Sunday, April 28, 2013

New Things

Sometimes things are made new by being repeated...

Easter 5c • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.”

I have been reminding us over the last few weeks that Easter is not just a day but a season of fifty days running from Easter day itself through the feast of Pentecost. Every season of the church year has a particular focus or emphasis — in part based on some specific event, but also reminding us of how that event is continually alive in the life of the church and has effect upon our daily lives. That’s why we repeat these themes throughout the year.

The theme of Advent is expectation, and we live in that continued expectation of the day of the Lord’s coming, both personal and corporate. Christmastide brings us the good news of the birth of Christ, and calls us to find a way to let Christ be born in us anew each day. Epiphany describes the ways in which God is made manifest — and continues to be manifest in the lives and works of the members of Christ’s body, the church. The season of Lent calls us to examine our hearts, inspiring us — by the story of Christ’s own suffering — to discipline ourselves in obedience to his call. And of course Easter, the season we now celebrate, brings us to the resurrection and throughout the season of Easter we are given continued assurances of the new life springing forth from the grave.

In today’s readings we are specifically reminded of newness — of novel and unheard-of things as well as of renovation, renewal of all things, in particular as promised by the one whom John saw seated on the throne in his heavenly vision: “See, I am making all things new.”

The Son of God can make all things new because he is both the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, or as we would say the A through Z (since Alpha and Omega are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet). As the Psalmist would say, “All times are in your hand.”

God is the source of all that is new, of all novelty, all restoration, all renovation and renewal. And he gives this new life to any and all who thirst for it.

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We get a glimpse of thirsty people receiving something they don’t even know they need in that reading from the Acts of the Apostles — or rather, we hear Peter’s account of what happens when he tries to explain himself to the Jewish Christian believers who are scandalized by the fact that he actually went into a Gentile home, a Roman home, and even sat at table with Gentiles — people unclean by definition. Peter explains that he had been prepared to respond to this invitation from Cornelius, the Roman soldier, by a heavenly vision that came to him. He sees what sounds to me like a trampoline being let down from heaven and full of all kinds of animals, many of them classified as unclean. That would mean that they are forbidden by Jewish dietary law, and since all of the first Christians are Jewish, from Christian tables as well, as Peter reminds the heavenly voice when it commands him to kill and eat; even being so bold as to say to the voice from heaven, “By no means!” Peter protests, but the voice continues to remind him that what God has made clean he ought not call profane. As with Jesus’s instructions to Peter on the beach from a few weeks back — you recall, the ones about feeding the lambs and sheep, and about whether he really loved him — Peter gets another triple lesson. (Maybe Peter is just one of those people who needs to be told things three times before he gets it!) But as he says, the vision is repeated two more times together with the instruction not to call profane what God has declared clean. And so Peter finally gets to understand this, just as he finally got to understand — with those repeated statements about feeding the lambs, feeding the sheep — that Jesus wasn’t talking about him being a shepherd of literal sheep, but about people, the people he would serve. And so too with this vision he finally comes to understand that is not about food but about people — God is about to do a new thing, and no people are to be called unclean or profane; God is about to open salvation to the Gentiles, which is indeed exactly what happens.

Now this was a new thing that some would never quite accept — they had been taught and believed that only God’s chosen people merited salvation, and that the Gentiles were a people unclean by definition and as much to be avoided as Gentile food. But Peter, and later Paul, would both demonstrate how ancient prophecies that salvation would come even to the Gentiles — those people “who in darkness walked” — that those ancient prophecies had been fulfilled in Jesus, and in this particular incident God set a seal upon it through the descent of the Holy Spirit. Peter witnessed the Holy Spirit descend upon these Gentiles, this Roman soldier Cornelius and his family and his household, the same Holy Spirit that came upon the apostles and the other Jewish believers at Pentecost; and it happened before Peter could even finish his sermon; even before he could finish telling them the good news, the Holy Spirit came down upon Cornelius and all in his house. God, it seems, is more eager to save, that we can ask or imagine.

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Finally, in the gospel today, we step back before Good Friday and Easter to the Last Supper. Judas has already left the table to go about his sinister business of betrayal, feet have been washed, and as we know from the other Gospels, bread has been broken and the cup of the new covenant in his blood has been shared. And in this still and reflective moment Jesus pronounces that, “Now” is the moment of his glorification; and he gives the disciples a new commandment.

So what is this new commandment? He does not hesitate to deliver it, but states it immediately, “That you should love one another.” Perhaps he pauses for a moment, as no doubt the disciples are a little startled — not that they should be commanded to love one another, but that this commandment should be given as something new. Had not God always commanded that his people are to love God, and to love their neighbors as themselves? Are these commandments not the same as the ones that go all the way back to Moses.

We can well imagine the disciples wondering at what Jesus means by calling this commandment “new.” Would you not have been as much surprised? So what does he mean?

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It is plain that the commandment to love one another is not new in the sense of never having been given before. But that is not the only meaning of the word new. Sometimes a thing is new because it is a re-issue of something that is old.

We hear in that passage from Revelation this morning of a kind of renovation, in the description of the new Jerusalem. Jerusalem has been reborn, has been made new, and is descending from heaven like a bride adorned for her husband. The old, faithless city has been redeemed and made new. I must say that when I hear that passage I am reminded of an old joke by James Thurber, one of his famous cartoons, in which the caption was, “She’s always living in the past. Now she wants to get a divorce in the Virgin Islands.” But with God all things are possible. The faithless city Jerusalem is made new, is restored to her status of innocence, and clothed afresh with her bridal gown to welcome her husband, Christ himself. With God, newness can always come, even when things have fallen so very low.

As I say, sometimes it is not a new thing itself, but something that has been made new, something restored, or in the case of the book, republished. Even the resurrection itself partakes of this quality of old being made new. For it was the body that suffered and died that rose from the grave, given new life, still bearing the marks of the spear and the nails.

I am reminded — thinking of books — of the epitaph that Benjamin Franklin wrote for himself when he was young (although I’m sad to say this is not the one that actually appears on his grave). His youthful idea of what his epitaph should be reads:

The body of B. Franklin, Printer, like the Cover of an old Book — its Contents torn out and stripped of its Lettering and Gilding — lies here, food for worms. But the Work shall not be lost; for it will — as he believed — appear once more in a new and more elegant Edition revised and corrected by the Author.

(A little long for a tombstone!) That is the sense in which this new commandment is new —it is a command newly issued. And don’t we need to be reminded of that commandment to love one another over and over again. It needs to be made new every day, repeated so that we can take it into our hearts. It needs to be repeated just as Peter needed to be told three times to care for the flock and later to be told not to call profane what God has declared clean.

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But there is another and deeper sense in which this is indeed a new commandment, in the sense of not having been given before — for Jesus adds, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” So the commandment is not only repeated, but transposed to a higher key, with a more sublime example in the love that Jesus himself shows by giving himself up for them, the greatest love that anyone can show, to lay down his life for his friends. And so the commandment is no longer simply “love your neighbor as yourself,” but “love your neighbor as Jesus loves your neighbor” — loves your neighbor, and you, to the point of sacrificing himself on the cross for you, for your neighbor, and for the whole world. In this great love Jesus gives himself completely and utterly to suffering and death for universal salvation, to the end that all who believe might be saved.

This is not only new, it is earthshaking. It is revolutionary. It is nothing less than the work of God, in which we are invited to participate as the second edition of the people of God, not replacing the first edition, God’s chosen people, but supplementing it, as God has opened salvation to us Gentiles, in a new chapter beginning with that ancient Christmastide and coming to its fulfillment in the never-ending Eastertide in which all of humanity is invited to join, Jew and Gentile. In our obedience to this new commandment, may God our Lord and Savior be glorified and praised; henceforth and to the end of the ages.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Sheep's Clothing

What does it mean to be clothed in the vesture of the Lamb?

Easter 4c • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
One of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” I said to him, “Sir, you are the one who knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”

I’m sure you are all familiar with the old phrase describing a villain or other mischief-maker who disguises himself so as to move freely among those whom he hopes to rob or injure: a wolf in sheep’s clothing. So disguised, a wolf can move into the midst of a flock, and then attack and slaughter almost at his leisure. So much for a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

But what about a sheep in sheep’s clothing — that is, a sheep in its natural coat of wool, just being a sheep without any pretense of being anything other than a sheep? What does it mean just to be who you are, like one of those actors whose names appear at the end credits of a movie or TV show with the words, “And as himself...” What does it mean to be a sheep in sheep’s clothing?

Well, for one thing, it means to be easily identified as such; and not only easily, but honestly, with no pretense or fraud. Such was the manner in which Jesus came among us — as exactly who he was, as himself, with no pretense, not in disguise — as I noted a few weeks ago, not just as “God in human vesture,” but as an actual, real-live, flesh-and-blood human being — but also God with us, Emmanuel, the Word made Flesh, the Messiah appearing in Messiah’s clothing, exactly as the prophets had foretold, doing just as they said he would.

We behold him this morning in the gospel taking a stroll in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. And the leaders of the people gather around him, demanding that he no longer keep them in suspense but tell them plainly if he is the Messiah. Jesus responds with some exasperation, no doubt, that he isn’t hiding anything, that he has made himself manifest as the Son of God his Father, plainly in his manner and in his works, the Messiah in Messiah’s clothing. And what is more, he tells them that the reason they do not recognize or believe in him is that they are not his sheep. In one sense, he is saying, it takes one to know one. In short, one must be among the flock of his sheep to recognize the Lamb of God. Such are those who belong to the Shepherd who is himself a Lamb; who hear his voice, who know him as he knows them, and who follow him into eternal life from which no wolf or thief — however dressed or disguised — can snatch them.

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We catch two glimpses of some of these sheep in our other Scripture readings this morning. First, in the Acts of the Apostles, we meet Tabitha, also known as Dorcas, the seamstress of Joppa, who made tunics and clothing for the people of her community. This passage is particularly touching for me, as it was used as one of the readings at the funeral of our departed sister-in-Christ Monica Stewart, whose hand was put to work making vestments and paraments for the altar here at Saint James Church. Unlike Monica, who rests in peace and awaits the final resurrection, Tabitha experienced an early raising from the dead, when the apostle Peter called her by name, and the people of Joppa rejoiced and many came to believe in the Lord.

The second glimpse of the flock of Christ is more spectacular, a vision not of the here and now, but of the great there and then of the kingdom of God. And this is not just a single seamstress, or even a select group, but a great multitude that no one can number. It is an international assembly, standing before the throne of God and before the Lamb their Shepherd, robed in white. These are sheep in sheep’s clothing — for they are the ones who are clothed with his clothing, for they have shared with the Lamb in their sacrifice, dressed in robes washed in his blood.

For recall that in John’s vision the Lamb of God is no sweet fluffy stuffed animal. This is a Lamb that has the marks of slaughter upon him; for he is none other than the Christ, who died, and yes, who was raised, still bearing upon him the marks of his passion — the wounded hands and feet and side, and the steady brow marked with the wounds of the crown of thorns, and his back with the marks of the whip and the flail.

This sheep’s clothing is not pretty — as Isaiah had said of the suffering Messiah, he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; without any form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter. Such is the appearance of the Lamb of God, the great Shepherd of the sheep — and his sheep are clothed as he is in robes they have washed in his blood, in the blood of the Lamb, the blood of their own martyrdom joined with his.

Saint Paul wrote to the Romans, “If we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” (6:5) It is as if to say, if you want to be a sheep of his pasture you need to be dressed as a sheep — and he will then know you and you will know him. Does this mean the blood of martyrdom? No indeed — although we know that the martyrs rejoice in the presence of God because they so perfectly join themselves to the sufferings of their Lord and Savior. But each of us at our baptism is also joined into the death of Christ our Lord — through water if not through blood. As the evangelist John also testified, it was water as well as blood that come from the spear-wound in our Savior’s side, and we are washed in that water, the water of baptism from that wound. It prefigures salvation through baptism into his name, into his death, so that we might rise with him.

Moreover, we have the example of people before us like Tabitha, known as Dorcas, the seamstress of Joppa — a hard-working woman who loved the church and served by making tunics and clothing; and was herself clothed with good works and acts of charity. Perhaps the only blood she shed for the church was when she pricked her finger as she was sewing vestments. And yet she is among the blessèd, even given a foretaste of the resurrection by being called back to life by the apostle Peter. It is not that her good works earn her salvation, but that they reveal she has been saved — she is clothed with the works that show her as she truly is, a sheep of Christ’s flock — wearing not a disguise, but a uniform.

So too may we be clothed with works of generosity and charity, the uniform of the sheep of God’s pasture; let us do God’s will with busy hands and loving hearts. As Jesus was known by the works he did in his Father’s name — works that testified to him being who he was — so too may we be clothed in grace and in the works of generosity, so to be recognized by our Lord as sheep of his flock. By our baptism into his Name, attested by our ministry and work to his honor and glory alone, by our being clothed upon with grace that comes from him, the Lamb of God, who alone makes us worthy to be sheep of his flock; to him be glory for ever and ever. Alleluia, Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed, alleluia.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Seeing By Ear

Why does God more often speak than show?

Easter 3c • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

I’m sure that all of us have heard someone say, “I can’t read music but I can play by ear.” What that means is that a person can hear the notes that they need to play in their head and follow the melody along themselves as they go along. Although I have to admit that whenever I hear someone say that they can play the piano by ear I get the unfortunate image in my head of someone bashing their head against the piano keyboard. I don’t think even Victor Borge did that one!

But I saw an even more astonishing example of someone doing something by ear a few weeks ago on a science program on TV. It’s a young man who has been blind since infancy — he lost one of his eyes when he was about six months old and the other before he was two — and he is able to ride a bicycle through paths in the forest. And the way he is able to do this isn’t some kind of high-tech marvel like the electro-mechanical visor that chief engineer Geordie Laforge wore on “Star Trek Next Generation.” No, this young man makes use of something that isn’t high-tech, or even “tech” at all — as he rides along — slowly to be sure — he makes clicking sounds with his tongue and he has been doing this for so long, that the echoes that bounce off of the shrubbery and the trees are enough to tell him which way to head. He has been doing this for so long that his brain actually “sees” by sound, and it keeps him from running into trees, shrubs, or other bicyclists and joggers. He is a real, live “bat man.”

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I raise this example because of that odd turn of phrase at the beginning of the passage from the Revelation to John, that we heard this morning. It comes and goes so quickly that you might not even notice the oddity; but it says, “I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels.” “I looked and I heard” — not “I looked and I saw.” God speaks: think about this — how often in Scripture it is God speaking, God’s voice that is heard rather than something that is seen. God speaks — or in the case of the tablets of Moses, or the handwriting on the wall, writes — and the word of the Lord is just that: word, not vision.

Oh, there are visions to be sure, there are images but they are very few and far between compared to the words — there’s the burning bush of Moses, the plumb line of Amos, or the descent of the dove upon Jesus at his Baptism — but as you will recall these visions are accompanied by a voice that speaks — and a voice that is heard. When God warns Belshazzar that his time is running short, it is the sight of a hand writing upon a wall that startles the Babylonians — but it is words that it writes, even if the Babylonians can not understand them, until Daniel explains that their days are literally numbered. And let us not forget, that one of the very first commandments, one of those written on those tablets, is not to create graven images of divinity, not to bow down and worship them — but instead to remain faithful to the “immortal, invisible, God only wise, in light inaccessible hid from our eyes.”

Similarly, when God knocks Saul off of his high horse on the road to Damascus, although there is a display of light flashing, the primary message comes in the voice that speaks, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” The others with Saul also hear the voice, but see no one. And as if to bring the point home, that the message is to the ear and not the eye, Saul is blinded — and though his eyes are open, he can see nothing.

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So why is it that God so often seems to rely on the ear rather than the eye? Why on words instead of images? Another part of that TV show about the real live “bat man” who can cycle by sound, was about how easily our eyes are fooled by optical illusions. I’m sure that many of you have seen them, even from school days — we were brought up on those optical illusions: those lines that look like one is longer than the other, but when you get out a ruler and measure them, you discover they’re the same — and yet, without the ruler you can look at them and look at them, and your brain will keep telling you one is longer than the other. What you see, takes over, and tells you thing that aren’t there.

Sometimes, what you see can even deceive you as to what you hear. There was another thing in that TV show, that science show, called the McGurk illusion, after the man who discovered it. In it, scientists record the sounds of a man saying, “bah, bah, bah” with a “b” but they take that soundtrack put it with a different and silent film of the man saying, “fah, fah, fah” with an “f.” And the amazing thing is that most people, when they are shown that spliced-together video, “hear” the man saying “fah” with an “f” — even though what is actually on the soundtrack is “bah” with a “b” — they are actually hearing “bah” but because they are seeing the man saying “fah” that’s what they hear. What they see takes over, and dominates even what they are hearing.

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In short, our vision is less trustworthy than our hearing — it can easily mislead us — and if this is true in common things, how much more so when it comes to trying to understand the will and word of God. For God has spoken, through the prophets, and through his son Jesus Christ our Lord. He has not presented us with just some fleeting vision, some pretty picture, but words to live by.

I gave that example of Amos and the plumb-line, and of course, God showed Amos the plumb-line, and asked, “Amos, what do you see?” And Amos said, “A plumb-line.” But then God went on to explain what that plumb-line meant; he didn’t just rely on the vision, he explained, as you’ve heard me preach before, about how the “wall” that was the people of Israel had gotten out of kilter, and was no longer plumb, no longer vertical. And so God spoke to explain the vision, as God so often does. God speaks to us, my friends.

And we hear an example of how insistent God can be when he speaks to us in that passage today, in which our Lord speaks to Simon Peter, son of John. To make sure the big fisherman gets the message, Jesus repeats his question, and emphasizes his answer, three times. It is a question and a commandment for Simon Peter, but it applies to all of us.

For Jesus asks each of us, “Do you love me?” He asks three times, speaking clearly and enunciating each of those four syllables like the four beats of a kettledrum. “Do you love me?”

Like Peter, we immediately respond, yes, of course, we do love the Lord Jesus. But are we deeply committed to that love? Do we know the tune by heart, or are we just playing by ear? Are we concerned by the third time he asks, that Jesus has seen through us? — for his vision, unlike ours, never fails him, and he suffers from no optical illusions — he knows us through and through. Are we, like Simon Peter, hurt that Jesus asks us a third time if we love him, perhaps as we realize that we do not love him as we should, and we suffer the shame we rightly deserve for having failed to follow where he leads?

Jesus questions us three times, and commands us three times: and the command is as important as the question. Like Peter, we are called to feed his lambs, to tend his sheep, and to feed his sheep. Jesus says it three times to give us no excuse for having misheard or misunderstood. Each and every one of us is called and commanded to this work of care for the flock of which we are also members, the great gathering of sheep and lambs that is the church that Jesus purchased with his own blood. We are called, called and challenged and commanded to care for each other — and none of us can say, “We never heard that” or “You never told me that” — for he has said it three times!

So let us, sisters and brothers, trust, trust to the word that God has delivered to us. Our opening prayer this morning asked God to open our eyes; but let us also pray that God will open our ears. And then, let us respond with appropriate actions to the words once spoken through the prophets, and the words spoken through the Son, the very Word of God made flesh, even Jesus Christ our Lord.+