Tuesday, July 19, 2005

The Patience of God

SJF • Proper 11 a • Tobias S Haller BSG
Although you are sovereign in strength, you judge with mildness, and with great forbearance you govern us; for you have power to act whenever you choose.
This past week I came across a phrase from an evangelical Christian writer that made my blood run cold. This is what he said: “When the patience of God has run its course, God reveals himself to be the God of wrath.” Does that bother you? It sure bothers me, for number of reasons.

The first problem is the wrath part. This author says that when you strip away all the superficial niceness of God, what you’ve got left is an angry, wrathful being; that when it comes right down to it, the essence of God is anger and wrath. Well if that’s true, then I think I’ve got the wrong religion. Because I believe that when all is said and done, when all the superficial stuff and human misunderstanding is stripped away, the essential nature of God is not wrath, but love. Indeed, I believe — and I think I’m not alone in this, as this is what the church has taught consistently for thousands of years — that our loving God is only wrathful when he needs to get our attention. Like any loving parent dealing with misbehaving children, God may have to raise his voice once in awhile. The great Anglican author CS Lewis once put it this way, “God whispers to us in our joys but he shouts to us in our pain.”

+ + +

Arthur Sueltz, in his book Life at Close Quarters, tells a wonderful story that bears out this important truth.

A mother was with her six-year-old son in a doctor’s crowded waiting room. As they waited their turn, he began to ask her all kinds of questions. In half an hour he managed to cover almost every subject known to humanity. I can relate to this because that’s just how I was when I was that age. I recall once on a train trip to Washington with my grandmother, talking non-stop to the man across the aisle from us, eventually putting him into what may have been the soundest slumber he had ever known, as I went on an on about the hundreds of tiny egg-beaters that line the human stomach and help us digest our food — or so I was convinced. In any case, this child was similarly chatty. To the wonder of all the others sitting in the room, the mother answered each question carefully and patiently. Inevitably, the youngster got around to asking about God. As the other people listened to his relentless “but how’s” and “but why’s,” it was plain to see from the expressions on their faces that they were wondering: “How does she stand it?” But when she answered her son’s next question, she answered theirs too. “But why,” he asked, “doesn’t God ever get tired and just stop?” “Because,” she replied after a moment’s thought, “God is love; and love never gets tired.”

+ + +

The writer of the Book of Wisdom put it this way, “Although you are sovereign in strength, you judge with mildness, and with great forbearance you govern us; for you have power to act whenever you choose.” God loves us, and love never gets tired. Love, as Saint Paul put it in that wonderful passage we hear at weddings and funerals, love is patient; it suffers all sorts of wrongs. God in his love holds on to humanity as it kicks and screams like an unruly child, holds on and holds fast until the child’s crying is spent, and she falls asleep safe in those great loving arms. God puts up with things thatnone of us would put up with — including putting up with us.

We see a reflection of this in the parable that Jesus put before the crowds in today’s gospel. The slaves of the master who sowed good seed in his field are ready to go and do a good job of weeding. They are ready to rush right in and start pulling up those weeds. But the patient master tells them to wait, for in their zeal to get rid of all the weeds they might also uproot the good crop of wheat. Harvest time will come soon enough; the weeds will still be weeds, and the wheat will still be wheat — and the master knows how to tell one from the other, and knows as well what he plans to do with each.

This was of course a lesson for the church not to rush to judgment but to leave judgment to God. At the end of time God will separate wheat from weed. And in the meantime, God’s patience, is not to be confused with permissiveness. Jesus is not telling us it’s OK to be a weed if that’s what we’d like to do. It is definitely not in his plan that we should grow and take up space but bear no fruit. No, Jesus wants us all to bear fruit, to be like those rich sheaves of wheat that are carried into the granary. But Jesus is also telling us that the task of separating the good from the bad, the wheat from the weeds, belongs to him and his angels, not to us.

+ + +

God wants us to be patient as he is patient. As the writer of Wisdom said, “You have taught your people that the righteous must be kind, and you have filled your children with good hope.” And what is patience but a kind of hopeful kindness, a forbearance that puts up with difficulties, that tolerates differences, rather than insisting that everything change right here, right now. Patience suffers many wrongs, in the sure and certain hope that eventually all wrongs will be righted — by the one who has the power to right all wrongs.

Still, patience isn’t easy. You have heard me speak before of the great preacher and Episcopal Bishop of Massachusetts Phillips Brooks. He was a close friend of the third rector of this parish, and attended his wedding here as an honored guest. Apparently patience was called for on that day because his carriage got stuck at the train station and he was delayed in arriving for the wedding. (Usually it’s the bride whose late, but in this case it was the Bishop!) Now, in general, Bishop Brooks was noted for his poise and quiet manner. He was a big man, tall and wide, and moved and spoke with great deliberation, floating along like a great iceberg. One day, however, a friend came to call upon him in his Boston office, and found him feverishly pacing the floor like a wild animal in a cage. “What’s the trouble, Bishop?” he asked. Brooks answered, “The trouble is that I’m in a hurry, but God isn’t!”

This is a lesson we can all take to heart. In our impatience, we struggle with eager longing, subjected to futility, as Saint Paul says. We join with all of creation groaning as if in labor pains, like a woman in childbirth waiting anxiously to be set free from bondage so that we can obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. And God, our loving parent, our wise master, or in this case like a caring and knowing midwife, holds us by the hand and says to us, Hush now, keep on breathing, wait a bit longer. It will come; rest a little longer. All shall be well; and you shall see it and know it when it comes. Let the crop grow in peace, weed and wheat, there will be plenty of time to sort things out at the harvest. Be patient with one another, be kindly affectioned one towards another, patient and kind as God is patient and kind.

Beloved sisters and brothers in Christ, when we are tempted to say, or shall I say, when we do say — for I’m sure we all have said it at one time or another — “I’ve had it up to here with you” — let us remember that Jesus had up to here [arms outstretched like Christ upon the cross] — with all of us.

To the Lord and Master who sowed his good seed in our hearts, and will one day gather it in to his granary, to the ever-patient, ever-loving God whose righteousness is chiefly shown in kindness, to him be all praise and glory, henceforth and forever more. +

No Torment

Burial of Sharice Marie Tumma 1985-2005
Tobias Haller BSG

The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them.
My sisters and brothers in Christ, it is hard enough to find appropriate words at the death and departing of one who goes from us old and rich in years. How much harder it is to find a word of encouraging strength when a sister or brother is taken from us in the flower of youth. Yet were I to find no comfort, were I to offer no encouragement, I would be no better than the foolish ones, in whose eyes death and departure are nothing but disaster and destruction.

Thank God it is not so! Thank God that we know that death is not the end. Thank God that we know that the sufferings of this life — of which Sharice had more than her share — thank God that the sufferings of this life, and the suffering of death itself, are not a punishment, are not a chastisement, are not a disaster nor a destruction. All of these are, as the wise man said, a little discipline in exchange for which those who endure it will receive great good, because God tested them and found them worthy of himself.

+ + +

Sharice Marie did suffer, from her early childhood on, into an adulthood cut short too soon — too soon for us, too soon for her family and friends, too soon for her son. But we dare not say too soon for her; we dare not put God in the judgment dock, and accuse him as if we had his knowledge and wisdom, and understood his ways. The prophet has assured us that it is not the task of the clay to tell the potter what to do. Rather we are to place our trust in him who is our Maker, our Savior and our God. For wisdom assures us that, “those who trust in him will understand the truth, and the faithful will abide with him in love, because grace and mercy are upon his holy ones, and he watches over his elect.”

So, hard as it is, my brothers and sisters, even as we are now in the midst of our mourning, let us place our trust and confidence in him. Let us place ourselves side-by-side with blessed John, as he looked and saw those multitudes that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.

Look, there among them, do you see her now? A tall slim figure with dark skin set off by the whiteness of her robe, and beautiful eyes sparkling now, not with tears but with joy? Do you see her hold aloft that branch of palm, do you hear her voice shout out loudly in praise of her Lord and God?

We do not need to ask who that is; we need not ask of whom this multitude consists. God knows we know. These are the ones we have come out of the great ordeal. These are the ones who have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. These are the ones who will hunger no more and thirst no more, will no more be stricken by the scorching heat, for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to the springs of the water of life, and wipe every tear from their eyes.

+ + +

We know full well that Sharice Marie had her time of weeping; she had her time of pain, as even her own blood, with its pernicious sickle cells, turned against her. But that other blood, the blood of Christ, the blood of her Lord and Savior, has bought her redemption, has assured her salvation. For that blood was shed on Calvary’s tree, blood poured out, my friends, for her, for you and me. Christ our good Shepherd has gone before to prepare the way, and he has purchased our passage with his own blood, and by his blood has made our reservations, preparing a place for us in his Father’s house where there are many dwelling places. This is our blessed assurance, dear friends, this the trust we have, and which we share with Sharice: “though trials should come, let this blessed assurance control, that Christ has regarded my helpless estate, and has shed his own blood for my soul.”

That is why it is well with my soul, my friends, why I can share these words of comfort with you today. That is why it is well with my soul. That is why it is well with your soul. And that is why it is well with Sharice Marie’s soul — for she has passed through the sorrows that like sea-billows roll. She has passed through the great ordeal, she has washed her robe in the blood of the Lamb, and is now ready to take her place with that great multitude who give praise and honor and glory to God. So let us join our voices with Blessed John the Divine, and the voice of the multitude shouting out, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Free but not loose

Saint James Fordham • Proper 9a 2005 • Tobias S Haller BSG
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death.
What is freedom? Surely this is a significant question to ask as we look towards tomorrow’s Fourth of July fireworks, as the flags proudly wave and our hearts are lifted at the patriotic songs of this season. What does it really mean to be free?

We can begin by trying to understand the ideals of freedom upon which this nation was founded. The American colonies were struggling with what they rightly regarded as injustices. While there was limited freedom of religion in most of the colonies — indeed that was the reason many of the colonists came to these shores in the first place — there was no true freedom of speech or the press; voting rights were strictly limited, and representative elected government was permitted only at the most local level, and with limited authority — all the most important matters had to be referred back to the English Crown through the colonial governors. There was no true representation of the people’s will in their own governance — they were to obey, be content, and pay the taxes the Crown thought it right to levy. And although the English Crown itself had long since ceased to claim the powers of absolute monarchy, the parliament that truly governed England and its colonies was very far from democratic, constituted as it was of lords and landlords.

And so, two hundred and twenty-nine years ago tomorrow, the American colonies threw off the yoke of royal government. But when they did so, they did not do away with government entirely. The American states did not devolve into a free-for-all in which anyone could do whatever he or she pleased. Nor did America become an absolute democracy in which all decisions would be reached by town-hall style meetings. Instead, the United States adopted anew yoke, a yoke of government as clearly organized as any they had known, but with important safeguards for fundamental liberty and freedom. America became free — but its freedom was not the freedom simply to do anything. The freedom of the American citizen was the freedom to live in peace and harmony, in the dynamic tension between the rights of the individual and the good of society as a whole, the balance of duty and liberty. As the words of our opening hymn put it, we address our native land, asking that God might “shed his grace on thee,” and to “confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law.”

For what would society be like if we were libertines instead of liberated, if it were truly without law of any kind? What would our world be like if everyone were truly free simply to do as he or she wanted to do, without any limitation, without regard for anyone else? This would not be freedom, but anarchy — not liberty, but chaos. Given human nature — the tendency we have to seek to fulfill our own wills at the expense of others — the powerful would ride on the backs of the weak, the strong and proud would lord it over the poor and humble, and the tyranny of brute force would prevail. In the end, without a form of law to restrain the worst impulses of human nature, only some would be free, while others would suffer bondage to the will of the powerful, whether few or many.

In 1776, Americans became free from the old tyrannies of the English Crown, from taxation without representation, from the lack of a free press and free speech; but Americans did not become, and are not now, free to do simply anything we please. We still pay taxes, but our taxation is based on the decisions of a body of people whom we elect, and we are not free to pay only the taxes we personally approve of. We have freedom of speech and freedom of the press, but we are not free to write or say absolutely anything we like — there is no right to libel or slander, deceit or mischief! As Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr once said, in a famous decision, “Freedom of speech does not give one the right to shout ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theater.”

+ + +

What is true of the government is also true in the Christian faith. We are free in Christ from the law of the flesh — the old law carved in stone and delivered to Moses, and the statutes that Moses established as rules of sin and punishment. From these laws Christ has set us free. But we are not free from the law of the Spirit — the new law implanted in our hearts by Christ, the new law of love and forgiveness. We are still not free to murder, steal and lie — but as Christians the reason we do not do these things is not simply because they are illegal under the old law, but because they violate the new law: the love of God and neighbor.

It is in obedience to this new law, it is in taking up this easy yoke and light burden that we find our true freedom. It is not a freedom to do anything we feel like doing. It is a freedom to do what is most authentic and best for ourselves and others, the freedom to become truly ourselves — not conformed to the easy temptations of daily life which lie close at hand, which we sometimes find ourselves doing even when we don’t really want to do them, and consequently discover ourselves deformed by them even as we take them up. Rather we are called in this new freedom to be transformed into the likeness of the one who called and redeemed us for himself, who took us by the hand and led us forth from bondage.

We no longer set our minds on the law of sin and death, the heavy yoke that burdens the heart while providing no comfort and forgiveness, nor deliverance from bondage and condemnation. But neither do we set our minds simply on the freedom of the flesh, to do what the flesh wants — for this leads only to slavery to the flesh, following its desires down the path to destruction, captivity and wretchedness. Instead we who follow Christ set our minds on him, following where he leads in the path of love and freedom — the true freedom to become what we are meant to be: children of God and sisters and brothers of Jesus Christ.In Christ we are freed from our weary and heavy burden of trying to be something we never can be on our own. Joined to him in the yoke of love and service, the light burden that gives us balance and direction, we become all we are meant to be — truly free in the Spirit of life and peace.

+ + +

Our freedom is not absolute. Our liberty in the here and now requires a point of contact with what endures forever or it will never come to anything, never come to be all that it can be. In short, we are free, but not free to come loose! The East Indian poet and Nobel prize winner Rabindranath Tagore put it this way:

Lying on my table is a violin string. It is free. I pull one end of it and it responds. It is free. But it is not free to do what a violin string is supposed to do: to produce music. So I take it, fix it in my violin, and tighten it until it is taut. Only then is it free to be a violin string. Only then can it sing.
Christ offers us his easy yoke and light burden, the yoke and burden of the love of God and neighbor. Through this light yoke and easy burden we become what we are meant to be, for “he would have us bear it, so he can make us free.” We are freed from the waterless prison of the old law of sin and death, called forth as prisoners of hope to take up a new and lighter burden, a burden that does not exhaust us but refreshes us, that does not impede our progress, but helps us on our way, free but not loose, free to move but directed in our motion, guided and not lost.

The Spirit does what the law could never do, fixing our heartstrings in God so that they may be pulled taut, and our hearts made free to play the song of God.

A flag is not free proudly to wave unless one edge of it is fastened to the flagpole. The team is not free to pull the wagon unless they bear the yoke that holds them together and unites their effort towards their goal. A drawing compass is not free to draw a circle unless one end of it is firmly planted at the center. And we are not free to live as children of God unless our hearts are firmly fixed in Christ: who sets us free but neither loose nor lost.

To him who places his easy yoke upon our shoulders, to him who is our standard and our center, to him be honor andglory, and all our hearts’ best songs, henceforth and for ever more.+