Sunday, April 22, 2007

Then I Saw...

SJF • Easter 3C • Tobias Haller BSG
Then I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered…
Then I saw… then I looked... then I heard. That is the blessed refrain that runs through today’s second reading. Then I saw... then I looked... then I heard. Such is the language that confronts us in the passage from the Revelation to Saint John. Needless to say, revelation is only half of the story: and today’s passage emphasizes the other half — perception. As the title of the Bible’s last book suggests, revelation is always revelation to. God’s word is meant to bear fruit, and no matter how important the revelation or the one who gives it, it will not bear fruit unless there is also someone willing to see, to look, and to hear. As Jesus would put it, the Word of God, as seed cast abroad, needs suitable soil if it is to take root, grow, and bear fruit. To make himself known — in broken bread or in any other way — requires that there must be someone able and willing to know. Revelation is always revelation to.

How often don’t we perceive what is addressed to us, what is right in front of us, and thus remain fruitless and barren in response? How often is something unknown because we refuse to know it? And why is that? Why is it that we seem unable to see what, as my grandmother used to say, “if it was a snake it would have bit you”? Why are we so often unable to hear the warning sirens that alert us to danger? This is bad enough when all you’re looking for is the stapler or the ironing board; or all you are trying to hear is the voice on the other end of a bad cell phone connection. But when it is life everlasting, the chance for salvation, how much more important, how much more vital that we see and hear, take, touch and embrace what is offered so freely by our Lord and God.

Today’s other readings from Scripture, offer a response to the attentive John of Revelation. They give us examples of people who couldn’t, for different reasons, perceive what was right there, in front of or all around them. Thankfully, the people we hear about this morning went through an experience that opened their eyes, and then, then, they saw. Something happened to them, something — or someone — reached out and acted on their lives to allow them to see what had escaped their vision up till then. Then… then they saw.

When we look at them and hear their stories, we can see reflections of ourselves, and learn how to keep our eyes open and fixed on the one who was and is, and is to come, Jesus, our Lord and savior. For it is he who opens the eyes of those who do not see because they think they see. It is he who opens the eyes of those who do not see because they don’t know how to look.

+ + +

First, there’s our old friend Saint Paul, or, as he was known before his conversion, Saul. What kept him from seeing the grace of God? Well, Saul’s problem was that he thought he knew it all — you couldn’t tell him anything.

One of the great mysteries of perception is that we see what we expect to see — not what is actually there. If your head is so full of preconceptions that there isn’t any room anymore, you won’t be able to perceive anything new, even when it’s right before your eyes.

And this isn’t just about ideas, but appears to be programmed into our brains, regarding even physical perception. I just saw an interesting news-brief in Scientific American Mind, in which they show how people’s brains are so used to seeing bananas as yellow, and strawberries as red, that when asked to adjust a color image of these fruits on a computer to be a neutral shade of gray, people will add more blue to the bananas and more green to the strawberries than is necessary to make them gray — the human brain wants to see bananas as yellow and strawberries are red so strongly that if there isn’t at least a hint of the opposite color, the brain will still insist on seeing a perfectly gray image of the fruits as slightly yellow or red. Our heads are full of such perceptions, such “settings” almost like the volume setting on your TV. And if you’ve ever walked into a room in which someone who is hard of hearing is watching TV, you know that your and their idea of “loud” is very different!

Saul the Pharisee’s brain was “set” if anybody’s was. He had studied at the feet of the greatest Rabbi of his day, Rabbi Gamaliel the Great, a Rabbi whose teachings are an important part of the Talmud even down to this day. Saul was a bright boy, an A-plus student, probably “teacher’s pet.” He was a true believer, fervent in prayer, surpassing all his classmates.

So when this new religion came along, this new faith called “the Way” he just said, “No way!” And with the fervor of a zealot he sought to smash the new faith, to crush it into the ground through whatever means necessary, including murder.

Yes, Saul thought he knew it all. And you might say, in Star Trek style, that his brain was set on kill, not stun! It took the grace of God stunning him — knocking him to the ground and even blinding him for a bit to finally open his eyes to see how seriously he had missed the point. His knowledge of Israel’s past, instead of leading him to see God’s new thing happening even in his day, had figuratively blinded him to the fulfillment of the promise that past foretold, the realization of all for which God’s careful guidance had prepared. He knew the story backwards and forwards, but he entirely missed the point; he knew the prophecies by heart, but failed to see them when they started to come true around him.

But thank God, then, he saw. After being figuratively blinded by his knowledge, God literally blinded him for a time, so that when Ananias laid his hands on him and baptized him, his eyes were opened with a new, fresh vision. Without him, the church as we know it would never have come to be, for it was to be Saul, renamed as Paul, who would bring the good news to the Gentiles.

+ + +

Then there’s Peter. Peter’s problem wasn’t that he knew too much, but that he seems only to have known one thing. Even though he was a witness to the Resurrection, he still didn’t seem to see the significance of that miraculous event. He’d been through the upper room experience, when Jesus had appeared. He’d was there when the Risen Lord, brought doubting Thomas to his knees.

He knew the Risen Lord. But what did he do as follow up? Did he start a great mission to evangelize the world, to spread the gospel of the Risen Christ? No. He went fishing.

Fishing was something he knew about. Unlike Saul, he wasn’t a rabbi, a learned man. He was a fisherman. That much he was sure of. He couldn’t quite grasp what all this resurrection was about. But fish, and fishing, he knew. Even though Jesus had said he’d fish for people, he was going to stick with fish.

The trouble is, now the fish weren’t cooperating. I can’t help but see the smile on Jesus’ lips when he called out over the water
to Peter and his friends, “Children, you have no fish,
have you?” And as he had said some years before, when he first met Peter (as Luke’s Gospel tells us), he said once more, “Try again.” And as it happened before, the nets were suddenly full of fish.

Then the disciple whom Jesus loved called out, “It is the Lord!” And Peter, dear, impetuous Peter, realizing his nakedness. quickly pulled on his clothes and jumped in the sea, swimming ashore to be with the Lord he now saw with newly opened eyes.

+ + +

How often are we like Paul and Peter? How often do we miss the abundant grace around us either because we know too much about too many things, or know too little by knowing only about one thing? How often do we rely on our accumulated expertise, resisting new and creative visions, new ways of working and thinking? How often do we fail to risk something untried, falling back on the same old same-old we know so well?

Sometimes it takes God’s grace to knock us into our senses, to blind us with the blazing accusation of how wrong we’ve been. Sometimes it takes the power of God to convert us and give us a new birth in order that we may open our eyes to see just how mistaken we have been. Paul thought he knew, and then, then he saw.

Other times it takes God’s gentle challenge to our tried-and-
true lives, our habitual and dreary return to familiar patterns, however unproductive, instead of risking the adventure God would set before us. Then God will call out to us, as we labor fruitlessly at the same old task, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” He said that once to Peter and Thomas, Nathanael and the sons of Zebedee one day by the shore of the sea, and then they saw.

May we be ready to receive that challenge, to hear that voice, to open our eyes to the startling reality of God’s presence where we thought it couldn’t be, or where we didn’t know it was, so that, one day we may join that other blessed seer, Saint John the Divine, to whom God revealed the secrets of heaven, and the glory of the world to come. May we, with all the saints and angels gathered round the throne, be able at last to say, Then I looked, then I heard, then I saw...+

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The Remains of the (Easter) Day

St James Fordham • Easter 2007 • Tobias Haller BSG
The men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”
Do you know the phrase people use when they want to talk about something being really important? They might say, Top Priority Rush. Or maybe, For Your Immediate Attention. But if something is of the very highest importance, the phrase people are most likely to use to describe the situation is, “it’s a matter of life and death.”

Well, my friends, that’s what Easter is. It’s a matter of life and death. That’s what the Gospel is, that’s what the church is: a matter of life and death. Or perhaps it would be better to say, it’s a matter of death and life — for the death comes before the rising to life again.

And what a death it was. Not a peaceful falling asleep, surrounded by loved ones, saying some meaningful last words, something appropriate and suitable and memorable. That’s the Hollywood version of death, something out of a 50s romance in black and white — the Hollywood version — at least until Mel Gibson came along and shattered our sensibilities by showing us the horror of death by torture and abuse. For the death of Jesus Christ was not picturesque, it was not romantic. It was horrible. It was torture, slow and painful, drawn out for three hours. It was just as horrible as Mel Gibson portrays it in his controversial film; perhaps even more horrible to know that this wasn’t something unusual cooked up just for Jesus. No, this was the normal way traitors to the Roman State were punished in those days — state-sanctioned torture-to-death, publicly, nakedly, exposed and dying slowly in the hot baking sun, with a sign over your head saying, this is what happens to people who call themselves kings and set themselves up against Caesar.

So it was that Jesus joined suffering humanity in its most terrible form of suffering, as the victim of the wish to inflict the maximum of pain upon another person, wanting to make them suffer as an example and deterrent to others. And nailed to the cross, our Lord’s last recorded words were words of pain and suffering: “Why have you forsaken me; I thirst; it is finished.”

+ + +

Finished? Well, not quite. We know the story. For though this was a terrible death, out of it came a glorious rising to life again. Finished? Not at all — for it was out of death that the new life rose in glory on the third day. So, since death comes before life, in spite of the angels’ question, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” there was logic to the women’s search. They went to the spot where they had left him. Though now the stone was rolled away, that was the spot. Why did it look different? Why was there that unearthly light clinging to things. And who were these two men in dazzling clothes, with their challenging question: “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

We know the answer: they weren’t looking for the living, but for the dead. They weren’t looking for the risen Lord, but the dead body of their dear, beloved friend, to do him the final honor of anointing his remains.

And yet there were no remains — no physical remains. What did remain? What remained of their hopes and dreams now? They came to the tomb with no hopes left at all, only spices prepared, but hopes dashed, dead and buried — the remains of grief. Surely they were prepared for death — and then they were surprised by life.

+ + +

How often have you been surprised by life? Haven’t there been times when you’ve given up completely on somebody or some thing, only to discover that change indeed was possible, that the unexpected has happened? That the person you thought so selfish suddenly does some generous act that sweeps you off your feet. That the spark you’d thought had gone out of a relationship suddenly catches fire in a blazing warmth and loving embrace? That the job you’d come to think was a dead end turns out to be the door to new opportunities you’d never expected?

Life comes out of death. It’s completely natural. The women came to an empty tomb, and found a message full of life. They came to ring down the final curtain on a chapter of their lives, to close the book with the burial of a dear friend and teacher, and found instead a whole new story just beginning.

+ + +

“Why do you look for the living among the dead.” You know, some cynical people might ask us the same question this morning. Not angels, but the devil’s cynical little henchmen so busily at work in our world today. It can take the form of the ad for the Sunday New York Times — you know the one with the couple lounging in bed on a Sunday morning saying how much they like the Arts and Leisure and the Crossword Puzzle. Whenever that ad comes on TV I want to shout, “Get out of bed and go to church!” Or it can take the form of the old story of the husband and wife waking up to the alarm clock on Sunday. The wife says to the husband, “Dear, it’s time to get up to go to church.” And he says, “Oh, I don’t want to go to church today. The service is so boring; and I hate the congregation.” And his wife responds, “Well, you have to go, dear, because you’re the minister!”

And then there are those more insidious devils, the ones that say, “Why do you bother going to church. It’s a dead institution, an oppressive structure from the past, it’s good for nothing and a waste of your time. The church is all tied up with its own issues, can’t seem to stop arguing about this or that , so that it’s hardlygood for anything any more. Why do you bother with the dead instead of getting on with life? Why bother with the church at all in this modern day and age.”

Well, I’ll tell you why I’m here — and it’s not just because I’m the vicar! I’m here because I know that my redeemer lives. I’m here because I know that death is not the end. I’m here because I know that the church can be like that empty tomb, that empty tomb that was not the end of the story but the start of a whole new one, a whole new life, a whole new world, risen and recreated — no longer dead, but alive. I’m here because I know that death is the beginning, not the end; that death is the prelude to new life. I know that the waters of Baptism may chill the body, but they quicken and warm the soul.

I’m here because of what remains — for it is out of what remains that new life springs. The tomb was only empty of what was dead; it was full of light and angels. That’s what I’m here for. I’m here because of all of you, all of you in whom the life of Christ lives and breathes and walks and talks and loves and builds and triumphs over death. You are all of you angels — messengers to me and to the world, that the end has not come, that the church is alive with the life of Christ. I’m here because it’s not the church that’s dead, but the world, dead on its feet and it doesn’t even know it, a dead world walking, and the church is its only hope for life.

I’m here because, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, it is a matter of life and death. Christ’s life, Christ’s death, and Christ’s rising to life again, for the sake of the world God loved so much that he allowed his only Son to give himself for us, to give himself up to death on the cross.

Beloved brothers and sisters in Christ, we share in Christ’s life, Christ’s death, and his rising again, every time we gather in this place, every time webreak the bread and share the cup. This is the life of the world; this is its living, beating heart; this is finally the only reason the world keeps on going at all. Christ has died. He was crucified, dead and buried. But Christ has risen. And Christ will come again. For the love of God, may we never lose sight of this truth, the only thing worth worrying about. It’s matter of life and death. +

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The Feast of Memory

Maundy Thursday at Fordham Lutheran • Tobias Haller BSG
Jesus took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”
Memory is a very important part of human life. Think of all the popular songs that feature it: from “Try to Remember that time in September” through “Memories are made of this,” and the rather directive “You must remember this” and on to that somewhat annoying and hard to get out of your head hit song from the musical Cats that goes by the simple name, “Memory.” Memory is not only important for the world of popular culture, however — it is an important element in all culture: for without memory, without the ability to pass along what we’ve learned and experienced, we would be no different from the creatures of the field that live only that day-by-day existence and then pass from the scene, gone and forgotten. Memory, and the ability to transmit it, is part of what makes us human, and certainly a key to the fact of human culture. But memory is not only important for culture in general, but especially for that part of it that we call “the faith” as well.

We began our Lenten journey on Ash Wednesday, when we heard those words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Then last Sunday we heard Luke’s version of the Passion, in which the thief on the cross cried out to Jesus, “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Finally, earlier this evening we took part in a recreation of the Jewish Passover Seder — we as Christians as guests at someone else’s meal: for the Seder is ultimately the Jewish people’s celebration of their corporate memory. That is why it follows a somewhat school-bookish or classroom approach — strange in what is essentially a celebration built around a family meal.

But maybe it isn’t so strange, after all. I mean, isn’t it true when your family gathers for a meal in the evening that you ask, What did you do today? For the Jews, the Passover meal is the chance to ask those questions, not just about the day that is past, but about the ancient times of this people, and the formative tale of their great deliverance by the hand of God himself — deliverance from Pharaoh’s bitter yoke, as they fled that cursed land riddled with ten plagues, and then passed on dry foot through the parted waters of the Red Sea. And the memory of that great event was passed down from year to year, to be recalled again and again, so that each person who heard the story could feel that it was as if he or she had been there to experience those mighty works.

As I say, earlier this evening we shared in the story of our spiritual ancestors, the children of Israel. And now that we have come up into this sacred space we begin to reflect on how we share in the story that is more properly ours — the story of the central mystery of the Christian faith, as we join in remembering Jesus’ own transformation of the Passover feast into the Holy Eucharist, the Holy Communion that he commanded his disciples to continue to celebrate, with bread and wine, in remembrance of him. Through baptism we have become a new people — as if we had passed through our own version of the Red Sea; and through this holy meal we are reconstituted into the Body of Christ, who is, as Saint Paul called him, our Passover. And we do this through the power of memory — and of the storytelling to which it gives rise.

How does memory do its amazing work — and what are the signs that it is working among us? The first sign of the power of memory is community, for as we share the story memory calls us together, or rather back together: re-collecting us and re-membering us so that we can remember God. Unlike rare souls such as the desert hermits, most of us will not find God in solitude on top of a pillar, but gathered in community. God does appear to isolated spiritual athletes like Moses or Elijah in a burning bush or a still small voice. But usually God seems to favor the public assembly over the private audience. The disciples were gathered with Jesus in that upper room when he committed his memory to their care. They were not pursuing personal holiness, but praying together — for and with each other — when Jesus issued those startling commands to break bread that had become his flesh, to drink wine that was his blood.

It is in community — from the most intimate community of a loving couple, to the community of the church — that memory is multiplied as one voice takes up the story after another, correcting, adding, expanding the memory and revealing Christ in our midst.

And in that gathering, Christ is revealed foremost as one who serves, who before his death washes the feet of his friends, and afterward responds to their betrayal and lack of belief with words of peace, who forgives so that they may forgive in turn. This service and forgiveness find their natural home in community — and grow out of the memory and the story that is shared. For while one can remember on ones own, to tell a story implies at the very least one other with whom to share it. Just as it takes two to tango, it takes at least two to tell the story, and two to serve, two to forgive. Service and forgiveness flow from community as naturally as the dance flows from the music, as naturally as the story-telling flows from the powerful memory. So the ministry of hospitality, which combines service and mercy, is a sign of the power of the memory and the truth of the story: “see how they love one another” is Christ’s identity badge for the church, and a sign that we’ve got the story right.

Hospitality takes many forms, in a supper such as the one we just shared, or in a hospital visit; in an act as simple as an outstretched hand to help someone to their seat in church, or as formal as baptism itself. We welcome each newly baptized person through their own miniature Red Sea — there it is right over there! — “into the household of God” — a dwelling place for memory and story-telling, whose building-stones are the church’s members. Do you remember the children’s game: here is the church, here is the steeple, open the doors, and see all the little people? The outside of a church looks like a building, but when the doors are opened the living, human construction is revealed — as a community. So hospitality is the beginning of the community we call the church.


The wonderful thing about this growing community is that just as the memory and the story call the community together, the community then empowers further story-telling — for each person has his or her own story to tell. The children of Israel knew this, and were always telling their story to each other, not just at Passover! Their story sustained them through exile and captivity in Babylon; and through and beyond the destruction of the Second Temple. It sustained and sustains them even up to this day, through and beyond the Holocaust — the most terrible and single-minded effort to exterminate them. The church’s story is added to theirs, and each of us has a story, too, like footnotes and annotations expanding the history of salvation — so that the whole world could not contain the books that might be written.

If the world even cared! “The world” that confronts us today, is a world where community is shattered, a world that doesn’t know how to serve, a world that has forgotten its own story. I mean the world out there — right out on Walton Avenue — a world of noise without meaning, of sound and fury signifying nothing; chattering endlessly thanks to the ever-present cell phones — but isn’t it as if each user were locked in his or her own “cell” as they toddle through the streets proclaiming the details of their lives to the public? Endless talk, and no message, and the world will not stop talking long enough to hear the gracious possibility offered to it, to be reminded of its true story.

Well, the world needs a wake up call. And the responsibility to give that call falls on us, the members of the church, the Body of Christ: to tell the story of salvation to the world. If we in the church faithfully proclaim that story, the world may stop its chatter for a moment and hear what is truly important. People who have forgotten that they are God’s children, in the midst of this very city, might suddenly hear a voice speaking a language they haven’t heard for a long, long time, but which they recognize at once: a language from home, reminding them who, and whose, they are. And their story will enlarge our story,

Memory, then, reveals Jesus’ presence in community, and in the telling of the greatest story ever told. But memory also reveals Jesus to us through a sign unlike any other: in broken bread and a cup of wine. These are the means committed to us from his hand, to call us back together, to remind us who we are and who he is, and what we share. In this great work of memory, in the eucharistic feast the servant reveals himself as the bridegroom, and the story takes a classic turn: like Richard the Lionheart casting off his pilgrim’s cloak, revealing the king’s bright red cross on his chest to an astonished Robin Hood. And suddenly, everyone kneels. The King has returned. Suddenly, we are back in the upper room with him, sitting at the table as he breaks the bread and passes round the cup. Suddenly the Holy Spirit descends upon us and upon those gifts of bread and wine and we remember and are re-membered into the Body of Christ.

Once one Passover, Christ gathered the apostles together like a harvest of grain once scattered on the hillside. And after his rising again, he sent them forth, and together they served, and proclaimed, and feasted: in fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in prayer. We, their successors, can do no less. So let us hear once more the song of remembrance sung by the Spirit and the Lamb, addressed to us and to the forgetful world:

Remember, remember,
Come home, my scattered children!
Here's bread to break
and wine to drink.
Sit down and eat,
and I will wash your feet.

Remember, remember —
Sit still, my noisy children!
I'll speak the prayer
and sing the song
that tells of glory.
Listen to the story.

Remember, remember?
Look at my hands, my children,
Look at my side:
I am your friend
no longer dead
but known in broken bread.+

Monday, April 02, 2007

The Temptation of God

Saint James’ Fordham • Palm Sunday • Tobias Haller BSG
He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!
Saint Luke the Evangelist tells us that as Christ hung on the cross on that Good Friday so many long years ago, challenging voices cried out for him to save himself, not once but three times. The religious leaders who had schemed with Judas to entrap him, the soldiers who actually carried out the gruesome work of crucifixion, and even one of the two criminals hung up there beside him to suffer and die in shame and agony — all of these, their voices succeeding each other in a fugue of temptation, called out upon him to save himself.

Nikos Kazantzakis called this the “Last Temptation of Christ” but I will be a bit bolder and call it the temptation of God. I don’t do so lightly, for Jesus Christ was God made flesh — even this wounded battered flesh. Those people were tempting God — tempting “God in Man made manifest” — Emmanuel — to turn aside from the path marked out for him, and upon which he had set his willing feet from before the foundation of the world. This last temptation was to refuse to drink the cup that — however much the Son had besought the Father in Gethsemane that it would pass him by — here on Calvary the Son of God would drink to the last bitter drop. Here on the bleak hill outside Jerusalem, the hill so barren and depressing, so bare of vegetation or any sign of life or comfort that people called it Skull Hill, on this bare mound Christ suffered a temptation multiplied by three, as three different sorts and conditions of people called on him to save himself.

These three temptations on Calvary echo the triple temptations with which we began our Lenten journey, the devil’s three temptations in the wilderness. And just as the first temptations told us a great deal about the devil and how he lays his snares for us to this day, and how his chief goal is to use us and abuse us, these last temptations tell us something about those who tempted Jesus, and about ourselves, and our own temptations to use and abuse what God has given us. It was no idle matter that, in the account of the Passion we just read together, we joined our voices with those in the crowd: for as the great old Lutheran chorale puts it, “I crucified thee.”

+ + +

First come the religious leaders — and if any of us were inclined to believe that religious leaders can’t be the witting or unwitting agents of the devil, the account of Christ’s Passion is there toshow us otherwise. Sadly, religion often becomes its own shadow, when intolerance and self-satisfaction combine in judgment: and some of the worst crimes in human history have been carried out in religion’s name. In this particular case, as they gathered to one side near the Place of the Skull, the religious leaders said, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!”

A theological question was chiefly their concern, as it was the devil’s first issue. “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Use the power that dwells in you, Jesus — if it dwells in you, if you are the Messiah of God — use the power to save yourself, whether from hunger or the cross. Prove that you are God’s son, God’s chosen one, the Messiah. Use it or lose it!

That is a powerful temptation, isn’t it? Use what you’ve got for your own needs: save yourself, if need be, by the skin of your teeth, by the sweat of your brow; don’t pay too much heed to anybody else — let them look out for themselves as best they can, and devil take the hindmost. It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, and you can’t be too careful, or too generous. Save yourself!

Yet Jesus did not give into that temptation, whether it came directly from the devil’s lips or second-hand in the religious leader’s scornful taunt. For he had not come to save himself, but to save the world. He had not come to use the powers at his command but to lose all for our sakes, for the sake of the whole world. He was not full of himself, full of his own power, but rather he emptied himself and took the form of a servant, a powerless one, one who had given it all away, dying that we might live. If he used himself at all, it was not to save himself. Like a heroic rescuer he pulled us aside to shield us as he placed himself in the bullet’s path. And he left us a warning: that it will profit us nothing to gain the whole world if we lose our true selves in the process, and that only by losing ourselves can we take hold of what is truly valuable — eternal life.

+ + +

Next came the soldiers who said, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself.” The political question was their chief concern. So it was as well for the devil, who showed Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and said, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority, for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” The temptation here is to use others to climb the greasy pole of worldly success: please the right people, grease the right palms, step all over your inferiors using them as stepping stones if need be as you scratch and climb your way to the top; but don’t forget at the same time to grovel to your superiors — it’s o.k. to have bloody hands and feet and a brown nose, if that’s what it takes to get ahead.

But Jesus would not use others to his own advantage; he would instead do to others as he would be done by, would turn the other cheek and save the weakest sinner — not because it was to his advantage, but because he truly loved his brothers and sisters, even when they turned from him and scattered, even when they betrayed him and denied him; even when they nailed him to the cross. The kingship of Christ was not the tyranny of an earthly monarch, but the charity of a heavenly servant, one who came not to be served, but to serve.

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The criminal said, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” Personal safety was this man’s concern, and the devil had played that card against Jesus in the wilderness: “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here” and God will protect you. This is the temptation to get off the hook at all costs, to force God’s hand and make God act, not as God chooses, but as we might want. The thief’s reaction is understandable: there he was on a cross, and the one hanging next to him was supposed to be a wonder-working miracle man, a man who could raise the dead, give sight to the blind. How natural to call on him to help them both, to use God by getting God to step in and save them both from this terrible predicament.

How often are we tempted to use God like a sort of emergency repair kit, instead of walking with him all the days of our life? How often do we save our prayers for the spiritual flat-tires, the physical blown fuses of our lives. We sure enough remember God when trouble rears its head, but how often do we thank God for the glory even of a rainy day, the blessing of being able to awaken in the morning at all, and have a place to sleep at night? How often do we give thanks even for a simple meal, for a piece of bread when we are hungry? The temptation to use God — when God is so generous — is difficult to resist — we so often forget God’s daily blessings that we are liable to call on him only when we feel ourselves in danger or in need.

Jesus resisted this temptation to call upon God, because he knew that God was there with him even in the midst of this suffering, even in the midst of this agony, the hands of God were there, ready and open for him to commend his spirit to them. This kind of trust is difficult for us.It is easy to fall into that trap of only remembering God when we’re in trouble. But God remembers us all the time.

And this is where we turn from the temptation, the turning aside or turning away, to the faithfulness that stays on the path, the faithfulness and commitment Christ shows us on the cross. God is faithful and true and he will remember us.

And this reminder to remember comes from a surprising place. “Remember me.” Someone else speaks up, someone we hardly noticed before — the other thief. Saint Luke alone of the evangelists records this for us, this reminder to remember, this call not of temptation but to fidelity, not of abdication but of commitment. The other thief does not say, “save yourself” or “save me” but “remember me.” He does not tempt the Son of God, but prays to him to do the very thing he does — to remember and hold the world in his hands. Familiar words in Saint Luke’s Gospel, for he also records Jesus had said the same thing to his disciples on the night he was handed over to suffering and death. We will hear that account later this week when we gather to do as he said, to break the bread and pray the prayers. As he sat with them in the upper room, he broke bread with them and shared the cup of wine, and he spoke those words repeated now how many times since, “Do this in remembrance of me.” And so it is that as we remember him, and all he did for us, it is a way to remind us that he remembers us. He is no longer distracted by the temptations that assailed him then and assail us now. He has triumphed over the devil and his works, he has beat down Satan under his feet, he has overcome the temptation to use and abuse others and God, and he remembers us in our pain as he rejoices with us in our joy.

Our yearly company with Jesus in his Passion has begun, as we set our feet upon the path of Holy Week once more. Let us then with courage set our faces towards Jerusalem and resist the temptations we face in our lives in the knowledge of his faith, his remembrance of us, who did not save himself, but gave himself that we might be saved. +