Sunday, April 24, 2011

Sleight of Hand

Now you see him, now you don't! — an Easter Sermon, accompanied by infants awaiting baptism!

SJF • Easter 2011 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Set your mind on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.+

It will come as no surprise to anyone here, when I observe that Harry Potter has become a household name. The series of novels and the series of movies based on the novels are phenomenally popular. Almost everybody knows Harry Potter — though I’m curious to know how many of you here know the name of the author of the novels or the name of the actor who plays the role in the films? Show of hands?

My point is that it’s not the actor or the novelist, or even the character of Harry Potter himself, who is at the heart of the fascination and popularity of the books or movies. It is magic — magic itself: that is what draws such an attentive and loyal and fascinated audience.

Now, it may seem odd for me to be mentioning magic in the context of an Easter sermon — but surely there is something magical about the resurrection, isn’t there? In fact, there was an English stage production of a very old English play — one of the first English plays — about the resurrection — the play dating from the 15th century, and the production from just a few years ago, in England, at the Young Vic — in which the director staged the resurrection scene precisely as a magic act. The body of Christ was placed upright into a wooden cabinet, and chains were wrapped around it and locks placed on the chains. The soldiers stationed at the tomb shivered in their boots — they were costumed as British riot control officers, complete with helmets with visors, truncheons and transparent plastic body shields — and then at a great clap of thunder and flash of light and cloud of smoke, the four sides of the upright cabinet fell down flat to reveal that the body was gone!

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Surely, there is something magical about the resurrection — as there is something magical about so much of life, and death, and life again. It is no accident that there is an overlap between the magical world and God’s world. Even the magicians’ spell, “Abracadabra,” is said to be derived from a Hebrew phrase that only God could properly speak, “abara k’davra” — I create as I speak. Only God has the power to create — to bring into being that which is not — and to do so simply by saying the words, “Let there be...” With those words all things came into being. More than that, God appears to employ a kind of sleight of hand in dealing with the people of God both as audiences to his magic and as the object or props in that magic. God uses the magician’s standard tool of misdirection to deflect and distract the enemies of his people, dazzling them with pillars of cloud and fire, while keeping his people safe in the palm of his hand; hiding them in the wilderness before bringing them to the Holy Land; preserving them in Babylon until ready to be pulled from his sleeve, or like the rabbit out of the top hat, and returned to the land of promise.

And isn’t it a classic example of a magician’s skill for God to say, as he does through St Paul, “Keep your eyes on heaven, not on earth” and then suddenly to reveal Christ to our startled eyes, standing in our very midst? We’ll see Jesus perform that very magic act next week when he suddenly appears to the cowering disciples in their locked and bolted room, and hear how the disbelieving Thomas misses the first show.

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But this is Easter, and we have before us the first startling reappearance of Jesus after his death and burial. It is almost as if Jesus is trying the trick out on Mary Magdalen before he decides to debut it with all of the disciples. The stage is ready — the stone has already been rolled away, and Mary, seeing it, runs off to fetch Peter and the other disciple — the one Jesus loved. But even when they return they still do not find Jesus — only the linen wrappings and the cloth that had covered his head. Just as in the magic act, all they know is that he has disappeared: he was in the tomb and he isn’t there any longer. Mary even thinks that perhaps someone has stolen his body.

And then, just as in the magic act, he comes walking into the spotlight from off stage. Mary is still so blinded by her tears, so caught up in the fear and sadness that his body has been stolen, that she doesn’t even recognize him.

And then he speaks a truly magic word — not an abracadabra or an alakazam or even a presto change-o — but the truly magic word as personal to us as our own name; in this case, “Mary.” And then she recognizes him. The magic of hearing her own name called in a familiar voice opens her eyes to see what was already there — her teacher and her risen Lord. Such is the magic of God. None of us in this life is likely to hear the voice of God call our name quite so clearly. That will have to wait until the great day when the Lord calls us each by name and we rise from our graves to stand before him, and be welcomed into the life of the world to come. But even so, and even while we are here, we catch glimpses of the power of God and God’s magic. At the baptism of a child, which we will witness today, we call the child by name, and mark that child with the Triune name of God himself: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And that double naming — the naming of the child and the invocation of the name of God — brings about a transformation more magical than any work of any earthly magician. It delivers the child from a bondage more deadly than any strait-jacket ever escaped from by a Houdini. For baptism brings that child new life — new life in Christ — and it transforms the mortal body of the child by incorporating the child into the mystical Body of Christ, the blessed company of all faithful people. The child is born again — as each of us was at our own baptism — born again of water and the Holy Spirit, and anointed with the name and power of God.

+ + +

Before I close I want to mention one other magical phrase that has some bearing on our life in Christ; and that is, “Hocus pocus.” As strange as it may sound, this magician’s phrase also has its roots in the language of the faith. For it is based on the Latin phrase that translates the words of Christ at the Last Supper, “Hoc est corpus” — This is my Body. We celebrate that great magical mystery every time we gather at Holy Communion, as we do this Easter morning. As he instructed us, we take the bread that in this sacred mystery has become the body of Christ, and we eat the bread which is the sign and celebration of our membership in that body — a membership that begins in baptism.

And we do this because of that Easter morning so long ago when Jesus was raised from the dead and appeared first to Mary and then to the other disciples. The story of God and God’s relationship with his people did not end at the cross. The cross was the turning point, the close of one chapter before the beginning of the next. Jesus was hidden away for a few days between his crucifixion and his resurrection; hidden only so that he might be revealed in greater glory at his rising. It is not simply magic that we celebrate but majesty; not simply something wonderful to behold but miraculously to hold — to hold in our hands, like a newly baptized child, or like a fragment of bread: both of them a sign of the presence of God and the risen life of Jesus. And even more, just as a child is received into the body of the church, so too we receive the body of Christ in the bread of the Eucharist into our own bodies, and Christ becomes one with each of us as we are one in him.

And if that isn’t magical and wonderful, then I don’t know what is! Alleluia, Christ is risen!+

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Valley of the Shadow of Life

Three foreshadowings of resurrection, from the valley of bones, the tomb of Bethany, and the hope that is in us... a sermon for Lent 5a

SJF • Lent 5a 2011 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.+

The season of Lent is fast drawing to a close. Next Sunday is Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week and the slow walk to Calvary, to the garden tomb, to the Sabbath rest of Holy Saturday, and then in the midst of that dark night, the shuddering and sundering shaking as the stone rolls aside and the Risen Christ is manifest to the dawning light of Easter.

In today’s Scripture readings we begin to see the glimmerings of that light, a preview of coming attractions, as all three speak of life emerging from death, of the power of God to give life even to what seems past hope of living. In these passages we walk through the valley of the shadow — not of death, but of life. And this is not just any old kind of life, but miraculous life, resurrection life, life of the power and the presence of God. It is not simply the reanimation of the flesh, but the new life in the Spirit. Even more than that, it is the power of God’s own life: God’s own Holy Spirit.

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Arrayed before us, then, are three shadows of life, three reflections of the great resurrection — two foreshadowings, and one still a hope.

In the first we stand in a scene of utter desolation: the valley of dry bones. I imagine it must have looked a bit like the coastal fields of Japan a few weeks ago, littered with broken bits and pieces of anything and everything caught in the unstoppable flood from the tsunami that swept ashore at Sendai and so many other coastal towns: a scene of utter devastation. But here not boats but bones: bones piled on bones, and all of them dry after baking in the hot sun. Surely this is a valley of the shadow of death, and not of life! And yet, at the prophet’s word, spoken at God’s instruction, those bones begin to rattle and to move, and bone joins to bone — just like in the old song. Sinews and ligaments and muscles begin to form on those old dry bones, and skin covers them up as limbs and bodies form. And yet...

And yet there is still no breath of life in them. So God gives the prophet another instruction: a call to the breath from the four winds, which is the spirit of life, the spirit of God. And the breath comes upon those newly reassembled bodies, and they stand up on their feet, and they live and breathe by the power of God. God has opened the graves of the people of Israel, the very ones who thought that all was lost when they had been taken away to captivity in Babylon, the very ones who had given up hope; and God has raised them up from their graves and restored them to life as his people, on their own homeland, their own soil. The Spirit of God has brought them life. This is the first shadow of life in this valley of shadows.

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And the second is even more startling, because so specific. This is not a quasi-legendary event from the time of the prophet Ezekiel — a tale which even the rabbis could not agree upon, as to whether it was an historical event or a symbolic prophetic parable. But this second shadow of life is about an individual, not an anonymous collection of skeletons of the valley, but a man with a name, a household we’ve already come to know through the gospel. This is Lazarus and his two sisters, practical Martha the busy and hopeful Mary the prayerful, living in a specific town with a name we know, Bethany. We even know where it is, just two miles from Jerusalem. This is Jesus and the disciples. This is not, as Peter would later write about his own experience of the Transfiguration, “a cleverly devised myth.” This is not an allegory or a symbolic parable, but an event, recorded with all of those human details of misunderstanding, disappointment, sisterly concern and human questioning — and above all weeping: the weeping of the sisters and the crowd of mourners; and even the weeping of Jesus — such is his love for this friend, who suffered death, not because he was worse than anyone else or a greater sinner than anyone else. But just as the man born blind was given his sight precisely so that God’s glory might be revealed, so too God’s power is revealed in that cemetery of that little town of Bethany when Lazarus returns to life: and to the end that both the disciples and the whole community might see, and believe. This shadow of life is meant to prepare them all to understand the resurrection of Jesus when it comes — as come it will, and soon enough.

Soon enough the Passover will come, and Jesus will share a last meal with his disciples, and be betrayed, and be crucified and be buried. And not four days, but just shy of three he will lie in his own grave, borrowed though it be, and another stone will be rolled away, and the glory of the Risen Lord will be revealed: and all flesh shall see it together.

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But that is not yet... We are still in our Lenten journey amidst the shadows of that risen Life, though our reading from Saint Paul does carry us forward and beyond, to present us with a prophetic shadow not of Christ’s rising, but of our own. And yet our rising from the dead partakes — as it must — of Christ’s new life as well, for there is no life apart from him. It is, as the old hymn says, “because he lives” that we can face the tomorrow of our own deaths and the day after tomorrow of our own rising to life again. For just as the dead of Israel passed through that valley of dry bones before they were raised up, and just as Lazarus went through the valley of the shadow of death into his stone cold tomb, and just as Jesus himself would suffer on the hard wood of the cross for our redemption and die a mortal death as any mortal does — so too we creatures of flesh, feeble and frail, even as we have the mind of Christ and the Spirit of God, we too will one day face our mortality just as all these others did — including Christ himself.

The difference, as Paul assures us, lies in where Jesus stands in relation to us. Ezekiel had to call for the spirit from the four corners of the earth to breathe into the bones in the valley where they lay. Christ had to call on God to send his power down to raise up Lazarus, and had to call Lazarus forth from where he lay dead and bound in strips of cloth. God had to reach down with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm to roll aside the stone that blocked the tomb where Jesus lay.

But we — we who are in Christ as he is in us, since the Spirit of God dwells in us, as Paul says, “though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.”

And that, my friends, is not a mere shadow of life, but life itself. God’s spirit of life and of love is within us and among us, thanks be to God. And so let us give glory to God, 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.+

Sunday, April 03, 2011

I Once Was Blind

What was it like to be able to see for a man born blind. He is of age, ask him! — a sermon for Lent 4a 2011

SJF • Lent 4a 2011 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.+

Today’s Gospel tells the powerful story of how a man who had never seen came to see. He was not just a person who lost his sight at some point early in life, but one who had been born without that faculty. He was a man who went through infancy, childhood, adolescence and into adulthood never having seen anything at all. His condition was so unusual that he became something of a test case in his neighborhood, as people wondered at his affliction, and how and why it had befallen him.

You see, in those days people strongly associated all disability or illness with sin. If you fell ill, or a disaster befell you, then you must have done something to displease God, and you were being punished. It is an idea with considerable sticking power, no doubt fueled by those cases in which a person’s sinful actions do indeed result in some affliction or disaster. Even today it’s easy to think of God’s justice being worked out in this life — come on, admit it — you feel a certain sense of rightness and vindication when you watch a film or TV show and the villain, who thought he was cleverly escaping, falls down an elevator shaft instead.

We may well feel that this is God’s justice at work — but then we have to face the troubling reality of so many of the illnesses and accidents that happen in our own lives and the lives of those we love, things befalling people whom we know are good, or at least not so bad as to deserve what has befallen them.

For as the Book of Job and the teaching of Jesus show — as if we needed any further evidence than the daily news — the good and the innocent suffer illness and injury as well as the wicked and the guilty. Job’s wife seemed to think God was being unfair to have so afflicted her husband, and advised him to be bold enough to “Curse God and die!” (God help us if we follow that advice.) Job’s friends advised him to search his mind and realize he must have done wrong, and to ‘fess up and repent. But Job knew that was not true, as he had sought with all his might to live righteously — as God himself says at the beginning of the Book, “Have you ever seen anyone like my servant Job, upright and blameless.” And so Job suffers terribly, not because he deserves it, but so that the glory of God might be revealed.

None of us dare presume to such perfection and blamelessness as Job, God’s servant. Still we recognize the disproportion of suffering endured by people who are at least making the effort towards perfection.

We can, of course, chalk this all up to Original Sin — but while that may identify and name the condition — the human condition of mortality — it doesn’t really offer a very satisfying explanation. It gives the human condition a name, but it does not offer a treatment for the ailment. Being told that mortality is a result of original sin is a bit like telling the man with a cold sore that he is suffering from aphthous stomatitis. It diagnoses the ailment but does not treat it.

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So what does this Gospel offer us as a better way to treat this conflict between our hopes and our fears? I would like to suggest to you that it is the same answer given in the Book of Job — it is not the illness or the suffering that is the point of the incident, but the revelation of God’s glory: that bad things do from time to time happen to good people, and inevitably to all people, but that it is all, all under the grace of God who, as we heard a few weeks ago, takes notice of a sparrow’s fall and the wilting of the grass and the flowers.

In the case of this blind man, people wondered whose sin was at the base of his blindness: obviously it’s hard to pin the fault on the man himself since he was blind from birth and scarcely had a chance to sin. So some suggest his parents are being punished through him. But Jesus counters these anxious questions with his assertion that “this man was born blind so that the work of God might be revealed in him.” He is, after all, more like Job than any other figure in the Scripture, except Jesus himself: a man afflicted not because of anything he has done, but so that God’s glory might be revealed.

In the long run it is not his disability that defines him, but his spirit — and his healing. He is no longer “the man born blind” but the” the man who was formerly blind,” or “the blind man healed!” He is a witness, and more than that an eyewitness who testifies again and again — much to the annoyance of the prosecution — testifying to that simple and evident fact: I once was blind, and now I see. It is not his malady that defines him, but his healing; he is not defined by darkness, but by light; not by sickness, but by salvation: which means “healing.”

In all of this, Jesus shows himself forth as Savior, as Healer, as the one who is the bringer of light and life. And the blind man in this account tells us how we are to act towards our Lord and Healer — with heartfelt thanks. It is not our illnesses or maladies that should shape our lives, or even end our lives: rather it is the hope that is in us that should point us towards salvation, the healing of all that is wrong or broken or torn, through the power and the glory of God, revealed in Christ.

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I would like to end this sermon with a poem I wrote a few years ago. I was inspired to write it by a walk along Fifth Avenue, as I was heading to Mount Sinai hospital to visit our sister Ms Ira Butler. I thought of all of the infirmities that come our way in the course of life, and was reminded about this man who came into life already stricken with infirmity — and how when he finally came to see he might understand or express his new-found sight. And so I imagined him speaking to someone who asked him what it was like to gain his sight. And this is my imagined account of his testimony. As the Scripture says, “He is of age; ask him!”

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Because I was born blind I didn’t know
I was until they told me I was blind.

I used to sit beside my father in
the synagogue, pressed close against his side,
his arm around my shoulder. Once he let
me touch the velvet-covered Torah as
it passed, guiding my hand in his.

I never made bar mitzvah — couldn’t read,
and didn’t have the heart to memorize.

Still, how I loved the synagogue, especially
the prophets’ words. A few years back I heard
a man read from Isaiah and — I swear —
I thought the words would come true then and there:
“sight to the blind,” he said. Well, one can hope.

When I grew up, I earned my bread by sit-
ting on the corner, holding out my hand.
They knew me in the neighborhood. It wasn’t
a bad living; once a rich young ruler
even put a gold coin in my hand — a small one, but so heavy next to coppers.

From time to time discussions would take place
about my blindness and its possible cause.
All above my head — in every sense!

Then, of course, one day that man called Jesus
happened by. He said that he was light.
He put mud on my eyes and sent me to
the pool to wash it off. And then I saw.

What was it like to see at first? It looked
like trumpets sound on New Year’s Day, ram’s horn
and brass; it looked like gold feels in the hand —
I think I told you that I felt it once;
like smiles feel on my fingertips. It looked
like velvet felt that time my father, my
small hand in his, pressed it against the Torah,
and the jingling silver sounded round
my ears. A bit like that.

Funny, though,
that when I got back to the street, though I
could see, the neighbors didn’t recognize me.
Scholars grilled me, called my parents, wouldn’t
take my word. And finally they kicked
me out.

Do I miss the synagogue?
I miss the New Year’s trumpets; miss the Torah
scroll, its velvet cover and the silver
bells. I miss the prophets’ words. I miss
my parents.

But I do not miss the end-
less questions on my blindness; I
don’t miss the corner of the street or my
old “friends” and neighbors; I don’t miss the heat
and street-smells and the ache of outstretched arm
and empty hand.

Besides, I saw that man —
the one that said that he was light? He was,
you know. He was the one who gave me sight,
just like the prophet said. He is my Torah now, my New Year’s Day, my gold, my light,
my father and my God.+