July 25, 2014

Good Earth

Joachim and Anna are remembered as the Parents of the Blessed Virgin Mary. I've chosen to portray them in this image as a rather earthy Jewish peasant couple, married, so the legend goes, for decades before being blessed with issue. I can only guess that the household in which Mary grew to marriageable age herself must have been a happy one, full of joy and love. Things like this run in the family, and what a family it is! Remember, we are adopted into it; so let joy abound!

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

July 20, 2014

People, Places, and Things

Looking at the big picture of Creation, and hearing how it groans in expectation...

A sermon for Proper 11a 2014 • St James Fordham • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place — and I did not know it!” And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”

After my mother passed away, my youngest sister took up the task of trying to make some orderly sense out of the boxes of loose photographs that my mother had accumulated over the years. Not only were there a number of photos from her own mother and grandmother, but of those taken in my generation — and I was the oldest of six, so there were a lot of photos. There were literally hundreds of them, and it was a challenge to sort through them.

One response to organize such pictures is to divide them up into three familiar categories, at least to begin to get a handle on the task: to sort them into three piles of pictures: people, places, and things. For some pictures, the sorting is easy: the baby pictures, the school pictures, the graduation pictures, first communion, confirmation — those all go into the “people” pile; while the views of the Grand Canyon or the Belvedere Fountain in Central Park go into the “places” category; and the photos that my dad took of his model airplanes are clearly to be numbered among the “things.”

But what do you do with the picture of Mom and Dad standing in front of the Washington Monument? Is that a “people” picture or a “place” picture — or even a “thing” picture if you have a collection of pictures of monuments? How do you categorize something that seems to fit in many different categories?

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This morning’s Scripture readings face us with just such a challenge. At first glance, as with some pictures, it seems to be easy: the reading from Genesis is clearly about Jacob’s experience at the place, about Jacob’s experience of the place that he would come to call Bethel. The reading from Romans is clearly about people, in particular about us as we become children of God. Finally, the reading from Matthew is about the weeds and the wheat and the harvest — all of them things.

But when we look bit closer the categories are not quite as clear as they appear at first. The reading from Genesis is about a place — a place in which Jacob begins by making a pillow out of a stone, lying down to sleep and to dream. Clearly this is no ordinary place, and Jacob recognizes it as the gateway to the house of God — which is what Bethel means in Hebrew.

But in addition to it being about that holy place — there are those things: the stone, to oil, the ladder, the gate; and the people (or perhaps I had better say the personalities) of Jacob, the angels, and the God of Abraham and Isaac — now to become the God of Jacob as well, as he makes with him a covenant of adoption and promises to be with him to keep him wherever he goes. Whatever place he goes to, God will personally be with him.

Which brings us to the second reading, which is clearly about people, and how we are adopted, through the Spirit of God as children of God, as the Spirit leads us to cry out, “Abba! Father!” Yet no sooner does Paul describe the personal aspect of adoption, than he turns around and applies it to a thing — the thingiest thing there is, the whole creation, the very embodiment of thingdom! For what is more a creature than creation? And Paul is bold enough to claim that redemption is not just for people, but for that whole creation; that somehow in God’s good time and place, “the whole creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God!” This is one of the Scriptures I point to whenever people ask me if I believe whether our pets, our animal companions, will share with us in the resurrection. I am also comforted and encouraged by the words of the Psalms. For they not only call upon all things that have breath to praise the Lord — and believe me, if you have a pet cat or dog, you know they have breath! — but also for the trees to clap their hands and even for the hills and mountains to leap for joy. This brings us back to Saint Paul is saying — “the whole creation” must mean “the whole creation” — that is, there is nothing outside God’s grace and redemption, for God hates nothing — no thing — that God has made.

Finally, in that reading from Matthew, we appear to be dealing with just such things — the seed, the weeds, the wheat, the harvest — but then Jesus offers an explanation of this parable to the disciples and he immediately brings in places — all places, for the field is the world. He then he tells of those people: the Son of Man and the children of the kingdom and the children of the evil one, and the enemy, and the very angels themselves, the same ones whom Jacob saw ascending and descending upon that ladder.

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So what are we to make of this? What categories can we use? Perhaps the key after all lies in that lesson from Romans. Perhaps what God is trying to tell us this morning is that the categories we create to divide up the world aren’t quite so clear as we think them to be — that we and the angels, and the beasts of the field and the birds of the sky, and the seed of the fields, and the trees of the forest, and the forest itself, and the hills and the valleys and the mountains — indeed that the whole of creation is groaning in the pains of childbirth until now.

Instead of an assortment of little pictures, there’s just one big picture: a view such as perhaps the first man who walked on the moon had, forty-five years ago today, looking back and seeing that the world was not split up into many different things, but is one beautiful thing, hanging there in the sky. The whole creation is awaiting the redemption that is not just our destiny but the destiny of all that God has made.

Perhaps God is saying to us that we are all in this together — that although human beings do hold a special place in God’s creation, as people who are more than mere things, yet we still share the role of creatures, with all of God’s creation. I mentioned pets, our animal companions, but there are others: we usually treat our pets fairly well, but there are others we don’t so well. It does not take a great stretch of imagination to look into the eyes of a captive orangutan, whose young have been stripped from her, sent off to a zoo somewhere — confined now to a cage in a forest in which she once ranged freely, but has now been torn down, burned down so they could plant a plantation for the production of palm kernel oil — it doesn’t take much to look into the depth of those sad, sad eyes of the captive orangutan and ask, What have we done to our fellow creatures? It does not take much of a great stretch of experience — although it seems to be a stretch too far for some — to see the collapsing ice sheets of Antarctica, the disappearing glaciers of northern Europe and Canada and the Alps, the polar bears vainly trying to swim because there is no more ice left for them to climb upon — it is no great stretch to see our profound impact on creation — and, oh, how it groans! It does not take a great stretch of imagination to look at the raging wildfires of the American West, or the smog in China so thick you can cut it with a knife, and not ask yourself, “What have we done?”

Perhaps God is trying to tell us in these powerful lessons — lessons written not only in the pages of Scripture but in the black and white of the world itself — that we do not live in heaven — we are still sleeping here on earth on our stony pillows and our dreams of ladders. And it is time to wake up, and out of our stony griefs to raise up Bethel. To take our part in making this world what God means it to be: God’s world, in which we dwell as guests. Too long have we thought that this world was just a place we could despoil and neglect, because we were headed for a better one up that ladder into the world to come. What does Saint Paul say? The creation has been waiting, waiting with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God? And when we are revealed, what are we revealed to be? Will we be seen as those who did not care, who despoiled and neglected God’s creation; or worse: will some of us be seen as enemies of God’s creation who spread bad seed upon God’s field, so that it brought forth weeds instead of wheat? Is it not written, as you have sown, so shall you reap?

My brothers and sisters, these are sobering questions for us today, far more important than the mere categories of people, places, and things. It is the whole creation — the big picture — of which we form a part, and which we change — for better or for worse — by our actions. We are not called to divide things up, but to pull them together: not to divide, but to unite. God intended humanity to care for creation — pulling it all together. Let us, my friends, be responsible stewards of that which has been committed to our care — and for which — one day — we will be called to render an account.+

July 17, 2014

The Long View

William White had the good fortune to live a long and active life (1748-1836). This took him through the early years of the Episcopal Church, in which he was a major participant as layman, priest and bishop. While not the first American bishop (Seabury holds that title) he was soon in the mix. Since it takes three bishops to consecrate a bishop, no sooner had Samuel Seabury returned from Scotland than the young American church put forward William White of Philadelphia and Samuel Provoost of New York, who were consecrated as our second and third bishops.

White was a devout pastor, founding several charitable and educational institutions to help the poor, the deaf, and a ministry devoted to helping prostitutes rebuild their lives. White also served as the Episcopal Church’s first Presiding Bishop. His Memoirs of the Protestant Episcopal Church (his 1836 second edition is available free on-line in ebook format) provide a fascinating glimpse into the formative years of the church, from his unique perspective.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
This was one of my first efforts at a "quick icon" in wash on paper

July 12, 2014

The Circle of Our Embrace

If you ask someone to define a circle, you will likely get several different definitions, depending on their mathematical sophistication; but if they are good definitions they will be accurate. Some may be procedural: a circle is the shape traced by a compass moving through 360 degrees. Others may be Euclidean: a circle is the set of all points in a plane equidistant from a single point. Note that these “definitions” can also accurately be called “descriptions.” They both limit what a circle is and how a circle is formed. The question, “But why is a circle defined or described in this way?” — were it to arise — would very likely be met with a blank stare; though a wise philosopher might simply respond that this is a convention useful in geometry and mathematics, and of course there are an infinite number of circles that can be drawn around any given point, and this gives us a tool to name them and work with them.

Would that the marriage debate were so simple. There are some for whom it is that simple, in their own minds. Marriage is “defined” — for example — as “the lifelong union of one man and one woman,” and any example that doesn’t meet the definition falls outside the term. Some such definitions are also fairly called “descriptions” but nonetheless draw the line at some things being within the category while others are not.

Leaving aside the reality that a strict application of that definition fails to address whether a marriage that ends in divorce was ever a marriage, or still is, the more serious problem arises when people ask the question about marriage that I hazard no one would ask about circles: “Why is marriage limited in this way.”

When faced with this question, some will resort to a merely definitional and tautological approach that boils down to, “Because that’s what marriage is.” This is unassailable, but also not a real answer to the question, as it begs it.

Other answers will commonly include an appeal to the fact that only men and women can procreate. Of course, the problem with that answer is evident: people can procreate without marriage and marry without procreation — so clearly the ability or the lack thereof cannot be essential. The creation of such notions as virtual or potential procreativity seem even further removed — and beside the point as even those who definitely can procreate might not marry or procreate; and this particular dodge is ultimately a subterfuge to preserve the “man and woman” requirement in their essential, rather than procedural, reality — which the more astute among you will recognize as another form of begging the question.

Among other appeals will be the well-worn fallacies of appeal to authority, tradition, or numbers — forces to which one may choose to bend but which are not in themselves proof of the rightness of the premise.

Ultimately, the question with which we have to deal is much more serious, and much more complex, than simple definition or description. It concerns the lives and loves of countless human beings, seeking to order their lives under a discipline that allows those lives and loves to flourish and grow. It is not easy to stretch definitions when they are deeply entrenched in a culture, but it is incumbent upon us to recall that marriage is a cultural convention, and an infinite number of circles that can be inscribed round any given point.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

July 9, 2014

The Failure of Mission

There has been a new development in the case of Canon Jeremy Pemberton, a Church of England priest and chaplain who had the temerity to marry his beloved of many years, Laurence Cunnington. Jeremy works as a chaplain for the National Health Service (NHS), and was up for a promotion; but because the promotion requires a license (or licence, as the English spell it) and the bishop has denied the license, his promotion is on hold. Laurence has written an eloquent summary of the situation.

This is a sad example of what happens when a church loses sight of its primary ministry and mission, and allows secondary (or tertiary or even more remote "concerns") to deflect the implementation of ministry.

For there are few ministerial offices with the weight of dominical force; but among them is the commandment to minister to the sick. There is no dominical command either to marry or to refrain from marriage, though Jesus clearly held that there are requirements placed on those who do marry.

So in this case, the Church of England is not only confecting a discipline, but perverting the course of ministry by applying it.

I offer my prayers for both Jeremy and Laurence, and more particularly for that benighted institution the Church of England, of which I rejoice in not being a member, else my own ministry would be offered up on the altar of a false gospel.

Tobias Stanislas Haller