Sunday, September 25, 2011

One Mind One Heart

Having the mind of Christ -- a sermon for Proper 21a.

SJF • Proper 21 2011 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Be of the same mind, having the same love being in full accord and of one mind. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.

In last week’s sermon I spoke to you about the double-mindedness and indecision of Hamlet the melancholy Dane, in contrast to the relative single-mindedness of Saint Paul the Apostle. Just as Hamlet wrestled with the question, “To be or not to be,” so too did Paul wrestle with the question of whether it was better for him to give up his life and be with God or continue to struggle along with his fellow Christians to build up the church for which Christ died. And it didn’t take him long to come to the decision to do the latter.

This theme of single-mindedness or decisiveness — making up your mind and then following through on your decision — lies at the heart of all of our Scripture lessons today. It’s important to hear those lessons because making decisions and being firm in your own mind once you’ve made a decision can be very difficult.

I don’t know how many of you are familiar with or recall comedian Jack Benny — he was very popular in the days of radio comedy, and I have to admit I am just old enough to remember his popular early TV show from my early childhood. Over the years he had created a character notorious for his stinginess — he drove a car that was at least thirty years old, and squeezed many cups of tea from a single teabag he would bring to restaurants where he would order a cup of hot water.

One of his most famous comedy “bits” — one involving making decisions — was broadcast on his radio show. He’s returning home after an evening rehearsal — walking instead of taking a taxi, of course, because he’s too cheap — when a mugger comes up to him and says, “Your money or your life.” This is followed by several moments of silence, as the studio audience begins to giggle and chuckle; finally the mugger repeats, “Say, Mister, I said, your money or your life!” To which the cheapskate Benny finally replied, “I’m thinking! I’m thinking!”

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Most of us would not have to stop to think about such a matter — and of course that’s what makes Benny’s comment comical. And yet most of us face situations in our lives where reaching a decision simply isn’t all that easy. You may recall another favorite comedy portrayal of indecision with a character having a little angel on one shoulder and the little devil on the other shoulder — each of them a miniature replication of the person him or herself — and both of them arguing in one ear and then the other the various urgings of what to do or not do. So foreign and yet vivid can our own thinking become that we may project it out onto such imagined angels or devils on our shoulders. Sometimes indecision can feel like that — and the more important the matter the more likely we are to find ourselves in such a quandary of double-mindedness.

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It is a distressing situation in which to find ourselves, Because we want to know what it’s best for us to do. Sometimes we do know, but don’t really want to acknowledge it — which is why Ezekiel has worked himself up into such a temper addressing the house of Israel: surely they know better, well aware that the transgressions they have committed are transgressions. After all, they’ve had the Law of Moses for a thousand years and the words of other prophets for hundreds of years by that time, and they have the own sorry example to look back on, their own history — what happened time and again when their leaders turned aside to worship false gods. From Solomon on, most of the leaders forgot the Lord and turned aside to do what ought not be done. And the land and people suffered for it.

And so Ezekiel appeals to them to turn from the folly of their transgressions and make up their mind to follow the Lord — who, in all fairness, will save and restore them if they mend their ways. For when they have set their mind on God they will also have a new heart and a new spirit — one mind, one heart, devoted to God.

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Today’s gospel presents us with another form of double mindedness: those two sons who, when their father tells them to get to work, both have a change of mind, a change of heart — one for the better and one for the worse. It is important to note that neither one of them is a picture-perfect son to their father. That would be one who would both say he would do what he’s told to do, and then do it. But surely Jesus favors the son who changes his mind for the better and does his father’s will in the end, in spite of that initial back-talk. It is after that example that the tax collectors and prostitutes have turned towards God at the preaching of John the Baptist, changing their minds about their bad decisions, and turning their lives around to devote heart and mind to God.

Meanwhile, the chief priests and elders are caught in a two-minded dilemma. They failed in their ministry of inspiring the people to righteousness, and wrote off the tax collectors and prostitutes as beyond salvation. Along comes the layman, this unordained uneducated man John, whose powerful preaching cuts to the heart and soul and inspires those deemed hopeless sinners by the self-righteous to change their ways.

So Jesus puts the authorities on the spot with his pointed question — one they cannot answer without incriminating themselves. For if John was God’s agent, why didn’t they accept him? And if John was simply acting on his own, how to explain the people’s acclamation of him as a prophet who has changed their lives? Either way the evidence is against them. And so the ones who should be teachers are stumped like the dunce in the corner.

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Finally, Paul offers us the best way forward: the best answer to the double mind is to have in oneself the single mind of Christ. For the mind of Christ, which becomes ours through the Spirit of God and our adoption in baptism — does not equivocate, does not balance on the one hand this and on the other that, is not pulled from side to side by contrary temptations and urges for good or for ill.

Some of you may recall another figure from the 1950s, Harry Truman, who became President of the United States just at the end of the war, succeeding Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and then was elected President. At one point in those tumultuous post-war years, the country was going through great economic problems and realignments — not unlike what we’re going through today. And Truman called upon a series of economists to get advice about what he should to — again, much as we find today. And the economists came to him and said, “Well, you could do this on the one hand, or on the other hand you could do that.” Time and again it was the same message. “Well, on the one hand, you could do this; but on the other hand, you could do that.” Finally Truman famously said, “Will someone please bring me a one-handed economist!”

Now, far be it from me to compare Harry Truman with Jesus Christ. But there is another famous thing that Harry Truman said that does apply: “The buck stops here.” He had that on a little sign on his desk in the President’s office. And “the buck stops” with Jesus. He is the One to whom we are all called to turn — both as our Savior and as our Example, in single-mindedness.

The mind of Christ moves right forward — doing the will of God the Father without veering or delay or detour. And that same mind can be in us, the mind of the one who though he was in the form of God did not grasp at divinity to exploit the powers that were his by right, but emptied himself, in a single-minded decision, to the cause for which he came among us: to live and die as one of us, in obedience to his Father’s will, to save us and redeem us. If we have that mind of Christ, then God will be, as Paul said, “at work in us” as God was at work in him — giving us with one heart, one mind, the hope and assurance of salvation. To him, Jesus Christ our Lord, be the glory, now and for ever.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

To Be or Not To Be

Choosing life over death -- for the right reason. A sermon for Proper 20a.

SJF • Proper 20a • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
To me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard-pressed between the two; my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you.

In this morning’s reading from the prophet Jonah we encountered a rather petulant man prepared to die almost out of spite. Jonah is angry at God on two counts: for letting the wicked Ninevites off the hook because they repented in response to Jonah’s own prophetic warning; and more immediately and selfishly because the bush that shaded him from the harsh desert sun has withered at God’s command. Jonah the Impatient is not one to put up with such things, and one hopes he learns better by the end of the story. At that point Jonah appears to have been struck speechless in response to God’s final question putting things in perspective. He should, after all, be happy that his prophecy was heeded and saved an entire city.

When we turn to our Epistle there is no doubt that we are dealing with a much more positive assessment. In Saint Paul’s Letter to the Philippians we behold the efforts of a committed servant of God to wrestle with the issue of whether it is better to live or to die, but for the right reasons — not choosing to die out of spite, or even out of a desire to be with God, but choosing life instead in order to serve God’s people.

Living or dying: to be or not to be. That is the issue with which the melancholy Dane Prince Hamlet wrestles, though in very different circumstances from either Jonah or Paul. As you may recall, Hamlet is a philosophy student entangled in the midst of a family drama with supernatural overtones — his father’s ghost has appeared to him and told him that he was murdered by Hamlet’s uncle, who has since married his widow.

Shakespeare’s play is among the richest and most complex ever written, and the character of Hamlet can be played in many different ways. Sir Laurence Olivier’s version resonates most with our readings this morning — in weighing the question of life and death. You may recall that the film begins with Olivier’s voice-over introducing the theme, “This is the story of a man who could not make up his mind.” That is the heart of Hamlet’s dilemma, and it lies in that most famous of Shakespearian speeches, the one that begins, “To be or not to be.” That is, as Hamlet observes, the question — the one that faces him, and Jonah, and Paul, and ultimately every thinking person. Is it better to live or to die?

Hamlet’s short speech is a brilliant summary of the philosophical arguments for and against choosing death over life, or life over death, laying out an “on the one hand this and on the other hand that” kind of argument with himself.

Hamlet really would like to just end it all — in modern terms we would probably say he is suffering from clinical depression. Life itself has just become too much of a burden — especially with his father’s ghost getting into the picture and planting seeds of suspicion — and Hamlet doesn’t know if the ghost is telling the truth or if the ghost is trying to tempt him into committing the murder of an innocent person! So Hamlet is looking for a way out, and is even contemplating suicide. In an earlier speech he has already expressed the wish that he could just die — that his “too, too solid flesh” might simply melt and evaporate and disappear; but he immediately recalls that taking any action along those lines himself has been forbidden, as the Almighty has fixed his law “against self-slaughter.”

So in the more famous speech Hamlet returns to the question, Is suffering a thing that makes you more noble and virtuous by enduring it, or is it something you should overcome or avoid? Who after all would suffer if it were an option simply to end your life in an instant, and plunge into that endless sleep? But in that sleep of death what dreams might come? Ah, as Hamlet observes, “There’s the rub!”

In the end it is the unknown — what comes after death in that “undiscovered country” from which “no traveler returns” — that keeps Hamlet alive: not a positive will to live and a commitment to act, but fear of the unknown and the consequences of action. As he concludes, “Conscience makes cowards of us all.” So Hamlet continues on the course of his tragedy, only able finally to act against his murderous uncle when he finds a way to be sure the uncle is guilty — but too late to save himself or his mother, or his prospective father-in-law or his fiancée, or Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, or anyone else, from a swift journey offstage to that undiscovered country, death.

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Saint Paul, on the other hand, is not a man of doubt and double-mindedness, but of faith. He weighs the options, true, but he comes to a very different conclusion, and that right quickly. And this is because unlike Hamlet he is fully confidant of knowing what awaits him beyond the veil of death. He has absolutely no fear of what dreams might come. He does not regard death as an undiscovered country from which no traveler returns, but a land to which one indeed has gone to prepare a place for him, a land in which there are in fact many dwelling-places prepared, and from which that same one has returned, when the bonds of death were not able to keep him down. You know who that is, of course: Jesus Christ, the one in whom Paul places all of his faith. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is at the heart of Paul’s faith, Paul’s gospel, and it informs everything about his life and his ministry. It is his trust, his faith, his knowledge that he is assured of passage into the new life with Christ. In fact, he longs for it — not as Hamlet did as a kind of oblivion and end to his troubles — but as a positive desire to be with Christ. But Paul also knows that he still has work to do among the faithful — and though it is hard work and will be a sea of troubles for him, though it will mean suffering and pain, he commits to stay with it. His conscience is at work, but not to make him a coward, but to make him a hero — one willing to suffer for and with others rather than to take the easy way out. He chooses this course, convinced that remaining in the flesh — that is to say, remaining alive — is for the benefit of the struggling Christians to whom he writes. Even though he longs to be with Christ, he chooses to remain in service to and with his spiritual children.

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In the Buddhist tradition there is a figure known as the Bodhisattva. This is a person who has gained the Buddhist equivalent of sainthood — they have risen to the level of spiritual consciousness where they no longer need to suffer “the slings and arrows” of life in an endless cycle of reincarnation, but have broken through to the pure land of nirvana, the land of bliss — and yet, instead of going off to that endless bliss, the Bodhisattva chooses to remain, to stay in the flesh to help guide and teach others in their spiritual journey.

This is the kind of choice that Saint Paul makes — no quite the same, but a similar choice: not to depart and be with Christ in bliss, but to stay in the struggle, a struggle he voluntarily shares with the Philippians, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel.

Paul chooses to be rather than not to be: to be in the flesh as long as the flesh is useful to himself and to others, and only to go Christ in glory when the time is right — when God has made full use of him and the cup of suffering endured in faith has been drunk down, and the vessel is empty and he has finished his course in faith. May we also serve so faithfully, working together as long as we have life, till by the grace of God this mortal life is ended and what is mortal is laid down to rest to wait for the day of resurrection, through Christ and in Christ, our redeemer and advocate, who lives and reigns for ever and ever.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Hard To Forgive

There is no debt ceiling on forgiveness. A sermon for 9/11/11, Proper 19a.

SJF • Proper 19a 2011 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God. So then, each of us will be accountable to God.

It is timely that the Scripture readings appointed for this day should deal with judgment and forgiveness. As you are no doubt keenly aware, this Sunday marks the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on America, the day that will for ever live in infamy by its numeric nickname Nine-Eleven.

It is abundantly clear that much was done on that terrible day that cries out for forgiveness. America was viciously attacked; thousands of innocent people met death in its most terrifying and capricious form, doomed to die by horrible means, suddenly and unprepared. Many were vaporized in an instant, unaware what was happening to them. Others were forced to make that agonized and desperate choice between being burned alive or hurtling to their deaths on the street below. Many more were crushed under the weight of those buildings, suffocated and snuffed out in darkness. None of us who witnessed that horrible day will ever forget it, and the TV news shows will not let us forget even if we wanted to, as they run those video clips again and again, and endlessly analyze.

What makes forgiveness all the harder in this case is that those who carried out these crimes knew what they were doing. They wanted their acts to be as terrorizing as indeed they were — that’s why they are called terrorists: they did not mean only to bring destruction, but to instill fear, horror, and anguish; and this not only in those they directly harmed, but in our society and nation as a whole.

How can we forgive such wrong? How can we forgive such terrible crimes? We know how hard it is to forgive someone even when they say they are sorry — how much harder to forgive those who do not ask for forgiveness, who think that what they did was right and justified, and even think they were doing a religious duty!

If somebody steps on my foot in the subway, and then apologizes, it’s fairly easy for me to forgive, although I may still feel the pain in my foot. If someone steps on my foot by accident and then looks at me like it was my fault, I will not be in such a forgiving mood. But if someone looks me in the eye, and then deliberately stomps on my foot, with a “so there” thrown in — well, what am I to do?

My natural impulse is to feel that only the repentant deserve forgiveness; that forgiveness is something that must be earned and asked for. It is only logical, this calculus of tit-for-tat: only those who acknowledge their faults deserve to be forgiven. This seems fair and square.

Unfortunately, God does not make things so easy for me. God does not say to me, Forgive those who say they are sorry. God does not say to me, Forgive others in proportion to their repentance for the harm they have done to you. God does not give me the option of measuring how much I forgive against how much someone else repents — or doesn’t. I am not told to balance my forgiveness against another’s apology; instead I am told to balance how much I forgive against how much I have been and expect to be forgiven. The wicked slave in Jesus’ parable is punished in the end not for his failure to pay his master what he owed, but for not forgiving the debt that was owed to him.

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This is a hard teaching, no doubt about it. How much easier to keep it to myself; to treat forgiveness as if it were simply earthly coin of the realm: to balance the books of grace as if grace were a commodity that I could control, so much forgiveness doled out for so much apology; no forgiveness given unless asked for, and certainly not given to those who do not ask for it or to my mind deserve it.

What does God think? That forgiveness should be free? Do I want grace to abound when I am the wounded party and no one says they’re sorry? Does that make sense to you? Don’t we want forgiveness to be costly, to be won from us, purchased from us, earned from us by those who have done us wrong? Like the worst of the medieval bishops who sold indulgences and offered the church’s absolution in exchange for gold, dare we fall into the corrupted tit-for-tat that puts a price on grace?

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And of course, there was a price for grace — it’s just that we did not pay it. For all the while we quibble and bargain, bartering forgiveness as if it were ours to dole out, a quiet figure hangs before us on a cross. He is the one who committed no wrong, earned no just punishment. He is the one who suffered so much at the hands of those who meant to do him ill, and even thought it was a religious duty to do so, who they were right and weren’t in the least bit sorry for what they did. As that innocent man was dying, after having been unjustly tried and tortured, as he hung up there to die, they did not look with sorrow or pity upon the one whom they hated. They cursed and mocked him as he died, spitting in his direction, putting out their tongues and treating him as the greatest fool who had ever born. All the weight of the world’s wrong gathered there and pressed down upon the crucified Christ: all of the hatred, all of the sin and ignorance and pride that had been stored up or would yet come to be. The sin of the whole world pressed down upon that dying man as he hung upon the hard wood of the cross.

And what did he do? He begged God to forgive them. He stretched out his arms of love. He did not cry out to his Father, “See what they do, O Lord my God. Punish them as they deserve!” No, he cried out, “Father forgive them, they know not what they do.”

Christ is our example and our Lord. He to whom the greatest wrong was ever done, forgave in full, forgave it all. No wrong, however bad, however painful, done to us can match what was done to Christ, yet he called out to God to forgive in full, without being asked by those who most needed the forgiveness, without the repentance of those who sinned against him.

And he challenges us to do the same: to find the strength to forgive those who sin against us, recalling how, in him, our debts have been forgiven. In order to do so, we will need to fight against our natural human impulse for revenge. We will need to quell our anger and our wrath, to recall that God has said, “Vengeance is mine,” and to echo the words of Joseph in the Old Testament passage this morning, and say, “Are we in the place of God?”

After we have quieted our anger, we will also need to go further, to quiet our need to hear the apologies of those who have done us wrong, and what is worse, who continue to wish to do us wrong. This will not be easy. It is not easy to forgive when you have been badly wronged, seriously injured, terribly assaulted. Do you think Jesus found it easy — dying there on the cross? It won’t be any easier for us to forgive. It is not easy to forgive when you know that the hand stretched out to forgive may receive another bite worse than the first. It is not easy to forgive — but it is the only way to be forgiven. The wise man spoke truly, “We will all stand before the judgment seat of God.”

God challenges us to stretch our little fabric of forgiveness until it covers a multitude of sins. Not seven times, but seventy-seven — which is to say, there is no debt ceiling on forgiveness. God reminds us that he is judge, he is the one before whom every knee will bow, every tongue confess, the one to whom we will all be required to render our account: the account of how much forgiveness we have freely given away.

Let us pray. Eternal Father, help us to find the strength to forgive those who have injured us, to pardon those who have assaulted and wounded us, that when we come to the last day to stand as we must before your judgment seat, we may find the wells of your compassion and forgiveness overflowing for us, through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Monday, September 05, 2011

Not Without Warning

The individual Christian may be a plaintiff or witness, but never a judge. — a sermon for Proper 18a

SJF • Proper 18a • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
So you, mortal, I have made a sentinel for the house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me.

Today’s reading from the book of the prophet Ezekiel was a favorite of Saint Gregory the Great, for two reasons. First of all, the name Gregory means watchman or sentinel; secondly Gregory was the pope — although the sixth century was a time when the powers of the pope were far less far-reaching than later popes would claim. But Gregory was particularly sensitive to his role and responsibility of caregiver and watchman over the church, for he was, first and last, a pastor. Such a wise pastor was he that the book he wrote on the subject of pastoral care was so highly regarded that for centuries after when bishops were consecrated they were given a copy of Gregory’s guidebook for pastors instead of a Bible. It is not for nothing that he gained the epithet, “Gregory the Great.”

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One of the major aspects of the watchman’s work — great or small — is the task of giving a warning. In Ezekiel’s case he is given the responsibility, when he hears a word from God’s mouth, to pass it along to the people as a warning, so that they may turn from their wickedness. Note that it is not Ezekiel’s own judgment that is at issue — he is given no authority to judge others. He has not authority to condemn or even to warn them if they are merely doing something that displeases him. He is only to pass along the warning he receives from the mouth of God himself; he is not a judge but a messenger.

And the purpose of the message is not condemnation but rescue: it is a warning to save those whom God perceives doing wrong, to be headed down the wrong path. For even God does not seek to punish the wicked but rather that they would turn from their evil ways, turning back from the path of crime and folly.

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Of course this fits in well with the teaching of Jesus, who commands us not to judge others. As you know he was particularly critical of the Pharisees and other busybodies who spent their time trying to take specks out of other people’s eyes when their own eyes were blinded by a beam or a log. Jesus gives us no right to judge another.

This does not mean, however, that people have to put up with bad behavior when it is directed towards themselves. As Jesus says, “If another member of the church sins against you...” you have every right to go to that person and make a complaint to them. Only if and when they refuse to hear what you say are you then authorized to take other members of the church with you to confirm the evidence of a crime committed against you. Then and only then, with continued refusal to listen, is the matter to be made public to the church at large. And it is the church that is finally given the authority to determine if the person is in the wrong. In short, the individual Christian may be a plaintiff or a witness, but never, on his or her own, a judge. Only the gathered assembly of the church has the right to pronounce the verdict of judgment — and what they decide on earth is also decided in heaven. In these matters the voice of the church is understood as speaking the verdict of God.

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This is why it is so important to understand that the authority of the church is not personal but corporate. Pope Gregory understood this — though some of his successors in the papacy began to accumulate powers as if they belonged personally to the pope rather than to the pope as the senior watchman among many sentinels.

The individualistic model, in which one persons sets him or herself up as the judge over others, inevitably leads to trouble — even when the individual is wise and prudent. We have all seen what happens, especially in recent months, in the political arena when a leader ceases to listen to his people, and becomes a dictator over them rather than a good leader concerned for their care and their well-being.

This form of tyranny and judgment is particularly problematical when it happens in the church. And I say that not only because it goes against the teaching of Jesus, but because it inevitably leads to quarreling. Notice how seriously Saint Paul considered the gravity of quarreling — just how bad he considered it: listing quarreling along with jealousy, debauchery, licentiousness, reveling and drunkenness as utterly inappropriate behavior for the church.

And the solution he offers is the opposite of judgment, which is love: “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” Just as Jesus himself summarized all of the other commandments under the law of love of God and neighbor, Paul repeats this message in his Letter to the Romans, summing up the whole law of Moses in that one word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” It is love, not judgment, that brings peace and harmony.

That is a solemn warning from the mouth of God himself in Christ Jesus our Lord: love and do not judge. If another member of the church does you personal harm, and wrongs you in some way, you have every right — perhaps even a responsibility — privately to let that person know they have done something to harm you. But gently, charitably, and in a spirit of forgiveness — not a spirit of judgment and restitution; for remember that Jesus also said that we are to forgive those who sin against us not on the basis of their repentance but in the knowledge that we will only be forgiven as we have forgiven them. This, ultimately, is the spirit of love, which, as Paul told the Corinthians, “bears all things.”

If the harm done to you is grave, seek out the one who has injured you and in all charity seek to fulfill the law of love in gaining that one back. If need be — if the person denies the injury or refuses to acknowledge the harm they have done to you — then and only then bring it to other witnesses or finally even to the church: but not in a spirit of quarreling or jealousy — for these are just as bad as all of the other sins that disrupt the good order of the church.

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We pass through life not without warning — warnings from God speaking in our own hearts, warnings from sisters and brothers alerting us when we have done them harm, and warnings from the church that calls us back to the fulfillment of the law of love that Christ himself ordained for us.

Beloved, let us love one another as Christ loved us and gave himself an offering and sacrifice of God, and in whose name we pray.