Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Faith Works

SJF • Lent 2a 2005 • Tobias S Haller BSG

Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift, but as something due. But to one who without works trust him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness.

We come now to the second Sunday in Lent, and I want to continue where I left off last week in exploring Saint Paul’s version of the gospel, as he put it forth in his Letter to the Romans. Last week I spoke about Paul’s view of sin as a kind of inherited disease that runs through the human family faster than pink-eye through a nursery school. You just can’t get away from it: there is none righteous, no not one!

That sounds like bad news until you get to the good part of Paul’s message: there is healing for this disease. Health and salvation come through Jesus Christ, who has come like a great physician, to heal all of us in our sickness, to mend what was broken, and to set us on the path from which we had strayed.

We here are all Christians, so we are used to this message and we give thanks for it. But because we know and believe the message, we are apt to miss just how strange it seemed to the people to whom Jesus and Paul first brought it. To them this word of healing was a strange message indeed. Why? Because many of them didn’t think they were sick! For most Jews and many Gentiles of that time, goodness or righteousness didn’t come from God, but from one’s own virtue — indeed that is what virtue means: some quality or characteristic of yourself. For instance, we say it is a virtue of lead to be heavy, or of steel to be strong. For many of the Gentile philosophers, what was good was evident in nature — you could rationally deduce what was right or wrong. Goodness consisted in doing what was right, and by doing right you became better and better at doing it and so became a better and better person.

Many of the Jews, who were quite a bit less trustful of nature — to say nothing of the“nature gods” that the pagan Gentiles worshiped — were also more aware, through their own history of past failures, of the human tendency not to get better and better if left to our own devices. So they believed instead that God had given Moses a legal code, a rule book which, if you followed every rule, colored within all the lines, kept your place, and minded your business, God would reward you and account you righteous.

And this is in large part why Nicodemus, who came to see Jesus one night, is so confused. He is a good Jew who has followed the rules to the best of his ability. He’s been brought up to understand salvation exactly in those terms: the righteous inherit God’s kingdom, and the ungodly are doomed; and righteousness is earned by following the law, avoiding the sins that are forbidden, and doing the good works that are required. So when Jesus comes along and instead of talking about following rules he talks about following him, believing in him — being so bold as to say “that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” — well, this just turns Nicodemus’ world upside-down! And Jesus doesn’t let the poor old guy off the hook easy. When Nicodemus comes to him with his questions, Jesus tells it like it is and says, Yes, it is a whole new world I’m talking about here. It is as if you were to be born all over again, born from above, with a heavenly view instead of an earthly one. A new wind is blowing, and though you hear it, you haven’t got a clue as to where it is coming from or where it is going. The world is upside down, for the Son of Man has descended from heaven, and will be lifted up so that all may believe in him — and be saved!

So says Jesus. And what about Paul? How shocking must his words have been to the devout Jewish believers who heard him. “But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness.” You can hear the grumbling: God justify the ungodly! This is unheard of! Surely God only justifies the righteous, only rewards those who have earned salvation by avoiding the sins God forbids and doing the works God demands. So to meet the Jewish challenge to his teaching, Paul reaches back to the patriarch Abraham, the ancestor to whom the Jews looked as their “founder” so to speak, much as Americans might look back to George Washington.

We heard some of Abraham’s story — or Abram as he was called at first — in our Old Testament reading, how upon God’s command to leave everything he knows and trusts, he does so. What is crucial to Paul’s argument is why Abram obeys God: it is because he has faith in God’s promise. Saint Paul is at pains to show that Abrahams’ faith comes first, prior to his action: for if he didn’t believe in God’s power to deliver on his promise, he would not have acted in response to God’s command. So it isn’t that his obedience to the commandment wins God’s approval; rather it is his underlying faith in God that leads him to do what God commands. Faith comes first, and Abram is reckoned righteous on account of it.

Now it is true that works do follow: but what Paul is trying to clarify is that if the good works we do flow not from our faith in God, but rather as a kind of commercial transaction to get something out of God, or as merely following the law to avoid punishment, then we have missed the point and are likely to end up either as self-righteous Pharisees who think they’ve earned their passage to heaven, or into despairing sinners who fear the wrath of God and give up because they know they cannot possibly keep all of the law. Saint Paul — following the teaching of Jesus — sweeps away these alternative lifestyles of pride or despair, and offers the true life that lies in God and comes from God and leads to God.

Martin Luther once wrote, “The ‘works of the law’ are works done without faith and grace, because of the law, which forces them to be done through fear or the enticing promise of temporal advantages.” As Saint Paul wrote elsewhere, the Law is like a strict schoolmaster whom you obey either out of fear or in order to please. But our good works done in faith and through faith and by means of faith, that is another story altogether. For these are the result, not the cause, of God’s love, which was so great that he gave his only Son to the end that everyone who believes in him might not perish, but have eternal life. We will explore this wonderful gift next week, as we continue to study Paul’s good news that God has opened the way to salvation through Christ, who was lifted high upon the cross that all the world — Jew and Gentile — might see him and believe in him, and be saved through faith in him: not out of fear, or only for the prize, but because God so loved the world.

This sentiment is summed up beautifully in a poem which I shared with you some years ago, but which bears repeating. So I will close with this poem in the form of a prayer. It is by the great English Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins.

O God, I love thee, I love thee—
Not out of hope of heaven for me
Nor fearing not to love and be
In the everlasting burning.

Thou, thou, my Jesus, after me
Didst reach thine arms out dying,
For my sake sufferedst nails and lance,
Mocked and marrèd countenance,
Sorrows passing number,
Sweat, and care and cumber,
Yea, and death, and this for me.
And thou couldst see me sinning:

Then I, why should I not love thee,
Jesu, so much in love with me?
Not for heaven’s sake; not to be
Out of hell by loving thee;
Not for any gains I see;
But just the way that thou didst me
I do love and will love thee:

What must I love thee, Lord, for then?
For being my King and God. Amen.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

For as in Adam...

SJF • Lent 1a 2005 • Tobias S Haller BSG

If, because of one man’s trespass, death excercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who received the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ... Just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.

We come once more to the first Sunday in Lent, that season of preparation and penitence that the church sets aside for us each year, a time to prepare for Easter and a time to review our faults and failings, and take the gracious opportunity offered us, to renew our commitment to follow our Lord.

We heard today a reading from Saint Paul’s Letter to the Romans, and we will hear more from this important scripture over the next weeks. This is the longest of Paul’s letters, and it contains his mature and careful analysis of the human condition and the divine response to it. So over the next weeks I will focus on Saint Paul’s teaching in my sermons, and I hope that by doing so we may find encouragement and renewal and hope as we hear what Saint Paul called “his Gospel” — which is nowhere clearer than in this letter to the Romans.

The passage we heard today lays out Paul’s argument in miniature: sin and death came through Adam, and forgiveness and life come through Jesus Christ. He will go on to develop this through the following chapters of his letter; but let us follow his example and begin at the beginning.

We are helped in this by having in our first reading what filmmakers call “the back-story”. This story takes us back to the garden, and the first gardeners! And in that passage we are reminded once more of that literally fatal decision to take the advice of a snake in the grass instead of following the commandments of the Lord in the heavens.

Saint Paul takes this story, and argues that sin does not just lie in people doing what Adam did. None of us are given the option to turn down the fruit that Adam and Eve ate. Rather, Paul shows us that sin is something we inherit, a kind of genetic predisposition to a fatal disease, a contagion that spreads and kills. Paul says, “As sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin,... so death spread to all because all had sinned... Death exercised dominion even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam.”

Now we are apt to see this as unfair. It is hard for us to see why all should suffer because of one, that all people should be condemned to death because of the mistake of one person. We want to think in terms of individuals taking responsibility for their own actions, good or ill. But is that how the world actually works? Of course not. Don’t we know that the crimes committed in society touch us all; and that the wrongs we do touch others, more than we know sometimes? Saint Paul is right: sin is not just about individual choices; it is a disease that spreads, that infects even the innocent and corrupts even the good. We are all connected; we are all in this together.

I was reminded of this a few weeks ago watching Laurence Rees’ PBS documentary about the horrors of Auschwitz. What happened in that horrific place is literally beyond imagination, which is why it is so important that these documentaries continue their testimony — especially as the last generation of eyewitnesses is dying out.

This documentary was different from any other on the topic I’d seen, in that, unlike most such films which simply deal in black and white, good and evil, this film also covered the uncomfortable shades of gray. What the film made manifest was the way in which the evil of the Nazis infected everything they did, but also everyone they touched — even some of their victims.

For this documentary, in addition to showing the familiar and hard to believe horrors of the murder of infants and children and old women, also set before us interviews with Jewish men who were co-opted into the killing system, and German men who thought they had managed to slip through these horrors with their morality intact.

In order to conserve their manpower, the Germans picked out able-bodied Jewish men to do the dirtiest work: these Sonderkommandos, or “Special Units,” as they were called, were forced to herd the other prisoners to the pens where they stripped off their clothes; to conduct them into the gas chambers; and then, after the horrific screaming ended in twenty minutes or so, to open the doors and haul the bodies up to the ovens or the open pits. There thousands upon thousands of children, women and men were reduced to smoke and ash. Day in, day out, for month after month, the killing machine ground on. These Jewish men knew that if they resisted — as indeed from time to time some among them did resist — they too would get a bullet in the head, or even worse find themselves on the other side of the chamber door, huddled and naked and waiting for the sound of the poison gas pellets to drop down the chute — one task the Nazis reserved for themselves.

One of these Jewish prisoners, Morris Venezia, was interviewed in this film, and he revealed how the evil had infected him. In the last days of the war, the Nazis, eager to cover the evidence of their crimes, shipped out as many of the prisoners as they could. They were loaded on trains to be shipped off, much as they had arrived. Crowded and cramped in the train, Venezia managed to find a seat on the floor of the car. A German prisoner, probably a criminal who’d ended up in Auschwitz along with the other thousands determined undesirable by the Nazi state, offered Venezia a few cigarettes in exchange for being allowed to take his place sitting down for a few minutes. When, at the end of those few minutes of rest he refused — or was too weak — to get up, Venezia and his friendssat on him until he suffocated, and then threw his body from the train.

The shocked interviewer asks, “You murdered another prisoner, just to be able to sit down?” And the answer comes, “What? He was a German. His people killed thirty, forty members of my family. So he gave me a couple of cigarettes — for that he should live?”

It is not for the interviewer, or for you or for me to judge this man. Who knows what choices you or I might have made in the situation in which he found himself — where the only way to preserve his own life was to become a cog in the killing machine; where a seat on the floor of a crowded train car is worth a few cigarettes — or a human life.

It is for us all, however, to see how the choice of oneself over another, or one’s own people over other people, can poison and infect all that comes after— the hissing of the serpent is still loud in our ears, and the taste of that fruit is still cloying at the back of our throats. Death has spread through the human universe, and exercised dominion over us all — even though we have not sinned in the same way Adam did, we have inherited that tendency to look out for ourselves and our own, to preserve our own lives at the expense of others, even at the risk of disobeying God, and even knowing that whatever we do, we too must one day die as well.

This is the situation that Saint Paul sets up for us: the state of human life after the fall. And a dark and seemingly hopeless situation it appears to be! The good news, Paul’s Gospel, consists in the other half of his message. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. Just as we didn’t get ourselves into this horrible mess, so to we don’t have to get ourselves out of it! Jesus Christ has done it for us. Christ’s faithfulness unto death has undone death, the one giving his life for the many has removed death’s sting and healed us from the fatal disease of sin. “Just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” There is light, glorious light, up ahead, no matter how dark it seems at present.

This is the word of hope that I will take up next week as we continue our Lenten journey and our reading from Paul’s Letter to the Romans. But I want to end today with one glimmer of redemption that was also part of that PBS documentary. One of the persons interviewed throughout the film is a German man named Oskar Gröning. He was a young soldier serving at Auschwitz. In the interviews he tries to distance himself from any responsibility for the horrors that went on there. But the film-makers provide the harsh details he tries to soften. True, he was not one of those who poured the poison pellets down the chutes, nor one of those who divided the arriving prisoners to the left or right — the leftgoing to the labor camp, the right, mostly women and children and old people, off to be killed immediately. No, the 22-year-old Oskar Gröning, who had been a bank teller before the war began, had the simple task of collecting all the money stolen from the arriving victims, tallying it up in neat columns and bearing the loot to Berlin every few months. He was a cog in the machine of death, and even though he personally killed no one, his hands were red with blood money.

After the war he managed to avoid prosecution for war crimes. He kept his participation at Auschwitz secret, and became an ordinary prisoner of war. Posted to a prison camp in England, he joined a choir of German prisoners who traveled the country giving concerts in Anglican churches, billeted in English and Scottish homes. As he said, “Everybody wanted to have a singer stay with them, so we had a good night's sleep and got a good breakfast and the next morning we were taken back to our gathering point and off we went to the next place. It was great.”

I watched these comments with growing anger as the filmmakers documented Oskar’s happy and contented life unfolding — getting a good job as a factory personnel manager, sunning himself on the beach with his family, snoozing on the back porch with his dog in his lap. My anger was roused as these happy scenes were intercut with interviews with Jewish survivors who lost everything but their lives at Auchwitz — their families, their property, their self-respect, even for some the sense of their own humanity. And I kept wondering, is there no justice? Is there no redemption? Will Oskar Gröning ever understand?

And the good news? Yes, the good news is that finally Herr Gröning did understand. For there was one thing he would not stand. Not too many years ago a few German historians — if you can call them that — came forward and began to deny that the holocaust had ever happened, that while a few Jews here or there might have been killed or deported, the stories of Auschwitz were massive exaggerations, part of a Jewish plot to defame and insult the German people.

And that is when Oskar Gröning came forward. He’d kept his secret all those years, never letting anyone know he had even been at Auschwitz — not even his wife or his children. But faced with the monstrous lie of the revisionist historians, he stepped forward: He said, “I see it as my task, now at my age, to face up to these things that I experienced and to oppose the Holocaust deniers who claim that Auschwitz never happened. And that's why I am here today. Because I want to tell those deniers: I have seen the gas chambers, I have seen the crematoria, I have seen the burning pits — and I want you to believe me that these atrocities happened. I was there.”

This took a change of heart, this ability to confess and testify. And it renews my hope that even in a world infected by sin, the truth can sometimes shine forth. I cannot and I will not put Herr Gröning’s act at the level of heroism or virtue — but it was the beginning of repentance and a recompense, a first stepfor him on the pilgrimage back to true humanity.

How much more powerful is the free gift of the truly innocent one, the one who had done nothing wrong at all, when he offered himself on our behalf? Beloved, let us think on these things this Lent, how far we have fallen, how much we owe, and above all, let us give thanks to our Lord Jesus Christ, the one whose abundant grace and free gift of righteousness exercises dominion in life, now and to the end of the ages.