Sunday, July 17, 2011

Weeding Lesson

SJF • Proper 11a 2011 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, where did these weeds come from?’ He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest.”

A couple of weeks ago I was watching a documentary on the National Geographic Channel about what has become the largest cash crop in the state of California. You might be surprised to hear that in a state famous for its citrus fruit, its grapes and its lettuce, that the biggest cash crop is now something that was once considered a weed. That’s right, it’s ganja, also known as marijuana, or perhaps less well known simply by the name it was called for ages. Long before people decided to start smoking it they called it hemp.

Northern California had always been a major source for this weed, even when it was illegal. But with the moderate legalization for medical use, growing marijuana is now a major source of legal income in many small towns dotting the rural countryside of Northwestern California.

The TV documentary charted the history of America’s ignorance of, neglect of, use of, hostility towards, and now moderate adoption of this curious plant. For a long time it was simply regarded literally as a weed. It could be found growing throughout the country in sunny spots on vacant lots and by the roadsides. It had fallen out of its long established use for making rope and canvas — and I learned that the word canvas derives from the Latin name for the plant: cannabis! Many a seagoing vessel down through the years has set sail under the banner of Mad Mary Jane without knowing it!

Some time after people started using it as a drug in the US, however, the government decided to approach the issue much like the servants in the parable today — they decided it was time to uproot the plants and wipe out its use as a recreational drug. And huge amounts of money and resources have gone into the effort to eradicate this dreaded weed.

Then, of course, came the discovery that thus weed actually has— in addition to its practical use as a source of hemp-fiber for rope, paper, and cloth — a legitimate medicinal use in helping people undergoing chemotherapy to find some relief from the severe nausea associated with it, and to help restore their appetite for food. Medical marijuana is now legal (with some restrictions) in sixteen states (though not our own!) and in the District of Columbia.

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Now, all appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, this sermon isn’t really about marijuana! What it is about is the limitation on human knowledge, and the extent of human impatience. Marijuana, for all its usefulness as a source of fiber and in medicine, is still a dangerous drug — and like all drugs it can impair ones judgment and motor skills, and increase the appetite for food in people who need absolutely no encouragement! While it is clearly not the work of the devil, this weed isn’t wheat!

But the efforts of some completely to eradicate it are surely as misguided as the efforts of the servants in our parable — not that the modern zealots would have damaged any wheat in uprooting the weed, but they would have deprived those who actually benefit from the medicinal properties of the plant — that small comfort at a relatively low cost. I know that some of you here have suffered the rigors of chemotherapy, and I know that anything that can make that less burdensome is surely welcome.

But the message of the gospel today is, as so often with Jesus, Don’t be hasty to judge and take into your hands decisions best left to God. Don’t think you know everything. Recall that the stone the builders rejected is the one that became the cornerstone of the building. Even if what you do know is true — for surely the weeds were weeds, and the servants of the master knew that — still don’t be so hasty about putting your knowledge into action; there may be unintended consequences and collateral damage even to the most well-informed courses of action.

You see, the master, in addition to knowing weeds also knows his servants — the master knows that if they get themselves worked up in their excitement at getting rid of all those nasty weeds, they will inevitably damage the healthy wheat as well. The master has other workers better trained at this task — the reapers who will come at harvest time to do the work not only of harvest but of separation — to gather up all of the weeds first and bind them and cast them into the oven; but then to gather up the good grain and bring it safely into the barn.

And of course, just as this sermon is not about marijuana, so too Jesus assured his disciples that the parable was not about weeds and wheat: it is about the end times and the final judgment upon this world, when God will send his angels out to separate the children of the kingdom from the children of the evil one. This is no ordinary agriculture, but the ultimate fate of evildoing and righteousness, of evildoers and the righteous.

And lest we become too self-satisfied and too easily imagine ourselves, naturally, as among the righteous — as I reminded us last week, righteousness is not our natural capacity, but is itself a gift from God who adopts us as his own. If we are among the righteous, as I hope and pray — and trust — we are, it is not our own doing. We have no health in ourselves to help ourselves, no native righteousness, but only that which comes from God who is the source of all goodness and all righteousness. We are not God’s natural children — but children by adoption. And it is only by virtue of that adoption that we are able to cry out “Abba! Father!"

It is not that some of us are weeds and some of us are wheat, but that whatever it is that we are is determined by the one who makes use of us to his ends, and for his purposes. Just as even the weed of the vacant lot can be used for rope or cloth or even medicine— no human being is incapable of being adopted by God to serve God’s purposes and to be filled with God’s righteousness.

So let us not be eager to harvest or to judge, my brothers and sisters: let us leave that to God, and in the meantime spread the word that the adoption agency is open and that all are welcome to apply!+

Sunday, July 10, 2011

What Comes (Un)naturally

And so we do not trust in what is merely natural to make us good, but in the supernatural goodness of God to make us his.

Sermon for Proper 10a

SJF • Proper 10a 2011 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

Some of the philosophers of the romantic era and in the 17th to 19th century came up with the idea that people living in simplicity in the time before civilization were somehow more innocent, more “natural” and hence unspoiled. The notion is sometimes referred to as that of the “noble savage.” The concept became attached to Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, but it isn’t exactly his idea. Still, he shared the tendency somehow to idealize human beings in their uncivilized condition. He saw civilization itself as a kind of introduction of morality and consequent decline.

The idea as Rousseau espoused it is that people in their primitive state were morally neutral, and that it was only with later civilization that evil entered the world as society began to corrupt the natural innocence of primitive existence. As Rousseau put it, the problems began “when the first man staked out a bit of land and said, ‘This is mine,’ and convinced others foolishly to agree.”

The Christian tradition is said by some to see things rather differently, but a closer reading may reveal that it is not quite so different. People sometimes look to the story of Adam and Eve and think of the innocent perfection of life that they enjoyed in paradise. But surely the point of the story is precisely that they were not innocent. They sinned — disobeying what at that point was just about the only thing God had commanded them — while they were in paradise. They may have been created innocent, but they were also created capable of committing sin, and it took them almost no time to do so.

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Theologians have wrestled with the question of human nature for thousands of years — whether people are good by nature or bad by nature, or started good and became bad, or whatever.

It seems to me that Saint Paul had it right, and made the most sense both out of that ancient story of the Garden and the Fall, and the practical reality of his own human experience. Human flesh — with its cravings, devices and desires — is weak. Human beings also have a natural tendency towards self-preservation, like most living things. And human beings develop very quickly the sense of property: at least when it comes to their own property. Much as Rousseau observed, children don’t take long to get to the point at which they have learned the first person possessive: Mine! It’s just that he saw this as part of a decline rather than natural, in contrast to another earlier philosopher, John Locke, who took the view that property was a natural right. Whether a right or a tendency, though, as a child, I had to be taught that not everything was mine — I had to learn how to share with other children.

For Saint Paul, this natural tendency is a part of the “mind set on the flesh.” It derives from our creaturely existence — our neediness. We need things; we need air to breathe, we need to eat. All of that is natural, natural to us. And that neediness has to be governed and ordered and civilized by some kind of regulation. Thus far Paul would be in agreement with Rousseau and the English philosopher Hobbes, with the exception that Rousseau was a bit more optimistic about the short-lived innocence of primitive humanity.

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But Saint Paul stands apart from all of these secular philosophers, in that, while they saw from rather different angles that law was society’s answer to the problem of human weakness, Paul saw that law was an insufficient solution to the problem. It is like a drug that comforts but does not heal. He saw law as an insufficient means of bringing peace to the warring hearts of fallible human beings. Even the law given by God could not bring compliance: in fact, God’s law only laid down the penalty: “Of the tree in the midst of the garden you shall not eat, for in the day you eat of it you shall die.” That was the law that God gave to Adam and Eve, and it was the law they broke, before the proverbial ink was dry.

So what is the answer? What does Saint Paul offer us as an answer? Paul looks to God again — for something different this time; not for the law, but something different — after all, God is the source of all good — the fountain of all goodness, as we sang in our hymns today: it is from him that everything comes, the source of all good — but Paul did not look to God for the same old kind of law that God had given in the past, the law that was weakened by the flesh and so could not bring true righteousness.

Instead God sent his Son, but not, as the evangelist John would say, to condemn the world. God sent his Son precisely to relieve the world of that endless cycle of law-giving and law-breaking that was getting us nowhere, as we spun our wheels in the dry soil or the mud of our own failings.

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For Paul had observed something in that old, old story: you may recognize it too — let me ask you, when was it that Adam and Eve sinned? While God was away from them, while they were on their own. (Of course God was not really “away” but that is how the story goes — and we had best pay attention to the details of that story.) And Eve was off on her own — away from Adam — when the Serpent whispered sweet nothings in her ear and tempted her to violate the only law on the books at that time. And her weak flesh — the desire to live forever and become like God (even though, as the text shows, she and Adam already were like God, being made in God’s image) — as I say, her weak flesh gave in, and then she persuaded Adam’s equally weak flesh to join her: all of this while God was “away.”

So the answer to all of this, Paul says, is to be always “with” God — such that God is never “away.” And this is made possible both through the fact that Jesus Christ came “in the flesh” — that is to say, in and through and by means of the very human flesh that was the problem in the first place. And further to know that God is always with us, always present to us through the Spirit. If the Spirit of Christ dwells in you, God is with you, and even though the flesh might still seek to drag you down to death because of sin, the Spirit — God’s presence — is life because of the righteousness of Christ.

This is the hopeful message that Saint Paul brings: Christ came in the flesh and remains with us in the Spirit, and his spirit is at work in us and there it can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine: even though we have no power in ourselves to become righteous, his spirit working in us is life because of his righteousness.

And it is a life that contains within it the promise of new life, the resurrection life. The Son of God, the Word of God, is at work within the soil of our human flesh. Remember how the story tells, what God made us from, at the beginning. Our soil, our flesh, comes from the earth. It is like the seed of the word received and nurtured, which grows in the soil to bear fruit for righteousness, “in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.” We are not good by nature, but by grace: our soil cannot bear fruit on its own, unless the seed of God be planted in it.

And so we do not trust in what is merely natural to make us good, but in the supernatural goodness of God to make us his. That is the message of salvation and grace through Jesus Christ our Lord.+

Sunday, July 03, 2011

No Pleasing Some People

The curse of the double-minded judge, and the freedom of the children of God.

SJF • Proper 9a 2011 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
To what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.”
Some while ago I spoke about the fact that different people will find the same foods either enjoyable or awful. The same dish may be treated as a delicacy by some, and a culinary disaster by others — evoking delight or grimaces depending on the taste-buds of the diner.

It also appears to be true that some people are by nature “fault-finders” who will not be pleased whatever the dish set before them. Their noses are permanently upturned, and their manners ungrateful. Unlike the fussy Goldilocks — who at least found a bowl of porridge, and a chair, and a bed to her liking, and was at least satisfied a third of the time — there are folks who are just so picky that nothing completely pleases them. There is always something wrong for those who are impossible to please.

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Jesus confronted such people in the passage we heard from Matthew’s gospel. They’ve been offered two very different “dishes” — to continue my dining analogy. John the Baptist was what is called an ascetic: one who lived an austere life of fasting and privation. He lived in the desert wilderness, dressed in a camel’s hair mantle bound with a leather belt, and ate nothing but locusts and honey. And whether the “locusts” in question are the insects or the beans of the locust tree, it is a diet few, then or now, would be willing to duplicate. And what did these unpleasable people think of him? They thought he was crazy!
Then along comes Jesus, who, after his own relatively short but intense time of asceticism, during that forty days he spent in the wilderness fasting, returns to civilization and accepts the dinner invitations of well-to-do bourgeois tax-collectors, and passes his time in the company of women who, as the old euphemism has it, “are no better than they should be.” And what do these unpleasable people think of him? A glutton and a drunkard and a friend of sinners!

There is just no pleasing some people. If you don’t eat they condemn you as an overly scrupulous killjoy, and if you do eat they condemn you as a self-indulgent pleasure-seeking hedonist. And this condemnation — this refined ability not to be pleased with what is offered, this judgmental snobbery that wrinkles its nose towards whatever is presented to it — is held up as a kind of sophisticated wisdom.

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Jesus contrasts this snobbishness, this thing that passes for intelligence and wisdom, with the eager acceptance that infants will show for something that pleases them. How many times have I seen a child’s face light up at the first taste of a droplet of the sacred wine from the tip of my pinky finger on the day of that child’s baptism! Yet a connoisseur of fine wines would likely turn up his nose at the far from vintage port that we use as our communion wine — bought by the case from a liquor store in Yonkers with the distinctly déclassé name of Liquorfellers. Truly a certain kind of innocent ignorance is bliss!

But at a deeper level, this all points to the profound difference between judgment and enjoyment. One of the reasons that Jesus speaks so strongly and so often against judgment is that it actually is the biggest kill-joy of them all. It is very hard for a critic to enjoy whatever he or she is experiencing. A critic or a snob is always double-minded — of a double mind — because rather than simply enjoying what they are experiencing, a part of their mind is always standing back, comparing it, criticizing it, judging it. Off to the one side from the one enjoying and the thing enjoyed, is this analytical observer, this killjoy, the critic and the judge who tells you that you can’t really enjoy such a common or low-class thing.

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I don’t know how many of you may be familiar with “Keeping Up Appearances,” the television program featuring Hyacinth Bucket, who imagines her name ought to be pronounced Bouquet. She is a woman who has narrowed her own life, and that of her poor husband Richard, to the point where they can hardly enjoy anything any more. She is deeply embarrassed by all of her family members — except her sister Violet who married a well-off bookie, or as she says, a “turf accountant,” and who lives in a home with a Jacuzzi and a Mercedes and room for a pony. Hyacinth envies that one sister but she dreads encounters with the other two. She lives in terror that her only friend and neighbor will damage her hand-painted Royal Doulton tea-cups when she comes by for the obligatory visit. She spends so much of her life judging everything as not up to her standards, and in keeping up appearances, that she has little or no share in the raucous pleasures of her sisters Daisy and Rose. I’m sure that had she been around to hear the prophet Zechariah’s call to daughter Zion, to rejoice greatly at the coming of her king in humility riding on a donkey rather than in a chariot, she would have cringed said, “Really, Richard, a donkey!?”
This would be a tragedy if it were not for the fact that every once and a while Hyacinth is exposed — even to herself — for who she really is, and reluctantly lets her hair down and discovers she can in fact have a good time.

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Closer to our biblical texts, Saint Paul struggled inwardly with that spirit of judgment that kept him from living into the freedom of God’s love, the simple enjoyment of God’s forgiveness and grace. What he called “the law of sin” was at work in him at the very deepest level — that slavery to the law that is the fate of all who devote themselves to judgment rather than accepting the blessed liberty of the children of God. And Paul realized that the only way out of that double-mindedness was single-mindedly to throw himself, as one weary of carrying the heavy burden of the “body of death,” into the arms of Jesus, the source of rescue and rest, redemption and release.

Jesus offers himself, to all who are weary of the need to be in charge, to be displeased at others or themselves, and to accept him as the end of all of their burdens. We are free, like those in the crowds who simply would not be pleased, secure in their own sense of judgment and critique, to reject the offer of rescue and relief. But how much better to accept the offer of peace and joy as a child who reaches out for the sweet reward that is offered by a loving Father.

We have such a Father, made known to us in the Son of God himself, who with that Father and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever.+