Thursday, September 25, 2008

God's Justice and Ours

Saint James Fordham • Proper 20a • Tobias Haller BSG
Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more, but they received the same daily wage.+

According the unwritten laws that govern the entertainment industry, and the time-tested response of audiences, every action-adventure movie ends with the villain getting his just punishment. And the more villainous the villain, the more terrible his end, and the louder the audience cheers. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. Think of the James Bond movies: whether it’s the evil Doctor No slowly sinking into the boiling bath of his atomic reactor, or the sinister Auric Goldfinger being sucked out through the shattered window of his private jet, the movie villain dies a terrible death, and the audience cheers.

Come on, admit it! That’s part of the fun of a really exciting action-adventure film: seeing the terribly wicked punished, and the courageous righteous rewarded. The only time an audience will put up with a villain getting away at the end is when they know for sure that a sequel is in the works. Most of the time what a movie audience looks for is that satisfying release that comes when the villain meets his demise, in proportion to the extent of his villainy. That’s what justice is all about.

The prophet Jonah represents just such an audience. God appoints him to warn the wicked city of Nineveh that it is going to be destroyed. And after his reluctant false start, and intermission in the belly of a great fish, Jonah finally delivers the message of doom, God’s promise to destroy the wickedest city on earth. Jonah is ready to see God’s justice prevail.

But when the people of the city repent, and God decides to be merciful, Jonah gets completely bent out of shape. He can’t believe it! He goes up the hill outside town and arranges himself a mezzanine seat, waiting to see what will happen. Perhaps there is one more reel to this film and God is just building up the suspense! God can’t be serious, Jonah thinks. Nineveh is the most awful, wicked, villainous city in the world. What difference that they’ve repented? This isn’t the way it’s supposed to work out! The bad guys are supposed to get smashed.

And when it turns out that the movie is over, Jonah is practically on the point of asking for a refund, when God teaches him a lesson about mercy, stunning him to silence when he finally sees God’s mercy for an entire city in comparison with his own shallow sorrow for a shrub. God also reveals to him the selfishness that often lies at the heart of such rushes to judgment. After all, the shrub was sheltering him — he didn’t give a damn about the hundreds of innocents who would perish in the downfall of Nineveh.

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Justice is a funny thing. We want justice for ourselves when we think we’ve been wronged, when we haven’t gotten our fair share. And we want justice that punishes the wicked. We want the “tit-for-tat,” the quid pro quo, actions followed by consequences. In short, we want the books to balance out at the end of the day.

But as God showed Jonah, and as Jesus showed his hearers in the parable of the Generous Employer, that isn’t the kind of justice God dishes out. In spite of our wanting to see all the accounts of good and bad tallied up and dished out accordingly, that just isn’t the way God works. God is simply not a bookkeeper.

Neither is God’s justice like human justice. You know how justice is portrayed in a court-house: Blindfolded, in one hand she holds a sword and in the other a balance-scale. These symbolize three aspects of earthly justice: impartial, decisive, and punitive. But God’s justice is different. God’s justice is not based on blindness, but on the opposite: complete knowledge. God’s justice is not based on weighing the pros and cons, but always tips the scale towards the disadvantaged, the oppressed, the disenfranchised.

God is like the generous merchant who sees a poor woman hunting for coins in her purse, and ignores what the scale says, giving her an extra portion. God is not like that other character who appears in December, Santa Claus, who keeps a list of who’s good and bad, and rewards them accordingly. God knows who is naughty and nice, but he doesn’t come to us as a fat man in a red suit with switches and coal for the wicked, but comes to us all in love and forgiveness with his own Body and Blood.

And though God does have a sword in hand, it is a sword raised only to cut down those who will not receive God’s mercy, who refuse to see themselves as needing mercy, who stand unrepentant in their own self-righteousness. God’s justice is always, and I mean always, combined with God’s mercy.

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And it’s a good thing it is. If God’s justice were not tempered with mercy, then who in this imperfect world could stand? God does not dole out rewards and punishments solely in relation to what we have done or failed to do. He does not simply give us what we deserve. As Jack Benny once said when he was presented with an award, “You know, I really don’t deserve this. But then again, I have arthritis, and I don’t deserve that either!” No, God does not simply give us what we deserve. God is not a blind dispenser of justice, but a generous and merciful Father who loves us, even when we fail to do what is right. For while we clamor for justice, all of us, even the best of us, stands in need of mercy.

Mercy may not always seem fair; but it is good. Mercy may not always make sense to us; but it does to God. And perhaps that is why, at our best, mercy touches us so much. Even when it doesn’t make sense, perhaps especially then, mercy suddenly appears where it seems most unlikely, and we get a glimpse, as Jesus said, of the kingdom of God.

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Just such a glimpse happened in the midst of World War II, in the depths of some of the heaviest fighting, as the allies were edging into German-occupied territory. American infantryman Bert Frizen was a scout, a dangerous job, out on the front edge of the advance.

In the stillness of an early morning, his patrol came to the edge of a field, unaware of a German battery hidden behind a hedge at the other side. Bert edged out of the woods into that field, and as he reached the half-way point, the Germans opened fire, ripping into Bert’s legs. The American troops withdrew to the woods, leaving Bert out in the field, struggling helplessly in a small stream, as the shots careened overhead. Dizzy with pain, he looked up the stream-bed, and saw a German soldier crawling through the mud towards him. Helpless, Bert closed his eyes and waited for the inevitable pistol shot or stab of a bayonet.

After what seemed an unbearably long time, nothing happened. He opened his eyes, and the German soldier was kneeling at his side. Bert then noticed that the shooting had stopped. To his amazement, the German stood, and bending low, hoisted Bert over his back, and carried him back over the muddy field to his fellow-Americans behind the trees at the field’s edge. Then without a word, the German turned and walked calmly back across the field to his own troop.

I wish I could say this story ended there. But it didn’t. There was one more reel to this film. The battle recommenced, and men died on both sides. But for a moment, perhaps only for five minutes, something of the kingdom of God came to be on that sodden field.

What happened didn’t make sense. All the rules of war, the balance sheet marked in blood, the righteous ire of the allies and the fierce nationalism of the Germans, all that passes for human justice and common sense was eclipsed by an act of mercy, an act of mercy that silenced the guns, on both sides, if only for a moment.

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So it is that God silences the pious indignation of Jonah. So it is that God forgives and shows mercy to the sinners of Nineveh, as well as to the innocents who don’t know their right hand from their left. So it is that God pours out his generosity to those who worked only a fraction of the day. So it is that God confronts those who think they’re special and deserve extra, when all they’ve done is what they agreed to do. So it is that God, instead of treating us with blind justice, shows us the mercy that not only sees through us but sees us through. So it is that God, instead of giving us our just deserts, in mercy gives us what he knows is best for us. And so it is, dear sisters and brothers, as our final reel plays out, that we ought to be merciful to one another, in the Name of him who shows such mercy to each of us.+


The story of Bert Frizen is from an account by Chuck Holsinger reported by Lynn McAdam.

The Uplifting Low-Down

posted at In a Godward Direction

The Many and the One

posted at In A Godward Directon

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

The Life Preserver

SJF • Proper 17a • Tobias Haller BSG
Jesus said, Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?

Years ago there was a scene in a disaster movie that sticks in my mind. I can’t remember if it was The Towering Inferno or Earthquake — but it took place in a skyscraper during a disaster. Everyone is rushing to the elevator to try to escape the building. One man is the last to arrive, and when he finds he can’t squeeze in, he grabs a woman from inside, drags her out, and then takes her place — and the doors close. Well, you can guess what happens — the elevator cable breaks and the car plummets to the depths, killing all the passengers. The message is clear — that selfish man, in an effort to save his life, lost it.

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I don’t think that’s the kind of saving and losing that Jesus is talking about in our gospel today; though he is speaking of matters of life and death — eternal life and eternal death, in fact. It is in how each and every one of us takes up our own cross day by day to follow him that we will lose and find our lives. What this means, in part, is losing control over our lives, and control over the lives of others. Our call is not to think about ourselves, but to get to work doing the work God intends us to do.

This is a consistent message in the teaching of Jesus. Remember the parable of the servants entrusted with various amounts of money? The master expects them not simply to save it by burying it in the ground, to return just what he gave, no more, no less. Only the servants who take the risk are rewarded, and the one who saves the money instead of risking losing it, receives no reward for his lack of effort — and loses even what he has. No, Jesus is clear that whatever is entrusted to our care in this life is to be put to use — not saved for a rainy day.

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Our reading from Romans shows this process at work as Paul tells of the gifts each member receives. These gifts are meant to be put to work for the good of the whole body.

Prophets are to prophesy, in proportion to their faith. That is, the one with much faith will be able to proclaim it more eloquently to encourage others, helping their faith grow.

Ministers — that is, those called to serve — are expected to serve, to get to work, and not treat the ministry like some kind of honorary title. It is always a ministry to the needs of others, placing them ahead of ones own needs — like the mother who prepares dinner for her family but doesn’t sit to eat until all have been served.

Teachers are to teach — and anyone who teaches knows that the more you teach the more you learn: the more knowledge you give away the more comes back to you.

The exhorter is not to take it easy and assume that everyone else will do as they ought without any exhortation. If you watched any of the Olympics, you will remember those anxious, watchful exhorters standing on the sidelines — the coaches, without whose help those athletes would never have made it so far. The hard work comes back to them, too. Who is the first to greet the athletes when they step off the platform, if not the coach — whether to comfort those who didn’t do as well as they hoped, or to rejoice with the winners!

The giver is to give — generously and not under compulsion; and by giving, giving up control over what is given — giving freely for the spread of the kingdom, the upbuilding of the church. Those who give this way are like those in the proverb: “Cast your bread upon the waters and it will return to you.”

This is about so much more than money, my friends. As easy as it would be to turn this into a stewardship sermon, this is not just about the offering of treasure, or even of time and talent. It is about self-dedication. The giver is to give with that same sense of sacrifice as did Jesus himself — who gave himself for us, not counting the cost.

We all give, and we all receive — not just of our time, talent, and treasure; but of our selves, our souls and bodies, as a reasonable, holy and living sacrifice to God. This builds up Christ’s kingdom and makes it strong and resilient .For just as the relay race depends on every member of the team, so too the church depends on all of its members doing their part.

And what goes for the members goes for the leader. The leader is to lead with diligence — again that means with care and concern, not for him or herself, but for the good of those being led. The leader is to lead, confident in knowing that the leader too is led by the ones who have gone before, and who it is the leader follows even in taking up the cross of leadership day by day.

And finally, the compassionate are to be cheerful. Now, you might not think that compassion is either a gift or a ministry, but believe me it is: for to be compassionate means to be able to feel with others — to share their griefs and help them carry them. In this way the compassionate help others to bear their own crosses, their own struggles and burdens.

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You will notice in all of this how none of these gifts are solo ventures — they all involve others, they are all woven together into the fabric of the church, the body of Christ. In this the church lives — lives the life of the one who died for it, who died for us, the members of his body.

And it is with that in mind that I want to return to the literal life and death matter of which Christ speaks. For in all to which Saint Paul calls the church, all of those things with which we have been gifted, Christ was there first, and to the ultimate degree.

For the prophecy with which he prophesied was that of his own death and resurrection, in accordance with the Scriptures, and the faith he had was his faith in God that he would be delivered through death, and bring us with him. The ministry of service he undertook was as the servant who suffered for our sake. The teaching he taught was the eloquent testimony in his own flesh and blood, his body given for us unto eternal life; and the exhortation he gave is the same one we repeat week by week in our solemn worship: as he exhorts us to Take and Eat, to Take and Drink, of his body and his blood — the most generous gifts of the most generous giver.

Finally, his leadership was exemplary — given to us who profess to follow him whatever the cost, in the way of his compassionate offering of himself, for the sins of the whole world.

So it is, you see, a matter of life and death. Few of us will ever be called actually to lay down our lives in this way, to give our lives to save another. But you never know. In January 1982, Air Florida flight 90 crashed on the runway at the edge of the Potomac River. There were six survivors in the icy water, clinging to the plane’s tail with frozen hands. The rescue helicopter could only save one at a time, as it lowered a life preserver on a cable. Every time it lowered the line to save another person, a middle-aged man in the water passed the life-preserver to someone else. On helicopter’s sixth return, the one that would have saved him from the water, Arland Williams was gone — exhausted and freezing, he had slipped beneath the water.

I cannot help but think that Arland was lifted up by an even more everlasting life preserver than the one he passed to five other people on that cold January day. He was preserved unto eternal life in doing what Jesus would call the greatest act of love, mirroring Christ’s own act in giving himself to save others.

We may not be called — I hope we never will be — to suffer such a fate even if it brings such a hope of glory. Rather may we spend each day in those smaller acts of giving — giving ourselves for the good of others, losing our lives for their sake in little ways, in all those ministries which we share together in this wonderful church.

And if by chance we are graced to do more — actually to find ourselves in a situation where our life is asked of us quite literally, may we have the courage to lose it in the knowledge that God will give it back to us, and we will find a greater reward than we can either ask or imagine. As Jim Elliot, a missionary who was murdered in South America, said so eloquently, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” We cannot keep our lives, preserve our lives or save our lives; come what may, they will some day come to an end. But we can give our lives, in a daily process of parting with each moment in service to others — to gain the greatest gift, the everlasting gift, the thing we cannot lose: everlasting life in Jesus Christ our Lord.+