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.