Sunday, January 30, 2011

Meek, Not Weak

SJF • Epiphany 4a 2011 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

Because Easter comes late this year, we will have a full set of nine Sundays after the Epiphany — which means we will be hearing, starting today and for the next four Sundays, selected passages from the Sermon on the Mount. I want to take advantage of this opportunity to reflect with you on some of the key elements in the teaching that Jesus gave the people.

Today, we start with the Beatitudes — a well-loved text of promised blessings. But who are the blessings for? Not the powerful, but the meek. And in keeping with Micah’s prophecy and Jesus’ words, I want to explore today the meaning of meekness — which is not weakness, but humble strength that trusts in God.

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To get some idea of what it means to be meek, let me tell you a story. Some years ago, a governor was running for re-election, and one day he arrived late at a church barbecue, having skipped breakfast and lunch on the campaign trail. As he moved down the serving line, he held out his plate, and the elderly woman on the other side of the chafing dish smiled graciously as she placed one barbecued chicken breast on it. The governor looked down at the lonely piece of chicken, and then smiled and bowed a little, and said to the woman behind the chafing dish, “Excuse me, could I get another piece of chicken.” The woman replied, “I’m sorry, sir, but to have enough to go ‘round it’s one piece to each person.” He appealed, “But I’m starved,” and again, shaking her head gently and smiling, said, “One to a customer.” Finally, he decided to use the weight of his office and said, “Madam, do you know who I am? I am the governor of this state.” She answered, “Governor, do you know who I am? I am the lady in charge of the chicken!”

That is meekness — a humble power that will stand up for what is right and fair regardless of who is issuing challenges, who is using position or power to take advantage. Meekness is not lying down as a doormat to be walked over, but the strength to be true to oneself and, as the Quaker tradition puts it, to “speak truth to power.” It is the pin-prick that takes the air out of all fo those who are too full of themselves; it is the strength of a Rosa Parks to stay in her seat when told to move; of an unarmed man standing there to face a tank in Tiananmen Square; dare I say we’re seeing some of this at work in Tunisia and Egypt even now — people who have had enough standing up. It is the voice of the child that is honest enough to say that the emperor has no clothes. It is not weakness, no not at all, but a kind of confidence and trust in what is right and true and just and fair, regardless of the powers arrayed against you. It is reliance on that promise given by God, who chooses what is weak to shame the strong, the foolish to shame what is wise. It is the answer of truth to the lies of power.

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This is all the more important when people pretend to impress the one who has the real power — God himself. All of us stand in that situation in the face of God. And today’s reading from the prophet Micah shows us the absurdity of trying to impress God. As I’ve said from this pulpit before, God knows us, through and through. God not only knows who and what we are, but knows every possible who and what we might become, for God is not only the Lord of what is, but of all that might be. So it’s no good trying to fool God, or trying to impress God.

Not that people don’t try. I suppose sometimes we get so used to impressing each other that we figure we can impress God, too. And rather than trying to frame our lives along the best possible course that God has laid before us — and since God can see all our journeys and our resting places God knows which is best for us — instead of trying to do what God wants for us, we, like the ancient Israelites, worry more about how good we look in God’s eyes, or think how good we look.

Micah, like most of the prophets, shows us that God has a bone to pick with his people. They’ve gotten the idea that God’s primary interest is in how many sacrifices they can carry out. We all know it is a sign of wealth to show how much you can give up — when people buy hundred thousand dollar cars when they could do perfectly well for a quarter of that to get where they’re going, but want to spend more to show off — like the rich man who lights his ten-dollar cigars with twenty-dollar bills. So the people of Israel wonder how high they have to pile their sacrifices: these burnt offerings and calves, thousands of rams, ten thousand rivers of oil. They are even willing to sacrifice their own sons and daughters — imagine — that is how far they have strayed in their foolishness and wickedness.

But God is not impressed by all this show. Remember, God knows his people intimately, and will not be fooled by their showy display of sacrificial zeal, showing how much they can give up in their religious exercises. As Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple once said, “It is a great mistake to think that God is chiefly interested in religion”! God isn’t interested in religion, God is interested in people, in the standing of their hearts, not in the number of their sacrifices. God cannot and will not be bought off. You can’t fool God, and you can’t impress God.

So Micah tells the people what God really wants, or rather reminds them of what God has always wanted: for them to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with their God. It is meekness that God desires in his people: a commitment to fairness, justice, integrity and humility.

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Paul, in his Second Letter to the Corinthians, and Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, reaffirm this timeless teaching. Those who are blessed are not those who succeed in making themselves look good — the rich, the powerful, the wise. No, on the contrary, the blessed are the poor in spirit, the meek, the seekers after justice, the workers of mercy, the peacemakers and the pure in heart. Within and behind all of this blessedness, all of these beatitudes, is a simple attribute, a simple virtue: meekness, the attitude of humble witness to the truth.

Although it is the opposite of pride, which is pretending to be more than you are, meekness doesn’t mean pretending to be less than you are. Meekness isn’t about pretense at all, it is about knowing exactly what and who you are, and speaking the truth you know. Such an attitude is merely reasonable here in our present life: who looks more foolish than one knocked from a high horse! But it is all the more reasonable as we stand before the one who can’t be fooled, the one who knows us through and through, from beginning to end. Meekness is integrity and authenticity and honesty — for if honesty is the best policy when dealing with each other, it is all the more so when we are standing before the one who already knows the truth: God, who is, as we well know, the only foolproof lie detector.

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But though ultimately it ends with God, it starts with us: learning and understanding that meekness is important in our interactions among ourselves: knowing exactly who we are and who it is we’re talking too, when we speak to each other. Though I may be the governor, that doesn’t entitle me to extra chicken; and though I’m the one serving, I don’t have the right to deny that one piece or to dole out extra helpings. Meekness is about understanding exactly how and where one stands, and not being afraid to stand there.

It is both in treating each other with proper respect, and acting with proper dignity — both sides of what it means to be a child of God — that we can come to learn how to walk in true humility and meekness with the one who is above all. This life, sisters and brothers, this life is the school of charity, and we spend our semesters learning to love our neighbors so we can learn to love God. Why is it that Jesus so often used stories about household servants and their interactions among themselves as they awaited their master’s return? (I’ve been watching “Downton Abbey” on PBS, so this is on my mind!) How impressed is the master when he sees his servants treating each other badly? Rather than that kind of power-playing, the proper operation of God’s household depends on each doing the task given to us, the gives given to us, working with the skills God has given. When we learn to honor and celebrate the gifts that others have, not denying our own, but offering them so that all can share, we will by walking in meekness, doing justice and loving kindness with each other, and that is how we will learn how to walk humbly with our God.

Meekness, as I said, isn’t about pretense; it is the ultimate reality check; And as with each other, it doesn’t need to take the form of telling God, “Look how small I am” — God knows that already! — but confessing “Lord, how great thou art!” As we stand before him on our last day, God will recognize and welcome us there because we have not feared to stand before him and walk with him here, in our earthly pilgrimage, following him in the way of justice and humility practiced towards each other.

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Let us not boast of anything, except the cross of Christ. What does God ask of us? Not countless sacrificial offerings; not the cleverness of human wisdom, nor the pomp of earthly majesty, not reliance on noble birth, nor the wealth of things that are valued in this world; not physical strength, not power nor boasting. God wants each of us just as we are, without one plea, boasting only in the cross of Christ, boasting only in the Lord, and doing justice to each other, showing loving-kindness to each other, and walking with him in meekness, knowing who we are and who he is.+

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Follow the Lord

What happens to the church, or a Communion, when it takes its eyes off Christ.

SJF • Epiphany 3a 2011 • Tobias S Haller BSG
Jesus said, follow me and I will make you fish for people. Immediately they left their nets and followed him.
In last week’s gospel from John we heard one version of the call of Andrew and his brother Simon Peter. This week we hear Matthew’s version of this call; and a very different version it is, with a very different message. Last week we heard about Andrew, a disciple of John the Baptist, asking after Jesus; and then finding his brother Peter.

Today we hear of two pairs of brothers, all four of them fishermen. And all four of them, upon hearing the compelling call of Jesus Christ himself — not an intermediary like John the Baptist, but the Lord himself — all four of them drop everything and immediately leave their familiar world of work and family to answer the call of this fascinating stranger. So it is that Jesus gathers up the first four disciples as he strolls by the seaside, catching fishermen with the net of his word, and then setting them free to do his work.

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These are Christ’s first four disciples, and it is discipleship I want to talk about today, what it means for us and for the church of which we are members. Disciple is a word we are likely to misunderstand. We often think of a disciple as someone who carries out a particular ministry. But we can see the true meaning of discipleship in this call of Jesus to the first four disciples. For to be a disciple is to be one who follows. A disciple of Christ is one who follows Christ, one who upon hearing the call of Christ, of his compelling voice, sets all else aside: livelihood, family, and sometimes even life itself. The disciple is devoted to the one he or she follows, and leaves everything else behind.

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In the reading from First Corinthians, we see what happens when disciples forget who it is they are supposed to be following, and instead get focused on their own issues, their own personal problems, their own needs, their own desires, and most importantly upon the persons and personalities of their earthly leaders in the church. The Corinthians have taken their eyes off Christ, and instead have turned to their favorite teachers, the ones who brought them the word of God, rather than the incarnate Word of God himself. Is it any wonder they are lost and stumbling? Some say, “I belong to Apollos,” while others claim to belong to Cephas or to Paul. And Paul himself reminds them that the one they belong to is Jesus Christ, who is not divided into bits and pieces or parts or parties. He is the head of the body of the whole church which builds itself up in unity through the Spirit. By ceasing to focus on Christ, and turning to their own earthly leaders, the Corinthians have become quarrelsome, divided and disagreeable. They have lost their way.

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Now, this sounds very familiar. It is no secret that our own Anglican Communion has been going through some very quarrelsome times over the last few years. Division abounds, and some would like to see that division made permanent: some bishops have ceased to recognize other bishops — a few have even said they won’t be in the same room together, let alone talk to each other.

This coming week the Primates — the leaders of each church of the Anglican Communion — are supposed to meet in Dublin. They all have been invited, but a number of them have said they will not come if the Primate of our church, .the Episcopal Church — our Presiding Bishop — is there. I hope you will forgive me if I say this sounds more like students in a middle school than bishops and leaders of the church! Let’s pray that sense will prevail, and these leaders will recover some humility and charity, and meet together in spite of their differences.

This meeting together in spite of differences is part of what that “Indaba Process” — in which I have been involved — is all about. As you know, I travel to London twice a year to play my part in helping Anglican church leaders to learn how to talk with each other, to deal with each other, in spite of their differences — not in an effort to change each others’ minds, but to get a handle on what Paul is taking about when he speaks of “the mind of Christ.” It isn’t that you have to have my mind, or you have to have my mind, but that both together are under that larger, embracing mind of Christ, who came to us when we were at our most disagreeable, as sinners. It is not to change one another’s minds in this Indaba Process, but to have that “mind of Christ” — to be unified in Him, not in some favorite theory or worship practice, or some local theology or discipline.

How did we come to such a state of affairs; where difference of opinion meant an end to the conversation rather than the beginning of the real hard work of what it means to be a Christian — a disciple of Christ? After all, it is how we behave when we disagree that shows our ability to love. If God loved us and came to save us even when we were in rebellion against him as sinners, how much more gently ought we treat one another.

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So how did we come to this mess among Anglicans? I think it is in large part because, just as with the Corinthians, we have taken their eyes off of Christ — who cannot be divided — and instead focused attention upon the various other leaders of the church, as if what really mattered most to God was who gets to be a bishop or not.

And what does the gospel have to say about bishops? Not one word! The only time the root of the Greek word for bishop appears in the Gospel, Jesus is talking about himself. Remember that verse: he is shepherd and bishop of our souls. He is the one we follow. And when he uses that word, he is referring to himself and Jerusalem’s failure to recognize him at the time of his visitation! (Luke 19:44)

Christian discipleship, as Saint Paul reminded the Corinthians, is not about following another Christian, but about following Christ. It is Christ’s visitation, not the bishop’s, or even the Primate’s, that should concern us. And when it happens that following another Christian, whether a priest or a bishop or a Primate, leads us to division in the body of Christ, then something has gone terribly wrong.

Various solutions to this problem have been proposed, among them a new Anglican Covenant, and agreement that all member churches of the Communion are being urged to sign. Not all see this document as a way forward, however, for this Covenant dangles ecclesiastical division as the ultimate threat. It speaks of “relational consequences” for bad behavior imposed by a process that is not entirely clear. But since what really matters about the church is the relationship we have with one another, this approach raises two problems.

First, if you see division in the body of Christ as a penalty, a possibility from the start, you have undertcut the call to Christian unity that God calls us to in the first place. It is rather like someone crossing his fingers during a marriage ceremony, mouthing “till death do us part” but thinking “until I change my mind.” You won’t build unity by threatening division! That is something, if we are to have the mind of Christ, is to be put out of our mind, because Christ is not divided. He does not call us to division; he calls us to follow him. You can’t build relationships by threatening to dissolve them the moment things get rocky. As with marriage, Jesus calls Christians to stay together for better for worse, for richer for poorer, till death do us part. He calls us to leave behind the familiar and to follow him into the unknown territory that lies before us, knowing it can only be realized and explored with him who is our guide and our God.

Second, if you look for unity not in Christ himself but in your earthly leaders, you are simply replicating the mistakes the Corinthians made. If Anglicans have learned anything down the years — and given the current state of affairs I’m wondering if we have learned anything — it is that we find our way forward in the One who is the Way, true unity in the one who is the Truth, and life lived together in him who is the Life, Jesus Christ the only Lord, the Son of God.

An international body of Christians cannot possibly look to itself to be robust enough to contain all of the many cultural differences which exist at a human level. These differences ultimately only can be embraced and comprehended and included through the spirit of Christ, in whom, as Saint Paul assured the Galatians, there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, no more male and female — but all are one in him: having that one mind, the mind of Christ. On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is shifting sand.

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As I said, the Primates — or some of them; that is all of them are invited to meet, but some may not attend — but all are invited to meet this week. I hope some come who threatened to stay away may come after all. Sometimes threats are just threats, after all. Perhaps if they actually meet, actually sit down around the meeting table at the dinner table, and I hope the Table of the Lord, they may come to realize that the things they’ve found so troublesome and tense are not quite so dire as to lead them into condemnation and separation. Bishops from around the world who have been taking part in that Indaba process have in fact learned that there are more important things that unite us than divide us, especially Christ himself. Perhaps if they do make the effort to come together they will come to see the face of Christ even in those with whom they disagree, and recognize that in Christ they can celebrate that unity through their common baptism and call in Him, who is the shepherd and bishop of their souls. They are all, I hope, committed, come what may, to following the Lord. Perhaps they will realize that this is the only form of church unity that is ultimately meaningful, for only as disciples of Christ can we have trust that we are one in him who is our Savior and our God. In this coming week, especially as the Primates meet, and in the next year and a half as we and other churches of the Communion consider the proposed Anglican Covenant, let us pray for the Spirit of wisdom to descend upon us and our leaders, all the members and the leaders of the church, wherever they may be. May the Spirit of our loving God turn our hearts from quarrelsome division and tiresome dissent, taking our minds off of themselves, and finding the mind of Christ. May they and we turn towards Jesus Christ our Lord in whom alone our unity is assured and whose visitation we await with hopeful and devoted hearts.+

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Answering the Call

SJF • Epiphany 2a 2010 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Listen to me, O coastlands, pay attention, you peoples from far away! The Lord called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.

Last week, we celebrated the Baptism of Jesus, and I spoke about the inauguration of his mission and ministry. It was at his baptism that Jesus began to undertake the task that the Father in heaven had sent him to accomplish, in the three short years that would end on Calvary and in the garden tomb from which God raised him victorious over death. His baptism marked the initiation of his mission, his response to the call from God.

But when did that call come? And what form did it take? And what about the calls that each of us receive from God to take up our own work for God’s purposes for us and for the kingdom?

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In one sense, God’s call to Christ was issued from before time and forever, within the eternal and everlasting communion of the Persons of the Holy Trinity itself. There was no time when the Son of God was not in perfect communion with the Father, from and of whom he was eternally begotten, God from God, light from light. And long before the creation of the world — even before there was such a thing as “being before” — the Son knew the mind of the Father, God’s will for the world, and God’s purpose for the Son of God, with a perfection of knowledge that is beyond our understanding.

So why is it that Jesus waited thirty years to answer that call? Let me remind us again as I did last week that apart from the account of the child Jesus left behind in the Temple at about the age of twelve, and his response to his parents that he needed to be about his father’s business, the Scriptures are silent as to what Jesus was doing during those years. We know nothing of him as a teenager, or as a young adult. Only about the age of thirty — getting very close to what the ancients would consider middle age — and believe me, the older I get the younger thirty sounds! — only then does Jesus step forward, as if responding to the call for the first time.

Many scholars have tried to fill in those missing years, with many interesting speculations — some of them hanging by a very slender thread. Some suggest that Jesus spent his youth as a zealot, or among the Essenes, or part of one of the other small groups of sectarians that emerged in that very difficult time of religious and political foment and struggle. Some suggest that Jesus was of a more traditional bent: a pupil of Jewish tradition, on his way to becoming a rabbi, a student in one of the schools of the Pharisees, and a Pharisee himself.

Don’t be so surprised! Not only would that explain why many Pharisees did become followers of Jesus, but also why many other Pharisees opposed him: there is nothing like the anger that a committed sect can express towards one of its own members when they part ways!

More than that, there is a verse in John’s Gospel that appears just before the passage we heard today. The Pharisees send to ask John the Baptist if he is the Messiah, and after denying it he says, “Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me: I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” And of course that turns out, in the following verses, to be Jesus. Suggestive? Yes; conclusive? No.

So, as I don’t want to speculate further than the Scripture allows or suggests, when it comes to the question of when and how Jesus heard the call of God, let me stick with the things that are abundantly clear. There are two things that Scripture tells or shows us about Jesus that help to explain how Jesus came to the point of acting on his call, and beginning the course that would take him to Jerusalem, to death on the cross, and rising from the grave.

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The first is the fact that Jesus lived and breathed Scripture: not so odd that the living Word of God should be familiar with the written word of God. But I’m not talking here of any kind of memories from before time, some innate familiarity with the Law and the Prophets. I’m suggesting that Jesus studied the Scripture as any young Jewish boy or young man of his time would have done —
— that he heard the prophets and the law expounded by the local rabbi; and at least once, in that precious episode from his late childhood, he spent a short time in the company of the most prestigious teachers of the law in Jerusalem, the rabbis, at precisely the time of life when a Jewish boy would enter manhood. Scripture doesn’t tell us so, but we know from historical accounts that this was when the great Rabbi Hillel was teaching, and there are clear echoes of that rabbi’s thought in the teaching of Jesus. (This is where it would have made sense that Jesus later spent some time as a pupil in the school of Rabbi Hillel, one of the two great Pharisee rabbinic schools that dominated Jerusalem in those years. And of course, what do John’s disciples call Jesus, when they first approach him, on our Gospel account today? “Rabbi!”) But I’m veering into speculation again — I’m sorry, but it is an attractive idea!

But let me stick with the fact that wherever Jesus learned the Scriptures, he knew them intimately, and his intimacy with those precious words, particularly the words of the prophets, spoke to him, and echoed in his mind and heart, playing their part in awakening the dormant call to his true identity, his true self as the chosen one of God, the Messiah.

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The second thing we know about Jesus is his close association with his cousin John the Baptist, six months his senior. This would not be the first time that the example of an older relative, a cousin or a brother, would inspire a young person to undertake a similar course of action — how many young people go into medicine, or the armed forces, or teaching, because an older relative has inspired them — a fact of which the elder may not even be aware? Jesus clearly saw something very special in John the Baptist, knowing what he would later say, acknowledging his greatness; just as John the Baptist clearly saw something very special in Jesus.

And that is where the internal call resting in Jesus’ heart was answered by an external call — a special kind of endorsement and ratification — from John the Baptist. The very person to whom Jesus has looked up and emulated turns and says those astounding words: “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’” And he testifies about what happened at the baptism of Jesus, how the Spirit descends, in fulfillment of the promise, that he would one day see someone upon whom the Spirit would descend, and that this would be the Son of God! The light bulb went on in John the Baptist’s head and it all came together. And I have to note that when John, in today’s Gospel twice says that “I did not know him” it doesn’t mean he didn’t know Jesus, but that until that moment he didn’t know who he was. There is a big difference between, “I didn’t know who he was,” and “I didn’t know who he was.” Suddenly the light bulb goes on in John’s head, the prophecy comes true, and he realizes, “This is the Son of God.”

And it is at this moment that in Jesus’ mind as well the light shines — and he realizes as well who he is: the internal percolation of the prophecies he has studied for years suddenly mesh with the external proclamation of John: the realization that he is “the one who comes from before” — not just before John, but before everything; as Jesus would later proclaim, before Abraham; in a very real sense before Adam, before the worlds were born, Jesus rested in the eternal counsel of the great I AM. The words of Isaiah suddenly take on this powerful meaning, “The Lord called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.” Jesus realizes that Isaiah is talking about him!

And with that realization, Jesus immediately begins his ministry: which also starts with calling — calling some of John’s disciples, and then through Andrew giving Peter a new name, and then finding Philip and through him Nathanael, and soon the apostles are at work and the Gospel is brought to light.

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And what I want to say to you today is that God’s call can be just the same — is just the same — for us. God has called each and every one of us. From before we were born, while we were still in our mother’s womb, God has a purpose and aim for each and every human being made in the image and likeness of God. As someone once very bluntly put it, “God don’t make trash.”

God has a goal for each person born, from before they are born, and the call is planted in every heart. And to awaken our awareness to that call, as we grow and learn and come to understand it, God gives us the Scriptures — the same Scriptures that nourished the boy Jesus and guided him into adulthood. And God also gives us examples: older brothers or sisters or aunts or uncles or cousins or parents or friends, who by their witness and their encouragement can help fan the spark into a full flame of glory as we answer the call that has lain dormant in our hearts for all those years.

And guess what: these two things come together in the church — where the words of God and the people of God are joined together in teaching and preaching and praying and praising. This is where this elements come together: word and sacrament together, vitally important to our lives as faithful people, and as a church, as we seek to answer — each of us — our own call. What does the old hymn say? “Let none stand idle” — let us answer the call. As Paul told the Corinthians, called as we are to be saints: The testimony of Christ has been strengthened among us, so that we are not lacking in any spiritual gift.

The call has been issued, God’s call to each and every one of us, he has given us the Scriptures and our fellow Christians old and young to guide us; he has give us gifts, each of us: gifts that the Spirit will spark to life if we allow God’s grace to work upon us. God is calling us. There is work to do. Are you ready?+

Sunday, January 09, 2011

In the beginning

SJF • 1 Epiphany A 2011 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ: He is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced.+

January is the month of beginnings. We inherit from the pagan Romans the notion that it is the first month of the calendar year. Even its name, January, derives from Janus, the two-faced Roman God of doorways and gates, who simultaneously looks to the past and to the future. In the secular world, January is the month of inaugurations. Even in this era of rapid transportation and communication, and even though we elect presidents, senators, representatives, and governors in November, we don’t put them to work or into office until January, usually with a ceremonial inauguration and oath-taking.

And so it is that the church similarly commemorates the beginning of Christ’s ministry every January. The church telescopes the thirty years between his infancy portrayed at Christmas and Epiphany — his birth in Bethlehem and the visit of the Magi to offer gifts to the newborn king — right up to his baptism in the Jordan River, so that our commemoration of the beginning of Christ’s three-or-so-year ministry always falls within the first two weeks of January, on the Sunday after January 6.

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Now, part of the reason for the telescoping of those 30 years is that apart from Luke’s brief account of the 12-year-old Jesus in the Temple, the Gospels are silent concerning what Jesus did, where he went, or who he knew during that whole time. It is with his baptism at the river Jordan that the story picks up again — remember that for both Mark and John this is where their accounts of the Gospel begins; only Matthew and Luke give us what film-script writers call “the backstory” — and both of them take it all the way back to Genesis, as they trace out the lineage of the House of David!

But the Gospel really becomes the Gospel with the beginning of the proclamation of the message of the Good News, as Peter says in Luke’s account in Acts, “beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced.” It is this baptism that marks the inauguration of Christ’s ministry, with St Peter like a newsboy from the last century shouting out the Good News, a headline in only five words: “He is Lord of all.”

That headline is the heart of the Gospel, later reduced by the copy-editor Paul to just three words: “Jesus is Lord.” And it is at the Baptism of Jesus that this lordship is revealed — the first “epiphany” or “showing forth” of that divine truth, in fulfillment of all righteousness. For it is at the Baptism of Jesus that the heavens open, the Spirit of God descends, and the divine voice speaks out loud and clear. “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Has any president ever had such an inauguration? Has any monarch ever had such a coronation? Has even any bishop or pope had such a consecration? All of these earthly ceremonial beginnings are mere shadows compared to the glory of God in majesty sending the Spirit of God to descend on Jesus Christ the Beloved Son of God, and literally speaking those words of blessing and benediction, a somewhat wordier proclamation of that same Gospel truth: Jesus is Lord.

That is the message — that is the Gospel — the apostles were sent to proclaim. As Peter says in today’s account in Acts, “He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead.” And his baptism is the first sign, the first epiphany, of that “ordination.” It is at the baptism that it all begins, and we ought to look to that beginning, that root and origin, if we are to grasp the significance of what Jesus Christ means to us.

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As you likely know, the study of word origins is called etymology. It looks to the roots and origins of the words we use, to show how words evolve over time, sometimes from one language to another, but often retaining a trace of their origins in spelling or form.

Let’s take that word gospel, for example. In its form and meaning it comes from two English words from the dim reaches of the Middle Ages: gode and spelle. Gode means “good” — that one’s a no-brainer — and spelle means “message.” (Nowadays the only spelle you hear about with any even distant connection to this original meaning is the kind of “spelle” cast by a Harry Potter. Although we New Yorkers may be familiar with the Yiddish equivalent for a salesman’s sales-pitch, spiel!)

So gospel comes from a Middle English phrase gode spelle meaning “Good Message” — thought perhaps in NY I could say, “good spiel” or as we say today, “it’s the Good News.” It is a literal translation of the Greek word that the Gospel writers used to describe their writings: evangelionev meaning “good” and angelion meaning “message” — for the angels were God’s messengers. This is where our English word evangelist comes from: one who spreads the Good Message, the Good News. They are the newsboys of the Gospel, carrying it out into the street and shouting, “Listen! News! Good news! Jesus is Lord!”

So much for our language lesson! For if it is meaningful to look to origins to understand words in human language, it is equally appropriate for us to look to origins to understand Jesus Christ, the Word of God. And as the scripture assures us, it is at the Baptism of Jesus that his identity as Lord of all is confirmed and articulated, by the voice of God himself speaking from on high.

That voice affirms three things about Jesus: that he is God’s Son, that he is Beloved, and that God is wellpleased with him. God’s glory descends with God’s Spirit upon Jesus, which shows us, in Isaiah’s words, that this Beloved Son, with whom God is well-pleased, is Lord, for God proclaims through the prophet Isaiah, “I am the Lord, that is my name, my glory I give to no other.” What clearer indication could we ask, what better inauguration could we hope for, than these words of promise from the Lord God speaking from heaven, this pure distillation of the Gospel, not news delivered by messengers or intermediaries or evangelists in this case, but by the very voice of God giving his glory to Jesus as Son of God and Lord of all; doing precisely what Isaiah promised that God would not do for anyone else.

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That message of the Lordship of Jesus has spread not only through Judea but through all the world — though still there are some who have not received it, and even many who do not believe it. And so it rests for us to continue that task of spreading the word, not only with our lips but in our lives: becoming messengers of God ourselves, each in our own way. And I will say that our lives and works are often more eloquent than our words — for if you are known to be a Christian, how you act will reflect on Christ himself. As St Francis of Assisi once said, “Preach the gospel at all times, and if necessary use words.” If we say that Jesus is Lord, then we must always seek to act in accordance with his lordship over our lives, our souls and bodies. Actions do speak louder than words, you know. Let us do his will in all that we undertake, now at the beginning of this year and through it and beyond, and we will by our actions — especially those actions of love, service and fellowship — proclaim that simple gospel message, Good News for our own good and for the benefit of others: the message that was sent to the people of Israel, and throughout the world, preaching peace by Jesus Christ: He is Lord of all.+

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Saint in the Background

Christmas 2a 2011 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG God destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ.+

Around this time every year our attention is drawn naturally to the Holy Family, because of the large role they play in the story of Christ’s birth. This is especially true of one member of the Holy Family, who apart from the events immediately preceding and following Christmas, receives virtually no attention in the rest of Scripture. Even during the Christmas season, the dominant image on religious Christmas cards, even on such secular things as postage stamps, is the Madonna and Child. But here is another figure, hidden in the background, tucked a bit out of the way, usually hanging his head a little, although often with his hand outstretched in protection towards Mary and Jesus. He is somewhat in awe at the mystery unfolding around him, this other figure, this other member of the Holy Family. Today’s Gospel asks him to step forward into the light, perhaps to take a little bow — for without him the wonderful work of Christmas and what followed would not have happened. I am talking, of course, about Joseph, the husband-to-be of Mary, the foster father of Jesus.

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Matthew tells us more about Joseph than any of the other evangelists: that Joseph was a good man, an honest man, a sensitive and caring man. He also tells us he was a dreamer. When he found his bride-to-be was pregnant, he could have had her hauled into court he possibly could have had her stoned to death; instead, Joseph decided to settle the whole matter quietly. But then came a dream: an angel warned him in a dream not to take offense. The angel instructed him to take Mary as his wife, and to accept the child that would be born as his own. This was a risk, but Joseph took it; he risked the wagging tongues, that could count to nine and new his marriage had not lasted a full nine months before the child was born. He treated Mary as his wife, and the child as his son.

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In today’s Gospel, Joseph again serves as God’s agent for deliverance. And like his namesake from the Old Testament, Joseph the son of Jacob, this Joseph is one who is a dreamer, who hears the voice of God in his dreams. Joseph’s first dream told him not to fear to take Mary as his wife, and in today’s Gospel there are three more dreams that bring Joseph God’s instructions. And like his namesake from the age of the patriarchs — Joseph the son of Jacob, who called his family into Egypt to escape the famine that came upon all the world when he was Pharaoh’s viceroy — like him, this Joseph son of David brought his family into Egypt to preserve their lives, escaping the horrible plot of King Herod. And that’s the first dream out of the set of three in our Gospel today.

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But let me say a word about Herod. Herod is one of the great villains of history, a mass-murderer of children. When the wise men told Herod of the birth of the new king, he set out to ensure that no new king would ever come from Bethlehem to take his place. I’m sure you recall the story, though our reading today leaves out those verses, just reporting that Herod died. It leaves out the part about how Herod ordered all of the boy-children up to two years of age to be slaughtered: that horrible night of holocaust when the soldiers ran through the streets killing any child they saw.

But what you may not know is that this Herod was so selfishly protective of his throne that not only did he kill off all of these children in Bethlehem, but he had is own sons killed as well, when they began to act as if they were ready to take over the reins of the kingdom. Herod is a man with the blood of innocents on his hands, and the blood of his own family, a man who placed himself before all others, including his own children.

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What a contrast: Herod and Joseph. Both of them fathers — but what a difference between them! One father risked everything — his reputation, his livelihood, his home — for the sake of a child who was not even his by blood, his foster son. The other father sacrificed the lives of innocent children, and took the lives even of his own flesh and blood in order to preserve his last shreds of power — power which must eventually pass away when he died, as all men die.

And who survived, after all? After Herod died, who came back? Who but the sweet dreamer Joseph, the loving foster-father Joseph, the man who gave up everything: who gave up security and a settled life at the prompting of God’s angel in a dream. After Herod died in misery, Joseph came out of Egypt (in response to dream #2) and settled in the north country, by the Sea of Galilee (in response to dream #3). Herod, the man who sought to save his life, to protect himself from all who might seize his throne, lost his life; while Joseph, the man who risked everything, preserved himself and his family.

And what a family it was: a wife who was not his wife after the manner of the flesh; a son who was not his son except by adoption. This is the Holy Family — not your typical nuclear family by any means — not the family of the “family values” spouting from the lips of politicians, hypocrites and demagogues. Joseph, and Mary, and Jesus represent the true family values, the truly human values that reflect what God values: sacrifice, forgiveness, trust, choosing life for another at risk to yourself, in doing what Jesus would later assure us is the greatest act of love: to risk your life for someone else.

For flesh and blood are not the stuff virtue is made from. Herod despised his own flesh and blood, and the flesh and blood of countless innocents; while Joseph loved Mary and Jesus as if they were his own dear wife and own dear son far better than many husbands and fathers love or have loved their wives or children. Flesh and blood is no guarantee of love, earthly or heavenly. Saint Paul told the church at Corinth that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God”(1 Cor 15.50). And when it comes to blood as the binder of love, who can forget those words from the very beginning of human history, from Genesis, when the brothers — brothers in blood and flesh — one killed the other. And what happened? What did God say? “Cain, your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground!” No blood is no guarantee of love, my friends; I wish it were. Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom. Flesh and blood are no guarantee of living heavenly values even here on earth! Only the imperishable and heavenly can support the weight of the greatest virtues, the strongest goods, the most precious grace. Love, the greatest love, is present only and whenever self-sacrifice is present, in flesh and blood families as well as in spiritual families — of which the church is the prime example.

The saying goes that blood is thicker than water, but I assure you that there is a water that is thicker than the cold blood of a Herod. There is a water that is as thick as the warmest blood of the most loving family. And that is the water of Baptism. For through the water of Baptism we all have become part of a new spiritual family, blessed, as Saint Paul says, with every blessing in the heavenly places. Through the waters of Baptism we have all, all been adopted, each and all of us have been adopted as God’s children through Jesus Christ, adopted into a family defined by faith in him, and in love toward the saints — the other members of God’s great extended, adopted family. This is the family whose kinship is neither bounded nor defined by flesh and blood, by race or nation or clan. This is the great extended family begotten, as John’s Gospel says, not by blood or by the will of the flesh or by the will of man, but by God. It is God who has called us together, as surely as God called together the lost children of Israel, called them home from wherever they had been scattered to the farthest parts of the earth. And he who calls us children will not forsake us.

This is our hope, a hope to which we have been called, an inheritance which we possess as heirs through adoption, through the immeasurable greatness of God’s abundant power. It is an inheritance that it would be a shame to waste.

As we go through this new year, times will get rough — last year was rough enough! — and demands may come to seem unreasonable; should we feel as if our family is asking too much of us, a husband not being considerate enough, a wife demanding too much of our time; our children not paying attention to us, our parents seeming unreasonable; or if our church family should seem to be making too many demands, our time being eaten up by church work and responsibilities — if those feelings should come our way, let us pause for a moment and think about the sweet dreamer Joseph. Let us recall the patient foster-father, the loving, giving spouse; the patron of the church. Let us pause and recall how blessed we are in the opportunity to set self aside for the sake of others; how blessed we are to dream what Archbishop Desmod Tutu calls “God’s dream” — that all, all, all, are children of God, and that through Christ we can be all that it means to be a child of God.+