Sunday, May 27, 2012

Promise, Hope and Guidance

What has Pentecost to do with Kris Kringle, besides the red suit? A sermon for Pentecost 2012

SJF • Pentecost b • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jesus said, When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.

I realize it is a bit out of season, but as I read the lessons for this Feast of Pentecost, the feast celebrating the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles, for some reason or other, I thought of one of my favorite movies — “Miracle on 34th Street.” I don’t think it is just because of the red of Santa Claus’s outfit matching the red so many of us are wearing here, on this feast of the descent of the Holy Spirit; rather it is the theme of promise, hope and guidance that ring through both the film and our Scripture passages this morning — far as we are from both Thanksgiving Day and Christmas!

For those very few who have never seen the film, I apologize in advance for any spoilers this sermon might contain — but I trust if you’ve not seen it you will not find it spoiled by hearing any details. After all, I watch it every year and it is just as much a joy as it was the first time I remember seeing it, when I was in fourth grade and they showed it at my school as part of a Christmas celebration — back in the days when public schools had Christmas celebrations!

In any case, late in the film, Susan (the skeptical little girl with the modern mother) finally comes to believe in Santa Claus. Her faith is not quite perfect, however, and she decides to put Santa Claus to the test. As Christmas approaches she hands him a real estate ad and tells him that that is what she wants for Christmas. Naturally the old man says, “You mean you want a dollhouse like this.” To which she replies, “No, I want a real house like that, and if you can’t get it for me then I’ll know you aren’t Santa Claus but just a nice old man with a white beard.” The old man protests, “But children wish for things all the time that they couldn’t possibly use — like a real airplane — but that doesn’t mean Santa Claus isn’t Santa Claus.” And as the child looks ever more skeptical, old Kris Kringle says, “But I’ll do what I can.” And in the end — spoiler alert — he does manage to provide the house for the little girl, and her mother and prospective stepfather — the attorney who proved that the old man was Santa Claus indeed.

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The reason I cite this sentimental story lies in the fact that it contains those same three elements of promise, hope and guidance that run through our Scripture readings.

Kris Kringle promises that he will do what he can to get the little girl the house she so much wants. And of course she wants it not so much because it is a house, and they are living in an apartment now — even with a swing in the back yard — but because of what it means for the new family of which she hopes to be a part.

And, of course, that is where the hope comes in — in this case a hope closely allied with faith. For as her skeptical impulses reappear when she doubts that the old man can deliver on his promise, it is her mother — also a convert to accepting the old man for who he is — who tells the confused child that, “Faith is believing even when common sense tells you not to.”

Finally, the old man doesn’t provide the house by buying it himself. His own financial resources are very limited, and he spent the biggest money he ever came into — when Macy’s and Gimbels gave him a joint bonus — to buy an X-ray machine for his doctor friend. But what he can do he does — which is to guide this new family to find the house, trusting that the little girl will keep her eyes open and see it on the road as they drive by the housing development out on Long Island to which he has given them directions. And just to be sure the adults realize that the magic of Santa Claus is involved, he leaves his trusty cane behind, resting by the fireplace as a sign of having done his work.

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“Faith is believing even when common sense tells you not to.” Certainly common sense should have told the apostles that dead people don’t come back to life, and that whatever promises Jesus may have made to them prior to his crucifixion, they were very unlikely to be fulfilled. They were, after all — look at them — a motley collection of low-level civil servants and small-time businessmen and laborers at best. None of them was educated past whatever rudiments of learning they might have picked up in their village synagogue. Their faith and hope had been rekindled by the resurrection — but still, after the ascension, when Jesus was gone for good and all, taken from their sight, there was a gap of several days before anything remarkable happened. As I noted last week, they even began to get a little insecure and decided to jump the gun and choose a successor to Judas, even though Jesus had given them no such instructions.

And yet, somehow, their faith still continued; their faith and their hope — which hopes not for what it sees, as Saint Paul puts it, but for that for which it waits in patience; perhaps, as Susan’s mother said, even when common sense tells you not to. And so the promised Spirit came at last — came to revive that dwindling spark of faith and hope into a vibrant flame, in fulfillment of the promise.

But what did that Spirit provide? It did not shower them with riches or give them the power to turn straw into gold — but it gave them the trust to pool all of their resources and contribute to the needs of the saints, so that there was not a needy person among them.

Nor did the Spirit give them high office or make them kings and princes of earthly realms — recall that’s what Satan promised he would do for Jesus; but the Spirit does not need Satan’s tricks. Instead the Spirit gave them the courage and strength to speak — indeed to confront those very kings and princes of the earthly realms with the truth of the gospel, and the sword not of Caesar but of that same Spirit who empowered them to work.

In short, the Spirit helped them in their weakness by giving them guidance, guidance to use their gifts and talents in the service of the church and of God. The Spirit ledthem, but did not force them, into the truth of God. The Spirit led them as a companion on the way, guiding them through the rough patches that would come — not solving all their problems for them, but like a good teacher showing them the way to solve the problems for themselves, with all the power the Spirit would awaken and stir to life in them. The Spirit would — as the name suggests — inspire them to do great things.

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The church still lives with the call to have faith, and to hope, even when common sense tells you not to. For we have received the same promise that the apostles received, the promises handed on from them to us, down through the ages. Even though we have, as Saint Paul says, the fruits of the Spirit, we still live in that not-yet time, the unfulfilled promise-time, as we wait for our final adoption, the redemption of our bodies. But in this waiting time, the Spirit is with us to comfort and to aid us in the work God gives us in the meantime, that in-between time, which is to spread the word of that promise, and show by our acts of love and service that living in that promise makes a difference even in the here and now.

For the church is still here, in the here and now, and the church itself is the sign that God’s promise will be fulfilled — for surely the church would have disappeared long ago were it just a human undertaking, if it were not for the power of God, sustaining it, and God’s Holy Spirit dwelling with it — with us. The church itself is a sign of God’s living, loving promise, like Kris Kringle’s cane left by the fireplace, tellingly resembling a shepherd’s crook, the symbol of care and guidance, and a promise fulfilled: I will not leave you comfortless.

Let us continue, my friends, to trust that promise, my friends, to live in hope and under the guidance of God’s Holy Spirit, that we too may fulfill that highest calling: to be saints of God, for the sake of his love, and for the good of all the Church.+

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Taking a Chance

The apostles cast lots to choose a successor to Judas, and churches have been having raffles ever since 2014 but is that the best way to make Godly decisions? A sermon for Easter 7b.

SJF • Easter 7b • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jesus said, I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one… As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.

There is a scene in an old W.C. Fields movie in which the comedian plays a card-sharp who makes his living cheating people at poker. In this scene Fields invites a sucker to join him in a hand of the game, and the prim gentleman protests, “Say, this isn’t a game of chance, is it?” To which Fields responds, “Not the way I play it.”

Well, I don’t know about poker, but how many of you here have ever bought a lottery ticket? I won’t ask for show of hands. How about a raffle ticket? Ah — let’s be honest enough to acknowledge that raffles play a venerable part in the history of many churches! If you have done any of these things I don’t want you to feel bad about yourself by any means — for you are in the excellent company of the apostles themselves. For the apostles, as we see from our reading from the Acts of the Apostles this morning, when they felt it necessary to choose a successor to fill the empty seat of Judas among the Twelve, did just that. They laid out requirements for candidates, they nominated two — but then instead of voting, offered a prayer to God and cast lots to determine who would be numbered among them.

This was not, of course, precisely a game of chance — it was not a game at all, but serious business. So serious, in fact, that the apostles simply didn’t want to trust their own judgment in this matter and used this as a way of turning it all over to God. By casting lots it was not their personal choice that mattered, but the short straw or the name drawn out of a hat — and they saw the hand of God at work in the selection, rather than their own personal preferences or choices.

This was not the first or the last time when people earnestly seeking direction from God would turn to such a method to make a decision. Many times faithful people would turn to some decision-making process that did not rely on their own judgment, but rather some random method of selection. Ancient Israel, for example, made use of something called the Urim and the Thummim. We don’t know exactly what they were, but we do know how they were used. Several times in the Hebrew Scriptures, we are told how decisions were made by casting lots with the Urim and Thummim. They may simply have been a black and a white stone, hidden in a bag or in a box, into which the priest insert his hand and draw one or the other out — and if that doesn’t remind you of a raffle, I don’t know what else to call it!

It might seem odd to us — steeped as we are in the political season — to leave important decisions up to such a random process — but what other way is there to ensure that this isn’t simply fallible human ambition or politics at work? The important thing, as in the case of the selection of Matthias, is that both he and Justus were qualified to hold the office — and rather than getting involved in personalities or politics, the apostles prayed and then cast lots.

I very much doubt that the church today would trust to such procedure in choosing its bishops — and perhaps that shows our lack of trust both in the people who are nominated and in our own faith that God will provide a faithful and appropriate leader from among those nominated. In the long run, it takes a great deal of courage to leave it up to chance, and trust. We would rather, it seems, trust our own wisdom and powers of discernment sometimes, than on the grace of God determined through means that are not under our control. It takes courage, and it takes faith to trust in grace.

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The apostle John, both in his gospel and in his epistles, emphasized the need for faith — primarily faith informed by prayer, and ratified not by human authority but by the Spirit of God, by the presence of the Spirit of God, the Comforter, to whom John so often calls the Spirit. Thus, in the epistle today he does not entirely reject human testimony, but neither does he rely upon it. What is important is the ultimate source of the testimony: that it comes from God. Even if it resides in human beings, this testimony resides there because the spirit of God dwells in human hearts, has spoken into human hearts — into the hearts of those who have trusted and believed, and received the testimony — as we heard last week — the testimony of the water and the blood.

John also shows us that Jesus himself had this kind of trust — Jesus was willing to take a chance and to send his apostles out into the world — a dangerous world, a world where the evil one was at work — and yet Jesus had the trust and the faith to send them forth into the world to carry forth that testimony, trusting that God would protect them, and praying that God would protect them and support them in their work of spreading the good news. He prays that they will be sanctified.

And next week, on Pentecost, we will celebrate the remembrance of that sanctification — the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came down upon the apostles and filled them with complete and certain knowledge, giving them the strength to rely not merely on chance — but on that indwelling Spirit alive in their hearts and minds.

It is interesting to note is that after Pentecost the Apostles are never again shown to cast lots. They no longer need a method of chance to determine God’s will — for the Spirit of God dwells in them, and when they speak as the apostles of God speaking in God’s name. it is because God has spoken to them inwardly, and through them outwardly. We never again hear of Matthias, for instance — and in one sense the descent of the Spirit at Pentecost might seem to be a gentle rebuke to the Apostles for their impatience. Jesus had told them that the Spirit would soon come upon them; and perhaps in their anxiety they jumped the gun with their decision to elect a successor to Judas. Perhaps the Spirit was saying that no such successor was needed, for as we will hear next week, the Spirit would soon transform the church and enlarge it beyond their former imaginings, not just twelve, not just a hundred and twenty, but on that day of Pentecost three thousand were added to the body of the church, and the Spirit would soon be poured out on all sorts and conditions of people, on young men and maidens, on old and young together, on slave and free, on men and women, on Israelites and on the people of many nations.

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So don’t feel bad if you buy a lottery or a raffle ticket. Don’t feel bad if you are having trouble making some decision in your life — it’s O.K. to say a prayer and then flip a coin to get you out of your indecision. But I will show you a better way: say a prayer and then listen, listen to your heart — for that is where God will speak to you if you take the time to listen. Be patient with the patience that God provides — and take a chance on God. God dwells in your heart — and if you put your faith and trust in God, God will give you guidance. Grace is not a game of chance — at least, not the way God plays it!+

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Come To The Water

The nature of a sacrament, and its effectiveness in doing what it says: a sermon for Easter 6b

SJF • Easter 6b 2012 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” So he ordered them to be baptized.

Last week and this we’ve heard paired passages from the earliest period of the church, both of them concerning the water of baptism. Last week, Philip opened the Scriptures to the Ethiopian eunuch, who accepted Jesus in his heart, and cried out, “Look, here is water. What is to prevent my being baptized.” And this week, after they heard the good news at Peter’s proclamation, the Holy Spirit blessed the household of Cornelius the Centurion, and they began to speak in miraculous tongues. Whereupon Peter cried out, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people?”

In both cases the baptism that followed these exclamations was an extraordinary step — for both the Ethiopian and the Roman and his family were foreigners and Gentiles. These events marked the next great stage in the expansion of the mission, committed to the church by its Lord: to baptize all nations.

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So it is from the very beginning that baptism has been seen as central to what it means to be a Christian. Even after the Ethiopian accepted Jesus in his heart, even after the miraculous descent of the Holy Spirit on Cornelius and his family, still the apostles understood the water of baptism to be an essential element in the process of entering into full fellowship with Christ and his church.

And part of the reason for this is the public and objective nature of baptism. What goes on in ones heart, even what one says with ones mouth, is essentially personal — and only you and God will know if what you do in your heart or say with your mouth is true. But baptism is a public and external act that happens outside a person, and more than that, between persons — more than one person is involved: baptism is a sacrament.

How many of you remember from your Catechism or Confirmation Class the answer to that question, “What is a sacrament?” I won’t put you on the spot. The language most of us grew up with put it this way: it is “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace given unto us; ordained by Christ himself, as a means whereby we receive this grace, and a pledge to assure us thereof.” If that sounds a little too much — particularly the “whereby” and the “thereof” — if that sounds a little too much like something you’d find in fine print in pale blue ink at the bottom of a mobile-phone contract, our present Prayer Book puts it in somewhat more up to date language, declaring that the sacraments are “outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace.”

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That’s a bit of a mouthful, too, I admit, though I think it is a little easier to understand. Let’s look at it bit by bit, as it applies to baptism. First of all there’s that objective, external element I referred to: baptism is an outward and visible sign. You’ve all been to baptisms — at least your own, though you may not remember it — but you surely know that baptism includes words that are publicly spoken and water that is poured, and that it takes place in the presence of witnesses. Even so-called “private baptism” — just involving the family and godparents — does involve the family and the godparents, as well as the minister who performs the rite. Baptism is not something you can do on your own; it requires the presence of the church. Baptism isn’t just something going on in your head, or in your heart. It is something that happens which others can see and participate in.

In fact, I’m reminded of the old joke of the Anglican bishop who was once challenged by a non-conformist Anabaptist asking, “Do you believe in infant baptism?” The bishop responded, “Believe in it? Why, man, I’ve seen it!”

The second thing to note about sacraments is that they are given by Christ. Jesus told his disciples both to baptize all nations with water in the name of the Trinity, and to celebrate the Holy Eucharist, when he said, “Do this in remembrance of me.” The other things that are sometimes called sacraments, the “sacramental rites” like marriage, confirmation, ordination, confession and anointing don’t rest on the authority of Jesus, but on that of the apostles. This doesn’t mean they are unimportant, and they do form important steps in the Christian life — but unlike baptism and the eucharist they fall into that category of “all may, none must, some should.”

The final thing to note about baptism — and this is true of the eucharist as well — is that it is productive of an inward and spiritual grace. As I said last week, it is not something that goes forth empty; it goes forth to bear fruit. There is grace that comes about because of the act of baptism, because of the act of receiving the eucharist. And more importantly, perhaps, this grace is certain and the sacrament is the means by which the grace is conferred. The outward and visible sacrament both certifies and conveys that inner and spiritual grace for which it serves as both sign and means.

Most things in our common experience don’t work that way. Take, for example, a driver’s license. It is a public and physical affirmation that you are allowed to drive a car, but it doesn’t buy you a car or teach you how to drive. It may certify — indeed I hope it certifies — that you know how to drive and have shown you can by passing a driving test. But the license does not convey any inward change in you — it merely permits you to do something.

But there is in our daily experience something that is a bit more like a sacrament — I mentioned it earlier in talking about the fine print on a contract or a lease. The thing to note about signing a contract is that it is your signing it that also makes the contract take effect. It is not merely a symbol of something, a sign, but it actually has an effect; and it is in one and the same action: when you sign the contract, the contract comes into effect. The outward and visible signing actually conveys what the contract represents, in some cases, as in real estate, actually “conveying” the property in question into your ownership.

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Now, perhaps all this reference to leases and contracts seems, again, like dry legalism. So let me try one more analogy — one that actually speaks to the central aspect of baptism. And that is the fact that baptism is what makes us children of God — baptism is, in effect, our adoption papers, testified to by the Holy Spirit, no less. Perhaps it is fitting, on this Mothers’ Day, as we recall our biological mothers, also to recall our spiritual mother, the church, through whom we are all adopted, by baptism, into God’s household. It is true that John says, we become children of God by loving God and obeying his commandments — emphasizing as John always does that commandment to love. But we dare not neglect the witness of the other evangelists, who affirm that Jesus also commanded his disciples to baptize, and to celebrate the feast of the Holy Eucharist. Thus God comes to us not in water only, but with the water and the blood — and let me add, with the bread that comes down heaven, to give life to the world.

All of these physical, outward and visible signs point us to and impart to us the marvelous and spiritual grace that God gives us so abundantly. Who would dare withhold these gifts from anyone, seeing that God has provided them with such abundance. So let us, brothers and sisters in the faith, rejoice in our own baptism, and call others to the water, and celebrate the communion we share in the Body and Blood of our Lord and savior Jesus Christ, joining with our newfound family of faith — all of us adopted as God’s children through water and the Holy Spirit — let us gather as the new family of God and celebrate together this heavenly feast.+