Sunday, August 21, 2011

Formed-Conformed-Transformed

We are not called to vest ourselves in the camouflage of this world — a sermon for Proper 16a

SJF • Proper 16a 2011 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God-what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Who goes there? That is the challenge put by the sentry to anyone who comes to the border-crossing or gate. The sentry of course wants primarily to know if the one approaching is friend or foe, and will then react accordingly. Any of you who travel, especially internationally, know the importance of having a passport at the ready in order to show your identity, which in this case boils down to your birthplace, citizenship and reason for travel.

Who you are, it seems, depends a good bit on who is asking the question, and what it is about you that they are interested in, rather than in who and what you really are deep down at the depths of your being.

In many cultures the primary factor that identifies a person is ancestry. The first question you might be asked is, “What is your name?” Or “Who are your people?” The prophet Isaiah comes from such a tradition; that Jewish culture in which ancestry is extremely important — in case you ever wondered why the Old Testament has all those lists of who begat whom! Isaiah challenged his hearers to recall that ancestry — to remember that they are descendants of Abraham the righteous and Sarah the faithful. He wants them to recall that they are God’s chosen people, God’s nation, by virtue of their inheritance and family connection: as with grace itself, it is not something they have done, but solely due to God’s ancient choice of Abraham a thousand years and more before their time, that identifies them as who they are.

In many cultures it is your job or occupation that determines who or what you are in that society. In medieval Japan, many people didn’t even have personal names, but were simply known by the name of their occupation. And let's be fair: we don’t have to go quite so far as medieval Asia to find that in our own heritage — especially if your name is Sawyer or Smith, or Cook or Cooper, or Brewer or Baker — your name may well tell you something about one of your ancestors or even your family business in former times!

More importantly, people can form an opinion of you or make a judgment about you on the basis of the most casual and superficial things about you. They can judge you by how you dress — and be impressed if you are well-dressed or write you off if you are too casual, with no real account taken of the person under the fabric. “Clothes make the man” as the old saying goes, and it probably goes double for women. This is a serious matter, because how you appear in the eyes of others will be a major determining factor in what you are able to do in life — and to tie two of these identity factors together: how you dress for a job interview may be more important than what you put on your resumé or what work-skills you possess! How you dress may determine or limit what you end up doing for a living.

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The fact is, however, that what your passport says or who your ancestors were or what you do for a living or how you dress do not really say who you are deep down. But if the powers that be, whether the border guards, or the customs officials, or the job interviewers, give more weight to these external signs and symbols — which to be fair to them is all they have to go on — you may never get the opportunity to reveal more of your true self. You will have been formed by these aspects of your past or your outfit, identified not as who you are but as who you appear to be by those to whom you appear.

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In today’s gospel Jesus is entangled in much this same situation. Rather than proclaiming his own identity he asks the disciples what the word on the street is about him — who do people say that he is? The disciples report the usual list of prophets old and new — the word is out and about that Jesus is somehow either the reincarnation of, or is acting in the spirit of, one of the prophets of old, or even of John the Baptist. John, as we know from the Gospels, is only six months older than Jesus. He knew the value of how to dress the part — dressed in the costume of Elijah the prophet. But he had already fallen victim to Herod the Tetrarch and his dancing daughter-in-law. Yet even Herod himself saw something of John in Jesus.

But Jesus knows that he is none of these things — although he is acting in the prophetic spirit that John revived, Jesus is much, much more than a mere prophet — and he will not be formed by that opinion or conformed by the expectations of the crowd. He will not become what they want him to be. He will be who he is, which is, as the old Greek Fathers said, “He Who Is.” And so he presents the disciples with a second question, a more personal question for their opinion, the opinion of those who know him best — asking, But who do you say that I am? — to see if they are more perceptive than those crowds. And Peter proclaims that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of the living God.

Jesus accepts Peter’s proclamation as a divinely inspired revelation — and there is a sense of relief in his words: finally, it seems, someone has understood who he is, in all of his transforming, transfiguring power. The feast of the Transfiguration was on the calendar just a few weeks ago on the first Saturday in August, but to give due credit to Peter and his inspiration, that miraculous revelation of Christ in glory on the mountaintop comes later in Matthew’s gospel — shortly after the incident portrayed today — coming as if to confirm Peter’s perceptive proclamation of Jesus as the Messiah. That follow-up revelation is a kind of certification, a kind of setting the seal of the power of God present and active in the person of Jesus Christ, God in man made manifest: Not just someone dressed for the part of a prophet, but deep down through and through, true God and true Man, He Who Is.

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As Christians we are called to be transformed from our merely ancestral identities, our biological and familial heritage; we are called to transcend society’s expectations and limitations; we are challenged to resist the temptation to dress ourselves in the camouflage of this world, and instead to be clothed from above with the likeness of Christ and the armor of God — not conformed to this world, but transformed by the renewing of our minds so that we may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

This is how we will find our true identity. And there is in the long run a job description that goes with it. If we are to be known by the occupations of our lives — let them be the occupations that Paul describes as the signs of God’s presence and our true identity as God’s children: in prophecy in proportion to our faith, in ministry and teaching and exhortation, in generosity and leadership and diligence and compassion and cheerfulness. When the challenge comes, “Who goes there?” this is the kind of answer a Christian should be prepared to give. I don’t know about you, but if people are going to judge me on the basis of what I do, that’s how I would like to be known! Cheerful, truthful, generous, diligent, and compassionate. Sounds good to me. How about you?+


Sunday, August 14, 2011

No Boundary to Grace

We do not come to the banquet because of our righteousness but because of God's invitation. — A sermon for Proper 15a

SJF • Proper 15a • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.

All of our Scripture readings today point in the direction of healing the division that has existed since the days when God first created a covenant with Abraham and designated him as the ancestor of a special, holy, and chosen people. This was a people separated from all the other nations of the earth. Brother Millard spoke last week of the end-of-Sabbath Havdalah ceremony by which Jews celebrate their “chosenness” and being set apart by God’s covenant with them, reflected in the separation of the Sabbath from the other six regular days of the week. The covenant of separation was cherished by the Jewish people down through the centuries as a sign of their unique status in God’s eyes.

That covenant was also renewed many times down through the years. Moses recommitted the people to obey the Lord their God at Mount Sinai. Joshua recommitted them, challenging them to obey the Lord as he and his household swore to do, when they crossed the Jordan and gathered at Shechem. Ezra and Nehemiah reminded the people of these commandments after their exile in Babylon, and the Maccabees did the same after their liberation from the Greek empire. Time and again that message was hammered home: you are God’s special, chosen people, unique in all the world because of your relationship with the God who made heaven and earth. As for the rest of the world, as the prophet Micah said, each of the nations walks in the name of its own god, but we walk in the name of the Lord our God for ever and ever.

That message, as it came to be understood, was that salvation itself was only for the children of Israel — they alone were chosen and precious not only for this world but for the next as well. Among the Rabbis it became a topic of some interest as to whether a non-Jew could even have any share at all in the life of the world to come — that is, was it possible for anyone who was not among the Jewish people to be saved.

In spite of the promises of the prophets, such as Isaiah, that God had a special place reserved for the Gentiles who sought him out and dedicated themselves to righteousness in his name — in spite of these promises, the question of whether Gentiles were worth God’s notice, or God’s salvation, was still a hot topic by the time of Christ.

Jesus appears, by one reading of the incident recorded in this morning’s gospel, to have accepted that stricter view that Gentiles and foreigners (which is all the same thing to most Jewish people of that time), are not God’s concern — God’s interest is in making sure that the children of Israel are looked after, after the mess they’ve gotten themselves into, like lost sheep who have wandered off but who are still valuable to the shepherd. But then Jesus appears to be moved by the Canaanite woman’s persistence, and her chutzpah in talking back to him when Jesus indirectly compares her tormented daughter to a dog. She is bold enough to remind Jesus, who has himself brought up the analogy of food and the dinner table, that even the dogs are remembered and fed — along with the children — from the master’s table, even if it is only with crumbs.

Now, I’ve often wondered if Jesus really was being as cold-blooded as he appears to be to this poor woman with a sick child, or if he isn’t — in keeping with reading this passage as a test of his disciples — seeing whether they would abide by the prevailing view that foreigners are trash and not worth their trouble, or if they would show the kind of gracious openness Jesus himself shows on other occasions. You note that the disciples come first to urge him to send her away...

But that is a topic for another sermon. Because whatever the reason, whether Jesus was moved by this woman or testing the disciples, in the end he broke through that boundary to grace and allowed it to flow freely to a Gentile. And of course, by the end of Matthew’s Gospel it is abundantly clear that Jesus intends salvation for the whole world, as he sends the disciples out to baptize all nations — and we might even translate that as all “ethnics” which is to say all Gentiles — into the faith of the one true God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

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In today’s epistle, Saint Paul addresses the question of how this might work in the manner of a good Rabbi — which he often reminded those to whom he wrote he was, himself a student at the feet of Gamaliel, who had himself been a student of the great Rabbi Hillel. Hillel had been an advocate of the generous view that Gentiles could be saved, and Paul no doubt believed that in Jesus Christ this doctrine of his spiritual grandfather had come true.

Much of Paul’s letter to the Romans is an effort to explain just how this might work. In the section we heard today the image is almost one of a seating at a banquet. Those who had formerly been seated — God’s chosen ones — have lost their seats because of their disobedience, their misbehavior, and it is only that misbehavior that has opened up the possibility for the Gentiles to take their place for a time. And that “for a time” is important because Paul promises the eventual ushering back in of all of God’s people all whom God foreknew and chose as his own — Jew or Gentile — for the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable.

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In God’s good time, there is plenty of room for Gentile and Jew alike on the mountain that Isaiah envisages. In God’s good time there is no boundary to grace, no limit to the abundance of God’s generosity and God’s patience with Jew and Gentile alike. The ultimate message that Paul is transmitting in his Letter to the Romans is that salvation is the work of God: just as creation is the work of God, so too is the new creation in Christ; it is God’s work.

It is God’s party, and God invites whoever God wishes. It is not for self-righteous party crashers to push themselves forward on the basis of their own righteousness, Nor, even worse, is it right for some at the party to seek to keep those others they judge unworthy out, but for all to trust in the saving of mercy of God as the only basis for admission to the banquet. We are not invited to the banquet on the basis of our righteousness, but his righteousness, and his generosity.

There is plenty of room at the table, and crumbs aplenty under it — but believe me, no child of God invited to that table will be made to eat those crumbs, but will be given the choice and richest portions of the feast. God’s grace is God’s, after all, and our God is a God of abundant blessing and not of parsimonious stinginess, a God not of crumbs and crusts but of marvelous abundance of multiplied loaves and bread showered from heaven. To God be the glory, henceforth and forever more.