Sunday, April 23, 2006

New Moses, New Commandment

SJF • Easter 2B • Tobias S Haller BSG
Moses said, The Lord you God will raise up for you from your own people a prophet like me. You must listen to whatever he tells you.
For as long as there has been a Christian church there has been an underlying tension woven into the fabric of that church; almost like the elastic woven through the cotton of a waistband. And this tension has chafed and irritated, bound and discomforted the church from the very beginning. It is the tension between Law and Grace. I have spoken of it before, and I will have occasion again, my friends, for it seems we Christians never seem to be able quite to set aside those corsets and girdles, however uncomfortable, and put on the new garments God wants us to wear, the ones that fit without binding and chafing; the ones that, in accordance with the Law itself, are not made of two materials woven together, but which, even though one size fits all, fit us to a T as if custom tailored for each of us.

The Scriptures bear witness to this historic conflict between Law and Grace, between slavish bondage under the law and the freedom of the children of God living by grace. In the weeks leading up to Good Friday we reviewed the controversy as it was played out in the ministry of Jesus himself, and in his confrontations with the Pharisees and scribes, the lawyers and the legal authorities both sacred and secular — culminating in his Passion, as he confronted Caiaphas and Pilate, the symbolic but also very real representatives of religious and civil law. The Pharisees and scribes thought the law was what God wanted — after all, he had given it to their ancestors, through Moses. They had missed the point that the law was intended as a temporary measure. The Law was like the training wheels on a child’s first two-wheel bicycle — useful to the end intended, but meant to be set aside when training was done. The law had become, for the Pharisees and scribes, an end in itself, not a means to a greater end — as if people were made for the law rather than the law for the good of the people.

That’s why Jesus had so much trouble with them when he healed on the sabbath, or when his disciples ate without washing, or when Jesus allowed himself to be seen — horror of horrors — with sinners. The self-appointed protectors of the law couldn’t understand that grace had come among them in the flesh, and that the law and the prophets were being fulfilled even in their day— the very thing they had hoped for was happening,and they didn’t see it. They were a bit like folks who spend hours and hours planning for a holiday, collecting and studying the brochures, planning their itinerary, but then missing the boat when it comes time to sail.

That’s not as unlikely as it sounds. Some years ago James and I were going to visit my sister and her husband for a holiday in Germany, where she was stationed with the Judge Advocate General’s department. She and I share in a tendency to want to be careful to dot every “I” and cross every “T” — and that is an important part of her livelihood as a lawyer — in the military, no less. Well, the first portion of our trip was an overnight train-ride from Frankfort to Berlin. The train was to depart a few minutes after midnight, so after supper we packed up our bags and headed to the train station. We boarded the train, ready to be shown to our cabins, but were stopped short when the conductor, after examining the tickets, gave us a disapproving look — and if anybody can give you a disapproving look it’s a German train conductor — and said that the tickets were no good.

“What’s wrong?” we asked. “These are for yesterday’s train; you see the date — well it is now past midnight and the date is now a day later.” We were, in fact, exactly 24 hours late for our train trip. Fortunately, there were some empty cabins, and after a great many more disapproving looks and head-shakings, we were settled in. So in spite of all of our efforts to obey the rules, it was the conductor’s decision to be gracious that allowed us to complete our trip. Grace wins out over law all the time!

But as we know from Holy Week and Easter, this victory of grace over law isn’t easy. Jesus did not receive such a gracious response. The protectors of the law stuck by the law as they understood it, and they handed over and rejected Jesus, the holy and righteous one, and, as Saint Peter reminded them, asked to have a murderer given to them instead.

And as our reading from Acts shows us, the conflict between Law and Grace didn’t stop when the author of life — done to death by the authorities — was raised from the dead by God. No, the struggle continued in the tensions between the first followers of Christ and their Jewish brethren.

And I wish I could say that the struggle found an end when the church finally came into its own. But sadly, the church itself has struggled time and again within itself, as factions and divisionshave torn the body of Christ; as new self-appointed church police have decided it was their task to separate the wheat from the chaff, or the sinners from the righteous — forgetting that all have sinned, all have fallen short, that there is none righteous, not one, and that it is only by grace that any of us dare stand before our Lord.

Now, the church surely knows that. So why is it that it so often reverts to law instead of grace? What is the source of this impulse to resort to Law in response to the reality of human sin? Well, what do you do when people simply won’t behave? Law is a natural response to bad behavior: it constrains the wrongdoer by force, contains the wrongdoer by putting him in jail. The law can even impose the ultimate penalty, death, the one that utterly removes the wrongdoer from the picture.

Law can stop criminals — it can also stop crime. It sets up its boundaries of walls and razor-wire; it establishes limits by age and speed — you must be so many years old to get a driver’s license, and the law will then tell you how fast you can drive.

But what law cannot do is change the human heart: it can constrain or punish wrongdoing, but it cannot erase the impulse to do wrong — it cannot free the human heart from its bondage to sin, its desire to possess and control, it’s seeking of its own advantage at the expense of others. It can get you to the station, but it can’t turn the clock back 24 hours and make your expired tickets good. That requires something else. It requires a conductor with a softened heart, and a willingness to understand and forgive, and what’s more provide a place for you.

The law that Moses brought, the law the Pharisees and scribes knew so well, and tried so hard to follow, was the same law that Christ at his coming fulfilled, in accordance with the promises given through the prophets. As Saint Peter told the crowds, Moses had promised that another would arise like him, by whom the people would receive new instruction; and Moses charged the people to heed him when he came. And in fulfillment of this promise, Christ arose and gave a new law, a new commandment.

This new commandment was not like the old: a commandment that could only prohibit or punish. This new commandment would not be based on bondage to restrictions or fear of punishment. This newlaw would not be like the old law that brought imprisonment and death. No, the new commandment would work by changing the very source of the problem: the sin-wearied human heart that did wrong because it was unable to do right, the fearful, selfish heart that sought only its own advantage at the other’s expense.

For this new commandment was the commandment to love, even as Christ has loved us: with the love that gives itself completely for the sake and salvation of the those who are loved, the love of God given in Christ to undo all selfishness, the love of Christ to imbue all grace.

For who of us does wrong to those we truly love? Yes, we do sometimes act in keeping with the old song, and “always hurt the ones we love” — but surely those hurts and harms represent our failures to love, not our successful loving.

No, love under grace does no harm; love, under grace, doesn’t just shake its head and say, “Your ticket is expired.” Love changes us in the place we most need to be changed, to be transformed, in the heart that if left on its own becomes a receptacle for all that is worst in us, but which, if cleansed by the power of God, emptied by repentance and compunction, sanctified by God’s presence and filled with God’s grace and forgiveness, can become a storehouse and a treasury upon which we can draw for ever.

God has committed this treasury of forgiveness and grace to his people: he has told the church that its mission is not to enforce the old law, but to proclaim the new commandment: to love even as Christ loved us, to forgive those who sin against us even as we have been forgiven. Christ greeted his Apostles — all but one of whom had abandoned him in his hour of need — with the greeting of peace. He strengthened them to receive the Holy Spirit, and committed the treasury of grace and forgiveness into their care when he said, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them.” And he assured us in the prayer we say each day, that it is in forgiving that we are forgiven.

So beloved sisters and brothers in Christ, let us rejoice as the disciples did when they saw the Lord, when he said to them, “Peace be with you.” He accepted their day-old tickets and let them on the train to his kingdom, the “kingdom come” where his will is done, where we are no longer constrained by the bondage of the old law, but may rejoice forever in the grace of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Bread on the Hillside

at Fordham Evangelical Lutheran Church
Maundy Thursday 2006 • Tobias S Haller BSG

When the hour came, Jesus took his place at the table, and the apostles with him.
Tonight we celebrate and commemorate the founding of the Holy Eucharist. This is part of our annual observance of the events of Holy Week, and it marks the turning point from the joy and celebration of Palm Sunday towards the sad and bleak experience of Good Friday. Last Sunday we stood with the crowds on the streets of Jerusalem, (a few of us on the streets of the Bronx, right around the corner!) palm branches in our hands, to welcome Jesus as we shouted Hosanna, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Tomorrow we will follow him on his last pilgrimage to Calvary; we will keep company at the foot of the cross, and bear silent witness as he is laid in the cold, stone tomb. Tonight we began with a memory of another of God’s great victories: the Passover of the children of Israel, but before this night is over we will have stripped the sanctuary bare, doused the lights, and gone out into the darkness prepared for tomorrow’s sorrow. But before the darkness descends, before the altar is stripped, we will do tonight as he did on the night he was handed over to suffering and death, as we share in the feast he instituted on that night so long ago, the new twist he gave to the ancient Jewish feast of Passover, as we remember and recall him and all he did for us — Christ, our Passover, in whose feast we will all share.

Now, there is more to this feast than mere bread and wine — and not just because we preceded it with a wonderful potluck seder! This is no ordinary bread, no ordinary wine — not ordinary food and drink. This is a participation in the life and death of our savior until he comes — the meal he left for us by which he never leaves us.

But how, you might well ask, can bread save us? The little bread we will eat in communion, the tiny sip of wine — these would not be enough to save us if we were starving! Ah, but my friends, there is ever so much more to it than that: this bread, this body, is not for my body or your body alone — no it is for the body of the church, the whole community of the faithful, for it is by his body and blood that we become who we are: the body of Christ on earth, to do his will in all we undertake. For in the bread of the Holy Communion, what was once grain on a hillside becomes one bread. And in the Communion itself, we who are many, become one, through the perfect sacrifice of our Lord, who gave himself to the death of the cross on our behalf. The bread we eat is the bread of his sacrifice, the bread of his death, broken to remind us that he died, but feeding us to remember that he lives.

Once upon a time, long long ago, in a Japanese fishing village a man learned how grain on the hillside could save the lives of many. And so did the whole village. The man lived on the top of the hills overlooking the sea. The hills were terraced for growing rice, and they belonged to the man who lived at the top of the hills, away from the shore, away from the fisherfolk and their everyday doings. He was a very rich man, while most of those who dwelled down below simply made it by, day by day. They didn’t envy the old man — this was just the way things were, and everyone had their station in life; so as long as there were fish to catch, the villagers didn’t begrudge the rich man his land or his grain. They traded their fish for grain in due season, and everyone had plenty. And the rich man was a good man, a fair man, and his prosperity helped them all in the long run. The sale of his grain in the capital brought him the resources to build a fine temple on the hillside, and support the monastery near it. Rich man, fisherfolk and monks, all benefitted, and were content.

One year the harvest had been particularly good. The sheaves of grain were gathered in, bundled and ready to be loaded onto carts. Soon that grain would feed the people of the capital, perhaps even the Emperor himself. The rich old man smiled to himself as he stood before the storehouse, looking over the stacks of sheaves, as they glowed warmly in the sunlight that streamed through the doorway and lit the rice-paper walls with a golden glow.

As he stood smiling, and rocking on his heels in contentment, he felt a deep and distant rumble, a vibration too low to hear, but very noticeable to his old legs. He knew, of course, that it was a distant earthquake; far away, nothing to worry about. And so he went back to his review of the crop, smiling as he saw how high the sheaves were piled, in places right up to the wooden beams. He reached out to touch the bundles lovingly, gently, like a proud father might pat his son on the head.

As he glanced over the grain with swelling pride and satisfaction, his eye happened to stray through the open doorway, out towards the sea. His brow furrowed. What was that? He went to the doorway and looked down the terraced hills to the shore. The villagers below were going about their end-of-day business; preoccupied with mending nets, stacking part of their catch to bring to town the next day, stringing the rest on cords to hang to dry. But the old man on the hill saw something else, something strange and worrisome. The sea was moving. Yes, he looked again; yes, the sea was going away, moving out away from the shore. And at once he realized with horror what was happening. Sure enough, out in the distance, out at the western horizon lit by the setting sun, a line had formed on the sea. And he spoke one horrible word in a strangled voice — tsunami.

Quickly, the old man called his grandson. “Bring me a torch! Hurry!” The boy looked at him wide-eyed, but ran off obediently, and quickly returned with a torch from the house. After one last loving look at his grain, the old man took the torch and walked along the edges of the sheaves, letting the flame lick at the ends of the bunches, until they joined together in a devouring inferno, spreading quickly to the storehouse, its paper walls and wooden beams feeding the flames as they leapt skyward. The old man went out to the edge of the hill and looked down to the village below, and then up to the line at the edge of the world, the line that was moving closer every minute.

The people down below couldn’t help but see the flames from the burning storehouse on the hill above. One of the monks was first to see the flames, and he rang the temple bell, and down below the villagers looked up, and then dropping their nets and crates and fish and cords, the whole village grabbing buckets and pails, started running up the hillside, splashing through the terraced pools, scooping up water as they ran, women cupping up water in their leather aprons, bearing it like a child as they rushed along, tumbling up the paths to help their rich neighbor put out the fire that was destroying his grain and his storehouse.

As they came to the hilltop, they wondered why the rich old man wasn’t looking at the fire, but out to sea, as if possessed. “Look,” he said, “look at the sea.” And as they turned in wonder to look, they saw the line on the sea grow until it became a wall of water rushing towards the shore with terrible deliberation, swifter than a horse could gallop or an eagle soar. And as they watched in silent horror, the wave came crashing down upon their empty village, shattering the bamboo huts, boiling up the hillside and destroying the carefully tended terraces, and then, as if satisfied with its destructive assault, withdrawing to its place, like a tiger slowly pulling back his paw, revealing the damage done by his claws, the gouges and gaps of ruins and wrecks where once a village and terraced rice-paddies had stood.

No one said a word. Slowly they turned to face the old man, in the dimming light of the setting sun, the fading light of the fire crackling out behind him, a man no longer rich, but as poor as any of them. He said, “I had to burn the grain to warn you? I knew you would come to help me, and it was the only way I could help you.”

“It was the only way I could help you.” These are words Jesus might well have said of his own sacrifice upon the cross. This was the bitter cup that he had to drink, in order that we might be saved. Jesus, the bread that gives life to the world, became poor that we might be rich, sacrificed all that he had on that hillside on the outskirts of town, lifted high upon the cross for our redemption, lifted up so that he might draw the whole world to himself. He perished there on that dark hillside, that his death might be a flaming beacon to call us from afar, to deliver us from the dangers that surround us, while we were going about our busy lives in ignorance. He is the one who calls us to himself that we might be saved, the bread from heaven who gives life to the world — the bread that feeds and nourishes even as it perishes. Therefore let us worthily celebrate this feast, remembering him who died for us and rose again, who gave his life as a ransom for many, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, the bread once scattered on the hillside.

The story of the Japanese village is freely adapted from a folk-tale recorded by Lafcadio Hearn.

God Came Down

SJF • Palm Sunday 2006 • Tobias S Haller BSG
The crowd said, He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe.
Palm Sunday begins our Holy Week: a time of the church year full of contrasts and contradictions. It is a week that begins in triumph, or what seems to be triumph, and ends in defeat, or what seems to be defeat, and then turns into victory come Easter Day. It is, in short, a week of surprises and turnabouts, of lights and shadows, of joys and pains.

We see this already in the two Gospel passages we heard today, the Palm Gospel at the opening of our worship, and the Passion Gospel we just participated in. The crowd moves from praise to condemnation in a few short steps. As poet Samuel Crossman wrote,

Sometime they strew his way,
and his strong praises sing,
resounding all the day
hosannas to their King.
Then “Crucify!”
is all their breath,
and for his death
they thirst and cry.
But what I would like to do today is go back further than Palm Sunday, further back even than the Epiphany — right back to Christmas, which Saint Paul himself linked with the Passion in his letter to the Philippians. Because that’s when God first came down, when God first stooped himself, emptied himself, made himself weak and vulnerable — for what is more vulnerable than a newborn baby? God, as the old hymn says so well, “came down at Christmas.” He was, as Saint Paul said, “born in human likeness, found in human form.” And in that form of vulnerable meekness, in that human form he came down to us, and in that human form he saved us, even on the cross.

For his meekness was not met with a corresponding charity from those he came to save. No, his meekness seemed to create in the crowds that cursed him an even greater anger, an even greater hatred, to which he continued to submit himself in meekness. Ultimately, he did not back down or come down from the cross — and because he did not back down or come down from the cross, we are here today to testify to him as our Lord and Savior, not simply to honor him as a wise and prudent teacher who got off the hook by careful diplomacy.

We know from the evangelists, their testimony to what happened in Gethsemane, that Jesus did not want to go to the cross; Jesus did not want to die. But he willed to die. He could have backed down from the cross and its pain anytime he chose. But he didn’t. He remained obedient unto death, even death on a cross. He chose to do what he knew God demanded, that the debt of human sin would be paid in human flesh by one who shared that flesh without the sin.

Sin is disobedience, and if Christ had given in to his own fears or the devil’s temptations he would not have been able to carry out God’s redeeming work. And the last temptation, the last temptation of all was voiced by the crowds: “Come down from the cross.” The crowds did not want Jesus to be where he knew he must be, on the cross. The crowds did not want Jesus to be who he was, the messiah, the savior andredeemer of the world.

The crowds did not want a suffering savior, someone who would die for them to save them from their sins. They did not want someone who would die in meekness. No, they wanted some kind of Superman. The Messiah they wanted would use his superpowers, rip those nails out of the wood, break himself free, come down from the cross in power and might, so that, as they said, they “could see and believe.”

But that didn’t happen. There was no flexing of muscles, no ripping of T-shirts in a miraculous transformation like the Incredible Hulk, no breaking free from the cross, no explosive leaping down. There was only the stillness of the hot noonday sunlight, the buzz of flies, the creaking of the wood, and then those clouds of darkness over the whole land for three long, slow and painful hours.

Then finally Jesus broke the silence, as he cried out in a loud voice, a cry of pain and anguish stretching back 1,000 years before his own birth, the cry of his forefather David, a lamentation of abandonment: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The crowd, of course, misunderstood. They realized by now that Jesus was not going to do a Superman act. But they thought that maybe he had some friends in high places. They thought he was calling for Elijah. And so they waited to see if Elijah, the great prophet, the one who’d flown off to heaven in a chariot of fire, would come to the rescue, storming Calvary with God’s cavalry, to rescue Jesus from the cross.

They didn’t have long to wait, for Jesus soon gave a loud cry and breathed his last. Up in thecity, on the other side of the city walls, up on the Temple Mount, people said that the curtain of the Temple had been torn in two. But outside the city walls, on that little hill called Golgotha, something even stranger happened, something most folks didn’t see, but which the Evangelist Mark carefully recorded.

One of the soldiers who stood there facing Jesus almost two thousand years ago did something as strange and unlikely as the death of God’s own son. In spite of Jesus having failed to reveal himself as Superman in disguise, in spite of Elijah’s failure to show up to rescue him from the cross, in spite of his death and suffering, and all other evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, that soldier uttered words of faith that some even of Jesus’ own disciples had not yet dared to utter: “Truly this man was God’s son.”

This soldier recognized Jesus in his not coming down from the cross. That soldier knew, as perhaps only soldiers know, the kind of courage it takes not to leave your post, the kind of courage it takes to die so that others can be saved, the kind of courage to throw yourself on a hand-grenade, or stay behind in the narrow mountain pass to hold the way as long as you can while your comrades escape.

One man came down from heaven and didn’t come down from the cross. One man became a convert at Golgotha because of him, a soldier who saw his courage in coming down, his meekness in being lifted up. Only one convert, but it was the beginning, as countless others would come in succeeding weeks and years and centuries; and the word would go forth from that holy city, that holiest of cities, to tell abroad the saving death of Jesus Christ; to spread the welcome and the invitation to join the Meek King at his Banquet. Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us, therefore let us keep the feast.+