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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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

April 7, 2019

New Resource from Church Publishing

This is my latest work to be published by Church Publishing Incorporated. It consists of reflections on the liturgy and spirituality of the Episcopal Church, though it has applications beyond its bounds. It is available on the Church Publishing website, and from many book dealers. Here are some testimonials from the back jacket:

“In his brilliant new work, Re-membering God,  Tobias Haller takes the stuff of the Sunday gathering and describes it in loving detail, as one might describe a precious object of art. Both erudite and accessible, this volume is wide-ranging and beautiful and will serve those who want to go more deeply into the culture, history, and practice of the Episcopal Church. Part theological reflection, part love poem, Haller’s work is a humane text for gaining cultural literacy in all things Church.” 
— Paul Fromberg, St. Gregory of Nyssa, San Francisco, and author of The Art of Transformation

“At the sunrise of a new century, the church squints to discern its way forward in faithful, fruitful mission. In these pages, Tobias Stanislas Haller proves himself a clear-sighted companion in this quest. If you are passionate about the vitality of today’s church, I encourage you to accompany him on his mystagogical excursion into the liturgical landscape. You will rediscover a familiar place rife with fresh provisions planted by the God who longs to feed our deepest hungers and hopes.”
—Jay Koyle, chair, Faith, Worship and Ministry of The Anglican Church of Canada

March 29, 2019

The latest exhibit for Episcopal Church and the Visual Arts is now online. I had the honor to serve as curator.

—Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

February 24, 2019

Room at the Table

It was announced recently that spouses of bishops were invited to attend the 2020 Lambeth Conference, except for the spouses who happened to be of the same sex as the bishop. Reportedly, the disinvitation was handled personally, in a communication from the Archbishop of Canterbury to each of the disinvited.

This disinvitation comes about as an effort to ensure that at least some of those bishops who might be offended by the presence of such spouses will feel able to attend. Of course, it may lead some bishops — offended by the disinvitation itself — to choose not to attend.

Part of this can be put down to the English anxiety about protocol and etiquette that agonizes about seating plans at banquets and who can be reliably seated next to whom, or even more perilously, who simply cannot be invited because Someone Else would be offended at their presence. This concern is a real one, but while it may have a place in a social setting, or at the diplomatic table, it seems far less appropriate for a church. Even in a social setting, as Dear Abby pointed out to the lady who didn't want to have “that sort” in her home even though she had been invited to theirs, “Perhaps you are living in the wrong sort of neighborhood." But neighborhoods are one thing, and the church quite another.

This is, of course, one of the great ironies of the Anglican Malaise of the last few decades: which centers on the paradox of the high and valued goal of seeking unity in Christ, while at the same time being willing to excise or exclude some members of the body whom others find offensive. The goal, quite simply, is not unity, but majority. It marks a wholesale by-in to an ideal Girardian “scapegoat” ethic in which the supposed well-being of the bulk of the body is maintained by judging and excluding a subset of its members. For the church, it is a form of self-mutilation.

The exclusionary advice of Paul of Tarsus notwithstanding (as he seems on his bad days not to have been averse to shunning and exclusion, in particular shunning and excluding those who sought to shun and exclude — and you can see how that works in the end) the Founder appears to me to have rejected such strategies, preferring to let good and bad in this fallen world of ours mingle, unjudged and unsorted, until he has Time to do that work at the last.

His method, it seems, is to do good, treating all the same, and let the chips fall where they may. The church could, and probably will, do worse.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

February 14, 2019

Call to Artists

ECVA is pleased to announce its Spring 2019 Member Exhibition, "Worship the Lord in the Beauty of Holiness." The exhibition will be digitally displayed at ECVA Member Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG will curate. Submissions are open: January 15 through March 9, 2019.
- online at April 14, 2019 -

Iconography by Tobias Haller BSG

WORSHIP AND PRAISE OF THE DIVINE has taken many forms through time and space. Much of it has been verbal, but the words of prayer and liturgy have often been accompanied by a humble sense of their inadequacy to comprehend the incomprehensible greatness of God. At the same time, suspicion of (and even harsh antagonism toward) visual representations of the Divine have often starved the eye to favor the ear, neglecting the truth expounded by Saint Gregory the Great that imagery offers a path to understanding for those unskilled in words--and when it comes to the ultimate quest of faith seeking better understanding of God we all lack sufficient skill.

IT IS LIKELY BEST TO ALLOW the verbal and the visual to serve hand in hand and side by side, as they have done for most of religious history apart from those times in which austere iconoclasm dominated the religious sphere. A more tolerant attitude to the visual allows each of these modes of expression to fulfill the goals best suited to the minds and hearts of those who worship. After all, at the heart of our Eucharistic worship, all of the words eventually serve to consecrate and sanctify those very tangible and physical elements of bread and wine, taken and consumed as a sacramental participation in the life of the Incarnate God.

SO IT IS THAT ART (and the arts) are servants in the human quest for engagement with the Divine. In this present call, visual artists in all media at their disposal are encouraged to "incarnate" their visions in dialogue with the texts of the Eucharistic liturgies of the Book of Common Prayer--perhaps inspiring a "Gallery of Common Vision" to stand side by side with those venerable words: the beauty of holiness mirrored in the holiness of beauty, the union of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful as a pointer towards the ineffable and inexpressible that is beyond our grasp--but as close as every breath we take.

- Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG, Curator

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG retired after 16 years as Vicar of St. James Fordham (Bronx, NY). While in New York he served diocesan leadership, at General Convention, and on the Anglican Communion Indaba Reference Group. Now living in Baltimore, he continues to supply and is an associate at Church of the Advent. He is a member of the Brotherhood of Saint Gregory, and a Commander of the Order of St. John. He is an iconographer, visual artist, and musician. His publications include The Episcopal Handbook Revised (Church Publishing 2015), and Preparing for a Wedding in the Episcopal Church (Church Publishing 2017). His next, Re-membering God: Human Hope and Divine Desire is on Church Publishing's spring list; it includes chapters on liturgy, art, music, and architecture as human articulations of this quest.

Criteria for Artist Entry
Current members of The ECVA Artist Registry are invited to submit images of works in 2D and 3D, video and film. Member artists are encouraged to submit up to 2 works for this exhibition. The exhibition curator will make selections from entries received: submission of an entry to this exhibition is not a guarantee of inclusion in this exhibition. To learn more about The ECVA Artist Registry, to join, or to renew membership, visit The Artist Registry at ECVA.

For each submission:

Send a digital image that is 72 dpi, and is 600px on the longest side, and is under 1MB, and is in JPG, TIF, or PNG format, and,

Name your image file this way: your name and artwork title, and,

For video/film works, in addition to a still shot (poster image) from your video, include a link to your video at your Vimeo or YouTubeRed account; videos from YouTubeStandard accounts will not be considered, and

Submit an artist statement for each entry and one artist bio, together about 300 words. If a work has been collaboratively executed, please submit a group artists' statement and group, and,

Include your preferred email address and your contact phone number that the curator can use to contact you with questions.

Send your submission by email to

Contact Joy Jennings, ECVA Exhibitions,
“It is the policy of Episcopal Church & Visual Arts, Inc. that all rights in copyright shall remain with the creator."

December 30, 2018

Not Our Doing

Christmas 1 • Holy Covenant Episcopal Church, Baltimore 
When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.
One occasionally hears of somebody called a “self-made” man or woman. You may be familiar with Horatio Alger and his tales of rags to riches; or perhaps Madame C. J. Walker and the story of how she built up a cosmetic firm by the sweat of her brow and the work of her hands. Perhaps it is some poor immigrant who managed to scrape together the money to start a small business, and the business grew and prospered and he or she ended up a millionaire. And while not wanting to diminish admiration for such a person’s industry, inventiveness, skill and hard work — such a person is not self-made.

Before, behind, and along with every such successful person, there is a cloud of investors, clients, collaborators, and customers. The inventor who comes up with a clever new device needs an attorney to help file a patent, a manufacturer to produce the item, marketers to advertise and merchants to sell it, investors to pay for all of this, and — most importantly — customers to buy it.

So it is that none of us become who we are on our own. Whatever else we may make of our lives,there is at least one unavoidable point at which we cannot and do not  do it for ourselves: at our birth. We come into being because of something our parents did before we were born. We simply did not exist at the point at which we came into existence. In this earthly birth we are born of blood, of flesh, and of the will of a man and a woman. We do not make ourselves.
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And, as our Scripture texts for this Sunday after Christmas remind us, we also do not redeem ourselves. Just as we had no say in our first birth, so it is that we have little say in our second birth — though that second birth is something in which we may cooperate and be aware of as it happens. For in our second birth, through receiving Jesus Christ into our hearts and believing in his name, through baptism in water and the Holy Spirit, we become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man — or of woman, for that matter — but of God.

Saint Paul uses the image of adoption for this wonderful transformation — and just as children do not conceive or bear themselves neither do adopted children achieve adoption on their own — both birth and adoption are something that happen to us. We become ourselves through others. No one is self-made.
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In this, as in so much else, the Son of God is utterly different. Even his “beginning” is different from ours. We are not aware of our own beginnings, conceived by actions of our mother and father, when we as yet were not — but the Son of God had no beginning, no “was not”: when the beginning was, he was. He was in the beginning, and had no beginning himself.

And as Son of God, unlike any of us — who do not even exist at the moment of our conception, since that is when we come into existence — unlike any of us, the Son of God knew what was to happen, and what was happening when, as Saint Paul says, “God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.” He was and is, as the Creed says, “God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God.” If there ever was a self-made man, it was and is Jesus Christ — and only him. As the great old hymn says, “No man works like him,” and no man is like him.

What is truly wonderful, however, is that the Son of God, in an act of great humility, also makes use of human beings to cooperate with him in this grand invention of salvation. God sent the prophets to prepare the way for his coming. God sent his angel to Mary of Nazareth, and her obedient consent to the angel’s greeting, her choice and consent to do as God asked and become the mother of the holy Child, realized the Incarnation itself. In this, and in this alone, Jesus in his human nature, is not a self-made man — he is made of the substance of his mother Mary.

God also sent that man named John, the last and greatest of the prophets, as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. And so it is that Jesus Christ, the self-made man, as God the Word made flesh, came to live among us and to save us.

This, my friends, is the Christmas gift, the greatest gift ever given — for he gave us himself in order that we might give ourselves to him and become his brothers and sisters by adoption. He sent his Spirit into our hearts crying out “Abba, Father,” to God our Father — our Creator by our birth, our master through his Lordship, but “our Father” by adoption through his Son. This is no more our doing than any adoption of a child is the child’s doing; this new birth in the Spirit is no more our doing than our first birth in the flesh — we do not make ourselves, and we do not redeem ourselves; and we cannot save ourselves.

But we can cooperate in the work of salvation when we give praise and thanks to the one who saved us, who adopted us as his own children, and sent his Spirit — the Spirit of his Son — into our hearts, leading us by his light, and from whose fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. We cooperate with God by our celebration of praise and thanksgiving, for the greatest gift ever given, the grace of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.

And so may this grace of ✠ God the Father, the love of God the Son, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with us now this Christmastide and abide with us for ever more.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

July 9, 2018

On Inclusive and Expansive Language

Words are not what they represent. That is the whole point of the gracious untruth of metaphor — not actually true but pointing to some truth — that is true of all language. Words are like actors playing a part, whether they strut and fret their hour on the stage, or move the hearts and minds of those who behold to share the emotion or the idea the author intends. But actors are not the character they portray, except in those rare instances when billed as Himself or Herself. They are playing a part, a role that points away from themselves towards a character, historically real or fantastically fictional. Bad actors are the ones who constantly remind you who they are. Acting, like metaphor, is deception that tells a truth.

The form of that deception is the issue at hand. There was a time when it was considered normal for an actor playing Othello to “black up” for the part, though even by the time Laurence Olivier did so it was challenged as unnecessary. In our time we barely blink at Adams, Burr, and Hamilton portrayed by Latino, African-American, or Asian actors — tacit permission being given for the members of formerly appropriated cultures to have some payback, and to raise our consciousness to the fact that these secondary characteristics are not at the heart of the characters portrayed. Perhaps a time will come when actors will once again be free to emulate these secondary characteristics without fear of offense.

It is the same with our language about God and humanity: we are now in a time where people are acutely aware of how jarring it sounds to speak of God only in masculine terms, and to insist that man includes women — sometimes jarringly so as in the old definition, “Man is a mammal having large external breasts for nursing its young.” Perhaps after a time of exposure to the wealth of expansive language that can point us in a Godward direction, we will once again be free to speak of God as “King” without particularly calling the usual gender of kings to mind.

All of these words, like actors, serve until they retire gracefully from the stage; as all must. The time will come when words of prophecy will fall silent, and tongues will cease. We will some day, as Prospero did, deeper than ever plummet sounded, drown our books — even the Book of Common Prayer and the Bible — for we will be in the presence of the Word, before whom all other words, and we ourselves, must bow.

—Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

June 23, 2018

Lost Liberty

We never learned what woke her from her slumber,
what caused her to awake and look around
confused, demented, lost, not knowing where
she was. Wide-eyed, she climbed down gingerly
from the perch she'd held these many years,
to creep down off the base, then  step into 
the blue-black water, shoulders shrugged against
the cold, a little gasp, a wrinkled brow.
She waded to the so-familiar shore,
unplaceable and strangely foreign now,
and clambered up the bank, her spikey crown
atilt, its sharp points catching in the branches.
She hasn't got a clue now, where she is.
She wanders on these lonely streets, eyes wide
but vacant, recognizing nothing, feeling
that she ought to know this place. Her copper
gown is stained and ragged. She had dropped
the torch and book in getting off her perch;
they rolled into the water, sank, and dis-
appeared. The passersby avoid her, feel 
ashamed, as in, “How shameful that a poor
demented woman should be on the streets 
like this. Someone should do something.”
None does. They cut the budget. It's too late.

She shuffles on, head down, eyes up, as if
by looking hard she might still find her way. 

—Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

February 24, 2018

Celebrate the Feast

Mount Calvary, Camp Hill PA • Feb 24 2018
The Funeral of Br Luke Anthony Nowicki BSG
Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Death has been swallowed up in victory.+
Anyone who knew Brother Luke Anthony knows that he liked to eat. I knew Luke Anthony for almost forty years, and shared many a meal with him during that time, in many different settings. In part because of this familiarity, I noticed one of the first signs that he might be dealing with a serious illness late last December. He was with a group of us Gregorians at Lin’s Buffet, one of his favorite restaurants. But not only did Luke not make his normal second trip to the buffet, he didn’t finish what was on his plate from the first trip. Now, Lin’s Buffet was Brother Luke’s idea of something close to paradise. Whenever he talked about going there for lunch, he would get a gleam of anticipation in his eye, such as a mystic might when speaking of heaven. And Luke Anthony got that same look in his eye when he spoke of the Holy Eucharist — another feast that meant so much to him. So I am confident that Luke’s choice of the Old Testament passage from Isaiah has something to do with a vision of heaven as a bit like Lin’s Buffet; as Isaiah says, God’s provision of “a feast of rich food” for all peoples, a truly international buffet.

As that passage from Isaiah reveals, Luke was far from the first to associate an abundance of food in rich variety with a vision of paradise. More importantly, Christians have long associated the earthly celebration of the Holy Eucharist with the heavenly banquet. Now some might be tempted to think that bread and wine are insufficient provision for a banquet, providing only a limited buffet hardly worth the name. So it is good to recall the old legend of the Holy Grail and of the knights dedicated to its service: for the Grail was the cup of the Last Supper, and the knights devoted to its service lived entirely and solely on Eucharistic Bread and Wine as their only food and drink, and yet each who partook of those simple elements experienced them, so say the legends, as “whatever food each liked best, containing all variety.” In, with, and under those two simple elements of the oblation, an infinity of perfect satisfaction was to be found and tasted.

So it is that simplicity can convey complexity, a single promise realize an infinity of fulfillment. In the same way, there is more to Isaiah’s vision than merely an abundance of food. This is no ordinary meal, not even an ordinary feast, but a banquet set for a purpose, a feast with a reason. It is a celebration feast, a way to mark and rejoice in deliverance. And as with so much in Isaiah, it is not about deliverance just for the children of Israel, but for all the peoples of the world. It is not merely deliverance from hunger or sorrow or disgrace — though it is that — but deliverance from an old enemy. Isaiah pictures him as a funeral shroud or winding sheet, the old enemy Death, dressed in the tattered old sheet of a Hallowe’en costume. Death is the one whom the Lord God, at his coming, will sweep away and swallow up, whipped out of sight and mind much as a magician might pull the tablecloth away from the dining table in a flash, leaving the banquet standing still and undisturbed.

As Saint Paul observes, continuing the image deployed by Isaiah, “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” Death — the thing we feared, the thing that led us to weeping and sorrow, the enemy that each of us mourns in others and dreads for ourselves, turns out to be perishable goods. Death itself dies, swallowed up in the victory of life. All of its pretended power and might is swallowed up, to serve as little more than an hors d’oeuvre, a mere appetizer, a first course before the feast of life begins.

That feast of life is spread for us today, as it has been spread for nigh on 2,000 years, beginning in that upper room amidst a band of disciples with their master. It has been celebrated since in every conceivable circumstance and situation. And it is common to speak of this Eucharistic feast as a foretaste of the heavenly banquet. But I would like to affirm to you today that it is not merely a foretaste or anticipation: it is participation in the heavenly banquet itself, the Real Presence of the Promise. It derives its power as a promise assured by the One who made the promise, and gave the command: “Do this!”

We don’t always take him at his word, so he gently reassures us. Look at Jesus gently correcting Martha when she thinks he is referring to some far off future resurrection of the dead yet to come: He assures her that the resurrection life was — and is — present to all who believe, who though they die, will live, and that life will come to her dead brother in mere minutes. Such are his promises, such his reassurance. And just as the power of the resurrection cuts through time and space and makes its real presence felt not only in the there and then of a distant past or distant future, but in the here and now of every instant in a Christian life, so too the heavenly banquet is not merely set in heaven, but set here and now before us, and before every gathering of Christians when they follow the command, and “do this.” Whether at a simple table set in an upper room, a grand marble altar in a great cathedral, or a cart on wheels at a hospital bedside in intensive care, it isn’t the table that matters, but the meal.

Jesus had shared the table fellowship and graced the home of Mary and Martha and Lazarus many times. He sat at the table in Bethany as starry-eyed Mary listened to his teaching, while practical Martha busied herself with her pots and pans — and Lazarus perhaps looked on with some amusement, though the Gospel gives us no explicit witness. Lazarus would be the first — even before Jesus — to taste the power of the resurrection. But he could not, would not enjoy that resurrection before he had tasted death — any more than Christ himself could pass that first course by.

Death: Lazarus’ death, Luke Anthony’s death, your death, my death, are in this feast and banquet bound together and tied up with the death of Jesus Christ our Lord. He has swallowed up death, as did Lazarus and Luke, as I will and as you will, that piquant palate cleanser before we sit to dine for ever at the feast of resurrection in the heavenly kingdom. But remember — remember as our Lord and Savior bids us do — that our Eucharist today is not just a foretaste of that heavenly banquet. It is participation in the banquet itself. Lazarus and Luke are seated even now — in that timeless Now of God’s good time — seated even now on the other side of the table from us, together with all who have gone before, all our loved ones, all the saints; and all the sinners too, redeemed by the one in whom they put their trust. It is one banquet, however often and wherever it is celebrated, one banquet for our one Lord, in whom we all are one through one baptism: baptized into his death that we may share in his life. Death has been swallowed up in victory. Therefore let us celebrate the feast.+