Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Uplifting Low-Down

SJF • Palm Sunday 2010 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
He humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend.+

Some years ago, I heard a voice speak through a window in time. It wasn’t a supernatural experience like that of St John the Divine. It was on National Public radio. It was part of a broadcast of historic recordings — not recordings of famous people, but of ordinary folks like you or me. The recording was made almost sixty years ago, and the man who made it was 102 years old at the time he recorded it — so his voice spoke through a window of time into the middle of the century before last — the time of the Civil War.

Joseph Johnson had been a slave in the American South, already in his teens when slavery ended. He, and his family before him for three generations, had been slaves — his grandfather, Mr Johnson said with a mixture of pride and resentment, had belonged to Thomas Jefferson.

What most struck me about this recording wasn’t the reminisces of this elderly former slave, but the attitude of the man who was interviewing him: his great-grandson. In spite of the number of times he must have heard these stories at his great-grandpa’s knee — you could tell he wasn’t grasping the meaning that they held.

His old great-grandfather kept trying to give him the low-down on what it meant to be a slave, but the younger man just couldn’t get it. When the old man said, “We all belonged to Mr Smith,” the young man asked, “What kind of work did you do for him?” With some irritation, the old man replied, “We didn’t work for him — he owned us! Like he owned his horse or his mule.” The younger man couldn’t grasp what it meant to be a slave. He heard the words, but their weight escaped him. He couldn’t feel the soreness of bent and aching backs, weary, bone-tired arms, the crack of the whip, the cutting curses and insults, or more importantly the total lack of the ability to say, “I’m going to quit this awful job!” — and the deep, deep pain of humiliation summed up in the single word: slave.

He asked further, “Once you were free, did you ever want to go back to being a slave again?” With astonishment audible in every syllable, the old man replied, “Well, some folks might to have wanted to, but not me; to be a slave is to be a dog. You can’t be a man when you’re a slave.” The old man had summed up well what the philosophers say of slavery: it is the loss of self-determination that means so much to what it is to be a full person, it negates humanity by converting a human being into an object, an appliance, a tool to use until it is of no more use, and then to discard. “You can’t be a man where you’re a slave.” And maybe then that young man finally understood what his great-grandfather was trying to tell him.

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Most of us are like that young man. It is hard for us to get the full implication — the ultimate low-down — on what it means to be a slave. And so, when we hear the Scriptures today, especially Paul’s words to the Philippians, the word slave tends to slide over our ears instead of sinking in, like butter on cold toast. Paul said that Jesus, the Son of God, took upon himself the form of a slave — but we don’t grasp the full significance of these words.

So let’s refresh our memories, based on Mr Johnson’s testimony. To be a slave means to have no control over your own life: to be owned by someone else — not just to have to work hard, not just to have to follow orders — lots of people have to do that — but to have your very being rest in someone else’s hands, to have no power of self-determination: to be an object whose very existence is at someone else’s discretion.

To be a slave is to be the lowest of the low — to be at the very bottom of human society. It is to be even beneath human society: to be one step over the edge at which human likeness disappears even in one’s own eyes: as Mr Johnson said, “When you’re a slave, you are a dog.”

To apply these expressions to Jesus Christ sounds scandalous. And it is. This is the scandal of the Incarnation — that the Son of God took that step down, down to the very bottom. It is not simply that the word was made flesh, that God became a human being, but that the Son of God became— among human beings — not the highest, not a king or an emperor, but the lowest and the humblest, one not even considered human by many: a slave, treated as you or I might treat one of our appliances: something bought and paid for, valued while serviceable but dumped out on the sidewalk for collection by Sanitation when it is of no further use. A slave is one with no control over his or her own life, one who is placed at our mercy — placed himself into the hands of fallen humanity — our hands. We just said together those words said by our forebears — our hands were reached out, to “crucify him, crucify him.”

This is a great mystery: that Jesus accepted all of this willingly — for us, for our sakes and for our salvation. At his final meal, Jesus knew that his hour had come, that he was about to be betrayed into human hands by human hands, the very hands that would dip in the bowl with his. Believe me, you don’t want to fall into human hands.

But, as they say in the TV ads, “There’s more!” Jesus would go beyond the mere humility of a servant, even the humiliation of a slave. As the old language of Apostles’ Creed said so bluntly, “He descended into hell.”

Paul describes the step-by-step process in Philippians. The ladder of humility led from God’s majesty, at his right hand, to humanity (just below the angels), to slavery — that so distorts human beings that they are no longer seen as human beings, even by themselves — and then to that final step of death, where being — human or otherwise — altogether ceases. Jesus voluntarily takes these steps, even the final step into the abyss of non-being, the step into death, even death on the cross — for us.

And this is the glory of the cross: that the cross which marks the lowest point to which the Son would descend — that it should be the very means by which the Son would be lifted up, and draw the whole world to himself. This is the glory of the cross: that the abyss of death into which he was willing to descend should be forever patched and sealed by two beams of wood laid crosswise.

The cross is the mark of paradox: that He who Is should cease to be; that the death of one should bring life to all; that the slavery of one should bring freedom to all; that the highest should become the lowest. Only from that lowest point — only from the grave, the pit of death and hell — could Christ in rising again bring all of humanity back up with him from the grave. Only by getting completely under the burden of fallen human nature could Christ lift and carry it. Only by descending to the grave, the place of non-being, only from that lowest point, could he place the lever of the cross against the fulcrum of his death, and raise up a fallen world. Only from the grave could Jesus raise us to new life.

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And all the while the means of this great miracle, the means of our salvation, the cross, stands before us, there above the altar, a representation in brass instead of dark and bloody wood. This is a representation of the ladder on which the Son of God climbed down from heaven so he could be lifted up on earth, and bring the whole world to himself. This is the instrument by which a slave was revealed as the king in disguise; the one deemed no longer human, revealed to be humanity in perfection. This is the tool by which Christ, who took a slave’s form in order to bring freedom, died so that we might live again with him after our own deaths.

We are called to lift high that cross, our standard and our rallying point, the sign of victory in the midst of seeming defeat, the crossbeams that seal the portals of death, the lever the lifts a fallen world, the ladder of salvation. As we go forth today from this place at the end of our worship, to a world enslaved by riches that cannot make one free; to a world that cheapens human nature through injustice, sexism and racism, that enslaves the children of God and binds them in chains of hate and pain; to a world that refuses to recognize and honor love unless it fits its narrow understanding; to a world that is hungry for the good news of Christ but doesn’t know bread from heaven when it sees it; to a world that is dying of thirst while fountains of grace pour from the wounded side of the Lord of glory — as we go forth today at the end of our worship in the power of the Spirit let us lift high the cross upon which he was lifted up, to draw the whole world to himself. +


Monday, March 15, 2010

God of Love or Logic?

SJF • Lent 4c 2010 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The son came to himself and said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough to spare, but here I am dying of hunger!”

The Parable of the Prodigal Son is one of the great, memorable passages of the Gospel, familiar even to many who may never crack the pages of a Bible — it was even made into a ballet with music by Prokofiev, first performed in Paris by the Ballet Russe in 1929, and at the New York City Ballet many times since!

But in spite of how familiar it is, this parable still bears our close attention, as our familiarity can cause us to miss details revealed by taking more time with it.

We’ve just heard it, so I won’t repeat the story. But I want to remind you of where it comes in the Gospel of Luke. This will help us to understand who Jesus is speaking to, and what he is getting at, why he told the parable, and what he means by it.

The fifteenth chapter of Luke begins with Jesus teaching and preaching, and tax collectors and sinners are gathering round eagerly to hear him, like people starving and thirsting for a gracious and generous word. The Pharisees and scribes, with their focus on salvation through personal propriety and righteous observance of the law, grumble among themselves and tsk-tsk that “this fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” In response to these clucking tongues, Jesus launches into a series of three parables — all three of them dealing with recovery of something that has been lost: a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost son. All three accounts end with a celebration — though in the parable of the lost son, the most elaborate and detailed of the three, the celebration comes in the middle.

For though the celebration begins shortly after the prodigal son’s return, and the recovery of “the lost,” that isn’t the end of the story. There is an additional character, mentioned only in passing at the beginning of the tale, but making his full appearance at the end: the angry elder son. He complains about the celebration, and the manner of his complaint suggests he’s stored up quite a few resentments about how he feels he’s been treated by his father. And yet, the father assures him that he loves him as well, and that his inheritance is secure — but that they must celebrate and rejoice at the repentance and return of the younger son, rather than grumbling about it.

Now, given the placement of this parable in the gospel, and those to whom it was told, and why, it is abundantly clear that Jesus intends the younger son to represent the sinners who have turned their lives around and come to hear his preaching, and the older son to represent the scribes and Pharisees themselves, with their grumbling complaint about the “sinners” being paid any mind at all, including Jesus eating with them.

This is perhaps the gentlest rebuke to the scribes and Pharisees in the whole Gospel — certainly unlike the strong condemnations with which Jesus greeted them a few chapters earlier. Here the parable presents even the Pharisees with some Good News, assuring them that they too are “always with the Father,” and that “all that is his is theirs.” Perhaps this is Jesus’ last effort to reach out to them, to get them to see that they do not need to occupy themselves with judgment of those they deem unworthy, they need not be lost in their own self-righteous anger but can break free of it and find their way home, and come to join the celebration, rejoicing in the breadth of salvation, in which all who are lost are ultimately found!

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That is an important lesson in itself. However, I’d like to note one more thing about this parable. We tend to romanticize the younger son — even if we don’t make his story into a ballet! We tend to see him as a figure of heartfelt sorrow and repentance. But look closely at the text and I think you’ll see instead something more like calculation than sorrow, even if it leads him to change his mind and come back home. He’s spent all his money, taken the lowest job you could imagine for a Jew — feeding pigs! — and realizes what a mistake he’s made, comparing himself to the hired hands back home and seeing how miserable he is. He is sorry — but mostly because of the mess he’s in, sorry about his own discomfort more than for the pain he caused his father, more sorry for the consequences of his action than for the act itself.

So he makes an entirely pragmatic and practical decision to go back home — motivated not so much by love for his father, as by hunger in his belly. He makes a quick calculation that he couldn’t be any worse off as a hired hand, so it’s well worth taking the chance of returning home.

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The thought of calculation reminds me of another young man’s story — a real one this time, but with a similar theme. Blaise Pascal was a 17th-century French scientist and philosopher, famous among other things for inventing one of the earliest mechanical adding machines before he was twenty years old. He is also known for his having undergone a religious conversion and for his adherence to a strict sect of very pious Roman Catholicism.

Now, as you know, it is not common for scientists to be fervently faithful or embarrassingly pious, so it is no surprise to find that in addition to his fervor and mysticism there is also a more calculating and rationalistic side to Pascal’s faith. He knew as a scientist that he could not prove that God exists, but as one of the originators of probability theory, he had to admit that God might exist. And so, in what came to be called “Pascal’s Wager” he calculated that if God exists, it is wisest to win eternal life by placing your bets on God — for, if God doesn’t exist, you’ve lost nothing, but if God does exist you stand to win everything! It’s a compelling notion, and it has held up well for over 300 years. A modern form of this wager is the comment of a believer to an atheist: “If I am wrong about God and life after death, I will never know; but if you are wrong, you will!”

There is a similar kind of calculation in the younger son in our parable. “Better take a chance on my father welcoming me back, rather than starve to death for certain, here.” But you can also hear the wheels clicking in the mind of the older brother, too — though to a different calculation: not the younger brother’s “it can’t get any worse so what the hey, let me go home”; but the colder calculation of the older brother’s carefully tabulated column of resentments — “Working like a slave for years, never disobedient, never got so much as a goat to have a party with my friends...” I can picture him, red-faced and angry, perhaps about to burst into tears. How long has this good obedient son been holding in this catalogue of resentments and injuries? Storing up all the debt he things the father hasn’t paid him?

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And perhaps that touches something in the father, too. But it is not simply a response to the calculus of resentment, any more than his response to the younger son was based on a calculus of repentance. This isn’t about calculus, or logic, or anything like that. It is about love.

The father doesn’t love the younger son because he repents, or the older son because he remains loyal, but because they are his sons. It is not about calculation: either the calculation of a gamble that you might be forgiven, or the calculation that if you tote up enough obedience and loyalty you will get a rich reward. Like the generous employer who gave the workers in the vineyard the same wage regardless of how long or short their work-shift, the generous father in this parable loves his sons not on the basis of what they’ve done or failed to do, but because they are his children. It is not about calculation, but relationship; not about logic, but love.

This, ultimately, is the message Jesus wanted to get across to those scribes and Pharisees, the message the tax-collectors and sinners had already understood, the message that the God of Love intends for us. God’s love is not based upon what we do or fail to do; God’s love is not something we earn by being good or lose by being bad. God’s love is a gift that came to us, reconciling us and the whole world to God, even while we were yet sinners — not counting our trespasses but forgiving them, wiping the slate clean and cancelling the debt, hitting the delete key on the whole spreadsheet of human sinfulness.

Christ did not save us because we were good, or because we repented, but because we needed saving and he loved us so much that nothing could stop him from saving us, even at the cost of his own life, by which he showed us the greatest love.

This is how the lost are found, how the dead are restored to life; this is how new life begins, how new creation starts, and this is why we celebrate — as we must — and keep the feast, through Jesus Christ our Lord.+