Sunday, June 29, 2014

Trust and Obey

Obedience is built on the foundation of trust....

Proper 8a 2014 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.”

Was ever such a commandment so harsh and cruel been given? Was ever a commandment so harsh and cruel ever heard? Was ever a commandment so harsh and cruel ever obeyed?

These are the questions that form in my mind as I hear the truly frightening commandment of God to Abraham in this morning’s continuation of our reading from the book of Genesis. You will recall that just last week Abraham had received another cruel command — the one from his wife Sarah. She had told Abraham to send the woman Hagar and the son she had borne to him out into the wilderness, there to die but for the intervention of God who revealed the well of water in the desert to revive the woman and her child. God had comforted Abraham before he sent Hagar and Ishmael out to the wilderness, promising him that they would survive, and that while the boy would become a great nation, it was to be through Isaac that Abraham would be reckoned as the father of many.

And now, out of the blue, God orders Abraham to that very son Isaac, the very son through whom, just last week, he promised that Abraham’s descendants would be numbered — to take his son Isaac out into the wilderness and to offer him as a sacrifice on the mountain that God would show. So my questions: Was ever such a cruel and harsh commandment ever given, ever heard, or ever obeyed?

For Abraham is ready to obey. He doesn’t argue with God the way he argued with him about the people of the city of Sodom, for whom he showed concern and care when God told him that the whole population of that wicked city would be destroyed. Abraham complained that God should not kill the innocent along with the guilty; and God finally agreed that if Abraham could find just ten innocent people in that wicked city God would spare it.

Yet when God gives this horrifying and cruel command, that Abraham is to kill his own innocent son, Abraham doesn’t blink an eye. He gets up early the next morning, saddles his donkey and takes his son along with two servants — and the firewood, the knife, and the fire! And then throughout the scene that follows, through the questions of his young son, even through to the raising of the knife, Abraham does not hesitate or falter. It is only the angel of the Lord calling to him out of heaven that stops him, and then he finds the ram caught in the thicket to offer in sacrifice instead of his son.

So let us look again at those questions. Was ever such a harsh command ever given? Well, I think we’ve already answered that one if we look at last week’s reading from Genesis. Sarah told Abraham to cast out Hagar and Ishmael. This was a harsh command in and of itself, especially considering that it was Sarah who had given Hagar to Abraham to start with, for the very purpose of bearing him this son. So, to look to the second question, how did Abraham receive this hard command about Hagar and Ishmael? He wasn’t happy. The Scripture records that “the matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son.” Sending that woman and small child out into the desert, even with a water bag, is a horrible thing to do. Before God reassured him, Abraham would know there was every chance that they would not survive, they would die of thirst — as indeed they would have had it not been for God’s promise that the boy would survive, and the provision of water in the desert.

And that final detail offers us the beginnings of an answer to the last question, Was ever such a harsh commandment obeyed? Abraham sends Hagar and Ishmael out into the desert because he trusts God to keep the promise that God has made to him — for God had told him that the boy would survive and I will make of him a great nation, too. And so it is as well with the commandment God gives Abraham in this morning’s passage. Because God had promised Abraham — just last week — that his posterity would be numbered through Isaac — God had promised that this son would live and grow to manhood and marry and have children — and that those children would have children, until the descendants of Abraham — through Isaac — would be more numerous than the sand on the seashore or the stars of the heavens. Abraham obeys the commandment of God because he trusts the promise of God. Trust comes first, then obedience; or perhaps it would be better to say that obedience is built on the foundation of trust. Abraham knows that God is faithful, that God keeps the promises that God has made — and in this case, although he doesn’t have the foggiest idea how God is going to do it, he knows that God will do something to allow his son Isaac to survive and grow up and marry and have children whose children shall be numbered as his — Abraham’s — offspring.

Abraham is so sure of this, that notice two things: First, he tells the servants who accompany him to the mountain where God has told him to sacrifice Isaac, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” “And then we will come back to you” — not “I will come back to you” but “we will come back to you.” Second, when the boy Isaac asks where the sacrificial offering is, Abraham responds, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering.” “God himself will provide.” Abraham’s trust is so great that even when they come to the place of sacrifice, even when he reaches out his hand for the knife, he trusts that God will provide — and God does provide.

Abraham trusts God, and that is the basis of his righteousness and his obedience — not his own strength or his own virtue, but his belief, his trust, in the nature of God — who is supremely trustworthy and keeps every promise God has made. After all, Abraham has seen God’s righteousness at work — God offered to spare the wicked city of Sodom if Abraham could find two handfuls of righteous people. God kept the promise that Abraham and Sarah would have a child in their old age — remember, they were in their 90s — but they did. God kept the promise, and she bore him that son, Isaac. Abraham knows that God will not make promises and then take them back. He trusts, and then he obeys.

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And so ought we to do, and for the same reason. We have experienced the blessings of God in our lives; we have heard the voice of God speaking in our hearts and guiding us on the right way; and though we have known times when the command of God was hard, we have also known that the mercy of God is great. More than that, there are many of us here I’m sure, like those Romans to whom Paul the apostle wrote, can look back on parts of our lives when we were not obedient to God but were obedient to the demands of our own lower nature. There were times when instead of raising our eyes to the hills we allowed ourselves to wander through the valley of the shadow of death. Yet even then, and even there, God was with us like a good Shepherd leading us up out of that valley into the light upon the heights.

Somehow even in the depths and darkness a small spark of hope and faith and trust was kindled, and the grace of God helped grow that little spark into a flame, and by its light God led us out. That spark of trust allowed us to realign our obedience from slavery to sin towards service to God — whose service is perfect freedom.

So let us join our voices with that of Abraham, in the sure and certain hope and trust in our Lord, the God of the promise made and the promise kept, the God whom we obey because we know that the Lord has provided, that the Lord provides, and that on the mount of the Lord, the Lord shall provide.+

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Lost and Found

Blessed are those who thirst for God, the living God...

Proper 7a 2014 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG Sarah saw Ishmael, the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had born to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son.”

Before I begin my sermon today I want to note that the Hebrew Scripture readings that we will be hearing over the next months up to Advent mark a departure from the old prayer book lectionary. We have been using the new Revised Common Lectionary for some years now, but this is the first year in which are hearing the alternate track of readings from the Old Testament — most of them never read in worship before, which is why the revisers thought it was about time for us to hear them; and I hope you agree. Now to the sermon proper.

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In the gospel today Jesus talks about the strife that will come to a household between fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, and various arrangements of in-laws. I’m sure we’ve all been there at one point or another. When we look at the passage from Genesis, however, we encounter an even more painful situation. We picked up the story in the middle of things, so let me back up just a bit.

As I’m sure you recall, Abraham and Sarah had grown to old age without having a child of their own; but Sarah, knowing how important it was for Abraham to have a son to carry on his name, had encouraged him to father a child with her slave-woman, Hagar. Then God enters the situation and blesses Abraham and Sarah with a child of their own, even in their old age. And that’s when the trouble starts — as we see in the passage we heard this morning. Sarah insists that Abraham cast out this slave and her son; and Abraham, after being reassured by God that all will be well, complies with Sarah and sends Hagar and young Ishmael out into the wilderness with bread and water.

There in due course the mother and the boy run out of water, and Hagar, at her wit’s end — thinking that they are doomed to die of thirst but unwilling to watch her child die — leaves the boy under a bush and goes off some distance away to wait for the inevitable. Weeping, she lifts up her voice to God, and the boy cries, too — and God hears and answers, and assures Hagar, as he had Abraham, that this boy will not die but he too will become a great nation. And so, as God has done so many times before, God provides water in the wilderness, opening Hagar’s eyes to see the well of water.

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Whenever I encounter this passage — including this first time as part of our Sunday worship — I find I feel a great deal of sympathy for Hagar, and that Sarah does not come off well. And the visual image that comes to mind is of Syrian refugees escaping from the horror of the very uncivil war going on in their country; most especially the women and their children, dusty and ragged and thirsty. I picture Hagar and her little boy looking like that: covered with dust, perishing of thirst, out in a sunny wilderness; and I ask myself, Why didn’t God help them as soon as they set out from Abraham’s tent? Why let them run out of water first, and get to the point almost of dying? Why let Hagar descend into such a pit of anguish that she could leave her child under a bush to die, out of her pitiable inability to watch the tragedy of his death unfold?

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And the answer is that you have to be lost before you can be found. You have to go without something before you know how much you need something. Now, this is so obviously true about ordinary things that it has become proverbial: I don’t know how many of you have heard the proverb, “Hunger makes the best appetizer,” but it’s true; nothing makes food taste better than being really hungry. And it’s the people who live in the desert who know how valuable water is; who know because they thirst what that thirst-quenching drink does to you — satisfying you the way nothing else can. They also know how hard water is to come by in these days of global warming — I just saw on a documentary last week that there is a town in Yemen used to have to dig wells 80 meters deep to reach water; now they have to dig ten times as deep, to 800 meters, and will soon have to dig to a thousand — that’s two-thirds of a mile! That’s a long way to walk for a drink, let alone having to dig — it’s as far from as from here on up to Bedford Park Avenue. Not many of us would like to walk, on a sunny 98-degree day from here to Bedford Park just to get a drink of water — imagine having to dig straight down that far to find some; and then for the well to run dry!

Now, to put this into the theological framework that the authors of the lectionary no doubt intended: it is those who know their need of God who will find God. It is those who thirst for the living God who will find God springing forth into the desert of their lives.

People who are full of themselves, satisfied with wealth and happiness in life without a care in the world, are not likely to give God much of a thought — perhaps this is why Jesus said that it was so hard for the rich to be saved! But those who have trouble in life, those who thirst after righteousness or hunger for justice, are comforted in the knowledge that God will hear and answer them — but not before they experience that hunger and that thirst, hunger and thirst that develop an appetite for God.

And this is in large part why Jesus tells his disciples that he has not come to bring peace to the earth. He has come to stir things up, to put us in the position of having to make choices — sometimes, perhaps often, hard choices. He lays before us the choice between the easy smooth way, and the hard and difficult way; and offers us the chance to choose the wide highway to perdition rather than the strait and narrow path that leads to everlasting life.

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It is not that Jesus is saying we will need to seek out sorrow or difficulty. These things will come if we are living a Christian life; for being a Christian, one devoted to the teachings of Christ, one willing to respond to the demands of the cross, one willing to be crucified with him as he was crucified for us — that will cost you some trouble, perhaps in your family or with your friends, who would rather you join them on that easy-peasy path that they have chosen. But the hard road that is the gospel of Christ — and it too has a proverb to remember it by: “No cross, no crown” — or as Jesus says in today’s reading from Matthew, “Whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” In God’s cosmic lost and found you have to be lost before you can be found, or as the great old hymn says, blind before you see. You have to wander for a while in the desert before you realize how much God means to you — and look, as to wandering in the desert, all the best people did it! Moses and Elijah and Hagar and John the Baptist and even Jesus himself all spent their time in the desert — and that is where they found the miracle of God’s grace.

Jesus reassures us — as God reassured Abraham — even as he promises him and us difficulties. He reassures us by promising us that however bad things get God will not abandon us, for we are very dear to God, of much more value than a whole flock of sparrows — and if God keeps an eye on them how much more surely will God keep an eye on you, on me, on all of us who have come to know him — who have been lost in this wicked world — but have come to know how much we need our Lord and our God. And who know that whenever we have reached out for God, whenever we have raised our voices, we have found God ready to help, showing us the well of water that was there all along — but which, in our grief, blinded by our tears, we had not seen.

We have taken up the cross and wandered into the desert of this life, but we have found the well of water, starting with the baptismal water into which we were baptized into his death so that, just as he was raised from the dead, so we too might walk in newness of life. He who lost everything for us, who gave himself up to the death of the cross, has redeemed us and found us — the lost has been found.

Thanks be to God for the thirst for God, that leads us to these plentiful waters of grace. To him be the glory, henceforth and for evermore.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Image of God

...the mystery of what it means to be human, and the glory of what it means to be divine, find their perfection in Jesus Christ...

SJF • Trinity Sunday A 2014 • Tobias S Haller BSG
God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness...”

And so it begins... We heard this morning the unfolding of the beginning of all things, the creation of the world and all that is in it, as recorded in the first chapter and the first verse of the second chapter of the first book of the Bible, Genesis. In this powerful vision of creation, God is portrayed as a master architect — as in William Blake’s famous illustration: God sets his compass on the face of the deep. Blake — a master craftsman himself — portrays God as the supreme Master Craftsman, the heavenly architect at work.

So too, the language of this creation story echoes the building of the earthly temple. This is fitting. For just as the temple was God’s symbolic dwelling, all of creation is a habitation for the Most High. Of course, as Solomon would later say when he built the temple in Jerusalem, even heaven and the highest heaven can not contain the greatness of God, how much less this earthly temple. Yet we know that God does visit these earthly habitations — in ways that will become clear, I hope, in a moment.

In the cosmic temple described in Genesis, the dome is the roof of the sky, and its foundation is the earth. The waters are gathered together into one place, into just such a basin as was featured in the temple in Jerusalem, a huge bronze basin in which the priests would wash before they entered the inner courts. The vegetation reflects the decoration of the temple, the walls and columns, carved with fruit, vines and branches. The great lights of the sun and moon are like the huge bronze lamp-stands that stood in the temple court. Then, to provide the multitude of sacrifices, all the living creatures are created. Thus the temple is almost complete, ready for the worship of God.

I say, almost complete. What is missing? Well, in most temples of the ancient near east, in the innermost portion, in the shrine of the holy of holies, you would find an image of the God that the people worshiped, to whom the temple was dedicated. And this is where we come in. As you know, God forbade the Israelites making and worshiping graven images; and in the temple in Jerusalem, in the Holy of Holies, there was no image of God — but instead, the ark of the covenant and the cherubim who served as the throne of the invisible God.

But in the cosmic temple described in Genesis, God does create an image, a likeness, to represent God, and to take its place at the center of creation, in the holy of holies. God creates humanity.

This tells us that the author of Genesis understood humanity as the crowning achievement of creation, but even more, to be an image or likeness of God. It is as much as to say, If you want to know what God is like, look at human beings.

Now, this doesn’t mean that God has a head or two arms and two legs. And we also have to acknowledge, especially given the rest of Genesis, to say nothing of Exodus, Numbers, Deuteronomy and all the rest, that we are to look to the best of humanity — humanity as it is meant to be at its best — if we want to gain an idea of God’s nature. So what are people like at their best: and how do we reflect the image of God?

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We find an answer to this question in the closing words from Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians. “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.” Grace, love and communion: these three qualities of God, reflected in humanity, are facets of God’s image and likeness; and these facets, like the persons of the Holy Trinity itself, are related and connected, much as the human and divine natures are interconnected in the person of Jesus Christ. What’s more, the mystery of what it means to be human, and the glory of what it means to be divine, find their perfection in Jesus Christ; he is the true image and likeness untarnished by sin: revealing humanity as all that humanity is meant to be, when God created us in the first place. It is in the Incarnation of Christ that we will find the place where the human and divine meet, as the hymn says, “God in man made manifest.”

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First comes the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. What is grace? We tend to think of grace as being about style, decorum, elegance. We say someone is “graceful” when they move well. But the grace of God, especially of God in Christ, is about the gift of God and the giving of God, the stooping down and emptying out of the Son of God, the graceful descent from the throne at the Father’s right hand, the choice to come to us, to be with us as one of us, the graceful condescension of Emmanuel — God with us — when the power of God leapt down into the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the infinite reality of the creator of all that was became, as one old poet so beautifully put it, “compassed in little space.” This is the grace of Jesus Christ, like the grace of the most perfect high-board diver who leaps from the highest point and spins and plummets but then enters the water with only a tiny splash! This is the grace that is a gift: a gift to you and a gift to me, that the Son of God, should for our sake, take our nature upon himself, as naturally as a man or woman puts on a garment perfectly tailored for them — because it was for this reason that God made us in his image in the first place: that one day God might put on our nature with such a perfect fit. This is the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

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Next comes the love of God the Father. And John the Evangelist is the great exponent of God’s love; it is a theme he takes up again and again. It is he who assures us that God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish, but have everlasting life. He continues, that God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved. As John said, In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. So once again, John helps us to see that God’s very being is tied up with the Incarnation, the sending down of the Son of God to be with us, in order to save us. As Jesus said in John’s Gospel, There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. And this is what God did for us, in Christ, giving himself to save us, even from ourselves.

And as John continues in his First Epistle: “Since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.” You can’t see God — God is invisible — but when we love each other, giving of ourselves for each other, we become so much like him, that the original image and likeness he bestowed upon us in creation begins to glimmer through the stains of sin that we accumulate in our earthly life. Every act of love, every “sending” of ourselves, every stepping aside to honor and serve another, is a reflection of God’s very being. Such is the love of God the Father, who sent his Son to save us.

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Which brings us to the “communion” or “fellowship” of the Holy Spirit. Of all human love, the love that Christians show to one another, which finds its perfection in the communion of the church, is a revelation of God to the world. John again gives us Jesus’ word on this: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” The harmony of the church reflects the harmony of heaven; the unity of the church reflects the unity of God, and the loving fellowship and communion of the church reflects the being of God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Communion, whether the communion shared by the persons of the Holy Trinity, or the communion shared by individual Christians or by Christian churches, does not mean that everyone is exactly the same. Right in the middle of our west rose window you can see the old emblem of the Trinity: and it affirms the truth that while we believe the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God — yet we do not, as the Athanasian creed put it, believe in three Gods, but one God. At the same time, the Father is not the Son, nor is the Son the Holy Spirit. The Three in One and One in Three are united without confusion, but I’m afraid that when preachers start to talk about it they begin get a little confused, and so it’s probably something best not to talk too much about. But you can look at it — you can behold it, there, and in each other, as we reflect the Holy Trinity, God with us, in us, and through us.

This is the great mystery at the heart of the Christian faith. But as I say talking about it has gotten many a preacher into trouble. So I’ll stop while I’m ahead, and remind us that Jesus promised that Christians would be known by our love, not by our doctrine! Instead let me point us back to the primary lesson I hope you will carry away with you this morning.

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That is, that God made us in his image. That God made us to be like him. That God made us to be filled with the generous grace that suffers for the sake of the beloved. That God made us to be filled with the love that gives without reservation or qualification. And that God made us to be in communion with each other, joined in the bonds of affection through the instrument of God’s unity. May we be One in Christ as Christ is One with God the Father and the Holy Spirit. And may the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with us all now and forever more.

Sunday, June 01, 2014

Second-Hand People

The disciples were an heirloom from the Father to Jesus, vessels precious containing the word...

SJF • Easter 7a • Tobias Haller BSG
Jesus said, “I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word.”

One of the peculiarities of John’s Gospel is that his account of the Last Supper contains no mention of the Holy Eucharist. Rather, John is the only evangelist to record the startling act of humility, when Jesus rose from the table and washed the disciples’ feet. But John’s account is also unusual because it is so much longer than that of the other evangelists. As Deacon Cusano reminded us last week, John’s Gospel retelling of the Last Supper includes four and half chapters of teaching and prayer. In this long discourse, Jesus reveals why he came to be among us. These chapters have a timeless quality, as they appear to describe the future, but they also reflect the eternal. It is as if Jesus is both looking forward to his Passion but also looking back upon that Passion, and even upon struggles of the early church, by which the church would come to share in his sufferings. It is as though he is looking back from a time long after his Resurrection — from an eternal perspective, from a God’s-eye-view.

There are even moments, as in today’s portion, in which Jesus refers to himself in the third person — as if he were talking about someone else: “This is eternal life,” he says, “that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”

On top of that, there is an almost hypnotic quality to the language in these chapters — the repetition of phrases, their inversion and weaving together, in a wonderful vision of the interconnectedness of the Father and the Son, knit together in the Spirit, folding the disciples into the unity of God himself: “all mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them.... so that they may be one, as we are one.” It is as if all of time and space, humanity and divinity, were displayed on a great silken tapestry being shaken out before us, held up on display, then folded and refolded, tucking all of history, all of the cosmos, into a small space, four and a half chapters in the middle of the Gospel according to Saint John.

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One of the things Jesus makes clear in this reflective and prayerful meditation is that the disciples were not his originally. As he says, they belonged to the Father, and were in the world. I noted in my sermon a few weeks ago, that it was God who chose those who would become followers of Jesus, those God deemed precious. And God committed these chosen disciples to his Son. Jesus had them second-hand.

Anyone who comes from a large family knows about second-hand and hand-me-downs. Actually, since my younger brother outgrew me and soon was bigger and taller than me, I actually experienced a few cases of hand-me-ups! But they were still second-hand.

Usually such second-hand hand-me-downs are forced by economy and practicality. When you don’t have much money, getting some more wear out of someone else’s clothes can help a family pinch a penny until Abraham Lincoln weeps. And I can readily admit that in my early days living in New York City as a struggling artist, I made more than one trip to Goodwill both for clothing and for furniture — and I wasn’t making a donation! I also was savvy enough to take advantage of the Thursday evening “set your unwanted furniture out on the street for collection” that still turns New York City streets into a kind of free-for-all flea market where one person’s refuse becomes another’s living room furniture! I’ve still got a floor lamp over at the rectory that I rescued from the clutches of the sanitation department over forty years ago.

But there is another kind of second-hand that is far more important and valuable than even the greatest curb-side flea-market discovery: and that is the precious inheritance that a father or a mother passes on to their children. I’m sure most of us here have some kind of heirloom from a parent or a grandparent, an uncle or an aunt — perhaps not some valuable by worldly standards, but important to us. In my office downstairs I have on the wall a porcelain plate with Raphael’s “Madonna and Child” on it. It belonged to my mother, and she gave it to me as an inheritance. It probably is not worth much by the standards of AntiquesRoadshow, but it means a great deal to me.

Most of you probably have some such item, perhaps also not worth much in the worldly marketplace, even if you would never think of parting with it. That’s because its value to you as a family treasure is so much more important than its value may be as a worldly treasure. (I do wonder, sometimes, when someone on Antiques Roadshow learns that the treasured vase that momma left them isn’t carnival glass, but a Tiffany worth tens of thousands of dollars, as you can see the wheels beginning to click behind their eyes, calculating the value of this keepsake versus its possible value of cash on the barrelhead, and how much longer it is going to stay on momma’s dresser. Because it’s no longer a vase; it’s a vahse!”)

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But, vases and vahses aside, God’s gift is much more precious than any heirloom, valued for sentiment or even for its cash value. What the Father gives to Jesus is precious — precious to God and so infinitely precious; for the Father gives Jesus the disciples, chosen out of that worldly world to be the beginning of a new family, the human family, the family we call the Church. They are the heirloom vessels, chosen to be the means by which the family of God will grow, through the preaching of the Gospel. The Father presents them to Jesus his Son, and from that moment on they belong to Jesus, and he puts them to immediate use, filling these vessels with the Word — which also comes second hand; as he said in our Gospel today, God gave the word to him, and he passes the word on to the disciples. As he said to the Father, “I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word.”

These disciples, though second-hand, are second-hand from God: they are heirlooms of the precious kind, and they are given for a purpose. They are not just pretty pictures to hang on a wall, attractive furnishings to brighten up the corner of a room. No, my friends, they are chosen and precious vessels — vessels designed by the Creator, who presented them to his Son, to bear his message — to carry that word, that saving word, his saving message, the words God gave to him, that he committed unto them — to the rest of a waiting world.

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We are poised today, on this Seventh Sunday of Easter, between the observances of the Ascension of Jesus and that of Pentecost, next Sunday. After the Ascension, the apostles, those chosen vessels, were dumfounded; they stood there looking up into heaven with open mouths like so many vases or urns. We hear their names recited out again, names to be repeated to the end of time, these chosen eleven, and then the angel gives them the charge to go back to Jerusalem, and wait for the Spirit. There they will await the fulfillment of their purpose, the fulfillment of what they were designed for, what they were meant for, what they were chosen for. For on Pentecost, the Holy Spirit will come upon them, and fill those chosen vessels. The fire of God will fire that ceramic and make it strong enough to bear the days that are to come, the days of stress, the days of trouble, the days of persecution. God will give them the power to testify and proclaim, God will fill them to the brim with many languages so that they can bear the saving message to the world’s four quarters, to all of the people of the world, and enlarge the family of God, sharing with them in a precious inheritance.

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And you know what? We are second-hand people too. Because we received the message from those who got it first hand, from those apostles and evangelists who stood staring up on a hillside looking after Jesus as he ascended into heaven; but then returned to Jerusalem to await the coming Spirit; who, when the Spirit came, were filled with power to spread the word abroad.

We second-hand Christians, members of Christ’s family, have received the most precious inheritance imaginable — the word of salvation itself — we aren’t just vases, we are vahses, we are full of the Spirit and the message of salvation.

And you know what? We’re not going to take it to Antiques Road Show. We’re not putting it up on eBay. We’ve got a better way to share the gift, through the power of the Spirit. We too, with the disciples, can proclaim the way to eternal life of which Jesus spoke that night in the upper room: that all the world may know the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom God has sent.

So let us not, at the end of our worship today, simply stand staring with open mouths, even though we’ve all been singing. Let us go forth, having been filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, to do the work God has given us to do, to the glory of his Name, that all may be one in him, even as God is One: God the Father Almighty, his only-begotten Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who with the Holy Spirit, is worthy of all honor and glory for ever and ever.+