Sunday, April 29, 2012

Saved From What

Eternal salvation is to a purpose in the here and now: life is a gift to be used in service to others -- a sermon for Easter 4b

SJF • Easter 4b • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Peter said, This Jesus is ‘the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.’ There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.

Our reading from the Acts of the Apostles picks up where we left off last week. Peter had addressed the crowds amazed at the healing of the crippled man who sat begging in the gate of the Temple. He told them that they and their rulers had acted in ignorance when they conspired to put an end to the ministry and life of Jesus.

In today’s reading Peter stands before those very rulers, and addresses them in no uncertain terms concerning the Christ. He affirms that it is through the power of Jesus Christ, now at work in Peter and his colleagues as disciples of Christ, that the man was healed and stands before them all in good health. But Peter then goes further — it is not enough that Jesus is the source of the power that brought about this one miraculous healing. Peter declares that there is no salvation, there is salvation in no one else, and no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved!

Now, if you had never heard of this before, you might be moved to ask, Saved from what? There are a couple of things worth noting about this passage in answer to that question, “Saved from what?” and the shift in the proclamation from healing the body to salvation of the whole person, the whole human being, body and soul.

Peter’s proclamation establishes first of all that there is a connection between healing and salvation. It is no accident that the word salve — anointment used for healing — derives from the same root word used here. Salvation is the ultimate healing of all that ails us — not just the ordinary illnesses or even the more lasting disabilities, but the whole state of being mortal, susceptible not just to illness, but to death itself.

So the answer the question “Saved from what?” is in large part, “Saved from everlasting death.” As Peter reminds us, and the rulers of the people and elders, Jesus himself died, crucified at their instigation and by means of Roman hands, but God raised him from the dead. He is the source of new life, and salvation not just from illness, but from death itself, because he has plumbed the depths of hell in person, and been raised victorious from the grave. Death cannot touch him any more, and those who are joined with him, in a death like his, will also be raised to a new life like his, though we too will taste of death at the end of our earthly lives, will — in him to whom we are joined as members of his body — rise with him to life everlasting. So the first answer to “Saved from what” is indeed “saved from death.”

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But in the meantime what about life — this earthly life we lead day by day and year by year — what are we saved from in this life? The Evangelist John offers us an image, a familiar one, perhaps too familiar so as to have lost some of its impact, down through the years of singing those wonderful hymns about it: Jesus as the good shepherd. He contrasts his good shepherding with that of a hired hand who fails to take responsibility and high-tails it at the first sight of trouble. The good shepherd, on the other hand, confronts the wolf, and saves the sheep from the wolf’s ravages. In this is figured the way in which Jesus saves us and protects us from the dangers of this world — if we will listen to his voice.

And that voice insists that we too ought to have love for him and for one another. John emphasizes that insistence in the portion of his First Letter we heard today. This is one of John’s major themes in all of his writing: love of the community of faith for the members of that community. This is the sign and mark of what it means to be in the light, to be a child of God. John shows us that Jesus saves us in large part by strengthening us to save each other, following his example: as he laid down his life for us, like a shepherd confronting a deadly wild beast, so too we ought also to be willing to lay our lives down for each other; and perhaps more importantly, day by day to give our lives for each other. What does John say? “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help.” John’s point is that we often save each other, those with helping those without, those who have helping those who have not, in a divine redistribution of the wealth of this world, a world in which there is plenty of food to go around and in which no one need go hungry — and yet in which so many countless thousands starve while others throw excess food away their plates are too full to hold, and which they cannot eat. Sometimes I think that in answer to the question, “Saved from what?” we need to acknowledge, “Saved from ourselves!” So much of the harm done in the world is from people towards other people — either intentionally harming others by doing wrong to them, or unintentionally harming others by failing to do the good we could do. Humanity is often its own worst enemy.

For although in relation to Jesus we are like sheep — sheep who have no ability to help each other or even to defend themselves — in relation to each other we are called to be — challenged to be — like him in his willingness to give his life in service of to others, to lay down our lives in service to each other, and at the very least to share what we have with those who have less, or who have nothing at all.

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Peter reminds us of the saving power of Jesus’ name, and John reminds us of the commandment: that we should believe in the name of Jesus Christ and love one another. That’s not an either / or; it’s a both / and. We are called to believe, and to act. As John says, to love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. This is not about lip-service, but putting hands and hearts and minds to work with all that God provides.

There is a great deal from which all of us need to be saved in this dangerous world of ours. But the great good news is that Jesus has saved us from the ultimate and final enemy, death. And that should encourage us, in the meantime, that are given this gift of life so that our lives might amount to something, in service to one another. There is no other name given under heaven for salvation, and there are no other hands or hearts or minds to serve but ours to help each other. Let us neither reject him, the cornerstone chosen and precious, nor each other, children of God and charged with his command to love one another as he loved us.

Ultimately let the question not be, “Saved from what?” but “Saved for what?” Our salvation has a purpose, and God has an intention for us, having been saved through him; and he has commanded us to spread that word of salvation in his name, and to love and serve our brothers and sisters. Thanks be to God who saves us, and thanks be to God who gives us this command. May we fulfill it in his name and to his honor and glory, through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Fair Distribution

SJF • Easter 2b • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.

I’m going to ask a question that may seem strange to some of you, to others perhaps not so strange. Do you believe in a stingy God? My guess — and my hope — is that none of you do. I know that I don’t. I believe that God is overwhelmingly generous and not at all stingy.

To look at how they act, however, it seems that not all who do profess and call themselves Christian are of the same mind. To look at how they act you would think that the God they worship was stingy, sparing of grace, reluctant to bless and hard to please. I think that in the long run they worship a God who is made in their own image, reflecting a narrow attitude towards life, a parsimonious attitude towards grace and generosity — in short, a theology of scarcity, in a church of famine and drought.

But thanks be to God that we do not follow such a God or worship in such a church. Thanks be to God that the examples of those first Christians of whom we heard this morning are still before us, and among us. For those early Christians put their entire trust in a God who showered them with overwhelming blessings. After all, they were living in the vivid memory of the resurrection itself, the raising of their Lord and ours from the dead — and what better work of generous grace had ever been done on God’s good earth than the grace shown when he pried open the tomb, rolling the stone away, and raised his own dear Son to life again. Those early Christians lived in the glow of that Easter dawn, and it had a profound effect on their lives.

The reason there was not a needy person among them is spelled out in our reading today — it is because those who had shared with those who had not. There was no 99 percent and one percent, and no one even claimed private ownership of anything, but all went into the common pool, the common purse, for the common good of all. It is a great irony that many who call themselves Christians express opposition to the government redistributing wealth, when a government acting in such a way is simply acting like the early church!

But let’s not get into politics — governments come and governments go, the political parties pretend they all want the best but then fight like the worst. Rather let us look to ourselves and ask ourselves how well we stand up in comparison to the graceful freedom and open-handed generosity of those early Christians. Do I give in return for the blessings and abundance which God has provided me? Or do I count out the offering I bring to our common life with sweat and tears? The scriptural saying is that where my treasure is my heart will be also; but it is also true that the manner of my giving reflects the nature of the God I worship. Is how I give reflective of a testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, a testimony and a witness to the power and grace of God? Or is it a grudging gift, a penny squeezed so hard it makes Abe Lincoln weep, a gift given not in faith but in doubt and fear?

I wrestle with myself to answer these questions for myself. But only you can answer these questions for yourself. And to be fair to us all, we have a somewhat harder task than did the disciples. And even some of them, like Thomas, did not believe the good news at first — but needed the hands on touch of the physical presence of Jesus to reassure them. But it is harder for us, for we do not live in a time when that is even possible, in the immediate glow of the resurrection, but in its reflection down the corridors of time from two thousand years ago. I know that in this day and age we are unlikely to forego private ownership and hold everything in common, or sell our homes or lands and bring the whole proceeds to the church to share with all and sundry. We live among the shadows of doubt and fear, and the glow of the resurrection can seem very dim at times, particularly in these days of economic and political uncertainty.

But it seems to me that one of the secrets of living a Christian life is living “as if” we lived in those early days. We may not be able to do exactly as they did, but we can make it a goal to act as if we could. And perhaps if we acted as if we were better than we are, we might soon become in fact better than we are. If we apply our hearts to being as much like we really ought to be, we may find ourselves moving from an “as if” world into a fully faithful and faith-filled world; a world of complete trust in God’s grace, and hope for his glory.

This is a good exercise for Eastertide, the season when we celebrate the raising of Jesus from the dead. C.S. Lewis once wrote that before his conversion to Christ, he had studied all of the world religions in which mythological characters die and then are raised to life again. And part of his early glimmerings of faith took precisely that form: “It looks as if it once might actually have happened.” The “as if” was enough to get him started in the right direction.

It took Thomas the Apostle a personal encounter with the Risen Lord to bring him to faith in him. That is unlikely to happen to any of us, though I will not rule it out — as I have known members of this congregation who in their dying days felt sure that they were visited by Jesus, seeing him standing in their bedroom or hospital room, holding our a hand and calling them home. But for most of us, like Lewis, it will be the conscious practice of living as if we were better than we are, knowing we are far from perfect — reminded as we are by John this morning that if we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. We are far from perfect, not always as generous and open-handed as we could or should be. But we worship a generous and open-handed God, and the more we think of ourselves as if we were his children, children by adoption and by grace, the more we actually become what we hope and pray to be. And perhaps some day it will be said of us as well that there was not a needy person among them, nor a stingy nor an angry person, but an abundance of grace and blessing, shared and shared alike in a fair distribution of all of God’s gifts. This is the Eastertide way of life, my friends, to live as if the world were better than it seems, and by doing so, to make it so. So let us resolve to do so, and give thanks to God, our generous, grace-giving ever-loving God, to whom all might, majesty, power and dominion we here ascribe, henceforth and for evermore.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

The Good News

There is one old story that never grows old, and it has an effect however often it is told. -- a sermon for Easter 2012

SJF • Easter 2012 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which you also stand, through which also you are being saved.+

Happy Easter! We come once again to the glorious morning on which we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord. In the midst of the celebration, the flowers and the festivity, we might sometimes be tempted to miss the centrality, the vital importance, of this day. This is the day that makes Christianity what it is — the day on which God affirmed that Jesus was his beloved Son by raising him from the dead. And the fact that Jesus was raised from the dead is the heart and soul of the gospel, the good news.

To look at the teaching of some Christians, you might think it was otherwise. For some, the emphasis appears to be on the cross, the crucifixion, suffering and death of Jesus. And surely that is important, as I said last Sunday, “crucially” important. But as with a story that you understand only when you have read it to the very end, the importance of Good Friday depends entirely upon what happened on Easter.

Think about it for a moment: if Good Friday, and Christ’s death on the cross had been the end of the story, if the women had gone to the tomb and found it closed but perhaps recruited a helpful friend to roll the stone away, and then just went about the sad business of anointing the dead body of their dear friend with spices and then sealing the tomb back up — — in short, if Jesus had not been raised from the dead, I don’t think we’d be here this morning. As tragic as his suffering and death was; even as comforting as meditating on his passion and death has been down through the years for many suffering, wounded, or injured people — if that had been the end, then little note would have been taken, there would have been no resurrection to witness, no preaching of the gospel, no good news — the best news and the greatest gospel: that an innocent man who suffered and died was vindicated in being raised from the dead, and more than that: that he gave power and promise to all who believe in him to share in a life like his. This, my friends, this is the good news — not just that he “was crucified under Pontius Pilate” but that “the third day he rose again from the dead.”

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We need to be reminded of this, just as the people of Corinth needed to be reminded, as Saint Paul did in fact remind them. This good news is not just something told once, and then filed and forgotten. This is good news that never grows old — even as it becomes the “old, old story”— this isn’t like some story on CNN that gets told over and over again to fill the 24-hour news cycle, but is forgotten as soon as some other item rises to the surface and grabs our attention. Last year, didn’t we all get tired of watching that offshore under-water oil-leak, week after week, as CNN became the “Oil Leak All the Time Channel”? But the leak was quickly forgotten once it was stopped up, and people are right back on the drill-baby-drill bandwagon!

No, the good news of the resurrection of Jesus Christ is not like that. This is good news that never grows old, except in that wonderful way of really good, old stories. The Good News is news we can hear over and over again. We can hear the old, old, story, that is always new, the one we love to tell, and we tell it out because it tells of glory. Not just death on the cross, but life, new life, triumphant.

And not only does it tell of glory, this gospel, this good news: it has an effect upon us, a saving effect. For the story of salvation is salvation itself. It is told so that we may believe, and believing, have eternal life.

Wouldn’t it have been wonderful if all that news “coverage” of that oil-leak could actually have covered the oil-leak and made it stop? But it didn’t. The story of the resurrection, however, the gospel of the good news of God at work in Christ Jesus — the story of salvation actually saves. For it is in hearing the good news, and believing it, that we are saved.

Saint Paul reminded the Corinthians of the process: of the good news that is first proclaimed to them, which they in turn received — for what good is a message if you do not receive it! But there is more: it is good news in which also they stand; that is, they hold on to it and stand on it and by it — which is to say they put their trust in it, their faith in it. And so it is through that message of the good news they are being saved. They have not believed in vain, but to a purpose and an end.

This is the fruitfulness, the productivity of the gospel message: Christ rose from the dead not just to rise from the dead, but so that we might be saved through him, through that proclamation, reception, holding fast and standing by that message. The gospel, and the gospel alone, bears the fruit of salvation.

Compare this with an earthly message, say, about that oil-leak. You can proclaim it — surely CNN did so hour after hour, day by day and week by week. I can receive it — and with cable TV the reception is pretty good, in HD no less. I can even believe it — after all, there’s the live under-water oil-leak-cam running in the lower corner of the screen, day and night, twenty-four hours a day, and seeing is believing.

But that’s the end of it. This news bears no fruit, does nothing for my immortal soul one way or the other.

Only one news story ever had the fruitful effect of bringing everlasting life, and you heard it once again this morning, as we do each Easter. It is a message first delivered to some frightened women, at first so frightened that they didn’t spread the news. But as the Gospel tells us, eventually they did, and Jesus himself began to appear to others, showing himself to have been raised from the dead. And the good news spread, from east to west, that sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.

So, my friends, do not let this Easter morning be the end of that good news, as good as it is for you. Even if this is the first day you’ve been in church for a season — do not let it be your last. And more importantly, become news-bearers yourself: Continue to tell the story, the old, old story of the good news of Jesus and his love, how he was raised from the dead, and through his resurrection brought salvation to the world. Alleluia, Christ is risen; the Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Outside the Walls

So much of significance takes place outside the walls of Jerusalem, in Bethany where a woman makes an offering to be remembered 2014 a sermon for Palm Sunday 2012

SJF • Palm Sunday 2012 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

We have just heard the passion of Christ according to the evangelist Mark, as we do every three years. What is unusual about this year is the fact that this is the first time we have heard the Passion according to the new Revised Common Lectionary — the set of Scripture readings appointed for use in the Episcopal Church since the end of 2010. This is the first year we’ve been reading “Year B” as it is called.

One of the revisions that the editors of this Lectionary made, was the decision to begin the Passion with that passage about the woman who poured ointment on the head of Jesus as he sat at table in the home of Simon the leper, in Bethany. This passage of Scripture has never been included in the Sunday gospel readings of the Episcopal Church. That is all the more ironic given the fact that Jesus says that wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what that woman did for him would be told in remembrance of her.

So it is about time she was remembered, and high time the authorities who determine such things took note of this woman and what Jesus said of her. And so I am glad to have this opportunity, finally, to preach on this important text on a Sunday, and Palm Sunday at that. I’m particularly happy to do so because I believe that as with so much of Mark’s Gospel — the shortest of the four Gospels — everything in his text is significant: Mark doesn’t waste words with irrelevant details and if he tells us something, it is important to record it.

This gospel passage also formed the substance of one of the Bible studies in which I took part in South Africa last fall, and this gives me an opportunity to share something of what I learned from that wonderful experience — breaking open the words of Scripture almost like breaking open that jar of expensive ointment, in honor of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

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The first thing to note about this passage is that it takes place in Bethany, a small town a Sabbath’s day journey outside the walls of Jerusalem. Remember that a Sabbath’s day journey is a very short one since you are not supposed to travel very far on the Sabbath. This little town outside of Jerusalem — what was it? The name “Bethany” is thought by some to mean “House of Figs” or “House of Dates” — like the Mount of Olives, also outside the city — that this was a place where fig trees grew, or perhaps date palms. But it is far more likely that it relates to the Aramaic word anyi, “the poor.” “Beth-anyi” “the House of the Poor.” Let’s face it, folks, this was the slums outside of Jerusalem. This is the place where the poor and the outcast lived. If you wanted an image of Bethany look at the shanty-towns in South Africa, or the slums outside of Rio, and you’ll have an idea of what Bethany was. It was a place of the poor.

The other striking detail is that this incident takes place in the home of Simon the leper. Now, we don’t know if this Simon was a leper whom Jesus had cured of his leprosy — or even that he had been cured of his leprosy at all. Cured or not, the fact that he was still known as Simon the leper lets us know something about how people regarded him, and his house. This is the home of someone doubly on the edge of society, not someone at its center — Simon is not a person of power and prestige, but someone known as a leper, and his house, “Simon the leper’s house, in Bethany, the house of the poor.” This is a man shunted off to the side, not someone at the center. Even if healed, he was a side-liner if not an outcast

So Jesus, true to his tendency to seek out the lowliest and the most despised with whom to spend his time, is sitting at table in a leper’s house, in the village of the poor. And into this already unorthodox setting there comes this woman with a jar of expensive ointment which she breaks open and pours on Jesus’s head. We are not told her name; we are not told her station in life. Because this incident is similar to accounts from the other evangelists some have suggested that as in Luke, she is a “woman of the city” — and you know what that means. Others have suggested that this might be Mary, who lived there in Bethany with her sister Martha and brother Lazarus. This could be, they think, a different version of the similar event in John’s gospel, where she is identified.

But Mark gives us none of these details, not even her name, and by choosing not to do so, he invites us to focus on the details he does provide: which is about how expensive this ointment is, and how the woman doesn’t just open the jar and pour the ointment out, but breaks the jar, which means it had to be used up then and there — there was nothing to hold it. This is extravagance, an extravagant offering, broken and poured out and completely given. And the disciples turn on her for and say she is “wasting” it. Jesus immediately places what she has done in the context of his coming passion and death, while also reminding them as the first things he says — and you can imagine again, picturing him sitting where he is sitting: in this shanty-town surrounded by poverty — and when they say, We could have sold this for the poor; he says, “The poor you have with you always” — and all he would have needed do is gesture around him, “What are you talking about, my friends? Where do you think you are now? You will have the poor with you always.”

And so he immediately shifts his attention to his coming death and passion and notes three things in quick succession:

— you will not always have me; I am going away.

— she has done what she could; she gave everything she had in that broken jar; she couldn’t save anything of it in that broken jar once it was given.

— and she has anointed me for in advance of my burial.

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But perhaps the most striking thing for me about this passage is that introductory line about where it takes place, Bethany. For the setting is Bethany is not just the poor-house outside of Jerusalem, this town of outcasts and irregular and unconventional people: Simon the leper, and the household of Lazarus, Mary and Martha; and this unnamed woman. And what struck the Bible study group I was with in South Africa was how little of real importance in the gospel takes place inside the walls of Jerusalem, in the Holy City, and how much of importance takes place outside of those city walls or even further from it — from the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem the city of David, about five miles south of Jerusalem; through his coming death on Golgotha, outside the city walls; and his burial and being raised to life again in the garden, also outside the walls; and even his ascension from Mount Olivet, also outside the city.

All of these crucial events (and I use the word “crucial” with an emphasis on the cross of which it speaks, that cross that stood “outside the city walls” on the “green hill far away”) all of these acts in the drama of salvation take place outside the city walls or even further from it. Only the Last Supper itself takes place in the city — perhaps a way to remind us that it is the priestly act of Christ, joined with his disciples as a new priestly people, in the city whose temple has become corrupted by abuse and misuse. But the acts of salvation themselves, from the incarnation through the ascension — the descent of Godhead into human flesh and the bearing up of the human nature into the transcendent realm of God — all of these things take place outside the walls of the holy city and apart from it — out there with the poor and the outcast. For the holy city has remained content in its own holiness, unwilling to be broken open like that ointment jar, to be poured out, and spent. Remember that those who seek to save their lives, lose, and those who lose their life — who spend them — for his sake, will keep them.

And so it is, is that this unnamed woman performs an emblematic act in breaking open that jar of precious ointment, not only anointing Jesus for his burial but echoing his self-giving emptying of himself for our sake and for our salvation upon the cross, that stood outside the city walls. And this is why her act is so tied up with the good news itself: why else would Jesus say that wherever the good news is proclaimed this will be told in remembrance of her? Her act is emblematic of the good news itself; it is the good news.

It is good news that God did not remain a distant and foreign, benign Creator, looking down upon the earth from a heavenly throne on an earth below; it is good news that God in Christ broke through that great gap fixed between this world and the perfect world of heaven, and entered into the fallen creation, emptying himself of all attributes of majesty, to take upon himself our human likeness, the likeness of one outcast, the likeness of one poor and humble; it is good news that he took on the form of a slave, humbling himself, and becoming obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross.

We have entered the beginning of this holy week. In a few moments at this altar, and again on Maundy Thursday we will celebrate that Memorial of his passion, which he said to do in remembrance of him, and which he committed to us in that upper room in Jerusalem. But on Good Friday we will also walk again outside those city walls, walking to the place where he was crucified. We will walk with those bearing his body to the tomb, and we will rest through that quiet Sabbath Saturday. Then on Easter... Well, you know what happens then. Let us not rush on to that; let us pause for a moment for that other remembrance: that remembrance of this woman, finally included in our Sunday readings after all these years, remembering what she did in making that offering, giving of herself as an emblem of Jesus’ own giving of him self. Let us make use, over these next days, of the breaking open of God’s word, like precious ointment, valuable not for how much it could be sold for, but for the honor that it shows to the one for whom it is given. Let us give thanks for the action of that anonymous woman, and like her offer all that we have of value to honor our Lord and our God. He will come to us, in our poverty, in our weakness, outside the walls; where we wait in expectation for the day of his coming in might and majesty, even Jesus Christ our Lord.