April 16, 2014

Familiar Values

One of the welcome side-effects of the increasing acceptance of marriage equality is an increasing likelihood that people will become familiar with people who are gay or lesbian. There is a synergy at work here, and the effect is undeniable. There was a time when the accepted image of gay men was licentious, surreptitious and promiscuous; and that of lesbians pointless and tragic on one hand, or brutal and cruel on the other — and on both sides pathological. Beginning with the removal of legal restrictions and psychiatric categories, people began to see that these old stereotypes were just that: no more expressive of the family members and friends they had finally come to know than were minstrel coon caricatures actually reflective of real African Americans.

This growing familiarity has robbed the homophobic of the effectiveness of some of their favorite tropes. This has not stopped the continued trumpeting of these pet libels, though the mistaken trumpet is not rousing many in its call to arms. The recent Position Statement from the self-styled Anglican Mainstream is a case in point. Even though the discussion has moved on to marriage equality, the bigots (in the strict sense of those who seem unable to change in spite of evidence) continue to hammer away on gays and lesbians as licentious hedonists, disturbed and troubled souls stricken with a pathology from which they can be delivered if only they seek the right aid, but otherwise doomed to lives that will be short, nasty and brutish. They marshal discredited or misrepresented studies in support of claims that most people now know to be utterly irrelevant to their own experience of the gay and lesbian people they know and love.

There is a double effect here: the more extreme and irrelevant (and false) the claims of the homophobe, the stronger the reaction against it. The “moveable middle” instinctively moves away from what they perceive more and more actually to be nasty, mean, and wrong. And as they do so, friends and family who have kept their identity closeted begin to feel more comfortable opening the doors.

As the Gospel has it, the truth will make you free. Lies and fear will bind you. It is easy to see what one should choose.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

April 9, 2014

Sabbatical Leave: How Jesus Dealt with the Law

Jesus said to them, “I will ask you one thing; Is it lawful on the sabbath days to do good, or to do evil? to save life, or to destroy it?” And they were filled with madness; and communed one with another what they might do to Jesus. (Luke 6:9,11)

One of the major conflicts between Jesus and some of the religious leaders of his time concerned the nature of Sabbath observance. It is good, first of all, to acknowledge that this dispute is not, as sometimes portrayed, a conflict between Jesus and Jews. This is a dispute among Jews on a Jewish question, concerning a law which they all would have agreed was a Jewish law. That is, although the principle of the Sabbath went back to creation itself, the ordinance to do no work — to stop, for that is the root meaning of the verb from which Sabbath likely derives — was part of the Law given to Moses on Sinai.

Where Jesus differs from his interlocutors in this conflict is in his moving outside the formal definition of the Sabbath as a time to cease all activity. Jesus recasts it as a time in which to perform acts which he holds to be virtuous in themselves: not mere work but actions that are “good” in that the works represent, in themselves, a thing that is undeniably good: release from bondage — a central theme in the Jewish story. In short, Jesus does not see the Sabbath as an end in itself, or a restriction to be maintained apart from a larger context.

In various of the encounters Jesus has over the Sabbath, he offers differing explanations, and engages in classic rabbinic debate. For example, in Matthew 12 there are two successive arguments about the Sabbath. In the first, his disciples are eating grain they pluck as they walk along (technically not a violation of the Sabbath as it does not constitute harvesting; but Jesus does not engage that quibble). Jesus offers two responses to those who object to this action: he cites David’s violation of the temple-bread taboo, and the present day violation of the Sabbath by the temple priests who go about their work within the sacred precincts. Jesus responds that “here is something greater than the Temple,” making use of a standard rabbinical exegetical tool, qal wa-homer (light to heavy, “then how much more,” identical to the classical rhetorical device a fortiori). Jesus raises the bar with a biblical citation, that God desires mercy, not sacrifice (Hosea 6:6), and asserts that the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath. (Mark’s version [2:27] of this controversy includes the important transitional teaching based on the sequence of events in Genesis 1, that “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” as the reason, again all the more, that the Son of Man should be its Lord.) This "greater than the Temple" theme may be seen as a part of a general anti-Temple trend in the Jesus tradition (one shared with some contemporary sectarian movement such as the Yachad at Qumran), but it also begins to establish a context: that things are good and virtuous as they serve the furtherance of God’s will for human well-being, not simply in and of themselves. Even the Temple is good only in so far as it is not misused, but remains available as a "house of prayer" rather than a "den of robbers."

The point is emphasized in the following scene. Here (in Matthew) it is the opponents who pose the question about whether it is right to heal on the Sabbath. Jesus responds with another qal wa-homer comparison of the rescue of a sheep from a pit with the healing of a human being. The pericope of the woman in Luke 13 (16-17) is treated in a similar way: if you are kind to your domestic animals, releasing them to be led to water, how much more ought you to rejoice in the liberation of a woman from bondage to illness — noting once again the theme of delivery from captivity so central to the People of God.

In all of this it is possible to see how Jesus contexualizes and even relativizes the commandment to cease work on the Sabbath, by holding that acts — particularly acts of deliverance, restoration, and human flourishing — that are good are still good even when done on the Sabbath. That is, they do not become bad because they are done on the Sabbath, and it is not the Sabbath that makes them good, but the good acts which give honor to the Sabbath. Perhaps in giving honor to the Sabbath the works become even more virtuous. His opponents have come to see the Sabbath as an end in itself, not as a context for doing good, but only about "not doing" or ceasing from doing, regardless of how good the action.

In the same way, some see marriage as an end in itself, rather than as a context for the flourishing of loving human relationships, and a sanctified means (though not the only means) for liberation from the primal situation of isolation. Observe that according to the account in Genesis 2 (taking Jesus' lead in noting the sequence in Genesis 1) that people are not made for marriage, but marriage is made for them: that is, the human comes first, and marriage is instituted as a solution to the problem of human isolation, and that only after the first attempt to find a mate for Adam among the animals.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

April 8, 2014

The Foundations of Violence


The reason anyone would attack anyone else over homosexuality is homophobia. So the answer to lessening violence lies in disabling its foundations: to combat homophobia. This means homophobia even in its genteel forms, which give aid and support to its more violent forms.

For instance, the notion that homosexuality is contagious — giving rise to fears that it will spread and infect heterosexuals and make them do things they do not want to do —stems from the notion that it is a disease to be cured, a pathology to be repaired. The homophobic basis of "reparative therapy" is not an innocent bystander, nor is the refuge, "But it is in Scripture" sufficient to warrant a claim of innocence. In case no one noticed, racism is in Scripture, deeply so, and it remains in place, systematized and supported even by the church, in spite of the Gospel and the Apostolic urgings against it, even to this day. It is in within living memory that the Dutch Reformed Church apologized for apartheid.

But back to homophobia: The idea that "if everyone were homosexual it would be the end of humanity" is indeed a frightening thought, so frightening I wonder why otherwise calm folks will make such an observation. They too should be reminded that the same is true of celibacy. Yet "moderates" will still make this or related observations about homosexuality and its alleged threat to society (often in the milder form of parroting the unproven thesis that it is best for a child to be raised by a mixed-sex couple). This is nothing more than a perverse application of a Kantian categorical imperative, and even if true would really say nothing than that it is an ideal that is often unrealized.

Moral: African violence against homosexual persons is empowered and encouraged even by those for whom the violence it engenders is repugnant.
I rather think, QED.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

April 5, 2014

Connecting the Dots for Canterbury

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has garnered a good deal of well-deserved flack for his radio interview that ungraciously "links gay marriage with African killings" as the Church Times puts it.

I think the secondary problem I have with Archbishop Welby's off-the-cuff and off-the-rails comments (the primary being the implicit emotional blackmail and ethical obtuseness) is that while citing forms of violence allegedly caused by reaction to American actions, as well as mentioning homophobic assaults and indignities, he does not appear to see that it is fear of homosexuality — homophobia — that is at the root of both. The purported violence against the African Christians for being co-religionists with gay-friendly Americans or Canadians is just an expansion of the violence against Africans who are gay or lesbian, and stems from the same fears as the homophobia and violence that occurs in England and America, too. And he does not appear to be aware of the extent to which the African antipathy towards gay and lesbian persons has been nourished by American preachers — a tragic new form of neo-colonialism, an export industry whose primary product is hatred, fear, and loathing.

But rather than connecting the dots, Welby simply places two things side by side, saying there is a need to "listen carefully" while apparently not hearing the painfully obvious connection in his own words. He seems to describe these as two separate problems instead of one; he is like a doctor who lists two symptoms without realizing there is an underlying disease at work — and the answer or treatment (which he doesn't find himself able to approve) is the continued movement towards normalizing same-sex relationships, including marriage. Only the deconstruction of fear can root out the causes of violence.

King's Letter from Birmingham Jail has been cited in all of this. Sometimes the only way to end violence is to pass through it. We do not turn back from Calvary, but go forward, bearing the suffering, and in the knowledge that others are suffering too, in solidarity with us.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

UPDATE: I'm reminded by a friend, Jay Johnson, of the link between homophobia and the male fear of feminization. Gender issues are very much tied up with homophobic feelings. Ire directed towards a man "acting like a woman" or -- heaven forbid -- of a man being treated like a woman go all the way back to Leviticus 18! Heaven forbid indeed, as the male fear of the female gets projected onto God.

TSH

additional thoughts here.

March 28, 2014

Stations of the Cross


with images and reflection in verse
by Tobias Stanislas Haller, BSG

V. We will glory in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ:
R. In whom is our salvation, our life and resurrection.

Let us pray. (Silence)

Assist us mercifully with your help, O Lord God of our salvation, that we may enter with joy upon the contemplation of those mighty acts, whereby you have given us life and immortality; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

First Station

Jesus is condemned to death
V. God did not spare his own Son:
R. But delivered him up for us all.
The Lord who set his hand upon the deep,
who stretched the compass on the heavens’ face,
who planned the universe and gave it life,
here, now, is trapped — the victim of a plot.
The judge is judged, and shares a sinner’s fate,
while Pilate, at the warning of his wife,
evades his guilt with water and a towel,
delivering up the one who would deliver
the world that owed him all of its existence.
The very ones who call out for his death —
that he deserves to die — owe him their breath.
Let us pray. (Silence)


Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord. Amen

Second Station

Jesus takes up his Cross

V. The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all:
R. For the transgression of my people was he stricken.
The eternal word now mutely keeps his peace
and opens not his mouth. The worthy one,
held worthless now, takes up his heavy cross.
The one who bore the weight of all the worlds
now wearily takes up a cross of wood.
The Lamb of God who takes away our sins,
in meekness his last pilgrimage begins.
Let us pray. (Silence)

Almighty God, whose beloved Son willingly endured the agony and shame of the cross for our redemption: Give us courage to take up our cross and follow him; who lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.

Third Station

Jesus falls the first time

V. Surely he has borne our griefs:
R. And carried our sorrows.

A star shot from its place in heaven and fell
down to the depths of the abyss. Was Christ’s
descent less terrible, his humble stooping down?
Yet humbly he had washed the apostles’ feet,
so now he falls to wash away our sin.
Can we do less than kneel here and adore
the one who all our sin and anguish bore?
Let us pray. (Silence)


O God, you know us to be set in the midst of so many and great dangers, that by reason of the frailty of our nature we cannot always stand upright: Grant us such strength and protection as may support us in all dangers, and carry us through all temptations; through JesusChrist our Lord. Amen

Fourth Station

Jesus meets his afflicted mother

V. A sword will pierce your own soul also:
R. And fill your heart with bitter pain.

A mother’s pain! to see her own child die —
tragic reversal, when age sees youth undone.
The heart that stored such hope, such promised joy
now breaks to see the ruin of that hope.
Yet breaking, that heart’s hope finds its release
and brings the world the promise of its peace.
Let us pray. (Silence)


O God, who willed that in the passion of your Son a sword of grief should pierce the soul of the Blessed Virgin Mary his mother: Mercifully grant that your Church, having shared with her in his passion, may be made worthy to share in the joys of his resurrection; who lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen

Fifth Station

The Cross is laid on Simon of Cyrene

V. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me:
R. Cannot be my disciple.

Simon didn’t know who Jesus was;
just that he’d better do as he was told:
take up that cross and carry it a while.
What unknown hands lift crosses from our backs?
Who serves us? And what strangers do we serve?
Whom do we serve, if not our Lord himself,
who told us that as we each do unto
the least of them we do it unto him?
To follow him we must take up that cross —
to save our lives our lives must suffer loss.
Let us pray. (Silence)


Heavenly Father, whose blessed Son came not to be served but to serve: Bless all who, following in his steps, give themselves to the service of others; that with wisdom, patience, and courage, they may minister in his Name to the suffering, the friendless, and the needy; for the love of him who laid down his life for us, your Son our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen

Sixth Station

A woman wipes the face of Jesus

V. Restore us, O Lord God of hosts:
R. Show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.

He came to show us all that we could be,
to stand displayed a perfect man, that we
might have a model for our lives. Instead
we turned away; and worse, we cursed and mocked
his beauty, so much greater than our own.
Yet all our hurts and harms could not deface
the inner glory of his perfect soul,
and his wounds only served to make us whole.
Let us pray. (Silence)


O God, who before the passion of your only-begotten Son revealed his glory upon the holy mountain: Grant to us that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

Seventh Station

Jesus falls a second time

V. But as for me, I am a worm and no man:
R. Scorned by all and despised by the people.
How can he bear that weight? How can he bear
the gathered sorrows of a billion souls?
How bear these sins, since he is innocent?
It is no wonder he should fall, beneath
the heavy weight of all this unearned guilt.
All we like sheep are scattered, wandering, lost;
we set the price; and he has paid the cost.
Let us pray. (Silence)


Almighty and everliving God, in your tender love for the human race you sent your Son our Savior Jesus Christ to take upon him our nature, and to suffer death upon the cross, giving us the example of his great humility: Mercifully grant that we may walk in the way of his suffering, and also share in his resurrection; who lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen

Eighth Station

Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem

V. Those who sowed with tears:
R. Will reap with songs of joy.

What tears are these? Whence comes this grievous moan?
Is it for him, or for the loss of hope?
If this is how the world will treat its Lord,
what hope is there for anyone? For us?
If green wood burns so easily, what flames
will ravage those whose hearts and souls are dry?
It seems for our own sins we’d better cry.
Let us pray. (Silence)

Teach your Church, O Lord, to mourn the sins of which it is guilty, and to repent and forsake them; that, by your pardoning grace, the results of our iniquities may not be visited upon our children and our children’s children; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

Ninth Station

Jesus falls a third time

V. He was led like a lamb to the slaughter:
R. And like a sheep that before its shearers is mute, so he opened not his mouth.

Where is the light? The candles have gone out!
There is no hope, no way to see the way;
the one we hoped would lead us has collapsed.
Yet in his fall, this third bone-weary fall,
his voice cries out, Remember me, O Lord;
and God, who hears the fallen, will not fail.
Up from the depths and darkness without light,
he calls on our behalf through our long night,
his prayer ascending God’s high throne unto:
Father, forgive; they know not what they do.
Let us pray. (Silence)


O God, by the passion of your blessed Son you made an instrument of shameful death to be for us the means of life: Grant us so to glory in the cross of Christ, that we may gladly suffer shame and loss for the sake of your Son our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen

Tenth Station

Jesus is stripped of his garments
V. They gave me gall to eat:
R. And when I was thirsty they gave me vinegar to drink.

The night before, he’d spoken of his blood,
and blessed the cup of wine, removed his robe
and kneeling, washed their feet; and later, in
the garden kneeled again, and asked his God
to let the cup of bitterness pass by.
All comes together here: wine, blood and gall.
The garments are removed, the veil undone:
We see the naked glory of the Son.
Let us pray. (Silence)


Lord God, whose blessed Son our Savior gave his body to be whipped and his face to be spit upon: Give us grace to accept joyfully the sufferings of the present time, confident of the glory that shall be revealed; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

Eleventh Station

Jesus is nailed to the Cross

V. They pierce my hands and my feet:
R. They stare and gloat over me.
The carpenter of Nazareth is brought
at last to Skull Hill’s bloody, dismal mound.
Between two criminals, hemmed in by sin,
the sinless one is nailed upon the cross.
How many times had he with his own hands
wielded the hammer, pegging wooden frames,
or driven nails. He’d made good yokes, good yokes
for oxen at the plough, or at the cart.
Yet here he is undone with his own art.
Let us pray. (Silence)


Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your Name. Amen

Twelfth Station

Jesus dies on the Cross

V. Christ for us became obedient unto death:
R. Even death on a cross.

What legacy is this, what parting gift?
A mother loses one son, gains another,
as John, belov’d disciple, gains a mother.
The end has come; time for one bitter taste
of vinegar on a sponge, a gasping breath,
the words of commendation, and of death.
Let us pray. (Silence)


O God, who for our redemption gave your only-begotten Son to the death of the cross, and by his glorious resurrection delivered us from the power of our enemy: Grant us so to die daily to sin, that we may evermore live with him in the joy of his resurrection; who lives and reigns now and for ever. Amen

Thirteenth Station

The body of Jesus is placed in the arms of his mother

V. Her tears run down her cheeks:
R. And she has none to comfort her.
Long, long ago, an angel called her bless’d
and full of grace. Did Gabriel know the course
her life would take, the life of her womb’s fruit,
the Son of God — that it would come to this?
And did he know as well that this was not
the end, that there was more — far more — to come?
Yet Mary’s grief is not relieved in this,
as on his wounded brow she plants a kiss.
Let us pray. (Silence)


Lord Jesus Christ, by your death you took away the sting of death: Grant to us your servants so to follow in faith where you have led the way, that we may at length fall asleep peacefully in you and wake up in your likeness; for your tender mercies’ sake. Amen

Fourteenth Station

Jesus is laid in the tomb

V. You will not abandon me to the grave:
R. Nor let your holy One see corruption.

His foster father was named Joseph, too;
in death, he takes another Joseph’s tomb.
He had no earthly father of his own,
nor would he have a grave but as a gift.
His birthplace was a stable let on loan,
his burial in a tomb another built.
And all this was to free us from our guilt.
The Way is ended, now the tomb is sealed —
our eyes have seen the love of God revealed.
Let us pray. (Silence)


O God, your blessed Son was laid in a tomb in a garden, and rested on the Sabbath day: Grant that we who have been buried with him in the waters of baptism may find our perfect rest in his eternal and glorious kingdom; where he lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.

To Christ our Lord who loves us, and washed us in his own blood, and made us a kingdom of priests to serve his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen.


March 23, 2014

Turbulent Priest

Óscar Romero joined an august group of martyrs killed largely because of tangling with powerful political leaders. Thomas Becket's story is likely familiar to many, the "turbulent priest" whom powers and principalities found inconvenient. Less familiar is Stanisław of Kraków (from whom I take my name in religion) — he came to his death because he opposed and chastised King Bolesław II. Of course, all three stand in the noble heritage of John the Baptist himself, the protomartyr to speaking truth to power, or the powerful.

Romero lived and died in a tumultuous time in El Salvador, a time when government was tyrannical, using torture and murder as matters of policy. Romero dared bear witness against such wrongdoing, including appealing to our own government to stop its support to the Salvadoran military. American hands are not clean in the death of this saint of the Americas.

Nor was Romero the only religious leader to suffer in that era. It was in part the assassination of his friend Rutilio Grande that contributed to Romero's own conscientization and encouraged him to speak out. And after his own murder, the assassination of other religious leaders continued, among the Jesuits and Maryknoll missionaries in particular.

May all who give voice to the voiceless and hope to the hopeless, even as they die in protest at the wrongs of the powerful and heedless, sear the conscience of the world and convict the wrong as they beat down Satan under their feet.

icon by Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

March 21, 2014

Form and Substance

James De Koven is one of the "ought to have been" people of the Episcopal Church. He ought to have been a bishop; in fact, he was elected twice (Wisconsin and Illinois) but consent to his election was denied each time. He was considered too "ritualist" by some and so the Episcopal Church's House of Bishops lost the direct insights of a wise and careful and thoughtful man.

Of course, the mistake was in thinking that De Koven's concern was about the external forms — as the epithet ritualist indicates. But the heart of De Koven's eucharistic piety was his firm and unshakeable sense of the substantial presence of Christ in the sacrament. It wasn't about bowings and elevations, about incense and chasubles: it was about Jesus, and his presence made known in Bread and Wine.

All too often the church gets caught up in form rather than substance. Dare I say we are seeing that even in the present debates over the nature of marriage? But as De Koven said of the adoration of Christ in his own context, 140 years ago, "How we do it, the way we do it, the ceremonies with which we do it, are utterly, utterly indifferent. The thing itself is what we plead for."

Some are pleading still. May such wisdom prevail.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
sketch from 3.6.2014

March 20, 2014

Women at Prayer

I'm pleased and honored to see that one of my works, "Aaronic Blessing No. 2" has been included in the latest exhibit at the Episcopal Church and the Visual Arts: Women At Prayer. Phoebe Griswold and Margaret Adams Parker were the curators, and a welcome and curator's  statement gives a preview of the many works in this collection. I am very pleased to be included among them.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

March 12, 2014

Bishop for the New World

Bishop James Theodore Augustus Holly was consecrated as the first Bishop of Haiti at Grace Church in New York City, on November 8, 1874. When he attended the 1878 Lambeth Conference he broke the color bar there, and preached at Westminster Abbey.

He served his diocese well and faithfully, for almost forty years, founding many churches, as well as clinics and other ministries.

Collect
Most gracious God, by the calling of your servant James Theodore Holly thou gave us our first bishop of African American heritage. In his quest for life and freedom, he led your people from bondage into a new land and established the Church in Haiti. Grant that, inspired by his testimony, we may overcome our prejudice and honor those whom you call from every family, language, people, and nation; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

icon sketch by Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

March 11, 2014

Chaotic Cosmos

There is a crying need for good popular science programing on TV. PBS still manages to come up with it on a regular basis (Nova, Nature) and there are some excellent series out there (Blue Planet, Planet Earth). But much of the cable world -- and you know who I mean -- seems more interested in hot-ticket alien abductions or exoticism of the Mondo Cane sort. When I heard that Neil deGrasse Tyson was involved in a reboot of the old Carl Sagan series, Cosmos, I was optimistic.

Too optiimistic. Tyson has done some good work in the past, and he has an engaging personality and enthusiasm. However, on viewing, I found the first episode chaotic and misdirected, with too many different sub-segments in no apparent logical order. Even Tyson seemed to have lost some of his infectious enthusiasm. Sadly that is the least of its problems. At base, it lost focus on its primary theme as an introductory episode, by getting sidetracked into a polemical cul de sac.

This was in the form of an over-long section on Giordano Bruno, which was deeply flawed for several reasons, most importantly in that it did not present a case for the conflict between the scientific method — which Tyson laid out briefly at one point: observation, experiment, testing, rejection of disproved hypotheses — and religious dogma.

It failed in being a helpful contribution because — as Tyson also briefly and somewhat off-handedly acknowledged — Bruno was not a scientist. He came to his views about the universe on the basis of theological and philosophical reflection (on Lucretius) and an ecstatic vision. The fact that he got a couple of details sort of correct on this basis is of no more import to the history of science than that Hinduism, for example, has had a better sense of the age of the cosmos than the Judeo-Christian tradition does.

Moreover, Bruno was not persecuted primarily on account of his cosmology, but on account of his peculiar doctrinal positions on almost every article of the Creed. He denied the Incarnation, for example, a detail somewhat (though likely unintentionally) reflected in the animated account of his trials by his repulsed turning away from the cross at his execution, an accurate detail based on eye-witness evidence. His reliance on private revelation was also deeply problematical and, of course, he could offer no scientific evidence for his views, since they did not arise from science, but pure speculation.

This was a conflict within a religious context, not one between dogma and reason. Bruno was as much a dogmatic religious ideologue as those who persecuted him. This was not about the scientific method running into conflict with a dogmatic religious institution. So why Bruno was chosen to be highlighted in this first diffuse episode -- rather than the one of the real scientists who ran into conflict not only with the church but other scientists (who can also be very dogmatic) — escapes me. Unless, that is, it was just meant as a cheap and dramatic shot against "religion." In which case, it missed, since Bruno was as "religious" as the church.

Oh, and speaking of religious, he was a friar (Dominican) and not a monk.

I'll return to see the second episode, but I hope it is better than the first, on all counts. Focus, people, focus!

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

March 10, 2014

Rethinking Original Sin... A Sermon

Original Sin and its Unreckoning -- how our unavoidable sinfulness is clothed in something better than fig leaves.



Lent 1a 2014 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made.+
We come once more to the first Sunday in Lent, the season of the church year in which we are called to examine our lives, to take stock of where we stand with God, to repent of wrongs done in the past and move forward with resolve into the future.

Speaking of wrongs done in the past, our Old Testament reading this morning takes us back to the most distant past, to the story of the first wrong done, the first violation of what at the time was the only “thou shalt not”: “God commanded the man..., ‘Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat.’” You may notice this morning’s excerpt from Genesis skips right to the woman, and her conversation with the serpent — the most disastrous conversation in human history. The folks who designed our Scripture readings — no doubt because they wanted to focus

on the question of temptation to go along with the Gospel for the day — have skipped over the part of the story about how the woman came to be there in the first place. However, because I would rather focus more on the responses to temptation than the temptation itself, I want to note what is missing from our reading. But first want to emphasize what is there. Notice that the “thou shalt not” commandment is given to the man alone — Eve has not yet made her appearance from Adam’s side. We can assume that Adam told Eve about the tree and about not eating from it, for she tells the serpent about it — she can’t plead ignorance of the law. But notice that she adds something that was not in the version that God gave to Adam; she adds “nor shall you touch it” to “you shall not eat” Now, we don’t know if this was her idea, or if Adam added this himself when he told her about this tree. You can just imagine that he did, though. Can’t you just hear him, women of Saint James? Can you hear a man’s voice in this? “Eve, we’re not allowed to eat the fruit of that tree; so don’t even touch it or we will die!”

In any case, both Eve and Adam ignore the commandment, and not only touch (about which God said nothing) but they also eat(about which God was perfectly clear, to Adam at least!) And their eyes are opened to their own naked shame — having come to the knowledge of good and evil they realize they have done evil, and they cower in their shame.

The next part of the story is also left out of our reading, but I’d like to remind you of it. I’m sure you all know the story — where it goes from there. When God charges Adam with having done what he ought not to have done, what does Adam say? “The woman you gave me, she gave me the fruit and I ate it.” When God turns to the woman, what does she say? “The serpent tricked me, and I ate.” The serpent itself cannot find his forked tongue and is speechless at last! He has no one to blame.

Both Adam and Eve imply, “It’s not my fault!” What might the serpent have said? “The Devil made me do it”? Later traditions hold that the serpent is the devil, in physical form. He is the tempter, the root of the problem, the thing that leads people astray, even to his own hurt — as hurt he is by the end of the tale.

There is another old tale, by the way, so old that no one quite knows who first told it. There are versions from ancient Greece, from West Africa, from Asia and the Middle East. Sometimes the characters are a scorpion and a frog, but since were talking about serpents I’ll tell you the one about the fox and the snake.

Once upon a time — that’s how all good stories start, right — a fox came upon a snake sunning himself by the side of the river. Fox wisely kept his distance and inquired politely, “What are you up to Mister Snake?” Snake looked at Fox with his cold eye and said, “I would like to crosssss thissss river but I can’t ssssswim. Would you mind at all giving me a ride over?” Fox raised his eyebrows and said, “Well I would but I’m afraid you might bite me and then we would both drown.” Snake then said, “Sssut, sssut!” — Snakes are not very good at saying, ‘Tut, tut’— “now why would I do that? Please jussst give me a lift and I promisssse I won’t bite you. I’d crossss my heart if I could!” So Fox approached Snake and allowed him to slither up onto his back, and then stepped into the river and began to swim. Sure enough, about halfway across, in the deepest part of the river, Snake bit Fox right in the back of the neck. And as they were sinking beneath the waters, Fox looked back over his shoulder, gave Snake a plaintive look and said, “Why?” Snake shrugged — at least as well as a snake can shrug without any shoulders — and sighed, as both of them perished, “It’sssss my nature!”

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Well, we could say the same thing, couldn’t we. In addition to shifting the blame for our sin to someone else, sometimes we are willing to take the blame ourselves but simultaneously try to excuse ourselves by saying, “I can’t help it. It’s my nature.” There is truth in that, which this story — not the one about the fox and the snake but the one from Genesis — is designed to tell us.

Human beings do have a tendency to sin — the theologians call it “original sin” meaning it is there from the beginning. It is a part of us, deep down, this desire to choose selfishly and out of self-preservation or pride or envy, rather than choosing the path of self-giving goodness and generosity. The story in Genesis, after all, isn’t really about snakes and fruit trees, but about human beings. Snakes don’t really talk, and in this tale from Genesis the serpent is a parable for human craving, for own desire to choose for ourselves at the expense of others and in defiance of God. It is our nature. Once one has the capacity to choose, one can choose wrongly. The point of the story is that Adam and Eve choose wrongly while they are in Paradise, just as the devil himself chose wrongly and turned away from God while he was an angel in heaven. Sin — or the possibility of — is there from the beginning. It is original.

Now, that doesn’t mean, ‘Oh well then. let’s just forget about it and get on with your life and sin as much as you like; after all, if it’s your nature then you can’t help it and it’s not really your fault.’ Nor is it enough to make the kind of response I spoke of a few weeks ago; the response that Joshua ben Sira gave his advice about: just always be good; choose the good — as I noted, that doesn’t work. We are not capable in ourselves to save ourselves. It is in our nature to run off the road. We need help. Sin, it seems, is inescapable; as St Paul wrote to the Romans, “sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, so that death spread to all because all have sinned.”

And that would be the end of the story were it not for the hope that is held out to us in Christ Jesus. That hope is not about finding some way never to commit a sin, but to address the root reality that, like it or not, it is our nature to sin. However much we might try to shift the blame, in the end it is our fault. The Snake of original sin lies coiled in our minds and in our hearts, and he will, from time to time, bite us on the neck — or the heel. It simply doesn’t work to adopt the stoic attitude of “Just say no” when in truth we are — all of us — addicted to sin, and the only truly effective answer to it is an appeal to a higher power to rescue us from our own fallibility and inability to save ourselves. Sin, as Paul told the Romans, has been there from the beginning; but it was not reckoned as sin until the law was given: that first law, “Do not eat of that tree.” And then, because the law had been given, the warning made, when the sin crept out, it was reckoned as sin. But since Christ has come, the law itself is dead. This is what St Paul is getting at in his Letter to the Romans: sin is still there, but the law is dead, and so sin is no longer reckoned.

We as Christians believe that a higher power has come to us in the person of Christ. Through him come the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness, purchased by means of his own obedience and righteousness, through which the law itself was put to death, nailed to the cross with him. We are not and we cannot be righteous on our own — but the reckoning of sin can be washed away, and we can be deemed as if we were righteous by and through the one who is righteousness himself, the obedient Son of God, who faced down the devil in the wilderness, who gave himself for our sake, on our account, and by his death stripped away the shroud of death that had covered all nations, to clothe us in the glory of his righteousness: clothed with Christ, we are covered by him. And so God looks upon us and loves us, when we do right. But when we do wrong he forgives us, all on account of the love he has for his Son, our Lord and savior, in whom we are all clothed from above.

Just as the Avenging Angel passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt, houses whose doorposts were marked with the blood of the Paschal lamb, so too when God looks at us, washed as we are in the blood of the Lamb, and clothed with the royal robe of his righteousness rather than in our own patched together fig-leaf efforts at righteousness, to conceal our sin, when God looks at us, he no longer sees our sin. He sees his own beloved Son. In this is life, the life of the Son of God, in which we share, because we have been clothed with him. To him be the glory, henceforth and for ever more.


March 2, 2014

A Lesson for the English Bishops

The really distressing thing about the C of E Bishops' Pastoral Guidance is that deep down they pretend to hold the line, Canute-like, at same-sex marriage, but have already swallowed incest and adultery whole, and like the adulteress of Proverbs 30:20, wiped the lips and said, "I've done no wrong." This is the inconsistency to which some of us have been pointing, and it is shameful.

They will be in the long run about as successful as Canute in keeping back the tide. Of course, he was really just making that very point. Perhaps the Bishops should copy his humility and admit that God is working out a purpose beyond their previous comprehension.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG