Tuesday, May 31, 2005

The Choice and the Gift

SJF • Proper 4A 2005 • Tobias S Haller BSG

Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”

In our Gospel reading this morning, Jesus greets his hearers with a lesson about how to please God. And a hard lesson it is. Put yourself for a moment in the place of those who come before the just judge at the end of days, full of their good deeds, proud to have prophesied, happy to have cast out demons in God’s name, pleased to have done many great works in his name — only to be told, quite literally (and pardon my language) “Go to hell!” All these do-gooders who have been doing good in Jesus’ name, all these spectacular miracle workers who arrive at the day of judgement ready to be thanked for their service and ushered into paradise, suddenly get a treatment as harsh as any delivered by Simon Cowell to a would-be American Idol: “I don’t know who you are; get away from me.”

Suddenly the stakes seem to have been raised, the requirements increased. The candidates who made it through the earlier rounds of elimination with flying colors now find themselves treated like no-talent wannabes! Jesus had said that many were called but few were chosen, but haven’t these people done what they thought was wanted? Haven’t they done all they could in his name, prophesied, exorcized, and done deeds of power, all in the name of the one they call “Lord, Lord”? What have they missed? What have they failed to do?

Well, Jesus makes it plain: it isn’t enough to call him “Lord” or do deeds in his name, however good those deeds may be. What is needed is to do the will of his Father in heaven.

But we might well ask, isn’t the will of the Father to do those very deeds, to honor that very Lord, to praise his name and follow his way? The shocking answer is, apparently not, or at least not these deeds alone. Something else is wanted, something else besides the acknowledgment of God as Lord of your life, something else besides just doing what you think your Lord and master wants you to do; in short, something more than just allegiance, more even thanobedience, more than hard work and diligence and sticking to the rules.

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To find what this missing something is we need to go back to our reading from Deuteronomy. There we find that God commanded, “You shall put these words of mine in your heart and soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and fix them as an emblem on your forehead.” Ah, but what were the words of which he spoke? To find them you need to back up even further in the book of Deuteronomy to where the commandment about having words on hand and in heart and mind first appears. And there in the sixth chapter these familiar words appear: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and strength.” And here it is that we find the missing ingredient without which all the allegiance and obedience in the world is empty and formal and soulless: love.

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You all know how important the symbol of salt is in scripture, and how important it is in reality in the kitchen. Have you ever made pasta or rice and forgotten to put salt in the water before you cooked the rice or the pasta? Well, I have, and know there is no real remedy for it: adding the salt after the pasta or rice is cooked just doesn’t cut it — the saltiness stays on the outside and doesn’t penetrate into the food. Sure, it all gets mixed up in your mouth, but it just doesn’t taste the same!

What is true of salt is true of our love for God. You can’t throw it in as an afterthought, it has to be there from the very beginning. In fact, our allegiance and obedience need to come from our love, to grow out of our love, to be based upon our love, if they are to be the kind of allegiance and obedience our Lord desires. Love has to be the foundation.

For if we bind our selves to Jesus, and obey him only out of duty, doing the job because we are proud of our ability to carry out orders, to get the job done, we will have left undone the greatest duty of all, the duty of love. If we bind ourselves and obey only out of fear for the punishment we might incur, we will be acting apart from that perfect love which casts out fear. If we bind ourselves and obey only because we seek a reward or a reserved seat in the kingdom of God, we will be mere seekers after a prize, and not lovers of a beloved.

Jesus assures us, in his story of the wise and foolish men who built on rock or sand accordingly, that our relationship with God needs to be established on a firm foundation, the foundation of love. I saw a show on National Geographic the other night, showing the building of the Petronas Towers in Malaysia — the tallest buildings in the world, twin towers almost 1500 feet high, linked by a skyway a dizzying more than half-way up. When the builders first started to plan the foundations, they discovered to their dismay that according to the design, while one of the towers would stand over bedrock not too far down, the other tower would be out in a basin of ancient sediment, almost four hundred feet from a firm foundation. If the builders built one tower on the rock and the other on the sand, the one on the sand would slowly tilt and pull the other down with it, since they were to be connected by that skyway. The ingenious solution was to move both towers out on to the sand — but not to build on sand! Rather, the engineers made the bold decision to send down pilings nearly a third the height of the buildings themselves, deep down through the many layers of silt and sediment to the bedrock below, and each tower would then be equally supported on firm and identical foundations.

This kind of firm foundation for our relationship with God — basing our relationship with God on our love for God, and God’s love for us, however deep we have to dig to find it — is similar to any human relationship. We are all of us, in our relationships, like those two towers in Malaysia. If one person has a deep love for the other, but the other is only in it for what they can get out of it — well, that relationship will crumble just as surely as the Petronas Towers would have if built where originally planned — connected, but one on sand and the other on rock.

It is the shared deep foundation of love that gives meaning to a relationship: whether a human relationship or our relationship with God. And it is out of the shared foundation of love that the gift of love is given.

But, you might well ask, we are hardly God’s equals! How can we ever come near a balanced relationship with God? How can our human love for God ever match the great gift of God’s love for us?

Well, think for a moment of the most extreme case: what value is a gift without love? Say someone gives you a gift because they have to — say they pulled your name in the SecretSanta drawing in the office — you might enjoy the scarf or the candle or the box of chocolates — but the gift won’t mean much. Or if someone gives you a gift because they are afraid of you, or because they’re trying to bribe you or butter you up — well, that kind of a gift will leave a sour taste in your mouth. And if someone gives you a gift only because they expect one in return — then they aren’t taking part in generosity but commerce.

But if someone gives you something just because they love you, it will mean everything in the world. And the important thing here is that the disparity in the gift — when you compare what God gives us with what we can give God in return — doesn’t matter. It isn’t about the gift but about the love of the giver from whom it comes. If somebody gives you something just because they love you, it won’t matter that it’s not 24 karat gold or crusted with diamonds. It can be something as humble as a child’s hand-made Mother’s Day card — such as I’m sure a few of you here received a few weeks ago. And if you have any doubt, you ask any of those who received those simple pieces of paper coated with glitter and crayon if that wasn’t one of the best gifts they ever got.

And how can we imagine that God is any different? How can we imagine that God just wants us to act like good little soldiers who say “Yes, Sir!” and do what they’re told but who have no heart or soul for their duty? How can we possibly think that God is merely a taskmaster to be feared, and obeyed only out of fear? Or how can we imagine that we can buy God’s favor, doing his will only for the reward? How can we imagine that when God sets before us a blessing and a curse, either that he wants us to choose the curse, or has made it impossible for us to accept the blessing? God gave himself to us in his great love for us, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective by faith. This is how, and how much, God loves us.

And God wants nothing from us but our love in return. God wants us — the gift of ourselves, as poor and frail as we are, as young in spirit as children holding out our handmade offerings of love, offerings that mean more to God than all the treasure of the world, more than all the prophecies and exorcisms and deeds of power. Our gift of ourselves, when it flows out of our love for God, is acceptable, treasured, and taken up into God’s loving arms. These are the words that God wants engraved on our hearts, sealed on our hands and our foreheads, and marked on our doorposts to remind us, consecrating heart and hand, soul and mind, our going out and our coming in, so that all we feel with our hearts or do with our hands or think with our minds wherever we go, will be only and all for the love of God. May we so love our Lord, beloved, with all our heart and mind, and soul and strength, all the days of our lives, through Jesus Christ our Lord.+

Thursday, May 05, 2005

The Vine Divine

SJF • Easter 6a • Tobias S Haller BSG
Jesus said, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower.”
Over the last few weeks we’ve been hearing portions of the First Letter of Peter, as he counseled and encouraged the church to whom he wrote, in a time of trial and difficulty. He wrote to them as the church, encouraging them and teaching them how to be the church. For this was early days yet — the time in which the church was beginning to emerge and understand itself as somehow different from both the Jews and the Gentiles among whom they lived. They were coming to see themselves not just as a group of individuals, but as a congregation, a church, a people “called out” or “called together” — which is the root meaning of the word ekklesia: church. We have heard Peter describe them as a flock of sheep being led by a shepherd, and last week as living stones being built into a spiritual temple, and as a holy people, a royal priesthood.

In the same way, week by week in our gospel readings, we have been hearing a succession of images that Jesus used to describe himself, using those words which to any Jewish ears carry special weight: I AM. For I AM is God-language of the first order; in Hebrew it represents God’s identity, the name God used when speaking from the burning bush, when Moses asked what name he should give the people, to know who this God is. And you recall, God answered, IAM who I AM.

Jesus uses this divine language to offer a succession of images for himself: the Good Shepherd, the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and the Gate of the Sheepfold. Thisweek he takes up an image from agriculture, a thing everyone who lived on the shores of the Mediterranean would immediately recognize, for just about family had its vine and fig tree.

Jesus says, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower.... I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers.”

John the evangelist included this passage in his gospel in part because at the time he wrote the church was in danger of falling apart. The pressures that Peter refers to in his Letter were having their effect. The evil and deceitful were assaulting the church; lying tongues were spreading slanderous rumors and false accusations; fearmongers were stirring things up, and the envious were intimidating and threatening the believers. And for some of those believers, the pressure was getting to be too much, and they were falling away, forsaking the church and separating from it out of fear.

So John the evangelist recalls the people to the stern words of Jesus: stern yet comforting — Abide in me, for apart from me you can do nothing. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. This is more than a pep talk — let’s work together for the good of all. This is an alert and alarm, a warning call to stay together to face the storm, like mountaineers tied together with ropes so that they don’t get separated in the snowstorm. Stay together, folks! For if a branch is cut off from the vine, that’s the end of the story: the cut-off branches wither, are gathered up, thrown in the fire and burned. There are no options here, Jesus says: we abide with him or we perish.

So both Peter and John are counseling the virtue of fortitude — a kind of patient endurance to put up with the pressures from within and without, not to pay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; not to give in to insecurities and doubts; to hold fast and abstain from evil; to seek peace and pursue it. This is what the church is called to do and be, and by doing and being so, by remaining connected to the vine, the branches can and will bear much fruit.

Now, this was the message to believers, to the people already within God’s covenant, already incorporated into him: a call for patience and perseverance. But what about those outside? What about those who have not heard the message? What is to happen to them?

Well, in our reading from Acts we have Paul’s sermon to the Gentiles, right there in the heart of Athens, the intellectual center of the Greek world, a city full of religion, but not yet acquainted with the faith.

And so Paul seizes this opportunity, taking advantage of the Greeks’ intellectual curiosity and religious sensibility — a sensibility so fine they have an altar to an unknown god just to be sure they haven’t left anyone out — for in Greek mythology offending a god can mean big trouble!

And what Paul tells these rather astonished people is that God is both bigger than they ever thought, but also far more intimately connected with them than any of them ever imagined — except for their wisest poets. God is the creator of the universe and Lord of heaven and earth, so great and grand that “in him we live and move and have our being.” God is not an object to be placed under human control, an idol ofbronze or gold or stone. Rather God lives, and is the source of our life, in whom we exist and apart from whom we can do nothing, so that we can rightly call ourselves “his offspring.” We live because of God.

So it is that Paul is giving the Athenians the same message Jesus gave the apostles, the same message that Peter gave to the early church and John recalled to them in his Gospel: God is our life. Apart from God, separated from God, either by our own choice or by falling prey to the demands of others or the pressures of life, we will perish. Like mountaineers whose rope breaks, we will become separated in the storm and perish; like the branch cut off from the vine we will wither fruitlessly, and end up in the bonfire.

God does not want this. God wants each and every one of his children to grow and be nourished and bear the fruit of goodness that comes in time for all who abide in him. There are people abroad at present seeking to divide the church, to cleave the vine or lop off the branches that don’t suit them — forgetting that it is God who is the vinegrower and only God knows how and when to prune the branches — and that he does so not to remove them from the vine but so that they can bear even more fruit! There are people out there saying that the church is falling apart, spreading fear and malicious slander. But don’t you believe them; as an old saying goes: the church is an anvil that has worn out many hammers. Plenty of branches have cut themselves off in the past, sects thinking they were in possession of “the truth” when they had merely obsessed a single issue out of all proportion, cults thinking they could do it all on their own, trying to drag others with them — and where are they now?

Rather let us, sisters and brothers, stand firm in our resolve to remain together in Christ: as a Christian family, a royal priesthood chosen and precious to God, branches of God’s vine. Let us pray for the strength of God’s Holy Spirit to comfort and encourage us to remain united in the one in whom we live and move and have our being, even God the Almighty, who with the Son and the same Spirit is worshiped, praised, hallowed and adored, now and for ever.