Thursday, October 12, 2006

Our Truest Life to Find

SJF • Proper 22b 2006 • Tobias S Haller BSG
From the Book of Genesis: “But for the man there was not found a helper as his partner.” +
The second chapter of the Book of Genesis presents us with a marvelous example of God’s generosity and care, and the extent to which God’s children have the responsibility to make decisions, and how God abides by those decisions once they are made.

God created Adam from the clay of the riverbank, breathing into him the divine life and spirit. And God planted the beautiful garden of Eden, and placed Adam in it, to tend it and care for it as God’s gardener. And God looked down upon this peaceful creation and instead of smiling at its goodness, frowned slightly and shook his head a little, and for the first time in the whole narrative of creation said that something was not good. “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” And taking more clay, the same stuff he’d made Adam from, God set to work.

But what did God make? Not another human being, but rather all of the animals of the field and the birds of the air. And God brought all of these creatures to Adam, for Adam to approve and accept, but still, there was not found a helper as his partner. Only then did God put Adam to sleep and take, not more clay, but some of Adam’s very own body, and make for him a helper as a partner, one like himself. And Adam recognized this kinship immediately, and rejoiced that at last here was one like himself, one who could truly be called his mirror image, bone of his bones and flesh of his flesh.

The wonderful thing about this narrative is that God gave Adam such respect, and abided by Adam’s judgement as to who in all creation was to be his helper and partner, one truly like himself. God did not force Adam to be content to live alone as a solitary hermit in the garden. God did not force Adam to be happy with just the animals to keep him company. God did not take offense when Adam shook his head at all of these other creatures, and found none to be a suitable partner for him — for even though they were made from the same substance he was, they were still too different in form. God did not force Adam to do anything, but allowed him the freedom to choose the one who was like himself in substance and in form, as a partner and a helper. God used no force in this: but allowed freedom, and this Scripture shows us clearly, as our Gospel hymn said, that “force is not of God.”

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Well, you know the rest of the story. Adam and Eve lived in the garden only for a short time. One of those animals Adam had rejected as an unsuitable helper and partner didn’t take too kindly to the rejection, I suppose. It was the creature God made with some of the leftover clay, the one any child knows is the easiest thing to make with a lump of clay, rubbing hands together as the snake takes shape between them — just as the Gary Larson cartoon shows God creating the snake and saying, “Gee, these things are a cinch!” The serpent wriggled in and did his dirty work, sowing the seeds of discontent and pride, taunting with the fear of death, tempting with the promise of divinity, leading Adam and Eve to disobedience. The serpent dangled temptation before them, and they bit. And so the caretakers got evicted from the garden. And for thousands of years human beings continued to stumble about in their ignorance and pride, fearing death and yet unable to escape it, no matter what they did, alternately sinned against and sinning, unable to find righteousness even though God tried time and time again to show them how.

God would not, you see, simply force people to be good, any more than God forced Adam to accept Eve. God wanted people to be good from the inside, good from the heart, not just coated over with a whitewash of proper behavior, but deeply loving, deeply just, deeply free — and yet deeply responsible.

God gave the people a law written in stone, and the people disobeyed it. God sent the people prophets and teachers, but they ignored them or mistreated them. God gave the people kings and most of the kings turned out to be worse than the people!

But finally, in the fullness of time, God decided to do something similar to what he had done way back in Eden. God would not this time send the Law. God would not send a prophet or teacher. God would not send a king, at least not the kind of king people were used to. God would not even send an angel.

God would instead give to humankind one who was human, a human being like Adam himself, but one who was also divine, one who was God incarnate. God would choose incarnation — being made flesh.

And as of old when God took the raw material from a human being, from Adam’s side, this time God took from the flesh of a young woman named Mary all that was needed to make the one who was for a time made a little lower than the angels, one not ashamed to call men and women his sisters and brothers, for he shared in the same human flesh as they did. “He sent him down as sending God; in flesh to us he came; as one with us he dwelt with us, and bore a human name.”

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The human name he bore is Jesus, which means Savior. The divine name he bore is Emmanuel, which means God with us. He was and is our Saving God who is with us, who shared with us in mortality and pain, shared the weakness of human flesh, so that he might redeem and save that human flesh. He suffered death so that he might destroy death for ever, and destroy the one who, as the Letter to Hebrews says, had the power of death, the devil who ages before had snaked his way in, to enslave humanity by their fear of death.

Jesus, our Savior, is also our brother, for he taught us to call God our Father. We who share in the flesh of Adam also share — through Jesus — in the Spirit of God. The old serpent can do nothing to us any longer if we do not let him. He’s done his best to do his worst, and he failed utterly when Jesus broke the power of death and was raised to life again. And we who are united with Jesus in his death, are also given the power to rise with him in his life.

We can still refuse. God respects our freedom too much to force us to follow the path he so desires for us. And there are those who would rather listen to a serpent’s lies than to God’s own truth. There are still some so possessed by their fear of death that they have forgotten how to live. We look at a world in which we see that all things are not under human control — disease, crime, famine, injustice still seem to rule. Some seek long life or wealth, or pleasure or fame, but rarely find happiness. But we do see Jesus, the human one who suffered, the human one who died, who gave up everything and yet who through the power of God triumphed over everything, and now is exalted over all things.

We too can confront all the shallow promises of the world, to find that none of these things in themselves will answer our deepest need. In none of these things can we find our true and final happiness whatever the snake may say to the contrary. It is only in Jesus — God from God, light from light, true God from true God, that we recognize our own true human self — the perfect image of humanity made after God’s own image and likeness. God offers us the option, and has no wish to force us to choose life rather than death. God invites us to find our truest life in him, and has shown us the way, but he will not force us on that path. In this is our hope, in this is our challenge. As we make our choices, let us always remember the words of our Gospel hymn, and choose rightly: “Not to oppress, but summon all their truest life to find, in love God sent his Son to save, not to condemn mankind.” +

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Suspended Judgment

SJF • Proper 21B • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
There is one lawgiver and judge who is able to save and to destroy. So who, then, are you to judge your neighbor?
We continue our reading this week from the epistle of James; and doesn’t it strike you once again how closely James follows the teaching of Jesus? We saw a few weeks ago how James echoed Jesus’ reminder of the royal law of Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” And in today’s reading James echoes another of Jesus’ teachings, “Judge not lest you be judged.”

This is an important reminder for us in the world as well as in the church, for it addresses a very common tendency. And I don’t just mean the tendency to judge others. It goes deeper than that, down to whatever it is that drives our desire to render such judgments.

What I’m talking about is the tendency we all have, upon feeling that we’ve achieved some goal, to look back on those who are still struggling with a certain degree of — well, contempt is probably too strong a word, though it may sometimes take that form — but a certain degree of self-satisfaction that seems to relish saying, “I’m better than you are.”

I suppose smugness sums it up in its least nasty form; a kind of pleasure mixed with just a hint of malice. This vice doesn’t have a name in English, and so it is a bit hard to pin down; I suppose it is kin to the feeling the Germans call Schadenfreud — pleasure at someone else’s misfortune. But even without a particular name we know this vice well, this vice that is the mirror image of envy. In envy we despise others because we lack what they have. Here envy is turned about into a kind of pleasure in succeeding where others have failed, or in having what others lack. Even for want of a name, it is no less a vice than envy, and it is similarly ridiculous, and similarly dangerous.

As for the ridiculousness, I recall a hilarious scene in the film comedy, The 12 Chairs, in which chubby comedian Dom Deluis plays a renegade Russian priest who, on hearing an elderly woman’s confession that she hid the crown jewels in one of a set of dining room chairs “before the Revolution,” sets off on a quest to recover them. At one point he wrestles the last chair, the one that must have the jewels, from another treasure hunter, and in his ecstatic joy climbs his chubby self up a sheer cliff, to the pinnacle of a stone tower in the desert, waving the chair over his head and chanting, “God likes me! God likes me!” Of course, when he rips the upholstery open and finds there is no jewelry inside, his estimation of God’s approval slumps considerably.

So much for the ridiculousness of this vice — and laughter is a good defense in our efforts to resist the devil — for he has no sense of humor. But this nameless vice is no less dangerous than those that do have names, like envy and pride, it’s close cousins. In its most innocent form, it may simply be an expression of gratitude — “there but for the grace of God go I.” And if an honest thanksgiving for a grace received, perhaps it is not so bad. But you can see, I’m sure, how easily this sentiment can glide over into the Pharisee’s, “I thank God I am not like other men.” If misery loves company, then success seems to enjoy solitude, looking down on those who have failed.

The problem with this vice, even at its most trivial, is the provisional nature of all our successes. Who can say, ultimately, who has succeeded until the trial is over and the final verdict rendered? Who is to say that because I stand today I may not fall tomorrow? However well I may judge myself to be positioned on the chessboard of life, I don’t see the whole chessboard the way God does; and in life’s card game I don’t know what cards the other players may have, however good the hand dealt me — in short I am in no position to judge even myself let alone anyone else, in God’s great scheme of things. And it is also good to remember that God is more than a mere kibitzer in this game of life!

The proper attitude for us to adopt, rather than judgment, is as James suggests, for all of us to submit ourselves to God, in our awareness that God is watching over us as we journey through this life; to resist the devil, yes — but not to critique other people’s struggles with that selfsame devil, except to help them when and how we can; to draw near to God so that he might draw near to us — again without worrying how close or how far others may be, but rather — if we feel we are ahead — not to gloat in self-satisfaction, but to use our advantage to throw out tow-lines from the stern of our little boats, to pull others on board; to cleanse our own hands before we presume to try to wash someone else’s. And above all, not to speak evil against another or to judge another.

For we are not judges in God’s court; we are not even plaintiffs — we are defendants, all of us. So, as James says, who are we to judge our neighbors? The pot may call the kettle black, but the cook puts them both on the fire!

This theme is taken up in our gospel today in a different way, but one that is much to the point, in our Lord’s commandment to place no stumbling block in the way of one who believes in him — to create no difficulties for others in their journey to God. We are called to consider to what extent our judgment of others places a stumbling block in their way. To what extent does one person’s disapproval discourage others, or even worse lead them to despair, rather than reformation. Think for a moment of how the other poor sinner felt when he overheard the Pharisee’s words, “I thank God I’m not like other men, even like that one over there!” Who is really helped by someone saying to them, “You can never do anything right.” Does this kind of attitude really help to bring reformation — even assuming we can tell who needs it more than we do? We see only the outside, after all, not the inner workings of the heart. Two weeks ago we heard James’ warning about not being overly impressed by a richly dressed person or turning away one dressed poorly: for the Lord looks on the heart, not the haberdashery.

A story is told of a gentleman traveling by ocean liner discovering himself to have been berthed in the same cabin with a fellow passenger he thought looked suspicious. So he went to the purser and asked if it would be any trouble if his gold watch and extra cash were kept in the ship’s safe. The purser responded, “No trouble at all sir, especially considering that your cabinmate has just asked for the same service.”

When we presume to judge others we are just as likely to be mistaken in our judgments; and as our Lord promised, we will be judged by the same standards we apply to others. So best not to make such judgments — best not to look at others doing their best to serve the Lord and say, “Let us stop them, because they aren’t one of us.” Jesus has powerful words to say against those who place a stumbling block in the way of others seeking to do their best to follow him — powerful words of a terrible fate: to have a millstone tied around your neck and to be cast into the depths of the sea. If you are moved to be high-handed towards another — cut off that hand, for that high-handedness will bring you down. If you are moved to kick another when he’s down — cut off that prideful foot and root out the spirit of judgment from your heart, for that foot will trip you up. If you are moved to roll your haughty eye at someone else’s failings — tear it out, for that eye will draw you to the place where all judgment is reflected back to you and you see yourself as you really are, with all your imperfections revealed, and that eye will weep at the sight. For it is better for us to enter life maimed or lame or half-blind than to end up in that place of dreadful perception, forever to contemplate by the sultry light of unquenchable fire the many causes of stumbling to which our judgment gave occasion.

So when the spirit of judgment rises in your heart, cast it out and instead of judging, forgive. Instead of laying a stumbling block, bring that cup of water to the one who faints with weakness. If I am truly better off than he or she, this will show it, and this alone. So let us speak no evil against another, brothers and sisters, but rather place ourselves under the same mercy we desire for all, the mercy of the just judge, the judge eternal, throned in splendor, who alone can purge us and our land of bitter things, and whose dominion alone can bring healing; the one who is our everlasting judge, but who is also our only mediator and advocate, Jesus Christ our Lord.+