Sunday, January 25, 2015

God's Transforming Call

God calls us... do we follow?

SJF • Epiphany 3b 2015 • Tobias S Haller BSG
Jesus said, Follow me, and I will make you fish for people

Our scripture readings today present us with variations on a theme, and the theme is “Transformation.” The transformation takes three different forms, but all three forms have God as their author. And these three forms of transformation have the advantage of being a version of the “three R’s” — in this case Repentance, Renunciation, and Renewal.

We hear the middle movement of the “Jonah Symphony” this morning. You recall the first movement: Jonah rejected God’s transforming call — to him! He ran away from God and ended up repenting in the belly of a fish. In today’s passage we see him finally doing as God instructed him, and preaching the message of repentance — one which he himself has learned so well, up close and personal, and under water. The great and the small, the folk of Nineveh, respond to the call of God, and repent, turning, each of them, from their evil ways. But notice this: God calls through Jonah, himself called, and himself knowing in himself the need for repentance; and perhaps that is what makes his preaching so persuasive: and the people respond and repent.

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Saint Paul delivers a different form of God’s call to the people of Corinth. He wants people to detach from the normal courses of life because all of life is about to be transformed — the present form of this world, he says, is passing away. So Paul commends a kind of transforming renunciation — acting in a way that takes no mind of the situation in which one finds oneself, whether married, or mourning, or rejoicing, engaging in commerce or worldly matters: because the world itself is about to be transformed, and radically so!

What I’d like to note is that this too reflects some of the backstory about Paul, just as Jonah’s preaching had some relation with his own earlier life. He also had himself gone through a tremendous transformation when God called him out — literally knocked him down and senseless. His old world passed away on that road to Damascus, when God made him realize that all the things he was so sure of, all of the things he believed with all his heart, all his reputation and even all of his religion, were to be regarded as so much rubbish. Next to the call from God, nothing else in this world mattered. He no longer needed to lay claim to being a Jew born of Jews, a Pharisee among Pharisees, a star pupil of a great Rabbi — for the greatest Rabbi of all, Jesus himself, had taught him a lesson, had turned his whole world upside down, leading him in the end to renounce all that was past and to reach out to what was promised.

And so Paul too passes on what had been delivered to him: the transforming power of God to renounce all worldly expectations and values that could stand in the way of proclaiming the Gospel and leading a Gospel life.

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Finally, we come to the gospel itself, which portrays the calling of the first disciples. Jesus passes along the Sea of Galilee and finds four fishermen — he tells them literally to drop everything and follow him. He calls on them to change their livelihoods and their lives — to leave behind the boats and the nets and even their family in order to follow him. And in this call, they will be transformed by being renewed. What was there in them will somehow remain, but be transformed and renewed. Their catch may change but not their way of life: now they are going to catch people instead of fish.

Their catch may change, but not their way of life: and in doing so they will still be sailing out — metaphorically — into dangerous waters, risking their lives and taking a chance. Their fishermen’s skills will be called upon and put to use, but in new ways. They will still need the keen eye that can read the signs of sunset and sunrise, and the sharp nose that can smell a change in the wind. They will rely on the sense of balance that can feel from the movement of the boat where the next big wave is coming from. And above all they will need the patience to wait wait wait in quiet, and then the strength to pull pull pull to haul in the catch. Jesus is calling to these fishermen to go with him in search of the greatest catch the world had ever seen — they are going to cast their nets abroad and catch the whole world itself with the message of the gospel.

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It is the call, my friends, that is important; the call and our response to it, whether it is a call to repent, renounce or renew: God’s transforming call. When we hear God’s call, does it lift our hearts and move us forward to do the work that God assigns? Does it empower us to change our direction if we are heading the wrong way, or to free ourselves from the world’s distractions, and renew our energies? Does God’s voice sounding in our heart, his call and command echoing in our ears, fill us with inspiration and move us to leave behind the safe and the familiar and to follow him, bringing with us nothing but the skills that God has given us in the first place? Or do we allow the complacency and comfort of our condition, or the cares of this world, to limit the scope of our response to God’s call?

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Roland Meredith tells of an experience he once had one night early in the spring out in the country when he was young: In the midst of the quiet night, suddenly he heard the sound of wild geese in their seasonal flight back home. He ran up onto the porch to call everyone out to see them, because the sight of wild geese flying in the moonlight, is one of the great beauties of nature, singing their peculiar song as they fly the night sky. As he was enjoying this beautiful, wonderful sight, he noticed the tame mallard ducks that lived on the family pond. They too had heard the wild call, the honking of the geese, and it stirred up something in their little breasts. Their wings fluttered a bit in a feeble response. The urge to fly, to take up their place in the sky for which God had made them, with the wings God had given them to do so, was filling their little breasts — but they never rose from the water. They had made a choice, you see, long ago; the corn from the barnyard was too secure and satisfying — and fattening — to risk a flight to who knows where. The security and safety of that little pond kept them from fulfilling the call of the wild to that wild and exciting life for which they had been made.

My friends, God is calling us to a wild and exciting life — the mission of his church to the ends of the world. He is calling on us repent our sins, renounce our worldly attachments, and renew our lives; to spread our wings — the wings he gave us; to leave behind whatever might hold us back, and yet to bring with us all the gifts and skills with which he has equipped us all along — the steady hand and the patient heart, the ready will and joy in the spirit; and above all the good news itself which we have received and are called upon to share. This is his rule in all the churches. It doesn’t matter if we are wage-earners or executives, working or retired, single or married, buyers or sellers, rich or poor — whatever our condition God can make use of it through his call.

So will you join me on this quest? God is sending us out from this place to fish for people — to spread the word and to bring in the catch of friends and family, of coworkers and associates, of strangers we meet on the street and the companions of our breakfast table, here, here to the banquet, where we feast upon the word of God in Scripture and in broken bread. It is a high calling my friends — high as the sky and as broad as God’s good, green earth. But God has called us, and his call is transforming, as we repent, renounce, and are renewed: so let each of us resolve to lead the life that the Lord has transformed and fitted us for, and to which we have been called. The one who has called us will not take No for an answer.+


Sunday, January 18, 2015

God's Messengers

How often have God's messages been missed because we didn't like the messenger...

SJF • Epiphany 2b 2015 • Tobias S Haller BSG
The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, Here I am, for you called me. Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy.

A few weeks ago I referred to the difference between hearing and listening. This is not just true of human dialogue, but of the way God speaks to us. The problem is that however God speaks, whether through nature or in the words of Scripture, through a prophet or as Christ himself, people often seem to be unable to listen, or sometimes even hear.

One of the reasons for this, as we see in our reading from the First Book of Samuel, is the inability to accept God’s message when it comes through a child. This shouldn’t be, of course: especially for us Christians. After all, we believe that God himself came to us as a child and he has told us that we cannot come to him unless we come as a child. Nor should this be a problem for old Eli, — for he knows that wisdom often comes “out of the mouths of babes.” Yet it takes three times for God’s call to Samuel to sink in for old Eli, to realize that God has chosen this child and wishes to speak to him and through him.

It is hard sometimes to hear God speaking through a child — but you can learn a lot if you listen. There was once a priest who had a framed print hanging in his office. It was a parishioner’s gift to a former rector, so even though this priest wasn’t particularly fond of the painting, there it stayed. It was a framed print of a painting by the Dutch modern artist Piet Mondrian: just horizontal and vertical black lines, with a few little squares of color to brighten it a bit; framed, under glass. Not unattractive as the such things go, but not terribly interesting. So it hung there, behind him, and the priest didn’t even look at it all that often.

One day a little boy about four years old came into the office with his mother who taught Sunday School. As soon as the little boy stopped at the doorway, he stopped short, and pointed up at the print over the priest’s head, and said, “Look, Mommy!” The priest turned to see what the child could find so interesting, but all that he could see was the framed geometric print. The priest looked over at the child and asked, “What is it, Johnny?” And the little child said, “It’s Jesus!” The priest was even more surprised, so he got up and came over to the child and his mother and looked back at the print, and said, it’s just colors and lines. “I’m sorry,” he said, “I don’t see him.” The child continued to say, “Look, look at Jesus.” The mother shrugged nervously, because she too had no idea what the child was talking about. So the priest bent down on one knee beside the boy and began to explain, “Now, Johnny, sometimes we see things that aren’t really there, and that can be our imagination; or it could be....” And then he looked up into the picture there, framed behind his desk. and there, sure enough, reflected in the glass over the print was the image of Christ from the crucifix from the wall opposite his desk, perfectly reflected on those black lines, his arms outstretched to embrace the whole world, there on that black cross of lines, and spots of color. It took a change in the priest’s perspective to see Jesus where he wasn’t supposed to be, and to understand the authoritative testimony of a child.

What was it Jesus told us?— unless you become like a child you cannot come to me? Perhaps if we adults were on our knees more often with the children, we would have a better appreciation of God’s messages for us.

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Now it isn’t only age prejudice that can lead us to reject or misunderstand God’s message. In our gospel today we see an example of how regional prejudice can also get in the way of hearing God’s voice. And in this case it is the voice of Jesus himself. What I’m referring to is Nathanael’s famous putdown of Jesus before he even meets him. When he’s told by Philip that they have found the one about whom Moses and the prophets wrote, Jesus the son of Joseph from Nazareth, Nathanael responds with a classic putdown, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Fortunately for Nathanael, Philip doesn’t give up and continues to extend the invitation to “come and to see.”

But how many opportunities to hear God’s voice and to enter into God’s presence have been missed down the years by people who stopped at the stage of the putdown and didn’t get beyond their prejudice. How many times have people failed to hear the voice of God speaking through the person who came from the wrong side of the tracks, or, in Nathanael’s case in view of Jesus, from the other side of Lake Galilee; or the one who was too old, or too young, or who had a funny accent? How many people have missed the opportunity to be in God’s presence because they thought the one inviting them was the wrong color or the wrong sex? How many times in human history have the simple words of truth been missed because the person speaking them didn’t have the right kind of education, or go to the right school, or belong to the right club? In short, how much of God has the world missed because we have let our worldly standards stand in the way of God’s messengers?

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Tomorrow, of course, is the annual celebration of one such messenger’s birthday: Martin Luther King Jr. There will be a Bronx-wide celebration up at Holy Nativity in Norwood at 10 am, and I hope some of you will be able to attend. The bishop will be celebrating, and the bishop suffragan preaching. As I reminded everyone last week we’ll also take up a collection for the Martin Luther King Jr Scholarship Fund. This fund continues to help young people from the Bronx as they begin their college careers, helping to equip them as the next generation of young messengers to help build up the world.

Martin Luther King suffered the rejection that prejudice often inflicts upon God’s messengers. Certainly there were plenty of people who didn’t want to hear the message he brought. There were many who put him down because of his race, even though they could hardly slight him on the basis of his academic credentials or his powerful preaching. As his work progressed it became harder and harder to deny that God was working through him — until he finally was stopped not by a verbal putdown by an assassin’s bullet.

But I would like today more especially to remember another witness to the power of God: a much more humble witness. This is someone who was much more easily put down by the people of her time and place. Not only was she black, but she was a woman. Not only was she a woman, but she came from simple folks — like her Lord her father was a carpenter. And though she went to a trade school in her youth, beyond the studies she did at Teachers College she lacked any kind of advanced degree, or personal wealth, or anything else that might have given her prestige and prominence in any time or place, but especially that time and place — and yet, as poet Rita Dove put it: “How she sat there, the time right in a place so wrong it was ready!”

I hope you know who I’m talking about: Miss Rosa Parks. She was the little lady whose refusal to give up her seat on a bus one day was the spark that helped ignite the torch that would light the way for Martin Luther King’s crusade for civil rights. And isn’t it the highest of ironies that this woman to whom few would have given even the time of day back then in 1955, the woman who was told to give up her seat on the bus, received in her passing from us fifty years later an honor reserved primarily for the Presidents of the United States: to be the first — and so far the only — woman ever to lie in state under the great dome of the Capitol Building in Washington DC.

And I hope you’ll pardon my imagination if I cannot help but picture that as this brave woman walks through the gates of heaven, that Martin Luther King himself rises from the seat he justly received when he was struck down by an assassin’s bullet, and says to her, “Miss Rosa Parks, please take my seat.”

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The tragedy in all of this, is how many of God’s messages are missed in this hateful and judgmental and prejudicial world of ours; how many young voices go unheard, how many old ignored; how many foreign tongues that praise God are dismissed as uncouth or unskilled; how many turned aside by the pride and prejudice that judges people on the color of the skin rather than the content of their character?

Were it not better, my brothers and sisters, to bend our knees and listen to the child who points us to the Christ? Were it not better to set aside all prejudicial judgments and preconceptions about who people are or where they come from or what they do — and listen to their voices instead — to hear God’s truth regardless of who speaks it? This is a challenge my friends, a challenge set before us by the man from Nazareth, the town from which they said no good could come, the son of a carpenter. He has words to speak to us, and we dare not turn aside simply because of the one who bears his message. May we, rather, like young Samuel, be ready always to respond, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”+


Sunday, January 04, 2015

Jerusalem Snapshot

Getting the most from the glimpse we have of Jesus as a child...

SJF • Christmas 2 2015 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
When his parents did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him.+

A few Christmases ago my youngest sister gave all of us siblings a very thoughtful gift. She went through the shoe boxes of old family photographs to find a portraits of our four grandparents, and then she had professional copies made, and matted and framed them as gifts to each of us five other grandchildren. None of us knew our grandfathers — my father’s father died when my dad was twelve, and my mother’s father was long separated from my grandmother, and not spoken of. But we knew — all of us — our “grans” Mary and Naomi, and loved them both. We knew them, however, as people who had always been old; so much older than us. So my sister hoped her gift would remind us this hadn’t always been the case. They had once been young. They hadn’t always been old. The photographs she chose were of our grandparents in their own younger days, in their twenties or thirties.

However, she was unable to find a portrait of my grandmother Mary at that age. All pictures of her youth included others; so for this gift my sister chose a picture of Mary, my grandmother, with her husband and their daughter — our mother (Mary also) as a little girl. That made it, in its own way, a wonderful contribution to a wonderful gift, to see our own mother as a child. I know we all treasure this gift — I’ve got my copy of it up in the hall of the rectory — especially since we know this snapshot of our my grandmother with my mother and her husband is one of the few surviving pictures of my grandmother when she was young, and of our own mother when she was a child.

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Our Gospel reading from Saint Luke today is rather like that solitary photograph. As you know, the evangelists Mark and John in their gospels tell us absolutely nothing about our Lord’s infancy or childhood, and Matthew jumps right from the flight to Egypt and the return to Nazareth to the preaching of John the Baptist, skipping over all of those intervening 30-some years. Only Luke gives us a solitary glimpse of Jesus in the time between his miraculous birth and his adult ministry.

It is true that there are a number of what are called apocryphal gospel stories in old manuscripts, some of them very ancient. But these accounts never made it into our Bible, these stories that tell of Jesus as a child in his father Joseph’s carpenter shop, or of Jesus playing with making mud animals out of clay by the side of the pool in the village, and the little animals coming to life, to the amazement of all of the other children, or the story about the childhood friend of Jesus who fell from the roof of the house and died, and Jesus brought him back to life. All of those stories appear in those other manuscripts, but none of them made it into our Bible. The church judged these stories to be imaginative tales meant to feed the hunger for knowing more about Jesus during those mysterious hidden years from his birth to his ministry.

Instead, the church chose to preserve only Luke’s snapshot from Jerusalem, that image of Jesus left behind in the Temple where he questions and responds to the teachers, this snapshot of Mary’s and Joseph’s anxiety, of the child’s faithful and provocative awareness of who his Father really was, and of his subsequent obedience to his mother and foster father, and his return home to Nazareth, where he grew in grace.

And so, the church has preserved this solitary snapshot for us, so it must be important; so let us look at it carefully, as something to treasure, to see if we can learn something of this child who would later grow to be the man whom we acknowledge as Lord and God. We will find that in doing so we will also learn a little bit about ourselves, and what it means to be the church.

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The first thing to note in this snapshot is that Jesus is among the elders and teachers, listening to them and asking them questions, understand them and answering wisely. This reveals a very important truth about our God: not only that God is wise and understanding, but that God listens. Our God, the God whom we worship, God whom Jesus shows forth as his perfect reflection and image “in human flesh appearing” as the hymn says — God does not just speak to us, through Scripture and through the inner voice of conscience. God not only speaks to us, God listens to us. God understands us.

God is not simply a powerful being sitting in a remote heaven running the universe. But our God also listens to us when we pour out our hearts, when we gather here to worship and to pray and to praise. What this snapshot from Jerusalem shows us, what this image of the twelve-year-old Jesus listening to his teachers reveals to us, is that God not only hears us, but that God listens to us. And if you don’t know the difference between hearing and listening, just ask your spouse or your parents! So the first thing we learn about Jesus as God from this Jerusalem snapshot is that our Lord not only hears our prayers, but that he listens to our prayers, and responds to our prayers — and the response will be amazing.

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The second thing this incident reveals to us is Jesus’ sense of who he is and where he is: who his true Father is, and where he needs to be to be about his Father’s business. No doubt by the time Jesus was twelve he had seen the winks and nods and nudges in Nazareth — you know, the ones concerning his parents’ marital status. Perhaps he’d heard the rumors and the gossip from those who could count to nine and knew when the wedding had been, and when he was born. Perhaps he’d been called names in the schoolyard, as he would be when he grew up, and as the gospel records, when the crowds say to him, “We are not illegitimate children!” Whatever the source, whether the wagging tongues of townsfolk with too much time on their hands and too little charity in their hearts, or more likely the insight of the Holy Spirit, Jesus knows not only who his father isn’t, but more importantly who his true Father is, and he knows where his Father’s house is: the Temple. And so on this trip to Jerusalem, he returns to the Temple where Mary and Joseph had presented him and redeemed him with a thank-offering when he was just a few weeks old.

This tells us something very important about our identity as Christians: for since Jesus taught us to call God our Father in that prayer every day, we too know that whoever our earthly fathers are we also have a Father in heaven, a Father through whom we are “called to a glorious inheritance among the saints.” This snapshot, then, is like an identity photo, it tells us who we are: we are Christians, brothers and sisters of Jesus, “adopted as children of God through Jesus Christ.”

And this snapshot from Jerusalem also tells us something about what we Christians do: we worship. For while we can and should pray when we are alone, wherever we may be, we can only truly worship when gathered as the church, in the church. This is why we work so hard to preserve and restore this special place; not because we think we can only find God here, but because we know that we have found God here, in God’s house. Jesus knows, as well as we know, what his ancestor in the line of David, King Solomon, had said: that “the Temple could not contain God.” Still Jesus knows that the Temple is a special place of focus, not for God’s attention on us, but for our attention on God. It is a place, as Lincoln said of government, of God’s people, by God’s people and for God’s people, so that, as Jeremiah said, “what was scattered could be gathered home again,” so that the remnant could return, gathered from the farthest corners of the earth, to come and sing aloud on the heights of Zion, to be radiant over the goodness of the Lord, to be filled with gladness instead of sorrow. And don’t we find that here too, on our little church? A place where we can gather, and be filled with the knowledge of God? So it is that our church, our gathering in it — our “congregating” — is a vitally important part of our life as people of God. It allows us both to worship gathered together, but also to find the intrinsic value of what it means to be gathered together as God’s family.

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Finally — and I say “finally” in the knowledge that Dean Baxter of the Washington Cathedral once defined an optimist as a man who starts to put on his shoes when he hears the preacher say “Finally”! — finally, I say, (there is a little more) our snapshot shows the young Jesus returning to Nazareth with his parents, where he was obedient to them. He leaves the place he knows to be his true Father’s home, the place where God is worshiped and adored, the place where prayer is offered, the place where the people of God gather to hear instruction and wisdom, but he leaves that place to go out into the world, out to the far reaches of Galilee. He leaves the Temple to live a life of preparation, that life of which we know nothing until he bursts upon the scene 20 years later, ushered in by John the Baptist to begin his ministry, ultimately to return to Jerusalem again, to witness, to suffer, to die and to rise again for our salvation.

Jesus left the Temple, and so must we. This holy place that nourishes and comforts us is not our dwelling place; though “the sparrow may find her a house, and the swallow a nest where she may lay her young” even at the side of God’s altar, we human creatures of God, we the ones whom God chose to bear his image in this world must also bear his message to this world. And that means going out the door, out to the world in need of God’s word, God’s message. As lovely as this church is, it is not our dwelling place — it is more like our filling station: the place we are fed the bread from heaven so that we may be strengthened to do God’s work on earth, out there, out there where the world is hungry and cold, but doesn’t have the sense to come in out of the cold and be fed.

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Luke left us a snapshot from Jerusalem to show us what we must do, as Jesus did. Through our dedicated time apart with God in this beautiful and holy place, instructed in God’s wisdom and ways, as we hear his voice in Scripture and in song, comforted in the knowledge that our God hears our voice and listens to our prayer, and will respond to us for our best end, strengthened by our communion with one another and in our worship, and fed with the food of salvation, the Body and the Blood of the Holy One of God, we can then go forth in obedience to the call of God, our true Father in heaven, to do his work and to proclaim his word to the ends of the world. The One whom we come to adore also sends us on our way rejoicing. To him be the glory, henceforth and forever more.+