to them. This was the lesson of many a fable and fairy tale, for example, of the Beast whose heart was finally warmed by Beauty, who taught him to stop treating himself as a monster, and to realize his own lovableness.

Yes, charity — love — starts at home. But charity cannot stay at home: few people are as unlovable as those who are so full of self-love that they don’t reach out to those around them. The truly loving person is able both to love and to be loved, starting at home but reaching out beyond it, from self, to neighbor, and to God.

For you can’t jump right to claiming to love God if you don’t start at home first. As the beloved disciple John wrote, “Those who do not love their brothers and sisters, whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” How many people down through the years have quietly and contentedly claimed to love and serve God while ignoring God’s children — their brothers and sisters in the faith! There is a powerful indictment in the words of Saint John Chrysostom: “Do not, in your journey to worship Christ in the church, pass him by where he lies starving and freezing in the street! You cannot claim to love God if you do not love God’s children.”

Jesus taught us, in fact, that the primary way in which we show our love of God is in how we love each other. He was highly critical of the temple authorities for putting on such a show of piety while taking the last few resources of the widows and orphans. He criticized the Pharisees for imposing rules of such high demanding virtue that they lost sight of human reality.

And so Jesus offered a stumper of a question to the Pharisees, who were trying to test him, to catch him and trip him and if possible bring him up on charges. Jesus asked them how it was possible that David could call his own son, “Lord.”

Now this question stumped the Pharisees, as Jesus intended it to do! They lived in a world in which the younger always served the older, a world in which it was inconceivable that a man would call his son, let alone his many times great-great-great-grandson “my lord.”

Things simply didn’t work that way in their neatly ordered world. The humble and the poor are the servants; the rich and the mighty are the lords over them. That’s the way the world works. The Pharisees didn’t understand that what Christ brought them, what the disciples would later reveal was a movement that would “upside-down” their neatly ordered world. Had they been able to understand this one riddle, they might have grasped what Jesus was about: that turnabout of true charity, in which those who have serve those without, in which a leader becomes a nursemaid, in which the master takes up the role of a serving-woman and washes his disciples’ feet, in which a many many times great-great-grandfather looks to the distant future to see his distant son and heir lifted from the earth, to draw the whole world to himself,
and calls him, Lord.

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As you know, I was traveling in South Africa and England this past two weeks, and in fact had a brief stop in Ireland when the plane developed problems and had to turn back. (Rather more travel than I had counted on!) But I learned something in South Africa, where I had a wonderful experience meeting people from across the continent — from South Africa of course, but there were clergy from Sweden, people from New Zealand, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Nigeria, from Rwanda, from Kenya — many parts of Africa, discussing many issues. And the one thing that surprised me was that the most inspiring talk I heard came from Chicago, from the priest in a parish in Chicago who presented to the consultation some of what her work is.

Her parish, which is called “All Saints,” when she came there about 18 years ago, had about 25 members. And the first thing she did, to challenge that congregation, was to challenge them much as Jesus the Pharisees — to suggest that what they needed to do was to look out to their neighborhood, to see what was going on, and to try to meet the needs of some of the people in that struggling, difficult neighborhood. And they began a very modest feeding program, having a hot meal served once a week.

Well, 18 years later, that church now has over 600 members, and they serve, still, one day a week, 400 people: a hot meal every Tuesday. They listened to the Lord, who challenged them, and told them to look beyond themselves to their neighbors.

And what I want to do is challenge us, here at St James Church, to do the same. As you know, some years ago, we had a dinner served on Thanksgiving Day — to homeless people and whoever was in the neighborhood. We stopped doing that a few years back and switched to Christmas, and I have to say the Christmas meal was not nearly as successful. I think one of the problems being that by the time it gets into December it’sgotten very cold, and people aren’t out on the streets — God knows where they have gone, but they aren’t out there. But on Thanksgiving, they still are. And I would like to challenge us once again to do what we did a few years ago, and open our doors and welcome people in to eat in our parish hall, now that the hall has been restored and prepared, we really have no excuse not to do it.

And I’m reminded of a wonderful hymn, which we’re not singing today because this just came to me this morning, the text of which says:

For the love of God is broader than the measure of Man’s mind,

and the love of the Eternal is most wonderfully kind.

If our love were but more faithful we should take him at his word,

and our life would be thanksgiving for the goodness of the Lord.

I’m sure you recognize that hymn. And I would like to challenge us today — and I’m doing this with the mind of honoring Bonnie’s parish, All Saints — with All Saints Day coming, and you’re having in your bulletin this morning an envelope for our annual All Saints Day remembrance, where we remember those who have died, our families and friends, and we normally put that money into our endowment fund, which is a wonderful thing, and a help for our future the church. But I would like to suggest that this year we take that offering that is dedicated to our own personal saints, our friends and family who have gone before us, and dedicate that money, and any other money we can raise, to put on a really splendid Thanksgiving Day celebration, and welcome people from far and wide, our neighbors in the Bronx, to come in and have a hot meal on a cold day.

Will you do that with me, will you do that, my friends. And next week I will ask for your help — and I’ll have a sign-up sheet prepared at the back of the church for those willing to pitch in, perhaps to cook something and bring it on that day. And the funds we raise will go to buy supplies and food, and whatever we need to help feed the hungry on that day.

Are you with me, my friends? Shall we allow God to challenge us and allow the love of God to grow in our hearts so that we can open our doors to our neighbors, who are less well off than we are? Let us do that, friends. It is what Jesus wants from us, and it is in his name we pray; in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.


Sunday, October 02, 2011

Letting Go

St Paul catalogues his virtues and then throws the catalogue away! --- sermon for Proper 22a

SJF • Proper 22a • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.

There was once a very successful Turkish prize-fighter, named Ismail Yousouf. He traveled the world offering to fight anyone who would contest his strength, and he always won. In addition to his physical prowess, he also had a deep distrust of banks and bankers. Because of that, he kept his winnings in the form of gold coins that he carried with him at all times in a money belt around his waist. I suppose he might have re-written the Scriptural saying to read, “Where your treasure is, there will your stomach also be!” This decision, to keep his wealth as close to him as his skin, led to tragedy, however, when he had the misfortune to be sailing on the passenger liner La Bourgogne in the summer of 1898, when it collided with another vessel off the coast of Nova Scotia and sank. A few of the passengers escaped the disaster, but Yousouf was not among them: in spite of his physical strength, his gold money-belt weighed him down, and he sank into the depths like a stone. Perhaps after all the old saying isn’t quite true, and you can take it with you! But is it worth the trip?

Yousouf’s story is not unique — even on that ship on that day, in which fewer than a quarter of the passengers were saved, there must have been others who might have been saved had they resisted the temptation to turn back for some valued item — a necklace or a briefcase or a wallet — and waste valuable time and add to their burden in reaching the lifeboats.

In a similar vein Mark Twain wrote of his visit to the ruins of Pompeii where he saw the remains of a man who was caught in the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius just outside a door to a passage that might have protected him — now an ash-coated skeleton with a key to the door in one hand and ten gold coins in the other. Twain reflected, that had he not stopped to gather up the gold, he might have made it to the door.

The reality of someone dying because they won’t let go of some particular thing is so much a part of human culture that it has become what’s called a “trope” — which is a sort of fancy literary word for a cliché. How many movies have you seen where a character perishes for that very reason — failing to let go of some precious item. I’m sure you can think of many, and I won’t even start to list them,
but that word “precious” and the mention of volcanos can hardly pass without acknowledging poor Gollum and his obsession with the Ring of Power that ultimately leads him to his incinerated end at Mount Doom.

The moral of all of this is that some things are best let go of — and your life may depend on letting go. I reminded us last week of Jack Benny’s response to the challenge, “Your money or your life!” — “I’m thinking, I’m thinking!” — which is comical precisely because we recognize that tension in our own lives — that tension between what seems to be of value and what really is of ultimate value; and our recognition that some people really do choose money over life, dying because they won’t let go — or maybe living, but not really having much of a life.

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In our reading from Philippians last week we heard about how Jesus Christ let go — let go of everything — not to save his own life but to save the lives of all who would turn to him in faith. Though he was the Son of God, he did not consider equality with God as something to be grasped at or held on to, but rather emptied himself, taking on our human nature so as to live and die as one of us — for our sake and for our salvation.

In the continuation of Philippians we heard this morning, Saint Paul does a similar thing. He begins by cataloguing all of the things he could be proud of if he wished: his being an observant Jew, a scholar and a teacher, in zeal and devotion a leader of his people, a man rich in his own acquired righteousness under the law. But then he shows that he is willing to toss that glossy illustrated catalogue onto the rubbish heap. He will not allow all of these inheritances and accomplishments, these native qualities and acquired skills, to hold him back — as indeed they had held him back — from Christ and his resurrection. Ultimately Paul knows that he must let go of the things that were most precious to him in his life before he came to know Christ. For since knowing Christ, all of these things, however valuable and good they might be, are of no comparison to the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

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Think for a moment about your own life — what are the things that might hold you back? Is it pride in your family or your education? Is it consciousness of your skills or satisfaction with the uprightness of your life? None of these are bad things, mind — that’s the point. These are things worth valuing. They only become a problem when we hang on to them instead of letting go in order fully to grasp what is much more valuable than any such earthly good: to grasp our Lord, clinging to the hem of his garment, as if our life depended on it.

Because our life does depend on it. If anything — however good — impedes your ability to grasp Jesus and trust in his goodness in his righteousness; if your hands are full of anything else at all, however good or valuable they might be, trust in God and let go of it. Forget what lies behind and strain forward to what lies ahead, toward the goal of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. All else will be added unto you, if you put your whole trust in him who is the source of all good.

Let us pray. Lord Jesus Christ, you let go of everything for our sake, leaving the Father’s side to be with us as one of us, to save us from our sins. Help us to find the will and the way to strip off the money belt of reputation and rise from the ocean depths of materialism; to scatter the golden coins of pride, and place the key in the lock of the door that opens to salvation; to forsake the ring of power and prestige and accept the yoke of humble service; that we may at the last find our eternal home with you, who with the Father and the Holy Spirit live and reign for ever and ever.