Sunday, December 30, 2012

Not Our Doing

Only one person deserves the title, 'self-made man...' -- a sermon for Christmas 1

Christmas 1 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.

One occasionally hears stories of a person referred to as a “self-made” man. Perhaps it is some poor immigrant who managed to scrape together enough money to start a small business, and the business grew and prospered and he or she ended up a millionaire. And while in no way wanting to diminish the rightful admiration for such a person’s industry, inventiveness, skill and hard work — I challenge the notion that such a person is truly self-made.

Before, behind, and along with every such successful person, there is a cloud of investors, clients, collaborators, and customers, without whom success and wealth would have been elusive or impossible. Even the inventor who comes up with a clever new device needs an attorney to help file a patent, a manufacturer actually to produce the item, marketers to advertise and merchants to sell it, investors to pay for all of this, and — the inventor and investors firmly hope — customers to buy it. You’ve probably seen the ads on TV offering help to inventors — and help is surely what even the brightest inventor needs in order to succeed.

So it is that few if any of us become who we are on our own. I’m bold enough to say this absolutely: no one becomes who they are on their own. For whatever else we may make of our lives, there is at least one unavoidable point at which we cannot and do not do it for ourselves: at our birth itself. We come into being because of something our parents did nine months before we were born. We simply did not exist at the point at which we came into existence. In this earthly birth we are born of blood, of flesh, and of the will of a man and a woman. We do not make ourselves. We become ourselves — become selves at all — only because of others.

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And, as our Scripture texts for this Sunday after Christmas remind us, we most certainly do not redeem ourselves. Just as we had no say in our first birth, so it is that we have little say in our second birth — though that second birth is something in which we may very well cooperate and be aware of as it happens. For in our second birth, through receiving Jesus Christ into our hearts and believing in his name, through baptism in water and the Holy Spirit, we become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man — or of woman, for that matter— but of God.

Saint Paul uses the image of adoption for this wonderful transformation — and just as a child does not conceive or bear him or herself neither does an adopted child achieve adoption on his or her own — both birth and adoption are something that happen to us. We become ourselves through others. No one is self-made.

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In this, as in so much else, Jesus Christ is utterly different. Even his beginning is different from ours. We are not aware of our own beginnings, conceived by actions of our mother and father, when we yet were not — but Jesus had no beginning: when the beginning was, he was — he was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning, and had no beginning himself. There never was a time when he wasn’t.

And as God, and as Son of God, unlike any of us — who do not even exist at the moment of our conception, since that is when we come into existence — unlike any of us, Christ knew what was to happen, and what was happening when, as Saint Paul says, “God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.” If there ever was any such thing as a self-made man, it was and is Jesus Christ — and only him.

What is truly wonderful, however, is that Christ, although self-made in every important sense of the word, also makes use of others to cooperate with him in this grand invention of salvation. God sent the prophets to prepare the way for his coming. God sent his angel to Mary of Nazareth, and her obedient consent to the angel’s greeting, her choice to do as God asked and become the mother of the holy Child, realized the Incarnation itself. In this, and in this alone, Jesus in his human nature, is not a self-made man — he is made of the substance of his mother Mary.

And then God sent that man named John, the last and greatest of the prophets, as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. And so it is that Jesus Christ, the self-made man, as God the Word made flesh, came to live among us and cooperate with us in our salvation. And he further commissioned the Apostles and disciples to spread that word of grace and truth, down through the ages.

This was not out of any need or lack on his part; it is all a gift, it is the Christmas gift, the greatest gift ever given — for he gave us himself in order that we might give ourselves to him and become his brothers and sisters by adoption. He sent his Spirit into our hearts crying out “Abba, Abba, Father,” to God our Father — our Creator by our birth, our master through his Lordship, but “our Father” by adoption through his Son. This is no more our doing than any adoption of a child is the child’s doing; this is no more our doing than the liberation of a prisoner is the prisoner’s doing; this new birth in the Spirit is no more our doing than our first birth in the flesh — we do not make ourselves, and we do not redeem ourselves; thanks be to God.

But we cooperate in this work of salvation when we give praise and thanks to the one who saved us, who adopted us as his own children, and sent his Spirit — the Spirit of his Son — into our hearts, leading us by his light, and from whose fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. We cooperate with God by our celebration of praise and thanksgiving, for the greatest gift ever given, the grace of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.

And so may this grace of God the Father, the love of God the Son, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with us now this Christmastide and abide with us — Emmanuel — for ever more.


Thursday, December 27, 2012

Cave Man

Light filled the cave... a sermon for Christmas Eve 2012

Christmas Eve • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness — on them light has shined.

The Greek philosopher Plato, in his dialogue The Republic, described human existence as being like that of prisoners who lived in a cave, chained to the wall for their whole lives. They don’t know they’re living in a cave, any more than fish know that they’re living in water. This is just the way they have always lived and it is all that they know — which is to say, they know nothing of the outside world. They do see, however, shadows on the wall of their cave, before them, cast on that wall by the things that are going on behind and above them outside the cave. The chains do not allow them to turn to see those things going on there behind them — they know only the shadows, and for them, these have become the only reality. They spend much of their time talking about the shadows, developing theories about the shadows,

but without any sense that the shadows are just that — shadows of a reality beyond their capacity to see.

In Plato’s dialogue, Socrates wonders what it would be like for prisoners who have lived like that to be allowed to turn and see the shapes — the real people and things — of which up to that point they have only seen the shadows. Would they even be able to recognize them? And if they were dragged out of the cave into the bright light of the sun, wouldn’t it be kicking and screaming as they clenched their eyes shut like Gilbert Gottfried and said, “What are you trying to do to me?!” Slowly, however, as their eyes adjusted to the light, they might even be able to look up at brightness of the sun and then and only then appreciate how much they had missed in thinking that the shadows were the reality and the light the illusion.

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We are now in a dark time of the year; although the days slowly growing longer since last Friday. And longer they will continue to grow on into the spring, the world not having ended as some thought the Mayans thought it would last Friday. And in this dark time of the year, each year, we celebrate a kind of emergence from the cave. For it is about this time of year long ago that people who walked in darkness saw a great light. Luke the historian gives us all the facts and figures. And I want us to pay close attention to Luke’s account, for as even the pope has recently pointed out in a book on the subject, few stories have gotten as muddled over the years as the account of how Jesus was born.

You will notice that there is no stable mentioned in Luke’s account; although there is a manger, which is to say, a feed trough. But no stable; the image of a stable out back behind the inn — the inn in which there was no room for the Holy Family — that is something supplied apart from the gospel itself. It’s logical, but the gospel itself doesn’t say anything about a stable. And there are other old accounts of the Nativity, such as the Infancy Gospel of James, recording that the place where the Holy Family found shelter, complete with a manger, was not a built up stable, but a natural cave — though a cave used as a place for animals to shelter. And James’s gospel records that that cave — at the moment of the miraculous birth — was full of light.

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So it is, at least according to the Gospel of James, that Jesus was born as a cave man. But he was not like Plato’s cave dwellers, for Plato’s prisoners saw only shadows and were blinded by the light when finally set free; but Jesus no prisoner: he was the light and he came into the cave of his own free will. He came to us in our darkness, at the dark, cold time of the year — and so he comes to us each year in our celebration of his birth, as the light that shines in the darkness — and the darkness can never overcome it. This cave, this cave that is full of light, is no world of shadows, of chains and imprisonment — this is the womb in which was birthed the world of light, and freedom and joy. For a child has been born to us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. And he is also Light from Light, God from God, True God and True man — not a shadow projected by some other light, not a half-way shadow of the substance of God, but God the Truth, the whole Truth, and nothing but the Truth — so help me God — he is the realest reality there is; though not a thing among other things, but the one through whom all thingswere made.

You likely know the old rebuke that goes, “Have you been living under a rock?” Humanity to a large extent had been living under a rock, or in a cave, until Christ came to lead us out into his light. He did not do it as the philosophers Plato or Socrates would do, pointing out the error of our ways and gesturing us towards the brilliance of the sun. No, he would call us to himself who is the light, who is the sun of righteousness, and the son of God. What is more, he would come to us, bringing his light into the cave itself.

He became a cave man to save all us cave dwellers — it was the only way to get to us, you see. He gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds. He came to give us knowledge of reality, the Truth of what really is — the knowledge not just of good and evil which the first Eve gained from the fruit of a tree that she shared with her husband — but the knowledge of the greatest good and its triumph over evil, of God’s love for us in coming to be with us as one of us through Mary, the Second Eve who in doing so helped undo the curse on Adam — Jesus brought us the reality of that light and truth and life, brought it all into the cave to lead us forth into true freedom that is prepared for us as his brothers and sisters.

This is the light of Christmas, shining even in the midst of a dark night — the light of Christmas and of Christ — and we who have walked in darkness have seen it; we who lived in a land of deep darkness — on us light has shined. My beloved sisters and brothers, may you be blessed to live in that light and walk in it all your days. Merry Christmas.+


Monday, December 24, 2012

A Lot Like Christmas

Jesus takes after his mother in his human nature... A sermon for Advent 4c

Advent 4c • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.

It really is beginning to look a lot like Christmas, and that is only to be expected since it’s just two days away — even closer if you count as the Jewish people did from sundown on the night before: Christmas will begin tomorrow at sundown, and we will welcome Christ’s coming with worship at 6 PM.

So it is no surprise the scriptures resound with such a Christmas spirit: that first reading today reminded us of the little town of Bethlehem — no doubt this was the Scripture that inspired Phillips Brooks to write that famous hymn; and it’s nice to know that that preacher, Phillips Brooks, himself once stood in this very pulpit when he preached at the wedding of the third rector of this church, with whom he had worked up in Boston.

However, lest we jump the gun and get too deeply into Christmas before it has actually arrived — even though it is awfully close — our gospel passage today forcefully puts us further into the sacred backstory, shortly after Mary had herself received the archangel’s greeting, “Hail, Mary, full of grace; the Lord is with you.” It has been a year since we heard that passage — on Advent Four last December; it has taken us a year to move from Gabriel greeting Mary to Elizabeth greeting Mary; from the Annunciation to the Visitation. John the Baptist, who will announce his Lord’s coming in the wilderness, even though he is still in Elizabeth’s womb, cannot suppress his excitement that his even more recently conceived Lord has come near — and he leaps up and moves in Elizabeth’s womb, and she is herself inspired, filled with the Holy Spirit, to call out that cry of joy and acclamation, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”

You will of course immediately recognize that between the archangel’s greeting last year and Elizabeth’s greeting this year we have the entirety of that very ancient prayer, the Hail Mary, or Ave Maria. I say the whole of it, that is of the original version of that prayer before the Roman Catholic Church chose to add the additional words asking Mary to “pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death” — that was a late addition from the stormy years of the Reformation, and one which, to be frank, has always struck me as a bit of a downer in the midst of the joy of those initial greetings of blessing and favor. As we did last year, we will conclude our worship this morning with the Angelus, a traditional way of reciting this beautiful scriptural prayer in its original form.

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But there is something far more important to note here than even the most beautiful prayer. And that is both the leaping up of the unborn John the Baptist and the affirmation that Elizabeth pronounces over Mary — that is, the reason she is blessed among women: “And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

Mary is blessed in so many ways, from beginning to end: almost the first words the Archangel said to her affirmed that she was full of grace, or as some translations have it, “highly favored.” She is blessed in her obedience, in her willingness to accept the promise of the Lord and all of the embarrassment it might bring. She is blessed in having a husband like Joseph — a loving husband — a man who could have had her stoned to death when he discovered she was pregnant and not by him; a man who chose instead to heed the word of the Lord when it came to him as well, telling him not to take offense, but to accept the work of God, the working out of God’s purposes, that had been promised, promised for so many centuries, and yet were coming into reality even there and then.

Mary was blessed in having a cousin like Elizabeth, herself no small miracle, for she was, as our translation very politely puts it, “getting on in years,” and was considered barren, because she had never borne a child — and yet God’s same archangel Gabriel visited her husband Zechariah and assured him that his wife would bear a son who would be great, who would be the one to go before the Lord and announce his coming, to make ready a people prepared for coming of their Lord. The news struck Zechariah literally speechless, but for Elizabeth it was a blessing, a blessing that she shared with Mary when that child, so unexpected, moved for the first time, in her womb, leaped up for joy — beginning his ministry of announcing the Lord’s presence even before he was born.

And of course, Mary responded to that acclamation with her own song — the song we sang as our psalmody this morning, and in a metrical version as the Gospel hymn, that magnificent outpouring of thanksgiving known as the Magnificat: My soul magnifies the Lord.

In a way, that song is a culmination of all the blessings — blessings such as only a poor and humble person who is suddenly given incredible honors could possibly understand. It is the song of those who were cast down being raised up, the song of the hungry being fed, the song of rescue and release from captivity. These are the blessings that Mary knew in her heart of hearts, as she stored them all up.

And there is no doubt that she drew on that store — that store of blessing — and shared it with her child, Jesus, as he grew to maturity. She passed these things along to him — the one who would go on to preach release to the captives, to challenge the mighty on their thrones, to lift up the lowly by healing the sick and the suffering; by filling the hungry with bread from heaven; and by counseling the rich to give up all that they have, that their hands might be open to receive the true blessings that come from above, the blessings of life and salvation. It is easy to see that Jesus takes after his heavenly Father in his divine nature; but also very easy to see how he takes after his earthly mother in his human nature.

It is all about the blessing, you see, the blessing that came upon the one who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord. It was not just the fulfillment of her pregnancy and the miraculous birth. It was as well the fulfillment of the life of that child who lived out all of those promised blessings about which Mary sang.

It is a song we too can sing, not only with our lips but in our lives — to let our lives be canticles of thanksgiving, shouting blessings and multiplying them in the way that good things do when they are shared; for one good turn does not just deserve another — one good and gracious act can give rise to so many others; one act of kindness and generosity and grace can change someone’s life — and that life can become full of grace and yet more grace, abundant and amazing.

So let us give thanks for Mary the mother of our Lord, for Elizabeth her cousin, for John the Baptist and Zechariah, and for Joseph — this holy extended family who formed the loving and blessed environment into which the holy child was born, in which he grew to manhood, and through whom he fulfilled the purposes for which God had prepared a body for him — not just his own body, but the body of a faithful and loving and believing family, who trusted and believed in the fulfillment of what the Lord had promised. “Blessed is she — and all — who have believed that there would be fulfillment of what was spoken” and who do the will of God. Bless you all, my sisters and brothers , and may you — like them — be a blessing to others. We too can begin to look a lot like Christmas when we do God’s will.+


Sunday, December 16, 2012

Light and Shadow

In spite of how obvious it is that people should deal fairly with one another, they don’t: a sermon for Advent 3c

Advent 3c • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
With many other exhortations, John the Baptist proclaimed the good news to the people.

Our gospel passage this morning ends with the assurance that John the Baptist proclaimed “good news” to the people. In light of recent events, we sure could all use some good news. I have to say I am heart-broken, right now, as I know many are, at the terrible tragedy that took place last week in Connecticut. But our other Scripture readings sound like good news, no doubt about it. The prophet Zephaniah urges daughter Zion and Israel to shout out and rejoice, and to make thanksgiving for the redemption of the Lord and God who is coming to rescue and restore that kingdom and that hope. God will restore their fortunes, the prophet promises; God will give them the victory of a triumphant warrior; God will rejoice over them with gladness and renew them in love, exulting over them with loud singing as on a day of festival. Fling out the banners and light the fireworks; strike up the brass band and start the parade!

Those sentiments are echoed in the First Song of Isaiah that we used as our psalmody this morning — words full of assurance that God the Savior is at work and that God’s work is trustworthy and solid. If there were a theological “Angie’s List,” this would let us know that God gets an A-triple-plus rating — God is someone you can count on.

Saint Paul continues the celebration in his Letter to the Philippians, beginning with that word that gives this Sunday its name, “Rejoice Sunday,” or as it is known in Latin, Gaudete. What we heard as our second lesson today would have been the first words you heard on this Sunday in the Western church right on up into modern times: not only an assurance of reasons to rejoice, but a command to rejoice. We follow that tradition by using these rose-colored vestments on this day — lightening up from the somber purple of the Advent season to a brighter and more cheerful hue.

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By this time these warm-up acts have got us ready for a celebration in the gospel. But what are the first words we hear from John the Baptist: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” It seems the parade has come to a screeching halt. As if a gunman has broken into a classroom and opened fire. As if the pink of the vestments were not a celebration of life but about breast cancer awareness, awareness of that terrible disease that strikes so many; it’s as if someone in the brass band has hit a very sour note, or even worse, that a sniper has opened fire on the band, and all of the instruments have fallen silent. The towering figure of John the Baptist points with his gnarled hand at the crowds who have come out to hear him preach — like the ghost of Christmas yet to come. And if the crowd wanted something other than fire and brimstone, they are in for a surprise, for he calls them, a “brood of vipers.” And yet the Gospel goes on to say he encouraged the people with such good news. I don’t know about you, but being called a viper is not the best news I’d like to hear.

So let us look more closely at what follows that initial stern rebuke. There is good news, thank goodness. For after this powerful condemnation and threats of axes and fruitless trees being chopped down and thrown into the fire, when it gets down to brass tacks and the fate of the crowd — no doubt shivering in their sandals by that point at the prospect of what is about to be demanded of them — when the terrified crowd gets up the courage to ask what they can do to be saved, what does John tell them?

“Whoever has two coats must share with whoever has none, and whoever has food must do likewise. You tax collectors just collect the tax, and you soldiers don’t blackmail or abuse people!”

Well, if you had been there then, wouldn’t you breathe a sigh of relief at those words? After his verbal introduction and assault, John does not ask the people to do anything at all extraordinary — he doesn’t ask them to live like him out in the wilderness dressed like one of the prophets of old with a hairy mantle and a leather belt, living off locusts and wild honey. He tells them to go home and get back to work and do their jobs and live lives of honesty and fairness.

And this is really where the good news comes in — for certainly it is good news, as Zephaniah and Isaiah and Paul assure us: that salvation is not something we have to do on our own for ourselves, but something that is done for us by one who is mighty to save. For surely, as Isaiah says, it is God who saves us, and we can trust in him and not be afraid.

And on top of that, John the Baptist, after that initial stern language, gives us the good news that what is asked of us is not impossible — but is really only fair and just and right: to share our resources with those who do not have — our clothing with the naked and our food with the hungry — and to do the work we have to do with honesty and without taking advantage of or abusing anyone else.

And that, my friends, is the good news — that we have been saved by God, and that what God asks of us is to love God and our neighbor.

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And wouldn’t it be lovely if people actually did. If it’s really that simple, why did the prophets have to keep proclaiming it? Why did John the Baptist have to shout at the people and greet them as a brood of vipers? Why did he have to warn them of the coming destruction and the fruitless trees and the great bonfire at the end of time, the threshing floor and the unquenchable fire that will burn up all the worthless chaff and deadwood of unproductive lives?

You know why — because in spite of how obvious it is that people should deal fairly with one another, they don’t. Even without the awful example of last week’s shooting, ringing in our ears, impossible to avoid as you turn on any television station at all, we know that people do not do as they ought to do. In spite of the fact that everything works so much better when everyone follows the simple rules of courtesy and fairness and generosity — just common sense — people still try to take advantage — just watch the exit ramp on any crowded highway: someone will have to create a lane of his or her own, or find a creative way to nose in at the head of the line causing everyone else to be slower. In spite of the calls for spare coats to be dropped off at the library or police station for distribution to the poor and cold, the dawning day of the Lord’s Day will find plenty of closets full of clothing that people haven’t worn in years. To my own shame I realized as I wrote these very words that there was more in my closet at home than really needed to be there; and I took that unworn second coat up to the library on Eames Place and dropped it off; how about you?

If nothing else, let this reading today be a reminder to us — to all of us — of a simple command: to check that closet when you get home and find the coat you no longer wear and bring it to the library or the precinct so it can be given to someone who will actually wear it.

We are not asked to do the impossible, my friends. We are asked to do something so easy it would be a crying shame for us to fail to do so. It would be a shame to end up crying in shame when the ax is laid to the root of the trees and every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. That’s good news, if we are prepared to hear it, and hearing it, act upon it. God gives us the warning; may he give us the strength to do as he commands.+


Sunday, December 02, 2012

The Obvious Lord

No fortune telling here, just the promise that we will each face the Lord at his coming -- or our coming to him. A sermon for Advent 1c

Advent 1c • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jesus said, Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.
For as long as people have had a sense of time — the past, present, and the future — there have been people who have said that they are able to predict the future. Most early human societies have shamans — wise men or women whom the people of that culture believe have the power to look into the future and tell what is coming. The rise of civilization did little or nothing to stop the soothsayers and prognosticators from plying their profitable trade; if anything it made their services all the more valuable. The soothsayer warned Julius Caesar to beware the Ides of March; the Oracles of Delphi and Dodona, along with the Sybil gave promises and warnings — and sometimes warnings veiled as promises or promises veiled as warnings — to the Greeks and the Romans alike.

Our own tradition is not immune to this desire to want to know the future — about half of our Old Testament consists precisely of the writings of the prophets, and so important was prophecy that the Law of Moses laid out a rule for determining when a prophet was a real prophet or not: if the prediction does not come true, then God did not send that prophet.

Even in modern times, since the dawn of the so-called Age of Reason, you can still open almost any newspaper in the most civilized cities of today’s world and find your horoscope — a form of fortune-telling that dates back four or five thousand years. And you can walk down the streets in almost any city, even in this neighborhood — I know there’s one right up on Kingsbridge Road — and find a store-front fortuneteller willing to advertise in neon lights!

Do such people really have an “in” on the future? Far be it from me to malign the prophets who were truly inspired by God, and whose prophecies — and their fulfillment — are recorded in the Scriptures, Old and New. But horoscopes and fortunetellers I will not put my trust in, though I admit I don’t mind getting a favorable fortune cookie at a Chinese restaurant! But fortunetellers are another thing: I once saw a closed fortuneteller’s shop with a sign on the door that said, “Will be reopening soon.” And I immediately thought, if you’re such a good fortuneteller why can’t you tell us the exact date that your own shop will be open!
This need to know the future — and the abundance of people ready to foretell it — doesn’t stop with such mystical folks. There are modern readers of the future— and I should say those who purport to read the future — the market analysts, the pollsters, and the pundits; and as the recent election showed us, prophets of this sort can be spectacularly wrong in their predictions of what is to come. One might say, given the failures of some of the pundits, it isn’t reading the future that’s the problem, it’s reading the present!
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Which brings me to our passage from Saint Luke’s Gospel. In it Jesus promises that the way to know what is coming is to look at what is already here. He is not advising his disciples to peer into crystal balls, or analyze the constellations and planets, to crack open a fortune cookie, or cast chicken bones on the ground and try to read the future in their pattern; or, for that matter, to take a poll, conduct a study, or interview the electorate.

Jesus tells his disciples — and that includes us — to keep their eyes open and look at what is actually happening around them, to look at what is to see what might be. He gives them an analogy from nature: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near.” We’ve got a fig tree growing right outside the parish hall and many of you here have enjoyed its fruit from time to time — and you know that when its leaves sprout, summer is not far away. Jesus is assuring his disciples that the coming of the Son of Man will be just as obvious as a leafy fig tree.

The exercise he sets for them is not the complicated task of fortune-telling — no casting of runes or of horoscopes — but the simple tasks of keeping their eyes and ears open, to see and to hear what is happening. The Son of Man will come in a cloud with power and great glory — his coming will be obvious, and it will confound the whole world. The point is not to guess when this might happen, but to be ready for it whenever it happens. “Be on your guard,” he warns us, “lest the day catch you unexpectedly like a trap.”

The problem is that people are all too often asleep at the switch, or worse, so caught up in their own preconceptions that they are fuzzy in their perceptions. They cannot see what is actually happening around them because they are so possessed by their own ideology or their prejudices or their desires that they forget or ignore any evidence to the contrary, any fact, any reality that does not fit their preconceived theory. This is, of course, exactly the opposite of the way one should think through such things — that is, reaching conclusions on the basis of the evidence; instead some people start with their conclusions and then ignore any evidence that doesn’t fit with what they want the result to be.
I recall seeing one rather tragic sign of this in the midst of Hurricane Sandy just a little over a month ago — a photograph of a beach home half under water, but with a sign on the side of it proudly proclaiming, “I don’t believe in climate change.”

Perhaps an even more striking example is the extent to which the pundits in last month’s election got it wrong. I saw a chart showing just how far off the pundits were in their predictions about who would be elected president. And the more political the pundits were — that is, the more the pundits were committed to the one party or the other — on both sides — the further off they were in the accuracy of their estimation, some of them being so far off as to predict a landslide exactly opposite to what actually happened.
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Surely this is not what Jesus wants for us in this passage of the Gospel this morning — he doesn’t want us to make predictions about his coming at all! When he comes, there will be no doubt that he has come again. The challenge he presents us is to be ready, and when we see his obvious coming — should he come in our lifetime — when the skies are ripped open and the clouds descend and it is obvious that he has come, for us to stand up for him and raise our heads in thanksgiving for our redemption.

And let me place this in a more personal context. Jesus tells the disciples that their generation will not pass away before the coming of the Lord. Clearly that was some twenty centuries ago, and the son of Man did not return in that way during the lifetime of that generation. So some interpret that what Jesus meant by “generation” was the whole human race, all of humanity — “this generation” as it is always “this” generation — and that makes sense both of reality and of what Jesus said.

So we can best understand this not just as a warning addressed to all of humanity but to each of humanity — that is, to each of us, to each and every human being. For each of us faces, at our own death, the “day of the Lord’s coming” as the veil of death is torn apart and the clouds of life are driven back and we behold the righteous judge. We do not each of us in “this generation” “pass away” until we travel that particular passage — the passage into everlasting life. For this passage we have no need of a fortuneteller or a horoscope, of a pollster or a pundit; we have no need of a prediction, because we have a promise. And our passage is booked.

Predictions may fail — more often than not they do. But the promises of the one who is faithful will always be fulfilled. Our Lord has promised that this generation will see him in power and great glory; and we shall, each of us, face him as he executes justice and righteousness in the land, and upon our lives; and we will see him bringing redemption and healing to each of us, caught up in his arms as we pass from this life into his life.

This is a promise better than any prediction, a promise you can count on; and be ready for — so that when it comes, when it is fulfilled, we will see for ourselves, and be able to stand and welcome — and be welcomed by — the one who is our obvious Lord, our Savior and our God.+

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Not From This World

God is not a king who rules by the threat of power, but a lover who empowers us by the gift of love.

Proper 29b • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jesus said, “If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over... but as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”

Last week we reflected on the fact that no human being — Jesus Christ excepted — is quite like God. We are all, of course, like God in a few respects, having been made in God’s image. As the Catechism reminds us, right in the second question and answer, on page 845 of the Book of Common Prayer, this means that we, like God, are free: “free to make choices: to love, to create, to reason.”

Surely there is no doubt about God having these three attributes. “Reason” is God’s middle name, so to speak, for as theologians remind us, the Son of God is the Word of God — and that is the most meaningful and reasonable Word ever spoken: the Word through whom all things were made. In this we recognize God as the Creator of all that is and could possibly be. And as John the evangelist reminds us again and again, Love is at the very heart of who God is.

We human beings share in these capacities to love, create, and reason — but you can see at once that human likeness to God is limited in each one of these capacities. As I said in the sermon last week, “No man works like him.”

And as with God, so with God’s kingdom. The kingdom of God is similar in some respects to earthly kingdoms, but ultimately so different from all of them that even thinking in such terms could be less than profitable, if we get hold of the wrong end of the stick. Of course, that did not stop people from thinking about the kingdom of God in very earthly terms throughout most of human history. The form that Messiah takes in the Jewish tradition is precisely that of a king. Messiah in Hebrew, and Christ in Greek, both mean “anointed one” — and this refers to the fact that the way a person is made a king in the Jewish tradition — and in most others — is by being anointed. You may remember, for example, how God chose David out of all the sons of Jesse and sent Samuel the prophet to anoint him as king with holy oil, after Saul (whom Samuel had also anointed king at God’s instruction) turned out not to be a faithful ruler after God’s own heart, and willing to submit to God’s instruction and commandment.

Our reading this morning from the book of Daniel shows that this idea of God, and God’s kingdom, was still very much in vogue in the centuries before the coming of Christ, and even up through and into the time of his ministry. Daniel portrays what amounts to a coronation scene in which the one “like a human being” — or “like a son of man” as the older translation has it — comes before the Ancient One, the one Ancient in Days, to be invested with all authority over all the nations of the earth. And you will recall that the disciples asked Jesus if the time was coming when he would establish his kingdom in Jerusalem. The disciples saw the kingdom of God in very literal terms — an anointed King sitting on a physical throne in a particular earthly kingdom.

So strong is this image of God as a kind of super-king — a King of kings and Lord of Lords — that it persisted well into the life of the early church, as attested in that reading from the Revelation to John. That vision portrays God’s heavenly court as being much like an earthly court; the only difference being that Jesus is the ruler over all the kings of the earth.

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And so he is — I do not want to deny by any means that the Son of God is King of kings and Lord of lords. But I want to remind us that this is an image, a metaphor. It doesn’t particularly well speak to us in our days, anyway, when there are very few kings sitting on earthly thrones anywhere. God is not simply the boss of bosses, the capo de tutti capi as they would say in the Godfather. God is much more than that, but also different from that. There is a danger in seeing God as simply the biggest, the best, the boss, the most powerful ruler, or even as just “the supreme being.” And the reason for this is that it doesn’t well jibe with what the Catechism tells us about God — that the primary attributes of God reflected here on earth are freedom, reason, and love — not compulsion and power.

And this is in part what Jesus was getting at when he told Pilate that his kingdom “is not from the world.” His kingdom is not a kingdom of one power dominating all other powers. No, his kingdom is a kingdom based on truth — and here we must understand truth not just as a collection of all things that are true, a collection of facts, but rather as something about the ultimate reality of all that is — something about the being of God rather than merely the power of God. It is not so much that God is in control of things, a power working over other powers, but that God is the source of all life and light and power that any thing has.

This is what is meant when John the Divine reports, a few chapters on from today’s passage, that the heavenly creatures sing out: “Splendor and honor and kingly power are yours by right, O Lord our God, for you created everything that is, and by your will they were created and have their being.” The kingly power of God is not that of an invading general conquering someone else’s territory; it is the gracious authority of the one who holds all things by right, not by compulsion.

For God is not only the creator of all that is, but the sustainer of it: were God to withdraw his loving care from the universe for an instant, were God to turn his gaze away or blink his all-seeing eye, all that is would simply cease to be — for God is the ground of all being, the source and sustainer of all that is, all things being created and sustained by the left and the right hands of reason and love.

This can help us understand on the one hand the nature of God’s creative reason — for he is the Word of Truth, the truth of everything that is. God is not simply reasonable in the sense of being intelligible or logical — God is the very basis of what makes Reason what it is — why cause follows effect and one and one make two. God is not just the Great Because; God is the Great Why.

But above all, and on the other hand, and again as John reminds us again and again, God is love — not just the love of affection and friendship and fellowship, not even just as the most loving being — but as the sustaining cause and end and purpose of all love. God is not a king who rules by the threat of power, but a lover who empowers us by the gift of love.

Perhaps no one understood this better than Dame Julian of Norwich, a great saint of the English Middle Ages. In her Revelations of Divine Love she wrote of God speaking to her; and the form of God that she saw was the wounded Christ on the Cross. And that Christ on the Cross spoke to her, in these words:

I am he, the might and goodness of fatherhood; I am he, the wisdom and the lovingness of motherhood; I am he, the light and the grace which is all blessèd love; I am he, the Trinity; I am he, the Unity; I am he, the great supreme goodness of every kind of thing; I am he who makes you to love; I am he who fills you with desire; and I am he, the endless fulfilling of all true desires.

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Is God a king, even King of kings? Yes, so God is. But that kingdom is not from this world — it is to this world. For the love of God is not based on God needing anything, but having everything, so that all is a gift, a gift of freedom, reason and love, given to us by the one who took our nature upon, that we might grow into his nature; one who died for us, that we might live in him. So let us give glory to God, our true King and our Lord, to whom all might, majesty, power and dominion — and all freedom, peace and love — be now and evermore ascribed, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.


Wednesday, November 21, 2012

No Man Works Like Him

There is no one quite like God when it comes to working salvation 2014 a sermon for Proper 28b

Proper 28b • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
When Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God... for by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.

You can tell from our Scripture readings this morning that Advent is almost upon us, as the passages chosen take on some of that aura of anticipation for the Great Day of Christ’s triumphal return, the judgment of the world, and the end of all things. But there is another theme in these passages, a theme not of expectation but of identity. For all three readings today urge us, each in its own way, not to be deceived by substitutes, cheap or elegant, but to hold out for the real thing. All our Scriptures today urge us to make a clear distinction between Jesus and all other ministers, who go from good to bad. The message is that Jesus is the Savior, the Son fo Man and Son of God, and no one else and no one other. As the hymn says, No man works like him.

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We start with one who isn’t a man at all: with the Archangel Michael, described in the vision of the prophet Daniel as the great prince, deliverer of God’s people. And while Michael the Archangel is clearly a deliverer and rescuer of God’s people, one who brings much good, he is also not the Christ; he is not the son of God. And this is revealed most clearly in his name, Michael. For in Hebrew, Michael, Mi k’ El, means “Who is like God?” — the implied answer being, of course, no one! Only God is God, and however great and powerful an angel or archangel may be, even Michael the leader of the hosts of heaven, the greatest of all angels and archangels, he is still a creature, a minister and servant of God, but not God himself. Michael is not God. No man — or angel — works like him.

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The Epistle to the Hebrews from which we been reading over the last few weeks has also been attempting, and continues, to make a distinction between the earthly ministers of God and the heavenly Son of God — who, while he has a ministry, and shared our human life and walked among us as one of us, is in his own full reality as the Son of God as much above the angels as the angels are ranked above rank and file human beings.

The author of this epistle has been referring to the earthly priests who serve in the earthly temple, the ordinary priests as well as their leader the high priest. And the message the author persists in delivering is that these priests have a ministry that is temporary and insufficient — good at most for the time being, but needing to be repeated day by day, and year by year, because the multitudes of their sacrifices cannot atone one for all for sin. For if the priests and their sacrifices could do away with sin once and for all they would not have to be repeated day by day and year by year. Even the great sacrifice of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when the high priest would enter into the holy of holies with the blood of the sacrifice and pronounce, that one time, on that one day, in that one place of the holiest part of the temple, speak the unspeakable name of God in the inner and most holy part of the temple — even that the most holy of all earthly sacrifices could not suffice to do away with sin once and for all — the most it could do is atone for sin year by year, one year at a time.

But Jesus, through the gift of himself on the cross, is superior to any merely human priest, even the high priest, for he offers the sacrifice of himself and he brings his own blood through the veil of the heavenly temple into the real holy of holies — the one of which the earthly temple is a mere imitation — a model or a replica, but not the real thing. No man, not even the high priest, works like him.

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Which is why, when the disciples show their admiration for the great stone structures of the temple and its surrounding buildings, Jesus declares to them that those stones will tumble to the ground — not one stone will be left standing on another. He is reminding them that this that the earthly temple which they behold there, however beautiful and glorious, is already the third or fourth such house of worship to stand on that spot — the tent and the tabernacle of Moses were replaced by the temple that Solomon built; the Assyrians destroyed that temple, and years later Ezra and Nehemiah repaired it, and then Herod the Great reconstructed it and built most of the grand buildings which the disciples are admiring at that point — the temple that took forty years to build. This temple, this temple of stone, however glorious, and its surrounding precincts, however majestic, are no more an eternal habitation than any other human construction. All of the predecessors to Herod’s Great temple have been replaced, and this one will be too. And all of them — every last one — are built as imitations of the true heavenly temple, which is above.

In this Jesus warns the disciples not to be fooled by imitations, architectural or, as he goes on to say, human. Recall how he said, “Destroy this temple and I will raise it up in three days” — and that in this saying he was referring to the temple of his body, which is the eternal and everlasting temple that sits at the right hand of the Father in the heavenly places. It is not the temple of stone and mortar that is the incarnation of God; it is Jesus Christ.

And just as he applies the prophecy of the raising of the temple to himself, so too he apples the lesson about imitations to himself personally: he assures them that some will come who will try to lead them astray, coming even in his name and even declaring, “I am he!” These false Messiahs will lead many astray, but Jesus warns the disciples to be on their watch. He assures them that say what they might, perform what wonders they will, no man works like him.

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And that is the God’s honest truth. No one works like Jesus. Even the best of us is like Michael, marked as it were with a label that says, “Who is like God — not this one!” Even the noblest and most costly sacrifice is pale and wanting beside the sacrifice of Christ upon the cross — the innocent giving himself on behalf of the guilty, a human being doing in that act what no other human being could do, because only he is Son of God as well as son of man.

But don’t be discouraged in this. each of us still has our ministry to carry out, even as we know that we are not like God and cannot work like him. There is good news in all of these lessons: we don’t have to do what Jesus has done — because he has done it. We get to ride on his coattails, having the confidence to enter the sanctuary by his blood, by the new and living way he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, because we are members of his body — so that we can approach the throne of grace with a true heart in full assurance of faith. He who has promised is faithful, for he has accomplished what no one else could do. For us, beloved, for us, who as members of his Body have salvation. Thanks be to God, that no man works like him.+


Sunday, November 04, 2012

Death Before Life

Our song shall be sung to eternity, in the Spirit -- a sermon for the observance of All Saints Day.

All Saints’ Sunday • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG Some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb and said, “Take away the stone.”

Today is the Sunday after All Saints Day, on which it is our tradition here at Saint James to remember not only the great saints of Christian history but also our own personal saints — our friends and family members who have died and rest in Christ. We remember them with images: the icons at the altar representing the saints in glory who meant so much to the universal church, and the photographs on the bulletin board here, representing our loved ones who have meant so much to us, and to this particular church.

These images are a help to our memory — and whenever a dyed-in-the-wool fundamentalist Protestant challenges me with, “Why do you have pictures of saints in your church?” I am always happy to reply with the question, “Don’t you have pictures of your loved ones in your house or at your work? Well this is the House of God, and the place where the work of God begins, and so we keep pictures of the members of God’s household and workforce to remind us of the fact that they belong to him as much as they belong to us! They remind us of the core of the Christian faith: that death is not the end.”

No, my friends; death is not the end. In a very real sense death is the beginning. That may sound a bit odd, as we are usually accustomed to thinking about life leading up to death. Many people, in fact, think that death is the end — atheists who have no belief in God at all, or those who believe that there is no more to us than simply the physical stuff that makes us up, and who see death just as the ultimate breakdown of the human machine, like a car whose engine has stopped working, with four flat tires, goof for nothing but the junkyard.

As I’ve noted before, the stuff that makes us up — what our bodies are made from — is constantly changing, even though we experience continuity in who we are. Every breath I take, I draw in oxygen from the atmosphere, and I exhale carbon, each little carbon atom neatly ushered off by two oxygen atoms. When I eat, I take in nitrogen and carbon and phosphorus and who knows what other chemicals that used to be part of some other plant or animal, and they become part of me. And as cells in my body die and are replaced, I am in constant flux and change. The “me” of today is literally physically not the “me” of yesterday, nor will it be the “me” of tomorrow. Most of the cells that have made up my body down through the years died a long time ago — and even some of the ones I carry around now, like the ones that make up my hair — or what is left of it — and the outer surface of my skin, are dead now and just waiting to fall out or rub off. This is the nature of biological life. Each of us is in constant transition.

This conveyor belt of life is the biological life that ends at death. Ultimately all of the cells that make up “you” and “me” will die, and “you” and “I” will be clinically dead before that, since it takes the these cells and systems working together to keep us alive with what the doctors call life. Some of our cells will keep on trying to work — for minutes or even hours — after our hearts have stopped and our brains have stopped functioning.

Yet we know that this is not all there is to life — just as there is a “you” or a “me” that somehow continues to exist in spite of the changes in our bodies. I spoke last month of that long-running play about young lovers, “The Fantasticks.” That play ran for 42 years, and you can well imagine that the actors who played the young lovers

on opening night eventually had to be replaced with even younger actors, as did the older actors too. And yet the play continued to be the play — it continued to exist as such in spite of the change in the actors who made up the cast. Our bodies are much like this: new cells coming into existence to replace the old dying ones every minute of every day.

Now, you might well observe, that just as the play always has to have actors — so too don’t we have to continue to have a body if we are to continue to exist? And the Christian answer to this dilemma has always been Yes. Some religions and philosophies think of the soul as a disembodied ghostly sort of thing that floats around and only temporarily “inhabits” a body. But that isn’t the Christian faith: our creed makes no reference to the immortality of the soul, but rather speaks of the resurrection of the body. Some in the early church insisted that the body that would rise would literally be the body you happened to die with — like Lazarus. The problem with that being that much of what goes into making up one person at any given moment also becomes part of someone else’s body through the very air we breathe. Some in the early church, like Saint Augustine, recognized this problem, and surmised that God would make up the difference by creating new bodily substance — but of course that goes against the whole idea of it being the same body.

Rather than getting tangled up in such speculation, even on the authority of someone like Saint Augustine, it is better to follow the Scripture — isn’t it always? — and follow Saint Paul’s understanding of this, as he wrote to the Corinthians: what dies — when we die — is a physical body, but what rises — when we rise — is a spiritual body. And spiritual here does not mean something less real or less substantial than the physical — but more so. It is the Spirit that gives life.

What is spiritual is strong enough to last for ever — this is why death is the real beginning, the beginning of eternal life, the life that lasts, the life of the Spirit we share with God himself, for as Jesus told the Samaritan Woman, God is Spirit, and as Saint Paul assures us, when we are raised we shall be like him. This is why death will be no more, mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things — the merely physical things of which the cosmos and everything in it is made— will have passed away. Scientists tell us that all matter will one day dissolve, and the physical universe will fade into nothingness as even protons and electrons give up the ghost; and the physical will cease to be. But the Spirit, and what is spiritual, will endure. God in Christ will make all things new — including the gift of new spiritual bodies that will give new life to our being and loving and doing in and with the power of God, who is Spirit.

I mentioned that musical play, The Fantasticks, but this continuing existence in spite of the change in physical make-up is equally true of any play or piece of music. Bach’s Partitas for Violin have been played on countless violins; Beethoven’s symphonies have been played and will be played by countless different orchestras — and each of us is a precious creation of God, more precious than the most important composition by any great composer. You might say, that the cosmos, the physical world, is the mechanism by which God makes souls. The physical body is the first draft, the working score, so to speak; the spiritual body is the eternal performance.

We will at our death take a rest from being performed, but will at our rising in the Spirit find our song sung out to eternity, in the holy city, the new Jerusalem. Death is only the intermission, and the new life that comes at resurrection will begin the true and lasting concert of real life, as we join with all the saints who have gone before, in song around the throne. This is the life that will never end, where the goodness and uniqueness of each one of us, perfected by God and refined by means of this earthly life, like gold as though by fire, will run like sparks through stubble, as we join to sing to Christ the Lamb of God who is the light of the City: as the old Appalachian hymn sings so well, “And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on; and when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on. And when from death I’m free I’ll sing and joyful be, and through eternity I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on, and through eternity I’ll sing on.”+


Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Cry for Mercy

Who prays to one who cannot answer prayer? The Jesus Prayer and a Brotherhood tradition.— A sermon for Proper 25

Proper 25b • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
When Bartimaeus heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

Today’s Gospel from Mark presents us with a turning point in Jesus’ ministry as he heads from Galilee and makes his journey on to Jerusalem. This passage also includes Mark’s last record of Jesus performing a healing — for Mark chooses not to record that Jesus healed the man whose ear was cut off in the Garden of Gethsemane.

There are many features to this short Gospel. Consider the fact that Jericho is mentioned twice at the opening of the passage but only to say that Jesus came and went; nothing is said about what happened in-between. This does give us the opportunity, by the repetition of that name, “Jericho,” to remember that “Jesus” in Hebrew is “Joshua” — and who can forget what happened when Joshua fit the battle of Jericho!

Then, in addition to this repeated reference to Jericho, there is the immediate repetition of the blind man’s name, because Bartimaeus means “son of Timaeus.” Also note how the blind man cries out twice for Jesus to help him, before the crowd orders him to keep quiet, and again afterwards. I’m tempted to say, “Is there an echo in here; or rather three echoes?”

As soon as the echoes die down, we witness the eagerness with which the man throws off his cloak and springs up; and then Jesus asks what he wants him to do for him — which is another echo, for as Bill reminded us last week, this is the same question Jesus asked the disciples James and John in the immediately preceding passage.

Perhaps most importantly, Mark reports the speed and simplicity of the healing itself — unlike earlier healings involving physical actions and incantations in Aramaic; here the healing takes place with one word, “Go,” and the affirmation that the man’s faith has brought him healing.

All of these points are noteworthy and could be subjects, each of them, for a whole series of sermons; but today I want to focus on the third set of echoes at the beginning of the passage: the words the blind man shouted out when he heard that Jesus of Nazareth was passing by. “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” It is notable how the economical evangelist Mark repeats this phrase twice, along with all of those other repetitions, those other echoes, both before and after the people tell the man to keep quiet. As I’ve said before, when the shortest of the gospels takes the time to say something twice, and does it three or four times in this short passage today, it is Mark’s way of drawing our attention to it. It is almost as if Mark is waving at us, and saying, “Pay attention! This is important!” So let us pay attention.

First, this is the only time in Mark’s Gospel when someone addresses Jesus as “Son of David,” and it serves as a reminder and a preparation for what is about to happen, for the passage that follows immediately is the Palm Sunday account of Jesus’ entry into David’s royal city, there to fulfill the destiny prepared for him from before the foundation of the world. The blind man — think of it for a moment — the blind man is the witness in Mark’s Gospel, that this is the Son of David; he is the only one in Mark’s Gospel to refer to Jesus in this way. He is the one who has recognized that the Son of David has arrived, as long promised.

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But even that is not my focus for reflection this morning. Rather it is on the prayer of the blind man, “Have mercy on me!” This is, naturally, the prayer of any beggar seeking relief, with his hand outstretched,“Have mercy on me. But it is also the natural prayer of anyone at all seeking God’s mercy — seeking what only God can give. To some extent, great or small, rich or poor, all of us are petitioners reaching out to our generous God, asking for God’s mercy. And because we only ask for help from one whom we believe can give it, this petition is in itself the sign of faith; as it is a sign of the man’s faith that Jesus is the one who can heal him; it is a sign of his faith, the faith that Jesus assures him his faith has brought him healing. “Have mercy on me” is the prayer of a faithful heart, for who asks for something from one who cannot give?

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This particular phrase, “Jesus, have mercy on me,” formed the central part of a great prayer from the monastic tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Church: a prayer known simply as “The Jesus Prayer” or “The Prayer of the Heart.” A Russian monk wrote of his experience with this prayer in a short memoir, The Way of a Pilgrim. In it he describes how he wanted to do as Jesus taught and, “to pray always,” or as Saint Paul told the Ephesians, “to pray in the Spirit at all times.” He wanted to fulfill these commandments and so he sought out a wise old monk who told him to pray in this way, “Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” To keep this prayer always in his mind with every breath he took, the old monk instructed him, with every breath he took, to breathe in as he said the first part in his mind, “Jesus, Son of God,” and then as he breathed out, the second part of the prayer, “have mercy on me, a sinner,” and to follow his breath in his mind’s eye, picturing his breath rising up through his nose, over the arch in back and then down into his heart, and then back up and out as he breathed out. I find it helpful to think of a pulley running up through my head and down into my chest, lowering my breath down into my heart, and then brining it back up again. This is the prayer that the man was taught and this is why the prayer is called “the prayer of the heart.” It is a profoundly meditative form of prayer, and you can see at once how it is based on the prayer of the blind man Bartimaeus, recognizing that Jesus is far more than the Son of David; he is the Son of God.

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But there is more to this prayer, and I want to share it with you this morning; and I think it is about time, as I’ve been part of this parish for thirteen years - it will be thirteen years next month. As you know, I’m part of a religious community called the Brotherhood of Saint Gregory. It was founded in 1969 with the help of a very wise woman who was a Roman Catholic nun, a member of the Order of the Visitation of Holy Mary. She was the Mother Superior of the convent up in Riverdale, just northwest of here, and our Brother Founder met with her over several years to develop the Rule by which I and over forty other brothers now live. Some years later she visited us, the brothers, when we were on a retreat, and she introduced us to the way her community of sisters had been praying the Jesus Prayer in common — as a group — for many years, perhaps going back to the founding of their community by St Francis de Sales in 1615. I want to share it with you this morning.

It is sung — and I want you to join me in singing; remembering how Saint Augustine said, “Whoever sings prays twice.” The prayer alternates between the leader and the assembly, and all you need do is repeat after me — as you slowly breathe in as I am singing, and I will do the same as you sing out with the breath you have just inhaled. The words begin even more simply than those of the Eastern Orthodox version: just, “Jesus, Son of God, mercy” — and the prayer is repeated and grows with other petitions using the many titles by which our Lord is known, and the various prayers with which we appeal through the course of our lives; but at the heart of it is the prayer of the blind man, Bartimaeus. Let’s begin; you might find it helpful to close your eyes and raise your hands with your palms upward, reaching out as we all do to the mercy of God as we pray... Jesus, Son of God, mercy... +

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Get What You Paid For

Wealth sticks to the wealthy like an acrylic sweater fresh out of the clothes dryer... a sermon for Proper 23b

Proper 23b • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Because you trample on the poor, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not live in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine.
During the economic boom of the 80s, someone came up with a T-shirt that read, “The one with the most things when he dies, wins.” This was the era of free-for-all speculation on Wall Street. Investments moved further and further away from actual commodities or industries, from real products or services, to speculation on commodity futures, and indexes, and margins, and even futures of indexes and margins. No longer were people trading just in pork bellies, or even in what pork bellies might be worth some day; They were trading in what the market might think pork bellies might be worth some day. People were trading not just in things, but in what people thought about things — and in what people thought about what people thought about things, if you can believe that — building on a very shaky foundation — if any foundation at all!

Some people managed to make huge fortunes in this rarified world: people like the fictional character Gordon Gecko from the film Wall Street, whose motto was, “Greed is good.” Governments were persuaded by this gospel of acquisition to repeal laws that had been put in place after previous economic disasters, laws designed to prevent a melt-down of the economy. Credit extended beyond the prudent , and people were sold mortgages they could not possibly afford, even in the best of times; and the value of homes came to be keyed not to intrinsic value, intrinsic worth, but as if they only could be worth more and more as time went on — no one would imagine that to be true of a car, yet people had no trouble thinking about it for a house! Meanwhile the distances between the salaries of workers and the wealth of the owners grew greater and greater. The rich grew richer and the poor poorer, and it really did begin to look like the one who died with the most things would win. The balloon kept getting bigger and bigger, and no-one expected it to burst.

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As we all know, this out-of-kilter pile of optimism came crashing down like a Jenga game just a few years ago. The chickens came home to roost to an astonishing degree, and the henhouse was full to overflowing. And sad to say, most of the chickens were dead ducks!

Some years on, it is still true a tiny portion of the population controls a disproportionate amount of the wealth of the world. And these days in the election season, who can turn on the TV without seeing a politician, or a surrogate, or a PAC, or a super-PAC, appealing to a particular worldview — either that prosperity will come by letting the wealthy trickle their wealth down to the poor who eagerly wait below like drought-stricken farmers able to receive this gentle shower of rain; or on the other hand that the government should take more from the wealthy so as to redistribute it more effectively — but still from above, as far as those below are concerned.

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Of course, as our Scriptures from Amos and Mark remind us, there is nothing new in this. There is nothing new about the magnetic attraction of wealth — how money wants to stay where other money is rather than trickling down to where it isn’t; how the rich always seem to get richer, taking advantage of the poor. And those who have the guts to challenge this, people like Amos or Jesus, get branded as malcontents or trouble-makers. As Amos says, those with power and wealth abhor the one who speaks the truth, and in times like these the prudent will keep their mouths shut; and we know what happened to Jesus when he upset the apple-cart of a society in which religious leaders worked hand-in-hand with the politicians to keep things profitable for the few at the expense of the many.

Even some with good intentions, like the rich young man in the Gospel, is disappointed when Jesus tells him what he needs to do for his own good, and the good of his soul — to say nothing of the good he could do for the poor. He could not have been the only rich person to go away sorrowful, wanting to follow Jesus but not able to do as he counseled: unable to break that magnetic attachment of wealth. The Gospel shows us how hard it is for wealth to trickle down — it wants to stay with the wealthy; and the wealthy want to stay with it!

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This is why greed, far from being good, as Mr. Gecko believed, is such a poisonous affliction. It’s an addiction that can never be satisfied — those who think having more and more is the point of life can never get enough to make that hunger stop. Because there always is more, isn’t there? It is like drinking salt-water when you’re thirsty — it will only make you thirstier, and in the end, it will kill you.

Greed is a thirst for the wrong thing, you see. No one really needs more money than it takes to live, to provide for those practical real realities of shelter and food and a modicum of comfort and leisure; and the money and the things left when they die, as indeed they must, is beyond their employment or enjoyment. While you live, your possessions and wealth can serve you and others, but the things you have but which you do not use serve no one — not even you. There is an old saying, “The second coat in your closet, the one you never wear, really belongs to someone else.” Hanging there in the closet it keeps no one warm, not even you. Yet, there it hangs.

Just as the financial markets moved further and further from reality, to focus on speculation itself as a thing to speculate about, so too the desire for wealth and possessions moves away from the good that wealth can do — to the wealth itself, and not to using it, but just to having it. Rather than a means to an end, it becomes an end in itself — a dead end.

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I mentioned politicians a moment ago and I’d like to end with not a politician, but with a First Lady. Mary Todd Lincoln suffered much in life — she lost three of her four sons to early death, at the ages of four, twelve, and eighteen; and she suffered the horror of her husband being shot as he sat next to her in the theater, her hand in his. She was far from a perfect person, and was what used to be called “high-strung.”

One of her great failings was her unrealistic relationship with money. When her husband was elected President, she went wild; she had no sense of proportion, and began to spend his new-found salary lavishly refurnishing the White House like there was no tomorrow. When tomorrow came and Lincoln was assassinated, and then with the death of her young son, Tad, just a few years later, she fell into a cycle of madness; imagining she was lost to the world, doomed to live homeless, out on the streets.

One day she was in fact found wandering in the streets of Chicago. And it was discovered by those who took her in that all the while she bemoaned the lack of money, living in panicked fear of poverty, she had over $50,000 in bonds sewn into the lining of her dress — a huge fortune in those days. But it wasn’t even enough to keep her warm. She died a few years later, never able to enjoy any of that wealth.

Julie Harris as Mary Todd Lincoln, and your preacher, in his former life as an actor, portraying Tad Lincoln, who died shortly after his 18th birthday. Photo by Martha Swope.

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It is painfully easy to say, Well, she was a bit crazy, wasn’t she? But isn’t anyone who hoards more of the world’s goods than he or she needs to live — even to live comfortably — equally out of touch with reality? How many are like the rich young man, wanting to be free but unable to let go of the very thing that holds them down.

The disciples ask, Who then can be saved? And as Jesus answers, the implication seems to be that all can be saved from possession by wealth — but not through their own efforts, only through the power of God. We all need help detaching ourselves from the goods we accumulate, the things that seem to stick to us like an acrylic sweater fresh out of the dryer, and God has shown us the way to do so — to use the power of God that is within us, God working within us, to open our hands to give to those with less, to grow accustomed to letting go and not grasping, knowing our needs will be met a hundredfold.

And just as wealth seems to attract more wealth and drag us down, so too once we start the practice, the practiceof generosity will make us more generous; the practice of charity will make it easier and easier to open our hands, and let go of the weight that keeps us from following the one who can and will free us from all such bonds, even Jesus Christ our Lord.+


Monday, September 17, 2012

Do As I Say

Jesus wants us to do as he says, and as he does... A sermon for Proper 19b.

Proper 19b • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For all of us make many mistakes.

John Selden, a wise and witty 17th-century English lawyer, is the originator — or at least the recorder — of the saying, “Do as I say, not as I do.” Many a parent or teacher has used this line as an excuse, when their children or pupils point out that the teacher has failed to follow their own teaching. It is an easy loophole to slip through, and Selden the lawyer noticed how poor an excuse it is for any teacher worth his or her salt. As Selden noted, while it might be common for a teacher or a preacher to fall back on this cop-out, saying, Do as I say, not as I do; what, asked Selden, “if the Physician had the same Disease upon him that I have, and he should bid me do one thing, and he do quite another — could I believe him?” No, when life and limb are at stake you want to make sure that the advice you follow is also followed by the one who gives it! Who, after all, would trust an obese doctor to give advice on weight loss, or a doctor who smoked like a chimney who advised against smoking?

Saint James, in the passage from his epistle we heard this morning, seems to offer a similar point: teachers need to be on their guard, knowing that they will be judged with great strictness should they make an error — as anyone is bound to do from time to time. “Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect,” James assures us, and we all know that nobody’s perfect! The best thing to do when caught in an error or a misstatement is to admit the fault, accept correction, and move on — without resorting to excuses or evasions like, “Do as I say, not as I do.”

James knew the wisdom of setting the record straight and accepting his own imperfections, not excusing them, but disciplining his sloppy and fallible tongue. Not an easy task, he goes on to say. If the tongue of even the wisest teacher may slip and speak in error, how much worse the wagging and wicked tongues of gossip and cursing. Better to keep silent, it might be wise to say.

Which, indeed, Jesus says to his disciples concerning his identity — picking up on the theme from last week’s gospel. Whether Jesus really did want the disciples to keep his identity secret, or this was just his way of setting their wagging tongues alight to spread the word, each of us must grasp as best able to do. I noted last week that the idea that Jesus really wanted to keep his identity secret seems not to be in keeping with his continued and open proclamation — as our gospel reminds us today, “he said all this quite openly” — so if he really meant to keep his identity secret — like a first-century Batman or Superman — he does not seem to have followed his own advice to the disciples not to tell anyone who he was, and why he came.

The Gospel shows us Jesus is not shy of speaking out — preaching from the mountainside and on the plain, from the shores of Galilee to the very courts of the Temple. And what is more, he not only preaches — he acts. To paraphrase the Epistle of James we heard last week, he is not a speaker of the word only, but most definitely a doer.

And so Jesus closes this passage today with a good example of the opposite of John Selden’s saying: Do as I say, and as I do. Any who want to be his followers must do as he has done, denying themselves and taking up their cross to follow him. Now, that may seem obvious — how can you be a follower if you don’t follow? But as with those who say one thing and do another, surely we know that the church is not lacking in folks who swear they love the Lord, but do nothing to serve him when they come across him in the form of those who are poor, or hungry, or sick or bereft. Those who are ashamed of him — sometimes in the form of the poor and the stranger, of whom he said, “as you have done to them, so you have done to me” — surely those ashamed of him will find him to be ashamed of them when he comes in unmistakable glory at the end of the age. And so he warns us in advance, to do as he has done.

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So, in this meantime, before his coming again in glory, what is the best course for us, in the midst of this adulterous and sinful generation? How do we best do, not just as Jesus says to do, but to do as he has done? Each of us must answer this as best we can, for no one knows another’s strengths or weaknesses so well as we each do our own. I get a sense of this in James’ epistle — is this in part a confession not only of his failings in speaking, not just in slips of the tongue, but in the wagging of it? Does he speak from experience as one who found it hard to keep his tongue from speaking ill, from spreading tales, and tittle-tattle? Is he preaching to himself as much as to those to whom he wrote? Perhaps, much like Saint Paul, the cross James bore in life was his knowledge of his own weaknesses — and this is in part his way of speaking from experience to his church of the faults he knows only too well.

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In the same way, each of us is called to the knowledge both of our own weaknesses, our own failings, but also to the knowledge of the one in whom we put our trust, the one who will save us precisely because we cannot save ourselves. Those intent on saving themselves are the ones who lose — for none, imperfect as the best of us is, can save themselves. It is those who fix their eyes on the great Teacher — the Teacher who does not just give a speech, but acts; who not only says, but does — perfectly. He it is who saves us because we cannot save ourselves. If we are to follow him, let us do so not in word only, but in deed, framing our lives as best we can to his example: he has given us the cross as a template, as a shape to form ourselves into, to follow him; as generous, loving people who give of themselves to help others. Let us be like him, and countless others, those saints who have followed him in faith, who are not ashamed to sit with the lowly, or to welcome the stranger, to visit the sick and those in prison — in short, to take up our cross each day of our lives, that at the end of those lives, we may be blessed to hear, Well done, good and faithful servant, enter into your master’s joy.+


Sunday, September 09, 2012

The Secret Jesus

The ironical evangelist Mark once again says one thing while seeming to say the opposite 2014 a sermon for Proper 18b.

Proper 18b • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it.

The longest running musical in theater history is a little play called The Fantasticks. It ran for forty-two years in its original Off-Broadway run in New York, and it has been revived and performed in other venues thousands of times since. In it, two fathers hatch a plot to get their children to do what they want them to do. That in itself is not so unusual; parents have been trying to get their children to act as they want — often without success — from the days of Cain and Abel. What is unusual lies in how these two fathers plot to accomplish their scheme. For they realize they stand the best chance of success by telling their children to do the opposite of what they want them to do.

The wisdom of their plan is based on their observation that children often do the opposite of what is asked of them. In one of the show’s songs, “Never Say No,” they document, among other things, that children put beans in their ears precisely because they are told not to beans in their ears. So the crafty fathers realize they can put this contrariness to work, as they also sing, “Your daughter brings a young man in, / says, ‘Do you like him, Pa?’ / Just say that he’s a fool / and then you’ve got a son-in-law!” And so they plot to get their children to fall in love by telling them that they must never, never, see or speak with each other.

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In today’s Gospel, there are three references to Jesus trying to keep a secret — or so it seems. Remember, once again, that this is the Gospel of Mark, the shortest of the four Gospels, so if something is repeated three times in one short section you can be sure that the economical Mark wants us to take note of it! At the beginning of the passage Mark tells us that Jesus entered a house but did not want anyone to know that he was there. Then, after healing the child of the Gentile woman — again seeming to be reluctant to do so, but being persuaded by her insistence — he then travels out of the way into Gentile territory, and then is greeted by people who bring him a deaf man. In keeping with this theme of secrecy, rather than healing the man in their sight, Jesus once more takes him aside and works this healing miracle in private. And finally, after healing the man, Jesus orders the people to tell no one about the miracle.

The irony in all of this — and we can be sure that this is Mark’s point, because, after all, he brings it up three times — is stated clearly: “the more Jesus ordered them to keep silent, the more zealously they spread the word.” So, the question before us is, Did Jesus really want his presence to be kept secret, or was he, like the savvy fathers in The Fantasticks, relying on human nature to spread the word of his presence even as he kept telling them to keep his presence mum?

As I said a few weeks ago about Jesus’ claim to be the bread from heaven, we do not have many options here. But just consider this: Jesus did understand human nature better than any other human being who has ever walked this earth. So he must have known the simple truth that the fathers in that musical knew — that people will act contrary to instructions given them. And after all, as the Son of God he had witnessed the long history of his chosen people disobeying his Father in heaven!

Jesus surely also knew that the things he did would be perceived as fulfillment of those ancient prophecies about the coming of Messiah, the Son of God and Son of Man — and once perceived as such, the word would spread like wildfire. And here he is, fulfilling a prophecy such as we heard this morning in Isaiah, a prophecy fulfilled in this Gospel passage, as a man who cannot hear or speak clearly is freed from these impediments, his ears unstopped and his tongue untied. And in this act, though Jesus tells the people to keep quiet about it, we can be sure he meant the story to be told.

And why is that? Because this is not a healing of someone lame, or disabled, or blind. It is the healing of a man who could not speak. Why would Jesus untie someone’s tongue only to tell him and the crowd to keep silent? Why open his ears if not to fill them with the good news that he can then tell forth with his newly liberated tongue? Why come to this earth at all, incarnate as the Lord, as the Messiah long awaited, the Son of God and Son of Man, robed in flesh, our Great High Priest, if not to call all people to himself, and save them as they put their trust in him? Why keep secret the best news ever heard?

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And it seems to me that the answer to this is in fact the wisdom of Jesus to know that the word would be best spread by telling people not to spread it. He knew our failings — that we cannot keep good news from spreading; and, lets face it, nothing travels like gossip, either! People really just can’t manage to mind their tongues, so at least Jesus gives them something good to wag their tongues about — the Good News that salvation has come, that the day long promised by Isaiah and all of the prophets is upon us: “Be strong; do not fear. Here is your God, who has come to save you!” If even the dogs are going to be fed, how much more the children God that has called and adopted to be his own, through the coming of that very Son of God who is our brother, who through his brotherhood with us makes us children of his Father in heaven.

This is good news, my friends, and woe betide me if I were to tell you to keep it to yourselves, even if I thought that meant you would spread it more effectively. Rather let me say to those encouraging words: to spread the word — to tell it forth in the streets and the offices, in the shops and on the sidewalks of this great but terrible city, by the hospital bed of the dying and in the nursery where new life comes to birth. Publish, my friends, publish glad tidings of redemption and release, as our untied tongues proclaim the praise of the One who has freed us from our bondage to death, and brought us into his marvelous light, even Jesus Christ our Lord.


Sunday, September 02, 2012

Take It All In

Deep cleaning is what is needed, in the heart of hearts 2014 not just washing one's hands. A sermon for Proper 17b.

Proper 17b • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.

In our Gospel passage this morning it might appear at first glance that Jesus is being a bit hard on the Pharisees and the scribes. After all, their criticism, “Why do your disciples eat with defiled — that is, dirty — hands?” could come from the mouth of many a mother or grandmother or aunt talking to a son or granddaughter or nephew or niece. At least I was brought up that way — and so it was a tradition in my family home, as much as it appears to have been for the Pharisees and all the Jews, as Mark observes. It is not that unusual to be expected to wash your hands throughly before you eat — particularly when you are eating without knife and fork, but dipping your hand in the bowl and breaking the loaf of bread with your bare — and, one hopes, clean — hands.

But as Jesus notes, there is more going on here than just hygiene and table manners. The thing that seems to pull Jesus’ last nerve is the tendency of the Pharisees and the scribes, at least the ones who confronted him, spectacularly to miss the point of God’s law, and to substitute rules and regulations of their own, and focus on those hand-made laws, rather than on the deeper matters of justice, truth, and love, that are embodied in God’s sublime law: the Law summarized so well in the commandment to love God and neighbor.

As important as washing your hands may be, there is something superficial about it. It cleans only the outside; it does nothing for the inside. Think for a moment of another famous hand-washer from the Scriptures: Pontius Pilate. A good politician — or perhaps I should say a bad politician — he takes a poll and follows the prevailing opinion rather than standing up for what he really knows is right: At the urging of the crowd, he sends Jesus to be whipped and crucified, then washes his hands of the whole affair — literally. Outside, his hands are clean. Inside, he is “as guilty as sin” as my grandmother used to say; remembered around the world and down through the ages only for this single act, as people everywhere in countless languages recite each Sunday, “crucified under Pontius Pilate... crucificado bajo Poncio Pilato...” What a way to be remembered!

Pilate could wash his hands from dawn to dusk, for a week at a time or for two thousand years, and like Shakespeare’s Scottish assassin’s wife, Lady MacB, never manage to get that damned spot of blood off of his guilty hands. And even if he could, it would not change the inner reality of who he is, and what he did. He chose not to risk trouble with the crowd, and sent the Lord of glory to his death.

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But enough about Pilate. Let us return to the one of whom Pilate washed his hands. The point Jesus is making, as he goes on to teach, is that tarting up the outside is no good if the inside is filthy. Washing your hands will not make you a righteous person. Jesus made this point to the Pharisees on another occasion when he talked about them being like whitewashed graves: pure and spotless on the outside but full of corruption and rottenness within. And here he contrasts the talkative lips that honor God with their literal lip-service, and the all-too-fallible and sinful human hearts that conceal God only knows what evil inclinations and mischief deep within, where sin crouches for employment, ready to leap out at the first opportunity.

In the present case Jesus is addressing the question of food — for the Pharisees would hold that even kosher food would be contaminated by eating it with unclean hands. But Jesus goes beyond the food question to expound on one of his favorite themes: what does God really want from us? Does God want merely the appearance of righteousness, a superficial ship-shape and bristol fashion on deck while down in the engine room is all is chaos and confusion and unruliness? Does God only want clean hands and a clean slate, or rather a clean heart, an inside cleaned and voided of all the wretched impurity that lurks within, and defiles as it comes out?

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The Apostle James — not our Saint James but the other James, who wrote the letter we heard this morning, believed by many to be the brother of Jesus — echoes this teaching in his call for the inside of the believer to be purified — weeded and trimmed of the rank growth of wickedness, and transformed inwardly by the implanted word of God, like a seed planted in a newly cultivated garden plot, ready to grow inside the heart of a faithful person, so that the righteous man or woman can actually do what God requires — not only hearing the word with the ear or speaking it with the lips, but actually doing what it requires; not being like someone who looks at his superficial reflection — his outside — in a mirror, but one who takes the word in, in to the heart, where it empowers the righteous person to act rightly, and the good to do good.

Ultimately goodness does not come from within us, as James testifies: “every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights.” But if we allow this graceful gift to enter us, to cleanse us inwardly of all our faults, then we can bring forth things other than those awful and defiling things that are all we could do on our own, without God’s grace. As Jesus is quoted as saying in the parallel passage in Matthew’s Gospel, “Clean the inside of the cup and then the outside will be clean.” The vessel that needs cleaning — inside — is us, and only God’s grace and God’s gift can do that cleaning, deep down where it matters, in our heart of hearts.

It is not enough just to wash our hands, or to hear the word — we are called and invited to take it all in, to allow God to cleanse us “through and through,” as the Psalm says to God, “Purge me from my sin and I shall be pure, Wash me and I shall be clean indeed.” God indeed looks for truth deep within us, and plunges the depths of every human heart. God will cleanse us and weed and cultivate our inward garden plot, so that his implanted word will bear fruit, and bring it forth accordingly.

Let us pray. Cleanse us, O God, in our heart of hearts, that we may be your faithful people, and do such good things as only your grace can empower us to do, that we may serve you not only with our lips, but in our lives, in holiness and righteousness all our days, through Jesus Christ our Lord.