Monday, June 28, 2010

The Two Ways

SJF • Proper 8c 2010 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
A man said to Jesus, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”+

I’m sure that many of you here are familiar with the Narnia series — children’s stories by CS Lewis, beginning with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. That first volume, and the second, Prince Caspian, have been made into movies — and you may have seen one or both of them. For those who haven’t, let me just say that Lewis was trying to address some of the major themes of Christianity in his imaginative portrayal of another world — and, in a way that would appeal to the imagination of children, a fantasy world of talking animals, magic and mystery.

I can attest how important these stories have been to many people over the years — including myself. They played a part in my adult return to the Christian faith when, as a teenager, I was working as a counselor at the Episcopal Mission Society summer camp, and shared these stories with the children under my care — most of them orphans or children in foster care, living in situations very far removed from the polite English world of CS Lewis or the fantasy world of Narnia! Yet they just couldn’t get enough of these stories — nor could I! They spoke truth, and truth we heard. When I returned home from that summer, I looked up the local Episcopal parish and became an active member.

In the last volume of the Narnia stories, Lewis chose to end with his own version of Revelation — a description of the last days of Narnia in a great Last Battle. And as the battle between the forces of good and evil rage through that fantasy world, one group tries to play the part of neutrality — the Dwarfs. They don’t want to get involved on either side. They do nothing to help the forces of good, to hinder the forces of evil, or vice versa. As they say, “The Dwarfs are for the Dwarfs.” And so they refuse to take sides in the Last Battle — off to one side in a circle by themselves.

And after the battle is over and the forces of good have triumphed and the forces of evil have been conquered and dispatched, the Dwarfs are still sitting there — off in a circle to one side. They have become blind. They literally can no longer see what has happened — that the battle is over and the world itself is about to end, folded up into a glorious new life — not unlike the biblical images in Revelation! But the Dwarfs have missed out on it all, and don’t even know it. They think they are stuck in a damp, lightless stable, when they are in fact sitting in a beautiful sunlit flowery meadow. As the new creation dawns, they sit in their circle, arms folded across their chests and chanting, “The Dwarfs are for the Dwarfs!”

The children try to rouse them from their blindness, holding flowers in front of them, but they cry out, “What do you mean by shoving filthy stable-litter in my face!” Even when the great Lion Aslan — who represents Christ in Lewis’s fantasy world — goes over to the Dwarfs and gives them a low growl of warning, they all say, “It’s just someone trying to frighten us with a noise-making machine! They won’t take us in.” As the old saying goes, they have made their bed and they’re going to lie in it. Or as Aslan himself observes, “Their prison is only in their own minds, yet they are in that prison. They are so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out.”

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I mention all of this because in our readings today we see similar failures to respond to a call to action, people failing to see the good that is set before them, and engaging in all sorts of delaying tactics. Elijah calls Elisha but Elisha wants to say goodbye to his parents before he follows on the way. Jesus gets a whole litany of excuses from various people, as to the things they need to do before they can follow him — and he gives them a stern rebuke.

More importantly Saint Paul lays two choices before the Galatians when he talks about the works of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit. There is a long tradition in Judaism and early Christianity called, “The Two Ways” — the way of evildoers and the way of the righteous. And which way you take will shape your life.

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I think it was Yogi Berra who said, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” The point is, you have to choose — it’s one way or the other. The problem is that sometimes people don’t want to commit; they don’t want to take sides — it may not be quite so clear as the contrast Paul makes between the flesh and the spirit; I mean, he make it obvious about which way is the way of righteousness!

But sometimes, even the best intentioned people can be more like the Dwarfs in Lewis’s fable, or like the would-be disciples who delay in or withdraw from following Jesus because they decided they have other, more important things to do. Sometimes people think that rather than making a choice to reject what is wrong and do what is right, it is acceptable to do nothing, to abdicate responsibility and stand in watchful waiting to see how things go.

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And the church can be just as guilty of this kind of inaction as anyone else — being made of fallible people sometimes the church as a whole fails to live up to the challenge Jesus presents us. Paul’s letter to the Galatians reminds me of one such instance in our own history. The passage we heard begins with a call not to submit to a yoke of slavery This reminds me of a sorry aspect of our own church’s history — not this parish, but the whole Episcopal Church. By the 1850s the Episcopal Church was well-settled in just about every part of the United States, North and South, East and West. And of course, because of this, the church was faced with becoming embroiled in the controversy dividing the nation — slavery. The nation was occupied with the question: shall slavery be allowed to continue or shall it be stopped; and if stopped, how.

The church decided to play it safe. To avoid allowing this important issue to become a source of division, the Episcopal Church officially decided not to take a position on the question of slavery — the church would neither approve nor condemn what was called “the peculiar institution.” The Presiding Bishop of the Church, John Henry Hopkins of Vermont, even wrote a book defending the biblical foundations of slavery. He argued that as long as slaves were treated well there was nothing to prevent Christians from holding slaves, and that going to war about it was a far greater sin than the continuation of a venerable biblical institution — after all, he pointed out, Abraham had held slaves, and he was a model of biblical righteousness. That a bishop from the far North could make such an appeal warmed hearts of his Southern confrères.

And so, during the very years when this congregation was forming, while other Christian churches split along north-south lines, the Episcopal Church was able to remain a single body — at least until war actually broke out, and with the creation of the Confederate States of America, all of their bishops and deputies withdrew from participation in the Episcopal Church of the United States — after all, from their perspective they were part of a different country. One of the southern bishops was even a Confederate general, and died in battle.

The irony is that some people will point at this history with pride — the Episcopal Church didn’t divide, except for those few years during the actual war, and came back together afterward — unlike the Presbyterians, Methodists and Baptists. But somehow, I think in failing to stand for something we missed a great opportunity. By accepting slavery — for others, since few slaves were themselves Episcopalians — we colluded in injustice, and at a crucial moment remained silent; like the Dwarfs who were only for the Dwarfs, we were only interested in the preservation of our ecclesiastical union — a union that was in fact divided when the war broke out, even though the Northern bishops refused to recognize it, and continued the roll call of the names of the absent southern bishops whenever the House of Bishops met — knowing full well they were not there.

Is there virtue in such obliviousness? Such living in denial and embracing fantasy? Such collusion in injustice? Do you think so?

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For to be truly righteous it is not enough just not to do bad things — it is not enough just not to take the way of the works of the flesh, those obvious failings. It is not enough to say to Jesus, I will follow you when it becomes convenient for me to do so. No, my friends, we are called to choose — and to choose rightly; not just to avoid the way of the flesh but to get on our feet and walk in the way of the spirit — to follow Jesus. We are called to live by the Spirit, and, guided by the Spirit, to join Jesus in the proclamation of the kingdom of God. To follow him will mean to do the works of God and bear the fruit of the Spirit in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And these are the things God calls us to do, calls us to follow. Where he leads us, will we follow? Will we?+

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Difference of One

How one life makes a difference, and covers all our differences.....

SJF • Proper 7c 2010 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
They will look on the one whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child… On that day a fountain shall be opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and impurity.

Those of you who have seen my Christmas tree know that I am among those who can legitimately be called a “Trekker” — all of the ornaments come from Hallmark’s “Star Trek” series — though I stop short of dressing up as an alien and attending Star Trek conventions. I belong to the generation that grew up watching and enjoying the original “Star Trek”— and I’ve remained a fan of Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the future through its various film and TV versions. One of the reasons I’ve done so is that“Star Trek” often deals with issues of serious social or theological significance, using the fantasy world of the distant future to hold up a mirror to our own times, in which we can see our own faults and virtues reflected, and sometimes learn a thing or two thereby. I mentioned one of these just the week before last, in reference to the character Data wanting to become fully human — an important theological theme!

Another such theme comes up in one of the early “Star Trek” movies, as the passionless Vulcan Mr. Spock sacrifices his life for the sake of the crew. As he is dying, he tells Captain Kirk, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.” And he dies a heroic death to save his crewmates, one life given to save many. And, indeed, at his funeral Captain Kirk extols him as the most “human” person he had ever encountered.

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This sort of heroism, this sort of self-sacrifice, is noble and true, and you don’t have to go to the realms of science fiction or fantasy to find it. Many a soldier has performed an act of heroism to save his squad; many a doctor or nurse has risked contracting a deadly illness to continue to minister to the sick in the time of plague. And when one hero gives his or her life to save many, giving their life as a gift, then the equation makes moral sense, and we honor that giver as a hero: after all, “Greater love hath no man than this...”

But where the equation doesn’t make sense, where it all falls apart, is when the decision to sacrifice one for the sake of the many is made by someone else — is made by one of the many, instead of the one choosing to sacrifice him or herself — when someone decides not to perform a noble act of self-sacrifice, but to sacrifice someone else whom they consider expendable, or inexpedient, making them a scapegoat. Then the death of one for the many becomes the cold calculus of Caiaphas: not the free gift that shows the greatest love, but commercial capitulation to the demands of power. It was that the high priest Caiaphas who said it was better that one should suffer instead of many. He had no intention of suffering himself, of offering to sacrifice himself, of course, but to hand Christ over as a victim for the Romans to execute. Caiaphas, in doing this, rejected the teaching of his own faith in favor of the calculating philosophy of utilitarianism. For the great Jewish Rabbis had taught the supreme value of every human life. They had taught that human beings are not to be weighed by the pound in the balance of expediency; instead, they taught that “to save a single life is to save an entire world.” If you’ve seen the powerful film Schindler’s List you know just how important that teaching is.

Caiaphas chose the other way, however, and took the cold path of political prudence, turning Jesus over to be crucified, offered up as a scapegoat in order to prevent further problems with the Roman government. And ironically, his choice to reject the Son of Man, to turn him over to be killed, did indeed lead to life for many, for the death of this One was for the life of the whole world. As I’ve often noted, God can take our worst mistakes and turn them into something good.

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God through Christ was able to turn Caiaphas’ cold-blooded calculation into something positive, into the most positive thing that ever happened, something that saved the whole world. And Christ did this by accepting the cross, taking it up, and not rejecting it. Instead of being a scapegoat he became an offering — “a sacrifice of himself once offered for the sins of the whole world.” Had Jesus gone to the cross kicking and screaming, it would not, it could not, have been the means of salvation for all. Had Jesus used the power that was at his command to summon legions of angels to deliver him from death, he would never have died, and salvation would not have come. Instead, Jesus took up his cross willingly, obedient to his Father’s will that he should drink the cup of human sadness and frailty, and suffer death as one of us. And by taking it up instead of rejecting it, through his obedience, Jesus transformed Caiaphas’ selfish act into redemptive action of self-sacrifice. His life was his to lay down for his friends, and he did so — and Caiaphas and the Romans were thereby transformed into the instruments of his self-sacrifice, no more in control of the situation than the grenade upon which a hero throws himself to save his squad.

So it was that they looked upon him whom they had pierced. And three days later a fountain of grace opened as a stone rolled away from a tomb and the Son of Man was raised from the dead in glory. The one who gave himself as a ransom for many triumphed over death so that the many might not perish, but have everlasting life. Such is the difference of one, the difference one makes, the one who makes a difference, all the difference in the world.

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We are part of that many affected by that one — we gathered here today, together with all the believers who have walked this earth since the days when Jesus lived and died and was raised from death. We are the many, but we are also one in him. We who have been baptized in Christ have been clothed with Christ: we have put on Christ like a garment. Thus washed and newly dressed, our many individual differences are cleansed and covered because of the difference he made when he died for us. There is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female any more, but all are one in Christ Jesus — the One who made a difference. Jesus has wiped away the old differences by which, according to the tradition, only Jewish men thought themselves special in the eyes of God.

For every day the pious Jewish man of those times would arise and say this prayer, “I thank God that I am not a Gentile; I thank God that I am not a slave; and I thank God I am not a woman” — and that’s the prayer Saint Paul was responding to point by point in his Letter to the Galatians. Paul was challenging the neat little world that the a Jewish man of those days — such as Paul himself before his conversion! — believed God had carved out for him from the rest of the world, a world of difference from all of “them” — thank God I’m not one of them, and thank God I’m not one of them, and certainly thank God I’m not one of them!

Well, Jesus upset that neat little world as surely as he wiped out the expedient politics of Caiaphas. And Saint Paul confronted that world in his Letter to the Galatians, a world in which Paul knew one could not find salvation through race or class or social position or gender, but in which salvation depends only on the one — only in God, and Christ: the one who saves us all. For with the coming of Christ, and with his “sacrifice of himself once offered,” all human beings are empowered to become the children of God, all the many to become one in the Risen Lord, the personal differences covered over with the garment of salvation, the garment of baptism, all of the individual differences covered by that spotless robe, so that it doesn’t matter any more if you’re black or white, male or female, slave or free, Jew or Greek, gay or straight, young or old — none of these things make a difference any more — all have been baptized into the one Lord through the one Faith in the one baptism, a baptism whose waters spread from the fountain that opened two thousand years ago, to cleanse us and make us one in Christ.

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All that remains for each of us — for all are together, but each is called — all that remains for each of us is that daily putting on of the Christian garment, that fits each of us like a glove no matter how big or small we are, no matter how wide or narrow, or tall or short. It is the only garment on which the label reading, “One Size Fits All,” is absolutely and completely true. And the really strange thing is that this Christian garment doesn’t look like a garment at all.

It looks like a cross, a cross each and every one of us must take up anew each day — and each of us has his or her very own cross to bear — and we are not to judge how well or poorly our neighbor might be carrying his or hers. We can only answer for our own lives — our own lives that we give to God for God’s purposes — and that it more than enough to keep us busy!

It is in taking up the cross that we join Christ in his act of self-sacrifice. In Christ we transform the assaults of the world, the attacks of the devil and the thorns of the flesh, into opportunities for grace, as Christ transformed the calculation of Caiaphas into the fountainhead of salvation, by means of the cross.

This is how we too make a difference, each and every one of us. All our individual differences fade away in the light of the cross, all our personal differences fade to insignificance. When we put on that cross-shaped garment, we no longer even look like ourselves any more, but like Christ, who offered himself for us, and for the sake of the whole world. In Christ there is no east and west, no north and south, no black and white or brown or yellow or red, but only the whole humanity of the children of God. Let us rejoice in this, brothers and sisters of the faith, brothers and sisters of the cross, that we have been clothed in Christ, anointed in baptism and marked with the sign of his cross, which we take up day by day as we learn to make a difference through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, to whom we give all praise and thanks, henceforth and for evermore.+

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Debt of Gratitude

SJF • Proper 6c • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jesus said, “I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love.”

Saint Peter once said, “God is no respecter of persons.”Acts 10:34 A more contemporary church leader, the late Canon Edward Nason West of our own cathedral church, put it more bluntly when he said, “God loves everybody; he simply has no taste.” What they both meant by this is that God is completely unimpressed by people’s self-righteous attempts to get on his good side, and that God is also completely at ease with sinners who struggle to turn to him in faith, however low they may have fallen.

In our Gospel today we have both sorts of people. Simon the Pharisee is a righteous man, a man who has followed all the rules, colored within the lines, payed his taxes on time and stayed within the speed limit. And he’s rather pleased with himself. That’s not to say he thinks himself perfect. He knows that he must have missed the odd requirement of the Law here or there so insignificant that it may have slipped his mind, done something in ignorance without intending to. But on the whole his conscience is clear; and to cover all his bases, every year he will have gone up to the Temple to make the guilt offering to cover any of those sins he might have committed unintentionally and in ignorance, just to keep the accounts balanced. Simon is content with his own righteousness. As far as he’s concerned, his debts are paid; he doesn’t owe God anything — he thinks.

Suddenly, into his neat and orderly world, there comes this woman, this sinner, the kind of person Simon would have crossed to the street two blocks away to avoid even coming near her. The very odor of her perfume would make him sick to his stomach. And not only does this woman of the streets come right into the dining room — along with a whole jar of her offensive perfumed ointment — but she then puts on a scandalous display, uncovering her head and loosening her hair (neither of which any respectable woman of that day would even think of doing in public) and then bending down and weeping and wiping his guest’s feet — with her hair! — and covering them with that expensive perfumed ointment.

And you can well picture the look on that Pharisee’s face as the odor of the perfume wafts down the table in his direction. And no doubt his face betrays his dismay, dismay at this woman’s interruption, and further dismay that Jesus doesn’t react the way he would, cringing from the touch of those unclean hands, if not kicking them away! Yet Jesus seems unperturbed by it all. “Just what is going on here?” the Pharisee asks himself.

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And so may we. First of all, to understand this scene, we need to picture this dinner the way it would have taken place two thousand years ago. People in those days, in that time and place, didn’t sit on chairs at a dinner table. They reclined on couches, leaning on their elbows, dining off a low table, usually C or U-shaped, with all the guests on one side. Leonardo da Vinci got the picture partly right in the “Last Supper” — everyone on one side of the table — though he placed the disciples on chairs rather than on couches. But if you’ve seen any of those gladiator movies, or stories of ancient Rome, you’ve seen what a classical banquet was like. Servants would wait on the table from inside the U, a very convenient way to avoid having to reach around or over the dinner guests to serve and clear the table. So you can picture Simon, and Jesus, and the other guests, reclining on couches. And this, of course, is how the woman of the city was able to stand “behind Jesus at his feet,” and wipe them with her hair, which would have been quite impossible had he been sitting on a chair at a modern dinner table! So as Jesus continues to recline on the couch, this woman is at the other end, weeping and wiping his feet with that perfumed ointment. And he just lets her do it.

Well, Simon is aghast! The odor of scandal is steaming towards him in an offensive cloud. Bad enough this woman has gate-crashed his dinner party, bad enough that she’s acting like this, but Jesus doesn’t seem to be bothered in the least! And that only increases Simon’s dismay.

What Simon has missed in all of this is that when Jesus accepted his invitation to dinner, when Jesus consented to spend time with him, it was just as much an act of grace as when Jesus allowed this fallen woman to wash his feet. Though Simon’s debt may have been smaller, it was a debt nonetheless.

That’s the God’s honest truth, and Jesus tells a little parable, much in the style of that parable we heard Nathan tell David, a parable to try to get the Pharisee to see. Who will show more gratitude: the one whose cancelled debt is big or the one whose cancelled debt is small?

For the Pharisee has forgotten that he has been forgiven too, that in spite of all his best efforts, he still has a spiritual debt —a debt of thanks — maybe not as much as the woman of the streets, but a debt nevertheless. But since he feels that whatever sins he’s committed and been forgiven for are so small, hardly worth mentioning, he doesn’t feel much gratitude towards God for forgiving them. After all, that’s the deal, isn’t it? The Pharisee’s attitude is: “I follow the rules, I do the right sacrifices, I fast on the right days, I say the right prayers, and if I do happen to make some small mistake, commit some small sin, God forgives me, right? So I should be grateful, too? I’m the one doing all the work!” And because he is forgiven what in his own eyes is little, he loves little, showa little gratitude. After all, he thinks he’s earned forgiveness.

The woman, on the other hand, has sinned big time and she knows it! But she also knows that she has been forgiven big time. Although she has been in the gutter — perhaps because she’s been in the gutter — she knows just how low she’s gone. She can’t go any lower! Like the prodigal son she has come to her senses because she has lost everything, but also because she has seen the rescuing hand of God, reaching out to her, the hand that is there for her. From where she has fallen she can see God reaching out to her, and her heart overflows with gratitude.

Oscar Wilde once said, when someone accused him of living in the gutter, “Sir, we are all in the gutter, only some of us are looking at the stars.” Wilde remembered what the Pharisee forgot: that all — all — are sinners in the eye of God, that “there is none righteous, no not one,” and that all forgiveness comes from God, and that “happy are they whose transgressions are forgiven.” Happy — full of gratitude! The Pharisee walks down the street so carefully, eyes downcast to avoid stepping in something unpleasant, or having to deal with people of the wrong sort, people from whom he averts his gaze as he walks with downcast eyes, he never looks up to see the grace unfolding around him: grace working in others, and grace available for him, if he only realized he needed it just as much as they.

But the sinful woman, from where she has fallen, even from the gutter, turns to God in faith and hope. And her heart overflows with gratitude in the knowledge that God has not rejected her; God, unlike the Pharisee, does not turn his gaze from her, but looks into her eyes with the forgiveness that breaks her heart, and opens it. God has not abandoned her or lost track of her no matter how far from the path of righteousness she has strayed.

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What is important to learn from this Gospel is not that those who love are forgiven the debt of sin, but rather that those who are forgiven the debt of sin still owe a debt of love. Note carefully what Jesus says: “Her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence — that is, because of that — she has shown great love.” The woman’s love does not cause God’s forgiveness any more than the Pharisee’s righteousness causes forgiveness. You just can’t earn God’s forgiveness. No way, no how! God loves us and forgives us because it is God’s nature to love and forgive. Not because we’ve earned his love, but because we are his children. Forgiveness is his gift to us. And the Pharisee and the streetwalker, and all of us, are forgiven by God as we turn to him by grace and in faith, whether our sins be scarlet, or the palest shade of pink — we all receive the forgiveness that comes from a gracious and loving God, free and unmerited. And when those waters of forgiveness pour over us we should shout out in gratitude, loving our God who loved us and saved us.

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This is a hard teaching to understand, and it has divided the church from the days when Paul wrote to the Galatians on up through the Reformation and even today. But the Gospel truth is clear, the truth Paul preached and Peter waffled on: God is no respecter of persons, and we are justified by faith, not by doing the works of the law.

That doesn’t mean we should give up on trying to do good; nor does it mean we should consciously go on doing bad — heaven forbid! What it does mean is that we should never forget that we are children of a loving and forgiving Father in heaven; and that whatever we have done or failed to do, God has forgiven us in Jesus Christ — he has nailed all of our sins to the cross, all of them — and in thanks and gratitude for the grace he has shown us we should love him in return.

We gather here to give thanks to our heavenly Father for all his goodness and loving-kindness to us. By his grace we all have been forgiven whatever we have done amiss, whether much or little. Can we do anything but give thanks to him, to show him our love for him by loving each other, as he commanded us to do? Search your hearts, my brothers and sisters, search your hearts and give thanks to God for all he has done for you, for the mercy he has shown you in forgiving your sins and drawing you close to him. Break open the alabaster jars of your hearts and pour out the abundant and fragrant oil of loving thanks to the Lord, the Almighty, and give him the praise and thanksgiving worthy of his Name, even Jesus Christ our Lord. +