Sunday, June 12, 2005

No Place Like Home

SJF • Proper 6a • Tobias S Haller BSG

Jesus sent out the twelve with the following instructions: Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, proclaim the good news, The kingdom of heaven has come near.
Towards the end of our gospel reading today, Jesus instructs the apostles on how to spread the the good news. And what is striking about the instructions is the limitation Jesus places on the mission field for the work the apostles are to undertake. They are sent out, but not to the ends of the earth. They are sent out, but not to all people, all nations. No, they are explicitly instructed not to go to anybody but Jews; they are to spread the message of God only to the children of Israel.

Now we know that by the end of Matthew’s Gospel, after the resurrection, Jesus would indeed send the disciples out to all nations. If he hadn’t, we wouldn’t be here. If the good news had only been delivered to the house of Israel, none of us would have received it. Yet we did hear the good news; we did receive the message of salvation; for at the end of his earthly ministry, just before his ascension into heaven, Jesus altered the standing orders for the apostles, and sent them off to the ends of the earth, to bring the good news to all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

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The question must be, of course, why, if Jesus intended the gospel for all people, did he not send the apostles out to everyone from the beginning? Why did he limit them only to Jews. As we know, in the cosmopolitan Middle East in those days, there was ample opportunity to preach to non-Jews without having to travel at all. Galilee was so chock-full of non-Jews that it was known as “Galilee of the Gentiles.” Israel had the historic curse of being in the middle of the road: and so it got hit by traffic heading both ways! The Israelites had been conquered by Egyptians, Philistines, Assyrians, Babylonians, the Greeks and most recently the Romans. There were even settlements of the old people whom the Israelites had been instructed to cast out at the end of their Exodus — the Moabites and Ammonites. So the land was full of Gentiles everywhere you went.

Yet Jesus said, Don’t go to them; go only to the lost sheep of Israel. Why is that? Well, there are a couple of reasons. First of all, have you ever heard the phrase, “the right of first refusal”? This means that all things being equal, someone has the right to accept an offer, or turn it down, before it can be made to anyone else. I can give you a simple example close to home. Anyone planning on getting married at Saint James Church, if they want music at their wedding, must first speak with our organist Mr. Baker to see if he is available. He has the “right of first refusal” — and only after he has been asked, and finds he isn’t available on that date and lets the couple know, are they free to find someone else to play — in which process, I hasten to add, Mr. Baker is more than happy to assist! But he has “first dibs” on serving as organist at any service at Saint James.

And just as our organist has this special relationship with Saint James, the Israelites have a special relationship with God: they are the chosen people, chosen and precious in God’s sight. As the Lord says to them in our passage from Exodus, “You shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.” So this is the first reason that Jesus sends the apostles to the children of Israel first, before any others. They were God’s people to start with, and they are the people God wants first to call back to him. They have the right of first refusal.

The second reason is more practical, and stems from the sad fact of prejudice and hatred — which is still with us. Even in the conquered land of Israel, perhaps in part because it was such a much-conquered land, the native Israelites were a despised and hated group. The Romans for the most part looked down on them; the old people, the Caananites and what was left of the Moabites and Ammonites, resented them as their ancient conquerors. The Samaritans hated them because of religious differences dating back four hundred years. The cultured Greeks thought of them as barbarians and primitives. How successful would the Twelve — all of them Israelites — have been going to any of these peoples or nations with the news they had — Our Jewish master can bring you healing! A Jewish carpenter is the savior of the world, and we are his apostles! Would they not have been laughed at rather than believed? Even after the resurrection, even after the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the apostles had a hard time of it. How much more difficult, without these miracles yet to come, for an Israelite apostle to preach about an Israelite savior to people who held Israelites in such low esteem. Imagine a Ugandan immigrant trying to sell vacuum cleaners door to door in Scarsdale or Easthampton — the sound of slamming doors would be eloquent, and he’d be lucky not to have the cops chase him out of town.

So Jesus sends the disciples to the “easy” targets first, the “good leads” as a salesman might say — their own people, primed for just this message for centuries through the teachings of the prophets, whom Jesus has come to fulfill, members of the royal priesthood, the holy nation, the children of the God whose kingdom has come near and is on the point of breaking forth.

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There is a lesson for us in this for our own work of evangelism. While not neglecting the world-wide mission of the church (since after all Jesus did eventually give that mandate to go into all the world) it is important for us ministers of Christ that we also not neglect the work that exists in our own back yard, our own neighborhood. And when I say “us ministers of Christ” I do mean us. We are all ministers, ordained and lay, and we each have ministries for spreading the word and building up the kingdom. What is more, and this may come as a surprise to you, we are all missionaries! Since 1821 the official name of the Episcopal Church begins with “the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society” — and according to its bylaws every member of this church is a missionary! And while much of the mission is foreign, we don’t neglect the domestic part.

Look around you. There are empty seats here in this church! Isn’t that a shame? But isn’t it also an opportunity — to say there’s room for more? The church isn’t half empty, it is half full! Go out on the streets after our worship today, and look around you. Ask yourself, How many of these people right here in this neighborhood, right here on my block — dare I say, right here in my own house! — didn’t go to church today. Sounds to me like the harvest is plentiful, and there’s room here for anyone seeking God’s kingdom.

So I challenge you all, all of you ministers and missionaries, to do all you can to give people the option to refuse if refuse they must, but at least giving them the chance to accept the good news, the invitation to God’s house; and to do so where you are — not rushing off to the ends of the earth, not trying to convince or convert people whose language you don’t speak or customs you don’t understand — but rather to reach out to your friends and neighbors, right here, right now, and tell them the good news that the kingdom of heaven has come near. You may find that there is more treasure in your own back yard than you ever imagined.

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Years ago, before this church was founded, when Edgar Allan Poe lived just around the corner in the 1840s, there was a poor Pennsylvania farmer named Smith who got bitten by the gold bug. He heard that gold had been discovered in California, and he determined he to join the Gold Rush and make his fortune. Smith sold his farm, took the money and started the long cross-country journey, finally reaching the land of promise. Well, he found to his dismay that he wasn’t the only one there. The competition was fierce, and for every man who made a fortune there were hundreds who wasted all they had, barely breaking even. Smith was among the latter, and soon was down to his last few dollars. At this point, like the prodigal son, he determined to give up and return home to Pennsylvania. Maybe, he thought, he could get a job on his own old farm.

After many months of working his way back home he arrived in his home town. It had entirely changed. The simple country town had been replaced by rows of stately homes along a tree-lined avenue. The old wood-frame church was gone, and in its place there stood a magnificent stone structure, with a tall tower and beautiful stained glass windows. And as Smith came to his old farm, he discovered it had been entirely transformed. It seems that a few years after he left to make his fortune in California, the one to whom he sold his farm discovered oil there, dug wells and became rich beyond his wildest dreams. The wealth that Smith sought on the other side of the continent had been there at home under his feet all the time.

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My friends, the opportunity is great: we are surrounded here by literally thousands of people who are thirsty and hungry for the word of God, but are like sheep without a shepherd. And we have something more precious than petroleum to offer them. You, my sisters and brothers in Christ, are commissioned as shepherds, as ministers and missionaries, to bring the sheep in to this fold. I do not tell you to go to the ends of the earth, or to go to those who will not listen to you. God has commissioned you to go to your own people, the people of your own household and neighborhood, and to share with them the great good news, that the kingdom of heaven has come near, and that there are seats available for the great banquet. Let the harvest be gathered in, let the people of God give praise to God, and let all the people say Amen!

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

The Quality of Mercy

SJF • Proper 5a 2005 • Tobias S Haller BSG

Jesus said, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’”
Mercy is one of those words which we hear very frequently, but which I fear we do not always quite understand in all of its fulness. At its simplest, I’m sure most of us think of mercy, or being merciful, in terms of letting someone off the hook, not punishing someone for something they’ve done — what the courts call leniency. But mercy of this sort, the lenient sort, usually tells us more about the one who is let off the hook than about the person who is lenient. The reasons for mercy have their origin not in the quality of the one who is merciful, but with the nature of the crime, or the mitigating circumstances surrounding it. The poor woman who stole the loaf of bread because her children were starving is given a job instead of a prison sentence; or the criminal who has to care for his elderly mother is given a reduced punishment. These examples do show us that the judge is not callous or unfeeling, but the focus is on the needs of the one to whom mercy is shown.

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What about the one who shows mercy? What is mercy like in and of itself? One clue is in our reading from Hosea, which Jesus quotes at the end of our Gospel today. You’ll note that the translators of the New Revised Standard Version from which we take our readings chose the phrase “steadfast love” for the Hosea text, and “mercy” for the Gospel text, to translate the very same concept. And this is an important clue for a fuller understanding of the nature of mercy — especially as the Jewish people understood it. We Christians need constant reminders that Jesus was a Jew, born and raised in a Jewish household, as a child and man growing up in a Jewish culture.

The Jewishness of Jesus is important because our present day concept of mercy comes more from the Romans than from the Jewish or even the Christian tradition — from Roman culture and Roman law, and the Roman language, Latin. in which the word for mercy is misericordia. Some of us here remember when Our Lady of Mercy Hospital up to the north of us went by that name! It tells us how the Romans felt about this concept. For the Romans’ word for mercy means, literally, heart-pain. It is not far off from the similar Roman concept of compassion — suffering-with. So for the Romans mercy is basically about feeling bad for someone, having a heart-ache for somebody, knowing how they feel, and taking the matter to heart. This is the mercy and compassion, the misericorida and compassio of “misery loves company.” And surely this kind of soft-heartedness has its place; surely we are called to feel sorrow for those who suffer pain — even when the pain is self-inflicted. None of us likes to hear, “What a fine mess you’ve gotten yourself into!” And if we are to do as we would be done by, we will allow our hearts to be touched by suffering, even when we might be tempted to be judgmental instead: for we shall all be judged with the judgment we give, and be forgiven even as we forgive.

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But there is even more to the idea of mercy than this Latin view suggests. The older Jewish concept is steadfast love, which gets translated as “mercy” once the Romans get hold of it. This is about — not less — but more than feelings, more than soft-heartedness or compassion or sympathy. Steadfast love sets that false cliché from the book and movie Love Story, on its head: real love means not less, but far far more than having to say you’re sorry, or feeling sorry for someone else. That kind of mercy is good as far as it goes, but it often doesn’t often go far enough! The true steadfast love that God shows always goes the limit — that’s the steadfast part; and it is always loving — which as we know from the teaching of Jesus is intimately bound up with the very nature of God. As the Psalm says, “the steadfast love of God never ceases.” Steadfast love is as much beyond mere soft-heartedness as the power and love of God is beyond mere human capacity.

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We have just such a comparison in the passage from Hosea this morning. The people who erred and strayed from God’s ways acknowledge their guilt, and promise to return to the Lord. After all, they say, God’s mercy never ceases; God is as reliable as the spring rains! And God picks up this weather-reporter’s metaphor and responds that the Israelite’s love is like a morning cloud, like dew that evaporates even as the sun comes up, unreliable and transitory. God, Hosea assures us, does not want such transitory fly-by-night and gone-by-day love. God is not interested in a one-night stand! God wants his people to show him the same steadfast love that he shows them. When God pours out his showers of love, what does he ask in return? A morning mist, an evaporating cloud? No: as another prophet, Amos, said, God wants justice to roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream. Hosea and Amos both maintain that God is not interested in sacrifices — no amount of burnt offerings can weigh in the scale as much as steadfast love, enduring love, a merciful heart that not only feels the pangs of another’s suffering, but moves out to help and lift up those who suffer. The mercy of God, the steadfast love of God, or — as Coverdale translated this same word for his English Bible, in the form still preserved in the Psalms in the Book of Common Prayer, the “loving-
kindness” of God — does not simply weigh the victim and find him pitiful, does not simply feel sorry in a pang of the heart, but stoops down to lift up the fallen, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked and visit the sick and the prisoner. The steadfast love, the mercy of God, binds up all wounds and brings healing and restoration.

And it does so out of a deep sense of relationship and covenant: the love of God for humanity is portrayed throughout the scripture in the image of a spouse caring for his beloved. God’s love for us is steadfast not simply because we may be miserable and God is merciful, but because God is faithful and true and enduring — and because, as I reminded us on Trinity Sunday, we are made in God’s image, and so capable of loving God in return. Mercy, steadfast love, is thus a double blessing.

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The greatest English poet wrote of mercy using just such language. It is not hard to imagine that Shakespeare had in mind this passage from Hosea, and indeed the incident from the Gospel, when he wrote the Merchant of Venice. You may recall that the main character, the Jewish merchant Shylock,isout for vengeance. He is a wounded man, a wronged man, but he is incapable of getting past his own hurts to understand the hurt of others. He hardens his heart, much as the Pharisees portrayed in our Gospel, apparently unable to understand generosity in others, or show mercy himself. As the court gathers to render judgment, Portia, disguised as a young attorney, appeals for mercy in these famous words:

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
’Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The thronèd monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly pow’r doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
deeds of mercy.

This was Portia’s appeal to Shylock, and it is the appeal that Jesus made to the Pharisees, when they saw him break the rules and eat with sinners. He was showing them the power of God to forgive, and inviting them to do the same. Those who think themselves righteous, those unaware they too are “standing the need of prayer” — in short, those who have forgotten or ignored the mercy and steadfast love shown to them, and hence are unable to show mercy or forgiveness or steadfast love to others — will not enter the banquet, not because they have been excluded or kept out, but because they will not come in; they will not sit with those they condemn even though God himself is there with them.

For God came to show his mercy, to show his steadfast love. He came to lift the fallen, to bring the healing of forgiveness to those who, sick with sin, had come to think of themselves as beyond cure, beyond hope, beyond redemption. This, my friends, is the mercy and the steadfast love of God, from which we have all benefitted, and which we are all, each of us, invited to share. May we, this day and always, rejoice that God has saved us through his steadfast love, and showing thanks and love in return, spread the Gospel of his mercy to the ends of the earth.+