December 26, 2010

Plentiful Harvest

for the Ordination of Blane Frederik van Pletzen-Rands n/BSG
Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

Jesus had compassion for the crowds, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; pray therefore the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” — Matthew 9:36-38
There was once a man with abundant possessions and great wealth. And he determined to grow the very best wheat that could be grown. And he went out and took account of all his lands, and chose his finest field. And he cleared it of all rocks and stones, and fenced it ‘round; and he sent out the laborers to plow the field and plant the seed, and they took care that none was wasted: for they knew he was a hard man, unwilling to lose a single grain. And time passed, and the grain sprouted and grew, bearing thirtyfold, sixtyfold and a hundredfold. And the man went out to look upon his rich field, as it lay before him golden in the sunlight. And his servants came to him and said, Master, shall we now go and harvest your grain? And the master said to them, By no means: You shall not touch it; you shall let it rot. You shall let the rain and snow and hail of winter beat it to the ground, and the sun of summer parch it and the wind of autumn scatter it away, until there is not a grain of it left.

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My beloved, this anti-parable tells of the sort of God we do not worship. Ours is a God who will not let a sparrow fall, or a blade of grass perish without notice; our God is not a God of acceptable losses. Above all, ours is a God and Lord whose heart goes out to people wandering without guidance, a God who wills nothing to be lost, who desires not the death of sinners, who sends out laborers to gather in the sheaves, who searches for lost sheep, and brings both sheep and sheaves home from pasture and harvest rejoicing.

It is auspicious that this ordination should come in Advent, just shy of the beginning of a new decade and a mere week before the feast of the Incarnation. But that new decade marks the half-way point of our church’s ambitious 20/20 program of evangelism, and my 20/20 hindsight shows me we have a lot of catching up to do.

Making that work harder, as we know, is the chronic condition that evangelism is not something for which most Episcopalians show fervent zeal. Most prefer to leave a light in the window, or the door ajar, or the “welcome’s-you” mat on the doorstep (or the signpost) rather than going out to the fields to harvest. Evangelism is a cup that some would gladly have pass them by, if it be God’s will.
But it is not God’s will. God will not neglect the church, will not let the harvest go to waste. God will send laborers into the harvest. All will be gathered in. That is the hope toward which we look, in our pilgrimage as church, in our hopeful Advent Season that has lasted now for nearly two millennia. That is our hope.

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But what is our present reality? In addition to the chronic neglect of evangelism we also face the acute ailments that sap our ability to fulfill our mandate. Look at the state of the world and the church today: Many sheep have wandered into trackless ways and unprofitable pastures, not entirely lost but certainly misplaced. The harvest too is rich, but in danger of loss for want of being harvested. There is much work to do — but what sort of workers are we?

Too many seem ready to admit that their lips are unclean, but expect a dab with a cocktail napkin rather than a hot coal searing their conscience. For their precious conscience is the one thing they will not risk exposing to the assayer’s flames. Too many shepherds seem less intent on guiding the flock and recovering the lost than they are on separating the sheep from the goats. Too many harvesters seem less intent on gathering the grain than on separating the wheat from the chaff.

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Is this evangelism? Where is the good in this news? Fundamentalist sects are growing and thriving — and not just in our own Christian corner of religious landscape. Even our dear Anglican Communion, with all its breadth and diversity, and its reputation for tolerance — even in our own Communion we hear discordant voices raised. They call for the division — or the gracious restraining — of the pure from the fallen, the right from the wrong, the saved from the not-so-saved. They call for “relational consequences” when relationship is all that really matters in the end; the test of our fidelity to the Gospel resides precisely in how much we love each other when we disagree, not in how well we manage when there are no stresses or strains.

People long to hear the Word of God, but must it be the word of judgment rather than the word of forgiveness? Must it look to a day of wrath rather than a day of forgiveness? As has been said before, I say again: Woe to them who look for the day of the Lord: for who can stand in that day? Woe to those who call for authority, but do not submit to it themselves. Woe to the would-be shepherds who have forgotten that separating sheep from goats is the owner’s task, not theirs. Woe to the harvest workers who have forgotten that the purpose of the harvest is to bring in the grain: and there is no grain, however fruitful, that does not have its stalk and coat and husk of chaff. There are none of us who will not lose something of ourselves in the coming flames, as the chaff of our sinful nature is stripped away and discarded in the flames that never cease.

Our poor church: the people look to you for good news, and instead get a weather report: gloom and tempest, storms and fog, fire and brimstone. Our poor church; our poor Christ — for it is Christ’s body that suffers here: still our wrongs weaving new thorns to pierce his wounded brow and draping a robe of sorrow over his bleeding shoulders.

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But goodness me, I have become a part of the very gloominess against which I speak. Let me shake off these cares with a more hopeful word, in the spirit of Paul rejoicing and again rejoicing; for there is something here today about which we all can well rejoice. For in the midst of this turmoil I hear God’s voice: “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” And I hear — we all hear, today — another voice in response, a quiet voice, a steady voice:

“Here am I. Send me.” For not all of those responding to God’s call for laborers are of the “sorting” sort, the separating sort, the divisive sort. No; thanks be to God that some of them at least are of the seeking sort, the gathering sort, the uniting sort.

For they know that people come to the church because they are hurting and hungry. They know that those who are hungry will gnaw even on stone if that is what they are given instead of bread. But these good servants will not so treat those who come to them. They will give bread to the people, something to sustain them.

The people are searching for companionship: which means with-bread-ness, the loving togetherness of those who break bread together. The people are suffering with famine, not just lack of bread but of hearing the comforting Word of God’s forgiveness and love. And so they come to the church, to be fed on God’s word: for no one can live by earthly bread alone.

All come seeking heavenly bread, but find much more: like the animals who came to a manger one night and found a child instead, drew back, and gazed with tender eyes at their creator. For the food we seek, the bread we crave is Jesus himself, come down from heaven, Christ incarnate in human flesh, Christmas dawning in our souls.

Jesus said, Pray the lord of the harvest to send forth laborers into the harvest. And the Lord said, Whom shall I send. And a voice, my brother’s voice today, echoing many others from all our history, answers: Here am I, Lord. Send me.

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And so, my brother, I give you this charge:

Do the work of a shepherd: But as you do so, remember that you are a sheep yourself. For even the great shepherd is himself a lamb, and a lamb with the marks of slaughter upon him, giving up his life for the world. And as he does so, a saving stream of living water flows from his side, and he becomes the light of the City of God: Walk in that Lamb-light as a child of God among the children of God. And may the God of peace who brought again from the dead this Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the everlasting covenant, equip you with everything good for the doing of God’s will.

And, as it is God’s will, do the work of an evangelist: Bring people the good news of salvation: that we are forgiven our sins even as we forgive those who sin against us; and that God loves us. Give people the gracious word of God to feed them, not a stone of judgment to weigh them down. And May the Love of God strengthen and uphold you in spreading the Word of God.

Finally, do the work of a laborer in the field: Go joyfully into the harvest to cut and gather and bind the sheaves. But as you gather the grain, do not be overly concerned or worried that you yourself must gather every grain: for you are not alone in this ministry, and something must be left for the gleaners: they are careful, and will not miss a single grain. Leave something for Ruth.

And as you bring the wheat in to be winnowed, don’t then store it up in bigger barns: Take the grain and grind the grain, and make it into bread. We all have heard of indelible ministry; just don’t get involved in inedible ministry: Feed the sheep, feed the lambs.

And as you celebrate the holy meal, as you celebrate the Holy Eucharist, for the first time, and every time you take and offer and break and give that bread, remember yourself as you preside at the re-membering of the community of faith: that the bread which you break is the bread which came down from heaven for the life of the world, in mercy broken. It is the real presence of Christ in each of his members in the church: the people of God, who, gathered from the four corners of the earth — like grain once scattered on the hillside now made one in the bread in your hands — are reunited — from seed to grain to bread to body — the body of Christ.

He who has called you is faithful, and to your “Here I am, send me” let all the people say, “Amen!”+

Blog Silence

A friend pointed out to me that I've posted precious little to my blog over the past two weeks. This is due to having been away in Buffalo for my brother Blane's ordination, and the following day, and returning home to Christmas week to find my parish church had been burgled — the consequent dealing with detectives, insurance adjusters, locksmiths and repair people being at least as trying as the break-in itself. There is a news report from the NY Times, if you are interested in more detail.

As to the internet, I have been commenting a bit on a thread at Thinking Anglicans. After reading his comments on history, I'm surprised Dr. Seitz calls me a revisionist!

In any case, I do promise to post the sermon from Blane's ordination, in that beautiful Cathedral in Buffalo, shortly. Those interested in my Christmas sermons can find them at Ekklesiastes.


December 8, 2010

One means one

I'm getting a tad annoyed at people talking about "organic unity" when they mean "institutional unity." When I say, in the words of the Nicene Creed every week, that I believe the church to be "one holy catholic and apostolic" I mean every word. There is one church of Christ, made up in an organic union of all baptized persons with Christ as its Head. This is the official teaching (doctrine) of the Episcopal Church, and can be found in the Catechism on page 854 of the BCP.

There is one church. All of the disagreements with this doctrine are either from those who think there is more than one church, or that they constitute the only one true church, or who have confused institutional structure with ontological substance.

This is not to say that the institutional is unimportant; but it is best put in perspective. Any institution built on a foundation other than Unity In Christ will not long stand. Whether there needs to be — or ever has been or ever will be — a single institutional church coequal with the Body of Christ; or whether that foundation is wide and broad enough to support a number of more or less independent and autonomous structures, cooperating in various ways as the Spirit empowers them: these are questions the answers to which seem to me to be glaringly obvious.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

December 5, 2010

Child’s Play

SJF • Advent 2a • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.
Advent is the season of the church year in which we prepare our minds and hearts for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, not only the yearly commemoration of his coming as a newborn infant to the stable in Bethlehem, but in watchful preparation for the as yet to be realized coming in glory at the end of time, when he will judge the quick and the dead in perfect righteousness. So we find ourselves, in Advent, somewhat torn between two images: the sweet Christ Child in the manger, and the transfigured, majestic figure of the everlasting Judge and King, whose coming is foretold by the wild prophet John the Baptist.

On this Sunday, however, the two images come together. We see this in the prophet Isaiah’s description of the peaceable kingdom, the vision of God’s just and righteous reign. At first the vision of the one who shall come forth from the root of Jesse sounds like the same mighty judge John the Baptist promises. Here is one upon whom the Spirit rests, who is full of wisdom and understanding, counsel and might, knowledge and fear of the Lord. Here is one who shall judge with righteousness and equity, whose very voice strikes the earth like a rod, whose breath slays the wicked.

But then the imagery shifts. Suddenly all is peaceful: wild beasts of forest and field no longer prey on the domesticated animals of pasture and barnyard, but graze and nestle beside them. The two worlds, wild and domestic, come together in peace. And, wonder of wonders, all this harmony is orchestrated, brought about and led not by an army of lion-tamers with pistols and whips, or a crowd of Australian alligator wrestlers with cages and anesthetic darts, but by a little child. Even more surprising, infants young enough still to be nursing, and others just starting on solid food, can play with snakes in perfect safety, the symbol of human enmity with the natural world from our infancy in the Garden of Eden — the serpent — has lost it’s poison, and has become a plaything for the children of Adam and Eve. The peaceful lordship that turns the curse of Adam on its head, the peaceable kingdom established on God’s holy mountain is, simply put, child’s play.

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Now, this is not frivolous talk. Few things are more serious than child’s play. I really mean that. Have you ever watched children playing? Children take their play very seriously, and the more deeply involved in play they are, the more intense their concentration. Where else but in play do you see actual wrinkles form on the foreheads of children? Where else but in play do you see little tongues appear at the edges of tiny mouths, as tiny hands struggle to make a puzzle come out just right, a doll’s hair be styled in high fashion, or a plastic peg hammered down just so with a plastic hammer into a plastic hole? No, children at play are quite intent on their playing!

Children in a snowball fight are as focused on their battle as any general. And I dare not even mention the intensity of a child apparently glued to a Game Boy, or a Wii or a Nintendo or a PlayStation! And a five-year-old girl hosting a tea party for her dolls and teddy bears will — should you be honored with an invitation to such an event — enforce upon you a protocol as polished and rigorous as a state banquet in the White House. The Cabbage Patch twins must always be served first, in recognition of their youth, while Barbie, being a mature young lady, is expected to be patient, and Pooh Bear has to be watched lest he sneak a cookie before the proper time. As you balance the tiny saucer and minuscule teacup, savoring the invisible tea and make-believe cake, you are apt to marvel at the child’s knowledge of etiquette, and her stern resolve to enforce it.

Yes, the prophet was right in describing the kingdom of God in terms of child’s play, for child’s play is not frivolous. It is just that we tend to forget this as we grow older. As we grow older, out of the pure and clear world of childhood, we adults are apt to begin making compromises, to settle on less than we really want, to move from the clarity of the black and white into those shades of grey. And we tend to see this as maturity. We gain peace at the cost of principle. We become judicious; we weigh profit and loss ratios, and we deal and we compromise; and we settle. And how often do we end up with far less than justice and righteousness for the sake of an imaginary peace — a peace that turns out not to be peace at all.

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But the judge, the judge eternal described by Isaiah, comes to us with the ferocious intensity of a child, a single-minded child who can look straight through our adult compromises to the burning truth of our failures. He does not judge by what he sees or hears, this eternal judge whose coming we await. What? A judge who pays no attention to evidence? What kind of justice is that? Who wants a trial before a judge who passes sentence before he hears our excuses and our explanations and our rationalizations?

But my friends, this is the justice of a child, of the child. The child who knows what’s fair and what’s not, and from whose ringing sentence, “It isn’t fair!” there is no appeal. The child who knows when her parents have been arguing, however much they try to pretend it’s all O.K. for her sake. The child knows when he’s being lied to, however good our intentions, and his piercing eyes see through us as if we were so much cellophane. The child who knows the rules for snowball fights and tea-parties, and dispenses the firm justice, the laws of equity, of the playground. The child who knows how to tame animals more real than the ones of flesh and blood, the animals of the playroom, where Pooh Bear and Barney the Dinosaur take tea together, and the Lion King eats cookies from a plate. And all the while, the child hostess oversees this feast with serious attention, and a sense of what is fair and right that puts any adult tribunal to shame.

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This is what the Justice and Lordship of Jesus is like, the just, clear, and focused reign of the Son of God. Under the watchful eye of this child who comes forth from the root of Jesse, all our excuses and compromises and rationalizations are laid bare. All of our efforts to bend the rules are exposed. All of our lording it over one another, preying on each other like wolves and bears and lions, is shown up for what it is.

But the good news is that this Child of God who comes to judge us is merciful as well as just. Though he sees right through us, perhaps because he sees right through us, he will also save us, for though he sees how shallow we are he knows we are worth saving. And his loving justice can begin to transform us, and redeem our corrupted nature as surely as it undoes the curse of Adam. The old curse is done away with, transforming serpents into playthings, undoing the ancient enmity between the wild and the domestic. Under the miraculous rule of this divine child-king even our own rough nature is transformed, our rough coats of wolf-grey fur, soften and turn to plush. Our shaggy lions’ manes are trimmed and turn bright yellow, festive with bows and ribbons. Our leopard spots turn into polka-dots. Rough grizzly bears grow plump and soft and dip their blunted claws into a jar plainly labeled H-U-N-Y. And all of us together gather around the tea-table, colorful bows around our necks and ribbons in our hair, as the Child pours us our tea, and feeds us cakes, and we partake of the sacrament of peace — coming to God’s kingdom, at long last, precisely and exactly as he said we would have to come: as children.

May we then, dear sisters and brothers in Christ, be ready to enter the heavenly child’s-play of the this miracle child, the just and righteous rule of the Son of God, whose infant hands possess all might, majesty, power and dominion, henceforth and forever more.+

December 2, 2010

Covenant Genetics

There is a legal fiction (or perhaps illegal fiction) at work in so much of the discussion surrounding the Anglican Covenant Process. The fiction is that the Covenant is not about specific issues, but is intended to provide a way to deal with issues of disagreement as they arise. (A description far better applied to the Continuing Indaba and Mutual Listening Process.)

The problem is that the Covenant sprouts in lineal descent from the Windsor Report which just might have been used as a beginning of a neutral process had it not fatally "specified" itself as really being about gay bishops, same-sex blessings, and border-crossings, by calling for moratoria on these three doings. These "issues" became part of the genome of the Covenant Process, and have passed along to all of the descendants, even though not "expressed" in the phenotype. The Covenant appears to be a generic tool, but everyone knows it was created to deal with a particular set of problems. (That it has been attenuated, due to ecclesiastical environmental effects, in its ability to deal with those problems to the satisfaction of some of its progenitors only makes for more confusion. Some of them are prepared, upon its adoption, to do some quick therapeutic adjustments to encourage the expression of the suppressed genes.)

In the meantime, it is perfectly possible for the Archbishop of Canterbury to allow no butter to soften in his mouth, and plausibly to deny that the text of the Covenant says anything at all about punitive measures, and so on; but the process that has informed the Covenant is rife with calls for discipline, either the self-discipline of restraint or the heteronomous discipline of "relational consequences." The bad seed is there, and it will breed true in bearing bitter fruit.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG