Monday, September 18, 2006

Faith On Show

SJF • Proper 19b • Tobias S Haller BSG
Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead... Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.
Most of us have probably heard, or perhaps even used, the expression, “He wears his heart on his sleeve.” This describes someone who is transparent in his emotions — there is no doubt about how he feels, or what he thinks. Sometimes people aren’t aware of how much they reveal through their body language or facial expression — the unspoken outward eloquence that lets everyone around them know how they feel inside.

Other people, on the contrary, are adept at concealing their true feelings, either by nature, as a part of their personality, or by intent. One of my seminary professors — now a bishop — was skilled at preserving this kind of inscrutable expression. It was a little frustrating sometimes for me to converse in tutorial meetings with him, because it was impossible to tell from his facial expression or body language what his inner reaction was to anything I said. Only when he spoke was his judgment on my paper or my assignment made clear. He preserved this poker face as a way of getting me to articulate what I really felt or thought, quite apart from his opinions one way or the other — remaining seemingly impartial to allow me either to dig myself deeper into a hole of error, or mount up on eagle’s wings — and only at the end would I know how well or poorly I had done in my presentation.

Sometimes people will preserve a“great stone face” in order to let others know that they can’t get to them. They will maintain a stiff upper lip, or a brow of adamant, enduring insults without showing any reaction at all. We have an example of this in our passage from Isaiah this morning — the Prophet suffers disgraceful insults, but sets his face like flint. And he does this because of his faith in God, his trust that God is on his side and will vindicate him and not allow him to be put to shame for ever. Boldly he says, “Let them confront me. It is the Lord God who helps me!” — thus strong is his faith, which is not shown by making faces, but by setting his jaw, remaining steady and immovable.

The irony is that this action reveals faith rather than concealing it. Isaiah’s face, set like flint, in its very immobility and endurance — keeping his face steady and not wincing at the insults of those who pull at his beard — in not showing pain he shows his faith.

Faith is shown in many ways — primarily, as James writes in the epistle, through the good works to which it gives rise. James does not suggest there is any conflict here between faith and works — rather they go together as naturally as melody and rhythm combine to create a song. “Faith without works is dead,” James assures us, and by this I suggest he means that it isn’t really faith if it doesn’t produce positive and visible actions. If what I think is my faith gives rise to no real work, it may simply be a pious feeling — a sentimental impulse rather than a commitment, rather like the difference between feeling homesick and actually returning home! For the proof is in the pudding, as the saying goes; or as our Lord would say, “A tree is known by its fruit.” So James and Jesus both attest to this truth: if you say you have faith, let your faith be shown by what you do to fulfill “the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”

A true and lively faith will show itself not simply in a our demeanor — how we appear, how we seem to be — but in our actions. And we are warned in our reading today about judging others simply on the basis of their appearance — not to be overly partial to a person who shows up dressed in fine clothes, while turning away or turning aside the poor person who is not so well dressed. Though the outer appearance is important, it is not simply the appearance of clothing, which one can put on or take off, but rather being clothed with the good works that arise from a true faith, a heart of faith worn on the sleeve — whether that sleeve be silk or denim. It is not fabric, but faith, that is the concern — and the faithful man in poor clothing is worth a dozen finely dressed but spiritually empty peacocks. It is very easy, after all, to put abig silver cross around your neck, to dress up like a Christian with a load of Christian bling — but that’s not what Jesus meant when he said, Take up your cross and follow me!

Our gospel passage today shows us Jesus himself submitting to this rule of not simply relying on appearance — however wonderful — but getting into action. What has immediately preceded the event recounted today is his transfiguration on the mountain, where he appeared to Peter and James and John on the mountainside, marvelously transfigured in raiment white and glistering: a preview of the resurrection for these chosen three. You will recall that Peter was so moved by this experience that he wanted to stay on the mountain. But Jesus brings them down, down to the midst of a city in turmoil, and to a clutch of the remaining disciples unable to cast out the evil spirit that has beset a child. And what does Jesus say to them? What does he call them? “You faithless generation.” The point is that they cannot do the work because they do not have the faith. “All things can be done,” Jesus assures them, “for the one who believes.” (Remember, Jesus had said that even a mustard seed of faith could move mountains!) But faith is needed before the work can be done — the inner strength must be there before the outward act can show what was within; there has to be gas in the tank in order for the engine to run; the seed precedes the tree.

The problem is, for whatever reason, even though they have seen Jesus perform many miracles, even though they have received his assurance that they too will do such things in his name, even though he has explicitly commissioned them to do such things as casting out demons — still, when he is away from then even for an afternoon, the disciples begin to have doubts, they begin to lose their faith, and so can no longer do the very works they have been given to do. Without faith, they can do nothing.

And are we any better? Do we not also sometimes lose our confidence? Do we not sometimes dress up as Christians even though our hearts aren’t in it? Do we not sometimes even let our doubts show? Do we not sometimes feel as if our Lord has gone off and left us on our own, leaving us with problems that make us feel helpless, not knowing what to do? Let’s be honest, folks — haven’t you felt that way sometimes?

And yet although Jesus may give us a stern look when we confess this fact, he will also smile upon us when we say that prayer that a father said so long ago, a father who turned to him for help to save his child when the disciples could do nothing. “I believe; help my unbelief!” For even this cry of need is in itself an act of faith — for who cries for help to one who can not give it? And by crying out to God even in our darkest moments, even in our weakest moments, we are placing the heart of our faith upon our sleeves — the heart of the faith which puts its trust in God, a faith which places its dearest needs in the hands of God who alone can deliver and save. This is true repentance, my friends — not just confessing our weakness, but turning to our Lord and God and calling for help.

We know that God will help us when we call out: that is the substance of our faith. We know that if he rebukes us with a harsh countenance from time to time, that as we confess our weakness so too his regard toward us will soften to a smile, and he will grant our request according to our need.

But remember — he demands the same of us. “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what good is that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” We are called, all of us, to be like God, who shows no partiality, called to fulfill that royal law, to love our neighbors as ourselves — not judging by mere outward appearances, not showing partiality, not refusing the cry of the poor and weak when they call out to us no less than we ourselves cry out to God — but bearing the fruit of good works nourished by a lively faith.

Help then, O Lord, our unbelief;
and may our faith abound,
to call on you when you are near
and seek where you are found;
that, when our life of faith is done,
in realms of clearer light
we may behold you as you are,
with full and endless sight.
(Henry Alford, Hymn 209)

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Not to fight

SJF • Proper 17b • Tobias S Haller BSG
Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand on that evil day, and having done everything, to endure.
We come this week to the last portion of Saint Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, from which we have been hearing readings over the last two months. He begins with that word beloved by congregations with long-winded preachers, “Finally.” There is an old saying that when an Anglican preacher says “Finally” you’re within moments of the end, but if it’s a Baptist don’t get your hopes up!

When Saint Paul uses this word, he does so in a double sense — not only is he coming to the end of his letter but he is also talking about a more important “finally,” the end of days. He is talking about the final struggle, the last battle, and how Christians are to be prepared, finally, for this conflict.

He begins by advising the people of Ephesus to put their trust in the Lord, and to put on the whole armor of God. God’s armor, mind; not human armor. For, as he assures them, the coming battle is not going to be against human foes — enemies of flesh and blood — but against the disembodied forces of evil that pervade and perfuse the very system of the world. It is not the evil of individual people, the wrong they do or the sins they commit, against which he calls the Christian to be armed. Rather, it is against the system of wrong, the structure of evil itself, that Paul calls the Christian to take a stand.

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What is this system of evil, the cosmic power of this present darkness? One of the TV shows I’ve enjoyed watching over the last few years is The Sopranos. If you’re not familiar with it, it is not about a choir; it’s about a New Jersey organized crime family — but rather than focusing simply on the criminal aspect, as many television programs and films have done in the past, this one shows the family side — not just the Family with a capital F, the Mafia, but the flesh and blood family of a crime boss and his wife and their two kids — and his girlfriends (for he is unfaithful)— and their aunts and uncles and nieces and nephews and cousins, the whole mob of them.

And one of the things that’s most fascinating about this world of organized crime is the extent to which those who inhabit it — these flesh and blood people — find themselves forced into doing things they really don’t want to do, things they wouldn’t do if they had the choice, and which aren’t even, in many cases, to their advantage, and which usually don’t make them happy. They are compelled to do these things because of the system in which they are trapped — the system of unwritten rules of respect and revenge, of blood and of honor, and that old Italian word vendetta.

The irony is that they are fully aware of this paradox, this entrapment in a system against which they struggle helplessly. One of them often amuses his cronies by doing an imitation of a character from one of their favorite films, The Godfather — and isn’t it odd that these supposedly real-life gangsters would spend their time watching gangster movies! — “Just when I thought I was out, they pulled me back in!” Flesh and blood cannot escape this system, even if they are bold enough to try. For the system is based on obligation. One of the phrases that comes up more than once in this series is, “Tony, you have to do this!” And what Tony Soprano has to do usually involves gunfire, an unscheduled trip to the pine barrens in the trunk of a Mercedes, or an impromptu burial at sea.

And so these organized criminals find themselves trapped in a system which brings them little joy and much suffering: unable to break free from the rules and obligations that create so much needless suffering and pain. Even Boss Tony’s wife, with her fabulous house and lavish jewelry, more than half the time looks like she’s smelling something bad. These folks have become slaves to the system that they thought would serve them, slaves to the rules that have become their rulers. They have learned too late that the system of the mob — in their case with a capital M — the system that allows one to do things one would fear to do alone, or have too many compunctions to do alone — the system of mob violence wreaks its own violence upon those who give themselves over to its systemic power.

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Our gospel reading today gives us a picture of a similar kind of bondage to a discipline, in a religious form. One might observe that organized crime and organized religion have one thing in common: organization! Both are systems. The Pharisees and scribes have enlarged the system, adding to the already compendious law of Moses, with their own interpretations and traditions. And they should not be entirely faulted for this; for the law of Moses was already over a thousand years old in their day, and had been conceived for nomadic, rural culture. Since that time great cities had been built, and many features of the law were no longer easily observed, so new interpretations had to be made. The problem is that in making these interpretations the Pharisees often strayed not only from the letter of the law but from its spirit.

Jesus reads them the riot act in today’s passage, when they cluck their tongues and shake their heads over the disciples eating without washing their hands first — and it is important to note that this is not about cleanliness but about a ritual form of handwashing that pious Pharisees performed before eating whether their hands were dirty or not.

For the Pharisees, no less than Tony Soprano, are so caught up in their rules and regulations, that they end up, as we know from how the gospel develops, plotting against Jesus because he is upsetting the system which governs their lives. The system, which was meant to bring holiness and awareness of God’s continual presence, has become instead a means to assail the Son of God himself. The system has become more important than the God it was intended to serve.

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By the time of Saint Paul, sacred and secular systems are hard at work against the infant church, synagogue and praetorium united against them, and Christians are being persecuted — some of them by their own sisters and brothers, parents or children, as Jesus had said would happen. The whole system of the world seems to be against the church: the rulers of the state, and the heads of the religious establishment. So Paul advises the Christians to take up the whole armor of God, to be able to stand on that evil day.

And note the most important thing he says — or rather, doesn’t say. The Christian is to put on all of this armor: the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shoes of the gospel of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the spirit. And yet, clothed in this whole-body armor, armed with this supernatural weapon — the Christian is not to fight, but to stand; and standing, to pray.

What Paul has learned — from his own experience of kicking against the goad until God struck him literally senseless — is that the only way to beat this system is to stop: to stand still and strong, armed and protected, but not fighting; not responding with anger against anger, with assault against assault, with vengeance taken for wrongs done, respect extracted for slights endured, but rather with endurance and witness and patience — hoping all things, bearing all things. This is the way to break the cycle of violence, to stop it once and for all by not giving in to the rules that say you have to have your compensation, you have to have your revenge, or “Tony, you have to do this.”

Finally — and I really am coming to the end — the strength to confront the powers of this world can only come from outside this world — the strength to stand against the system can only come from outside the system — for it is from within the system that all the trouble comes: fornication (by which Jesus means idolatry), theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, and folly. The system will keep on churning up this muck because that is all it can do, and the only way to avoid being pulled back in is to stand in God’s armor, and to pray. The only way to stop it is to stop, to break the cycle by refusing any longer to stay on the mad carnival ride that is the system of this world.

When one person, or a few people, are willing to stand up and say, “No more,” the world and its system can be brought to a halt. When one person, or a few, are willing to stand and endure, armed with God’s protective grace against all the forces that assail them, systems of evil can be overthrown — undone by their own corrupted powers.

So be strong, beloved in Christ, strong in God’s power and not your own; armed with truth and righteousness, shod with the gospel of peace; shielded by faith and crowned with salvation — and bearing God’s Word as your spiritual sword. Pray, sisters and brothers, pray, and persevere; for the battle belongs not to the strong or the fleet, but to those who stand and endure; in the Name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, henceforth and for ever more.+