Sunday, June 24, 2012

Through the Storm and the Night

Jesus is not a pain-killer, but a life-giver; he is with us in all our suffering. A sermon for Proper 7b.

Proper 7b • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

The Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?”

There is an old saying that two things are certain: death and taxes. To that wry and cynical observation I think it would be safe to add pain and suffering. The reality is that all of us enter the world through the painful reality of childbirth — a stressful and difficult thing for mother and child alike. As the wise man Solomon said, “When I was born, I began to breathe the common air, and fell upon the kindred earth; and my first sound was a cry, as is true of all.” And at the end of life, many if not most of us will suffer some pain and discomfort, and all of us will suffer the mortality of the flesh, the flesh that fails us in the end.

Down through the centuries many different religions and philosophies have tried to address these painful realities, and offer explanations to the timeless questions, “Why do people suffer pain?” and “What should people do in the face of this reality?”

The Greeks blamed it all on Pandora: she was the first woman, and she received a jar from the gods that she couldn’t resist opening — and when she did out came all the plagues and suffering that would afflict the world. A number of different philosophers offered solutions to this woe: from the hedonists who simply sought to minimize pain and maximize pleasure, to the stoics who counseled bearing with it all as part of the human condition, in the knowledge that true virtue would render misfortune irrelevant.

The Buddhists counseled that pain and suffering were an inevitable part of existing as a conscious being; or rather a not-fully-conscious being, suffering as most beings do under the illusion of separation from the world — and the solution is to come to full enlightened consciousness and see through that illusion to the point where the knife stabbing your body is no different from your body. (Good luck with that.)

Our tradition, of course, laid all of these problems at the bare feet of Eve and Adam, and their choice to engage in the first consciousness-raising workshop. Taking the fruit of the tree of knowledge gave them knowledge all right, but it cost them their innocence.

Our Jewish forbears offered a number of answers to this dilemma of pain and suffering. One of them, inspired by the book of Deuteronomy, recorded the sad stories of the unfaithful kings of Israel and Judah, and took the encouraging view that God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked, and that suffering is a result of wrong-doing.

Others, such as the author of the book of Job, took a more mature view of things, recognizing that bad things do happen to good people, and that suffering is not necessarily a sign that one has erred or strayed from God’s ways, because even the righteous suffer. The important thing, the book of Job reminds us, is that God is with us in this suffering, present at the heart of reality — the only reality there is.

The answer to human suffering provided in the book of Job is very close to that provided by the first Christians — who also knew suffering and pain first hand, even as they knew that they were living in pursuit of righteousness. Look at that litany of pain that Saint Paul recounts to the Corinthians, and note how in each painful circumstance there is still the affirmation of the power and the presence of God. Though there are afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights and hunger — there are also purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness, love, truth and most importantly the power of God.

So it is that the Christian is defended but not anesthetized. There is pain and suffering for those who believe, but there is also hope for deliverance, and the presence of Christ with you. As Christians we pass through the pain in the knowledge that God is with us, bearing us up, holding our hand.

So it is that the Christian may be treated as an imposter even while being true to Jesus; as unknown to the world and yet well known to God; as punished, yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet rejoicing; as poor and having nothing, yet rich with the treasure of the Spirit; as dying — yet behold we are alive.

This is the same message Jesus delivers to his disciples in that boat on a stormy night on the Sea of Galilee. Through the storm and the night, he is there with them, but they lack the courage to trust in his sleeping presence — they even think he doesn’t care! Doesn’t care? This is Jesus we are talking about here; and when we, too, clamor in our own anguish, rocking our boat in anxiety and suffering, his words to us are the same as to those suffering and fearful disciples: Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?

Jesus does not offer us a pain-killer, a panacea — a cure-all or a quick fix to what ails us — the religion of Jesus is most definitely not what Marx called it, “the opiate of the people.” Jesus offers us not a pain killer, but a life-giver; he offers us himself as the savior of the world, the healer of all the harms ever done on this good earth, even in the knowledge that sometimes healing hurts.

He does not offer us a stoical grin-and-bear it, keep a stiff-upper-lip kind of virtue — but he offers us his tears at the grave of Lazarus his friend, to remind us that he shares our grief at our losses. He does not counsel us to see pain as an illusion or suffering as a merely philosophical distinction — but he sweats drops as heavy as blood in the Garden of Gethsemane, and he sheds his own real blood on the cross. He does this not to take away or end our pain, but to share it, to join with us in it. Jesus is joined to us in every grief we suffer, every pain that mortal flesh inherits from the fall of Adam and Eve on to the present day, and on until the last day when he comes again finally to wipe away all tears from our eyes, and remove the shroud of death that is cast over the nations.

For Jesus even joins us in that painful sense of abandonment, that horrible moment of feeling all alone and forsaken — his cry from the cross itself, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” echoes the cry of the disciples’ there in the boat that stormy night, “Do you not care that we are perishing.” Jesus joins us even in that pain of desolation — a sure and certain sign that he is with us through it all.

Through the storm and the night, our precious Lord takes us by the hand. He does not make our suffering go away, but he joins us in it — all of it, like a good parent holding the hand of a suffering child, feeling the pain almost more than the child does. Jesus is with us in that boat on the stormy sea, and when sorrows like sea-billows roll, he has taught us what to say, those words not of escape from pain but of the knowledge of his presence with us in our pain. He has taught us what words to say. Will you sing those words with me? It is well with my soul it is well, it is well with my soul.+

Sunday, June 17, 2012

From Start To Finish

How the new life is propagated: a sermon for Proper 6b.

SJF • Proper 6b • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Thus says the Lord God: I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of a cedar; I will set it out; I myself will plant it on a high and lofty mountain, in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit, and become a noble cedar. Under it every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind.

When I was a child growing up in Baltimore there was a bit of a craze for growing African violets. My grandmother and all of her sisters — all of my great aunts — all had shelves of African violets; as did the elderly landlady who rented my family a portion of her sprawling Victorian home. Perhaps calling it a craze is a bit much — as these mostly elderly women could hardly be called crazy! But they were enthusiastic about these houseplants, and every home seemed to have at least a few African violets growing in a shady corner away from direct sunlight. This species had only been discovered in Tanganyika about 70 years before this, but they had become by this time extremely popular around the world.

There are of course a number of reasons for this: they are a lovely house plant, with sweet smelling flowers that will bloom all year long if you care for them properly, and they are very easy to propagate.

And it is that propagation that I was reminded of by our reading from Ezekiel this morning. For just as the Lord promises to create a whole new cedar tree by taking a sprig from an existing tree and planting it — so too the way you propagate African violets — and let me add that the craze was so intense that I was thought this in my third-grade class — is by taking one of those fuzzy leaves with a long stem, and suspending the leaf through a hole in a piece of waxed paper bound with a rubber band over the top of the jar with water in it, the tip of the stem immersed in the water. The stem will grow roots in a few weeks, and then can be planted, and soon you will have a whole new African violet plant — though not large enough for birds to nest in the shade of its branches!

The spiritual truth behind this imagery of the cedar sprig, and of the two parables Jesus tells in this morning’s gospel passage — the seed that grows night and day, and the mustard seed — is that life springs forth out of life. Whether it is vegetative propagation, by which a new plant grows from a part of an old plant, a sprig or cutting; or whether it is growth from seed: plants don’t just come out of nowhere; the earth does not in fact produce “of itself” — there has to be seeds, or a cutting, or a sprig. Plants don’t come out of nowhere any more than money grows on trees or you can get blood from a turnip. New life comes from old life, as some part or bit of the old is remarkably transformed into something wonderfully new.

Modern science has made many breakthroughs and discoveries. We understand a great deal more about the genetic code and about the nature of living things. But life itself still remains very much a mystery. We can study how things live, but we have yet to create life. We have learned a great deal about how life works, but we still do not have all the answers, and are not much better off than the man in the parable who sowed seeds and saw them sprout and grow as he slept by night and woke by day, without knowing how they did so. The one thing that the early farmers learned was that a seed or a cutting was necessary — and they quickly learned which plants could be grown from seed and which from cuttings. And one thing was certain to them: that new life comes from old life.

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There is a slight irony in talking about African violets in this context, because as I only learned as I was working on this sermon, the scientific name for African violets is Saintpaulia. Now, they are not named for Saint Paul the apostle, but after the last name of the man who discovered the plant. But Saint Paul the Apostle new something about this spiritual botany: that new life comes from the old life. The new creation that he talks about in the Second Letter to the Corinthians — the new life of the new person born anew into Christ — is not started from scratch,

but transformed from the old self. That really is the point of salvation, isn’t it? Not that one generation will simply be wiped out, as in the days of the Noah, and a newer and better one started. Even then God did not really start from scratch, making new people out of more clay from the riverside. No, God took Noah and his sons and their wives to repopulate the world by propagation.

Similarly, the way God chooses to deal with us is to take us and remake us, to transform us with a new life like his. God starts with us as we are, but then, like a seed or a cutting, plants us where we can grow and be transformed under his watchful care. And the place we grow is in him — joined with Christ and in Christ because we are in and part of his body, the church.

For if the stem of the violet leaf isn’t reaching the water in the jar; if the seed that is scattered does not fall on good soil — no new life will spring forth. It is not enough just to be a seed or a cutting — or a human being — in order to grow into the new life, the transformed life of the new creation, you have to be planted in the right place. Then you can grow. After you are watered, of course (sometimes right here in this font!). Then, planted in the church, watered, cared for, we can all grow and become the marvel that we can be.

You know, mustard seeds do not normally grow to become plants so large that birds can nest in them. Jesus is playing here with that passage from Ezekiel: for of course a cedar sprig can grow to become a cedar tree if you plant it. And cedar trees do grow big. But for the mustard seed to do that — to grow to become a shrub with branches that the birds can nest in — that requires more than just growth. For a mustard seed to grow into a tree instead of a shrub, it requires the miraculous transformation of its very being by the power of God.

This new creation is not simply a repeat of the old — the new life is not just the same old same old. It is amazing, it is astounding, this new creation. It is exciting!

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if instead of an African violet craze we could have a gospel craze? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if everyone were to devote their energy and time to propagating the word of God, planting that good seed out in the hearts of human beings, and watering it with care, and brining them up into that new creation the new creation? Wouldn’t that be wonderful! You know, God created Adam to be a gardener in the beginning. We can join with the New Adam, Jesus Christ, by helping to cultivate our families and our friends and our co-workers, nourishing them with the word of God’s love and care. You know, this is not a bad message for Father’s Day. This church can be a seed-bed for the flowering of the new creation, a nursery for the growth of new plants to bring in a rich harvest. You and I are not just here as plants in the garden, but as gardeners. May God equip us all to do that work of cultivation and propagation, that his church on earth may grow as a cedar, as a tree that shades the earth and its creatures, under the promise of care and love of our dear and loving God, through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Seen and Unseen

Flesh and blood 2014 eyes and family ties 2014 fade in comparison to the Spirit and the vision of faith. A sermon for Proper 5b

SJF • Proper 5b • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
We look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen: for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.

As someone who has had a variety of eye problems since I was young, and sadly even up to the present day; and who worked while in high school as a volunteer at the Johns Hopkins Hospital Osler Eye Clinic; and later in the period just before starting my seminary studies at the New York Lighthouse for the Blind; and as one who is even now an Officer of the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, whose main work is the support of the Eye Hospital there in the Holy Land — given all of this I’ve learned a good bit about vision and vision problems in my day.

And one thing I’ve learned is that vision is not only about the eyes, but about the brain. There are forms of blindness which are caused by damage to the visual cortex of the brain — which ironically is at the back of your head — in which a person who may have perfectly sound eyes may be completely blind. Conversely, some marvelous new inventions are being designed that can allow people whose eyes are damaged beyond repair, to learn to see by means of direct electrical stimulation of portions of the brain, there at the back of the head. Geordi LaForge from Star Trek Next Generation may not have to wait ‘til the 24th century to get his visor.

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All of our Scripture readings today deal in part with the difference between seeing with the eyes and knowing in your heart and mind what you see — the difference between the inside and the outside. What is seen by the eye is not always understood by the brain, even when everything is working as it should. We’ve all seen optical illusions or puzzles where the eye can be fooled and it takes time to figure out exactly what it is you are seeing. Sometimes what you are looking for can be right in front of your eyes, but for some reason you just can’t “see” it. As my grandmother used to say, “If it was a snake, it would’ve bit you!”

And speaking of snakes — recall the promise that the snake made to the man and the woman in the garden: “Your eyes will be opened and you will be like God!” Of course, their eyes were open all along, but they didn’t realize what it is that they saw. Remember: they could see. The woman, when she saw the apple and the tree, said it was pleasing to the eyes. They had seen each other naked from the time God first woke Adam up and presented him with the one he greeted as a helper suitable to him, who was bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh. It was only with the bite of that apple that they realized what they were seeing — their own nakedness — that it was in any way, shape, fashion or form unseemly, and they tried the first cover-up in history: stitching leaves together and then even going so far as to hide in the underbrush. The vision of their own frail nakedness was too much for them — and in their nakedness they also saw — and felt — their shame. In one sense, they did not become like God, but rather fully human, at that point, and they tried to hide their frail humanity from the eyes of the living God himself.

They had made, you see, the mistake that all human beings are likely to make — we who see not as God sees; that is, looking at the outside — all that our eyes are able to do. For surely our outer form is weak and wasting away. But fortunately, our true humanity lies not in our outward form, our merely biological existence as what anthropologist Desmond Morris called the “Naked Ape.” Adam and Eve were rightly shamed by the frail flesh that they were — that ‘earthly tent’ as Saint Paul calls it — seen in the stark light of God’s own judging presence. But there is more to our humanity than just our naked outside. There is an unseen part, an inner nature that is unlike that of the animals. This is the part of us that is able to reason, and above all, to love. As Saint Paul assures us, this inner capacity is renewed day by day by God’s grace, even as the outward form is wasting away in aging, sickness and death.

Our human nature, as made in God’s image, allows us to have that God’s-eye-view, to look to the inside. This is why we look beyond what can be seen with the eyes of flesh to see with the eye of faith. There is more to us than merely animal biology — our flesh and blood, the earthly tent of our outward nature. We are also creatures of spirit, made in God’s image at the first, though our eyes of flesh got us into trouble when we first started using them, startled to discover that we were naked. We failed to realize at that beginning point, that there is ever so much more to us than our skin and our flesh.

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And more than our flesh and blood, as the concluding portion of this morning’s gospel passage reminds us. Jesus’ mother and siblings are worried that their son and brother is heading for trouble — people in town are saying he is crazy or even possessed (much the same thing in that time.) And so they’ve come to take him in hand, and get him out of harm’s way, away from the crowd and the religious authorities who have come down from Jerusalem. And when the people tell Jesus that his mother and family — his flesh and blood — are asking for him outside, he makes the astounding statement that it is the people in the house, those there around him, who are his mother, brother, and sister. Whoever does God’s will is kin to Jesus, kin through the Spirit. It is not the flesh and blood relationship that matters — the relationship we may or may not have with each other through biological descent or inheritance or kinship — but the relationship that each of us has and all of us have with God, through God’s Holy Spirit dwelling within us, and among us.

And notice once again how this relationship is portrayed as being inside rather than outside: the biological family, the family of flesh and blood, is outside the house, seen by all in the public square; but the true family of God is inside, inside the house with Jesus, gathered around him. It is here, here in ‘this house not made by hands’ — the house which is the new temple of God’s Holy Spirit, which is made up of all of the members of the church — it is there, “here” as Jesus says, that the true family is to be found.

So work, my sisters and brothers — and I do not call you that lightly, for we are all members of God’s true family — work to keep your inner eye, your eye of faith, focused on the place where truth and mercy dwell, with our Father in heaven. Study to see as God sees, guided by the Spirit into the truth of God’s grace, God’s love, and God’s glory.+

Sunday, June 03, 2012

Take It From the Top

Born again or from above -- we take it from the top. A sermon for Trinity Sunday

SJF • Trinity 2012 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jesus said, Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above. Nicodemus answered him, How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?

It doesn’t take a divinity degree or years of study in literary criticism to see at once that the Gospel According to John differs markedly from the other three gospels. This is not just a matter of content — that much is obvious, since John’s Gospel lacks a Nativity and the institution of the Holy Eucharist at the Last Supper. But beyond these details of the story-line, the whole style of writing differs from that of the other evangelists. While all of the gospels tell the story of the ministry of Jesus, John’s version differs from the others almost as much as a novel differs from a poem. It is true that the other three gospel writers each have their own particular angles and styles, but John is more unlike any of them than they are unlike each other.

Matthew takes pains to show the fulfillment of the words of the prophets; Mark is eager to tell his story quickly and evoke a vivid response from his readers; and Luke sees himself as a patient historian laying out all the facts, but also with a little bit of poetry thrown in.

However, John the Evangelist is the only one of the four who offers us extended commentary, and even more to the point and in light of today’s reading, long dialogue scenes. The other evangelists record very short interactions between Jesus and those who speak with him, but John gives us these extended conversations, some of them running whole chapters or more. You will recall the conversation that Jesus had with the Samaritan woman at the well — easy for us to remember because of the stained-glass window right there. You may also recall the long discourses in which Jesus argues with the people and their leaders about who he is and where he comes from, or discourses on his mission to the disciples; or, as in today’s reading, when he has an earnest conversation with a rabbi on the subject of salvation.

Another feature of these dialogues — and we see it in the encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus just as we saw it in his conversation with the Samaritan woman — is that the person or people to whom Jesus is speaking often don’t understand him. This gives Jesus the opportunity to unpack and expand his explanation, and the dialogue can grow into a discourse, as it does in this encounter today.

Whatever it was that Nicodemus had wanted to talk about when he came to Jesus by night, Jesus quickly steers the conversation to the subject of the kingdom of God and how one becomes a citizen of that kingdom. And right from the beginning a misunderstanding sets in: or rather two different understandings of how one is born — Jesus says “born from above” but Nicodemus hears it as “born again.” The problem, which doesn’t translate very well into English, is that in the language Jesus and Nicodemus were speaking, what Jesus said could mean both “from on high” or “from above” and “from the beginning” or “again.” Jesus seems to intend it one way, but Nicodemus appears to hear it the other way, which gives Jesus the opportunity to expound on what it means to be born from above — from the heavenly realm of God’s Spirit.

As I thought about this passage it occurred to me that there is one English phrase that captures this ambiguity, and may help us better to grasp what Jesus is getting at here. If you’ve ever been part of a choir or a band or an orchestra, you will no doubt have heard the conductor or band-leader say, “Let’s take it from the top.” “The top,” of course, is the beginning of the piece of music. “Taking it from the top” normally happens after you’ve worked through the piece of music bit by bit, dealing with the difficult passages and unexpected turns in your part — soprano, alto, tenor, bass; strings, woodwind or percussion — making sure you know when to come in, when to rest, and how to sound, whether loud or soft, whether smooth or staccato. And after working through all of those difficult bits, the director will say, “Let’s take it from the top.” At that point you are ready to try to sing or play through the whole piece to see how it all fits together.

Jesus is saying that coming to the kingdom of heaven works in a similar way. Remember who he is talking to here: a teacher of Israel. Nicodemus is a man who has puzzled through all of the hard bits of the Law of Moses; he has studied the Scriptures up and down and backwards and forwards. And Jesus is inviting him to “take it from the top.” And most importantly, not to do so on his own, but under the direction of the leader of the heavenly choir himself. No one, Jesus assures us, can ascend to heaven except the one who has descended from heaven — “from the top” in every sense of the word, both from on high and from the beginning — the beginning of all things. It means both “again,” and “from the place you can see the whole thing laid out before you” — from the top, as if from the top of the hill, from the top of the mountain, of the view from heaven. Jesus has come down from heaven, “from the top” with the express purpose to be with those of us below, who have worked through all the tough bits of this earthly life — sometimes hitting wrong notes and coming in a measure early when they should have rested. He has come to be with us precisely so as to be able to raise us up with him.

Jesus spells it out in that timeless promise, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” In Jesus Christ, God gives us the opportunity to “take it from the top” and to make the beautiful, heavenly music that God desires us to make.

Apart from him we can do nothing, or at best still struggle and get caught in the difficult bits of life and keep playing the wrong notes or at the wrong time. Without him, we are like Isaiah before the seraph touched him with the coal of the heavenly fire, brought down from the top to touch him below here on earth — lost people, lost and of unclean lips, hoping for the best but somehow always doing the worst. Without him, we are like orphans, waiting in vain for someone to adopt us.

But with God’s help, with the Father and the Spirit and the Son, with our sin blotted out and our guilt departed; with the spirit of adoption poured into our hearts; with Jesus our Savior at our side to lead us and raise us up with him — well, with all of this, it is as if we have been born again. By taking it from the top with him — the one who was and is and is to come, the Lord of all time and of all creation — we can come to the kingdom of heaven, sanctified by him and in him.

This is the promise that Jesus shared with Nicodemus that evening long ago, that God has come to us empower us to get it right — to take it from the top with him and not to miss a single note or mar a single harmony. Not through our own virtue, but because we have the best director in the world, the one who will conduct us into the pure harmony of everlasting life, in the kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.