Sunday, September 26, 2010

You Can Go to Hell

SJF • Proper 21c • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.+

When I was a child, one of the major features of Sunday afternoon, after coming home from church, was the Sunday newspaper, most especially the funny pages. I remember one of the features vividly: not a comic strip but a single large cartoon panel. And what it showed week by week was a satirical view of what life was like down in Hell. It took the approach of the Lord High Executioner from Gilbert & Sullivan’s Mikado: “Let the punishment fit the crime.” One of these cartoons stuck in my mind. This was the panel that showed what happened to people who smoked too many cigarettes. In Hell they were locked into stocks like those from a Puritan New England village. And with heads sticking out through the hole, they were forced to smoke old mattresses rolled up like giant cigars, one after another for all eternity.

This cartoon series was part of a venerable tradition, going back to the ancient Greeks. Many a Greek myth portrayed the sufferings inflicted upon people in the afterlife for their sins in this life: Sisyphus was cursed to push a boulder up a hill only to have it always roll to the bottom again just as he got it almost to the top; Tantalus was doomed to unending hunger and thirst, chained in a pond which would drain away when he tried to bend down to take a drink; and unable to reach the branches rich with fruit, just above his head.

Much later, the great Italian poet Dante populated his Inferno with all sorts of sinners. And these too suffered fates in keeping with their crimes: the lustful burning in unquenchable flames, the misers buried up to their chins in garbage, and the worst of all (in Dante’s mind) the traitors, literally being chewed on for all eternity by the greatest traitor of all, the treacherous fallen angel Satan himself.

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I’m sure that all of us have been tempted, in light of the horrors we hear in the news, to picture visions of Hell, populated with any number of contemporary villains, suffering all sorts of fates reflective of their crimes. It gives a certain satisfaction to know that even if villains get away with their crimes in the here and now, there is a terrible punishment waiting for them in the there and then. The human imagination of such justice has endured for thousands of years, from the Greeks, through Dante, and even in the funny papers.

So when we heard our gospel today, we were on familiar ground — or rather under it. Jesus describes this unnamed rich man suffering torments not unlike those of Tantalus, surrounded by flames, and in an agony of thirst. And we’d be tempted to think that the rich man must have been a great villain, to warrant this punishment.

After all, Sisyphus the perpetual rock pusher was a master swindler who (according to the myth) even tricked the grim reaper and locked him in a cupboard for a while. And forever-thirsty Tantalus was worse — he was punished with unending hunger and thirst because he murdered his own son and, to test the wisdom of the gods, invited them to supper and served them his son’s body cooked in a stew, to see if they could tell and avoid eating the cursed dish. So too with the traitors chewed upon by Satan in Dante’s vision of the Pit of Hell: Brutus and Cassius betrayed Julius Caesar, and getting the worst of all, Judas who betrayed Christ, the epitomes of treason and treachery.

So it is natural to think that the rich man in our parable must have been very wicked to end in Hell. However, Jesus has prevented us from taking that view before hand. He’s already told us about this rich man. We are not told that he is a great villain, a murderer, a terrorist, a traitor. What was his crime? What did he do to warrant such a terrible punishment? Why did he go to Hell?

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Jesus offers us only bits of evidence concerning his life: he is rich, he dresses in purple and fine linen, and he feasts sumptuously every day. He is a rich man who enjoys his riches. So why should he be doomed to an eternity of torment?

We find an answer to this question by looking at that passage from the book of the prophet Amos. Here too we find the easy rich at ease in Zion, and those who feel secure further north on Mount Samaria. They lie on beds of inlaid ivory, they eat the best cuts of meat, drink fine wine, are anointed with oil and spend their time fiddling on musical instruments. This is what they do; but that’s not what gets them into trouble. It is what they don’t do that is the problem. What they don’t do is grieve over the coming destruction of Israel.

The sin of these people isn’t that they enjoy their riches, but that they ignore the fact that their country is going to Hell in a handbasket, and them with it. Their doom lies not in the fact that they live in comfort and spend their time making music, but that they live in comfort even while the doom is advancing, ignoring the prophets, plucking their harp-strings and singing their tunes when what God calls for, as Amos has told them, is for justice to roll down like waters, and righteousness as a flowing stream.

And this helps us to see the sin of the rich man in our Gospel. It isn’t that he is rich, or that he enjoys his riches. His sin lies in the fact that while he is enjoying his riches there is a poor man lying at his gate, about whom he does nothing. The sin of this rich man is that he ignores what is going on right on his doorstep, ignores the poverty and pain that he has every opportunity and means to alleviate — but instead keeps his wealth for himself and his dinner guests. The rich man’s sin is the sin of omission: it lies in what he doesn’t do.

And amazingly he keeps on not doing it! Even in Hell, even wrapped in flames and parched with thirst, the formerly rich man still doesn’t get it. He has the nerve to ask Abraham to send Lazarus, of all people, to dip his finger in cool water to bring him comfort. Ah…now finally he’s noticed Lazarus, he’s finally noticed the poor man, the poor man who lay at his doorway all those years. Now at last he sees the person he stepped over to get through his gate, he sees the “invisible man” whom he treated like “Mr. Cellophane” all those years. Finally he’s taken notice and what does he want? He wants Lazarus to wait on him! As greatas the chasm between heaven and hell, between Abraham’s bosom and Hades — surely there is also a great chasm in this rich man’s understanding!

When Abraham finally explains it all to him the rich man finally seems to grasp his situation, and calls out for a warning to be sent to his brothers who are still living — perhaps the first thoughtful thing he’s ever done, although now too late. If only Lazarus might be sent to warn them! But he receives the chilling answer that an adequate warning has already been given. The Law and the prophets have already laid out the whole duty of humankind: to love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself, to pursue justice and righteousness, as Saint Paul told Timothy, to do good, and to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share. There is no secret password to salvation, no complicated hidden riddle to solve — and unlike that old joke about Saint Peter making it hard on some people getting into heaven, no one is expected to spell chrysanthemum! No, my friends, what God asks has been laid out for all to see, given in the law, reinforced by the prophets, and summarized by Jesus Christ himself: to love God with your whole self, and to love your neighbor as yourself. And you are unwilling to hear that warning, even a warning from one risen from the dead will do no good. You can go to Hell, if you want to.

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These are hard words; this is a hard lesson; but it is also an additional warning to us. God has told us clearly how to go to Hell if we want to, how we can pave the way to eternal death with every missed opportunity to help our sisters and brothers. Every week, we confess our sins, we acknowledge that we have not always heeded God’s warning to us. We acknowledge that we have sinned against God not only by what we have done, but by what we have left undone. We explicitly confess that we have not loved God with our whole heart, and that we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We say those words, every week. Do we mean them? We have this weekly reminder before us, this weekly summary of the law and the prophets, this weekly confession of what we have failed to do.

And further, if we don’t want to go to Hell, God has provided us with the ultimate warning, a warning from the one who was in fact raised from the dead. He, the Risen One, has told us what to do, and we ignore his warning and omit our duty at our peril and to our loss. Hear, O my people, the Lord our God is One Lord, and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and your neighbor as yourself. Let those who have ears to hear, hear.+


Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Who Is Your Master

SJF • Proper 20 2010 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.+

In this morning’s reading from the Old Testament, the prophet Amos describes a stampede of greedy merchants who are ready to trample on the needy. So eager are they to sell their wares that they can hardly wait for the new moon to be over or the Sabbath to end, so that they can offer their goods for sale. And even once they begin to sell, they cheat — with false measures and false weights, and doctoring their grain with the sweepings off the floor.

This short passage evokes many memories for me. The first, brought to mind by the verse about the sweepings of the wheat, is of my grandmother’s refusal ever to buy tea in tea-bags — she would only buy loose tea — because she insisted that the people who made tea-bags only used the sweepings off the floor instead of good quality tea. I can vividly recall her shaking her head and clucking her tongue at this minor villainy by the tea-merchants of the world. So it was always loose tea in her home! The irony is that she really didn’t drink that much tea, and far preferred coffee. And the further irony is that the brand of coffee she preferred was actually a mix of coffee and chicory — which itself was originally a root roasted by those who couldn’t afford coffee, and later as a cheap way to stretch your coffee budget! My grandmother, it seems, rejected one economical adulteration only to embrace another.

Second, and more importantly, I have lived in New York long enough to remember the day when stores decided to remain open on Sunday; under the Blue Laws dating back to colonial times — and I don’t go back quite that far! — the merchants were not allowed to trade on the sabbath; fancy that! It was in the early 70s that one of the big department stores — I think it was Macy’s — until then like all stores except pharmacies closed on Sunday, announced that they would be open for half a day on Sunday. The other department stores expressed indignation — but they quickly followed suit — and shirt, and tie, and a second pair of pants! In very short order all of the stores were open on Sunday; and not just for half a day, either. And now, 40 years later, you will even find liquor stores open on Sunday — the last of the old Blue Laws has faded like a pair of old jeans, colorless and threadbare, and torn at the knees — and I can guarantee you not from praying.

The third memory I have is not of merchants but of customers — not sellers but buyers. And here it turns really serious: a matter of life and death. It is the image of that crowd of over-eager shoppers who trampled someone to death a few years ago when a big Costco or Wal-Mart opened its doors for a sale — in this case it wasn’t the merchants who were in a stampede, but the customers trampling on each other — you would have thought they were refugees in flood-ravaged Pakistan fighting over a bag of rice, to see those people desperate to get the latest sale item off those well-stocked shelves in the big box store.

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Now, what do all of these — from the prophet’s curse on wicked merchants, through my grandmother’s rather milder distaste for the cheapness of the tea-companies, to the impatient sabbath-breaking retailers, and the mad rush of customers trampled and trampling in that big box store— have in common? The key is our gospel text, which speaks to the impossibility of trying to serve two masters, and that pointed aphorism, “You cannot serve God and wealth.”

The way I pose the question today is, Who is your master? By “master” I don’t man a literal slave-owner — though some of the forces at work in this fallen world can practically enslave us if we let them. What I’m getting at is, “Who or What controls your life?” What person or institution or entity do you find yourself spending your time serving? “Whom do you serve?” Let’s look at the examples I cited earlier.

Starting with the Scripture: the wicked merchants cursed by Amos are only interested in serving themselves. They care nothing for the poor, from whom they will squeeze the last penny they can get, and sell them adulterated goods at that. They worship at the shrine of the false god wealth, or to use the old Aramaic name, Mammon. Surely, the true God, holy and righteous, will never forget their deeds, as Amos says, nor forget whom they chose to serve instead of God.

And my grandmother, God bless her, whom did she serve with her somewhat unreasonable belief that tea in bags was necessarily inferior to tea in a tin, or that coffee dosed with chicory was better than coffee pure and simple. Was she a slave to these mistaken notions, these fears of being cheated, and by paying a premium price both for tea and supposedly “fancy” French coffee (which was really part coffee and part chicory, and went back to the days of the Franco-Prussian war when the French couldn’t get coffee imports and so roasted the roots of chicory plants instead) in the long run wasn’t she only serving the tea and coffee companies?

And those department stores that first dared to break the Sabbath — of course they might have said they were merely serving their customers; of which they certainly had plenty! But weren’t they in fact serving themselves, by creating more opportunities to reach into the pockets of those customers? Remember, the classic pitch of the con-artist or the scammer isn’t, “I can help you” but rather “You can help me. I need your help.” As indeed you can, if you fall for the scam-artist who tells you she is a poor widow stuck with millions of dollars from her late husband in Ivory Coast and needs your help to transfer the funds!

And what of those who trample each other to death in that mad rush in the big-box store? Who were they serving but the merchants, almost literally human sacrifices to the great god Discount, the golden calf of the cut-rate special — and that cost-cutting yellow Smiley Face begins to look more and more like a leering skull smiling down on the chaos and rampage below?

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“Whom do you serve?” You cannot serve both God and money, God and wealth, Jesus assures us, as a simple statement of fact. A life fixed on bargains, a life spent worrying and being anxious about the things that are passing away, as the collect says: attaching your heart to the things that are passing away; a life spent worrying, “am I being cheated,” even worse a life spent cheating in order to amass gain at the expense of others, or being so cheated, or so set on capturing the last toy on the shelf or the biggest flat-screen TV that you don’t care that you crush another person to death under your feet — what kind of life is that? Whom do you serve? Who is your master?

Ask yourself that question every day of your life, every step of your journey. Whom do you serve, who is your master? Whom do you serve with all your heart and mind and soul and strength? Into whose hands do you want to commit your life, your future, and your hopes? To whom do you owe your very life, your soul, your being, and your strength? Such a one is worthy of your service, and will, at the end of days welcome you, you who have been faithful, even in little things, into the eternal homes.+


Monday, September 06, 2010

Beyond the Call of Duty

SJF • Proper 18c 2010 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love.+

Some years ago, a mother sought to teach her daughter about stewardship. Before the worship began, she gave her daughter a dollar bill and a quarter, and told her, “It is up to you which of these you put into the offering plate.” All through the sermon, the mother watched her child considering the possibilities seriously; holding the dollar in one hand and the quarter in the other, looking back and forth between the bill and the coin and furrowing her tiny brow in concentration. Finally, when the collection began and the ushers passed the plate into the aisle, the child nodded to herself vigorously. Then with great deliberation she placed the quarter in the offering plate, and sat back with a contented smile. After the worship ended, the mother asked, “Why did you decide to put in the quarter instead of the dollar?” Her daughter responded, “Well, I was going to put in the dollar; but then the priest said, ‘God loves a cheerful giver,’ and I thought I’d be more cheerful if I kept the dollar.”

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Much Christian stewardship, and many Christian stewards, take this subjective view about giving to the church: how does giving make me feel? This is the “If it feels good, do it” school of Christian giving. Problem is that while some people may feel a glow of discipleship when they give generously to the church, too many others — like the child in the story — feel instead a glow of satisfaction at having held on to as much as they possibly can.

Our gospel this morning presents us with another view of stewardship, a view based not on feelings but practicalities: the examples of considering how much it costs to build a tower or to wage a war. This is the “Balance the Budget” school of Christian giving. It does have one particular advantages over the “Feel Good” theory. It is more engaged with the reality of what it costs to maintain a church. But it has a down-side too, in that giving to the church can be commercialized. Just as with the feel-good giver, this view is focused not on God or the church, but back on the giver, as it appears to say, “Yes, I support the church, for what I get out of it.”

In the nineteenth century when this church was built congregations often raised their funds through a true “Balance the Budget” technique. The annual cost of running the church was figured out, divided up, and if you wanted to be a member of this church, you paid a fee based on your share of that divided total cost. And this fee was in a very practical form of pew rental — you couldn’t just sit anywhere you wanted in the church, as we do today. If you came to Saint James Church in the nineteenth century, you sat in the pew you had bought with your annual pew fee, the pew your family rented — that’s why they have those little brass tags at the end of each pew, with a number, and a few of them still with the names of the families. And in those days the church-wardens were the ushers and “warden” carried as strong a sense it does in a prison. If you hadn’t paid your pew rent the wardens would know it; and you would be shown to the back of the church to stand until after the sermon, at which point you would be ushered up here to the seats on the side, where pews used to be before our remodeling; that was the “Peanut Gallery.”

Eventually people realized that this commercial approach wasn’t really Christian stewardship. It was more like the behavior of the Pharisees, who took the best seats in the synagogue. And there was also a growing sense that if people began to think of giving to the church simply as exchange for what they got, a kind of “give and get,” they would come to see the church as if it were just another shop on the street where you paid your money and took your choice, as if the church were a kind of vending machine that dispensed spiritual satisfaction to those who put their money in the slot. Such an attitude transformed believers into customers.

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Ultimately both of these views of stewardship run aground on the astounding statement with which today’s gospel passage ended: Jesus said, “None of you can become my disciples if you do not give up all your possessions.” How shallow both “feel good” and the “balance the budget” look in contrast to that astounding claim that Jesus makes upon us! While some of us here in this church devote a significant portion of our income to the church — the ten percent of the biblical tithe, yet how shallow even the most generous giver must feel in light of that astounding charge from Jesus: “None of you can become my disciples if you do not give up all your possessions.” What is five or ten percent compared to all! Even after we do our part with what we give, most of us are left with ninety or ninety-five percent — or more! So what could Jesus mean by this astounding, ultimate demand?

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We will find our answer to this hard question in the second reading we heard today — one of the longest Scripture readings we have in our worship — almost an entire book of the Bible in a single reading: all but the last four verses of Paul’s letter to Philemon.

This letter tells a deeply personal story of how important this young man Onesimus had become to the elderly Paul as he suffered in prison. And it also shows Paul trusts that when this runaway slave returns to his master with this letter in hand, he will not suffer the penalty imposed on runaways. No, Paul trusts that Philemon will welcome Onesimus back no longer as a slave, but as a brother in Christ; for the slave has become a Christian while with Paul, perhaps even a deacon — as Paul’s words suggest when he describes how Onesimus has served him. Now it is also clear from this letter that Onesimus had not been a very good slave — in addition to having run away, he had been, as Paul says, “useless” — making a bit of a joke out Onesimus’ name, which in Greek means Useful. Upon his return, he will live up to his name and be “useful” indeed as a brother in Christ; he will be more than a slave, not less. Paul assures Philemon that he is not demanding this: he wants Philemon to do a voluntary good deed, not something forced — even though Paul reminds him that he owes him more than he can possibly account for, in that wonderful flourish at the end, “I say nothing about your owing me even your own self” — echoing the teaching of Jesus.

You see, what Paul is saying is that Philemon can have his cake and eat it too! He can have the free service of a good and useful brother in place of the half-hearted work of a useless slave, by giving up the control of being a slave-master over him, in exchange for the cooperation of working with him as a brother in Christ.

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And it is that “giving up” that connects us back with that hard saying of Jesus: “none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all of your possessions.” We don’t just owe God our possessions, after all, but, as Philemon owed Paul, our very selves! Yet Jesus does not say, I’mtaking your life — he wants us to live our lives in service to him, not throw our lives away. So too he doesn’t ask us to “give away” all of our possessions, but to “give them up.” And the difference is suggestive: this is about surrender, not commerce. He wants us to “give up” to him, to “surrender all” to him! It is about our learning how to loosen our grip on what we have, treating it not as something controlled by us, but as ultimately coming to us as a gift from God — as indeed our very lives come as a gift from God’s endless generosity, and he wants us to give them up to him as well. We are called to treat what we have been given, what we have been blessed to possess, with the same kind of liberty with which Paul counseled Philemon to treat his former slave Onesimus, and to do so voluntarily, not under compulsion or solely as doing our duty, but as going truly beyond the call of duty into the realm of the freedom of the children of God — where there are no more slaves, but we are free — free because we have given up, we have surrendered all to God.

We are not called simply to balance the books and pay our share so that we get what we pay for and what we think we deserve. Friends, I can assure you that if we all got what we deserved we would be neither cheerful nor proud!

But when we treat all we have been given — including our very selves — not as “ours” to control any more but as the free gift of a generous God, then we too can find ourselves going beyond the mere call of duty to maintain the church, to the mission of spreading God’s kingdom, the kingdom of freedom, in which all are God’s children.

Yes, it is our duty to maintain our little corner of the God’s kingdom here on Jerome and 190th Street, to do what it takes to financially support this building But we are called to do so much more; we are called to be God’s servants, not slaves working only because they have to, but children of God who work so hard because they love their Father in heaven, and love their brothers and sisters so very much, knowing that everything comes from him as well.

If this spirit of generosity and freedom can fill us all who knows what might happen? Let me tell you one thing. Onesimus the runaway slave remained a Christian. He became so useful in the church that decades later he shows up again in Christian history — as the bishop of the church of Ephesus! Who would have thought that a useless runaway slave could become such a useful servant of God?

When we give up and surrender all to God, who knows what he might make of us? When we go beyond our own contentment and merely feeling good about ourselves; when we go beyond just the call of duty to balance the budget; God will surprise us with his amazing grace, doing infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. To God be the glory, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.+