Sunday, August 22, 2010

Dorothy's God

SJF • Proper 16c 2010 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Our God is a consuming fire…+

If we were to imagine our Scripture readings today as items on a supermarket shelf, and then to take a look at the list of ingredients, we would find: sheer terror, sweeping hail, sprinkled blood, consuming fire, strange deeds, alien works, weeping and gnashing of teeth. I don’t know about you, but when I read a label like that I place the box back on the shelf, and look for one with fewer calories and less fat.

Today’s readings confront us with a God who is completely unlike us— whether thundering like a volcano on Mount Sinai, or in a technicolor spectacle with a cast of thousands on Mount Zion. So we find ourselves, you and I and every human being since Adam and Eve, gently returning this God to the shelf, and going off in search of the diet section. This God is just too rich and heavy; we’d rather just have an apple.

History ever since that apple in the garden is full of lo-cal religion, and the Letter to Hebrews cites another example. We’ll hear the full account itself in a few weeks, but I’m sure you remember it. The children of Israel, have been brought out of Egypt with mighty works, assembled by God in a holy place where they might be changed into a new people. They behold God’s majesty from afar, and God does them the great service of hand-carving his word in stone with letters of fire, entrusting it to Moses, who brings it to the people in a physical, visible form that can be seen and touched — for God deeply desires to be in Covenant with them. But Moses finds — what? — that the people have already lost their faith that God can deliver the goods. They turn from the living God to the works of their own hands, where they think they can take charge, in a faithless exercise of their own selfish self-determination. They want more control. They are happier with a manufactured god, a golden calf who won’t do much of anything for them— but who will ask nothing of them.

+ + +

Manufactured gods can take many forms. Politics has always played its part: from the time Isaiah refers too, when the rulers in Jerusalem vainly promised safety because they’d done a deal with death, through all the schemes that politicians have produced ever since: from the Divine Right of Kings to the Dictatorship of the Proletariat; big government or small government; Tory or Whig; Democrat or Republican; Tea-Party Independent or Party Loyalist.

The truth of the matter is, that behind all of these tin-plate gods, and all our more personal household gods, there lurks the fearsome knowledge, deep-down, that these substitutes can’t really replace the noisy, alien God on the mountaintop. Deep down we know that golden calves are powerless. But we put up with their powerlessness, and even in the long run try to whittle God down to size, to seek to treat God like one of these powerless Gods: to put God in a box. So we nurse the hope that as we approach the fearsome mountain we will discover that God will turn out, after all, to be a nice old man hiding behind a curtain off to the side. What we all want in the short run is a God like Dorothy’s Wizard of Oz.

We know that the special effects are our human substitutes for God, they are only special effects; they don’t really do anything; they don’t really change anything. But then, we don’t really want to be changed, do we? We just want what we want. We maybe don’t mind some external alterations, but we don’t want to be changed, transformed deep down where we need it most, right in our hearts. So we go for the superficial answers of artificial gods, of a carnival huckster turned “wizard.”

And the nice old wizard — the phoney religion — appears to deliver at first. Everyone seems to get what they want: a brain, a heart, courage, even a trip home. The short-run god appears to deliver.

But what happens in the long run? We know the disappointing answer. Artificial gods cannot save. The crash diet doesn’t work. The government, big or small, centralized or federalized, communist or capitalist, can’t solve the problems of the world, far less satisfy the inner needs of the human heart — where all of the world’s problems have their start. Artificial gods can’t provide us with what we need in the long run— just as artificial food can’t nourish us.

Artificial gods can only provide artificial blessings: love as mechanical as the Tin Man’s clockwork heart; courage as cheap as the Cowardly Lion’s plated medal; wisdom as thin as the Scarecrow’s diploma; and a home that there’s no place like, because there never was such a place.

The short-run solutions of artificial gods don’t last. What happened after Oz? Did the Tin Man go through a mid-life crisis and succumb to metal fatigue; did the Lion with his new-found courage perish in a fatal bungee-jumping mishap; perhaps the Scare-crow had a nervous breakdown? And Dorothy— or rather, let’s call her by her adopted name, Judy Garland; because even that wasn’t her real name, which was Frances Gumm — we know what happened to her: “home” for her became a sanitarium; and the false gods of drugs and alcohol got her in the end. The short-run, make-do, lo-cal, no-fat, man-made gods don’t work.

+ + +

So then, are we left with no other choice than the mighty fortress God, the One of Sinai and Zion? Yes, I’m afraid that’s it, my friends; for salvation lies on the mountain — for only there is the sure foundation that offers opportunity for change, the kind of change that means life: deep down change — right here — where change needs to begin. It is in God’s nature to shake things up— God is not safe, as C. S. Lewis said — God shakes us up, God shakes the world up, not to destroy it, but to set it, and us, right. God is like the cosmic Dad who fixes the TV by giving it a miraculous bang on the side. God is like the cosmic Mom who cleans the throw rug by briskly shaking it out the back window. God is the cosmic Lover who grabs hysterical humanity by the shoulders and gives it a shake — and brings it to its senses.

+ + +

But there is even more to this mystery. There is more than the fire and the flame, the lightning and the thunder. It turns out that God is behind the curtain after all. Not the deceptive and concealing curtain behind which the Wizard of Oz hid, but the curtain of the temple, torn open from top to bottom, revealing our God to be — not a carnival humbug with ready explanations and inadequate answers — but a naked, wounded, suffering figure nailed to a cross, forgiving those who nailed him to it: one who shakes us up in the depth of our being and changes us through and through, through the power of his loving, transforming, sacrificial forgiveness. What can be more upsetting than for someone whom you have hurt to say, “I forgive you”? That is what changes us, deep down.

Behind and within the earthshaking mystery, behind and within the utterly different, we discover someone who is utterly the same. We meet someone who ate at people’s tables, who taught in their streets — this same Jesus, of one being with the God who thundered on Sinai’s height, who was praised and will be praised on the hill of Zion, and who finally appeared in the scandalous and transforming power of his saving and forgiving death on that third hill, Calvary.

What is more, Jesus comes among us still — do you know that? — and deigns to be our guest. He eats at our tables— do we pay attention to his dinner conversation? He teaches in our streets — but are we too busy to take notice of what he says? His brothers and sisters are all around us, and as we do to them, we do to him. Do we reject the God who comes to us as one like us, as surely as those at the foot of Sinai rejected the God who revealed himself to them as something so unlike them? We do so at our peril. The Summary of the Law bids us love God and neighbor.

Our call is to remain rooted in God, safe in the mighty fortress amidst the storm, trusting that God will change us so that we can change the world, the world in which we meet God and neighbor. We are called to strive for the real well-being of every man, woman, and child whom we meet, in the knowledge that all of them are made in God’s image.

Our faith is not perfect, nor is our performance. We are still in the process of being changed, and we struggle and resist that change. We still try to keep God at arm’s length. The problem is, it’s very hard to pass through the narrow door to life with our arms held out in stubborn refusal to be led or carried. Our arms can be put to better use: to reach out to each other, to feed and clothe, to hold and if need be to carry each other. When we do so we are touching another child of God, and we change each other as God has changed us.

We have come this morning, after all, to something that can be touched. Not stone tablets hewn from a mountainside, but the responsive hands of our neighbors that clasp ours in peace.

Our hands in just a few minutes will join around this banquet table, hand to hand with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, and all the folk from north, south, east, and west, gathered with the spirits of the righteous made perfect. And so, let us give thanks, offering to God an acceptable worship — as we have been accepted — to the only God, living and true, who dwells in light inaccessible, but who deigns to dwell with us as one of us as well.+


Sunday, August 08, 2010

Promises, Promises

SJF • Proper 14c 2010 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.

Our gospel this morning ends with a series of parables about homecoming and servants and thieves. Few people these days can afford to have servants anymore, though most of us have bars or our windows or an ADT alarm system on our homes. Still, a few of us have (or are) healthcare attendants who assist with tasks of daily living. But I think most of us may be familiar with the phenomenon of the babysitter. So let me try a few parables of my own with that in mind.

A couple returned home one night after celebrating the wife’s birthday with a dinner at a local restaurant. As they came through the front door they found the babysitter demurely seated on the sofa watching television, with the sound turned down very low so as not to disturb the sleeping children upstairs. All was well and the parents praised the babysitter and gave her a tip in addition to her wages; and blessed was that babysitter!

But another couple returned home one night after a similar birthday celebration and found the babysitter lying flat out on the sofa, drunk and snoring, with a half-finished bottle of the husband’s best single-malt scotch whisky sitting on the coffee table, and the children rampaging through the hallways after a tremendous pillow-fight which filled the house with feathers and broken knick-knacks, and the kitchen a disaster area worthy of BP after the children’s efforts to microwave a can of Spaghetti-Os. And when the babysitter was roused from her drunken slumber she wondered greatly at what had happened, and needless to say not only didn’t get a tip or her wage, but didn’t get a blessing either! And she was cast out into the place of wailing and gnashing of teeth, and had a terrible hangover the next day!

The point of these parables, both mine and the ones that Jesus told to the disciples in today’s Gospel, is that being a servant implies both a promise and a trust. People who employ a servant, whether parents or the master of the house, are committing things (or people) they value into the care of someone else. And they trust that the one so employed will take good care of those things or people — whether their children or the knick-knacks in their household.

And from the servants and the babysitter there is an implicit, or perhaps even explicit, promise that they will do what they are hired to do. In short, assurances and promises are given and trust is placed in those assurances.

+ + +

There are, of course, more theological words to express this principle: faith and faithfulness. What is interesting to me, and I hope to you, is that in our life in Christ is to a large extent a reversal of the kind of faith described in those parables — the faith of a master in his servants’ faithfulness. Isn’t it, for us, usually the other way around? It is God who is sure and trusted and reliable and faithful — the one in whom we place our trust, trust in God’s assurances: “In God we trust” (as our money tries to remind us), the one in whom we have faith is our Lord and God, the one of whose promises we are sure.

Surely this is the message of the other Scripture readings we heard today. Abram has a vision in which God makes a great promise: that Abram’s own children will succeed him — that he will be a father and a grandfather and a great-grandfather of many nations, greater in number than the stars of the heavens.

And as the letter to Hebrews continues, Abram — or as he became, Abraham — continues steadfast in that faith. He is assured of the things he hopes for by his faith, faith in God’s promise, faith in God’s great faithfulness, God’s trustworthiness. He sets out from his familiar home to go to an unknown land, trusting and full of faith that he will find a new home; and he lives and grows old for a long time in that land of promise, a land foreign to him and to his people, until in his late old age (and his wife’s old age too) a son is born to him and Sarah. From one as good as dead, the promise was fulfilled, the promise in which he had faith — the first installment on that promise that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars of the heavens. God’s trustworthiness is proven.

And finally, Jesus calls upon the faith of his disciples. He assures them with a divine promise that they need not be afraid, that that little flock need not fear, because God is pleased to give them the kingdom. In God’s great faithfulness, God’s trustworthiness, God will provide them with all that they need. Jesus calls them to radical faith and radical poverty — the kind that risks everything: to sell their possessions and give away all that they have; to make purses for themselves that do not wear out, and to put their hearts — that is, their faith and trust — where the true treasure is to be found, with God in heaven.

+ + +

This is a great challenge to us, as it was to the disciples. It is a challenge both as individuals and to us as a community, as a church. Beyond that, it is a challenge to us as a society and a nation and a world. Our natural human nature is self-preservation. We want to store everything up close to us, not off in heaven, but here, here: we want our treasure where our heart is, not the other way around. Our natural urge is to store up our treasure, to hold it close, to keep it where we think it will be safe. And so we put it in a bank — forgetting the truth of the old saying attributed to a notorious thief and bank robber of the last century, who, when asked why he robbed banks, said, “That’s where they keep the money.” For not only do thieves break in and steal, but sometimes even the promises of the bankers, the promises of those who tell us that our money is safe with them are unable to follow through on their promises. How many broken promises and failed dreams were revealed as the economy shuddered and sank over the last few years?

+ + +

Not so God. For God is not promising us a return our investments, or a secure retirement, or that the value of our home will go on increasing and increasing year after year. These are the promises the world makes, and it doesn’t often keep them. God promises us more, and his promise is true, and worthy of our trust. Great is his faithfulness, and worthy of our faith in him. For his promise is not the promise of some merely earthly happiness, but of something more lasting; everlasting, in fact: a heavenly hope. We are, all of us, looking from a distance towards a homeland we that will not attain in this life; a better country, a heavenly one.

Now, the worldly will say, “That’s just the same old ‘pie in the sky when you die!’” And what I say to them is what I say to you: we are all going to die someday. And the question is, What next? The promise that we are mortal is a promise in which only the most foolish person would fail to have faith. And since it is absolutely 100 percent sure that we are all going to die some day, having an assurance, a promise from one who is trusted for his faithfulness from everlasting and beyond all time, is of paramount value.

Who do you trust? I know who I trust. I know such a one; his name is Jesus. He has told me not to be afraid, and that it is the Father’s good pleasure to welcome me into his kingdom. He has said the same to you — I know he has; haven’t you heard him? He calls to our minds and he calls to our hearts, that we should place our hearts and treasure in his hands. He has promised us that nothing will be lost, of all the Father has given him.

And so let us put our faith in his promise and our treasure in his care, that our hearts may surely there be set in that place of trust and assurance. An let us as well, in the meantime, like those good servants, be about our Master’s business, doing what we have promised God to do, to do the work he has given us to do. There’s a lot of work to do, my friends, a lot of work to do. But great is God’s faithfulness, and his promises are sure.+