Monday, October 29, 2007

The Last Resort

SJF • Proper 25c • Tobias Haller BSG
O hope of Israel, its savior in time of trouble, why should you be like a stranger in the land, like a traveler turning aside for the night? You, O Lord, are in the midst of us, and we are called by your name; do not forsake us!

It is more than a little disconcerting that on the day we’re celebrating our dear friend and fellow parishioner Arthur Longsworth’s retirement, that the Scripture readings appointed for the day should be of such a gloomy character. But I think if we peer hard enough through the doom and gloom we will see that there is indeed a light at the end of the tunnel — and it isn’t a train heading in our direction!

I’m sure all of us have seen movies or TV shows in which a person on trial is losing his case, and his attorney recommends that he “throw himself on the mercy of the court.” That is, to a very large extent, what we see in all of our Scripture readings today — what it means to make use of the last resort, appealing to the mercy of the court.

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The prophet Jeremiah has long been recognized as the old master of doom and gloom. And he had good reason for it. He saw the fall of Jerusalem — not only prophetically saw it coming but actually saw it happen; he saw his hopes shattered and his worst nightmares realized. Yet even then — even in the midst of the destruction of Jerusalem, he knew that he could turn to God and throw himself upon God’s mercy.

His lament took an interesting form, however: the form of an appeal, an appeal to God’s own nature. Jeremiah reminded God — as if God could forget — that God has promised salvation, and that God does not loathe Zion; that God would not spurn, would not forsake, would not break the covenant with the people, even though they had failed to live up to their part of the bargain. Jeremiah knew that if the people repented God would forgive; he knew that God’s heart would be moved by the confession and the penitence of the people, and that it is God’s nature to forgive.

This reminds me of a very powerful scene in a Yiddish film that was produced in Germany just before the Nazi assault on the Jews began in earnest. In its own way it was as prophetic as Jeremiah.

The film is set in the previous generation, in Eastern Europe in the era of Fiddler on the Roof, when and where the main enemies of the Jewish people were Russians and Poles, not the Nazis. In this very powerful scene, a village has been reduced to rubble by a marauding band of Cossacks. They’ve burned down the synagogue, raped the young women and killed most of the young men in the village. One old man is left sitting in the midst of the devastation. And like a modern Jeremiah, he raises his voice to God in a lament:

Why have you done this to your people, O God? Why have you allowed this to happen? Down through the ages, again and again we are persecuted and killed for your sake! I will not be silent; I will raise my voice and cry out to you, like a child who calls out to its mother. “Mama, Mama; it hurts!”

That old man and Jeremiah both knew that God would hear this lament — though the response might be delayed, God the just judge would hear this plea, and ultimately save and deliver his people. When all else fails, when other defenders are ready to give up, when human justice fails, the only plea that makes sense is to throw oneself upon the mercy of the court of last resort.

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When we turn to the reading from Second Timothy we do find ourselves in something that sounds a bit like a retirement speech, Mr. Longsworth! Saint Paul reminds his young protégé Timothy that he has fought the good fight and finished the race. But even here he acknowledges that this was not done under his own steam — he reminds Timothy that it was the Lord who stood by him and gave him strength, even when others abandoned him. For far be it from Saint Paul to justify himself by his own works! No, if his work has been of any worth at all, it is because God has stood by him as the source of his life and his strength. God rescued him from the lion’s mouth and from every evil attack of those who tried to bring him down.

This is an important reminder to all of us as we seek to serve God and the Church. We can easily come to think that our work is our own, and become prideful and overconfident in it, forgetting that it is God, and God alone, who inspires both the will and the deed. This was, we must remember, precisely what got ancient Israel into trouble in the first place — as the people wandered away from serving the Lord, running after other gods and serving them instead of the one true God who was the source of their life, their savior in time of trouble. They treated God like a stranger in the land, like a wanderer in the night — and in return God treated them to exile, far from their native land, in captivity in Babylon.

Paul reminds Timothy — and us — that whatever good we do in the name of God comes from God. We are, all of us, in the last resort a bit like the child who asks Mama for a dollar to go and buy her a birthday card! Of course, Mama still appreciates the card; but as with all we do for God, God is the source of all the good we do. In the last resort, we have no other help but God.

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Finally, our gospel reading brings us full circle to something that looks very much indeed like that courtroom scene, in which one of the defendants literally throws himself on the mercy of the court while the other tries to protest his innocence or at the very least do a plea bargain. The Pharisee in this case is like a child who has forgotten that the dollar with which he bought his mother’s birthday card came from his mother. He’s very proud indeed that he tithes his income — that is, he sets aside that 10 percent — but he forgets thateverything he has, 100 percent of it comes from God — so anything he gives back to God is just like that birthday card. God may be pleased, but it’s nothing for the Pharisee to be proud about.

On the other hand, we have the tax collector — a man who may also have paid his tithes, but who also knows how far short he falls from all that he knows God wants of him and for him. He doesn’t even look up to heaven when he makes his confession, but stands apart with a lowered gaze and a hand clutched close to his chest. And he pounds on his chest as if by doing so he could hammer away at the gnawing pain of guilt — and in this knowledge he asks for mercy and forgiveness. He throws himself, in the last resort, on the mercy of the court. And — as we can be sure in answer to Jesus’ question at the end — he rises up forgiven and restored.

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This is the perspective with which God presents us this day: not to place our reliance upon who we are or what good we have done; not to try to avoid our responsibility for the wrongs we have committed, quibbling about this or that, straining at gnats of what is is, or trying to be let off the hook; but when all is said and done and we have finished our course, to place ourselves under God’s merciful judgment, knowing that he is himself our last resort just as he has been with us every step of the way. God’s love and mercy will never fail.

God will accept us as we are when we come to him as we are — honestly acknowledging our weakness and our complete dependency upon the One who is our Judge, but who is also our only Mediator and Advocate, Jesus Christ our Lord. +

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Perseverance of the Saints

Saint James Fordham • 24c • Tobias Haller BSG
Be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable…

We are now in a pilgrimage toward All Saints’ Day, and as we go, we will take some time to look at the theme of sainthood. The scripture readings today give us examples of one characteristic quality of the saints: persistence or perseverance. Saints — and that includes the big famous ones as well as the little less-well-known ones, the ones who have died and are at rest, and the ones who still crawl or walk or are carried on this earthly way — saints don’t give up, and they don’t give in. They persist; they persevere.

But their perseverance isn’t just stick-to-it-iveness, or dogged, bullheaded obstinacy. The saints persevere and persist in what is right, in what is just.

Consider the widow in today’s gospel. It’s clear she’s got a problem — though her cause is just, she’s been stuck in a town with a hard-hearted, hard-nosed judge on the bench, a man who doesn’t fear God or pay any mind to people. But the widow keeps coming to the court, demanding that her case be heard. She persists in her cause, perseveres in her pursuit of justice, and the judge, finally, gives in, worn down by her constant insistence that he do what is right. It’s easy to see the example of heroic sanctity in this widow’s struggle. One thinks of Harriet Tubman, or Saint Clare of Assisi, or Saint Elizabeth of Hungary, women with single-minded devotion to what was right and true and just, women who wouldn’t take no for an answer even from the pope or the king or the president, and who brought the machinery of inequity to a halt with their persistent resistance, grains of sand in the gears of injustice.

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But what about our other exemplary persistent person in this morning’s readings, Jacob. Jacob is not a completely attractive character, and hardly a saint. He isn’t particularly interested in justice, or even in doing what is right. He is far more like the parable’s judge than like the widow. He isn’t afraid of God, and as for people, he cheated his brother out of his inheritance. And if that weren’t bad enough he tricked his poor, old, blind father into giving him the blessing intended for his brother, whom he left high and dry with neither inheritance nor blessing. No wonder Jacob is worried what his brother Esau may do to him now that he is returning home after years spent in the next county with his father-in-law. He’s grown rich at his father-in-law’s expense, by playing fast and loose with the breeding stock he was supposed to be tending, doing an early form of genetic engineering to make sure he got the best of the flock. He’s built up a fortune, and he’s got a lot to lose if Esau looks for payback.

Jacob has reached a tension point in his life — what we’d now call a “mid-life crisis.” He’s made it rich through persistent conniving, but he’s about to have to face the music. Esau is heading his way with a small army, and Jacob is forced to stop and think what to do. And of course the conniving and deception doesn’t stop. Clearly willing to cut his losses, he divides his possessions, and is willing to risk losing half if he can keep the rest. Then finally he panics, and he sends the rest on ahead of him, across the river, until he is left all alone in the night.

And suddenly, into that solitude a stranger comes, a mysterious figure who wrestles with Jacob in the dark night of fear and distress. But even in the midst of his fear, Jacob’s old persistence comes to the fore. He doesn’t let go; he doesn’t give up. Even injured, with his hip out of joint, Jacob holds on to the stranger with whom he wrestles, this nameless opponent, through the dark night and into dawn.

And though he never finds out the stranger’s name, he himself receives a new name. This patriarch who strives and struggles with men and with God, finally pins God down by sheer persistence. For it is God with whom he wrestles, though Jacob doesn’t realize it until the match is over — and God blesses him with a new name: no longer Jacob, but Israel, the father of the nation that will bear his name.

Jacob persists through this unfavorable time. But something else happens to him. He is transformed. He is given a new name, a new name with a surprising meaning. For Israel — among other possible readings — means, “God perseveres.” Though God appears to lose the battle, God wins the war, the war that had been played out in Jacob’s heart from the day he cheated his brother out of his inheritance, and tricked his old blind father into giving him his blessing. God perseveres because in this night of struggle, as Jacob faces the impending loss of all that he’s gained through his shady deals, in the loneliness of that night by the riverside, Jacob is transformed from sinner to saint, from a heel who until then did nothing but take, into a patriarch who will learn what it is to give. By finally letting go of everything else he has, and holding on to God alone, Jacob emerges with a blessing far better than the one that he stole from Esau. Jacob won the wrestling match, but God didn’t give up: God won Jacob.

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There are many saints who fit this picture, men in mid-life crisis who find that God is the only sure foundation for their lives. I think of Saint Augustine of Hippo, who held God at arm’s length for so many years, until he finally gave in. As a young man about town he was famous for his prayer, “O God, give me chastity; but not yet!” You can see him in the stained glass window by the door in the Peace Chapel, talking to his mother, Saint Monica, a good example of that other kind of persistent saint, whose perseverance played a big part in finally changing Augustine’s mind, and bringing him to the fulness of the faith.

I also think of John Newton, whose name I have mentioned in the past. He was a slave trader, a man engaged in the worst sort of bartering in human flesh and lives. Yet one night in the hold of his slave ship in the midst of a terrible storm, he turned his life over to God, when he realized how wretched and blind he had been. And you will recall how he later became an Anglican priest, and wrote the best known hymn of all time, “Amazing Grace.”

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He is also a lesson to the fact that persistence in itself is not a virtue. For Newton continued in the slave trade for some years after his conversion — it took time for the full message to sink in, and had he persisted in that horrible trade instead of letting the conversion work, his persistence would not have been to his credit.

It is persistence in the right, it is holding on to God, that makes a saint. The saints are those who hold on to the right, or when they finally come to see that they have been wrong, let go and hold on to God alone — as God holds on to them. Those who, like Timothy — another saint from today’s readings — are fortunate enough to have been brought up from childhood in the right way, persist in that path even when the times turn unfavorable. And those like Jacob or Augustine or John Newton, who start off in the wrong direction, and work hard at persistently digging deeper into self-centered but comfortable oblivion, even they can be blessed with a crisis that turns them around, that robs them of everything they thought was theirs, of everything they have, so that only God is left for them to cling to, wrestling through the dark night — or dark weeks or months or years — until transformed by God’s persistent blessing.

For God does not give up, even on the worst of us. That is the great good news of the saints. That is the great good news for all of us — called to be saints. God persists, and even if we are tempted to let go of our hold on God, God will never let go of us, persistent and persuasive as God is. So let us give thanks to God, and give thanks for all the saints, the saints who fight for justice and the saints who just plain fight, the saints whose lives shine bright as a rainbow from beginning to end, persevering in the right, and also those who flare up in a sudden flash of redemption like a torch at midnight, transformed by God’s persistent and persuasive grace.

If we cling to God, God will not let us go. And saints who plant themselves on that firm foundation have chosen well indeed. The soul that flees to Jesus, to repose in his strength and his love, he will never desert to its foes — that soul, though all hell shall endeavor to shake, God will never, no never, no never forsake.+

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Dying on Easy Street

SJF • P21c • Tobias Haller BSG
Alas for those who are at ease in Zion, and for those who feel secure on Mount Samaria...

You probably all know the expression, “Living on Easy Street.” It means everything’s going your way; you’ve got it made; everything’s coming up roses and daffodils, as Ethel Merman used to sing. You haven’t got a care in the world and all your needs are provided for, because you are living in the lap of luxury.

Sounds like the folks Amos is talking about in this morning’s Scripture reading, doesn’t it? They lie on beds of ivory, lounging like regular couch potatoes, dining on tender lamb and veal, entertaining themselves with the latest pop tunes and performing cool musical improvisations; savoring vintage wine not just from cups but from bowls, and getting oil massages as they luxuriate in comfort. They are living on easy street like nobody’s business.

And, “Alas,” says Amos — “alas for those who are at ease in Zion, and for those who feel secure on Mount Samaria.” For while they are enjoying themselves and taking their ease, things are afoot that will shake their comfortable world to its foundations. The Assyrians are coming, and at their coming there will be warfare, destruction, defeat and eventual exile — and the revelry of the loungers will pass away. They are not, after all, living on easy street — they are dying on easy street.

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This is a powerful lesson — for us today as much as it was in the days of the prophet Amos. For it addresses a human failing that we are no less liable to in our day than they were in his. And that is the failing of complacency, the kind of complacency that gives in to comfort and relaxes into a kind of nearsightedness that not only doesn’t see danger coming, combined with a kind of farsightedness that makes us oblivious to others who are nearby, and who areno danger to us at all.

We see that in our Gospel today: the story of the rich man who ignored the poor man who sat just outside his house. This rich man was living on easy street. He dressed like royalty — in those days purple cloth was earmarked for the Imperial household. He feasted not just off and on, but every day.

But out on the street — not easy street but the real hard-paved, dusty street — there was a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing for something to eat — lying there in misery at the gate while dogs came by and licked his sores.

Well, Lazarus died — no surprise there — but at his death God sent angels to carry him to Abraham’s side. The rich man died too — also no surprise; with all his daily feasting he probably ate and drank his way into heart and liver disease: a perfect example of dying on easy street. But instead of angels, what does this rich man get? — the torment of Hades, and the oblivion of being forgotten, even his name having passed away with him, to be known to us only as “a rich man.”

Now, it’s not as if he hasn’t been warned of his fate. As a Jew, even if he wasn’t particularly observant, he would have been familiar with the law of charity — that one is to be openhanded and generous, and to help the poor and the oppressed, the widows and orphans, the sick and the suffering; in short, to love one’s neighbor as oneself. The problem is that his own self-comfort had blinded him to the dis-comfort of the neighbors all around him — even something as obvious as a dying man lying at his very gate — and you can’t get much closer to home than that. No, he had been warned countless times of his duty to love his neighbor as himself; and instead of that he’d spent his wealth on himself, clothing himself in purple and feasting everyday — while Lazarus suffered at his doorway, half-dressed and starving.

The warnings were there for him and all to see — which is why Abraham gives the rich man some hard news down in Hades, when he has the nerve to ask Abraham to send Lazarus on an errand to his five brothers, to warn them of their fate. And the bad news is — Sorry, but they’ve already received the only warning they are going to get: the teaching of Moses and the prophets — the teachings about loving one’s neighbor, and helping the poor and oppressed.

And, if I can extend Abraham’s warning, he might well have said — “And by the way, you didn’t pay any attention to Lazarus when he was right outside your door every day; so why do you think your brothers would pay any attention to him either? Do you think they’ll listen to this dead man, even if he returns from the grave, when they don’t listen to Moses and the prophets, who were once alive but now are here with me as well— for though they died, their words live on and are preached week by week in the synagogue. All of you had your chance to heed the words of the dead and behold the lives of the living — and you ignored both.”

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That’s what living on easy street can do to you. We can get so comfortable that we forget the most elementary lessons of the faith: to love God and neighbor. Comfort — even relative comfort, not just luxury — can take our minds off of our duty to those less fortunate than we are.

I dare say none of us here are wealthy — since they discovered chemical dyes in the 19th century purple cloth has been no more expensive than any other color; and I very much doubt that any of us here feasts every day.

Yet even if we don’t consider our daily meals to be feasts, there are parts of this world of ours where people would be glad to eat the scraps that fall from our tables, places in the world where a loaf of fresh bread is considered a delicacy, and a few ounces of meat a feast worthy of a monarch.

We don’t really appreciate how good we have it — until we turn and consider those who have less. And thanks be to God that members of this parish have made that effort, and continue to do so. The message we heard wasn’t from a dying man at the gate, but from the voices of children calling to us from half-way around the world, from Dabalo in Tanzania: and we heard their call, and we answered and sent them help. Just this past May fifty-three children received the gifts that members of this parish provided for them, gifts they still enjoy as they are fed in body and mind, dressed in new school uniforms and with shoes on their feet and food in their stomachs, and books and school supplies to support their minds as well as their bodies.

I just received an email this week from the project manager in Dabalo, which included this message from the children — “May God bless our supporters in America also for our breakfast every morning!” Think about that — when was the last time you thanked God or anybody else for the fact that you were able to have breakfast! We have it so, so easy here on easy street. Perhaps this will be a reminder to us to give thanks more often. And to be of even greater help.

It seems such a simple thing to do what Saint Paul advised in the good counsel we heard today: to do good, to be rich in good works, generous and ready to share. Thus we store up “the treasure of a good foundation for the future,” to “take hold of the life that really is life.”

We don’t have to give up living on the easy (or at least comfortable) street we live on — we just need to be aware of the people out on that street, out by our gates, or on other streets not so well paved as ours, even those half-way around the world. Neighbors are near and far, and they have been given to us by Jesus asan object for the good he has equipped us and enabled us to do. None of us is asked to do more than we can — but only what we can, with the help of God, which is surely to do more than simply live, but to help others live as well.

May our ears be always open to the calls for help, may our hands be always full of the means to give that help, may we press forward in service to help and minister to all whom we can, by God’s grace, through Jesus Christ our Lord.+