Thursday, November 17, 2005

Not for Wrath

SJF • Proper 28a • Tobias S Haller BSG

God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or sleep we may live with him.
We come now to the last chapter of The First Letter of Saint Paul to the Thessalonians. Over the last few weeks we have heard about how much Saint Paul loved this congregation, and how much they loved him in return. And last week we heard of the comfort he offered them about those who have died, who have fallen asleep in the Lord, and who await his coming with the sound of the trumpet and the call of command.

In this closing chapter, Saint Paul takes up that practical question which many Christians before and since have asked. When will the Lord come? And Paul gives the same answer that Christians first learned from the lips of Jesus Christ himself: the Lord will come at a time when no one expects it, like a thief in the night. When things seem peaceful and secure, then suddenly the judgment will come, and the wrath of God will fall upon all those unprepared for his coming.

This is indeed bad news for those who are unprepared. Our Old Testament reading today paints a picture of the terrible day of wrath that will attend the Lord’s coming. A day of bitterness, a day of warriors crying aloud, a day of distress and anguish, of ruin and devastation, of darkness and gloom. It is a day upon which the people who have done wickedness shall be stricken and walk about as if they were blind. The prophet assures us of a coming day of wrath, a day of mourning, a day of darkness and judgment.

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But Saint Paul reassures us that while the day of the Lord’s coming is bad news for those who sleep the drunken sleep of apathy — who, as the prophet says, say in their hearts, “the Lord will not do good, nor will he do harm” — while this day of wrath is bad news for those who can’t tell good from evil, it is good news for those who are prepared and who have placed themselves in the care of Christ. Those who believe inChristare not in darkness, to be taken by surprise at the Lord’s coming. For them it is not a day of wrath, but a day of redemption and release, a day of judgment, yes: but not a judgment of condemnation, but of acquittal.

For those who believe are not asleep in darkness, but awake in the light, they are observant and watchful, they are ready and prepared for the coming of the Lord. We spoke last week of the form this preparation takes: the oil of hope that is stored up by the wise to light the lamps to welcome the Lord at his coming. And this week Saint Paul again refers to hope, this time as a helmet of salvation, part of the Christian uniform along with the breastplate of faith and love. These three virtues, as Saint Paul would assure the Corinthians, these three Christian characteristics of faith, hope, and love are our shield and protection against the day of wrath, our preparation for the Lord’s coming. The light of faith and hope conquer the darkness of doubt and fear, and love — as the old saying goes — conquers all.

So it is that we are fully equipped — children of day and light, ready for the arrival of our Lord and dressed for the occasion in our fine garments, with our lamps trimmed and ready. He has given us all that we need to be ready for him. And woe to us if we do not make use of all he has given us.

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That is the theme of our gospel parable today: the story of the rich man going on a journey and leaving his property in the care of his servants. Some are given more, and some less — but all are given something. The good and trustworthy servants make something more out of what they’ve been given, so they are able to show their profit to the master when he returns.

But that third servant; what are we to say about him? Even knowing that his master is a shrewd character who tries to maximize his investments, even reaping profit on the side from wherever he can get it, this third servant has nothing to show except what he started with. In spite of knowing how interested his master is in reaping a profit, this servant has done absolutely nothing to advance his master’s interests. No wonder the master is amazed at this fearful servant — a man afraid to put the talent to work, and content to bury it in the ground.

As Saint Paul assures us, that servile fear represents the opposite of hope, the hope that takes a risk and trusts that good will come. Ultimately, Paul is telling us, as Jesus is too, that people get what they expect, they get what they deserve: if they live in fear, their fears will be realized. If they live in hope, their hope will be rewarded. “Perfect love casts out fear” — and the love of God calls us to that perfection of faith, that light of hope and that love for God and neighbor that are nourished and supported by our Lord and his promise. Perfect love, and the faith and hope that go with it, cast out fear as light casts out darkness.

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We have all been given talents, my sisters and brothers. We all have been given the wherewithal to do something for our Lord. Some may have more and some have less, but all of us have something to work with. And most important among the things we have is our participation in the Christian household, the church. We have been adopted by our heavenly father, and made children of light, so that we need not fear the darkness. God has given us the breastplate of faith and love, and the helmet of salvation. Should we not put them on? Should we not be dressed for the occasion? Should we not live lives of hope and trust, willing to put to work the talents God gives, rather than sitting back simply content that they have been given? Isn’t it clear that God wants to find us busy when he comes, not asleep at the switch? Isn’t it clear that God wants not complacency, but hope? Not satisfaction, but zeal? There is a warning in our Lord’s words, “Not all who call me Lord, Lord, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but those who do the will of my Father who is in heaven.” (Matt 7:21) Doing God’s work, working God’s will: that is the task for which God gives us the talents and skills of faith, hope and love.

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Some years ago, a minister encountered a member of his church who (as they said in those days) was “a backslider.” The minister said to him, “ I haven’t seen you in church for a long time.” The man responded, “Well, the dying thief didn’t go to church and Christ accepted him.” The minister pressed the point, “But you used to help out at the soup kitchen; won’t you come lend a hand again?” But the man said, “The dying thief didn’t help out at any soup kitchen, and the Lord accepted him.” The minister countered, “Well do you at least read your Bible every day?” But the man kept to his principles and said, “The dying thief didn’t read the Bible, but the Lord accepted him.” And so finally the minister said, “My, it looks like the only difference between you and the dying thief is that he was crucified with Jesus!”

My friends, our faith is not meant to lull us into the sleep of complacency; our hope is not meant to be treated like an insurance policy tucked away in a drawer; and our love — if we do not express it to our neighbors as to ourselves — if it bears no fruit, it will convict and condemn us on the last day. God gives us these things to put them to use: our faith, our hope, and above all, our love. He gives us these things on loan to be used for his purposes, not ours. God gives us talents and skills, all of us differently, but each of us valued in the sight of God for what we can do for him and for his kingdom, and for our brothers and sisters. The Lord has given us all of this, and he wants a return on his investment. These talents are ours on loan: like the tools handed out in the morning at a construction site — tools to be used through the course of the day, to do the work God gives us to do. Let us not, like the lazy servant, be found only able to give back what he gave with nothing more to show. Let us rather use what God has given us — our faith, our hope, and our love — to increase his kingdom here on earth, that when he comes again in power and great glory, we may be with him forever in heaven.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

The Oil Supply

SJF • All Saints’ Sunday 2005 • Tobias S Haller BSG

We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those that died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.
On this All Saints’ Sunday we continue with our reading from the First Letter of Paul to the Thessalonians. In this chapter, Saint Paul finally gets to the main theme of his correspondence. People in this congregation, as in many others, had been eagerly awaiting the return of Jesus, the promised second coming. And the problem for believers was that this second coming appeared to them to be delayed; and what is more, a number of the members of these congregations had died, and those who remained were concerned about their fate.

In speaking of those who had died, the people of those days, including Saint Paul, used language that isn’t well reflected in our present translation — they would say “our dear brother or sister has fallen asleep,” much as someone today might say that someone has “passed away” or “gone home.”

The English priest Colin Stephenson tells a story of a visit he paid to a convent of Anglican nuns some years ago. At the door he asked the sister who answered if he could see the Mother Superior, who was an old friend. With a lowered voice, the sister said, “Mother is playing the harp in Jerusalem.” Father Wilkinson answered, “Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that; when did she die?” The sister then suppressed a little laugh, and blushingly explained that every room in the convent was named after a place in the Holy Land, and that “Jerusalem” was the music room, and that Mother Superior was in fact playing the harp there!

Even within the scripture we see how this kind of polite language could cause confusion from time to time; you mayremember how in John’s Gospel Jesus refers to Lazarus having “fallen asleep” and the disciples say, “Lord, if he has just fallen asleep he’ll be fine.” Jesus has to correct them and tell them he means that Lazarus is dead — and yet, even given that, he will awaken him.

And this brings us to the problem that faced the Thessalonians and Saint Paul. What happens to those who “had fallen asleep” — who had died before the Lord’s return? Were they lost for ever? Would they rise again like Lazarus? What was to be their fate?

So Saint Paul reassures this congregation. He reminds them that Jesus himself died and rose again and that their friends and family members who had died will also rise again from death at the coming of the Lord. Those who are still living will be joined by those who have died, when they rise from the dead at the sound of the trumpet and the call of command, and the whole congregation of God’s faithful people will be joined together to meet the Lord and be with him for ever. These are the words of encouragement and hope that Saint Paul gave that congregation, and they are words of hope that have been repeated many times since to many other congregations. I have said them myself, right from his pulpit; they are central to the Christian faith, and are, perhaps more importantly, the substance of the Christian hope: Death is not the end! This is one of the reasons we celebrate the feast of all the saints each year; and to drive the message home, the message of new life in Christ, All Saints’ Sunday is also one of the four baptismal Sundays of the church year: when we remember that we who are baptized into his death shall share with him in a resurrection like his. This is the word of the Christian hope.

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But we hear today also a word of warning. Our Gospel today also refers to those who fall asleep, who awaken at the call of the Lord, but of whom only some are ushered into the banquet as friends, while the others are shut outside like strangers. And although our text ends with the admonition to “Keep awake,” that does not seem really to be the point of this story. All of the bridesmaids, after all, fall asleep as the bridegroom’s arrival is delayed. (I will note this has to be a first: I’ve never officiated at a wedding where the groom was the one who was late!) But be that as it may, the real issue here doesn’t seem to be whether the bridesmaids stay awake or fall asleep, but rather if they’ve got enough oil for their lamps. The smart bridesmaids bring along an extra supply of oil; the foolish ones just bring the lamps along with whatever oil is already in them. The lamps burn down, the bridesmaids fall asleep, and suddenly the bridegroom comes. Uh oh! Talk about the problems of an oil shortage!

Over the years people have interpreted this parable symbolically: the lamps indicate wisdom and the oil knowledge; or the oil symbolizes righteous deeds stored up in anticipation of the last judgment. But it seems to me that it isn’t necessary to chop and slice and dice this story quite so fine in order to see the point that Jesus is making, as in the old Boy Scout motto: Be prepared! Or as Saint Paul would say, not to be like those who have no hope, but to be encouraged and prepared and hopeful for the coming of the Lord. The foolish bridesmaids seem to have thought, “Well, the bridegroom might come or he might not. I’m just going to bring my lamp as it is.” The wise and hopeful ones said to themselves, “He will surely come, so I will be prepared with extra oil so that whenever he comes I will be ready.” They lived in hope.


Well, the Lord’s coming is delayed — has been delayed for 1,950 years or so; many, many Christians have fallen asleep. The question is: what did they do before they fell asleep. Did they, through their lives, live in hope? For all of us, we know, will end up being summoned — joined with that great throng that has gone before: all of us will be called forth to show what our lives were like; the secrets of the each heart will be laid bare, most importantly: did we live in hope? Those whose lamps burn brightly, who, as Christ says in the Sermon on the Mount, have bodies “full of light”; who above all have prepared themselves to be with God for ever by their faith and by their hope, who “have built their hope on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness” — these will enter the banquet hall to rejoice with the bridegroom at the never-ending feast.

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Author Paul Adams notes that on the Niagara River, upstream from those mighty waterfalls that have formed the background to many a honeymoon, the river is actually peaceful, calm and navigable. But at a certain point on the calm part of the river there is a small bridge under which the water flows downstream towards the mighty waterfalls, and on that bridge there are two signs posted. The first says, “Do you have an anchor?” And the second sign says, “Do you know how to use it?”

This is the message of our Gospel today: Do you have a lamp? Do you have oil for it? I trust and I hope that you do. I trust and I hope that you, and all the others we remember today who have worshiped God both in this church and in other churches in other places and at other times have stocked away a supply of oil — the oil of hope in Jesus Christ. “I do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about all those who have fallen asleep, so that we might not grieve as others do who have no hope.” We have hope in our Lord and God, trusting not in our righteousness but hoping and trusting in his manifold and great mercy. And this hope is our supply of oil to anoint our hearts, to brighten our countenance, and to light our lamps — so that when the trumpet sounds and the voice of command calls forth, we may rise to new life, and bear our lamps on high and enter that heavenly city, Jerusalem the Golden, there to rejoice for ever with the Bridegroom, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.+

Thursday, November 03, 2005

The Father’s Day

SJF • Proper 26a 2005 • Tobias S Haller BSG

Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, “As you know, we dealt with each one of you like a father with his children, urging and encouraging you and pleading that you lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.
We continue this week with our extended look at the First Letter of Saint Paul to the Thessalonians, and it follows through on where we left off, with yet another emphasis on his love and care for these folks, who must surely have been very special to him.

Last week Paul used the image of a mother nursing her children, and this week he portrays himself as the other parent, the loving and caring father who encourages and urges and pleads with each of his children to do the best they can, living a life worthy of God and God’s kingdom. As I reflect on this with you, I wonder if we are hearing an echo of the Lord’s Prayer here in Saint Paul’s letter. Could this have been a reminder to the Thessalonians, who must have used that prayer each day as every Christian did? Isn’t this a reminder of God the Father, whose kingdom we pray each day will come, who loves us and cares for each of us, giving us our daily bread; and who encourages us to be our very best by forgiving us our very worst, even as we forgive those who sin against us?

In our Gospel passage today, Jesus also alludes to the prayer he committed to his disciples, when he reminds them that they have one Father — the one in heaven. Jesus does this to contrast good fathers and bad. As I said a few weeks back when we were talking about mothers, there are good mothers and bad — as Isaiah assured us, some mothers might even forget or abandon their nursing child. But God is different: God is all good, through and through, better than any human parent, father or mother. Ultimately, only God is the perfect parent, who will never forget or forsake his children.

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Jesus feels so strongly about this, that he drives his point home by saying, “Call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father— the one in heaven.” What he means by this is that no earthly father cancompletelyfulfill that role the way only God can — to be not only the giver of life, but the preserver of life, even unto the life of the world to come. No human father or mother can be quite as good as God, who in Christ is willing to give up everything to save the life of his children. To emphasize this teaching about our perfect Father in heaven, our scriptures lay before us today examples of imperfect fathers on earth, from bad to worse.

We start with the worst: the false prophets who lead the people of God astray; who give false but comforting prophecies of peace as long as they get something to eat, but declare war against those who put nothing into their mouths.

I don’t know if any of you have been following the cable TV series, Rome, but there was a good example of exactly this kind of thing in an episode a few weeks back. When Julius Caesar entered Rome with his army, even though he was breaking Roman law he wanted to be sure that he got the blessing of the religious authorities — the pagan priests who, according to the Roman religion, were supposed to be able to tell the future by watching how birds flew. Yes, I know that sounds odd, but that’s what they did. Well, Julius Caesar invited the chief priest to a dinner party, and as a matter of casual dinner conversation indicated how a very large sum of money might find its way into the accounts of this chief priest’s wife. Much winking and nodding ensued. And sure enough when Julius Caesar came to the Temple on the day appointed to foretell the future, sure enough the birds flew in the right direction— with a little help from a several servants out of sight behind a wall, dropping a brick outside the cage of birds and furiously waving their aprons to shoo them the right way!

Apparently it was the same in the Israel of Micah’s day: as long as you crossed the palms of the prophets with enough silver they would be sure to give you a good word: they were bribable judges, and priests for price, giving oracles for money.

And things weren’t any better hundreds of years later in Jesus’ day. The primary difference appears to be that the bribery was in a somewhat less obvious form. Rather than monetary bribes, the Pharisees and scribes received a less tangible honorarium: the place of honor at banquets, thebest seats in the synagogue, people bowing and scraping to them in the street and in the market, and being called Rabbi, which means teacher, or Abba, which means father. And it is also clear that these guys had absolutely no concern for the people who honored them. On the contrary, they placed heavy burdens on their shoulders, but didn’t even lift a finger to help them with them. One might well ask why the people put up with this — but you might just as well as ask why the Romans thought you could tell the future by watching birds! Maybe people just like getting good news even if they’ve paid for it; or maybe people like being told, “Do this; do that” because it relieves them of the burden of having to take personal responsibility for their lives.

Whatever the reason, this kind of bad fatherhood had been going on for a long time. And all of these bad fathers have one thing in common: they are interested only in themselves. They are only concerned about others for what they can get out of them: food to fill their mouths, money to line their pockets, seats of honor at the banquet, and salutations on the sidewalk.

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How different, Jesus tells us, how different, Saint Paul assures us, is our God and Father in heaven, who sets for us the model of all good fatherhood. Paul shows us one crucial aspect of what a good father is like in this passage from First Thessalonians: notice how quickly he shifts from the language of being like a father, to the language of being a brother, and then even to the point of being the child: as he says that when he lost touch with the Thessalonians even for a short time he was made like an orphan by being separated from them.

So too Jesus calls for this inversion of hierarchy: if you want to be the greatest then you must be the servant. “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

This is the great inversion of the order of the world that took place in the Incarnation itself. Unlike the scribes and Pharisees who sit in Moses’ seat, but don’t get up to lift a finger to help anyone; Jesus left his heavenly throne and came down to be with us as one of us, to be our brother, to serve and to save a fallen people. In a certain sense he descends from his heavenly father’s side and becomes the child of all humanity: the Son of Man — think about that odd expression by which Jesus speaks of himself so often — the Son of Man, humanity’s child, the one who leaves his Father’s heavenly throne and comes to earth — as we will celebrate in a few weeks’ time — as a vulnerable infant in a manger.

This self-sacrifice stands in stark opposition to the self-interest of the bad fathers in our readings today. A good father not only lifts a finger to help his children; he will do everything he can to save them, even at the cost of his own pain and suffering.

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Not too many years ago, one fine summer day, a father was out driving in the country with his young son. As they drove along with the warm breeze coming through the car window, a bee flew in on the wind. It buzzed around inside the car, terrifying the child, because he was allergic to bee venom — and a sting could send him into shock or even kill him. Without a moment’s thought, the father reached out and grabbed the bee, squeezed it in his hand, and then tossed it out the window. He looked over at his son, whose eyes were still wide with fear and confusion. Then the father showed his son his hand, on the palm of which the stinger had penetrated, and the venom sack still pumped by reflex. “You don’t have to be afraid of that bee any more,” he said. “I’ve taken its sting for you.”

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This is what a good father will do for his son. This is what Christ did for us all. This is what we are called to do for each other. May God give us the strength to lead lives such as this, lives worthy of God our Father, who has called us into his own kingdom and glory. Thus every day can be our Father’s Day: the Day of our Father who is in heaven, to whom be ascribed all might, majesty, power and dominion, henceforth, and for evermore.

The story of the father, the son, and the bee is adapted from Adrian Uieleman.