April 9, 2021

Icons with Colored Pencils

 As some of you know, I have been spending much of Coronatide in drawing what I call “quick icons” of the saints on the Calendar of The Episcopal Church. I did the earliest of these some years ago with pen and ink, then shifted to watercolor pencils. Lately I have begun working with regular colored pencils — unlike the watercolor pencils, which have a dusty or dry finish, regular colored pencils have a waxy content, which allows them better coverage while retaining a degree of translucency. In this, they are remarkably like tempera, my favored — though time-consuming — medium

I decided as well to go back to the masters, in this case Cennino Cennini, whose medieval essay on technique records many details of how one is to work with tempera and fresco. I've adapted this for colored pencils, and the animation above shows the basic sequence. This is an icon of Joseph of Arimathea. Here are the details of each step, with the color of pencil* and what is done with it:

1. Black — limn out the darkest shadows and bare outlines

2. Pea Green — lightly wash over the whole surface of the eventual flesh (this is where Terre Verte would be laid over in fresco and tempera).

3. Blue Green — lightly green over the dark shadows.

4. Olive Green Light — work up the shadows and shape them.

5. Carmine — lightly add red to lips, corners of eyes, and very lightly to the nose and cheeks (what Cennino calls the “little apples”).

6. Blush Pink — over the cheeks and lips to blend, introducing a bit of highlighting.

7. Beige — begin to introduce the midtones of flesh into the shadows, but do not go completely into the green, leaving some to show through.

8. Light Peach — lighter tones of the flesh, blended into the midtones.

9. Salmon Pink — wash over the whole face, including into the green. (A different color might be used as a wash for other skin characteristics, using raw or burnt ochre.) This stage I find almost magically transforms the image into the flesh tone and texture desired.

10. Dark Brown — reestablish the shadows and fine dark lines (eyes, nostrils, mouth) that have been dulled by the wash in step 9.

11. Black — reinforce the darkest lines and shadows.

12. White — the whites of the eyes and brightest highlights on the eyelids, cheekbones, nose, lips.

13. White India Ink with fine brush — because the waxy layers prevent the white pencil in step 12 from being as completely opaque as desired, a few touches of white India ink with a very fine brush will accomplish the bright highlights in eyes (and whites of eyes), tip of nose, and any other spot requiring it.

Hope this proves helpful and instructive to those interested in applying old techniques to new media.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


*In this case the color names are those assigned by the maker (Blick) though I've included shots of the pencils themselves in the graphics.

October 9, 2020

Of “Revision” of Marriage Rites

The debate over whether the proposed marriage rites authorized under Resolution B012 of the 2018 General Convention constitute “a revision of the BCP” or “trial use in accordance with Article X” is moot. Article X provides for the authorization of trial rites "throughout this church" as part of the revision process of the BCP. 

So when someone says these rites were "not proposed as a revision" that only means they were not proposed under the first part of Article X as a “first reading” to be approved finally at the next session of General Convention. That is a procedure only undertaken when rites have been tested and are ready for their final form

It is not at all unusual for a rite to be authorized in the manner of B012. Since the early 60s, in the leadup to the wholesale revision of the BCP in 1976/79, the various revisions of individual liturgies were published, promulgated, and authorized “for trial use” until, in 1976, the “first reading” of the whole new BCP was approved, and the same (with only a couple of minor emendations to take account of the approval of the ordination of women) ratified in 1979. The marriage rites are now in the exactly the same situation as the numerous revisions of other rites, including matrimony, that were published from 1964 on; that is, as Article X says, they are authorized “for trial use throughout this  Church, as an alternative at any time or times to the established Book of Common Prayer or to any section or Office thereof,” as “a proposed revision of the whole Book or of any portion thereof...” (emphasis mine.)

Meanwhile, part of the reason Bishop Love of Albany has been found wanting is due to the marriage canon (I.18.1), which states that all clergy may solemnize marriages using “any of the liturgical forms authorized by this Church.” The rites are unquestionably authorized, and Bishop Love interfered with that clerical right, though he had absolutely no need to do so. 

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

September 21, 2020

Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking, a Symphonic Poem

This is a Symphonic Poem, based on the poetic elegy by Walt Whitman, this is the first movement of a projected work based on several key periods in the poet’s life: this first being his account of the origin of his poetic spirit, awakened in childhood to the reality of love and loss. I began this work in the late 70s, only bringing it to completion this year of 2020... so I may never complete the project! But here is what I have to offer; the video provides a sing-along to the poem in a vocal part suitable to a lyric baritone or dramatic tenor.

The music reflects my influences, from John Cage (in some of the aleatory involved in creating the thematic and harmonic material) to Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss (in shaping the harmomics along chromatic lines), with a nod to Richard Wagner — both in terms of how the leitmotifs were evolved (in this case from a pair of 12=tone rows) and applied, and with a specific brief quotation of a phrase from Tristan and Isolde: this Whitman poem being the American poet’s Love-Death meditation.

July 21, 2020

Pastoral Care in the Time of Pandemic

One of the key elements of the ministry of pastoral care is presence: being present to and with the one to whom one relates as a pastor. So the greatest challenge in this time of pandemic — and concomitant social distancing and isolation — is the inability of the pastor to be in the physical presence of those with whom the ministry of pastoral care is exercised.

I take as my text in response to this the words from First Corinthians 15: “If there is a physical body there is also a spiritual body.” Paul is, of course, talking about the resurrection; but this also applies to our present circumstances. If there is a physical presence there is also a spiritual presence — and this should not be a surprise to those of us who believe the promise that where two or three are gathered together in God’s name, God is present with them; and who trust and believe in the presence of God in, with, and under the forms of bread and wine.

Of course everyone knows the difference between sitting next to a person in flesh and blood and looking at their image on a computer monitor. But I would like to draw on another element of our tradition in response to that distinction: the tradition of the icon. It is part of that tradition to believe that in venerating an icon — an image of a saint or of Jesus Christ (the Incarnate One, the perfect image of God in human flesh) — the believer enters into their real presence, through a window into heaven. The icon is, it goes without saying, an image — and the faithful contemplation of that image requires imagination — image-ination). This imagination is a work of empathy and sympathy, of feeling with and feeling for — of allowing one’s mind to expand one’s spiritual presence to be with the other.

This is not as exotic as it may sound. One of the reasons using a mobile phone while driving (or even walking down the street!) — even with headphones, or mounted on a holder — is so dangerous, is that in conversation over the phone one’s mind wanders to be in the presence of the other person, mentally away from where one is physically to where one is mentally. What I’m suggesting is that this can happen in a good way, a spiritual way, when we are engaged with another in an act of pastoral care via Zoom or some other application — or even on the phone.

I would like to draw on two other saints from our tradition, two Francis’s. First, you may be familiar with the time that St. Clare visited St. Francis of Assisi in a vision while she was some 50 miles away — this is why she is the patron saint of television! More relevant, both to us as a community and to the question of pastoral care at a distance, is St. Francis de Sales. His work contributed to the foundation of the Sisters of the Visitation, without which we would very likely not be here, as it was through their presence on the Hudson River in Riverdale that our founder Brother Richard Thomas formed and shaped his vocation. St. Francis de Sales was renowned as a pastoral guide, but did most of his pastoral guidance and spiritual direction at a distance, by means of his own era’s primary communication technology: paper and pen and ink. One can read his letters still, and put one’s mind back to the 17th century, and receive spiritual guidance from one long dead — through the power of imagination.

Imagination is also key to another strand of our tradition that relates to pastoral care and spiritual guidance: the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola. The technique St. Ignatius commended is a form of spiritual imagination, in which one places oneself into the biblical scene as vividly imagined as possible. For example, in our readings for Morning Prayer this week, we can imagine ourselves walking in silence with the children of Israel around that mighty but doomed city Jericho, hearing nothing but the sounds of our own footsteps multiplied by thousands, and the harsh and frightening blaring of the rams’-horn trumpets, aware of the awesome presence of the Holy One in the ark leading our procession, catching on the air, through the stirred-up dust, the bitter scent of fear wafting down over the walls that will soon come tumbling down. Can’t you feel yourself there?

And so my brothers I urge you to use your imagination in your pastoral ministry, to use the tools provided to make your presence felt and to feel the presence of those with whom you minister, as best you can. We are in the midst of a fast — a fast from our usual tools of ministry, a fast from being able to gather in our churches as congregations. But let us not forget that the church is the church when it is scattered as much as it is the church when it is gathered — indeed, as the deacons remind us, this is when we get about the work we are called and empowered to do, loving and serving God and our neighbor. 

This is a time of fasting, but let us always recall that what counts in a fast is not what you give up but what you take on. Take on the work of imagination, and let it empower your ministry of service and pastoral care.

—Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG 
This is a reconstruction of an off-the-cuff presentation delivered via Zoom at the recent virtual Convocation of the Brotherhood of Saint Gregory.

May 5, 2020

A Prayer for Communion with Christ

Because of the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic, most Episcopal parishes have been unable to hold public worship, though many are live-streaming celebrations, bidding those at home to commune in spirit. Some have commended a prayer by Alphonsus Liguori. I would like to note, however, that the Episcopal Church has a resource for this situation, in the 1988 edition of A Prayer Book for the Armed Forces, edited by Howard Galley.* I believe this prayer is superior to the prayer by Liguori, and better congruent with the traditions of the Episcopal Church.

In union, O Lord, with your faithful people at every altar of your Church, where the Holy Eucharist is now being celebrated, I desire to offer to you praise and thanksgiving. I remember your death, Lord Christ; I proclaim your resurrection; I await your coming in glory. And since I cannot receive you today in the Sacrament of your Body and Blood, I beseech you to come spiritually into my heart. Cleanse and strengthen me with your grace, Lord Jesus, and let me never be separated from you. May I live in you, and you in me, in this life and in the life to come. Amen.

Note: the 1951 edition of the Armed Forces Prayer Book had this form:

In union, O Lord with the faithful at every altar of Thy Church, where the Holy Eucharist is now being celebrated, I desire to offer Thee praise and thanksgiving. I present to Thee my soul and body with the earnest wish that may always be united to Thee. And since I can not now receive Thee sacramentally, I beseech Thee to come spiritually into my heart. I unite myself to Thee, and embrace Thee with all the affections of my soul. Let nothing ever separate Thee from me. May I live and die in Thy love. Amen.

—with thanks for all who serve and all who hunger, Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
* I worked in the publication office of the international HQ-PECUSA (“815”) at the time, and assisted in the production; hence my familiarity with it.

April 6, 2020

On being alone

When Wesley taught that there is no such thing as a solitary Christian he was emphasizing his belief in a particular kind of realized ecclesiology — that the church is the church when it is gathered as a “Society.” Far be it from me to deny the social aspect of the church, of the Body of Christ composed of many members, and of the need Christians have for each other.

My concern is that in this time of enforced solitude for most if not all Christians — a solitude only lessened but never entirely erased by virtual fellowship — that those in isolation may put too much stock in the necessity of sociality, and neglect or forget the truth that the church is not only itself when gathered, but equally so when it is sent — even if that sending is to isolation rather than to mission. Many a saint (and many a sinner) have found in the depths of isolation the truth that lies on the other side of Wesley’s maxim: that there is no such thing as a solitary Christian because no Christian is ever entirely alone: she is part of the Body, like an outreached hand extended yet still attached to the arm, the shoulder, and the heart. Donne had it right when he pictured each of us as a promontory, not an island.

But there is more: there is no such thing as a solitary Christian because even in isolation, there is always One to keep her company; One who has been with her from the beginning; One who will never by separated from her by even so much as a hairs-breadth; One who is close enough that she can feel him breathing.

— Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

March 25, 2020

The Broken Body

The Holy Eucharist is about the assembled people of God, but it is not only about the assembly. For while it is true, as the Didache put it, that the grain once scattered on the hillside is in the Bread of Communion made one, it is also the case that that Bread is then broken and distributed — just as the assembly is dismissed at the end of the gathering, with a missionary purpose. We at present dwell in our sequestered isolation, viewing the celebration through the virtual "squints" of our laptops and tablets, unable to receive due to illness we may not actually have, but in fellowship with all those sick monastics and anchorites who saw the Eucharist only at a remove, through a narrow gap in the stone, or from the balcony — our fellowship, our communion, is no less real. This is the Body truly broken, to testify that it is in our dispersal, in our brokenness, that we find our true vocation as "given for the life of the world." Ite, missa est!

— Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

January 20, 2020

Sickness unto Death

Parts of the church are experiencing a kind of autoimmune disease in which the body attacks itself. Such conditions are always painful, and sometimes fatal.

This — among other things — is leading more and more people to realize that one does not need to be a “churchgoer'' or listed on a parish roll in order to be a Christian; it leads many into the company of those who see themselves as “spiritual but not religious.”

More and more people, for various reasons, are coming to see that institutional aspects of the faith have little or nothing to do with its core values. While it is true that one cannot be "a solitary Christian" there is no need to identify the locus of the community of faith with a parish — especially when that parish, and its leadership, adopt policies or practice behaviors so inimical to Christ and his teachings.

Christendom is not yet dead — but it is sick; and much of its sickness is self-inflicted, the product of its embrace of empire and institution at the expense of the Gospel.

September 16, 2019

Half Empty

St Luke’s Philadelphia • Sept 15 2019
RCL1: Jer 4:11-12,22-28; Ps 14; 1Tim 1:12-17; Lk 15:1-10

For thus says the Lord: The whole land shall be a desolation, yet I will not make a full end.✠

You have likely heard of the difference between an optimist and a pessimist, and how they see a glass as being either half-full or half-empty. I actually have such a glass at home, a wine glass with a line marked on the side half-way up (or down, depending on your point of view) with the words Optimist and Pessimist etched in the appropriate places above and below the line. Well, today’s passage from the prophet Jeremiah should leave us with no doubt on which side of the line he places himself. It is a good reminder of why he is thought of as a prophet of doom. No, Jeremiah clearly never got the memo, “Don’t be bringing me no bad news.”

What he speaks of in this morning’s passage is a hot blast of wind that sweeps everything away, not just to “winnow or cleanse,” no, but too strong for that, too strong for a mere dusting; this is a real grab it by the end and shake it out the window kind of wind. This is a knock it all down and start it all over kind of wind; if the Middle East had hurricanes, this would be category 5. Jerusalem then would look worse than the Bahamas does now.

The prophet looks, and in the aftermath of this terrific blast of wind, he sees nothing but a waste and void below, and nothing but darkness in the heavens above — Jeremiah quotes the words of Genesis, recalling the time before creation itself, before God filled the dark and empty void, before God called forth the light of heaven; this is the desolation of primeval un-creation.

Yet into this desolation, the prophet gives one hopeful word he has received from the Lord, one brief phrase of promise, one little shred of hope, like the still small voice that came after the winds and tempests and earthquakes that shattered the mountains: “Yet I will not make a full end.”

This little glimmer of hope, this whisper of a still, small voice with the shred of a promise, is a common theme in the words not just of Jeremiah, but of many of the prophets. Even when everything seems lost, when it seems all have turned bad and we are tempted to join the Psalmist in declaring that “there is none who does good, no not one” — there is still some remnant, some little portion, some crack in the drought-stricken soil into which a hopeful seed has found its way to bide its time until the rains come.

God had assured the despondent exile Elijah in that still, small voice, that there were more than a few left in Israel who had not bent their knee to Baal, that he was not alone in his struggle to remain faithful; Isaiah had received the promise that a remnant would return from exile in far Babylon; and Ezekiel would celebrate the promise that God would return to the once-forsaken, once-abandoned Temple. These prophets bear witness to this promise: However bad it gets, however dark the night and desolate the prospect, a slim, small hope for dawn abides. A portion, however small, remains. The handful of meal and teaspoon of oil will somehow last for three years; the glass that didn’t even seem so much as half-empty, the cup with just a few drops left in the bottom, turns out after all to be full to the brim.

+ + +

This seems to have been St Paul’s personal experience as well, though he applies it universally to the whole human condition. Like the desolation of the land described by Jeremiah, Paul’s condition — when he was still the unconverted Saul, before the light shined on him on the Damascus Road — was about as bad as bad can be: a blasphemer, a persecutor, a man of violence, foremost among sinners. And yet, in the midst of that parched, dry wilderness of anger, hatred, and self-righteousness, God was able to find the little shred of salvageable goodness that is still present in even the worst sinner, and make the most of it, stretching that little bit out to serve God’s purposes. Like the surprise of water in the desert suddenly welling up to overflow, God poured out mercy and grace upon one almost — but not completely — empty of any good, and made him into an instrument for the spread of God’s good word of promise.

+ + +

So much for the pessimists! Today’s Gospel looks at things more from the glass-half-full side. Just as half-empty (or even less than that) is not God’s ultimate will, so too even half-full isn’t good enough for God. Even almost full isn’t good enough for God. Jesus attests that he is not one to deal in acceptable losses, to say, “What’s one sheep lost when I’ve still got ninety-nine; what’s one dime out of a dollar lost under the sofa-cushion?” No, our God is not a God of acceptable losses; God wants it all. God will not suffer anything to be lost.

Now, I know it’s that time of year, and as tempting as the ten-percent proportion of one dime from a dollar might be, this is not going to be a sermon about tithing... Except... to remind us that the tithe is not all that God wants. God wants it all — all of us, in both senses of that phrase: every last one of us, and everything that each of us is and has, our whole heart and mind and soul and strength, all those faculties of ourselves the full extent of which we are called and challenged to apply to our love of God, as strongly and completely as our God loves each and all of us.

For in the end, it isn’t about proportion, about acceptable losses, but about the perfection of all in all. It isn’t about a glass half-empty or half-full, but completely full, abundance piled up and packed down, full to the brim and then to overflowing. God did not rest, at the first, at the beginning Jeremiah recalls for us, God did not rest until the days of creation were fulfilled and the Sabbath of completion was come. Nor will God rest in the work of the new creation in Christ until all is well, and every manner of thing is well, and complete, and full to overflowing, brought to perfection by him, and in him, and through him.

As today’s collect prays, we seek for the Holy Spirit’s direction and rule “in all things” — and the aid the Holy Spirit provides is not that desolating wind that levels the mountains but the powerful yet persuasive guidance of the Spirit as in the beginning, when the Spirit hovered over the uncreated deep. This is not a wind of desolation, but of creation, the new creation of all things — we seek this, the Holy Spirit’s aid, guiding and directing us so that our hearts may be completely given to God, vessels open to receive God’s gift of grace, that we might be filled — not just a bit, not just halfway, but to overflowing completion. Whether we find ourselves rescued by the skin of our teeth when we are almost entirely bereft and empty, or content to think ourselves satisfied with the half-measure we already have; whether we feel we are running on fumes or cruising along on half a tank; whether desolated by the blast of an ill wind, or mistakenly satisfied with the good-enough compromise for which we might be tempted to settle; God will surprise us with amazing grace, and shower us with blessings. Rejoice, then, my friends, for the lost has been found, and filled, and blessed; and join Saint Paul in his joyful acclamation: to the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

September 8, 2019

Beyond the Call of Duty

Church of the Advent, Federal Hill • Proper 18c 2019
Though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love.+

A mother once tried to teach her daughter about stewardship. She gave her a dollar bill and a quarter, and said, “It is up to you which you put into the offering plate.” During the sermon, the mother watched her weigh the possibilities — dollar in one hand and quarter in the other. Finally, when the plate came into her aisle, she nodded to herself and confidently put the quarter in the plate, then sat back with a contented sigh. After worship, her mother asked, “Why did you decide to put in the quarter?” The child responded, “Well, I was going to put in the dollar; but then the priest said, ‘God loves a cheerful giver,’ and I thought I’d be more cheerful if I kept the dollar.”

+ + +

Many Christians take this subjective view about stewardship: how does giving make me feel? This is the “Feel Good” school of giving. Problem is that while some may feel a glow of discipleship when they give generously, many — like this child — feel a glow of satisfaction when they hold on to as much as they can.

Our gospel today presents us a different view, not based on feelings but practicalities: considering how much it costs to build a tower or wage a war. This is the “Balanced Budget” school of giving. Its advantage over the “Feel Good” theory is that it is better engaged with the reality of what it costs to maintain a church. But it too has a down-side, as giving becomes commercialized, the church itself “monetized” (to use the modern term of art). Just as with “feel-good,” this view is focused not on God or the church, but on the giver, as it appears to say, “I support the church, for what I get out of it.”

Most people realize that this approach is too much like building a tower or waging a war. And while it smacks of common sense, it derives more from the spirits of Scrooge and Marley than those of Christmas past, present, and to come. If people think giving to the church is exchange for a product, a kind of “give and get,” they will come to see the church as if it were just another shop on the High Street where you pay your money and take your choice, a kind of vending machine that dispenses spiritual satisfaction when you put money in the slot. Such an attitude transforms believers into customers.

+ + +

Ultimately both of these views run aground on the astounding statement with which today’s gospel ends: “None of you can become my disciples if you do not give up all your possessions.” How shallow both “feel good” and “balance the budget” look in contrast to this astounding clam that Jesus makes on the disciples — including us! Even those who devote a significant portion of their income to the church — the ten percent of the biblical tithe — even the most generous must feel like pikers in light of the astounding challenge from Jesus: “None of you can become my disciples if you do not give up all your possessions.” What is five or ten percent or even more compared to all! What could Jesus mean by this astounding, ultimate demand?

+ + +

We will find an answer to this question in today’s second reading — the bulk of Paul’s letter to Philemon. We heard how important the runaway slave Onesimus has become to Paul as he suffered in prison; and how Paul trusts that when Onesimus returns to his master Philemon with this letter in hand, he will not suffer the fate imposed on runaways. Paul trusts Onesimus will be welcomed back as a brother in Christ; for he has become a Christian while with Paul, perhaps even a deacon. Paul’s poignant letter suggests as much in noting how Onesimus has been of service to him: how he has “deaconed” to Paul in his imprisonment. What’s more, Paul notes that Onesimus after all had not been a very good slave — beyond having run away, Paul says he had been “useless” — making a joke out the slave’s name, which in Greek means Useful. Upon his return, Paul suggests he will live up to his name and be “useful” indeed as more than a slave, not less: a brother in Christ, perhaps even to serve with him as a deacon. Paul assures Philemon that he is not demanding this: he wants Philemon to do a voluntary good deed, not something forced — even though Paul does remind him that he owes him more than he can possibly repay: “I say nothing” — thereby saying something! — “about your owing me even your own self” — echoing the teaching of Jesus.

Paul is saying Philemon can have his cake and eat it too! He can have the free service of a useful brother in place of the half-hearted work of a useless slave, by giving up a slave-master’s control-over, and instead cooperate-with him as a brother in Christ.

+ + +

And it is that “giving up” that connects with that hard saying of Jesus: “None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all of your possessions.” We don’t just owe God our possessions, after all, but, as Philemon owed Paul, our selves! Yet Jesus does not say, I’m taking your life — he wants us to live our lives in service, not throw our lives away. So too he doesn’t ask us here to “give away” all of our possessions, but to “give them up.” And the difference is suggestive: this is about surrender, not commerce. He wants us to “give up” to him, as the old hymn says, to “surrender all” to him! It is about learning how to loosen our grip on what we have, treating it not as something controlled by us, but as ultimately coming to us as a gift from God — as indeed our lives come as a gift from God, and God wants us to give them up in return as well. We are called to treat what we have been given with the same kind of liberty with which Paul counseled Philemon to treat his former slave, and to do so voluntarily, not under compulsion or as doing our duty, but as going beyond the call of duty into the realm of the freedom of the children of God. In that realm there are no more slaves, but all are free — free because we have given up, we have surrendered to God, whose service is perfect freedom.

We are not called simply to balance the books and pay our share so that we get what we pay for
and what we think we deserve. Friends, I assure you that if we got what we deserved we would be neither cheerful nor proud!

But when we treat all we have been given — including our very selves, our souls and bodies — not as “ours” to control but as the free gift of a generous God, and which we return to God as a reasonable and holy sacrifice — then we will find ourselves going beyond the call of duty to maintain the church. We will be embarking on the mission of spreading God’s kingdom of freedom, in which all are God’s children.

Yes, it is our duty to maintain our little corner of the kingdom here on South Charles Street, to do what it takes to support its work and worship. But we are called to do much more; to be God’s servants, not slaves working only because they have to, but children of God who work so hard because they love their Father in heaven, and love their brothers and sisters so very much.

If this spirit of generosity and freedom can fill us all who knows what might happen? Let me tell you one last thing. Onesimus the runaway slave became so useful in the church that decades later he shows up again in Christian history — as bishop of the church of Ephesus! Who would have thought a useless runaway slave could become such a useful servant of God?

When we give up and surrender all to God, who knows what God might make of us? When we go beyond feeling good; when we go beyond balancing the budget; God will surprise us with amazing grace, doing infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. Though I am bold enough in Christ to suggest you do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love. To God alone — who is Love — be the glory, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.+

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

August 4, 2019

New Selves

Proper 13c • Church of the Advent
Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth

A wise old bishop once delivered a rousing sermon on the subject of “God’s Ownership” — in part inspired by today’s readings. It went over very well, except in the eyes of one wealthy member of the congregation. He was one of the richest in town, and the sermon simply didn’t sit right with him. But rather than merely button-holing the bishop at the church door, he invited him to a tour of his estate, showing off his gardens, woods, and farm. Finally, he confronted the bishop, and said, “Now, are you still going to tell me that all of this does not belong to me?” The bishop paused, and then with a gentle smile asked, “ Will you be able to ask me the same question in a hundred years.”

The wisdom of the bishop’s response is evident. If you’ve ever watched the TV shows about the great mansions and estates of the financiers and hotel magnates, the oil barons and stockbrokers, you know that with very few exceptions these great properties are no longer owned even by the descendants of the original owners. All but a very few are now owned and operated by local governments, serving as parks or museums.

Today’s Scripture readings address the same issue: the temporary nature of the relationship that we have with our possessions, with what we like to think of as “ours.” Both our Lord, and wise old Solomon, tell us that whatever we have, whatever we own, is ours only temporarily. Vain efforts such as that of the woman who was buried in her Cadillac only go to prove the truth of the old saying, You can’t take it with you. Whatever we have of worldly goods, are just that: of this world, and destined to stay in this world when we have left it.

Now this truth might fill you with pessimism and despair, as it did old Solomon; or you might react with horror, as the man in the parable no doubt reacted when God’s sentence fell thundering upon him. Solomon sought joy in his wealth and power, building up a great empire, and gathering many possessions — yet in the end he was left with bitterness, since he knew that he would have to leave it all to someone after him, who might well be a fool unable to appreciate it. The rich man in the parable, less wise than Solomon, can’t see what’s coming until God calls him up short. He gathers and gathers his goods, stores them up and is just ready to begin enjoying them when God snatches his very life away. In neither case do the owners actually enjoy their possessions: Solomon’s present joy is overcome by his cynicism about the future; and the rich man, who has taken no time to enjoy his goods but deferred his enjoyment in great plans for the future, suddenly finds he has no future left.

But are cynical despair or outraged horror the only answers to this dilemma — this dilemma brought about by misunderstanding the relationship between our selves and our possessions? Is there a way out of Solomon’s cynical selfishness, that couldn’t bear the thought that someone else less worthy than he might enjoy his wealth? Is there a way out of the rich man’s myopic selfishness, so short-sighted he didn’t even consider his own mortality?

Of course there is, and Saint Paul outlines the key to liberation in his Letter to the Colossians. The way away from selfishness lies in discovering the new self, the new self that does not delight in mere wealth, the new self that does not depend on things for its identity, but finds a new identity in the image of its creator.

The things from which this new creation liberates us aren’t just external possessions — though that is where liberation starts. Saint Paul begins by urging us to set aside external things like idolatrous greed, but then he also bids us set aside more internal matters of the heart, such as anger, wrath, and malice. Then, in a bold move that must have astonished his hearers, he goes even further, and assures us that in the new creation we can even set aside aspects of our selves so intimate that most of us can’t help but see them as intrinsic to our very selves.

We are so used to hear talk of our “ethnic identity” — something as close to us as our skin. How many wars have been fought, how many lives have been ruined or lost because of the amount of pigment in our skins! How much wrongheaded pride, how much spiteful and irrational hatred has been focused on the color of our skin, down through humanity’s sorry history? And in light of yesterday’s horrors, only the most recent in a continued string of outrages: how much misguided nationalism has undone whole nations. Has any nation ever really prospered — in the long run — because of xenophobic nationalism? It isn’t just morally wrong; it is objectively wrong, in that it doesn’t achieve its own objective!

Yet Paul assures us that we can shed even our skin — and how much more easily, our nationality, which is after all only a fictive identity based on the circumstance of where you are born, and makes no real even skin-deep contribution to your reality — all of this can be shed and stripped away like a piece of worn-out clothing. For there is no more Jew nor Greek, barbarian nor Scythian, Saint Paul assures us, but only Christ. Just think how shocking that sounded to those Jews and Greeks to whom he wrote and spoke, people for whom these terms were central to their whole way of life. Now let him speak to us and say, There is no more Mexican nor American, no European, Asian, or African, but only Christ. We have stripped off this old worldly identity, and clothed ourselves in him, and assumed a costume that reflects our true identity as God’s children — citizens of no nation but the kingdom of heaven. We can put on the new self, be clothed in Christ in our baptism, the clothing that hides all our peculiarities, so that only our Christ-likeness remains visible. And this clothing, this new self, this imperishable identity, will never wear out, never fade, never be taken from us. When we are clothed in Christ, in the image of our creator, we are clothed for ever. ✠

July 28, 2019

Debt Forgiveness

Church of the Advent, Federal Hill • Proper 12c
Jesus said, Forgive us our sins, for we forgive everyone indebted to us…
A key biblical theme concerns God’s efforts to determine guilt or righteousness, summed up in the image of God as the Almighty Judge. In our passage from Genesis today, God takes this role, setting out to see if the Cities of the Plain are as bad as people say. God tells Abraham the plan, but to put it bluntly Abraham is upset, for surely, no matter how bad those cities, there must be some innocent — or even righteous — people among the citizens. And so Abraham appears to test the limits of God’s indignation, winnowing down the collateral losses to what you can count on ten fingers.

However, while Abraham tests the limits of God’s justice, God is testing the limits of Abraham’s mercy. The verses immediately preceding our passage today — omitted by the editors of the Lectionary — reveal God’s agenda. God asks himself, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, seeing that Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? No, for I have chosen him, that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice...”

So when God presents Abraham with a plan for genocide, it is in part to determine just what sort of patriarch Abraham will be. Will he take the hard line of strict justice and say, “Yes; wipe them out, the whole lot of them,” — or will he adopt a higher justice, and speak up for the possibility that even amongst the worst there may be some worth saving, and that corporate responsibility has its limits? God is not just testing Abraham’s righteousness, but an equally important quality — the quality of mercy.
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And the chief quality of mercy is the ability to forgive. There is no question but that a debt is owed, and justice demands it; but mercy stands by to intercede. And as Jesus taught his disciples, when they asked to learn the skill of prayer, our prayers for forgiveness of our sins against God are answered in direct proportion to the extent we forgive others their sins against ourselves; that mercy is shown to us from above not in proportion to the earnestness of our bidding, but in proportion to how much we show mercy here around us, to those who bid us be merciful.

As Shakespeare eloquently reminds us, mercy is “an attribute to God himself.” Mercy above gazes into the pool of mercy below, and sees a reflection that is immediately recognizable: the image of a loving, forgiving God. This is what God is looking for in testing Abraham, and each of us — that mirrored reflection of God’s own ever-merciful and forgiving loving-kindness.

God sets the example in this — the example of mercy as opposed to the example of justice — by forgiving us, in Christ, when we are so far gone as to be “dead in our trespasses” — and the only way out is for God in Christ to take up our bill of debts, the legal indictment written against us, and nail it to the cross, as the Almighty Judge becomes the Merciful Savior.

In fact, judgment is the one aspect of God — in whose image we are made — that we are instructed not to emulate, in words of one syllable (at least in the KJV), “Judge not lest ye be judged.” We are instead challenged to defer judgment, and to practice its opposite, mercy — not to judge as God judges, but to be merciful as God is merciful. Again, as Shakespeare put it, “Earthly power doth then show likest God’s When mercy seasons justice.” And so we say, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive those indebted to us.”
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There have been a number of forms of debt forgiveness in the news lately, and it is helpful to think of them in this light, standing at the opposite pole from judgment and debt collection, inviting us to show our God-like-ness when we season justice with the savor of divine loving-kindness.

The first of these likely strikes some of us closer to home than others, and on the debit side of the books: the proposal to forgive student debt. This past graduation season, a financially successful Morehouse graduate offered to pay off the graduating class’s debt. Most warmly welcomed this generous gesture, though as with some of the characters in Jesus’ parable of the generous manager, a few who were outside the reach of this generosity, or who had already paid off their debt, felt a bit cheated.

But there is another form of forgiveness that runs even deeper, and resonates with the theme of corporate responsibility that informs the story of the Cities of the Plain. And that is finding a way to repair the deep wound in the American psyche inflicted by the institution of slavery. The popular word for this work is reparations, but that word is — in many minds — unfortunately linked solely with the idea of financial settlement. But as Bishop Sutton has noted so eloquently, and as the Diocesan Convention voted unanimously, reparation for the corporate failing of slavery is not about balancing accounts — as if one could possibly do that. Even were we interested solely in a financial judgement, how could we figure it. How could we total the columns on abduction, forced labor, destroyed families, brutality, and the indignity and insult to humanity that is at the cold heart of slavery… to say nothing of the long heritage of systematic racism, discrimination, segregation, and disproportionate imprisonment, that are the stepchildren of slavery. Justice? You want justice? As the slave-owning Thomas Jefferson himself admitted, “I tremble for my country when reflect that God is just.”

But thank God we know that God is also merciful, and that when the heights of justice are too steep for us to ascend, we can still draw upon the deep pool of mercy available to us through the grace of that same God. We cannot wipe away the sins of the past, but we can work to repair the damage that persists into the present. You cannot unbreak a broken arm, but you can provide medical care to heal it. This is a work of corporate reparation for corporate wrongs — for our church and for our society, for there is no corner of this nation that did not profit from the institution of slavery during the centuries it prevailed, and in the century and a half since its formal end.

We are all called to do our part in that work of repair and restoration, even if only a portion of the people take up that work, even only ten out of a city of ten thousand. Our Bishop and our Diocese have called us to this work of mercy, and we have our Lord’s assurance that it is through such acts of mercy shown to others that we will find mercy shown to us.

We dare not ask for our daily bread while others hunger. We dare not hallow God’s great name, or call for the coming of God’s kingdom, if we do not honor God’s likeness in those whom God names his children, and make the kingdom real among us by letting the world know us to be Christians by our love. We dare not stay tucked up in the security of our lives when the knock comes to the door beseeching help —if we expect the door to open for us when we also knock. God is calling us to mercy, testing us as he tested Abraham, offering us the chance to escape the time of trial that awaits us in the end, by doing what is merciful in the here and now. Lord, may it be so. ✠

— Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG