Sunday, November 01, 2015

The Stone of Obstruction

All Saints Day 2015 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jesus came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.”+

Considering that this is my last sermon at St James as I head off into retirement, I was tempted to take as my text, “Unbind him, and let him go.” The story of Lazarus reminds me of a bulletin blooper I saw in a parish years ago, before I was ordained. This parish’s bulletins always included illustrations that went with each Sunday’s gospel. On this particular Sunday, the illustration showed Jesus standing at the door of the tomb, with Lazarus stepping out of it, looking like the Mummy from an old horror movie, or in keeping with the season, a Hallowe’en zombie. The only problem is that right next to the picture of the Mummy coming through the door of the tomb the regular parish message was printed: “Everyone is Welcome at St Bart’s!”

All humor aside, there is a serious message in all of this — the serious message of new life, and life restored to what was dead. I take this personally as I head off into retirement and its new possibilities, and in this my last sermon here I bid you to do so corporately as a congregation, and individually as Christians.

“Take away the stone,” Jesus said, “Unbind him and let him go.” The stone and the binding are not obstacles in their normal use — for the dead. The dead don’t care if the door is open or shut, they don’t really care how they are dressed. They don’t eve n care about the funeral: as a wise priest taught me years ago, funerals are for the living, not for the dead — they are a way for the living to mourn their loss, to grieve, and to celebrate the life of one they loved. But the dead feel no pain, no loss. They truly have been laid to rest.

The bindings used in the days of Lazarus to wrap the dead body are not meant to keep it from getting up and walking, but to hold the bones together as the flesh of the body corrupts and turns to dust. The stone at the door of the tomb is not to keep the dead man from getting out, but to keep wild animals from getting in to disturb the body. The only thing the stone serves to keep in, as Martha reminds Jesus and us, is the stench of a body four days dead and beginning to decay.

For in the normal course of things, decay is all the dead do. Apart from their slow dissolution, they do not change. If you want something to remain alive, it had best be capable of change: change is a sign of life; and not to change is to be dead.

This is as true of the church as of a human body: congregations that want always to remain the same have chosen the course of death and decay. You know that you don’t have to look too far to find examples of churches who chose not to change as their neighborhoods changed around them — here in the Bronx and north in Westchester I know of a few churches that tried to remain little Irish or German islands in a city that was becoming more diverse. Instead of inviting that new blood in, these churches kept their doors closed, kept the stone in place, kept the bindings tight, and today they are almost empty monuments to those sad mistakes of the past — trying to keep unchanged meant the only change was that of decay and dissolution. The Bishop of New York solemnly deconsecrated one such church a few weeks ago just to our north in Mount Vernon. And that’s too close for comfort!

Not that St James is in danger of closing. I rejoice that Father Basil Law of blessed memory, who led this parish for 31 years during that same time of change, did not allow this church to become a tomb, did not try to preserve it as a little island, but opened the doors to all, and welcomed all to worship here. A church that might have died, as others did and do, lived, and lives. I have tried to follow in his path, insisting that all are welcome — though I suppose even I would draw the line at zombies!

Still, in this my final word to you, I want to challenge and charge you all to continue to take away whatever stone may obstruct the path into or out of this church, to loose any bindings that might hold you back or keep someone else out. When this church was consecrated, 150 years ago on this very day, a beautiful prayer was used at the dedication of the porch: “Make the door of our parish church wide enough to receive all who need human love and fellowship and a Father’s care; and narrow enough to shut out all envy, pride and uncharitableness. Make its threshold smooth enough to be no stumbling block to children, to weak or straying feet; but rugged and strong enough to turn back the tempter’s power.” And I would add, and make it wide enough to send us back out into the world in service.

As I said, this church was dedicated 150 years ago today, on All Saints Day, November 1, 1865. It has seen much in that century and a half, priests coming and going, lay people too; deacons and deaconesses; and bishops at their visitations; and seminarians during their training and their field placement — including me! As I mentioned a few weeks ago, because I was a member here in the 1980s and did my seminary field placement here, before heading off to my first parish in Yonkers, I’ve been connected with this parish in one way or another for over thirty years. I have served as your priest for exactly 16 years, as All Saint’s Day 1999 was my first Sunday here as Vicar. And in the 16 years of my ministry as a priest in this place I have seen many come — and some go. With today’s baptism — and what a wonderful way to spend my last Sunday here! — with this baptism I can now say that I have baptized 245 new Christians over the course of my priestly ministry here. (That’s not counting the baptisms at which I assisted Father Basil back in the 80s; but I have now personally baptized the children of young people at whose baptisms I assisted over twenty-five years ago.)

Over my time as Vicar, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve celebrated the Holy Eucharist; or how often I’ve visited members in hospital or their homes; but the records show I’ve presented 68 of you for confirmation or reception, blessed the marriages of 20 couples, and bid farewell to 44 Christian souls, as they were sent off to that place in eternity where only the foolish think they are dead, but we know and trust they have eternal life — life in God as saints of God in the Church Triumphant, of which this place is but an earthly embassy.

When Bishop Potter blessed and hallowed this place on All Saints’ Day 1865, he made it one of God’s mission outposts — not a tomb, a place of the dead, but a source of life, a fountain for God’s mission. The door of the church opens in, but it also opens out.

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Out it opens; but will we go? I don’t mean me — I am indeed going to continue working after my service in this place. I will keep busy in retirement — the Bishop of Maryland already has some things in mind to put me to work, though I asked him to give me at least a few months to get settled!

But I mean all of you, for you are all ministers of this church: servants of God, and because of that called to serve others beyond the doors of this church out in a world in desperate need of Good News. You are the bearers of that gospel news, commissioned — some of you by me — in your baptismal covenant as ambassadors of Christ, sent off from this embassy. We will repeat that covenant today as part of the baptism.

So I ask you all to ask yourselves, as I ask myself every day, What stone of obstruction needs to be removed in your life, what bindings need be loosed? What is there preventing you from doing all in your power to serve your Lord and God? What obstacles and stumbling-blocks stand in your way? For we are not dead — we are alive, and with life comes hope, and with hope comes faith, and with faith comes strength and with strength comes action! So take away the stone, dear Lord, unbind us and let us go, that we may live — and serve — until that last great day when we see each other once again, and for ever, and see you face to face, our Lord and our God, in whose name we pray, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Our Servant God

God is love and service....

Proper 24b - SJF - Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind: Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?

Two questions, among others, are asked in today’s Scripture readings: Who is this that darkens counsel with ignorant talk? and What do you want me to do for you? Thinking about these questions can help us answer the Big Question: Why are we here? and help us to understand what it means to be made in the image of God.

The first question comes from the latter parts of the book of Job. God finally speaks after a long silence. God has listened to Job’s three friends as they try to get him to admit he’s a wicked sinner — he must be, or why would he be suffering? God has heard Job claim his righteousness. And God has heard a young man try to defend God — as if God needed a defense.

So finally God speaks, to settle the argument. But when God speaks, it is not to provide a comforting answer to the question, Why do the innocent, and even worse, the righteous, suffer? There is no question that Job is righteous, yet suffer he does — but God doesn’t so much as address that question. When God speaks it is to reveal a deeper truth, to help Job — and us — see our place in the universe.
Job and his companions have been debating the meaning of life, the universe, and everything — just as we do. Finally God confronts Job, “Who is this that darkens counsel with ignorant words? Pull yourself together, and let me ask you questions.” And, of course, the questions God asks are beyond Job’s or any human being’s skill to answer. That is the whole point. God is saying, in a not-so-subtle way, Just who do you think you are, anyway?

Human pride is such that we often put ourselves at the center of the universe, and sometimes act as if we were in control. People have very powerful control needs. We are haunted by the fear that if we aren’t in charge, then no one is. Think for a moment what that means: the fear that no one is in charge if we aren’t. Isn’t this just a kind of faithlessness, that doubts the loving providence of God? And doesn’t it also paint God in our image rather than us in God’s — seeing God as a tyrant superman, controlling the world? Is that what God shows us to be the true nature of God whom we know in Jesus? When we think of God in terms of control, we forget that God assigned us — made as we are in God’s image — as the stewards in service to, not in control of creation.

Human need for control led to the human fall — thinking we should take charge “as if we were gods.” As if “being in charge” was the main truth of God — which it isn’t. The pagans see God as power: Zeus the storm-god armed with thunderbolts, Neptune ruling the sea with an iron trident. But we who know God in Christ know that God came to serve, not to be served, and to give his life as a ransom for many. As John the Beloved Disciple reminded us, God is love, and those who love — not those who rule — are most like God.

But human mistrust of the costly extent of God’s love was the gap through which the serpent wiggled, in his wily tempting: “Oh, you will not die... are you sure God is telling you the whole story? maybe God doesn’t want you to touch the fruit because you might become all-powerful like him?” The serpent led humans to forget that we were placed in the garden to tend it, to care for it — as servants, not owners. And they, instead of doing as God said, decided, “We’d better take the fruit and become gods ourselves, because who knows if God can be trusted to take care of us. It’s every man and woman for him or herself, and the devil take the hindmost.” And the devil did, and has been doing so ever since, nip- nip- nipping at our heels until we summon the strength to crush his head. (For our strength isn’t in our heads or hearts, where we resemble God, but in our very human heels!)
The tragedy was that we were already like God — made in God’s image and likeness. It was as God’s images that we are called to serve — so that should tell us something about God. And what is worse, we still forget that God is one who loves and tends and cares for the created world, the world God loved so much that he gave his son so that we might not perish. We forget the Gospel truth and project our fears about lack of control onto our beliefs about God, and so put God into the position of being a tyrant, a control freak whose primary interest is in forcing everything to his will — even though God tries again and again to show us that he is the source of all care and love and concern.
Listen to that language from the Job: God is concerned to provide rain for the plants, food for the young lions and the raven. As Jesus reminds us, and as the old song says, his eye is on the sparrow! God is the ultimate care-giver.

Jesus brings the point home in warning the disciples not to be like earthly monarchs who rule with an iron fist — surely in their lifetimes they had seen a few of those, from the Caesars to the Herods — the rulers of this world who could, at a whim, literally say, “Off with his head” and off the head would come! Jesus wants his disciples to be like him, like his loving Father in heaven: the God who serves and cares,the Lord who serves and saves, the God who is Love. If we can learn to live and love and serve in the manner of Jesus and his heavenly Father — and we can, for we are made in his image — perhaps we can understand what it means to be stewards.
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So what kind of a Lord is Jesus? First, Jesus is the original: “the firstborn over all creation.” He is the answer to God’s persistent question to Job, Who, who, who? The answer: Jesus the Christ, following in his Father’s footsteps! He is the one who was there at the beginning, as our Creed affirms: God from God, light from light, true God from true God. Through him all things were made, and without him nothing came into being.

He is also the answer to the disciples’ demand for thrones in the kingdom. He was there when the foundations of that kingdom were established! But look — he doesn’t work like a manager, sitting back and ordering the angels around, even though they are his ministers. The creator gets his hands dirty, at the beginning kneeling down by the riverbank to take the dust and mold us in his image, and at the Last Supper kneeling to wash the feet of his disciples -- and that is dirty work in a day when people walked around all the time without socks on! This is fitting for one who plied an earthly trade as a carpenter. But at the beginning of creation, it is he who sets a compass on the face of the deep, stretches forth the line upon it, shuts in the seas with hand-made doors, and lays the cornerstone of the earth while all the morning stars sing together for joy. Christ’s stewardship and service is from before time: he is the original worker.

Second, Christ’s stewardship is loving. His word to the disciples reflects his own loving service — they are to serve as they have seen him serve. This is particularly manifest in the ministry of healing, so it is appropriate that today is the feast of Saint Luke, the beloved physician.

For few ministries are more aligned with the image of God in humanity than the ministry of healing. I give thanks that many members of St James work in the healing professions. You nurses, nurses aides, caregivers, technicians — you are realizing the image of God in one of the most powerful ways one can: in service that gives life and saves life.

Finally, the stewardship of Christ is self-giving, not self-preserving. His stewardship challenges others to be as generous as he is himself: not to lord it over others, but to give and serve as the real Lord himself gives and serves.
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So what about us? Can we be like Christ, who is original, loving, and self-giving? Can we serve in the manner of the Lord? All we need is the faith to follow the example of our Lord himself: Christ the healer, Christ the worker. All we need is faith in him, and if we have even a tiny faith, even as tiny as a mustard seed, we can be like that seed that unexpectedly grows not into a mustard plant but into a mighty tree that also serves to provide a home for the birds of the air, and shade for the creatures of the field. Through this blessing of servant oneness in Christ, we can take our part in the loving stewardship which embraces and holds creation together, caring for it with the skills God gives, in self-giving love and charity.

The whole creation is waiting for us to accept our destiny, our true identity as children and servants of God who loves and serves. All God’s creatures are waiting: the birds flock and circle around us; the cats and dogs look up at us expectantly, waiting for the door to be opened; the horses stamp their hooves and snort; the fish and whales are gathering in schools; the spirits of the blessed wait in hope, while the devils in hell tremble in fear; and far out in the endless reaches of space the morning stars are holding their breath, waiting to burst into joyous song once more, when the whole creation is reborn — and we become all that we are meant to be — through the original blessing of the Father, the loving stewardship of the Son, and the outpoured gift of the Holy Spirit.+

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Naked Need

Learning the difference between "I need" and "I want..."

October 4 2015 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”

Today we hear the second saying of Jesus concerning children and the kingdom of heaven, to which I referred a few weeks back. This is the one that is better known, the one of which people most often think, when they think about this subject at all. Jesus wants his disciples to receive the kingdom of God like children in order to enter the kingdom.

But what does it actually mean to receive the kingdom “as a little child?” If “little” is the most important part of it, I guess I am half-way there, tall as I was when I was 14, as I never did experience the “growth spurt” they kept promising me would come along. But I don’t think that Jesus is giving much weight to physical size, so let’s set that aside for a moment. Whatever Randy Newman may have thought about short people with their little tiny hands and little tiny legs, we who are short have just as much of a challenge in receiving the kingdom as our larger companions. It is no more easy for me to fit through the eye of a needle than it is for a camel — or a rich man.

So what is it about children that Jesus wants us to emulate and embody? If not their physical size, is it their innocence? I don’t know about your experience of children, but I’ve known some children who behave as badly as any adult. St Augustine once observed that anyone who doubted the existence of original sin only need spend an hour in the presence of a crying infant: for Augustine, the crying child revealed the naked self-centeredness of all that it means to be a sinful human being — a center of “I need” and “I want” with no patience or care in the world so long as its needs or its wants are met.

And surely it is true that children can be selfish, possessive, dishonest, demanding, mean, cruel, and angry. The person who said “It’s as easy as taking candy from a baby” likely never actually experienced the wrath of a child so deprived — and God save your eardrums!

So, again I ask, what is it about a child that Jesus wants us to emulate? Could it be that very neediness and dependency? Could it be that St Augustine missed the point of a child’s dependency — not as a sign of sin, but of what it means to be human? Scientists tell us that one of the reasons the human family came to be — including the general favoring throughout most human cultures of monogamy, to which Jesus also refers in our reading today — that this is due to the fact that infant humans require lots of care for a long time: human childhood lasts for years. A young horse or a cow will be up on its feet within minutes of being born; but a human child will take months even to crawl, and more to toddle or walk. Human children are dependent for years on end, and this dependency has shaped the form of human families from the very beginning, including the need of a settled home for the upbringing of the child; or even more, as the saying has it, that “It takes a village to raise a child.” The long childhood of human children is both source and result of human society and civilization.

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Not that all human civilization is always civilized. A few weeks ago, the world was moved by the pictures of a little child dead on a beach — a child who drowned in his family’s efforts as refugees to find escape from a war-torn middle east. I would like to hope — and I still do hope — that this child’s death will not be in vain, and that the hearts of enough people will be moved to do all in their power to end this tragic crisis. But, sadly, as with the challenges around gun control, I know human beings are sometimes moved by tragedies, but rarely moved to action.

Still, I refuse to give up hope entirely. I know that while we all have that needy, crying, self-centered infant deep within us, we also have within the capacity to transform our need, not by losing it, but by presenting it to the one who can and will supply all of our needs. Perhaps this is what Jesus means when he says we need to receive the kingdom as a child — to receive it as a child receives a present, for surely heaven is a gift that none of us deserves, but which our Lord is prepared to give to each and every one who holds out their hands to receive it. It is not that we should give up our neediness, but that we should realize that there is one who can supply all we need; one who is ready to do so — to place his gift of salvation into our hands as easily as the Bread of communion is placed upon our palms or on our tongues.

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Seven hundred eighty-nine years ago today, a man from Assisi, Italy died. His name was Francis. He came from a well-to-do merchant family — his father sold cloth, which in those days before modern technology was far more of a luxury than it is for us today. Francis was a trendy young man with a taste for the finer things in life; but he experienced a conversion that is among the most powerful ever experienced by a human being. He did a complete turnaround and rejected all that he had, all that his family wanted for him, all that they had given him; even what they hadn’t given him — for he took several bolts of cloth from his father’s shop and gave them to the poor. His father hauled him up before the local bishop and complained he was ungrateful and wasting the family fortune, reminding the boy, “You owe me everything!” In a dramatic gesture, Francis called his father’s bluff and said, “You want everything? It’s yours!” and he stripped himself bare naked right there in the town square.

It may seem a bit odd to make the comparison, but Francis took on voluntarily the poverty that the good man Job suffered at the hands of Satan. Our reading today omits the verse, but it is fitting: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” As Job also says, in our reading today, “Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?”

Francis knew how to receive the good and the bad because he embraced a life of complete poverty, of complete need: he refused to own anything, and he lived as a beggar his whole life. He learned the crucial difference between “I need” and “I want.” In this he learned the secret of how to receive the kingdom as a child — he learned that what people need to live is far less than what they want to have. He learned how to be a child his whole life — a child who receives care and nurture not because she has earned it, but purely as a gift and because her parents and her society provide for that need.

He took it all the way, Francis, all the way to the end. Even as he was dying, he asked his brothers to let him strip himself naked once again, one last time, and to be placed upon the cold, dirt floor of his cell, on the ground, naked, so that he could die without any belongings at all, not even the clothes on his back: naked as he came from his mother’s womb, as naked as a new-born child. His brothers could not bear this for long, seeing that miserable, shrunken body — marked as it was in hands and feet and side with the miraculous gift of the wounds of Christ that he had received as a gift from God! — and they convinced him finally, at the last, that the robe in which they insisted he be clothed was only on loan, and didn’t belong to him. And so he died, in borrowed clothes, receiving Sister Death as he had received life — not as his own, but as something given by God.

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The New English Bible translates one of Jesus’ beatitudes as “Blessed are those who know their need of God.” Is this what it means to receive the kingdom as a child — a child who needs everything, and who can do nothing for itself? It seems to me that is a large part of it — being able to be in need, to be dependent upon God in the way we were dependent on our family when we were infants. Perhaps it is the family of humanity that needs better to learn how to care for children, so that all can learn what it means to be a child — a child of God and humanity — as Jesus himself is Son of God and Son of Man.

It is said that a society can be judged on the way it treats its children. I will go further and say that our society, and our world, will be judged on the basis of the way it treats not only its own children, but the children of others, the ones seeking asylum and refuge, the ones towards whom we who have stand in the position of being able to give, and to save. We need to learn that powerful difference between what we need to live as opposed to what we want to have. We don’t need everything we want. And what we have we can share with those who do not have. We dare not expect one day to receive the kingdom as a child, if we turn away the children who seek our help here and now, on God’s green earth, and be unwilling to share. Let us all, like Francis, give up the claim, and accept the gift, from the one who knows our needs before we ask, and gives us better than we deserve.+

Monday, September 21, 2015

Welcome the Child

We welcome here below in anticipation of welcome there above...

Proper 20b 2015 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.

Our Gospel passage today ends with a saying that is so much like another saying of Jesus, and said in such similar circumstances, that it is all too easy to blend the two, and miss the import of each. We’ll hear the second one in a few weeks, so I want to alert us to it now. But first, let me summarize what we heard in this morning’s passage from Chapter 9 of Mark’s Gospel.

Jesus tells the disciples that he will be betrayed, suffer, die, and rise from the dead; but their minds are clouded and they do not understand. In spite of not understanding, they are afraid to ask for clarification. It seems the disciples would rather drive around lost rather than stop and ask for directions! Jesus then upbraids them for having argued as they walked, about which of them is the greatest. In response to this exercise in pride, (which reminds me a little bit about a debate I saw last week...) he reminds them that whoever wants to be great must be the servant, must be willing to serve; and he then takes a little child in his arms, and says to them that whoever welcomes such a child in his name is welcoming not him but the one who sent him — which is to say, God.

That’s what we heard today. In a few weeks we will hear a different but similar account from the next chapter of Mark’s Gospel, Chapter 10: people are bringing little children to Jesus for his blessing, and the disciples try to stop them. Jesus again speaks sternly, and tells them to let the children come, reminding them, “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”

Do you see the difference? It is subtle, but it is clearly there. In one case — today’s Gospel — Jesus is talking about welcoming children — and that whoever welcomes a child in his name is welcoming God. In the next chapter, Jesus is talking about how we need to receive the kingdom as a child. The first passage is about welcoming children and so receiving God, the second about becoming children ourselves, children of God in order to be received by God.

Now, I’m sure some of you may be thinking, Father Tobias is making a distinction without a difference. And I agree that these two sayings of Jesus are as like as two peas in a pod —

— and yet they are two, not one; and I think Jesus must have had some reason to say these two different things — and for Mark to record them for his disciples to pass this double message along to us. They are as like, and as different, as your face and your face in a mirror — but let us remember as James warned us in that Epistle a couple of weeks ago: don’t be like someone who looks in a mirror and then as soon as he turns away, forgets what he was looking at. Let us look a bit more closely at the text before us today, and the teaching that we are to welcome the child in Jesus’ name.

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I think we get this right, here at St James Fordham. You can visit some churches and see no sign of children in worship — the children are dropped off to Sunday School by their parents before anything starts — and some of the parents don’t actually make it to the worship themselves. The children stay there, out of sight, out of mind, away from the worship, sometimes being allowed to come to communion, but more often than that treated to their own separate communion in the kiddie classroom, as I said, out of sight, out of mind. I know congregations where to bring a child to the adult worship will earn you dirty looks — some people treat church like they treat the opera or the symphony — and having a child present, especially if the child is acting up a little, is considered poor form.

The irony is that these same people wonder why it is that such children, excluded from the worship of the church, once they make it through Confirmation class are never seen again. In fact, there is an old joke about a church that had a problem with bats in its belfry, and it was suggested the easiest way to get rid of them was to have the bishop confirm them at the next visitation. They would never see them again!

But is it any wonder that children who have been so little exposed to worship — who have never developed the habit of learning to sit quietly, to pray, to listen to the Scripture as it is read — is it any wonder such children never soak up the joy of worship, and so are left high and dry and ready to be blown away at the slightest breeze, or the gusty winds of worldly opportunity for sports, for shopping, for video games — for whatever it is that is more welcoming to them than their own church?

So I am happy here at St James that the children are present for the main part of the Liturgy of the Word, and only head off to Sunday School prior to the sermon — some might say, Thanks be to God! — so they can receive the milk and honey of instruction down in the Sunday school room, the kind of learning that is suited to their age; so that they can receive that milk and honey, better than I am able to deliver; but also to allow me to speak to you mature members of the church with the more challenging beefed-up message you are capable of hearing and digesting. And of course, the children come back for Communion — the most supremely digestible of all foods, the bread of heaven, and the cup of salvation, which we all share together. By doing this, we are honoring the children and incorporating them in the worship of the church so that they will be familiar with all of this as the grow older — things not strange to them, that only grown-ups do — but they will have developed a habit of prayer and attention and presence, encouraged by those who have already framed their lives in accordance with these Godly disciplines.

And I am happy to say that I see the results in young people now going off to college after serving here at this altar, or reading from that lectern, or sitting in the pews with their families to hear the word of God, to sing the hymns, and then to come to this altar rail — these young people who I have known for most of their lives, as I’ve been privileged to serve here in this choir and at this altar, as a lay-person, priest-in-training, deacon and priest, for almost thirty years. For though I’ve only been the vicar since 1999, I joined this parish back in 1985, and I’m happy to say I’ve baptized the children of some at whose baptisms I assisted back in the time of Father Basil Law.

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Now, just so you know, this is not my retirement sermon: there is still more than a month to go; but the impending nature of my retirement has brought some of these thoughts to mind, and I hope you don’t mind my sharing them. For it is all part of what it means to be a church — the church is a living thing, and its members come and go over time, entering and welcomed in as children baptized in that font, later confirmed as the bishop takes a seat and lays hands on them — and then not disappearing (except when college calls them away, but then coming back); sometimes standing here at the foot of the chancel or at the altar gate to exchange marriage vows, and then again at the font with their own children; and then, rich in years and full of faith, gently carried to this spot to be remembered, blessed, and sent off to the sweet pastures above, to that well-earned rest deserved of all faithful souls — not by their own deserving, but by the blood of Christ — welcomed at last as the child of God they are into the eternal dwellings.

So in the long run, our welcome of children here in our worship, here in this church, is a preparation for the day when we trust we shall all be welcomed as children of God into the kingdom of God. Those two sayings of Jesus are connected after all, aren’t they? He taught that we are to do to others as we would be done by, and isn’t it as clear as crystal that we should welcome children here below even as we hope to be welcomed as children there above? When we welcome a child in God’s name, we welcome God; and when we approach God as a child we are assured that God welcomes us.

This is not just fair and fitting. This is God’s Way with us, and we are called to follow that way, and to welcome the child.+

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Weeding and Whiting

(no audio this week... sorry.)

Proper 17b 2015 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The Pharisees and scribes asked Jesus, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders?”

A few weeks ago I spent a few days in Baltimore at my future retirement home. The abundant rain and warm weather — and when they say “warm” in Baltimore they mean it! — had produced a huge amount of growth in the modest back yard. The worst of this was that most of the growth was of weeds! In particular, a plague of morning glory vines had covered almost everything else in the garden, strangling two rose bushes and knocking them to the ground, and wrapping around a peony and a fig tree. By the time I pulled up all of the morning glory vines, and a few other weeds, I had a four-foot high pile of garden refuse to dispose of. Fortunately, the local hardware store supplies five-foot high brown-paper refuse bags for just this purpose — a purpose they are fit for, as I noted last week!

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Would that it were as easy to get our lives in order as it is our gardens! We heard a reading from the Letter of James — not our Saint James (the brother of John and son of Zebedee) but the James referred to as the brother of the Lord, and who served as an early leader of the church in Jerusalem. In it we hear some good advice about the sort of spiritual gardening that is necessary if we are to bear fruit. James tells us we need to strip away the “rank growth of wickedness” so that the welcome and implanted word — the word of God that Jesus himself had likened to seed scattered on different kinds of soil — might germinate within us, so that we ourselves might become, as he says, “a kind of first fruits” to the glory of God. Just as in a garden, this can be hard work, as we strip away the parts of our lives that are keeping us from proper and productive growth.

The problem with this kind of personal reform, as with some garden weeding, is that it isn’t just an external sprucing up that is needed. Weeds have roots, and if you don’t pull up the root with the stem and stalk and leaves you may just have made the problem worse, or at best deferred the problem until the stem and stalk and leaves pop up once more from the stubborn root underground. Many weeds, as you likely know, are even gifted with the ability to break off their stem just at ground level and make you think you’ve solved the problem, only to pop back to life in a few days twice as strong as before. I spent a good bit of my time a few weeks back, as I wrestled with some crab-grass, twining my hand around and around on the stalk, down to the ground so I could dig my fingers in to grasp the root and pull it up.

It is the same way with our bad habits — it is so easy to make a list of New Year’s resolutions that are forgotten within a week. Saint James gives us the example of one who is a hearer but not a doer — “all show and no go” as they say in the Islands. Such people look in the mirror, but the moment they step away, forget what they look like.

The point Saint James is making is that righteousness isn’t about appearances, about the outside — but what is going on inside. If that inner word of God is smothered by vice it will perish; but if allowed to breath and grow and bear fruit, it will eventually show on the outside. Good roots from good seed bear good fruits, if they are planted in good soil with depth to grow and freedom from weeds.

And our Gospel today addresses this distinction between inside and outside directly. It might appear at first glance that Jesus is being a bit hard on the Pharisees and the scribes. After all, their criticism, “Why do your disciples eat with defiled” — could come from the mouth of many a mother or grandmother or aunt talking to a son or granddaughter or nephew or niece. At least I was brought up that way — and so it was a tradition in my family home, as much as it appears to have been for the Pharisees, as Mark observes. It is not that unusual to be expected to wash your hands thoroughly before you eat — particularly when you are eating without knife and fork, by dipping your hand in the bowl and breaking the loaf with your bare — and, one hopes, clean — hands.

But as Jesus notes, there is more going on here than hygiene and table manners. The thing that seems to pull Jesus’ last nerve is the tendency of the Pharisees and the scribes, at least the ones who confronted him, to miss the point of God’s law, and to substitute their own rules and regulations, and focus on those hand-made laws, rather than on the deeper matters of justice, truth, and love, embodied in God’s sublime law: the Law summarized so well in the commandment to love God and neighbor.

As important as washing your hands may be, there is something superficial about it. It cleans only the outside; it does nothing for the inside. In another Gospel passage Jesus will accuse the Pharisees of being like whitewashed tombs: lovely and clean on the outside, but full of corruption within. A lick of paint to cover the evils of the heart, like weeding that fails to get the root as well as the stalk, is a half-way measure that may be worse than doing nothing at all! Jesus contrasts the talkative lips that honor God with literal lip-service, and the all-too-fallible and sinful human hearts that conceal God-only-knows what evil mischief deep within, where sin crouches for employment, ready to leap out at the first opportunity.

In the present case Jesus addresses the question of food — for the Pharisees would hold that even kosher food would be contaminated by eating it with unclean hands. But Jesus goes beyond the food question to expound on one of his favorite themes: what does God really want from us? Does God want merely the appearance of righteousness, a superficial ship-shape on deck while down in the engine room is all is filth and confusion? Does God only want clean hands and a clean slate, or rather a clean heart, an inside cleaned of all the impurity that lurks within, and defiles as it comes out?

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Surely that is the message for us today, and it is echoed in the teaching of Saint James. He calls for the inside of the believer to be purified — weeded of the rank growth of wickedness, and transformed inwardly by the implanted word of God, like a seed planted in a cultivated garden plot, ready to grow inside the heart of a faithful person, so that the righteous person can actually do what God requires — not only hearing the word with the ear or speaking it with the lips, but actually doing what it requires; not being like those who look at their superficial reflection — their outside — in a mirror, but who take the word in, in to the heart, where it empowers the righteous to act rightly, and the good to do good.

Ultimately goodness does not come from within us, as James testifies: “every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights.” But if we allow this graceful gift to enter us, to cleanse us inwardly of all our faults, allowing the hand of God to weed our garden even as God plants the seed, then we can bring forth things other than those awful and defiling things that are all we could do on our own, without God’s grace. As Jesus is quoted as saying in the parallel passage in Matthew’s Gospel, “Clean the inside of the cup and then the outside will be clean.” The vessel that needs cleaning — inside — is us, and only God’s grace and God’s gift can do that cleaning, deep down where it matters, in our heart of hearts.

God’s hand is working on us now — twisting around the stalk and reaching down into the ground where sin and unrighteousness take root. May we be ready to allow this gardener to do his work in us, to cleanse us from all sin, that we may be prepared to bring in a plentiful harvest on the great last day!+

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Fit for Purpose

God is working out a purpose for which we have been equipped appropriately...

Proper 16b 2015 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Solomon asked the Lord, “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!

There is a wonderfully useful phrase from the early years of this century, used primarily in England as part of product regulation, advertising, and licensing: “Fit for purpose.” It certifies that a product actually does what it is supposed to do, or is suitable to accomplish the work for which it is designed, created, marketed, sold, and used. Leave it to the English, you might well say — we Americans so often seem to be satisfied with products that not only aren’t fit for purpose, but which readily admit so right on the label. I’m thinking of those health food products that say one thing in big, colorful letters, but in the fine print add something like, “These statements have not been verified” or “Not intended for the treatment of disease.” There was a bit of a scandal a few months back when independent testing of some herbal supplements revealed that not only did they not contain the advertised amount on the label, they didn’t contain any at all!

And how many of us — as we try to invest for retirement or education — are wooed by the offers that claim that they can multiply your money like loaves and fishes, and they say look how well we have done in the past — but then in a little footnote say, “Past performance is not necessarily indicative of future results.” Makes you want to join Arsenio Hall in saying “Hmmmm.”

Such advertising is not just inconvenient; it can lead to a life or death situation, or financial ruin. I doubt anyone will die on account of getting less than the advertised dosage of Echinacea or St John’s wort — but we hear often enough about product recalls to know that when an item isn’t fit for purpose it might be lethal. From defective air-bags to defective ignition switches, automobiles seem to be a focal point for such tragic insufficiencies — and when an automobile isn’t fit for purpose, it can end your, or someone else’s, life.

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In our Scripture readings today we hear of aspects of our religious heritage that are all fit for purpose in different ways. They have both physical and spiritual aspects. And as the Apostle affirms in so many other things, it is the spirit that is important.

First comes Solomon’s Temple, about which we hear part of Solomon’s prayer of dedication. We heard in the earlier readings over the last weeks from the Court History about how David wanted to build the Temple, but God told him that he had no need of one, and that it wasn’t for David to build anyway, but for his son Solomon. And Solomon clearly understands that the Temple isn’t there because God needs it: God is where God chooses to be, God does not need a house or a home. Solomon admits this in that beautiful prayer of dedication. He knows full well that God has no need of a house to dwell in — in other words, the purpose for which the Temple is “fit” is not for God to “fit” inside. “Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you,” Solomon affirms of God. The Temple is not there because God needs it — but human beings, creatures of flesh and fragile as frail, need to focus their attention, have a sense of direction, to move their hearts Godward — and it is that purpose for which the Temple is fit. It is to be a house of prayer for all people, both Jews and Gentiles, a place towards which and within which prayer is to be made on earth, and God, who is in heaven, will hear those prayers. That is the purpose for which Solomon built it, and for which it stood for hundreds of years, until it came to be abused by the very people for whom it was designed as a holy place. I won’t dwell on that — but just remind us all that when something is designed with a purpose, and is fit for it, it is meant to be used to that end. In time the Solomon’s Temple and its successor came to be misused — not as a place of prayer, but of commerce — and double-dealing commerce at that; as well as being defiled idols set up within it, and even used as a storage shed for somebody’s unused furniture. These were not just different purposes — but bad purposes, real misuses of the holy place.

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That doesn’t mean that there may not be other purposes or uses for some thing, unintended by the designer. If that were the case, TV’s inventive Mr McGyver would have bit the dust many times over. And who here hasn’t used a paper clip for something other than clipping paper!

We see a bit of that in our reading from Ephesians today, where the Apostle takes the language of military armor and imbues it with spiritual meaning. Everyone knows that in the real world a belt is not truthful — except to the extent it might tell you that you are putting on a little bit of weight! Earthly shoes will not really help you preach the gospel — though a good pair of walking shoes might speed you to your church on Sunday morning. No earthly shield will protect you from evil, nor will a helmet save your soul — though it might save your head if you go on a construction site. And as for a sword being the Spirit of the word of God — well, as a wise man once said, the pen is much mightier than a sword when it comes to telling the truth.

In all of these cases the Apostle is re-purposing these pieces of equipment — like McGyver — to make them fit to the purposes he intends. It isn’t the belt that counts, but the truth it symbolizes; it isn’t the shoes, but the gospel itself; it isn’t the brazen shield and helmet but the power of faith and salvation, not a sword but the living Word of God itself — this divine armor is fit for the purpose of any of God’s armed forces here on earth, ready to stand against the wiles of the devil, or the rulers and authorities of the present darkness, the spiritual forces of evil — some of them perched in high places. These are the purposes for which God’s armor is not only fit, but essential.

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In our Gospel, we return, as we so often do, to the two things that Jesus gave to his disciples on the night before he suffered and died for us — the Bread and Wine of his own flesh and blood, the gifts of God for the people of God. This heavenly food and drink is fit for the purpose God intends.

You will note that in this passage there are some who do not believe the label — Christ’s words of promise. They are looking for the fine print that says, “These claims have not been independently verified.” They say, “This teaching is difficult” — and surely it was! To be told that you needed to eat a man’s flesh and drink his blood in order to be saved! Who could think that made sense, particularly in a Jewish world in which eating blood any way at all is strictly forbidden, and even a chicken has to soak in salt water to draw out any blood, to make it strictly kosher.

Jesus acknowledges how hard this teaching is — but he promises that those who are open to the spirit will understand and believe; and that even this is the work of God, at work in them, by grace through faith, to give them ears to hear and hearts to believe: ears and hearts fit for God’s purposes, to hear and receive God’s grace.

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It is three thousand or so years since Solomon prayed in his Temple, some two thousand years since the Apostle wrote of divine armor and Jesus spoke of his flesh and blood. The Temple was destroyed, but many other houses of God — such as this small example in this little corner of the Bronx — have been built since then to help us to turn our hearts and minds in a Godward direction, in the knowledge that God hears and answers our prayers; and as that these places are fit for the purpose of hearing God’s word. Many Christian souls have found God’s armor fit for purpose in combating the forces of evil set against them — heroes of the faith who have shed their blood rather than depart from the purposes for which God intended them. And that bread and that wine of our Holy Communion, the flesh and blood of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, has nourished countless thousands of thousands with the promise of eternal life.

As the old hymn puts it, “God is working his purpose out.” We, my friends, are called to be fit for that purpose. Gathered in this place, equipped with this armor, fed with this spiritual food, with God’s help so shall we be.+

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Surprising Wine

The Real Presence gives a new meaning to reality...

Proper 15b 2015 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The Apostle wrote to the Ephesians, Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit.

We take a bit of a break this week from the Court History — now that David sleeps with his ancestors and his son Solomon is on the throne; and we’ll return to hear more about Solomon next week. But today I want to turn to Ephesians and the challenging Gospel account concerning the flesh and blood of the Son of Man.

And I do that with reference to — of all things — a Christmas movie, one of my favorites, The Bishop’s Wife. I’ve spoken of it before, so you know it is a real favorite of mine. It dates from the 1950s and I have the DVD, along with Miracle on 34th Street, It’s a Wonderful Life, and Alastair Sim’s version of Christmas Carol. Every year (starting with Miracle on 34th Street on Thanksgiving!) Br James and I watch the whole collection.

All of these movies tell of transformation, as so many Christmas movies do. And doesn’t that make sense, given that Christmas is all about the greatest transformation of all, when the Word was made Flesh and dwelt among us? And since this hot summer weather we’re experiencing makes thoughts of Christmas and snow and cold welcome, let’s reflect for a moment on this well-beloved, snow-filled movie.

The Bishop’s Wife, as you can guess even if you’ve never seen it, is about an Episcopal bishop and his wife, their friends and acquaintances, and an angel —played by Cary Grant— who comes in answer to the bishop’s prayers, but answers them in unexpected ways. “No spoilers” in case you haven’t seen the film, but I want to mention one minor character, an old professor who lost his job teaching at a college for tangling with the board of trustees who run the place. This grumpy and curmudgeony old professor is a scholar of early Roman history. He is the kind of man who believes in the rational and the provable, and who put away his faith — and most of his joy — when he grew from childhood to the supposed maturity of adulthood. Even though he has lost his position at the college, he longs to work and exercise his mental muscles, so he has been planning to begin work on a great history of Rome — planning for nine years, but has yet to put pen to paper!

When the bishop’s wife and the angel visit one day, the old professor offers them a glass of sherry, and the angel performs a hidden miracle, and transforms the almost empty sherry bottle into a wine-merchant’s nightmare. For as with the widow’s jar of meal and cruse of oil, no matter how many glasses of sherry the old professor pours from the bottle, it never empties! But the truly miraculous thing, the surprising and wonderful thing, about this wine, as the professor later discovers — and tells the bishop when he too suspects that unearthly forces are at work— is this: “This wine never dulls the senses. However much you drink, it never inebriates; it only inspires and invigorates.” So much so that the old man finally sets to work on his history, and even recovers his long-lost faith in God.

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The Apostle writes to the Ephesians, warning them not to get drunk with wine, but to be filled with the Spirit. We all know that too much wine can deaden the senses, and strong drink can ruin ones life — and the lives of others — when taken to excess. But we also know that wine in moderation can gladden the heart and soothe the stomach. I even have a friend who suffers from essential tremor — and her doctor prescribes a large glass of red wine each evening!

And we here in the church also have been taught that a special kind of wine — the wine of which we sip or dip the tiniest amount when we come to this altar rail — wine can do far more than merely heal our ills. This wine, this communion wine, is the means by which we share in the blood shed by Christ, and it can not only lift up our hearts, but save our souls unto eternal life.

The fictional professor’s fictional sherry became more than sherry when the fictional angel touched the bottle. But the wine of our communion truly becomes more than wine in reality right here upon our altar, when the Holy Spirit descends upon these gifts and upon us, and they are transformed and we are transformed, and we experience the presence of Jesus Christ, his Body and his Blood. Through these gifts, offered here, then taken and eaten, taken and tasted, we participate in the great miracle, next to which a never-ending bottle of sherry, or jar of flour or cruse of oil, must rank as mere parlor tricks. For the bread and wine of our communion, true food and true drink, is also truly the means by which we share in the flesh and blood of the one who came down from heaven, the Word made Flesh who came down at Christmas and rose at Easter and abides with us still, and in whom we have life everlasting.

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But, speaking of reality, do we really believe that? Think for a moment what is commonly meant by saying, “I saw him, flesh and blood!” That means for real, in person! Do we really mean it when we say we partake of the flesh and blood of Jesus when we come to this altar? And if this is hard for us to understand, think about what it must have been like for those in the synagogue of Capermaum, who heard these ideas for the first time.

For there can be no escaping Jesus’ meaning. He is not talking about some kind of memorial banquet to be held in his honor. He is not planning a philosophers’ cocktail party like Plato’s Symposium, where people discuss the meaning of life over their wine goblets. He is not even talking about a pagan mystery rite in which the participants imagine that they partake of their gods’ essence as they eat a sacrificial meal. They are all, to quote another favorite Christmas film, “but shadows of the things that were.” What we encounter in the Holy Communion is not a shadow from the past, but a reality from before time and for ever.

For it is of Christ’s own body and blood, his flesh and blood, that he speaks when he says he is the living bread. He knows that before long he will go to Jerusalem, where his body will be nailed to a cross, his very real flesh torn by very real nails, his blood will be poured out, his very real blood will sweat from his brow, and flow from his pierced hands, his feet, his side. He when he speaks of eating his flesh and drinking his blood, at the end of this address he says, “This is the bread that came down from heaven... whoever eats this bread will live forever” — and there can be little doubt that as he twice says “this” he points to himself, so that no mistake can be made as to his meaning. And that is why the crowd say, “How can he do that!?” And we might be tempted to say the same, except that we are fortunate enough to live after — after the crucifixion and the resurrection; to know that he is speaking of his own saving death, the real death of the real Jesus, the real man from the real town of Nazareth, the man standing there talking to them in flesh and blood, talking about his flesh and blood which is the only means to give life to the world.

This is hard to understand, but it is what Jesus said. And I believe we ought to take him at his word, as the church has done for nigh on two thousand years. What Jesus said and the church has taught, is that the bread we eat and the wine we drink— while not enough to satisfy an earthly hunger or make us even slightly tipsy — is sufficient, through the Holy Spirit, to unite us to the sacrificial and saving death and resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord. Our Holy Communion is no mere memory; it is not just a reminder, but participation — in which we do not simply remember but partake of our Lord’s blessed Body and precious Blood. This is, truly, echoing the proverb, wisdom’s banquet to make us wise, Christ’ssacrifice of his own Body and Blood. This is the festival meal in which God’s Holy Spirit comes to us and fills our hearts so we cannot help but sing, as we join the apostles and prophets, the blessed martyrs and confessors, the saints in glory and the saints who still walk and work among us, in giving thanks to God the Father through the Spirit, at all times and in all places, in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Sunday, August 09, 2015

Home to Roost

David's vengeance is his own punishment, from roof to roof to roof.... but Christ shows us a better way.

Proper 14b 2015 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another… Live in love as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

There is an old saying that the wrongs you do are like chickens; they always come home to roost. Over the last two weeks we’ve heard the sad story of King David’s great sin — his adultery with Uriah’s wife Bathsheba, his plot to murder that good man by putting him in harm’s way and then withdrawing all support, and his cover-up of the whole nasty business. But what men may hide, God exposes, and last week we heard how the prophet Nathan confronted David for his terrible crime, and pronounced a terrible judgment: that just as David had stolen another man’s wife, when he spied her from the rooftop and lusted after her, so too David’s own harem of wives will be taken from before his eyes, and given to his neighbor to lie with them in the open daylight, for all to see; and the sword will never depart from his house. David pronounces that the judgment is just, but I don’t think he realized how bad it would be when these particular chickens would come home to roost.

For the neighbor who will commit these crimes against David, who will lead an armed rebellion against him, who will try to steal the throne from him, in fact will be the closest kind of neighbor, one from within his own house. It will be none other than his own son Absalom. Our excerpts skip over the incident, but Absalom starts a palace rebellion, and gets most of Israel on his side against his father David, getting a great deal of military support in what we now would call “a coup.” David has to flee his beautiful palace, leaving behind only some of his harem to keep an eye on the house. At this point you would think David would have remembered Nathan’s prophecy concerning the penalty, the price, he would pay for his sin: for at the urging of one of Absalom’s advisors, the rebellious son Absalom pitches a tent on the roof of the house and throws an orgy on that roof with his own father’s harem - in the sight of the sun, as Nathan had prophesied, and in the sight of all Israel. Truly these chickens have come home to roost — and with a vengeance, right up on the top of the roof, in the sight of all the world.

And this roof on which Absalom now has his way with his father’s mistresses is the same roof from which David had spied Uriah’s wife down in her bath. Call it poetic justice or just plain justice — but there it is, and the prophecy is fulfilled.

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Today we hear the final aftermath of this tragedy, and it too involves a roof — this time the roof of the city gate. The tide turns against the rebellious Absalom and his supporters, and while he is on the run, riding his mule, he has the misfortune to get himself caught in the branches of a tree. He’s caught by his lavish hairdo — Scripture tells us that he only cut his hair once a year, and when he did it weighed twelve and a half pounds! Vanity, in this case, is its own reward, as the rebellious son is caught with his own hair, his own hair of which he was so proud, caught by the tresses in the branches of an oak, as the mule rides on, slaughtered by Joab’s armor bearers, against the orders of David, who had told them to deal gently with his son when they captured him.

Word finally comes of all of this — and David, who set the tragedy in motion when he spied Bathsheba from the roof of his palace, is now at the depths sitting at the base of the city gate, looking up to hear the news from the sentinel who is posted on the roof above, when the word comes from the battle. And the word that comes pierces David like a spear: Absalom his son is dead. Vengeance, like the chickens, is home to roost, but it does not give David any satisfaction. On the contrary, it brings him great, great pain. For his vengeance is also his punishment.

And perhaps the most surprising thing is that David still has enough love in his heart for this rebellious son of his — this son who tried to steal his kingdom, who had his way with his mistresses — David still has enough compassion to mourn his death, and he laments with weeping as deep and as lavish as his lament over Saul and Jonathan. This is surprising, but at least it also shows us what kind of person David is; for all his faults he is not, after all, a completely heartless villain. He was ready to forgive his rebellious son, even after everything he had done; as he had forgiven him many times in the past — because Absalom was no saint, believe me — and of course the problem is, that the more his father forgave him the more he encouraged him to greater and greater rebellion. So David is responsible, in many ways, for his son’s bad behavior.

But David is also true to his own name; David, in Hebrew, means “Beloved.” He is a lover, not a hater. He is able to feel the pain of losing this rebellious son, this good for nothing son, because he loved him, even though he turned against him, even though he rebelled against him, even though he committed the scandalous assault upon David’s own mistresses.

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We are, of course, called to forgive our enemies, to do good to those who harm us. But I can’t in good conscience put forth David as an example for us to follow. But we can learn from his tragedy that there is power in forgiveness. I can’t commend David as a good example in part because of what continues to happen in the rest of this Court History, which isn’t part of our Sunday readings. But if you look into the later chapters of Second Samuel and the start of First Kings, you will see that David’s ability to forgive and forget runs dry by the end, and even on his deathbed he is giving orders for payback against all who had offended him, like the Godfather he is, instructing his made men to see to it that “all who disrespected me get what’s coming to them.” So I can’t really commend David as a great saint; he forgave his son, to his own detriment, but at the end he wanted payback against everyone who had done him wrong.

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So let me turn from this imperfect model of David to the better counsel of the Apostle: who reminds us of the power of forgiveness in that passage we heard from Ephesians. It is an appeal about anger and sin, about speaking the truth to one another because we are part of one another — in Christ and through Christ. Absalom never learned the lesson of love — for each time his father forgave him he was back doing the same thing or worse the next time, until his final rebellion literally caught him up short. Yet even then, David was ready to forgive him.

That is the one thing in David’s sad story we can emulate: to forgive even when the wrong done to us is serious; to turn away from bitterness and anger, and wrath; from wrangling, and slander and malice — and to be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another as Christ has forgiven us. We are not called to be imitators of David, but imitators of God in Christ: to live in love as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

What this teaches us is that forgiveness isn’t easy; forgiveness is costly — it isn’t easy to return a word of love when a word of hatred has been given. But this is God’s way of dealing with us; God who came to us in Christ Jesus “while we were yet sinners” while we were in rebellion against him, a rebellion as real and as dangerous as the rebellion of Absalom against his father. But in spite of our sins, in spite of our rebellion, God reached out to us in forgiveness; the ultimate and costly forgiveness bought with the price of Christ’s own blood, upon the cross, for our salvation.

Christ offers himself to us, as a perfect sacrifice and fragrant offering: he gives himself to us as the bread of life, so that whoever eats of it may have life, and whoever believes in him may never be thirsty. This is the bread of forgiveness, to which we are led by the Father — for no one can come to this feast unless the Father calls them. And the Son has given us a promise — that he will raise us up on the last day.

Chickens will come home to roost — and we will reap what we sow! If we sow dissension and anger, we will reap the grapes of wrath; if, however, we sow the good seed to make the bread that nourishes to life at the great harvest — if we forgive and love one another as Christ has loved us, we will harvest the bounty of blessing that the Lord has promised to us, in his holy word.+

Sunday, July 26, 2015

From the height

Proper 12b 2015 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
It happened, late one afternoon, when David rose from his couch and was walking about on the roof of the king’s house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; the woman was very beautiful.

Everyone knows that if you want to get a good look at the landscape, you want to get as high up as you can. I’m sure we’ve all seen those scenic view spots on the highway, where you can pull off the road, park the car, and get a magnificent view of the valley or the mountains across. What you see can often be spectacularly beautiful.

But beauty comes in many forms, and some of them can get you into trouble. This is what happens, or begins to happen, with David the King in the passage from Second Samuel we heard today. He is content in his kingdom, living in his spectacular new palace, about which we heard last week. His battles are over — he now has an army of loyal soldiers ready to fight for him; they’re out in the field fighting even at that moment — and the crown sits easily on his head. He is content in his unchallenged position as king, and he has everything his heart could desire.

Well, almost everything. For with this week’s reading, we begin one of the most wicked stories in all of Scripture, a story that will lead to tragedy not only for King David, but for all who become involved in his crime — even the innocent who take no part in it. I’m sure you all know the saying, “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Well, David has absolute power — power that was poured out upon him by God working through the prophet Samuel, when he was chosen to be the king; and for most of his life David has used that power well, and justly, walking in righteousness with his God. But now he is at ease — he’s no longer walking, he’s sitting on the throne, he’s even lying down on his couch, secure and high and mighty in his beautiful palace, like a Hollywood star in his Beverly Hills faux-Mediterranean MacMansion. David’s new palace literally gives him the high-standing roof from which he can survey his kingdom from the heights of the City he has renamed in his own honor: the City of David.

And from that height he can also look down over the walls of the more humble citizens’ homes, even into the cloistered garden of one of his leading generals. And there he spies out the naked beauty of General Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba, as she goes about the religious duty laid down in the law of Moses, bathing in the purifying waters of the ritual bath after the end of her monthly period.

And David sins. He sins in his heart and he sins in his actions — sending for that woman as any heartless criminal boss might do, bringing her to his bed, and having his way with her, and then sending her home. He sins again when he finds she has become pregnant. He plots to call Uriah home from the front, to send him to his house to sleep with his wife — hoping to fool him into thinking that the child conceived is his.

But David doesn’t reckon with Uriah being a more honorable man than David is himself. Like a good general, loyal to his troops, he refuses to take the leave offered him, to have some R&R while the rest of the army is still camping out in discomfort in the field. David tries to make him drunk — but even drunk honest Uriah will not be disorderly, and he still refuses the comforts of his home.

Then, in those chilling last lines of that reading, David adds to all of his other sins by plotting to put an end to Uriah by sending this faithful soldier on a mission, a dangerous mission, and then cutting off all support, so that he will die. And to add insult to injury, he gives the letter with those instructions to Uriah himself to deliver. Doesn’t that make your hair stand on end? What a terrible, terrible thing. David plots the kind of murder that you could see in “The Godfather” — something a Dictator might accomplish. (You could picture Saddam Hussein writing a note like that, and giving it to someone, to make sure someone is put out of the way.) David will not get any blood on his own hands, but will have his sinful desires accomplished by accomplices.

We will hear the beginning of the end of this story next week. So for now I want to focus on how sad it is that even good people can forget their duty and their God when they have risen to the heights of power. The Scripture is full of such warnings: “Pride goeth before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall” — that’s a proverb from the time of David’s own son Solomon; and David himself had lamented, after Saul’s death, “How the mighty have fallen!” — so David has absolutely no excuse in thinking that his high position entitles him to low crimes. David has coveted his neighbor’s wife, then committed adultery and finally murder — well that’s three strikes from the Ten Commandments given by God to Moses on another height —the height of Sinai. Three strikes and you’re out, David! as we will hear next week. For this cannot be hid from God. What David has done, beginning on that rooftop, in the sight of the sun, is surely seen by God — and the punishment will come.

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Is there any good news in this? I say that there is, for there is no necessity that a climb to the heights must be accompanied by descent into the depths of sin. Though that is often the fate of those who climb up so as to be able to look down on others, with contempt or with desire — there is another way to rise up without losing humility and care and concern for others. The point of view — the height — is not the problem — as with so much else in life, the problem lies in what you do with your new knowledge gained through your new perspective from your new position.

David could have caught sight of Bathsheba in her ritual bath, and then shielded his eyes and turned away, and given thanks in his heart for this good and dutiful woman carrying out her ritual duty in accordance with the Law of Moses. He could have thought, “That must be my neighbor Uriah’s wife — how fortunate he is to have such a beautiful and dutiful and religious wife; blessings be upon them both.” He could have returned to his couch and resumed his nap. He made a choice to do wrong, a choice he could have refused at any of those steps of the way of sin upon which he deliberately set his foot and kept on walking, deeper and deeper and deeper into the filth of his own wickedness.

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But no one needs to take that path, that downward spiral from the heights, into the depths of depravity. From the heights instead we can look with admiration upon beauty without the need to possess it or to control it— to enjoy the gifts God gives without having to claim them for our own. We can make use of the heights not to grasp, but to share.

We see this better way, as we do in so much else so often in today’s Gospel from John. Jesus is high and lifted up as well — not in a palace, but on a mountain. From that vantage he can see the crowds of thousands who have followed him,

who have joined the throng to come out to hear about this preacher, and see the wonders of healing that he has performed. Jesus could, up there on the mountain, stand there like a first-century Donald Trump; he could say, “Look at how all these people love me!” He could — but he doesn’t. He could fall into the temptation with which the devil has tempted him when he fasted on the mountain, and order all the people to bow down to worship him. But he doesn’t.

Instead, he takes another of the devil’s temptations and turns it on its head. He asks the disciples about the well-being of the crowd, testing his disciples, for he knows full well what he is about to do. He will feed his sheep. He transforms the devil’s offer to make stones into bread, and instead he takes bread and fish and multiplies it thousands of times over, to make enough bread to feed that teeming multitude of thousands and thousands of hungry people.

And, more to the point, at the end of the miracle meal, when the people rise up and want to take him by force to make him king — what does he do? — he withdraws deeper into the mountain landscape by himself. He has no need for their accolades and praise. He has no need to have them make him a king: He is Jesus Christ, our Lord and God. He is not offering himself like a politician trying to gain favor from an electorate, feeding them so they will make him king. Instead, he is feeding them because they are hungry — they are hungry, and they have followed him. He loves them; he cares for them — but he does not need them to make him a king.

We can do the same. We can take advantage, when we are lifted up, of the position we hold to do good, the good God has empowered us to do. None of us is a monarch, but each of us is a child of God — and that means we are heirs to an eternal kingdom, and have many gifts to share with those who lack, with those who hunger, those who thirst. We need but accept the grace of God, who has put us where we are, to do what we can, with what we have.

Let us pray.

Fished from the ocean of compassion,
baked in the oven of his heart,
broken, given; in like fashion
may we do our part:

catching the fish you have provided,
baking the bread from grain you give,
sharing with all the gifts, divided
that we all might live.+

Sunday, July 19, 2015

A House not Made by Hands

Proper 11b 2015 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
You are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ himself as the cornerstone.

We continue our readings from the Court History of ancient Israel with an incident that tells us a great deal about God, and our relationship with God. King David by this time has settled in and settled down as a comfortable monarch secure on his throne. He has wiped out the few who continued to support Saul that remained of Saul’s friends who still considered David to not deserve the throne. He has conquered the Jebusites who held the heights of Mount Zion and he has renamed that part of the Jerusalem as his own: the City of David. He has defeated the last few outbreaks of Philistine resistance, as Second Samuel tells us, from Geba to Gezer, whipping their tails back to the seaside, away from Jerusalem. His neighbor to the north, King Hiram of Tyre, no doubt wishing to curry favor with this new powerful ruler on his borders, sends a small army — not of soldiers, but of carpenters and masons, with a supply of cedar-wood, and builds David a beautiful house, a palace to live in. This is the act that finally convinces David that he has it made, and one of the first things he does in this new settled kingdom, as we heard in last week’s reading, is to fetch the Ark of God from where it has rested, to bring it into the City of David with dancing and rejoicing.

And so we come to today: David reflects on the fact that he has a nice house to live in, but the Ark of God is still camping out in a tent; and he tells the prophet Nathan about his plan to build God a house of wood and stone. Nathan at first gives his OK, but then God speaks to the prophet and tells Nathan to tell David to hold his horses. God tells David through the prophet that he hasn’t asked for a house to live in — just as God had never asked any of the tribal leaders, judges or prophets before David to build a house as a dwelling or resting place. On the contrary, God has clearly preferred the outdoor life — traveling with the people of God in a tent and a tabernacle. God moved about, enthroned upon the cherubim adorning the Ark of the Covenant — the Ark that had rings built right into the side so that carrying-poles could be slipped through and put in place at the drop of a hat, and the Ark could be carried by bearers and move as God willed. This moveable Ark has served for centuries as the sign of God’s presence — a presence that moves with God’s people.

But then, after declaring no need for a house, God takes it one step further. Not only does God not ask for a house, but God will make David a house — and here is a play on words, for God is not speaking (in David’s case) about a house of wood and stone, which David already has thanks to King Hiram of Tyre. God is talking about making David into a royal house — like the House of Windsor or the House of Hanover. God will set up the House of David as a royal lineage.

That became a reality, attested not only in the Scripture, but in an artifact discovered just over 20 years ago in an archaeological dig in the Holy Land. It is an engraved stone war memorial dating from about one to two hundred years after the time of King David On it, the King of Damascus celebrates a victory over the King of “the House of David” — Beit David. It is the only archeological find (so far) that mentions David by name, and one of only four that mentions Israel. Not all scholars accept that this war memorial actually means what it appears to say, and there are other different interpretations. (One of the problems about Hebrew writing is that it is open to many interpretations — which is one of the reasons the Scriptures themselves have received so many different readings down through the centuries. For instance the letters that spell the name of David in Hebrew can also mean “uncle” or “beloved.” It all depends on what you mean. Just look at the two different meanings of the word “house” in our present example — David intends to think about a physical example, the house built of stone and cedar, but God provides him with the another meaning of “house” — the house of flesh and blood in his descendants stretching on through time. )

And this is the important thing for us about this House of David: this is not a matter of engraved stone war memorials, or even of the Scripture, however interpreted, but of David and his descendants forming a new living house — a house made not of wood and stone, but of human flesh and blood. For that is what God intends to build: a house not made by hands.

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Flash forward a thousand years and we find the Apostle writing to the Ephesians in much the same tone: God is doing a great new work of construction. God tears down the dividing wall that separates Jews from Gentiles, and is in the process of building “one new humanity in place of the two.” This has a strong architectural reference, also, and may even refer to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem — which had a literal dividing wall between the outer Court of the Gentiles and the inner parts of the Temple into which only Jews were allowed. With the literal destruction of the Temple, that dividing wall has been torn down.

More importantly, what God is doing in this new construction project is similar to what God did with David — that the house God really desires is not made of wood and stone, but of flesh and blood. In this case, it is in Jesus — who is the flesh and blood heir of the royal House of David — but in whom God has also acted once and for all to lay the cornerstone of the new temple of God’s presence, in which the Gentiles have now come to be full and equal citizens, no longer aliens and strangers, but heirs with Christ and members of God’s household, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ himself being the cornerstone. And, as the Apostle affirms, this whole miraculous construction project is God’s new Temple — the human Temple not made by hands, but by the will of God, as the many members are joined in one as God’s dwelling place.

This new Temple is the Church. Not the church building — this is still made of wood and stone. The new Temple of God is the people, held together not with nails and mortar but with the water of Baptism and the flesh and blood of the Holy Eucharist. This church building has stood for almost 150 years (give it another couple of months!), but the Church of Christ has stood for more than a dozen times that, and it will continue to stand, long after all the memorials and temples and sanctuaries have become as fragmentary as that war memorial from the King of Damascus, as lost and gone as the Temple of Solomon and the Temple of Herod, as lost and gone as some day even this beloved little church building will be, for wood decays and stone dissolves, and, as the hymn we will sing at Communion says,

Though with care and toil we build them,
tower and temple fall to dust.
But God’s power, hour by hour,
is my temple and my tower.”

In Ephesians, the Apostle assures us that the union of the two in one — whether the two peoples, the Jews and the Gentiles, or two spouses, as he also teaches — all represent the new humanity that finds its new life in Christ, as a great mystery, the greatest mystery, the mystery of God’s will established in God’s adopting us as his children from before the foundation of the world. And not just us, as the Apostle affirms, for God’s plan for the fullness of time will gather up all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth.

+ + +

That can sound a bit overwhelming, as I’m sure it did to the church in Paul’s time. But this is what we are part of, my friends, not just caring for this sweet, little church of wood and stone, but helping by our own extended hands reaching out beyond these walls, helping to grow and to build the house not made by hands, as we join hands with brothers and sisters newly adopted into God’s great family, the church of God, to fulfill the mystery by which the many become one in God, who is One: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Shall We Dance?

Proper 10b 2015 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
David danced before the Lord with all his might; Michal daughter of Saul looked out of the window, and saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord, and she despised him in her heart.

Anna Harriet Leonowens served for a time in the 1860s — just about the time this church was being built — as the governess to the children of King Mongkut of Thailand — the land known in those days as Siam. She wrote a memoir of her experiences which was adapted into a novel, Anna and the King of Siam, which then became a film, and finally a Broadway musical — The King and I, which also became a film, and later a short-lived TV series. As so often happens when history moves into historical fiction and then into musical theater, film, and TV, the story moved further and further away from the truth. For example, in the novel and the film based on it, the character of the king’s prime minister is very noble and serious; but by the time the story made it to TV this noble character has become a buffoon suitable only for comic relief.

+ + +

The king himself fared similarly, moving from nobility and grace in the memoir to a kind of tyrannical, short-tempered stiffness in the musical — who can forget Yul Brynner — that stiffness only charmed by the winsomeness of Anna the governess. There is no evidence that the King of Siam and Anna were romantically involved — but that doesn’t suit a musical very well, so Rodgers and Hammerstein introduce a significant romantic theme, summed up in one particular song, “Shall We Dance.” As Anna and the king dance together, the stern tyrant begins to relax a little bit, and become less forbidding, less off-putting. This is fiction: but as with all good fiction, there is a grain of truth. Dancing can make for loosening up, growing closer — whether dancing on a bright cloud of music, or on a very terrestrial dance-floor. Dancing can be a way to break the ice, to warm the heart, even to spark a budding romance.

+ + +

But what if you are not a good dancer, if you dance with two left feet, or step on your partner’s foot? Or what if the dancing is going on in the apartment above you at two o’clock in the morning? Then the dance can be more annoyance than joy. Instead of singing a chorus of “Shall We Dance?” some might sing a number from a different Hammerstein musical — you might have seen the movie with Fred Astaire — “I Won’t Dance, Don’t Ask Me!” If the dance doesn’t lead to joy, what, after all, is the point of dancing?

In our Scripture readings today, we see two dances: and both of them also involve kings — not of Siam, but of Israel and Galilee, King David and King Herod. In each case the monarchs are having a grand old time, until someone rains on their parade — David’s wife Michal, Saul’s daughter,

and Herod’s daughter, in Mark’s Gospel named for her mother, Herodias. (We might call her “Herodias Jr.)

Our reading from Second Samuel stops short, so we don’t get to see David’s wife Michal greeting him in the doorway, a little bit like Hyacinth Bucket (it’s Bouquet!) when David comes home, and she confronts him in the doorway. A few verses later in the tale when she greets him, after having watched his dance from the window, despising him in her heart, as the Scripture says; and she greets him with words of contempt and sarcasm, “How the king of Israel honored himself today, uncovering himself today before the eyes of his servants’ maids, as any vulgar fellow might shamelessly uncover himself!” Can you hear Mrs. Bucket saying, “Richard!” No, Michal is not amused, she has despised David in her heart, because he danced — in his underwear! — and this dance has far from warmed her heart: this dance, disgraceful in her eyes, has frozen her heart in contempt. We doen’t get to hear the reading, but a few verses later David curses her for her coldness of heart, and the Scripture goes on to tell us that she was barren to the day of her death. So much for raining on a dance that is danced for God’s glory!

But what about that other king, King Herod — does he get an unpleasant surprise, on his birthday no less! His heart is warmed with the wine and the birthday banquet and his dancing daughter, Herodias Jr, so much so he is willing to give the dancer anything she asks — only to be asked for a blood-chilling horror, a murder and a grisly prize. Did the music stop as his face fell, grieved (for he respected John the Baptist, visited him in prison, liked to listen to him)? Did he suddenly feel a coldness enter his heart as his daughter asked for the head to be brought to her? But he is also deeply embarrassed in front of his guests because he’s sworn an oath, and he can’t afford to lose face — even if it means John will lose his entire head! So, reluctantly, he grants her desire, and John meets his untimely and horrific end, as the voice of the great prophet is silenced, his head served up on a platter.

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So the question remains: Shall we dance? As Anglicans we are fortunate not to be stuck with the contempt for dancing that is common among some fundamentalist Christians. We Anglicans don’t think dancing is sinful. How many churches have dinner dances? What matters, for us, is the reason for the dancing, the motive and the intent of the dancers.

The dance before Herod — here is a dance with wicked motives, a means to incite Herod to make a poor decision after he’s had a few too many birthday drinks, to trap him in an oath that he just as soon would have broken, were it not for his guests. The motive for this dance is anger, resentment, bitterness, and the result is gruesome.

But to dance joyously before God — what a wonderful thing for David to be able to do, his heart full of joy that the Ark of God, the visible presence of the invisible God who rides upon the cherubim, should be restored to the tent of God’s presence, given a hallowed resting place, as God promised would be the case. Only an angry prude like Michal would find fault with such a dance in honor of God, and to the glory of God.

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Now, I’m not suggesting we start dancing in church; although there is a parish out in California where the congregation dances in church each week. Their church — and it’s an Episcopal church — has two large rooms, instead of a single worship space: in the first room the congregation gathers to worship for the liturgy of the Word, the Scripture readings, sermon, and prayers. Then, at the offertory, the whole congregation forms a line and dances its way into the adjoining room for the Holy Communion, as they dance to the altar and offer their gifts. I’m not suggesting we do that — although we get a bit of that flavor here at St James when we have our special Gift Offering, as we do today and on one Sunday each month; so please feel free to shake it a bit as you come up the aisle to make place your thank offering in the basket. We can dance; we can dance!

In this way we reflect something of what King David did when he danced before the Lord — with no other motive than to express his joy and to give thanks and glory to God who had so blessed him and his people, delivering them from their enemies, and deigning to dwell among them in that Ark of his presence, brought to the Tabernacle as the place chosen by God for God’s name to reside.

For we too have an Ark of presence and a tabernacle, there on our altar. And we too trust, as we sang in the hymn, that God himself is with us, as we worship in this place. So let us dance, my friends, in our hearts and minds if not with our feet — but even with those feet if the Spirit moves us to give glory and praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, to the one who moves the universe, in the great cosmic dance of creation; in whose Name and to whose glory we rejoice: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.