Sunday, July 20, 2008

A Weeding Lesson

Saint James Fordham • Proper 11a • Tobias Haller BSG
The householder said, “In gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest...”

Today’s Gospel is the second in a series of three parables about seeds. Last week, we heard about the seeds that were broadcast on all sorts and conditions of soil, and how they fared — growing or withering. And next week we’ll hear about that famous mustard seed of faith.

Today, we have what appears to be a story of early agricultural terrorism — an enemy’s plot to infect a wholesome field of wheat with weed-seed; and we also hear about the wise farmer’s response. As with all parables, this story has a symbolic message, and in today’s Gospel Jesus explains the symbol and the message it bears. And the message, for us today as for his original hearers, is “Be Patient,” or more specifically, “Don’t rush to judgment!”

Now all of us here know about impatience. We live in New York City, after all, renowned for its hectic pace, its hurrying and scurrying life style. From time to time we all experience the urge to rush things along, to hasten and hustle and bustle when we should perhaps step back and take a look before we leap.

But impatience is not a quality restricted to modern times and modern places. There is plenty of evidence of impatience in our Scriptures. Look at those hasty household servants, ready to rush in and pull up the weeds with a vengeance, only to destroy the good wheat as well. Thank goodness for the wise householder!

On the other hand, Saint Paul, who would not normally be held up as an example of patience, today picks up that same theme, the eager but long wait of the whole creation, hoping and waiting in patience for its liberation.

We might well note, however, that patience is not characteristic of Saint Paul! Always so sure he is on the right track even when he is terribly wrong — as when he persecutes Christians and thinks he is doing God a favor. And even after his conversion from time to time he displays that same old impatience. Even in today’s reading, where he talks about waiting with patience, it is a very impatient kind of patience, in which he portrays creation waiting in eager longing, groaning and crying out like a woman in labor, longing for delivery. I pity the poor husband who tells his wife, while she’s experiencing a contraction, “Just be patient, dear...” A woman in labor doesn’t want to be patient — she wants it to be over! So perhaps Saint Paul did not understand patience all that well.

The farmworkers in our parable today echo this anxious impatience. “Let’s get those weeds!” is their motto. But the voice of the Master, the voice of Jesus, says, “No, for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest.” At harvest time, the Master assures us, the sorting out will take place, and the weeds will burn while the grain is gathered in.

Now, as I said, this parable isn’t about agriculture: it was a a warning to the early church, and it is the same warning to our church today. It would have been a warning to Saint Paul, had he been around to hear it. Before his conversion, while he was still known as Saul, he thought it was his job, he even thought he had a divine commission, to go about sorting the weeds from the wheat — to separate the blasphemous new sect, the followers of that renegade rabble-rouser Jesus, from the true pious Jews. He rushed to judgment, and sent many to prison and to death because they believed in Christ. The Scripture vividly describes him standing by as the people murdered Saint Stephen, helping the crowd in their sweaty work by holding their overcoats, like a towel-boy at a sports event, straining on tiptoe to see the action, as that Christian rabble-rouser was battered to death with stones. Saul wasn’t content to wait and see, and leave the matter in God’s hands. Saul thought he knew best, and persecuted the church to within an inch of its life.

Then one fateful day on the road to Damascus, Jesus himself confronted Saul and told him just how wrong he was, and the persecutor became a champion of what he once had cursed.

But did the church learn from this? Did it learn from Jesus’ parable? If it did, it soon forgot its lesson. Throughout Christian history there arose those who thought they could do God’s harvest work for him. Impatient for the judgment of God to show itself, they pushed God aside, and started ripping up what they thought were weeds. And how they damaged the wheat in the process! And how many young stalks of wheat were ripped up with the weeds! And how often has wheat been mistaken for weeds down through the years!

It is a sad history. The followers of Saint John the Beloved Disciple thought of themselves as the children of light, and cursed and condemned everyone else as the children of darkness. The church of the east and the church of the west excommunicated each other. The inquisition saw to the torture and murder of thousands it considered heretics. The Protestant reformers beheaded Roman Catholics, and the Roman Catholics burned Protestants at the stake.

So many weeds amidst so little wheat! And everyone thinking they knew best how to do God’s will, rushing to judgment when what God said was, “Judge not, lest ye be judged.”

It is a sad history, and it isn’t over. Even today, in spite of our Lord’s command in the Gospel, there are countless busy workers attempting to purify the church, ripping up what they think are weeds, and weakening the church instead of strengthening it. They may have appointed themselves the guardians of the “Global Anglican Future” but they are repeating the mistakes of a sorry past!

But thanks be to God that this is not our task here at Saint James Church, or in the real live Anglican Communion — you know, the one meets with the Archbishop of Canterbury instead of gathering separately against him! Our task is to remain faithful to our Lord in the knowledge that judgment rests with God, not us. Our task is to welcome all, not to determine who’s a weed and who’s a stalk of wheat. Our task is to grow and flourish, not concerned about whether our neighbor is of the wheat or weed persuasion — for who knows what they might think of us! It is our task to grow, and to bear fruit, and to leave the sorting at harvest time to God.

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There is an old story in Jewish tradition about the patriarch Abraham. He was, as you know, renowned for his hospitality. One evening as he was sitting by his tent, a very old man came walking down the road. Abraham immediately jumped up and invited him into his tent. He washed his feet and gave him wine and bread and meat. Abraham noticed that rather than saying the traditional blessing before eating, the old man started in right away, chewing the bread with his few good teeth and glugging the wine right down. Abraham was astonished, and asked him, “Don’t you give thanks to God before you eat?”

The old man answered, “Oh, I don’t believe in God. I’m a fire-worshiper.” This was too much for the pious patriarch Abraham, and he grabbed the old pagan fire-worshiper by both shoulders, hustled him out of his tent and pushed him off down the road. The old fire-worshiper shrugged and went on his way, still chewing the last mouthful of bread, as Abraham looked after him shaking his head and his fist, and clucking his tongue in disgust.

Later that evening God appeared to Abraham in a dream, and said to him, “Abraham.” Abraham answered, as always, “Here am I, Lord.” And God asked him, (knowing the answer of course), “Where is the old man who came to your tent this evening?” And Abraham said, “I sent him on his way because he does not worship you, O Holy One.” And God said softly, “I have put up with him for over eighty years. Could you not put up with him for one night?”

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God, we can be assured, knows weeds from wheat, and at harvest time will deal with both as he sees fit. Until then, let us be content to grow and flourish under his watchful eye, giving thanks for the opportunity he gives us to grow.+


Monday, July 14, 2008

The Scattered Word

SJF • Proper 10a • Tobias Haller BSG

Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path... other seeds fell on rocky ground... other seeds fell among thorns... other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain.

This Sunday we hear the first in a series of gospel lessons about seeds, parables in which Jesus uses agricultural imagery. Jesus, though a carpenter, must have been well familiar with the farming and gardening that went on in the lands in which he lived and traveled — as were the people of those lands. So he often made use of these images in his teaching.

Today’s parable shows someone sowing seed by the method that goes by the name “broadcasting” — and it may come as a surprise to hear that this term has been around a lot longer than radio or television. It consists of walking through the field and tossing the seed every which way, scattering and casting it abroad. You may have seen the logo of the book publisher Simon and Shuster, that shows a little man walking along with a sack of seed, his head tilted up, not even particularly looking where he’s going, just tossing the seed behind and around him. That’s the original “broadcasting.”

Jesus tells his disciples that the seed in his parable stands for the word, so it is not at all strange that a book publisher should use this same symbol as a logo. After all, a publisher’s business is to spread the word too, in the form of books — the written word printed on paper and distributed abroad. And this is true as surely as Jesus intended it to refer to the Word we know as the Gospel, the written word of God, the word of the kingdom scattered and spread to the four corners of the earth.

+ + +

Now, it may seem at first that broadcasting the seed is wasteful and extravagant. Why not just choose where the seed is to go, choose only the most fertile soil, prepare it, plow it and till it, and only plant the seed in the furrows. Well, to pick up our publishing analogy, you might just as well say, why publish a book? Why not find out just who wants to know what is in the book and send it directly to them. But, of course, that’s not a book — it’s a letter! That’s not publishing, but correspondence.

Publishing requires a wider reach, a greater spread, a more adventuresome approach. There is a risk of some loss in publishing just as there is in scattering your seed by broadcasting it. You may think you understand your audience, and do a lot of research about targeting a particular group for your publication, but once a book is printed and distributed, you never know for certain what will become of it. It might be a best-seller, or instead languish on the shelves only to be “remaindered” and sold at a huge discount so as not to be a total loss.

But on the plus side, you never know how many hands a book may pass through in its lifetime; one book can have many, many readers: the public library is a testimony to that fact. But the same is true of our own personal libraries. As you know, Father Forsyth, who in his retirement was a member of this parish, had served as a priest for well over half a century — and accumulated many books along the way. At his death, those books came to the rectory, where they still are. And every time I consult one of them when I’m working on a sermon or an essay, I’m reminded of Father Forsyth, because his name is written in neat little letters on the inside cover of each of them. So I benefit from them, and learn from them, as he did — and who knows how many others will do the same in the years and decades to come, and gain from what they read, and bring forth fruit, thirty, sixty, or a hundredfold?

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The thing about books is that the message they contain is for people who may not even know they need to hear it. And so it is with the Scripture itself, the written Word of God, that “book of books” we call the Bible. The message of salvation it conveys is most needed by the people who have yet to hear it, the people who don’t even know about it. Now, that doesn’t mean it will bear fruit in all of them — there are some who receive it eagerly but will not profit from it: like rocky soil where the seed can’t put down roots. Some may well receive the word, and have it taken from them by others, like birds who snatch up the seed from the path. Some may embrace the word but find that other cares and concerns stifle it out, like thorns that choke the seed.

But others, ah those others, who are like good soil, not only receive the word but do something with it, understanding it and bringing forth — what? Why, more seed! They bear fruit and multiply the seed and become broadcasters themselves, eager to share the Word they have understood and put into practice.

And this is what God desires, that the word that goes forth from his mouth shall not return to him empty, but accomplish that which God has purposed, and succeed in the thing for which God sent it. God, who broadcasts the Word, does so in order to maximize the opportunities for growth and productivity — and even unlikely soil gets the chance to be productive. Who knows, maybe that crack in the sidewalk holds enough soil to sprout at least a little. Who knows, maybe the rocky soil will give a bit when the rains come and water the earth, so that the seed might have a chance; or the thorns not be so tenacious and obstructive; or the birds might even find a tasty worm to add variety to their diet, and choose it instead of the seed!

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We are, of course, called to be the good soil — receptive to the word but also productive: to bring forth a harvest of the word, and to take up the task as sowers who continue to spread it. As our collect today puts it, we are called not only to know and understand what things we ought to do, but to pray to have the grace and power faithfully to accomplish them. We are, in short, to be fruitful and multiply the word of God.

And there is none so weak or small but may find service here. The word that a Christian proclaims need not be as eloquent as a sermon or a testimony. As the old song says, even those of us who cannot preach like Peter, or cannot preach like Paul, can still “tell the love of Jesus and say he died for all.” Even a young child, filled with the love of God and the Spirit of God, can cry out, “Abba! Father!” That Spirit is planted in our hearts through the grace and gift of God, and dwells within us, taking root and bringing forth fruit, as we — all of us adopted children — join our voices together and cry out to our Abba, our Father, our God.

And others, hearing that word, will take it in as well, as it takes root within them. The word shall go forth and shall not return empty, but accomplish that which God purposes, and succeed in the thing for which God sent it: the word of salvation, broadcast and published to the furthest extent of the world. So let us join in the task, dear friends, let us bring forth abundantly, and equipped with the word to spread, and the spirit to spread it, “publish glad tidings, tidings of peace, tidings of Jesus, redemption and release!”+


Sunday, July 06, 2008

The Prison of Oneself

SJF • Proper 9a • Tobias Haller BSG

For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.

+In a film of a few years back, The Statement, Michael Caine plays an aging French Nazi. As a young man he had participated in the massacre of fellow villagers who were Jewish. He himself is a devout Roman Catholic who has been shielded by the church — moved from monastery to monastery around the country — because he belongs to a mysterious organization, a “church within the church,” similar to if not identical with Opus Dei — the group given a rather fantastic interpretation in another more recent film, The Da Vinci Code. He is constantly on the run and lives between the terror of being assassinated or abducted to Israel to stand trial, and wallowing in emotional outbursts of repentance.

In one particularly telling scene, he is kneeling in his tiny apartment, resting his arms on a small table adorned with various devotional objects, weeping and wailing his heart out in a paroxysm of repentant anguish. At the end of this emotional display he seems a bit calmer and relieved; but as he stands he almost trips over his old dog, lying on the floor all this while behind him. Suddenly possessed with a savage rage, he begins kicking the dog mercilessly, cursing at the top of his lungs. And whatever sympathy the audience might have had for him, it disappears in a flash.

More importantly, the problem with this Nazi isn’t just that he can’t escape his past, it is that he can’t escape himself. He is not just a good man who did a bad thing once years before and has yet to pay the price — he is a bad man who thinks his bouts of repentance will make up for the fact that his heart has not changed in all those years: the heart that led him to betray his fellow villagers in order to preserve himself. In fact, he isn’t even really repentant — he just doesn’t want to get caught; self-preservation is still the rule. The irony is that he is already caught: he is free only in the sense that he is not in a prison made of stone and iron — his real prison is his own self - the very self he so earnestly wants to preserve.

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Saint Paul has a similar problem, but finds a better solution. He too has done something awful when he was younger, as a persecutor of the church who arrested Christians up and down the country, and even saw to it that some of them were put to death. But even after his conversion he realizes that not only can he not escape his past — even though he has really repented of it — but that he cannot escape himself. He keeps on sinning: he knows what he ought to do, but he doesn’t do it; he knows what he shouldn’t do, but he still does it. As he says, “When I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.”

Now, Saint Paul is not unique in this: in fact, this is pretty much the human condition when it comes to good behavior. None of us is perfect, and all of us fall off the wagon from time to time — and even if we are able to avoid the sins of intention, the ones that we have to work at (such as pride, envy, and hatred) it is difficult if not impossible to avoid the sins that derive from the emotions, such as anger — the sins that arise unbidden and almost irresistibly.

The boundary between who we are and what we do is open and easily crossed — you don’t need a passport to go from one country to the next: and it is sometimes hard to tell the difference or make the distinction between being and doing. The late science fiction author Kurt Vonnegut once observed, “Socrates said, ‘To be is to do.’ Jean-Paul Sartre said, ‘To do is to be.’ And Frank Sinatra said, ‘Do be do be do.’” Our being and our doing are intimately connected, however you sing the song. As I noted in my sermon a few weeks ago, the sum of who we are is largely determined by the choices we make and the things we do in our lives — and we do not always choose rightly even if we want to, and we have to deal with the consequences of our wrong choices as much as we enjoy the rewards of our right ones.

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But to get back to Saint Paul: even as he complains about his situation, he doesn’t stop there wallowing in his own inability to be perfect, his own inability to escape himself, his own flesh and members, which seem to be a law unto themselves and lead him to do the very things he doesn’t want to do. He knows that there is someone to rescue him from what he calls “this body of death” — and isn’t that a powerful phrase to describe the prison of oneself, the Death Row of ones own body?

Paul knows that as bad as he is, as harsh is the sentence he deserves, he has been saved — rescued, quite literally from death, delivered from solitary confinement in the prison of his own incapacitated self, a self that without Christ Jesus can look forward to nothing but condemnation and destruction and death. The rescuer has come.

No wonder daughter Zion rejoices greatly, no wonder daughter Jerusalem shouts aloud — the cavalry has come to the rescue! Or perhaps I should say “Calvary” in this case, for this isn’t about horses and chariots, but about the Son of God come in the likeness of sinful flesh, to deal with sin, by nailing it to the cross and sealing the new covenant in his own blood, and then to rise in glory.

It is this new covenant, the covenant of the Spirit in the blood of the Savior, ratified by God in his rising from the dead, that allows us to escape the prison of our selves. He put the power of the flesh to death in his own flesh, so that those who walk according to the Spirit can find both life and peace in him; rescued and reprieved, and pardoned, to rise with him.

And you will notice that Paul’s teaching on this is fully in keeping with Jesus Christ’s own assurance on the subject. He calls us from the weariness of carrying the heavy burden of our selves — our sinful flesh weighed down by the burden of the law, which cannot save but only makes us more conscious of how low and sinful and weary we are, as if, like villagers in some medieval town, we had our sentence carved on heavy wooden signs to carry around our necks.

He has taken that heavy, weary burden upon himself — borne the weight of the sins of the whole world, and in exchange has placed upon us only his easy yoke and light burden, easy and light enough that the weakest and weariest can bear it.

And what is that burden? Of what does the yoke of Christ consist? Not an endless quest after perfection; not a repetitious wallowing in emotional bouts of repentance that may bring momentary relief but can offer no permanent escape from the prison of self. No, what he asks of us is simple, so simple that the wise and intelligent sometimes miss it, and it is up to infants to proclaim it — what he asks is summed up in that one word, Love: to love our God and our neighbor.

Like any good yoke this one is balanced: it has two arms, and you cannot use it unless both sides are engaged — have you ever seen villagers carrying two pails of water with a yoke? It’s no good trying to carry one, or one full and one empty! So too with the yoke of the Spirit, the easy yoke that Jesus places upon us, so that we may walk in his way, bearing only the light double burden of love — a burden that steadies without wearying, for love never fails nor grows weary.

The double love of God and neighbor delivers us from the law of the flesh, from the prison of ourselves, because it turns us from ourselves towards others — towards God and our neighbor. We are no longer obsessed with seeking forgiveness for our sins in bouts of repentance — our sins have been forgiven, not because we earned their forgiveness, but because Christ died for us. “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set us free from the law of sin and death.” We remember and confess our sins here in church week by week not to earn God’s favor, but to remind ourselves of his love for us in having forgiven them already. In that knowledge we are strengthened in the Spirit to return that love to him and share it with our neighbors.

This is the means by which are liberated from the prison of ourselves — when we recognize that the door has been opened, the chains have been cut, the locks unlocked and the gates flung wide. The King of glory has entered in and done his work in rescuing us from sin and death: his incarnation has reversed our incarceration! All we need do now is walk through the door bearing his yoke of love, and walking in accordance with the Spirit. Let us take his yoke upon us and learn from him, the one gentle and humble in heart, yet strong to save: Jesus Christ our Lord.+