Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Strange Invitation — Strange Banquet

SJF • Proper 15b • Tobias S Haller BSG
Wisdom calls from the highest places in the town, “You simple, turn in here!” To those without sense she says, “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed.”
If you come from a large family or have a large number of friends, one of the things you are likely to receive on a fairly regular basis is an invitation to a major event of some kind — a christening, a sweet sixteen, a wedding, or an anniversary celebration. Now imagine for a moment going to your mailbox one day and finding one of those ivory-toned envelopes — the kind you can tell even without opening contain an invitation. And imagine that you open the envelope and find the beautifully engraved ivory-toned card stock invitation. And you think, How nice; and then you read the invitation; and this is what it says: “Mr. and Mrs. John Smith request the pleasure of the company of all you stupid people at the marriage of their daughter Matilda....” Well, I don’t think you would read much further!

Who would ever think of sending out such a strange invitation, such an insulting invitation? And yet that is exactly the kind invitation that Holy Wisdom, as personified in the book of Proverbs, sends out — not just calling from the highest places in the town herself, but sending all of her servant girls throughout the town with the message. “You that are simple, turn in here!” To the senseless she says, “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed.” Or as someone might say on the streets of New York, “Yo, stupid, come to supper!”

This is a strange invitation indeed. And yet within its strangeness there is a profound truth. Who, after all, most needs to come into Wisdom’s house and dine on the meal she has prepared than those who lack wisdom? Who most needs the nourishment Wisdom provides than those who are foolish or senseless or immature? It is the hungry who most need to eat, the thirsty who most need to drink; and the ignorant and unwise who most need to learn.

Wisdom’s invitation may seem outright insulting. And yet, a few years ago a major publishing company made the brilliant choice of issuing just such an honest invitation: appealing to people’s willingness to admit that they needed to learn. And so, starting with computer training — about which many people will admit their need to learn more — this publisher produced a series of books for dummies, proudly proclaiming that fact in their titles: Windows for Dummies, Microsoft Word for Dummies, and so on — and now you can find books on almost any subject you can imagine — for dummies! It seems that Wisdom was wise after all in knowing how to appeal to people’s need and desire to learn; and a modern publisher has reaped the profits. For Holy Wisdom herself was the first to publish such a book and issue such an invitation: The Way of the Lord — for Dummies.

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So much for the strange invitation; but what about the banquet? Say you’ve swallowed your pride and admitted your ignorance, and accepted the invitation to the banquet — the one that said, “Yo, stupid, come to supper!” And you get to the banquet hall, and the tables are all set; but there is no buffet, no bar, no band, no heavy hors d’oeuvres — or light ones, for that matter — no maitre d’, no waiters, and only silence coming from the kitchen. And you sit down with all the other stupid people, and start whispering to each other, What’s going on? And then a man comes out and goes up to the microphone and says, “My friends, tonight you are going to dine on my flesh and drink my blood.”

You can only imagine the shock that such an announcement would provoke. Of course, we’ve gotten used to hearing such language from Jesus — so we tend not to be shocked by it at all. But put yourself for moment in the place of his disciples — they had quite literally never heard of such a thing. Obviously they would be shocked at the idea of eating another person’s flesh; but the idea of drinking blood was even more repulsive.

For the disciples were all observant Jews; and according to the Jewish law, eating blood is absolutely forbidden — blood of any kind. Even a hen’s egg with a tiny spot of blood on the yolk is strictly off limits. All meat is to be drained completely of any last trace of blood before it is eaten — and for good measure treated with rock salt to draw out the last remaining blood in the process known as koshering. That’s what kosher meat is: not just slaughtered according to the Jewish law, but certified to be drained of any and every last trace of blood.

This commandment forbidding the eating of blood was held to be vitally important because it predated the law of Moses. You may never have noticed, but Adam and Eve were vegetarians: God gave them only the plants and their seeds and the fruit they bore for food. It was only after the flood that God gave Noah and his descendants — that is, everybody — the permission to eat meat, on the condition that they not eat the meat with its blood — its life — still in it. So important was this law from the Jewish point of view that the apostles, all of whom were Jews, made it one of the first conditions for any gentile who wanted to become a Christian. When the council of the apostles gathered in Jerusalem to decide what to do with the first non-Jewish Christians, they decided that these gentile converts, unlike regular converts to Judaism, did not have to follow the law of Moses in all of its 600 or so particulars — but they did have to abstain from blood — as this was particularly offensive to their Jewish sisters and brothers; and had, after all, been given as a commandment to Noah, from whom all the nations of the earth were descended. And you may be surprised to learn that this rule remained on the church’s rule-books for centuries, until Saint Augustine of Hippo — the one in our stained-glass window around the corner there — came to the conclusion that enough time had passed so that there were so few Jewish Christians to be bothered about this tradition that it had become a nonissue. And ever since we western Christians have been allowed to enjoy a nice juicy steak!

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But this is now, and that was then. Put yourself back into the mind-set of the disciples when Jesus first uttered these words, words he would repeat and put into action at the Last Supper. Whoever eats his flesh and drinks his blood will have eternal life, and will abide in him as he abides in them. A strange banquet indeed — and yet, beloved, this is Wisdom’s banquet. We are here in Wisdom’s house because we know we need to be here. We have heard her calling from the heights, we have heard her servants calling in the streets, “This is what you foolish ones need. This is what you hungry ones need. This is what you thirsty ones need. This is what you dying ones need. For this is the food of wisdom, the drink that puts an end to thirst, the food that preserves unto eternal life. Whoever eats this bread will live for ever.”

And so we come, week by week, in response to a strange invitation to a strange banquet — to be fed not with bread alone, but with every word that comes from the mouth of the Most High; to be fed with the flesh and the blood of the Eternal Word himself, the one who came down from heaven to give himself for the life of the world, as testified by the Holy Spirit. Fed with this food, nourished with this drink, filled with this Spirit, singing and making melody to the Lord in our hearts, let us give thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.+

Monday, August 07, 2006

The Puzzle and the Plan

SJF • Transfiguration 2006 • Tobias S Haller BSG
Saint Peter wrote, We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain. So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed.
I’m sure many of us here have spent at least some of our leisure time working on a jigsaw puzzle. Often this is a team effort, and members of the family or friends join in to get the puzzle to match the picture on the box in which the puzzle came. However, a few years ago I learned of a particularly challenging version of jigsaw puzzles — the Cadillac of jigsaw puzzles. These are special hand-crafted jigsaw puzzles, made by a company that only produces a few each year. They cost as much as four thousand dollars! And they are very difficult, designed for the true jigsaw puzzle expert — or addict! One of their puzzles is so hard that the makers offer a $10,000 prize to anyone who succeeds — and after many attempts no one has succeeded.

However, perhaps the most unusual thing about these jigsaw puzzles is that unlike the kind with which most of us are familiar, the kind you or I might purchase at Toys R Us, these puzzles don’t have a picture on the box to show you what the puzzle is supposed to look like when it’s finished. And that is part of the reason they are so hard to finish! These puzzles just come in a plain blue box and it is up to you to figure out what you are putting together just from the pieces alone. Is it the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, or the Bronx Botanical Garden? Is it a lunar landscape, or a sailing ship on the high sea? Most of us would find such puzzles overwhelming, puzzles without a hint as to what the answer is, puzzles without the guiding picture to show us what we are working toward.

I said in my sermon last week that while God wants us to grow to full maturity, and lets us go from time to time to learn to walk on our own, God still remains close by, the Holy Spirit remaining as close as our next breath always ready to come to our aid when we stumble or fall. In other words,while God does give us puzzles to work through, God does not leave us helpless with no picture on the box, without a friend or family member to help us in our puzzling. We have not been left clueless. And on this solemn feast of the Transfiguration, we are reminded of three kinds of help that God has provided us with as we work through the puzzles of our lives.

The first of these helpers is displayed in our Old Testament reading, as Moses comes down Mount Sinai bearing the two tablets in his hands. These are the second set of tablets, mind you, the replacements for the ones Moses broke in pieces when he came down the mountain the first time to find the people worshiping a golden calf. This is the second edition — the carbon copy — though who remembers carbon copies any more! — of what had previously been broken all to pieces harder to reassemble than the hardest jigsaw puzzle. Instead of leaving his people desolate with puzzling fragments and shards of stone, the results of their disobedience and Moses’ short fuse, God has issued the law a second time, and given the people a second chance to see, in that perfect law, a vision of what he wants them to be. We all know the Ten Commandments from our Sunday School days.

At least I hope we do. Just last week I saw an embarrassing TV interview with a politician who had introduced a resolution to require the display of the 10 Commandments in the US House and Senate in Washington. Well, Stephen Colbert, host of a Comedy Channel “fake news” show had the nerve to ask a question that so-called “serious journalists” didn’t dare to pose. He simply said, “What are the Ten Commandments?” And after the immediate shock and awe, the deeply embarrassed congressman said, “What, all of them?!” and then could only remember three out of the ten! Maybe he does need to have them up on the walls of the House of Representatives. And if by any chance you have forgotten them you will find the Ten Commandments on page 350 of the Prayer Book!

In these commandments God gives us a picture of the righteous life, the good life. We are not left without a clue as to what God wants of us. In these Ten Commandments God shows us the kind of life he wants us to live: a life that honors God alone — and nothing in God’s place — that takes God seriously, and takes the time to spend time in God’s presence on the Sabbath; a life that honors those who gave us life; a life that has respect for others’ lives, relationships, and property’ a life that values truth and generosity. Now there’s a picture to help bring a troubled world into order! There’s a picture to help us get the puzzles of our lives at least sorted out to the point where we’ve decided which pieces are edges and which go in the middle, which ones are part of the ship, and which are sea and sky.

The wonderful thing, of course, is that God didn’t stop with the Law. God also gave his people the prophets. They are like a helpful friend or family member who gives us a hand with the puzzle. When someone stands over your shoulder and says, “Don’t you think that piece really belongs over here?” and you move the piece from where you were trying to fit it — even though it really didn’t quite fit there — to the place your friend suggests, suddenly a whole new section of the puzzle falls into place and you see a pattern where before there was a jumble. Saint Peter says that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation — we need helpful friends standing over our shoulder to point out when we’ve got a piece in the wrong place, when we’re trying to squeeze a piece into a place where it doesn’t really fit. And in this case the helpful friends are the many people who make up the church, led and supported by the Holy Spirit. The prophecies of Scripture come together in a meaningful way through the church’s careful and inspired teaching, just as the prophets of old instructed and inspired the people of Israel to seek after God, and in seeking, to find.

Finally, God provides us with one last help in addressing the puzzles of our lives. And this last one is special. This last one is unique. This last one is none other than Jesus Christ himself, the perfect likeness and image of God, showing us in his own person what it is a perfect human being looks like, how the pieces of a human life should fit together. And just to be sure that we don’t miss the point that Jesus is the culmination and summation of all that has gone before, when he reveals himself in his transfigured glory, shining in light that gives a preview of his resurrection, he appears to his trusted disciples on the mountain-top along with Moses and Elijah, exemplars of the Law and the Prophets. Note that as these leaders of the past fade from sight, leaving only Jesus, that Peter tries to hold on and not let them go, and offers to build dwellings for them to stay in. In response, the voice of God speaks from the cloud and says, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him.”

For Jesus is the perfect picture, the perfect helper, who answers all our questions, and shows us just where every piece should go. Jesus is the picture that is clearer than the Law; Jesus is the friend who is more helpful than any prophet; Jesus is the Son, the Chosen one, the one God wants us to listen to and follow and to model our lives after. Jesus is the picture on the puzzle box of our lives, who when we model our lives upon him, loving God and our neighbors as ourselves, leads us into his majestic glory as the King in his beauty, in whom the prophetic message is fully confirmed. To him, through the power of the Holy Spirit, be all honor and glory ascribed to our God, who dwells in light inaccessible from before time and for ever.+