Sunday, February 22, 2015

Through What Door?

Each of us has come on board this ark of salvation, sometimes kicking and screaming, sometimes in search of answers.

SJF • Lent 1b • Tobias S Haller BSG
God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you.

My friend Peter — named for the saint, of course — entered into Christ through a little blue door. He came to Columbia University in the late sixties as a graduate student, with the usual doubts and hopes of young men of that age, and that time and that place. People were saying that God was dead — yet the church still seemed to have some utility. The civil rights struggle showed the church was still one of the few things still alive and kicking against a world whose heart it seems had grown cold.

Peter was an intelligent young man, with a passion for justice and civil rights, and a cultured taste in art and music — he was studying medieval literature. But he wanted to learn more about the church before he got too involved with this whole “religion” thing.

And so he called on his neighborhood parish church, which, if you know Columbia will know just happens to be the Cathedral Church of St John the Divine. Given his intellect, passion for civil rights, and his taste for art, the choice was natural: the Episcopal Church was considered “the thinking person’s church” and the Cathedral leaders had taken a strong stand for civil rights, at the cost of a few wealthy donors. And there was no denying the beauty of that building, even in its unfinished state — and it’s still unfinished fifty years later!

Peter called the and they connected him with Canon West, who, the receptionist thought, would be the best person to talk with him about religion. Peter found Canon West much too busy to see him that week, but West told him that if he would come to the little blue door he would find half-way up the cathedral on the southern side at about 10:45 next Sunday morning he might have some time to talk with him about religion.

Peter had come of age in a culture that had forgotten what it is that goes on in cathedrals on Sundays at about 10:45, so he was caught short went through that little blue door into that cavernous space and asked for Canon West. Before he knew what was happening, he was whisked into the sacristy; many helping hands vested and girded him and dressed him up in an acolyte’s outfit, then handed him a one of the massive crucifixes that they use there at the Cathedral — and they weigh about 70 pounds! — and pushed him towards the head of a procession, maintained in place by Canon West’s stern eye and finger-snaps, and the nods, gestures and elbows of more experienced servers at the altar.

Peter was confused, but also furious, but he dared not challenge the imposing Canon West — with his bald head, black goatee and long black cape, who knows what powers might be at his disposal? Even had he dared, before he could protest, he was swept up in the worship — right at the head of the procession, along with at least three more crosses behind him, along with the embroidered banners that emerged from clouds of incense, floating like the masts and sails of ancient dream-ships navigating the valleys of those towering rough-hewn rock columns and walls. The roar of the organ resounded in the caverns of that space, the waves and wash of breakers of sound resounded and echoed back and forth — after all, the Cathedral is an eighth of a mile long; ranks of choristers and clergy in vestments ancient and modern, gloriously colorful, gold and scarlet; and there was Peter right in front — just behind the man with the incense-pot swinging and twirling the prayers of the saints up and up into that now invisible dome — and the congregation bowing in waves as he passed with that cross, as if pressed down by the weight of glory he was carrying.

And all the while all he could think was, “I’ll kill him!”

When the worship ended, as he was hanging up the borrowed vestment, still quivering with rage and disorientation, Canon West came up behind him, and laid a bony hand on his shoulder. The old priest spun him around, fixed him with a stern look, out from underneath those bushy eyebrows, and said, “Now, my boy, I’m prepared to talk to you about our religion.”

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Lent is upon us, a time in the church year when we raise the intensity a notch in our efforts to think about our religion. I’m sure all of us here could tell a tale about how we got here — through what little blue door each of us passed to enter the ark of salvation. That’s what it is, you know, this church of ours. It was prefigured, as Saint Peter tells us, in the ark in which Noah and his family were kept safe amidst the waters of the flood. Our church is an ark. As I have pointed out before, churches are often built like upside-down boats: if you look up to our ceiling there, in that part of the church called the “nave” — which also betrays its naval origins — you’ll see that the ribs of a boat’s hull have become the ribs that hold up our roof.

Each of us could tell how we boarded this upside-down boat, through what little blue — or red — door — even if we were carried in kicking and screaming when we were just a few weeks old. And yet here we are, the company of the baptized, some of you baptized right here in this font — I know, because I was the one that did it! We are gathered here together in this boat, a boat that has no first or second class passengers, no steerage for the poor, nor staterooms for the rich — but just one big lifeboat!

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It may seem strange to start the season of Lent with Scriptures all of which refer to baptism either directly or figuratively — since by tradition Lent is the one time of the year during which baptisms are not performed! But Lent anciently was the time when people were prepared for baptism at Easter; it was during these weeks that they studied, and fasted, and prayed to be ready to be baptized at the Great Vigil of Easter. And so we begin our Lent reminded of baptism, and of the fact that the church — this church, not just the building, not just the upside-down boat, but we the people are the company of the baptized, and it is worth reflecting on what it means to be on board this boat — and to reflect on where this boat is heading.

So this year, I want to use our Lent together to focus on what it means to be the church — this gathering of people who have been through the little blue door, a little red door, who have been washed in the waters of baptism, and fed with the bread of heaven. For this is how it begins, my friends — in the church as the ark of salvation. Now, some might be tempted to ask, “Isn’t there salvation outside the church?” well, it is not for me to speculate on God’s grace, or to place limits upon it. God can and will save whomever and however God pleases to do so. Is there salvation outside the ark of the church, outside the lifeboat? I hope so — there may be some good swimmers out there! But I know that there is salvation inside the ark of the church, inside the lifeboat; and it is my calling and my task — as it is yours, my friends — to gather up people floating out there in life jackets before they freeze to death!

We will not do this merely by talking to them about religion — there is plenty of talk about religion out there, my friends, and much of it probably keeps people away from church rather than bringing them to it. No, the answer is to invite them here, through our little red door, into this lifeboat, the one we know, where we can hear words about religion — but more importantly be dressed in a new garment, given a cross to bear, hear the music and the song and join in it too, and be fed with the bread and nourished with the wine, and not just hear words about God but give thanks to the Word of God — Jesus the Christ.

This is the Gospel Cruise my friends: the ark of salvation right on the corner of Jerome Avenue and 190th St in the Beautiful Bronx — as unbelievable and specific as God being born in a stable, and as wonderful and as gracious as being pulled from freezing water into a lifeboat.

This is where it all starts my friends — there will be time to talk about it later; but those who want assurance of salvation will first come on board.

When they have gone through the little door, blue or red, been clothed anew with the garment of baptism, and have carried the cross while rows of their sisters and brothers bow in reverence to the powerful symbol of the unspoken and unspeakable Word above all words and worlds — then, as Canon West said, there will be time to talk about our religion.+

Sunday, February 08, 2015

General Practitioner

Paul wanted to be everything to everybody so he could lead them to the One for all.

SJF • Epiphany 5b • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.+

When I was in college, I worked on a play by German author Bertolt Brecht. You may know the hit song, “Mack the Knife,” from his musical Threepenny Opera, which had a successful run on Broadway years ago, and was made into a film. The play I worked on, The Measures Taken, will never appear on Broadway, however, because it is about a group of communist agitators working in China prior to the communist revolution. It concerns a young agitator who doesn’t grasp the purpose of the Communist mission. In each scene, whether a factory where the workers are beaten, or by a canal by which the workers slip in the mud as they try to pull barges, the young agitator tries to help individuals: individual factory workers or individual barge-pullers; he binds the wounds of the wounded factory workers, and puts rocks in the mud so the barge-pullers can gain traction. He soon discovers he cannot bind up all of the individual wounds, and that he can’t move enough rocks to give all the barge-pullers a solid footing, and eventually the workers and barge-pullers turn on him and expose him as an agitator. His efforts are misguided from the standpoint of the communist party — they are interested in class warfare, not individual welfare; and this leads to his undoing.

What surprised me most about this was the way the play was received. I mean, this was a touchy stuff in the 60s! But because it is such an honest portrayal of the nature of the communist movement — that in the communist theory the good of the whole is more important than the good of the individual — people who favored socialism could look at the play and say, “See how noble it is!” while those who were opposed to it could say, “See how terrible communism is” — because the play told the truth. You can tell when something is challenging and true, because it often gets angry people from both sides. It is also fairly true about the dilemma that we all face about of how do we do good in the world.

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For there is a tension between works of charity — feeding the hungry, clothing the naked — and the works of justice — seeking to transform society by reforming the causes of hunger and poverty. The one thing of which I am certain is that this is a “both / and” situation. We are called to help those who come across our path: with food, clothing, and care — as did the Good Samaritan. But we are also called to work for the good of the whole society in which we live, to help fight the causes of hunger and poverty.

This is not an original approach, of course. Jesus, in his own ministry, does both — he heals those who come before him, but also — on the cross, and through his blood — heals and saves the whole world.

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Our gospel today is a good example. Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law. Word spreads and the sick gather at the doorstep come sundown, and he cures many of them. Even Peter sees Jesus as a great healer, and chases after him when he leaves in the early morning, to bring him back to the village to continue working.

What Peter fails to understand is that Jesus does not see himself primarily as a healer of the sick, but as the proclamation of a message. Jesus does do the exhausting work of healing in response to the crowds who seek his touch, and we know it was exhausting from that story of the woman with the hemorrhage: You remember that. She secretly touched the hem of his garment and was healed. But as she did so, Jesus felt the power drain out of him. So we know that healing these many people crowded about the door, must have been exhausting.

When morning comes he slips away in the pre-dawn darkness, he does so so he can rest and collect himself, and most importantly, pray. And when Peter comes after him, to drag him back because “everyone is searching” for him, Jesus tells him it is time to move on to other towns, time to move on to proclaim the message, for that is what he came to do.

Jesus did not come to earth to set up a clinic as a Galilean country doctor, but to spread the good news of salvation — which is the healing of the whole person, body and soul, from the deadly effects of this fallen world of ours. He came to save that world itself. He is not a general practitioner, but the universal healer for the life of the world. Jesus came to reveal himself not as everything to everybody but as One for all. He is even more than the bearer of a message — he the message itself: he is the Word of God. Jesus only had to be himself to be the living presence of God — the Word of God made flesh — for that is what he was. After all, there were dozens of preachers and teachers and healers in first century Israel. But there was only one Son of God.

Ultimately, the Gospel of Christ isn’t about all his good deeds as teacher or healer, but about who he was, and who he is: the Son of God, the savior of the world. This is the heart of the gospel truth.

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Saint Paul, on the other hand, knew very well that he was not the message, he was not the Word of God, but a messenger charged to deliver the Word of God. Preaching the gospel was no source of pride or boasting, it was his duty. In his preaching Paul worked every angle, taking every opportunity to make the gospel reach as many different people as he could, to win them to Christ, to bring them to salvation.

Because Paul was the messenger, he knew how important it was that his message be understood. And so he took on many roles to reach many people, to meet people “where they were” and to speak to them in a language they could understand. To his fellow Jews Paul emphasized his own background in Judaism, as a disciple of Rabbi Gamaliel, whose teachings are recorded in the Talmud and studied by rabbinical students to this day. Paul would argue the Torah with the best of them, as well as making use of different traditions within Judaism.

To Gentiles outside the Jewish covenant, Paul moved with ease and liberty as a Roman citizen of no mean city, a man acquainted with the latest trends in Greek philosophy, able to quote pagan poets to Greeks and Romans as well as he was to quote Moses to fellow Jews. Paul did want to be everything to everybody, but only so that he could lead them to the One for all, Jesus Christ.

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So where does the church find itself today? Are we everything to everybody? One for all? Some experts on church growth point to the huge megachurches of the South and the West. These are huge building complexes with worship auditoriums ranged with rows of reclining padded seats. Instead of hymnals and prayer books, the texts are projected on giant screens, accompanied by orchestras, and you won’t find a child in the congregation, because the have full nursery service in a separate space; breakfast and lunch are served before and after worship, there’s a Starbucks in the lobby, you can pay your pledge with a credit card, and during the week you can attend not just Bible Study but weight-loss classes and aerobics. These are the churches of one-stop-shopping; and if Saint James Fordham is a boutique, they are Walmart; and they appear at first glance to be very successful. But you know what — the Crystal Cathedral had to close its doors a few years ago, and be sold. The question is, is this the gospel: do they have members or customers? What has happened to the gospel that Paul wanted to make “free of charge.” In the effort to be everything to everybody, is proclaiming the gospel taking second place to targeting a consumer market?

Saint Paul always had a very clear sense about why he was so flexible in accommodating those he met — so that he might by all means save some. “By all means” — in whatever way he could: the goal was to save: to proclaim the gospel.

Certainly a church needs to be willing to be open and flexible, ready to welcome all regardless of nationality or background, their culture or class. And the church also does cost money to maintain: I wish I could say, “The church is free of charge.” But we all know what it is to pay insurance, and electric bills, and snow removal, and all of the other things that come in our own lives - and the church is no different. The church also is charged to provide, out of what people give. Not just to be a place where people can gather but to be a place that can serve human need. I think we do a good job of that here at Saint James, and I trust we will do even better in months to come, as the Elijah Project grows and expands, and we welcome Kairos gatherings, as we welcome members of our families, and our friends, and our co-workers, to come here.

But we are called to be more than welcoming. We are called to provide those we welcome with the Gospel, not just with comfortable seats and nice music, with child care or yoga classes — even with food and clothing itself — but with the message that doesn’t just reassure but challenges; not something that merely entertains, but transforms.

We can learn from Paul and his willingness to be everything to everybody, learn to be open and welcoming, and flexible and ready to adapt to the needs of a changing world. But we can also learn from Paul and from our Lord how important it is to concentrate on the message of salvation offered in Jesus Christ.

Jesus healed, but then he moved on to proclaim the message, and finally to Jerusalem and Calvary, to the cross and the tomb, and then on to glory. The church gathers here to meet that same Jesus, the Jesus who healed, but also the Jesus who died for us and rose again; the Jesus who shed his blood upon the cross for our salvation: which is not merely the healing of our bodies but of our souls and spirits — he is the “One for all” to whom all of our “everything to everybody” evangelism leads.

May we never tire of the daily tasks of charity, but also let us not be wearied that we fail in the tasks of justice. May we welcome all, to guide them to the One. May we be strengthened to remain true to the commission we share with Saint Paul, to proclaim the gospel, so that by all means — in every way we can — we might save some.+

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Insufficient Knowledge

Knowledge without love makes no music.

Epiphany 4b 2014 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Saint Paul wrote to the Corinthians, Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.

No pastor before or since had to deal with any congregation more difficult than that of the people of Corinth to whom Saint Paul ministered, and to whom he wrote the letter from which we heard a portion this morning. He had enough bones to pick with them to assemble an entire skeleton, but I’d like today to focus on the issue that came to light in this short passage: while there are many false so-called gods, there is one Lord Jesus Christ above all lords, one God and Father above all gods. Moreover, he presses the same point that had been made for 600 years by the prophets before him, that idols are not gods. Long before Paul set pen to paper (or stylus to tablet — and I don’t mean an iPad!) prophets had ridiculed and condemned those who put their trust in inanimate objects of wood and stone and metal: so-called gods that could not speak or move or even smell, since they had no breath in their nostrils. You may recall that Winston Churchill once replied to a grande dame to told him, “Sir, you smell.” He replied, “No, Madam. I stink; you smell.” So it is that these idols could stink even if they could not smell — having no breath in their nostrils — when their wood caught fire and they went up in smoke, powerless to defend themselves.

And Saint Paul continues the message: we know that there are many so-called gods, but we Christians know better: That Jesus Christ is the one Lord through whom all things are and through whom we exist; and there is one God who is God the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist.

So far, so good, you might well say, because, of course, that is what we believe. But in Saint Paul’s day, Judaism, with its belief in the proclamation of one God, was a tiny fraction of the population, and Christians formed a smaller fraction still. The bulk of people living around the Mediterranean — Arabs, Greeks, Romans and Egyptians — most of them believed in many gods if they believed in gods at all. Not too many still worshiped idols as if a god could actually be made of wood or metal, though a few still did — and Christians got in trouble with them in Ephesus, as they threatened to put the carvers and casters of idols in wood and metal out of business.

But many sophisticated Greeks had long given up believing in idols, or even in the gods themselves. They would still observe the convention of tipping a few drops of wine out of their wineglass at a banquet to honor the gods, but this was purely “the thing to do,” social convention; they did not believe the gods were real. These were the first atheists — and as far as most of the religious people of the Mediterranean were concerned, the Christians - who denied that idols were gods, and who affirmed that there is only one true Lord and God — were numbered among them. The basic rule was, “If you deny my god, you are an atheist!”

This in the context in which arose the problem with which Paul had to deal. Some of the Christians in Corinth were proud of their knowledge that there is but one Lord and God, and felt so proud that they had no compunction about eating food that had been offered to an idol in a pagan temple, since they knew that the idol was just a block of wood or stone, or a slab of metal. The problem, as Saint Paul sees it, is that this sophistication might lead a less sophisticated person astray into thinking that the idols might really be gods. If they see a member of the congregation who is accounted to be “in the know” eating food offered to idols they might think, “Gee, if Mr. Metropolous eats food offered to idols then maybe there’s something to this idol business after all...” And that, Saint Paul says, would damage the faith no end.

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More importantly, and more relevant to us, since we are very unlikely ever to encounter food offered to idols, is the larger issue of the extent to which the knowledge of God falls short. Knowledge that there is one Lord and one God, is not enough on its own. As the Epistle of James puts it, “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe — and shudder.” The demons know that Jesus is the Holy One of God, as attested in our gospel passage today, and in many other places in Mark’s Gospel. In short, it is not enough simply to know God, or who God is, not enough even to believe in God as Father and Jesus Christ as Lord — even the devils know God, perhaps better than any human being ever could, for, like the angels, they come from the spiritual realm.

But their knowledge of God does them no good, for they lack the one crucial element that makes salvation secure. And that is love. As Saint Paul tells the Corinthians, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him.” Knowing God gets you nowhere without loving God and your neighbor. And if knowledge is misapplied, it will get in your way and be of no service either to you or to your neighbor. It might even do them harm. The devils know God, but have no love in them, so their knowledge does them no good at all.

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There was once a little boy who showed a remarkable talent for playing the violin. At the age of four he happened to come upon his uncle’s violin left unattended for a moment when he stepped out of the room. The toddler picked up the instrument and imitating the actions he had seen his uncle perform, began to play. It wasn’t a virtuoso performance, but his uncle was so astounded — hearing this music from down the hall — when he came back into the room and saw this child making music, he decided that the boy had to get his own violin and learn to play it. And play it he did — beautifully, and without instruction. He simply listened to recordings of the great violinists of the day, and imitated the sound with the instrument in his hands. He was soon giving concerts and even made a few recordings himself.

By the age of twelve it was decided he needed some proper instruction from a real violin master. And that master discovered that the boy was playing the violin all wrong. Although it sounded wonderful he was using the wrong fingering and bowing to produce the sound. So the teacher set to work correcting all of these bad habits so that he could play even more beautifully. The trouble is, all of this new instruction spoiled his ability to play at all. The habits formed over those eight years were too set to be unlearned. Fortunately, before all was lost, it was decided to let the boy alone and continue to play in his peculiar manner — after all, if you weren’t watching him you couldn’t tell how he was playing; all you could hear was that beautiful music. The love of music that inspired this child won out over the so-called knowledge of the right way to play. Knowledge is not the point; music is. You can have all the knowledge of technique in the world, but if you have no love of music, your performance will be empty.

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And when it comes to God, it is the same: knowledge is not the point; love is. This is why Jesus rebukes the unclean spirits who recognize him as the holy one of God, but warns those who believe in him that they must come to him as a child — just as he came to us as a child. It is not sophisticated knowledge or technique that saves us, but the innocent love of a child.

Our worship often ends with a blessing and I hope you will listen to it carefully today. For it affirms that the peace of God passes understanding — that is, it is something beyond the capacity of our minds to understand — but not of our hearts to receive. And the blessing continues by asking that the knowledge and the love of God be upon us. The knowledge alone will do us no good, it might even spoil our efforts to make the music God wants us to make, in our service for and to and with each other. Knowledge, without love, as Saint Paul would assure those same troublesome Corinthians, doesn’t make beautiful music — it is a clanging gong or noisy cymbal, if it comes without love. But with love, love that endures all things, bears all things, and ultimately believes all things with a believing heart — with love we are perfected and blessed as children of God our Father, who with Christ our Lord and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns for ever and ever.