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.+

February 9, 2018

On Prayer Book Revision (Satire)

Image result for book of common prayer

Word has it that the topic of Prayer Book Revision is back on the front burner for The Episcopal Church's decision makers. I do not wish to intrude myself in the debates, but I would like to suggest that the revision process be fully informed by changes in the world that might have some impact on the usefulness of the liturgical texts for the next several decades. It may well be worth considering including some or all of the following new forms of prayer and worship, just to keep up with the times:

  • Prayers for the Imperial Family
  • An Office in Time of Nuclear War
  • An Extraordinary Form for Celebration of the Holy Eucharist with Elements other than Bread and Wine Should They No Longer Exist
  • Dedication of a Mass Grave
  • Burial of Neighborhoods by Sea (together with A Form for the Submersion of Dedicated Churches)
Also helpful would be the reintroduction of two Offices from 1892 and earlier that were unaccountably excised in the optimistic world of 1928; given the climate (atmospheric and political) both seem timely for the years to come:

  • Forms of Prayer to be Used at Sea, and
  • A Form of Prayer for the Visitation of Prisoners (including the special form for Persons under sentence of death)

I'm sure you can think of other useful liturgical items. Please make suggestions in the comments below.


February 7, 2018

God without Sex

The biblical texts portray God as Father because God is the creative source of all life. In the era in which the biblical texts were composed, the male was believed to be the active, creative contributor to human (and animal) reproduction; the female was understood to be passive, contributing the substance from which the creative force shaped offspring. So while biblical authors may well have conceived of God as male, they did so not on the basis of revelation, but due to their misunderstanding of the reproductive process. Pinning theology to this misunderstanding of biology is as pointless as pinning our understanding of the universe to a mistaken cosmology.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

December 2, 2017

Secret Faults

I think a great learning for our time will come in exploration of the question: What is acceptable but profoundly wrong in our own time and culture? — just as acceptable as were slavery to the founding fathers and sexual harrassment to the bosses in their corner offices, and just as profoundly wrong; wrong then and wrong now.

But what other things in our present culture are equally bad, but equally accepted?

Systemic racism is just one such thing, still too acceptable by some. And systemic sexism, enacted into practice by unequal pay and unfair policies, feeds and nourishes a culture in which women still are second class citizens.

But what else is in there, at the roots of our culture, accepted, but rotten at the root? What wrongs are so accepted that no one but the victim notices, and keeps silent because “that’s just the way things are.” The Psalmist had it right, “Who can tell how often he offends? Cleanse me from my secret faults....”

—Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

November 29, 2017

New Version of Psalm 23

The Lord is my shepherd; he's really great; the best. I don't need anything... takes me to the best places, golfing — the greens are beautiful, really good. Nice lake. Takes great care of the highways, really good care... sign with his name on it, so he gets the credit. Great job! Even out in Death Valley... I was there once. Really hot, but heat doesn't bother me. He sent his whole staff, we had a good meeting. Very good meeting. Nice lunch, even with Chuck and Nancy there. Losers. But we’re doing great things. Really good things, always. 


November 26, 2017

Remembered Music

Some members of the parish at which I'm an associate (Advent, Baltimore) have inspired me to dig out my recorders and start playing again. I was an avid recorder player in high school and college, and played in a consort (“The Flying Buttresses”) in my early years in NY, and during my time in the choir at Saint Luke in the Fields.

Since then the instruments languished, and I fell out of practice. Happy to say that much of it comes back, somewhat like bicycling, though I am by no means back up to speed or agility. But I'm continuing to practice every day, and enjoying playing music I much missed. Hoping to connect with other recorder and early music enthusiasts, and play a bit with the parishioners who inspired me to get back into the swing of things, I've even rejoined the American Recorder Society after a 30 year hiatus, and will look into the Maryland Early Music Society.

(The image is from the late 80s or early 90s... playing an alto recorder at a Brotherhood of St Gregory liturgy.)

November 18, 2017

The price of liberty, or libertines

I’m sure I'm not the only one who has noticed that in an era where hard-core porn is accessible to fingertip reach on ubiquitous screens, and things appear on network TV that in earlier years would have been subject to prosecution even if displayed in private smoke-filled back rooms, there is a simultaneous call for an almost Victorian propriety in the workplace, in which an off-color joke or a misplaced hand on an unwilling shoulder might be cause for dismissal. I find the tut-tutting of commentators expressing horror and disgust at the Al Franken photo to be incongruous given the language and attitudes expressed on, say, the Celebrity Roasts on basic cable channels, where crowds applaud the most vulgur obscenities about both women and men, issued with the proviso of “no disrespect.” To say nothing of the incongruity of the incumbent in the White House joining in the tut-tutting.

Perhaps Yeats was right after all, and the center cannot hold, but we are entering the widening gyre where prudery and license spin, and the moral compass cannot find true North.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

September 14, 2017

Right of Marriage

In the current debate concerning marriage equality in Australia, as in similar debates in other countries, including the United States, marriage is often held up as a basic human right. In spite of the wide recognition of the right to marry in such documents as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, some oppose seeing marriage as a right. The opposition often comes from members or leaders of church bodies. However, in denying marriage as a right, such opponents undercut and deny the same principle that protects the practice of religion: not religion merely as singular personal belief as a species of freedom of thought, but religion in practice as gathered worship as a species of the right to assembly. It is a right of expression, not merely of thought.

It is in this that the right to marry, which is also species of the generic right to free association and assembly, that the church finds its kindred freedom, the freedom to practice its religion in a corporate fashion. For according to the author of Ephesians, it is as the assembly of the many into one — the great mystery of Christ and the church — that the church resembles marriage, the fundamental and most intimate form of human association, the type of all society, including the church.

To attack the right to marry is to attack the fundamental basis of all human communion, and to assault the foundational right upon which the church itself is built.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

August 24, 2017

Light, Not Heat

I'm very happy to announce that my latest project,What About Sex?, is now off press and available through Church Publishing and many other outlets. It is part of the new series "Little Books of Guidance" and as such it is designed as a guide rather than a law-book, offering [I hope!] more light than heat.

It is meant to provide the 21st-century Christian or seeker with a moral compass to navigate the changing landscape of sex and sexuality. That landscape has changed considerably since the times in which the Bible was composed — and the Bible itself testifies to some of that change, as do the evolving traditions and customs of the church. This little book places the testimony of Scripture and church tradition into the context of their own and other cultures, with tools to make the best reasonable use of the guidance they provide, in light of how Jesus himself engaged with the Scriptures, traditions, and cultures he encountered. All of this interacts with the findings of science and psychology, with a goal to inform and guide rather than to lay down the law. It is not about what goes where or who does what to whom, but about what it means to be an embodied person with responsibilities both to oneself and others. It is not an answer-book, but a guide to help seekers form their own answers to questions big and small, even as those answers lead to further questions. What About Sex? will be useful for personal study, and as a resource for adults and older youth.

— Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

August 21, 2017

No Boundary to Grace

A sermon for Proper 15a • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Church of the Advent, Federal Hill Baltimore

My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others...+
All of our Scripture readings today point in the direction of healing the division that has existed since the days when God first made a covenant with Abraham and designated him as the ancestor of a special, holy, and chosen people. This was a people separated from all the other nations of the earth. The covenant of their separation was cherished by the Jewish people down through the centuries. The covenant was also renewed many times down through the years. Moses recommitted the people to obey their God at Mount Sinai. Joshua recommitted them, challenging them to obey the Lord as he and his household swore to do, when they entered the Holy Land. Ezra and Nehemiah reminded the people of these commandments after exile in Babylon, and the Maccabees did the same after their liberation from the Greeks. Time and again that message was hammered home: you are God’s chosen people, unique in all the world because of your relationship with the maker heaven and earth.

That message, as it came to be understood — or perhaps I should say misunderstood — was that salvation itself was only for the children of Israel — a people chosen not only for this world but for the next. Among the rabbis it became a topic of debate as to whether a non-Jew — even a righteous one — could have any share at all in the life of the world to come.

Of course, the rabbis were good lawyers, so they focused on the Law, but in the process neglected the Prophets. For the prophets, such as Isaiah, had revealed that God had a special place reserved for the Gentiles who sought God and dedicated themselves to righteousness in God’s name. In spite of these prophetic promises, the question of whether Gentiles were worth God’s notice, or God’s salvation, was still a hot topic among the rabbis by the time of Christ.

You could even read Jesus in this morning’s Gospel as a supporter of this theory of Israelite exceptionalism. He appears to adopt that stricter view that Gentiles and foreigners are not God’s concern — God’s interest is in caring for the children of Israel, maybe as part of a plan to “make Israel great again!”

But then Jesus appears to be moved by the Canaanite woman’s persistence, and her chutzpah in talking back to him when he indirectly compares her tormented child to a dog. She is bold enough to remind Jesus (who has himself brought up the analogy of food and the dinner table) that even dogs are remembered and fed — along with the children — even if only with crumbs.

+ + +

Now, I’ve often wondered if Jesus really was being as hard-hearted as he appears to be to this poor woman with a sick child, or if he wasn’t perhaps testing his disciples — seeing whether they would abide by the prevailing view that foreigners are second-class interlopers, unworthy of God’s attention. Was he testing them to see if they would show the kind of gracious openness Jesus himself shows on other occasions? You note that it is the disciples who first urge him to send her away...

But that is a topic for another sermon. Because whatever the reason, whether Jesus was moved by this woman or was testing the disciples, in the end he broke through that boundary to allow grace to flow freely to a Gentile. And of course, by the end of Matthew’s Gospel it is abundantly clear that Jesus intends salvation for the whole world. By the end, Jesus sends the disciples out to baptize all nations — which is to say all Gentiles — into the faith of the one true God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

+ + +

In today’s epistle, Saint Paul addresses this question in the manner of a good rabbi — which, as he often reminds us, he was, a student at the feet of Gamaliel, himself a student of Rabbi Hillel the Great. In the rabbinic debates of those days, Hillel had been an advocate of the generous view that Gentiles could be saved, and Paul no doubt came to believe that in Jesus Christ this doctrine of his spiritual grandfather had come true.

Much of Paul’s letter to the Romans is an effort to explain just how this might work. In the section we heard today the image is almost one of a seating at a banquet. Those who had formerly been seated — God’s chosen ones — have lost their seats through disobedience. Only that misbehavior has opened up the possibility for the Gentiles to take their place — for a time. And that “for a time” is important because Paul promises the eventual ushering back in of all of God’s people, all whom God foreknew and chose as his own — Jew and Gentile — for the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable.

+ + +

In God’s good time, there is plenty of room for Gentile and Jew alike on the mountain that Isaiah envisages. In God’s good time there is no boundary to grace, nor a wall around it, no limit to the abundance of God’s generosity and patience with Jew and Gentile alike. The ultimate message that Paul is transmitting in his Letter to the Romans is that salvation is the work of God. Just as the original creation is the work of God, so too is the new creation in Christ; it is God’s work. It is God’s project.

And it is God’s party — and God invites to it whoever God wishes. It is not for self-righteous party crashers to push themselves forward on the basis of their own righteousness. Nor, even worse, is it right for some at the party to seek to keep others they judge unworthy out, but for all to trust in the saving mercy of God, and God’s invitation, as the only basis for admission to the banquet. We are not invited to the banquet on the basis of our righteousness, but God’s righteousness, God’s generosity.

God has cried out the invitation to the ends of the earth, and cries out still: it’s God’s party and he’ll cry if he wants to! And through the prophets and apostles, through the church, God cries out: Come! There is plenty of room at the table, and crumbs aplenty under it — but believe you me, no child of God invited to that table will have to live on crumbs, but will receive the choice and richest portions of the feast. As I said, this is God’s party. God’s grace is God’s, after all. And our God is a God of abundant blessing and not of parsimonious stinginess, a God not of crumbs and crusts but of marvelous abundance, of multiplied loaves, and bread showered from heaven enough to feed a people forty years. The table is set, not in a cramped and crumbling hut, but in the grandest wedding banquet hall, in the house of prayer for all nations. The invitations have gone forth to the ends of the world, to people near and far: “The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come!’” Happy are those who are called to this supper.+