Sunday, March 27, 2011

Not As We Deserve

We might get the idea that God hates us when we treat God so badly.

SJF • Lent3a 2011 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.+

There was once a man who hated his boss. That in itself is probably not all that rare or unusual a circumstance. But this man really hated his boss. I mean, he couldn’t stand the sight of him. He hated him so much he could taste it; literally: if he caught sight of him — or even worse had to deal with him in a meeting or work session — his stomach would churn and he would throw up a little bit in his mouth. It was that bad. This was hatred he could taste, anger and resentment that would bubble up inside and churn over.

And he didn’t keep this feeling to himself. Although he wouldn’t insult his boss in public, or confront him directly, he wasn’t at all shy about letting his distaste and contempt for his boss be made known amongst the other workers. He assumed, probably rightly, that word of this had gotten back to his boss, but he didn’t care. He said to himself and to his friends and co-workers, “As long as he doesn’t fire me, I don’t care if he hates me as much as I hate him. He probably does, but it makes no difference as long as I do my job, and do it well. He has no cause to get rid of me other than the fact that he hates my guts as much as I hate his. Let him just try to fire me and I’ll take it to the review board and the union.”

This went on for a number of years, and nothing would or could change it. The man did his job but went right on hating his boss and thinking that the boss hated him just as much, in spite of his good annual reviews — with which he always managed to find some fault, some oversight or underestimation of his performance which he attributed to the boss’s malice.

Still the pot boiled. At the company picnics the man could always be found in a circle of other employees, clustered in a group far away from the boss, bad-mouthing him and complaining about him.

Then one day something terrible happened. I should say, one night. For in the middle of the night an old frayed extension cord under a carpet in the man’s house sparked a fire. The flames spread quickly through the whole house — fortunately the man and his family escaped with their lives but the house was a total loss. They stood out on the street in their pyjamas and the overcoats they had hastily grabbed as they ran through the front hallway, watching the firefighters attempt to quell the flames. As the man stood there transfixed by the disaster unfolding before him, his home slowly collapsing in ruins, almost too numb to feel anything, he felt a hand on his shoulder.

He turned to see who it was. It was his boss. Still numb from the emotional weight of the disaster that had overtaken him, he was too surprised to recoil or withdraw. He just opened his mouth and his eyes wide, but no words came out. His boss nodded sympathetically and broke the silence.

“I was listening to the late news and I heard about the fire. When the reporter mentioned the address, I knew it was your house.” In the man’s mind a thought flashed briefly, “He knew my address?” But before he could say a word his boss continued, “I had to come and tell you how devastating it is for me for something like this to happen to one of my employees, especially one of my best and hardest workers.” With his other hand he reached into his coat pocket and pulled out an envelope. “I know that your insurance will cover a most of your expenses, but I’m sure there will be some things they just won’t pay for; so I want you to have this.”

The man, still unable to speak, took the proffered envelope and opened it just enough to see that it was a personal check for $5,000. If he could have spoken earlier he certainly couldn’t anymore. His boss nodded and waved his hand understandingly. “It’s o.k. Don’t say anything; it’s the least I could do for someone in such a state. And here you are out on the street with no where to go... what am I thinking! Let me arrange a place for you at the motel up on the highway until things are sorted out.” The boss pulled out his cell phone, stepped a few paces aside and busied himself with the call.

The firefighters had finally finished their work, put away their hoses and other equipment, and were prepared to head back to the station. The remains of the house, now a pitiful low pile of wreckage and waterlogged ashes, still steamed slightly, and the air was full of a smell of chlorine mixed with charcoal, of burnt plaster and wood and paint and the bitter tang of burnt asphalt shingles.

The man looked to his wife, still unable to speak. She’d heard all the stories, too, time and again — oh my had she heard them — and she was just as amazed as her husband. She shrugged and shook her head. Finally the boss came back and said, “It’s all set. Let me drop you off at the motel.” With that the man finally found his tongue: “I...I thought you hated me!”

The boss looked at him in amazement. “Hated you? Why would you think that? You’re one of my best workers; been with the company for years! I know we haven’t always gotten along, and I know you haven’t always agreed with some of my decisions or policies, or my work style — yes, word does get around — but hated you?” He shook his head. “It never crossed my mind. Now, please, it’s getting chilly — please let’s get you and your family into the car so I can take you to the motel!”

+ + +

Saint Paul the Apostle wrote, “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” As the Collect for Ash Wednesday reminds us, God hates nothing he has made — and that includes us. God loves us, and always has and always will, even though we have not always returned God’s love. Look at those crabby, thirsty Israelites in today’s Old Testament reading — carping and complaining at Massah and Meribah! And as Saint Paul reminds us, God is hard on us sometimes as a loving parent must be firm with a young child — and the child may not find the discipline enjoyable. But hatred! — hatred for us never crossed God’s mind even when we failed to mind his cross!

+ + +

It is on that cross that God shows us just how much he loves us. From that cross, even from that pain and unspeakable death, Jesus the Son of God spoke words of forgiveness. We did not earn God’s forgiveness and grace — that’s why it’s grace, by the way — something we didn’t deserve. We rebelled against God so much and so strongly that we came to think he must hate us for how we’ve acted towards him. But he doesn’t hate us, my friends. He loves us, not because of what we do, or have failed to do, but in spite of what we do, and because of who we are — we belong to God, who created us and redeemed us; God so loved the world. The fact that fallen humanity has disobeyed and badmouthed our creator — the clay talking back to the potter — means nothing to God, so great is God’s love.

And how much more, as Saint Paul says, now that God has come in Christ and reconciled and justified us by his faithful obedience — the unjust justified by the king of justice himself, the seemingly irreconcilable differences reconciled by the one who keeps the books of life and death — how much more then ought we to understand and rejoice and give thanks for this great gift. It is so much more than a check for $5,000, or even a few weeks at a motel while our house is being rebuilt. The house being built for us in heaven is eternal and everlasting, and the builder is God, who prepares such a dwelling-place for us. God in Christ has reconciled us to himself — has wiped the slate clean and set us on our feet again.

As we continue our journey through Lent, on up to Good Friday when we stand to face the cross of Christ, and kneel in silent wonder at the foot of that cross, and remember what he did for us, let us not be dumbstruck or astonished at this wondrous love: that the King of Bliss should set aside his crown for our souls, but let us sing out in rejoicing, singing on and singing on through all eternity, Blessed be our God who has loved us so much, who has saved us from our sins, and made us heirs of everlasting life!+

Sunday, March 13, 2011

A Fine Mess

How does the temptation of Adam and Eve in the garden relate to the temptation of Jesus in the desert? And what does this have to do with Laurel and Hardy?

SJF • Lent 1a 2011 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.

And so we come to the first Sunday in Lent, and over the next six weeks we will journey with Jesus from his temptations to his sacrifice upon the cross — and then on to Easter. It is a journey that encapsulates the faith; faith in the crucial — and I use that word very intentionally because it is based on the Latin word for cross, the very crux of the matter — in the crucial decisions and actions of Jesus for our sake and for our salvation. Saint Anselm, who was Archbishop of Canterbury some nine hundred years ago, wrote a book about it called, Why Did God Become Human? The five word summary: “To save us — that’s why!” And over the course of Lent we will be filling out the background and the implications of that simple fact, the fact of salvation. And as is so often the case with such explorations, we had best start at the beginning — and so we turn to Genesis.

But before turning to Genesis, let me ask a question. Do any of you remember Laurel and Hardy? Some of the younger folks here may not know them — although I will say it was Oliver Hardy who invented the word “D’oh” long before there was a Homer Simpson — but I’m sure most of the adults here remember the portly and fussy Oliver and his skinny, mousy sidekick Stan. As you may recall they were invariably getting into scrapes of one sort or another, and whether it was his fault or not, Stan usually got the blame, as Ollie would put his hands on his hips and complain, “Well that’s another fine mess you’ve gotten us into!”

Turning to our reading from Genesis, we can see the “fine mess” that Adam and Eve have gotten us into. Of course, they didn’t need Ollie to tell them that. As soon as the deed was done, while the taste of the fruit of knowledge was still on their lips, the light bulb went on. Well, not a light bulb, since those hadn’t been invented yet — but their eyes were opened, and they saw for the first time that they were naked, and a pair of human beings felt shame for the first time ever. It must have felt like a sleepwalker feels when awakening out on the street in his pyjamas — frightened, bewildered, and embarrassed — wondering, “How did I get out here?”

+ + +

Genesis tells us — all of us children of Adam and Eve — how we got out here. It tells us that God made us in the image and after the likeness of God — which the catechism in our Prayer Book explains to mean, in part, that we are reasonable creatures, we are capable of making choices. And Genesis tells us that God laid choices before us: Adam the gardener was given specific instructions about tending the garden and keeping it; and, as a laborer is worthy of his hire, and you are not to muzzle the threshing ox, God allowed his gardener to eat of the fruit of the garden — except for that one particular tree of the knowledge of good and evil. So Adam had his instructions and he also had the power to choose — to obey the instructions or not. Well, we heard the rest of the story: how the serpent crept in with his deceptions, and how Eve chose and Adam chose to allow their delight and desire to overcome their obedience. They did not fall by accident — but by choice. This was no comic slip on a banana peel, but a deliberate decision to take and eat of a very different fruit. They chose to believe the serpent’s lie rather than God’s promise that if they ate of the fruit they would die. As Saint Paul observed in his letter to the Romans, “Sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned.” And we would be justified in saying, along with Oliver Hardy, “This is a fine mess you’ve gotten us into!”

This is how it all began. Our ancient ancestors got us into this fine mess because they misused the very thing that made them like God, in a misguided effort to become like God. They used the power to choose — a divine power resident in human beings, a reflection of the divine image in humanity: for human beings are not mere animals driven solely by instinct and need. What does the Psalms say, “Do not be like horse or mule that have no understanding, who if you do not tie them down will not stay near you.” Human beings shouldn’t need to be tied down. They have the gift to reason and the choice to obey or not. Adam and Eve used that very power to choose, to choose wrongly and to fall into disobedience by means of the very thing they sought — their likeness to God.

+ + +

I mentioned Laurel and Hardy earlier; you may have seen their most famous short film, for which they won the Academy award in 1936, “The Music Box.” It’s the one where they are supposed to deliver an upright piano up an unbelievably long flight of many stairs. Time and again they get it halfway up or almost to the top only to lose their grip on it and have it role clanking and clamoring down the many steps. Finally, just as they’ve managed to get it to the top of the stairs the postman arrives at the house and tells them they could have taken the road up around the other side of the house and avoided the stairs altogether. And what do they do? Even though they are at their destination, even though they are ready to bring the piano into the house, what do they do? They bring the cursed piano all the way back down the stairs to put it on their horse cart to bring it up to the very same place they had it, by the road they could have used in the first place!

+ + +

Adam and Eve could have remained in Paradise; they were where they wanted to be, they were wear God wanted them to be, and they could have stayed had they chosen to listen to God in the first place. They were already like God and didn’t need the fruit of any tree to become like God. Instead, they listened to the serpent who told them that if they disobeyed God they could get to the place they wanted to be — even though they were already there! They lost what they had by trying to get what they had.

Fortunately for us there was a way out of this paradoxical dilemma. But we could not do it by ourselves. By making the wrong choice at the very beginning, humanity got so far off course that it could never find its way home again on its own. We tried and tried to get that piano of sin up the steps of the Law, but it always came sliding down again. We got it back on our cart, but then we couldn’t remember where the road was to get us where we needed to be.

Humanity had become so lost that it needed to be rescued — to be saved. And because humanity itself had become so weakened by this time, so debilitated, by that initial failure to choose rightly, that salvation had to be in the form of one who was himself fully human — so that in human flesh that perfect obedience could be undertaken by one who in himself summed up all of humanity. Just as Adam had been the beginning of all humanity, this one man had to be the culmination of humanity. But it was also needful that he be a human being who was in perfect unity and full communion with God — able to present the untarnished and perfect image of God that all other human beings through the fall of Adam and Eve had distorted and tarnished and worn out. And so the Word which was God became human flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth. Why? To save us — that’s why.

And he accomplished this by doing the very thing our ancestors had failed to do. As Paul said, “just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” And the course of that obedience is set in the very first action of Christ’s ministry, immediately following his baptism. He goes right into the wilderness, and there confronts the very one whose tantalizing misdirections first got Adam and Eve off course and into that fine mess. Jesus confronts the devil, and faces each of his tantalizing temptations with obedience. He chooses obedience at each point. When the devil offers fast food, Jesus proclaims the primacy of Scripture. When the devil offers safety through disaster, Jesus proclaims that God is not to be so tested. And when the devil offers power, Jesus proclaims his dedication and submission to God and God alone. All of these temptations, as at the first, are, if you not carefully, are temptations for Jesus to grasp at things he already has. (The devil really can’t come up with anything new!) And it is through his obedience in spite of the temptations to take what is already his by right — to seize it rather than simply to be in it — it is through this obedience, demonstrated here against the spirit of rebellion who first tempted humanity to choose wrongly, that Jesus sets his feet firmly on the path that will lead to Calvary.

That is why God became human — to save us. We will be with him on this journey, this Lenten journey, seeing that process unfold once again. And so, sisters and brothers, let us journey with him, the one who shows us the way to God, who is himself the Way, Son of God and Son of Man, even Jesus Christ our Lord.+

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Another Mountain

SJF • Last Epiphany a 2011 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Six days after Peter had acknowledged Jesus as the Christ, the son of the living God, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain by themselves.+

Last week we ended a series of Gospel readings and sermons about the Sermon on the Mount. In one of those sermons, I pointed out that Jesus was acting as a new Moses in his teaching on the mountain. And today we hear in our first reading a reference to that original mountain: Mount Sinai, the place where God bent the heavens, came down in the appearance of a devouring fire on the top of the mountain, and a cloud covered the mountain and Moses went up into the cloud. There it was that God gave Moses the law upon which Jesus would later expand his teaching in his own sermon on that other mount.

In today’s Gospel reading we come to yet another mountain: the mountain of transfiguration. Jesus takes that trusted trio, Peter, James (our own patron saint) and his brother John, up a high mountain. Once there the three disciples witness a dazzling spectacle, a transformation and a Transfiguration. Jesus’s face shines like the sun and his clothes become dazzling white. As if that’s not enough, two others join the spectacle: Moses himself and Elijah the prophet. Peter is so awestruck he thinks he’s died and gone to heaven — and in a sense he has, for what he sees is a vision of Christ in glory. All Peter can say is that it is good to be there; so good he’s willing to build three houses for Jesus and these honored visitors from Israel’s past, the giver of God’s law and the prophet of God’s truth.

But suddenly, before anything else can happen, the cloud enshrouds them and the voice of God rings out: This is my Son! This is, of course, by way of contrast. Though Jesus was to some extent a new Moses, and hailed by many as a great prophet, God wants no confusion: this is not just the giver of God’s law nor the prophet of God’s truth but God’s own Son, the Beloved, with whom God is well pleased. Moses showed God’s way, Elijah proclaimed God’s truth, but Jesus brings new life as well.

In is perhaps good to remember at this point the first, the Number One of the Ten Commandments that God delivered on that other mountain: “I am the Lord your God... you shall have no other gods before me... you shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or under the earth. You shall not bow down to them and worship them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God.” It is good to remember that and contrast it to what is happening on this other mountain. If we ever needed evidence that Jesus is the Son of God, here it is: for the jealous God, the One who wants no one to bow to anyone or anything but him, here tells the three disciples who Jesus is and what they are to do regarding him. This is God’s Son — Way, Truth and Life — and the commandment this time is that they — and we — are to listen to him. They have seen Christ in glory, and are to do as he says.

+ + +

The ancient Greeks had the idea that by beholding beauty and greatness people could be made better. Whether it was in the noble tragedies of their theater or in the beauty of architecture or sculpture, they had the idea that beauty could elevate one’s heart and soul.

In is an idea with some staying power. Christians had the same idea when they built the great cathedrals and composed the soaring music of the liturgy. Who could fail to have their hearts lifted as they raised their eyes to trace the vaulted ceilings of those great cathedrals, or allowed their ears to be filled with the sound of an echoing choir in one of those vast spaces, dappled with the sunlight from glorious stained glass windows.

The idea was still at work in the middle of the 19th century. The great Anglican priest Edward Bouverie Pusey anonymously funded the decoration and repair of a parish church in Leeds, in the heart of a region affected by the Industrial Revolution, in a city that even today seems to be drawn in coal-dust tones of charcoal and whitewash. Every art was lavished on the creation of this place of worship, so that those who worked among what William Blake called “these dark satanic mills” might at least, on the Lord’s Day, have a glimpse of the beauty that might lift their hearts and make them better men and women. Pusey believed that a vision of heaven here on earth could point people in the right direction. He wrote, of heaven itself: “Where shall there be an end of loving, where love is endless, infinite? or of gazing on Beauty Infinite, where that very Beauty by our longing and its Sight shall draw us more and more into Itself.”(Sermons 280-81)

In a more modern context, religion professor Jacob Needleman writes of witnessing the night launch of the Apollo 17 mission. Before the take-off, people were joking, drinking, crowded together on the lawn, jostling each other in the twilight, waiting for the giant rocket — 35 stories tall — to take off. He put it this way: “The first thing you see is this extraordinary orange light, which is just at the limit of what you can bear to look at. Everything is illuminated with this light. Then comes this thing slowly rising up in total silence because it takes a few seconds for the sound to come across. [When it does] you can practically hear jaws dropping. The sense of wonder fills everyone in the whole place as this thing goes up and up. The first stage ignites this beautiful blue flame. It becomes like a star, but you realize there are humans on it. And then there’s total silence. People just get up quietly, helping each other up. They’re kind. They open doors. They look at one another, speaking quietly and interestedly. These were suddenly moral people because the sense of wonder, the experience of wonder had made them moral.”

+ + +

Maybe, maybe. For even as I tell this story, I am keenly aware of the danger in being so uplifted by the beauty of a man-made thing, the work of our own hands: whether a Greek temple or a stained-glass window; or a noble tragedy or a rocket bearing the name of a pagan God — do we fall into the danger of idolatry, the very thing warned against in that first commandment from that other mountain? Is this impressive beauty and wonder truly making us better and raising our hearts to God, or just impressing us with the kind of awe that our ancient ancestors must have felt in viewing the starry heavens or the sun and the moon and thinking they were gods, rather than the work of God’s hands. When we see the glory of nature, when we look down from lofty mountain grandeur, or hear the brook and feel the gentle breeze... do we always remember that the beauty and inspiration are meant to lead our souls to sing to God, and to proclaim, How great thou art? There is all the difference in the world between the beauty of holiness and the holiness of beauty!

For there are mountains and there are mountains, and various sorts of mountaintop experiences. Do all of them make us better people? It depends on whether we are willing, after our hearts have been lifted, to bow in humble adoration, and to do as God said at the end of that mountaintop experience on that one particular mountain: to listen to his beloved Son to follow him on his Way, in his Truth, by his Life.

For after the spectacle, after the glory, Jesus left the mountain; he descended into the Valley — eventually not just of the shadow of death but of death itself — and he took his disciples with him. This is where we will follow him through the next six weeks on our Lenten journey. We will be with him through his temptations and the challenges he faced — on up through the greatest of those challenges: to sacrifice himself for us upon the cross. That is where he was lifted high, so that he might draw the whole world to himself.

On the mountain or on the cross, he is the one to whom we should listen, the one whom we should follow and adore, Jesus the Christ, the Son of the Living God, to whom we bow in humble adoration and say, How great thou art!+