Sunday, March 31, 2013

Putting Things In Order

Christ came among us to put us back in our proper place...

Easter 2013 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. But each in his own order.
When our cat Augusta Victoria died last year Brother James and I took our time before we sought a replacement. Finally after some months I looked at the website of a local animal shelter and the picture of one of the cats available for adoption spoke to me. (He said, Meow.) When we went to the shelter the cat himself was most insistent that he be adopted. There is an old saying that you don’t choose a cat but a cat chooses you, and this was very much the case: as he came right up to me and looked me in the eyes through the mesh of the separating screen. And so Sir Bootz Paddington found a new home.

His predecessor Augusta Victoria, as her name would suggest, had been a rather regal and restrained lady, particularly in her later years, and I’m afraid we had forgotten just how energetic a young cat can be, and so Sir Bootz not only found a new home but has very quickly made it his own. There is another old saying that “to cats all the world belongs to cats.” And one of the things that cats believe is that everything high should be brought low. (Perhaps all cats are inspired by the prophet Isaiah!) Placemats, paperweights, coasters and silverware belong not on dinner tables but on the floor. Towels belong not on the towel-rack, but on the floor. Magazines do not belong on an end or coffee table, but on the floor. Seat cushions belong not on chairs — but where? — on the floor. After all, the floor, like everything else, belongs to the cat, and it is his natural habitat. What appears to be dis-order to us is completely orderly to the cat.

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Human beings, in the long run, are often no more in accord with the will of God than with the world-view of the cat. In fact, we human beings had gotten ourselves completely out of order with the will of God — to the extent that God himself had to come among us as one of us to put things back in order. This is what Christ was doing in the incarnation; in his birth, life, suffering, death and — as we observe today — his resurrection. God in Christ came down to our level — a level which we sometimes need to be reminded does not actually belong to us any more than the floor belongs to the cat. (Don’t tell the cat! And if you did tell him, he’d just give you a blank stare anyway, and say, O.K., sure, I know what’s mine...)

Christ Jesus came to put things back in order, to restore things from the disorder into which our ancient ancestor Adam had disturbed and disrupted things — introducing disorder into God’s orderly world. And God did this by coming among us as a human being, in a very orderly response to the disorder: for, as Saint Paul assures us, since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead would also come through a human being.

Now, this is a point on which we need to be very clear — as it sometimes gets a bit confused. I have heard people describe the incarnation — Christ’s coming among us — almost like one of those old stories about a king who wants to discover what his subjects really think of him, by going about among them disguised as an ordinary person. And it is true that Jesus Christ came among us as an ordinary person — but this was absolutely not a disguise. There was no pretense or deception, or mere appearance of being human. Jesus Christ was a human being — a man who lived in the Middle East some 2000 years ago, who exercised a ministry, fell afoul of the authorities, was condemned to death and executed — dead and buried. He was a man.

But he was also God — not just a very good man looked upon favorably by God, — and adopted by God as I might adopt a cat — but God himself, fully divine at the same time he was fully human.
And this addresses the second fallacy of this wrong thinking: God did not need to come among us, like a king disguised among his people, to find out how badly we had gotten things wrong, to find out what we really thought about God. God was only too well aware of just how badly off track we had gone, and the questions posed by God to Adam and Eve about whether they had eaten of the forbidden fruit were purely rhetorical. God knew exactly how far humanity had fallen from the place where God had placed them.

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And it is because Jesus is one person with two natures, human and divine, that he is able to reconcile and repair the disorder that Adam introduced, when he and his wife took and ate of the fruit of the tree that had been forbidden, in their misguided effort to be like God. The tragedy is that they already were like God — they had been made in God’s image, after God’s likeness. If they had resisted the temptation to grab at what in due course God would have given them when they had grown to greater maturity, they would have reached the perfection which otherwise had to await the coming of the perfectly obedient son of God, born as a human being, to share the fate that human beings earned through the fall of their ancient ancestors, but to redeem that fall and put humanity back in order.
And thus the great disorder of death was dealt with once and for all. And from the cat’s perspective — at last — this was done exactly as any cat would do, by putting all things under his feet. Jesus triumphed over that old enemy, death itself.

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And yet, as we look around us, don’t we see that there is plenty of disorder in the world; that although Jesus Christ defeated death on Calvary, people still die? Surely they do, and we know that very well. God help us, though, if we stop at that; if, as Saint Paul observed, “for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” If all there is, in other words, is this life followed by death and the grave; if there is no resurrection of the dead, no hope of the life to come, then we have wasted an awful lot of time and energy. But as Saint Paul said, “In fact, Christ has been raised from the dead.” When the women went to the tomb that morning long ago, the angels assured them that the living one was not to be found among the dead, but that he was risen. And as Peter said to Cornelius and his household, “God raised him on the third day and allowed him to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.”

That, my friends, is the unanimous testimony of Scripture, words from long ago. But there is other testimony closer to us — as close as our hearts, if we will listen to God speaking in them and through them, assuring us that death is not the end. Death is simply part of the disorder that God put right in Jesus Christ. We will all still die — we will see, many of us, our parents, our friends, sometimes even our children, pass beneath the shadow of death. Some of us have already seen these things. But those of us who trust in God rely on the assurance of things not seen — of the hope of the resurrection, the restoration of order where all things were disorder, the lifting up of that which has fallen down, the raising up of that which had been buried.

Although the cat might like to see all things brought down to his level, God will raise up all that has been brought low. Our Lord Jesus Christ stooped to pick us up from where we had fallen, and will do so again, and again, with each death, new life will come one day, on the great day of resurrection, when the trumpet sounds and we are raised incorruptible, restored to the likeness we once shared with God himself in Jesus Christ. To God be the glory henceforth and forever more. Alleluia, Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Mind of Christ

Luke’s Passion gives us three windows into the mind of Christ

Palm Sunday C • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave... Who humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross.

We return today, as we do every three years to Saint Luke’s account of the passion and death of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The readings from Isaiah and Philippians are the same each year, and each of them highlight the suffering and humiliation that our Lord underwent on his way to the cross and Calvary. But Luke’s account in particular brings out some elements that highlight the nature of the mind of Christ that Saint Paul describes in that Letter to the Philippians. Paul describes the mind that Jesus had to empty himself out in humility and to suffer humiliation. Saint Paul calls upon those who hear these words to have that same mind in themselves, a mind not of pride and self-exaltation, but of humility.

As I said, Saint Luke’s account gives us some of what this means, in part by portraying those who seem not to have the mind of Christ in them — those who instead of emptying themselves and choosing the lowest place, exalt themselves to grab the best seats — like children playing musical chairs, instead of acting as they should as apostles of Jesus Christ.

Yes, it’s the apostles themselves who are shown acting in this way. It is certainly true that all of the evangelists portray the apostles as not fully understanding their Lord and master; but Luke highlights this very strongly by placing some of the boldest examples of this bad behavior right in the midst of the Lord’s Supper. And so it is that right after Jesus has said to the apostles that one of them will betray him, and they all wonder who it could be, the very next thing out of their mouths is a dispute about which one of them will be considered the greatest.

Jesus very quickly reminds them that this kind of political talk is out of place amongst them. It is not that there won’t be leaders and followers, for it is only natural that some will have certain gifts that others lack. But the leader should act, as Jesus himself does, as the servant to the rest. He demonstrates his mind by noting that he is among them as one who serves — and if he, the master, is content to be a servant, so too ought they be willing to serve — even to serve the youngest among them.

Towards the end of Luke’s account of the passion the evangelist provides two other details that are not present in the other Gospels. On his way to the cross, Jesus encounters that group of unnamed women of Jerusalem who are weeping and wailing. And what is striking is that Jesus has some hard words rather than comforting words for them — “Do not weep for me but for yourselves and for your children.” And he echoes the prophets and says that the days are coming when people will be so terrified that they will ask to be buried alive rather than to face the horrors that are coming. He ends with that striking question, “If they do this when the wood is green, what will they do it is dry?”

Now, that is a somewhat odd saying to us. Most of us don’t have fireplaces to burn wood, green or otherwise. It would make more sense if we place ourselves back in those days, and in the context in which Jesus says it. Jesus is warning those weeping women — those who weep for him instead of considering their own perilous plight — by noting, “If this” — meaning crucifixion — “is what happens to an innocent man, just what do you think is going to happen to you who are guilty? Weep for yourselves!” Jesus is offering them no easy word of comfort, but a prophetic warning, to repent and above all to have his mind in them, to have that mind not set on pride and ambition or whatever it was wrong about them and their lives — but on service and humility. Is he hard on these poor women? Perhaps so — but not as hard as it will be for them if they do not take his warning; if they do not get their lives in order.

Finally, and in much the same vein, Luke offers us one more example of the difference between pride and humility. He presents us, as the other evangelists do, with the two thieves crucified on either side of Jesus. But Luke, unlike the other evangelists, presents them to us with contrasting personalities and actions.

Both of them know that they are guilty, condemned for their crimes and getting their just deserts. But one of them seems interested only in being let off the hook — if he really even means what he says at all; for he may simply be joining in with the jeering at Jesus as the rest of the crowd is doing. But the other thief rebukes him, reminding him of their guilt, but then, instead of asking to be delivered from this just penalty, he admits his guilt and asks Jesus for only one thing — to be remembered by him in the life of the world to come. You might say that this man, rather than the other, has truly taken up his own cross and followed Jesus.

He may be the only character in the drama who has even an inkling of the mind of Christ — and the knowledge, and above all the hope, that it is in dying with him, trusting in him, that he has any chance of participating in his kingdom. No one else in the passion other than Jesus and this thief “humbles himself and becomes obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross.” And only this man is given the promise that he will be with Jesus in Paradise.

This is Luke’s lesson for us in his account of the passion: not to grab at fame and power, but to submit and serve. Not to weep for others without looking at our own condition first, and seeing where our own lives are out of order, and need to be put back in God’s order. Luke calls us, in the voice of Jesus to the women, to repent and be prepared, to admit our faults and to throw ourselves upon the mercy of the one who suffered for us, who emptied himself and took the form of a slave, who became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross. None of us is likely to suffer anything like this — God protect us if we do. But each of us can humble ourselves, and take the position of service to others that will show by our deeds that we have the mind of Christ. May that same mind be in us as was in him.+

Sunday, March 17, 2013

What Lies Ahead

There will be water in the desert...

Lent5c 2013 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Thus says the Lord, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”

As is clear from our gospel reading this morning, our Lenten season is drawing to a close. Next Sunday is Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week. The gospel passage is set six days before Passover, and Jesus is in the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, this unusual family of a brother and two sisters — all the more unusual because the brother had been dead, and behold, he is alive.

But before we come to this domestic scene with Jesus taking part in what begins as a simple family dinner in the home of some of his closest friends — before that our ears are tuned to expect something quite astonishing because of the other Scriptures we heard. They all relate to looking forward — so what is it we have to look forward to?

Isaiah portrays the Lord giving a direct commandment: “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing!” And the new thing he describes is making a way in the wilderness, water bursting forth in the desert.

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Let me take this opportunity to tell you a bit of a personal story. I had more or less lost my faith by the time I was in high school. Don’t be too shocked — this often happens with young people; some of you may have had this experience yourselves. In my case, although I had been baptized an Episcopalian, I had been an infant at the time and was too young to remember it, and from about the age of five on I was raised in the Roman Catholic Church. This was in those days before the reforms of the Second Vatican Council — back when things were taught without being explained, when the worship was in Latin and we were taught to say the words but not what they meant, and the incense smelled like burning tennis shoes and it always made me sick to my stomach, already stressed because these were the days when you were required to fast from the night before. I’m afraid that the teaching — based on the principle “what we say is true because we say it” — wasn’t geared to my inquisitive and doubt-filled mind; and questions were not encouraged. So I drifted away from the church by the time I got to high school.

But a few years later, early in college, I actually picked up a Bible and read the Gospels, and realized what I had been missing. Also about that time — and I do believe this is the grace of God at work — I encountered an Englishwoman, Doreen Griffin (God rest her soul!), through my work at the local educational television station, where she was one of the people coordinating the “talent” performing in the educational TV programs they produced. Doreen was also a very active Anglican, an Episcopalian involved in her local congregation that was part of the emerging Episcopal charismatic movement — a part of the church blessed with. the visible signs of the Spirit’s presence. Now, mind, these were Episcopalians, so it didn’t mean being slain in the spirit or rolling on the floor in an ecstasy, or handling snakes. But it did mean being open to manifestations of the presence of God, evidence of the presence of God.

To make a long story short, I attended one of these charismatic meetings, and joined the circle sitting in silent prayer; and at one point I felt as if there was a strong wind blowing from the center of the circle, blowing into my face and I spoke, not really entirely sure why I did so, and I said, “There will be water in the desert.” That was it. When the prayer session ended the other members of the group told me that this was a prophecy. O.K., maybe it was; whatever it was, I have ever since found that phrase has been very close to my heart — and to which I have returned again and again in times of trial and disappointment. And here it is in our reading from Isaiah today.

It is a word of hope that does not deny the reality of trouble. There is, after all, the desert — the dry and unproductive, and dangerous and deadly environment: you might say, where I had been for those few years without God when I was between the church of my childhood and that of my early adulthood. A desert, yes, but one where there is hope — hope, that with the power of God, water will well up even in this unexpected and unpromising place, precisely where it is most needed. Water, in the desert.

Today’s psalm sums up this mixture of fear and promise, of hurt and hope. The fortunes of Zion, which had fallen very low, are restored; and those who went out weeping carrying the seed, come with joy shouldering their sheaves. I’ve spoken before about how this psalm portrays people risking planting the last of their seed in the hope that it will bring in a harvest — every farmer has to follow that advice to look forward to what is ahead, and to hope that the springs of water will come to nourish the crop. One who has no hope will never plant — but one who never plants will never reap a harvest.

Saint Paul gives this an even more personal spin; similar to the way in which I shared some of my story, Paul talks about his experiences with religion — though unlike me, who only drifted away from the church for a time in my youth, Paul in his youth actively persecuted the church in his zeal for his own religious upbringing. But since he has come to know Christ, he has tossed all of that behind him; he treats it as so much rubbish. All of his accomplishments, all the credit he scored with the leaders of his former sect, all of his learning, and even his ancestry— it has all become so much rubbish, and “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead” he “presses on toward the goal of the prize of the heavenly call of God.” Paul has tasted of the water that wells up in the wilderness and he knows that nothing else will ever satisfy his thirst for God.

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So, by the time we arrive at the dinner scene in Bethany, we are prepared to see a new thing that will spring forth, to see water in the desert. And the one who sets the new thing in motion is Mary. You will remember from other incidents in this household that she was deeply devoted to Jesus and sat at his feet to listen to him while her sister Martha was busy preparing dinner. And we find her once again at the feet of her Lord, this time not sitting and listening, but anointing his feet with perfume — valued at 300 denarii as the money-minded thief Judas is very quick to calculate. Jesus is equally quick to rebuke this mercenary impulse — after all he knows this is not intended for the poor but for the protester’s purse — and this gives a hint of what this action means: that Mary has been keeping this perfume for the day of his burial.

Into the joy of this dinner held in Jesus’ honor, Mary provokes and Jesus affirms that his death and burial is only a few days away. As the hippies used to say, “Bummer.” But we would be wrong to see this as a reverse of what we’ve been talking about: water in the desert. This is not a desert coming into the water. This is not a buzz-kill, a discovery of something unpleasant floating in the punch bowl — no, this is still good news. This is water in the desert.

It’s just that the desert looks like a dinner party.

But look around that table. There is Martha, serving — is she still casting dirty looks at her sister Mary for not helping her with the work? And there is Judas, complaining out of the desert of his hard, scheming heart that his chance to make a quick buck has been spoiled. And there is Jesus, reminding them that his death is approaching, and that poverty and need will always exist. So much for the desert of want.

Then where is the water of hope?

Well, there is Lazarus — a man who was literally dead not too long before, but who is now alive, and if that doesn’t give you hope I don’t know what will. And there is Mary, willing to pour out that perfume in the hope of a better hope, like the people planting the seed knowing that the rains will come and the harvest thereafter. And of course, there is Jesus: who reminds them of his death and burial, but for we who know the other side of the story, the other side from Easter, know that he will be raised from the dead.

Jesus sets his face towards Calvary in the knowledge that his resurrection lies beyond it — over the hill — as I reminded us not long ago, no cross, no crown! The water will spring forth in the desert — but the desert is there. Resurrection will come, but not before death on the cross and burial in the tomb in the garden, where his body will be anointed again with perfume; laid to rest before he rises.

Jesus reminds us, “You always have the poor with you” — and I think it fair to understand this as meaning there will always be deserts; there will always be need, and disappointment, and loss. But through it all there will also be hope — the Lord will give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to those chosen, to the people God has formed so that they may declare the praise of the Lord, God blessèd forever, and mighty to save, who brings water in the desert, and new life from the grave.+

Sunday, March 03, 2013

Second Chances

Like the fig tree, we aren't expected to bear fruit on our own. There's a gardener helps us, too.

Lent 3c 2013 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Moses asked, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” God answered, “I will be with you...”

I am sure you are all aware of the old saying, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” It is probably so familiar that it is easy to miss the repetition of the word try — it’s not just, “if at first you don’t succeed, try again” but “try, try again.” So given that first failure, this old saying actually seems to be urging at least two more tries, for three all together.

On that basis alone, this poor unfruitful fig tree in the parable that Jesus told has already used up its three chances. The owner of the vineyard tells the gardener that he’s been looking for fruit on the tree for three years and still has found none. He is ready to cut it down and plant something else, but the gardener intercedes. He suggests one more chance for this unfruitful tree, one more chance after additional cultivation and fertilizer, to see if it can be coaxed into bearing fruit — one more year, one more chance, and then, if it still bears no fruit, it will get the ax — literally.

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Now, of course, as with all the parables, this isn’t really about gardening or the care of fruit trees. Jesus tells this story in response to news of a terrible incident: Pilate had ordered a bloody attack on some Galileans who were in the very process of offering sacrifice in the temple. Jesus immediately challenges the unspoken suggestion that they suffered because they were sinners, and adds an incident concerning another terrible accident in which a tower fell on people — in both cases he says that those who suffered these things were no worse than anyone else, but he also adds that anyone else needs to repent; they may not have been worse sinners, but they were sinners, just like everybody; and that this should be taken as a warning — in particular a warning to those who have not perished. This introduction tells us that this parable is about repentance, and the fact that opportunity for repentance is available to you while you still live — it is too late to repent after you’re dead. Everyone, like the tree, both stands in need of repentance, and, also like the tree, receives a second and a third and — as the gardener mentions — even a fourth chance to do so.

But there is more good news in this than simply the old adage of trying and trying again, and second chances. There is another old saying that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. So this is not just about unaided trying — as if you could bash your head against the wall just one more time and finally break through, rather than breaking your head. No, there is something else in this parable that we miss at our peril: and that is the gardener.

The gardener intercedes — he asks the owner to let the tree alone for a year, but he is himself going to get to work on it — this is not just about standing back and expecting the tree to produce even though it has not produced for three years running. The gardener helps — it is not just about some unaided chance for the tree, but an investment of effort and support by the gardener. The gardener will cultivate: digging around the roots to make sure they aren’t being cramped by soil that is too hard or clayey, and he will add manure — the best natural fertilizer — to give the tree more than a chance, on its own. In short, the gardener will give it help, help that it so desperately needs and so obviously needs.

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Ultimately all of us sinners need both the chance and the help — both the opportunity and the aid — to come to repentance, and both of these come from God. Saint Paul assures us both that there is universal need for such help and that the help is there. As he said to the Corinthians, “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone.” But he quickly goes on to add, “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.” So it is God who is, as the wonderful old hymn says, “Our help in ages past, our hope for years to come.”

Our Scripture readings today provide us with one more example of this need both to try and try again but also to rely upon the help of God to succeed in the effort. Moses, as you recall, had to hightail it out of Egypt because he murdered an Egyptian who was mistreating an Israelite slave; and in spite of his place in Pharaoh’s household, the law was the law and he was in danger of the death sentence. He ends up keeping sheep near the mountain of God, and has that amazing, transcendent encounter with the God of his fathers — appearing to him in the flames of a bush that burns but is not consumed. And to make a long story short, God tells him to go back to Egypt, and not just back to Egypt but to Pharaoh himself, to liberate the people of God from their captivity. It’s as if God is saying, “Out of the frying pan, and into the fire” with you!

Moses complains that he is not adequate to this task — “Who am I,” he asks, “to go to Pharaoh?” And just as with the tree that is not expected to bear fruit on its own, so too God makes clear to Moses that he will not be doing this on his own, for God will be with him.

It is worth noting that Moses asks, “Who am I?” But very shortly thereafter God says that his own name is “I am” and instructs Moses to tell the people that I am has sent him. This is, of course, more than God simply saying, “The buck stops here,” as the sign on President Harry Truman’s desk used to say. God is more than a celestial Harry Truman, but also and definitely not less. There is an ultimate truth to the fact that the buck stops with God — God is the source of all power we have to act; even our act of repentance — our ability to pick ourselves up after we have failed — has to rely on the strength of God at work in us, working in us to accomplish God’s good purposes for us and through us. God — Emmanuel — I am — both is and is with us.

When we feel weak or incapable — like Moses, like that fig tree — when we have tried and tried again and still not succeeded, and we cry out, “Who is there to help me?” the voice of God responds, “I am.” When we may make our sour assessments of ourselves, or when others are ready to cut us down because we have failed to accomplish what they expected of us, or we of ourselves, and we wonder who there could be who might be willing to give us help and one more chance, the voice of God responds, “I am.”

God is always more willing to help than we are to ask. He has his shovel and hoe ready to get to work cultivating our tangled roots, and he has a store of spiritual fertilizer to nourish us and help us bear fruit. God is a good gardener who knows how to care for all that is planted in his garden.

Remember, after all, who the gardener is... over there in that stained glass window: Mary Magdalene literally mistook him for the gardener on that morning of his resurrection. He is the gardener who will care for us who are planted in his garden. Jesus is our helper, our aid and support, in trying once, and again, and again. You might well say that the incarnation itself is God’s great gift of a second chance to all of humankind. So let us, this Lenten season, be willing and ready to receive his help and let him make of us that which we cannot make of ourselves without his help — and bear fruit accordingly, the fruit of repentance and the fruit of service, to his honor and glory.+