Monday, February 26, 2007

The Two Faces of Faith

SJF • Lent 1c • Tobias Haller BSG
Jesus answered him, It is said, Do not put the Lord your God to the test.+
Lent is now upon us, that season of the church year in which it is customary to take up some form of spiritual discipline, to prepare for the great celebration of Easter. While it is traditional to keep the Lenten fast as a time to curb our vices, I’d like to invite all of us to celebrate our strengths as well, to undertake a discipline of virtue. As well as giving up something that’s bad for us, or something bad we do — and we shouldn’t have to wait for a special time of year to do that! — let’s take up and exercise something good we could do more of. I mentioned one such practice last week: the daily reading of a portion of Scripture — and if you do not already have that discipline as part of your Christian journey you might take it up this Lent — and never set it down!

I also spoke last week of the great enduring virtue of Love — how we can scarcely hope to do without it. Today, I would like to explore another of the three great virtues: Faith. This virtue lies close to the heart of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, a child of God, and a bearer of the good news. On this first Sunday in Lent, then, let’s take a look at faith, or more precisely, faithfulness — which is faith in action.

To start with, faith is not just about believing some fact, but about trusting a person. Surely we all know the difference. If you have faith in someone, you will trust what they tell you; and if you don’t have faith in someone, you’ll find yourself having to check everything they say. When we say, “We believe in one God” we just don’t mean, “We believe God exists.” It is not God’s mere existence we proclaim, but, as the Creed continues to point out, what God has done, in the creation and redemption of the world. When we say we believe in God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we are placing our trust, as Christians, in the one God who is supremely trustworthy: God the Father, creator of heaven and earth, the Holy Spirit, the lord and giver of life, and the one on whom our faith is founded, and who is completely faithful: Jesus Christ the Son of God and our Lord. He, we are assured, was faithful unto death, even death on the cross. God doesn’t change — God’s love is steadfast and constant; the sort of faithfulness you can trust in. As that wonderful hymn verse says, “Who trusts in God’s unchanging live builds on a rock that nought can move.” That rock doesn’t move — and if you take your stand upon it, neither will you. We as Christians take our stand upon that Rock — and that Rock is Christ. Surely such a faithful Savior is worthy of our faith, and we are promised that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shallbe saved.” Our faith is based on what we see when we look back at what Jesus has done for us, and what he will continue to do: for he is faithful.

So faith has two faces: giving thanks for what has gone before, and trusting in what will come after. Unlike that warning you see on investment prospectuses (or is it prospecti?), “past performance is no guarantee of future performance” — here we are not relying on the performance of the stock market, but on the one who is the source of our being and doing: on God himself, who created, redeemed and sanctifies us. That kind of trust, that kind of faith, is secure.

A few weeks ago we heard Jeremiah’s description of those “who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord”; they are like trees planted by streams of water — in contrast to those like sorry shrubs in the desert, who trust in mere mortals. And faithfulness is the fruit that trusting trees bear — fruit that is borne because those trees are planted by the unfailing stream, and send their roots down deep, to draw on that well of faithfulness of God, who provides all that is needed.

This fruitfulness of faithfulness is described in our reading from Deuteronomy today — quite literally! The children of Israel have been delivered out of Egypt, brought through forty long years in the desert, and they are about to enter the promised land. They have received bread from heaven, and water from the rock — given food and drink all their weary way, by the God who is faithful and true. But before they enter into the promised land, while still on the borders — still collecting manna, still drinking the water God provides — Moses gives them a way to remember all that God has done for them once the manna ceases, and they drink from the springs of Israel.

And what a simple liturgy it is! To take some fruit, the first of the harvest, and to stand before God, and to remember: to remember your roots, your ancestors — that wandering Aramean Abraham, who left his home to wander afar in a faith based on God’s promise and covenant — to recall the hardships and travels, the desert years, the ups and downs, the manna and the water; and above all, to remember God’s mercy and promise — God’s faithfulness — and to give thanks for all that God has done. That’s where human faithfulness comes in, the response that grows out of faith in God.

This is what God asks of the people he has rescued and redeemed: that they remember... remember God, and give thanks. And we do well to remember too: Hasn’t God brought you out of many a scrape? God will be with you through this one, too. Never stop giving thanks; never lose faith. For God is faithful, too.

Our faith, as I said, is largely faith in God’s faithfulness: our faith in God’s future performance is based on the hard evidence of past performance coupled with faith in God’s steadfastness. And this is how our faithfulness of thanksgiving for the past turns towards faithfulness of trust in the future.

Today’s Gospel shows us this kind of faith that looks back to remember and ahead in trust. Notice how each of the devil’s temptations is an attack on Jesus’ own faith and trust in God his heavenly Father. And notice too how each one of Jesus’ responses to the devil always points back to God, always returns the focus to God, in whom Jesus trusts as a son trusts his loving father, and from whom the crafty devil is trying to distract him — as the devil has always done.

And I’d like to look at that little dialogue today, fleshing it out just a bit to see if we can imagine what was going on in the Devil’s mind, and in our Lord’s, based on the few words recorded by the evangelist. Through this, I hope we can better understand the faithfulness of Jesus in the face of the devil’s temptation.

In this expanded dialogue, the devil begins, “You must be awfully hungry, after forty days without food. You know, God gave your ancestors bread in the desert when they wandered back in Moses’ day — not just for forty days but forty years! Why, if your Father could give the people bread from heaven in the desert, why doesn’t he give some to you? I’m sure he would if you asked. Or you might create some yourself; I mean, here we are out in the desert, and if you are the son of God, why, you should be able to make manna come from heaven, too, or even make this stone into a loaf of bread!”

But Jesus responds, “God did not just give the people bread in the desert; for one cannot live on bread alone. God also gave his people the Law and the Covenant, life-giving words from his very own mouth. I will not forsake the latter in order to take a shortcut to the former. The time will come when I will provide bread in the wilderness. I will feed thousands with that bread. But more than that I will give myself as bread from heaven for the whole world, feeding more than thousands upon thousands in fulfillment of that Law and Covenant, bread which you neither know nor never will taste.”

Then the devil shifts to the a mountain top view. “Look at all this, all this glory and authority. All this might, majesty, power and dominion. It all belongs to me, and I will give it to you if you will forsake God and worship me.” But Jesus responds, “I will worship God alone, serving only him. You think the authority of the nations is yours to give to whom you will, but those who sell their souls and profane their faith by worshiping you have lost what truly matters. For what does it profit one to gain the whole world at the loss of one’s soul. I will not forsake the living God to worship one of his creatures. I will not serve you — the fallen angel who refused to serve your maker! I will not sell myself to gain the world, but I will give myself for the sake of that world, to save it; because for this I was born.”

Then the devil takes Jesus to Jerusalem to the top of the Temple. “It’s awfully high up here. Do you really think you could survive if you jumped? Do you really have faith that God will send his angels to bear you up? Do you really believe all that stuff in the psalms? Prove it! David died — the one who thought he was God’s anointed — do you really think God will save you from the Pit any more than he did you ancestor? Prove it! Show me your faith, if you are the Son of God.”

And Jesus answers this, the hardest temptation, “No. I will not put God to the test. That would be the death of faith, because testing is the opposite of trusting. I know that God will lift me up, and highly exalt me, lift me from a place from which no one has ever returned, no not even David, from death itself. God will break down your doors — they will be opened that the King of glory may come in to raise me up. I will not put God to the test; but I will put my trust in him.” And so the defeated devil leaves him, to bide his time. The devil might test, but Jesus will trust.

That, beloved, is the key to faith: the trust that we place in one who is trustworthy: and who is more trustworthy than God?

There is a scene in Pilgrim’s Progress that sums up this faithfulness. Pilgrim has put his faith in God; and God has told him to stay on the road, to persevere in his pilgrimage, and promised that he will reach the Celestial City. But as he comes to the top of a hill and looks down the road ahead, he sees two lions on either side of the road. He moves on down the road, repeating to himself, “God said, Stay on the road; so stay on the road,” even as he wonders what might happen to him. God has brought him safe thus far, so he trusts God will continue to protect him. So he stays on the road, and as he approaches the lions, he sees that they are not on the road, but beside it; and what is more, they are chained, so that they cannot even reach the road. And so he passes between them, close enough to feel the breeze their paws make as they claw out towards him but only fan the air, and he passes unharmed, and continues on his way to the Celestial City.

Faith has two faces: the first looks to the past and says, Remember and give thanks, the second looks to the future and says, Trust. Can we do that together this Lent? Can we search our hearts and remember God’s goodness with thanks, and trust in God with a faith as firm as Jesus’ own faith in his heavenly Father?

From what captivity have we been delivered?
Through what deserts have we been brought?
With what food have we been fed?
Between what lions do we now walk?
Let us remember; let us give thanks; and let us trust; in the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord. +


Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Voices of God

SJF • Last Epiphany C 2007 • Tobias Haller BSG

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.
We come now to the end of the Epiphany season, and our Gospel reading ends on a note that resounds as an echo to the Gospel reading with which the season began. On that first Sunday after the Epiphany we celebrated the Baptism of Jesus — and commemorated our own. The Gospel for that day ended with the voice of God saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Today we commemorate Christ’s transfiguration on the mountain, where he reveals himself to his three closest chosen disciples. And again the voice of God speaks on the mountain, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him.”

The commandment to “listen to him” is not just for Peter, James and John; it is given to us as well; we too are commanded to listen to the voice of Jesus the Son of God. And we obey this commandment in many ways in the church.

Most importantly, we listen for the voice of God in the Holy Scriptures, and we are most attentive to God and readiest to hear his voice as we experience the reading of the Bible week by week in church, in the context of our worship, where our voices blend together, not simply reading and hearing and listening, but singing, praying and celebrating as well.

There is much debate these days about Scripture and its meaning and interpretation and authority. Sad to say, some people seem to want to reduce the Bible to a kind of Berlitz phrase book where you can get all the answers — especially answers telling other people what to do! There are others who want to treat the Bible like a reference book you pull down off the shelf only when you need it, rather than as a constant companion on our daily pilgrimage. And I want to reflect today on how we best make use of the Bible — not as a stopgap — but as a guide for our lives, and a companion with us on our journey: a lamp unto our feet and a compass for our pilgrimage.

It is first of all important to note that while we call the Bible the Word of God, we do not call it the words of God. For unlike the Qur’an, which according to Muslim belief was written by one man as a single volume at the direct dictation of Allah, our Bible was recorded by many hands — human hands — over many centuries. And only the tablets from the mountaintop are said to have been written directly by the hand of God — all the rest comes to us from human hands. The scriptures were assembled over many years from the experiences of many people from the whispers God whispered in their ears, or the shouts God shouted from the hillsides, but also including and expressing their own reflections and history, their own thoughts, prayers, and opinions. Our Bible does not speak with just a single voice. It is even more than a dialogue between God and one faithful interpreter. It is rather a chorus of voices, some of which claim to speak for God, but many of which represent not God’s voice but a human response to God. In this mix of many voices we need to listen very carefully, and take care to distinguish between what is truly God’s word for us, and what may have been intended as God’s word for someone; or to discern what isn’t God’s word at all, but merely a human opinion.

Sometimes the Scripture writers themselves make it relatively easy for us to tell the difference. When the prophets say, “Thus says the Lord,” we ignore them at our peril. Other times it is equally clear that the scripture is not recording God’s words, but human words, words spoken in response to God. Often the scripture is plain historical record, as in the books of the Kings and Chronicles; often the writer of the particular passage is offering us his or her own wisdom or prayer, as in Proverbs or the Psalms. When David says, “I called to the Lord in my distress,” it is clearly David who is distressed, and David who is speaking — not God. Similarly, Saint Paul often lets us in on his thoughts, and in a few cases, as in 1 Corinthians chapter 7, he is takes great pains to note the difference between God’s commandments and his own opinion. He wrties, “I say — I and not the Lord” as he gives his opinion on what Christians married to nonbelievers should or shouldn’t do. Saint Paul would no doubt be scandalized to hear people claiming — as some do today — that everything he wrote or said should be treated as if it was “the Word of God.” He had the humility to confess that he often spoke with the “tongues of mortals” and was more often a clanging gong than he wished he was!

And this is where the difficulties arise. For often, discerning God’s voice among the many voices that speak to us in Scripture is not so simple. Most texts to not come with handy labels saying, “Thus says the Lord,” on the one had or “Peter said, ‘Let us make three dwellings’” on the other — and Scripture attests that Peter didn’t know what he was saying! And even when the prophet does say, “Thus says the Lord,” how can we be sure that what the prophet speaks is truly God’s word. Scripture records at least one incident in 1 Kings chapter 22, when the prophets all speak wrongly — 400 of them promise victory to the king, claiming, “Thus says the Lord.” And when one lone prophet warns that their promises are mistaken, they turn on him and literally slap him upside the face and have him put in jail!

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So a large part of the church’s task is to help its many members with how best to understand and act upon the saving message the Scripture holds for us. This is why the Bible, in which God speaks to us through many voices, is best heard and understood in the church, the gathered assembly which is the body of Christ, and of which we are individual members.

This is not to say that we should not also do our own personal reading of the Bible — and I hope all of you have this discipline as part of your Christian walk; and if not, may I recommend it would be an excellent thing to take up during Lent, which is about to begin this Wednesday!

But private reading of the Scripture is never enough by itself: it is in the interchange that takes place in the church, the ability of each member to say, “I think this is what it means” that we come to better understandings than we could come to on our own — for the Scripture is not a matter of any one individual’s interpretation, but rather the gathered wisdom of the members of the church comparing notes, as we seek together to grasp at God’s meaning. It is in the church, which is to say, in Christ, that as Saint Paul said, the veil is lifted from our minds so that we can together understand the Scripture.

Still, it is obvious to anyone who reads the papers there are still disagreements as to what Scripture says, what it means, and what it means for us. It has often been said that if the Scripture were plain and clear there wouldn’t be so much division and dissension among Christians! There is scarcely a verse of Scripture that has not been disputed at some time or another — even something as seemingly straightforward as “Thou shalt not kill” has been debated in causes as remote as capital punishment and a “just” war.

However, within our Anglican tradition, we have been given a rare opportunity to continue to discuss the meaning of Scripture for us, for we Anglicans — exceptionally among Christian bodies — take very seriously Saint Paul’s words: we know only in part; we do not claim certainty; or infallibility, as I mentioned last week: and we have proclaimed from the Reformation on that we believe the Scriptures to be “sufficient unto salvation” — that is, not that the Scripture is infallible or inerrant, but that the Scripture, as the Prayer Book says on page 868, “containeth all things necessary to salvation.” We have the faith and hope that even though we make mistakes, God will lift the veil to help us understand his will for us, sufficiently to the end which he intends: which is our salvation.

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But even with the veil thus partially removed by faith and hope, we still have at hand the difficult task of understanding as best we can what God means for the church and the world, to find the voice of God among the many voices both in Scripture and in the church itself. Richard Hooker, the sixteenth century theologian and single most important architect of what we now call Anglicanism, often referred to this process as “sifting” the Scripture. And this is a useful analogy for the task.

Some years ago a friend of composer John Cage sent him and his collaborator David Tudor: a box each of assorted Indian spices. Upon opening the packages, they found the lids had come off the spice-jars, and the spices were all mixed together. Cage simply put the whole mess in a corner of his apartment and tried to forget about it, but Tudor set about assembling a selection of sieves of varying sizes, from coarse to extremely fine, and over several weeks sifted through the mixture of spices until he had separated each and every grain back to its original jar. He then went to John Cage and said, “Whevever you’re ready to start on yours, so am I.”

The Scriptures are like those mixed up spices. We have, for example, two creation stories in chapters 1 and 2 of Genesis; two accounts of the flood woven together; there are four Gospels that disagree on a number of points — and these are just a few examples of the jumble. Agnostics and atheists look at the jumble and decide they don’t want to bother with it. At the other extreme, Biblical fundamentalists imagine we’re not dealing with various spices at all, just a particularly unusual blended curry. But we Anglicans hold that Scripture is a mixture of many different ingredients, that we can come to understand better as we sift and separate them.

In doing this we have at our disposal a number of “sieves.” I’ve already mentioned the importance of the community of the church, and its faith and hope. Also important is the study of the ancient languages in which the Scriptures were first written. So too is the knowledge of history and culture, to understand that a given turn of phrase may mean something very different in different times and places. Then since we are dealing in all cases with very ancient manuscripts, many of which are damaged, all of which are copies of copies of copies of now lost originals, we look to the study of how manuscripts are edited, and the kinds of mistakes people make when they copy things by hand. Then too the study of the many literary forms in which the Scripture is written can help us understand them better: from the short, sharp wisdom of a proverb, to the extended meditation of a psalm, from the historical narratives to the challenging symbolism of the apocalyptic books like Daniel and Revelation.

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But ultimately there is one final sieve that we will employ if we are truly to understand God’s meaning for us. All the other tools of human wit and wisdom will do no good in passing on God’s message, even the divine gifts of faith and hope will be of no avail, without the most important tool at our disposal. Saint Paul said it best, in words that have challenged the church for nearly two thousand years: “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.”

Love is the finest sieve that separates out all the harshness, all of the roughness from the Scripture to leave the pure gold of the Word of God. It smooths the rude accents of anger and self-righteousness with which some of the biblical speakers speak, and it shapes our understanding too as we read the text not to find a weapon against someone with whom we disagree, but an opening for grace and love to thrive and grow.

Remember, beloved, that love is the purpose for which God’s written word came to us. And even more importantly love is the reason God’s Incarnate Word, God’s own beloved Son, came to us to be with us. For just as God gives us the Scripture to guide us, so too God loved the world so much that he gave us his only Son to the end that we should not perish, but have everlasting life. Love is God’s sufficient purpose for us; love is also thesufficient means by which God comes to us in word and in person, and love is the means by which we can begin to come to God, and to some understanding of God’s will for us.

In all of our reading, marking, learning and inwardly digesting the Scripture, let our minds be seasoned with the knowledge of God’s love: for it is only in his love that we will understand God and his loving purposes for us. The law has come to an end in Christ. As for prophecies, they will come to an end as well. Only love never ends, the greatest of God’s gifts, incarnate in his own beloved Son, his Chosen one: let us, beloved, do as God commands, and listen to him.+


Monday, February 12, 2007

Misplaced Trust

SJF • Epiphany 6c • Tobias Haller BSG
Thus says the Lord: Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the Lord.
A couple of weeks ago I got a pair of those computer glasses designed for working while sitting in front of the computer. The focus of these glasses is fixed about two feet in front of my face. What I’d found is that with my bifocals, I was having to bend over and lean forward in order to see the computer screen and it was giving me an awful pain in the neck. Anyway, the new glasses seemed to work fine — at least as long as I was sitting in front of the computer. But I learned very quickly that it was dangerous to keep them on if I had to get up from my desk to do anything else. At one point I had to go downstairs, and very nearly fell down them! The short-range focus on my computer glasses caused me to miss an entire step which I didn’t even see was there. There’s an old saying, “I couldn’t believe my eyes!” And in this case I shouldn’t have.

As I might say, in keeping with the reading from Jeremiah, I put my trust in my own mortal flesh — or my eyeballs, anyway. Now, of course, Jeremiah is talking about much more serious things than a stumble on a staircase. He’s speaking about the lousy leadership that his nation has experienced for centuries. Out of all the kings of Judah, only a handful have been decent, godly, and righteous. Most of them have gone from bad to worse, and as Jeremiah predicts, the kingdom is on its last legs — and he would live to see its fall.

So Jeremiah’s warning, not to put your trust in mere mortals, is based on hard experience. You can sense just how miserable he feels in his description of those who do put their trust in mortals: they are like a shrub in the desert, far from water, destined to shrivel and wither in a parched wilderness, an uninhabited salt land.

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Have you ever felt like such a shrub? I mean, have you ever felt betrayed or deceived or disappointed because you put your trust in someone who didn’t live up to your expectations? If you’ve never felt this way, you are either incredibly lucky, or you just haven’t been paying attention! I think most of us have been let down by people in the past — friends or family, children or parents or spouses. And who of us hasn’t, at one time or another in our lives, felt betrayed by our elected leaders, from City Hall to the White House? Just like Jeremiah, we’ve learned that kings are not always good and wise and righteous.

The problem is that we often trust our eyes — or we’ve got the wrong kind of glasses on — able only to see two feet ahead of our faces. We see what we want to see, we believe what we want to believe, rather than listening to that quiet little voice of God’s angel sitting on our shoulder, saying, “Watch out!” We want to trust people, especially our leaders, whether in the state or the church — we don’t want to constantly have to go around with an attitude of suspicion and mistrust, not believing anything we hear. And yet, we keep getting burned by the bad leadership of those in whom we placed our trust. And as I say, this can happen in the church just as much as it happens with City Hall or Congress.

We see a good example of this in Saint Paul’s ongoing struggle with the church of Corinth. What a handful they were! It’s sometimes as if not only did they have the wrong kind of glasses on but were wearing blindfolds. They seem eager to believe what anybody tells them — and in the passage today it’s a serious misconception they’ve stepped into. Someone’s been telling them there is no resurrection of the dead. Now, all other things aside, the resurrection of the dead is one of the central tenets of the Christian faith. You can sense how frustrated Paul must’ve been trying to explain this to the Corinthians. It is said, by the way, that Saint Paul was bald — at least he is always shown that way in the old icons — and no doubt he pulled out a few hairs over the Corinthians. He’s saying to them, if there’s no resurrection, what’s the point? It’s like wanting to study mathematics without being bothered with numbers.

It reminds me of something from my childhood. My aunt Barbara was taking me to the movies to see the film version of the Broadway musical, The Music Man. We got into the taxi and she told the driver to go to the theater. As we went along, the driver said, “I saw that movie. I didn’t understand it; I mean, every once in a while, the people would stop talking and start singing! It didn’t make any sense.” I can still remember the look on Aunt Barbara’s face as she turned to me in silence as we sat in the back seat of the taxi!

This must be something like how Saint Paul felt about the Corinthians — they want to be Christians, but without all that stuff about Easter! — like a musical without music.

The question is, Why would these Corinthians have trusted anyone who came to them with a message so out of keeping with the heart of the gospel they’d already received, “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” How could they have placed their trust in someone giving them such an off-the-wall rendition of the gospel?

Well, there was a stream of thought in Greek philosophy — and let’s remember that Corinth is in Greece — that spiritual and bodily don’t go together, that they are opposed to each other. This philosophy taught that the spirit is good, and that the body is bad. The pagan Greeks had no trouble believing in the immortality of the soul in an afterlife. But it was a disembodied kind of afterlife. The Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the dead must have seemed to them to be just, well, icky. The idea of dead bodies getting up and walking around, re-animated corpses, was repulsive. And someone must have taken advantage of this repulsion to start teaching a new gospel in which there was no such resurrection.

So Saint Paul begins, in the passage we have today, by saying that if there is no resurrection of the dead we might just as well close up shopright now. He will go on to explain that the resurrection of the dead is not a disembodied kind of resurrection — but nor is it simply the re-animation of a corpse. Spirit and body are not opposed — especially since the Word of God himself became flesh and took on a human body — and our resurrection is like the Incarnation in reverse — when our bodies shall take on that spiritual reality, and we shall be like him. This is the Gospel of Christ, after all, not “Night of the Living Dead”! Paul will explain that the resurrection body is not just the physical body reanimated — but a whole new kind of body, indeed, a spiritual body: a body no more like the bodies we have now than a growing stalk of wheat is like the seed that gives rise to it — more living, more vibrant, more productive, more solid and real than our merely physical bodies. Christ’s body, and our bodies, are like seeds that have grown (in his case) and will grow (in ours) into something wonderful and unexpected.

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We don’t know if the Corinthians ever understood Paul’s teaching. He had to write to them again, and Saint Clement did too, decades later. But this serves as a lesson to us — not to put our trust in mere earthly concepts, or to trust the pared down version of the faith that some might be tempted to offer us rather than its fullness and its glory. It is easier sometimes to accept these bargain-basement explanations; just as it is easy to forget to change your glasses when you get up from working at the computer —believe me! It is easier to put your trust in what you think you see, what you think you know, what you want to hear, than to wait and keep your trust for what you hope and believe from God. It is easy to jump to simple answers rather than work through the hard challenges God places upon us.

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Which brings me to the present day, and not the human body, but the body of the church. In the next few weeks there are going to be some major meetings concerning the future of the Anglican Communion, of which the Episcopal Church is a member. As you know, some of the other parts of the Anglican Communion haven’t been too happy with us for a while. Some of them would like to see the Anglican Communion radically altered: from a fellowship of self-governing churches into a kind of constitutional empire with a strong central government: designed mostly to prevent the individual members from doing anything the majority doesn’t approve; and chopping them off if they don’t toe the line. I don’t honestly expect much to come of this — as I don’t think some of those most eager to govern others would like to be governed in this way themselves — as they may realize before they sign on the dotted line.

Besides that, this form of government for the church seems a shortsighted step backward. It’s as if these church leaders still have their computer glasses on, only able to see two feet ahead, rather than to see the long sweep of Christian history behind us and of the Christian hope before us — so that their eyes aren’t properly focused on Christ, and what he would have us do, but only on the immediate troubles. It is as if they are trying to encase the body of the church in some kind of preservative — always to keep it the same — even though history shows us that the church is constantly growing and changing because it is alive — alive with the Risen life of Christ. For Christ came to offer us new life — and if fear of what is new drives us only to hold on to what is old, instead of the wonderful resurrection of the dead — transformed and transfigured in ways we cannot expect or predict — we will end up with a church that just goes through the motions — like a preserved dead body pulled by strings, twitching in a semblance of life but not truly alive.

One of the reasons I am an Anglican, an Episcopalian, is because Anglicans say, right up front, something that most other churches are unwilling to admit, and that is: “the Church makes mistakes.” It was a big step forward to be able to say that. And it was a big step apart from both the Roman Catholics who relied on the authority of the Pope, and from the Reformers who relied on their supposedly infallible understanding of the Scriptures. This attitude of humility that Anglicans adopted, not just to be different, but to affirm a deep truth, reflected what Saint Paul tells the Corinthians later in this letter: our knowledge is incomplete, and there is much more to be revealed. And we’ll hear more about that passage next week. And that is why Anglicans rejected at the beginning, and have avoided ever since, a church with a strong central government that suppresses discussion or exploration of new ideas — for we learn from our mistakes as well as from the things we get right, just as I learned to take off my computer glasses when I get up to go downstairs. We know that we mortals are fallible — yet we trust in the resurrection of the dead — that God has still better things planned for us than we can ask or imagine.

Queen Elizabeth the First, who ruled when the Anglican way was emerging into its reality, rejected the title her father Henry the VIII assumed — Head of the Church. Elizabeth knew that title belonged to Jesus, and she chose the more modest title of “Governor in earth of the Church of England.” She had no wish to make the error of absolutism — as if any mortal, whether pope or monarch, could have the last word that belongs to God alone.

And so it is that we classical Anglicans do not put our trust in mortals, even bishops and primates and monarchs — but in God, who, we are confident, can help us to work through our errors and bring us into his truth: a truth to which we can never come if we try to stand still in a changing world. For that is how the shrub ends up stuck in the middle of the desert — unable to move when the stream that nourishes it changes course, and unable to send out its roots to follow the stream — and so ends up in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land. If we close our eyes and our hearts and our minds to God’s Holy Spirit working even through our mistakes; if we trust in government by earthlyleaders instead of spiritually embodied communion with each other in a fellowship of equals, there will be little hope for us.

So let us pray, sisters and brothers, that what lies before us is an opportunity for resurrection, for new life, transformed and transfigured by grace through faith. Otherwise we may find ourselves in a desert without water, a musical without singing, a vision set only two feet before our faces, a life with no future, a church with no spirit. “If for this alone we hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” For freedom Christ has made us free, so let us turn to him, and not to mortals, to make mere flesh our strength. Blessed are you, our Lord assures us, when people hate you, when they exclude you, revile you and defame you on account of the Son of God. He has better things prepared for us than any Primates could concoct or connive. And he it is whom we proclaim our only governor, our mediator and our advocate, and our Lord and God.+


Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Giving God a Hard Time

SJF • Epiphany 5c • Tobias Haller BSG
I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain.
As members of Christ’s Church, members of his body, we rejoice in being part of a community of faith with deep roots. These roots don’t just go back to the time of Christ himself, but long before, back into the rich soil of Jewish tradition, the faith into which Christ himself was born and from which he drew so much for his teaching and preaching.

One of the wonderful things about that Jewish tradition is the way in which it is permissible for the faithful, now and again, to give God a hard time: to complain, to lament, to “kvetch” — even to struggle with God. This is what Jacob did when he wrestled with that mysterious stranger and later realized he saw God face to face; or what Job did when he sought an explanation from God for his condition; or as Abraham did when he pushed the envelope of God’s mercy towards the wicked cities of the plain. The point is that God is strong enough to take our complaints, just as God is great enough not to need our flattery. And what happens afterward, how God responds to our complaints, will always be instructive and challenging.

We heard Jeremiah complain to God last week, when God commissioned him to speak his word — complaining that he was too young for the job. And this week we see God’s angel appear to Gideon, and the first thing Gideon says is basically, “What have you done for us lately?” — “Where are all of God’s wonderful deeds that our ancestors recounted to us?” And how does God respond? God says to Gideon, “Go in this might of yours and deliver Israel; I hereby commission you.” And Gideon, like Jeremiah, then responds with yet another complaint: that he and his family are too weak to accomplish such a great task.

Now what interests me about this incident, in addition to the freedom God gives people to make their complaints known, is how God responds to those complaints. God doesn’t say to Gideon, “You’re right; I’ve really fallen down on the job but I promise to do better in the future.” Rather, in response to Gideon saying, “What have you done for us lately,” God essentially says to him, “So do it already! What are you waiting for?” God puts the task squarely in the hands of the one who complains — the squeaky wheel not only getting grease, but a road to run on, and a map to drive by!

I’m reminded of our Lord’s initial response to his disciples, when they come to him in the wilderness complaining that there isn’t enough bread to feed the multitudes of people who have followed them: Jesus initially responds, “You give them something to eat.” When you complain to God, God may well put your complaint right back into your hands.

Or rather, God may show you that you — just like Gideon — already have the strength and the capacity which you thought you lacked — that you already are able to solve the problem you are trying to lay at God’s feet or place in God’s hands. Everything, after all, comes from God — and God is neither stingy nor parsimonious, but generous and abundant. God not only gives us all that we need at a minimum, but has already given us what we need in abundance, to deal with any problem that might arise in our lives. God, unlike Pharaoh, doesn’t expect us to make bricks without straw! And God only asks from us what he has already given us the capacity to do.

So it is that Gideon is already a mighty man, fully capable of defeating the people of Midian — all he needed was the encouragement; and as the story goes on, just to make the point that God is glorified when humble workers do great things, Gideon gains his victory with a pared down troop of guerrilla fighters instead of a massive army.

Gideon complains to God — and God commissions him and sets him to work to accomplish the very thing he complains about. So be wary — when you complain to God, God may well challenge you to do the very thing you want God to do for you — but know that God will also equip you for the task with all that you need.

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Another way people give God a hard time is not in the complaints they make about what they want, or that they think God hasn’t done, but about other people. People love to complain about other people, you know! We see that in Saint Paul: originally an enemy of the church because he doesn’t think the church is doing what God wants. Paul’s problem is that he thinks he is doing what God wants, but is actually following the instructions of the religious authorities who are set on wiping out the Christian movement — a policy with which he is fully in sympathy, as he has no use at all for those crazy Christians. Paul not only gives God a hard time, but the church as well — running up and down Palestine with subpoenas in one hand and death warrants in the other, doing his level best to destroy what he sees as heresy of the very worst sort — these terrible Christians with their crazy ideas that are turning the world upside down.

And how does God respond? God finally — and literally — knocks Paul for a loop, blinding him with the light of his truth and a voice that says, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” It takes all of this to get the self-righteous Pharisee to realize just how far off the mark he is. Not only is he not doing God’s will, but he is working against it!

So be careful when you give God a hard time by focusing on other people’s faults, and giving them a hard time, presuming to have God in your pocket and the right or warrant to persecute others for their faith. God may give you an even harder time — though again, it will be for your own good, and for the good of the world; for his grace is great, and his mercy endures for ever — and he desires that none should be lost, even those who set themselves against his will for peace and goodwill among all people: God can take the church’s persecutor and make him into one of its greatest defenders.

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The third way people give God a hard time appears in our gospel today. Jesus tells Simon to put out into the deep waterand let down his nets for a catch. Unlike Gideon, Simon hasn’t asked for anything or complained about not getting it. Unlike Paul, he hasn’t been fighting against God. He’s just minding his own business, washing his nets after a long night of work, in which he has caught nothing. What Simon does is sing the old hard-luck song beloved of cynics and pessimists everywhere, “Been there, done that — and all I got was this lousy T-shirt — or empty nets.” Simon is one of those people for whom every silver lining has cloud, and every promise conceals a disappointment. He gives God a hard time because he doesn’t understand God’s capacity to do new things — he’s seen it all, he’s tried it all before, he’s been there, done that — with nothing to show but empty nets.

But does he get a surprise! Not only does he catch fish, but he catches so many that the nets are nigh to breaking. And realizing how foolish he’s been, he falls on his knees and confesses his failing. And Jesus gives him that great task — the same one he would later give Paul: to spread the church and its gospel.

So be careful when you complain to God, that the glass is half-empty, or that the well is dry, or that you’ve been there and done that: God will pour such abundance upon you, such overflowing grace, that you won’t know what to do with yourself. The great good news is, God will know what to do with you! Even though you thought you’d been there and done that, God will send you where you never imagined you could go, and empower you to do things you never thought you could do.

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This is the very reason God puts up with all our complaining in the first place. Whether we complain that we are too weak and too small, or that other people aren’t doing what we think they ought to do, or that we’ve tried as best we can but have just given up — God’s complaint department has answers for all of these. It is a grace and a commission far beyond our imagining; it is a power that can work in us and with us for God’s purpose for the world — to restore, and to build, and to save. By the grace of God we are, all of us, what we are, andGod’s grace toward us has not been and will not be in vain. God will put us complaining, kvetching folk to work — through the grace of God we will do greater things than we thought we could do in our weakness, better things than we thought anyone could do in our self-righteousness, and more abundant things than we had done before on our own. Thanks be to God who commissions and empowers us, reforms and corrects us, and sends us forth into the world to do his gracious will.+