Monday, February 27, 2012

Look to the Skies

On the nature of covenants... from the first one whose sign was set in the clouds. A sermon for Lent 1b.

SJF • Lent 1b • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The Lord said, This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you... I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.

We come now to the first Sunday in Lent, and through the coming four weeks our readings from the Hebrew Scriptures will focus on the concept of covenant. On each Sunday the Scriptures will refer to one of the various covenants that God made with humanity, and with the chosen people — including, next week, the covenant which was marked in flesh and blood.

But today we go back to primeval history, to the covenant made between God and every living thing on earth. This covenant is marked with the sign of the rainbow set in the clouds after the flood. God promises that he will never again cause it to rain so much as to wash away all living things; and that the rainbow will remind God himself not to get carried away and destroy all living things by a flood. When God sees it, God will remember — as if God could forget!

This first and model covenant goes far to tell us what a covenant is — what is the nature of a covenant. It shows us that the covenant has two parts: an agreement or promise, and a sign or testimony to that agreement or promise. Think for a moment about the agreements or promises that you make yourselves in your own lives. Even the most basic and simplest agreement is marked at least with a nod or a handshake, isn’t it? That outward sign is what tells you that the other party has agreed; if they just stared at you blankly, how would you know if they have agreed or not? We need at least a wink or a nod if we are not to have serious misunderstandings. And the graver and more important the agreement, the more likely we are to demand more than a wink or a nod, or even a handshake. We are likely to want it in writing — some kind of testimonial stating exactly what it was that was agreed to, and the terms of the agreement; something towhich we can refer back, later down the road, if it appears the agreement isn’t being kept. We want something we can hold up and say, “But you agreed — here it is in black and white.”

Of course, the agreement God made with humanity in this earliest covenant wasn’t in black and white. It was in the colors of the rainbow, set in the clouds to remind all — even God himself — of his promise not to flood the world again.

How many of you recall that grade-school memory device for remembering the seven colors of the rainbow, Mr. Roy G. Biv? Anyone remember that? It seems that although we think of the rainbow as having seven colors, at least some of the ancients did not perceive so many gradations of color. One of the ancient Greeks refers to the rainbow as “three-colored” and it has been suggested that the Hebrews saw it as having four distinct colors. And that these four colors spelled out the sacred name of God himself, to which I referred some weeks back. So they may have understood the rainbow literally as God’s “signature” in the heavens!

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There is another unusual feature to this covenant, and that is its essentially one-sided nature: if the rainbow is God’s signature, his is the only one on the agreement. Usually, and in all the later covenants we’ll talk about, a covenant marks out an agreement in which both parties have a responsibility to do something. But in this case, God does not look for or ask for anything specific from Noah. It’s true that in a portion of the story not included in our reading, God does demand that Noah and his descendants — which is to say, everybody, all of humanity — are not to eat meat with blood still in it. Adam and Eve, as you recall from Genesis, were allowed to eat of the fruit of the earth — no meat — but God gives Noah and his family the right to eat meat, on the condition they not consume any blood. But this permission to eat meat and the commandment not to eat blood do not seem to be at all linked with the covenant about the flood itself or the promise not to flood the earth again, or with the sign of the covenant set in the clouds. This appears to be a completely one-sided covenant, a promise that God is making to himself as much as to Noah, and the rainbow is there to serve as an aide-memoire for God himself, like a string you might tie on a finger to remind yourself of some task, or a memo you might jot on a sticky-note, attached to the side of your computer monitor.

Still, this is precisely why covenants have such an external sign: the sign is the testimony that a promise has been made, the reminder and proof that the covenant exists. And whether it serves to remind one or both parties, it does its work most effectively when the covenant itself specifies the sign as part of the agreement — in black and white, or in the colors of a rainbow.

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As you may know, the various churches that make up the Anglican Communion are exploring whether or not we should adopt a covenant that has been proposed for all of the member churches to adopt. This would make more formal what up to now has been a relatively informal arrangement. The discussion is whether we should move from the realm of handshakes, winks and nods, to a written constitution of sorts. There is also discussion as to whether the draft document proposed meets the test of being something that we all can agree to. There seems to be some interest in having some kind of agreement, but no clear agreement as to what that agreement should be. I will be alluding to this proposed Anglican Covenant over the next weeks, but I do not plan to make it the focus of my reflections.

For today I will only say that it seems the proposed Anglican Covenant is a bit short on specifics and long on good intentions; that is, the things everyone is supposed to agree to seem fairly agreeable, but they seemed that way already — so some are asking, Why do we need such an agreement when a handshake will do. As one English bishop put it: if we can agree to it, we do not need it, and if we can’t agree to it, it won’t accomplish anything. And even in England, out of the dioceses that have voted on it, they are ten-to-seven against it.

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But as I say, this proposed bit of Anglican diplomacy will not form the substance of my sermons this Lent. (Thanks be to God!) My primary interest is in exploring the historic covenants of the people of God, and that will form the content of our Scripture readings over the next few weeks, and my reflections on them.

And to return to today’s Rainbow Covenant, let us remember its most striking characteristic: it is God’s covenant with the earth, a reminder to God to keep his promise not to destroy the earth with a flood. It asks nothing of the earth, or of the people who dwell on it. It is the sign of a promise made by God, signed in the colors of the rainbow, and set in the clouds for all to see. As I said in a sermon a few weeks ago, this is a real, “I’m God and you aren’t” kind of message; God is saying, in effect, “By myself I have sworn.”

What promise could be more faithful, what words more comforting, than a covenant from God, a promise that God sealed with a sign of God’s own making. When we look to the skies and see the sign of the rainbow, let us remember that this is a sign from God and of God, a reminder that God is faithful and never-failing, and will stand fast by his Word. Let it be a sign to us of God’s unchanging compassion, unfailing love, and great faithfulness unto me, and to you, and to every descendant of Noah who dwells on God’s good earth.+

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Now You See It

God plays peekaboo with his children... a sermon for Last Epiphany B

SJF • Last Epiphany B • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.+

Throughout the season since the Epiphany in early January we have been exploring concepts revolving around perception, knowledge and belief. We have reflected on why and how we have come to believe in God, and how our faith and our belief changes our lives, transforms and transfigures our lives, and how we spread and share that faith, the faith in our own transfiguration through God. This Last Sunday after the Epiphany is no exception.

Today we return to the theme with which the season began, when we spoke of that old blind priest Eli and the attentive boy Samuel. The theme is vision and perception — partial or, more precisely in the case of our readings today, on again and off again. Now you see it, now you don’t.

The transitory nature of revelation seems characteristic of the way that God deals with — and appears to — humanity. God does not, it seems, choose to reveal himself in permanent form, but in transitory glimpses, passing appearances. Revelation is not a constant stream, but more like one of those fountains that pulses and pauses. You will recall that in the story of the young Samuel the passage began by saying that visions were rare and the voice of God was not often heard — until, that is, God revealed himself to the boy Samuel with news that made every ear in Israel tingle. Recall also that when God appeared to Moses at the first, it was not as a rock or a monument but as a burning bush; and when God was revealed to the whole people of Israel it was not in a form like a mountain, but in the form of a cloud that descended upon the mountain. God was a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night — not a thing like the gods of the Egyptians, idols of metal or stone. God was not an object, like the Golden Calf that the Israelites foolishly tried to substitute for the living God who had chosen them to be his people.

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So it is that God — constant as God is in his own being — did not reveal himself with a kind of permanent constancy in those bygone days. We can see an echo of this in the account of Elijah’s being whisked away by God, and the clear message to his disciple Elisha concerning it: Keep your eyes open and watchful — if you see me being taken from you, you will inherit that double share you asked for; but if not, not. Indeed, when it happens, it is so quick and astounding, all fiery chariot and horses and whirlwind so that Elisha only has time to cry out to his vanishing father in God before he is taken from his sight. Now you see him, now you don’t.

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One might say that Elijah performs a similar guest appearance, and disappearance, on the mount of the Transfiguration. Joining Moses as the representative of the Law, Elijah as the spokesman for the Prophets appears to the wondering eyes of Peter, and James and John, there on the mountaintop, conversing with Jesus. And sure enough, as soon as Peter the Big Fisherman opens his big mouth — trying to prolong the vision by building dwellings, instead of accepting the transitory revelation for what it is — as soon as Peter tries to lay hold on it, make it permanent, a cloud envelopes them and God himself has the last word: this is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him! And suddenly, Elijah, Moses and the cloud are gone, and only Jesus remains. Now you see him... and now you see him still!

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But isn’t that the point, after all. Jesus is still with us. He is the final revelation of God, the very image of God — the last word, as indeed he was the first Word, the Word who was in the beginning with God. and who was, and is, God, and who has appeared to us in these latter days for our sake and for our salvation. So at the Transfiguration it is not Jesus who disappears — he is the one who remains, and is the one to whom the others defer as they step from the stage: even God the Father himself, turning the microphone over to his Son and telling that small audience, “Listen to him.”

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Lent is about to begin this Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, and during it we will journey with our Lord on up to Calvary on Good Friday, and through the Holy Saturday vigil as he lies in the tomb, and then on to the great celebration of his rising on Easter Day. Over those three days we will take part in that last great game of peekaboo that God played with his children — now you see him, now you don’t — and again after a little while you see him once again, but then, at the last, for ever.

God played peekaboo with his children when they were young, but now that we are growing to maturity in Christ the time for the games of childhood is past. Good Friday was the last time God in Christ ever said to humanity, “Now you can’t see me!” ... and then, again, we see.

Easter put an end to that, when the light shone out of the darkness, shining into our hearts to give the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ our Lord, who, behold, is with us always, even unto the end of the age. His Father wants us to listen to him, and he himself wants us to walk with him, in his presence and by his light, every day of our lives. Let us do as he commands, our mission high fulfilling, and follow him where he leads.+

Sunday, February 12, 2012

In It to Win It

Running the race to win... a sermon for Epiphany 6b

SJF • Epiphany 6b • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Do you not know that in a race the runners all compte, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it.

One of our Lord Jesus Christ’s better known sayings — known by many who may not know it was Jesus Christ who said it — is, “Ask and you shall receive.” Our Gospel passage this morning shows this principle in action. Jesus is not going out of his way to find sick people — he doesn’t have to. Word has spread about this miraculous healer and the wonders he has performed through the various towns of the region. It is the leper who comes to Jesus, not Jesus to him. He comes because of what he’s heard by word-of-mouth, not because Jesus has been engaged in a media blitz like a presidential campaign. The leper has heard, and he comes and he plants himself before this wonder-worker and begs for a wonder to be worked.

And true to the sentiment, “Ask and you shall receive,” Jesus heals the man and sends him away, incidentally instructing him not to spread the word any further than it already has spread — and will continue to spread, in spite of Jesus asking those healed, such as this man, not to spread it!

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Word gets around. Long before, in the days of the kings, word had similarly spread, far from the land of Israel, as far as Aram, about a similar wonder-working man of God with the power to heal. The historian who recorded this tale even gives us some of the back-story: word is spread by a young girl captured in a raid and put to work in her captor’s household as a house-slave to the master’s wife. So word passes up the chain of command from the slave to the wife to the master to a pair of kings, and finally to the man of God himself — and all who ask, receive.

There is a bit of a hiccup when the Aramaean general expects more of a dramatic show than just a dip in the River Jordan. But the good counsel of yet another servant reminds him of the wisdom of following doctor’s orders — and how much easier when those orders are simple rather than difficult! It is as much as to say, You have asked, why not now receive? And he consents and discovers that his prayer is abundantly answered.

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Ask and you shall receive: it seems so simple and obvious. Yet how often, and for how many different reasons, do we fail to ask, and hence do not receive the good things God has prepared for us? Or how many times do we receive, but as what we receive is not quite what we expect, do we turn it down? Do we put God to the test, daring God to act in spite of our refusal to ask God for action? Do we risk offending God by turning down the gifts God gives because it doesn’t seem to us at the moment to meet our needs? Are we like those stubborn husbands who will not stop to ask directions no matter how lost they get? (And isn’t GPS the answer to a hundred thousand prayers, by men and women alike!) Or how often are we like Naaman the general, deciding not to take the simple prescription medication our doctor has ordered, imagining we can make ourselves better by will-power and sheer obstinacy?

No, my friends, the answer is “Ask, and you shall receive.” Kneel in the path if you must to stop his way, and lay out your need before him. Pour out your needs to God in humble prayer. He indeed knows our needs before we ask, but it is in asking that we open ourselves to his healing action.

Namaan could have stayed in Aram, wasting away from his disease, or remained indignant and refused the prescription when it was given. The leper in the Gospel could have chosen not to trouble the wonder-working healer, remained an outcast from his own community until he died. The runner could have failed to enter the race, and would never have achieved the crown. In short, you’ve got to be in it to win it: you have to ask in order to receive.

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A few weeks ago I heard a news story about the upcoming Olympics. The story noted that the sport of boxing has been part of the Olympic games from the times of ancient Greece — but only for men. At the summer games later this year, in London, boxing will for the first time be open to women boxers. Now whether I approve of boxing or not, or of women boxers, I have to say, when I heard the voice of a young Bronx woman who hopes to qualify to box in the summer games, of how proud she is and how much this means to her — I really understood the spirit of bravery, commitment, competitiveness, and the upward call to do all in one’s power to win the race, despite what people may say is appropriate for you; or if you should race at all. You’ve got to be in it to win it. Ask and you shall receive.

Naaman’s wife’s slave might have kept to herself the word of the healer in Israel. His king might have dissuaded him; he might have given in to his own disappointment when he heard what the cure demanded; or his servants might not have had the courage to encourage him to take the cure that was offered. The leper could have held back, thought himself beyond hope and beyond cure, and not troubled Jesus with his hopes. The runners could have sat out the race, and the boxers chosen not to qualify. We could, all of us, simply accept all that is failed and broken in our lives, shrug and cease our prayers.

But God calls us to persist, to pray in faith and in hope to him, to run the race that is set before us with endurance and all the strength God gives. Join in the race, my friends, stretch every nerve and press with vigor on, in the heavenly race that demands your zeal, in hope for an immortal crown.+

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Like and Unlike

We are weak, but he is strong; and yes, Jesus loves us! -- a sermon for Epiphany 5b

SJF • Epiphany 5b • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

To whom then will you compare me, or who is my equal? says the Holy One. Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these?... Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.

Today’s Scripture readings begin with a passage from Isaiah that portrays God at his very most indignant. The passage is rather like the section of the book of Job, when God finally says, basically, “Just who do you think you are talking to?” Not Downton Abbey’s Maggie Smith at her most indignant could raise her eyebrows high enough or purse her frown so low as to capture the indignation that God reveals in this passage. The short message in all of this, as someone once said, is: God is God and you aren’t.

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But what of God’s ministers — those chosen servants, like Isaiah himself, or like Saint Paul, or like any of us here today called to serve God to the best of our ability, with the strength that God provides? Of course we are not like God in his ultimate creativity and power. And yet he has called us and challenged us to be like him in reaching out to others to help them where they are. And in doing this we are called to be as much like our brothers and sisters who are in need of help, as we are to be like God who is the source of the power that allows us to help at all.

Saint Paul understood the importance of meeting people where they are if he was to reach them — you can’t stand aside in judgment against people if you really want to rescue them; and it is no good standing safely on the shore and shouting advice on how to swim to someone who is foundering and drowning out at sea. What you need to do is become like them by jumping into the water and swimming out to save them; but unlike them in knowing how to swim. And so Paul to the Jewish people reasserted his own Jewish heritage in order to win them over. To those under the law he became as one under the law in order to win those under the law. To those outside the law he became an outlaw in order to win those other outlaws back. Even to the weak he became weak; knowing that it was God’s strength and not his own that would help him in his mission of mercy and salvation.

For ultimately all of the strength must come from God — God who, as Isaiah assures us, does not faint or grow weary. God provides the swimmer with his skill, and provides those who are weak with amazing and reviving strength if they will wait for him, renewing them so that they rise up as with the wings of eagles, and run without weariness and walk without becoming faint.

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In the long run — especially when we remember our weakness or our need of help — it is great good news that God is not like us — for as the old children’s song so rightly says, “We are weak but he is strong.” And it is his strength that supports us in our weakness. As with rescuers trying to pull someone from a marsh or quicksand, if we were not able to stand upon the firm ground of his strength we could not lift ourselves or anyone else to safety. If God did not give strength and skill to the lifeguard, he couldn’t guard any lives.

This morning’s gospel shows us Jesus doing exactly this, from the moment he takes the hand of Simon’s fever-stricken mother-in-law, on through his healing of the crowds that gather around the doorway to the house. He comes to those who suffer where they are, and heals them with a word or with the touch of his hand. He is full of the power of God as no other human being ever was or could be — and yet he is also completely like us, completely one of us, completely with us where we are. In Jesus, like and unlike come together and coexist in the perfect unity of God in Man “made manifest in making whole palsied limbs and fainting soul.”

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And, as that children’s hymn reminds us, “Yes, Jesus loves me...” and you, and you, and all of us. It is for love and through love, the love of God who created the universe and made all that is. That passage from Isaiah shows God standing there, like an artist, and gently gesturing towards this earth that he is made, that makes its inhabitants look as small as grasshoppers; he waves a hand gently in the direction of monarchs, who rise and fall, and rise and fall; he then, as an artist in an exhibit showing those wonderful photographs from the Hubble Telescope showing the depths and powers and infinite riches of the starry universe, and then, without a need to make much of a show of it, basically says, “This is my work. Consider it; consider it, and then consider the power that rests in God — and which God has so graciously deigned to share with those who wait for him, reviving them even in their weakest moments and giving them the strength to fly like eagles. God loves us, and it is for that same love and through that same love that Christ who is strong comes to us to strengthen us in our weakness, out of his own strength poured into our weakness, clothing our weakness, that we too may run and not grow weary, may walk and not grow faint. For he has given us work to do, and wants us able and ready to do it.

Brothers and sisters, let us rely not on our own strength, but on his strength, which is boundless, and strive to be like him in devotion and service even if we cannot be like him in power and majesty. Let us thank God that God is not like us in our weakness, but is with us in his strength, and will strengthen our hands to serve and to minister in his Name. This service and this ministry have been committed to our hands, yet the power and the majesty is his and his alone, God the everlasting Father, Christ the co-eternal Son, and the Holy Spirit, advocate and guide.