Monday, September 17, 2012

Do As I Say

Jesus wants us to do as he says, and as he does... A sermon for Proper 19b.

Proper 19b • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For all of us make many mistakes.

John Selden, a wise and witty 17th-century English lawyer, is the originator — or at least the recorder — of the saying, “Do as I say, not as I do.” Many a parent or teacher has used this line as an excuse, when their children or pupils point out that the teacher has failed to follow their own teaching. It is an easy loophole to slip through, and Selden the lawyer noticed how poor an excuse it is for any teacher worth his or her salt. As Selden noted, while it might be common for a teacher or a preacher to fall back on this cop-out, saying, Do as I say, not as I do; what, asked Selden, “if the Physician had the same Disease upon him that I have, and he should bid me do one thing, and he do quite another — could I believe him?” No, when life and limb are at stake you want to make sure that the advice you follow is also followed by the one who gives it! Who, after all, would trust an obese doctor to give advice on weight loss, or a doctor who smoked like a chimney who advised against smoking?

Saint James, in the passage from his epistle we heard this morning, seems to offer a similar point: teachers need to be on their guard, knowing that they will be judged with great strictness should they make an error — as anyone is bound to do from time to time. “Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect,” James assures us, and we all know that nobody’s perfect! The best thing to do when caught in an error or a misstatement is to admit the fault, accept correction, and move on — without resorting to excuses or evasions like, “Do as I say, not as I do.”

James knew the wisdom of setting the record straight and accepting his own imperfections, not excusing them, but disciplining his sloppy and fallible tongue. Not an easy task, he goes on to say. If the tongue of even the wisest teacher may slip and speak in error, how much worse the wagging and wicked tongues of gossip and cursing. Better to keep silent, it might be wise to say.

Which, indeed, Jesus says to his disciples concerning his identity — picking up on the theme from last week’s gospel. Whether Jesus really did want the disciples to keep his identity secret, or this was just his way of setting their wagging tongues alight to spread the word, each of us must grasp as best able to do. I noted last week that the idea that Jesus really wanted to keep his identity secret seems not to be in keeping with his continued and open proclamation — as our gospel reminds us today, “he said all this quite openly” — so if he really meant to keep his identity secret — like a first-century Batman or Superman — he does not seem to have followed his own advice to the disciples not to tell anyone who he was, and why he came.

The Gospel shows us Jesus is not shy of speaking out — preaching from the mountainside and on the plain, from the shores of Galilee to the very courts of the Temple. And what is more, he not only preaches — he acts. To paraphrase the Epistle of James we heard last week, he is not a speaker of the word only, but most definitely a doer.

And so Jesus closes this passage today with a good example of the opposite of John Selden’s saying: Do as I say, and as I do. Any who want to be his followers must do as he has done, denying themselves and taking up their cross to follow him. Now, that may seem obvious — how can you be a follower if you don’t follow? But as with those who say one thing and do another, surely we know that the church is not lacking in folks who swear they love the Lord, but do nothing to serve him when they come across him in the form of those who are poor, or hungry, or sick or bereft. Those who are ashamed of him — sometimes in the form of the poor and the stranger, of whom he said, “as you have done to them, so you have done to me” — surely those ashamed of him will find him to be ashamed of them when he comes in unmistakable glory at the end of the age. And so he warns us in advance, to do as he has done.

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So, in this meantime, before his coming again in glory, what is the best course for us, in the midst of this adulterous and sinful generation? How do we best do, not just as Jesus says to do, but to do as he has done? Each of us must answer this as best we can, for no one knows another’s strengths or weaknesses so well as we each do our own. I get a sense of this in James’ epistle — is this in part a confession not only of his failings in speaking, not just in slips of the tongue, but in the wagging of it? Does he speak from experience as one who found it hard to keep his tongue from speaking ill, from spreading tales, and tittle-tattle? Is he preaching to himself as much as to those to whom he wrote? Perhaps, much like Saint Paul, the cross James bore in life was his knowledge of his own weaknesses — and this is in part his way of speaking from experience to his church of the faults he knows only too well.

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In the same way, each of us is called to the knowledge both of our own weaknesses, our own failings, but also to the knowledge of the one in whom we put our trust, the one who will save us precisely because we cannot save ourselves. Those intent on saving themselves are the ones who lose — for none, imperfect as the best of us is, can save themselves. It is those who fix their eyes on the great Teacher — the Teacher who does not just give a speech, but acts; who not only says, but does — perfectly. He it is who saves us because we cannot save ourselves. If we are to follow him, let us do so not in word only, but in deed, framing our lives as best we can to his example: he has given us the cross as a template, as a shape to form ourselves into, to follow him; as generous, loving people who give of themselves to help others. Let us be like him, and countless others, those saints who have followed him in faith, who are not ashamed to sit with the lowly, or to welcome the stranger, to visit the sick and those in prison — in short, to take up our cross each day of our lives, that at the end of those lives, we may be blessed to hear, Well done, good and faithful servant, enter into your master’s joy.+

Sunday, September 09, 2012

The Secret Jesus

The ironical evangelist Mark once again says one thing while seeming to say the opposite 2014 a sermon for Proper 18b.

Proper 18b • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it.

The longest running musical in theater history is a little play called The Fantasticks. It ran for forty-two years in its original Off-Broadway run in New York, and it has been revived and performed in other venues thousands of times since. In it, two fathers hatch a plot to get their children to do what they want them to do. That in itself is not so unusual; parents have been trying to get their children to act as they want — often without success — from the days of Cain and Abel. What is unusual lies in how these two fathers plot to accomplish their scheme. For they realize they stand the best chance of success by telling their children to do the opposite of what they want them to do.

The wisdom of their plan is based on their observation that children often do the opposite of what is asked of them. In one of the show’s songs, “Never Say No,” they document, among other things, that children put beans in their ears precisely because they are told not to beans in their ears. So the crafty fathers realize they can put this contrariness to work, as they also sing, “Your daughter brings a young man in, / says, ‘Do you like him, Pa?’ / Just say that he’s a fool / and then you’ve got a son-in-law!” And so they plot to get their children to fall in love by telling them that they must never, never, see or speak with each other.

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In today’s Gospel, there are three references to Jesus trying to keep a secret — or so it seems. Remember, once again, that this is the Gospel of Mark, the shortest of the four Gospels, so if something is repeated three times in one short section you can be sure that the economical Mark wants us to take note of it! At the beginning of the passage Mark tells us that Jesus entered a house but did not want anyone to know that he was there. Then, after healing the child of the Gentile woman — again seeming to be reluctant to do so, but being persuaded by her insistence — he then travels out of the way into Gentile territory, and then is greeted by people who bring him a deaf man. In keeping with this theme of secrecy, rather than healing the man in their sight, Jesus once more takes him aside and works this healing miracle in private. And finally, after healing the man, Jesus orders the people to tell no one about the miracle.

The irony in all of this — and we can be sure that this is Mark’s point, because, after all, he brings it up three times — is stated clearly: “the more Jesus ordered them to keep silent, the more zealously they spread the word.” So, the question before us is, Did Jesus really want his presence to be kept secret, or was he, like the savvy fathers in The Fantasticks, relying on human nature to spread the word of his presence even as he kept telling them to keep his presence mum?

As I said a few weeks ago about Jesus’ claim to be the bread from heaven, we do not have many options here. But just consider this: Jesus did understand human nature better than any other human being who has ever walked this earth. So he must have known the simple truth that the fathers in that musical knew — that people will act contrary to instructions given them. And after all, as the Son of God he had witnessed the long history of his chosen people disobeying his Father in heaven!

Jesus surely also knew that the things he did would be perceived as fulfillment of those ancient prophecies about the coming of Messiah, the Son of God and Son of Man — and once perceived as such, the word would spread like wildfire. And here he is, fulfilling a prophecy such as we heard this morning in Isaiah, a prophecy fulfilled in this Gospel passage, as a man who cannot hear or speak clearly is freed from these impediments, his ears unstopped and his tongue untied. And in this act, though Jesus tells the people to keep quiet about it, we can be sure he meant the story to be told.

And why is that? Because this is not a healing of someone lame, or disabled, or blind. It is the healing of a man who could not speak. Why would Jesus untie someone’s tongue only to tell him and the crowd to keep silent? Why open his ears if not to fill them with the good news that he can then tell forth with his newly liberated tongue? Why come to this earth at all, incarnate as the Lord, as the Messiah long awaited, the Son of God and Son of Man, robed in flesh, our Great High Priest, if not to call all people to himself, and save them as they put their trust in him? Why keep secret the best news ever heard?

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And it seems to me that the answer to this is in fact the wisdom of Jesus to know that the word would be best spread by telling people not to spread it. He knew our failings — that we cannot keep good news from spreading; and, lets face it, nothing travels like gossip, either! People really just can’t manage to mind their tongues, so at least Jesus gives them something good to wag their tongues about — the Good News that salvation has come, that the day long promised by Isaiah and all of the prophets is upon us: “Be strong; do not fear. Here is your God, who has come to save you!” If even the dogs are going to be fed, how much more the children God that has called and adopted to be his own, through the coming of that very Son of God who is our brother, who through his brotherhood with us makes us children of his Father in heaven.

This is good news, my friends, and woe betide me if I were to tell you to keep it to yourselves, even if I thought that meant you would spread it more effectively. Rather let me say to those encouraging words: to spread the word — to tell it forth in the streets and the offices, in the shops and on the sidewalks of this great but terrible city, by the hospital bed of the dying and in the nursery where new life comes to birth. Publish, my friends, publish glad tidings of redemption and release, as our untied tongues proclaim the praise of the One who has freed us from our bondage to death, and brought us into his marvelous light, even Jesus Christ our Lord.

Sunday, September 02, 2012

Take It All In

Deep cleaning is what is needed, in the heart of hearts 2014 not just washing one's hands. A sermon for Proper 17b.

Proper 17b • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.

In our Gospel passage this morning it might appear at first glance that Jesus is being a bit hard on the Pharisees and the scribes. After all, their criticism, “Why do your disciples eat with defiled — that is, dirty — hands?” could come from the mouth of many a mother or grandmother or aunt talking to a son or granddaughter or nephew or niece. At least I was brought up that way — and so it was a tradition in my family home, as much as it appears to have been for the Pharisees and all the Jews, as Mark observes. It is not that unusual to be expected to wash your hands throughly before you eat — particularly when you are eating without knife and fork, but dipping your hand in the bowl and breaking the loaf of bread with your bare — and, one hopes, clean — hands.

But as Jesus notes, there is more going on here than just hygiene and table manners. The thing that seems to pull Jesus’ last nerve is the tendency of the Pharisees and the scribes, at least the ones who confronted him, spectacularly to miss the point of God’s law, and to substitute rules and regulations of their own, and focus on those hand-made laws, rather than on the deeper matters of justice, truth, and love, that are embodied in God’s sublime law: the Law summarized so well in the commandment to love God and neighbor.

As important as washing your hands may be, there is something superficial about it. It cleans only the outside; it does nothing for the inside. Think for a moment of another famous hand-washer from the Scriptures: Pontius Pilate. A good politician — or perhaps I should say a bad politician — he takes a poll and follows the prevailing opinion rather than standing up for what he really knows is right: At the urging of the crowd, he sends Jesus to be whipped and crucified, then washes his hands of the whole affair — literally. Outside, his hands are clean. Inside, he is “as guilty as sin” as my grandmother used to say; remembered around the world and down through the ages only for this single act, as people everywhere in countless languages recite each Sunday, “crucified under Pontius Pilate... crucificado bajo Poncio Pilato...” What a way to be remembered!

Pilate could wash his hands from dawn to dusk, for a week at a time or for two thousand years, and like Shakespeare’s Scottish assassin’s wife, Lady MacB, never manage to get that damned spot of blood off of his guilty hands. And even if he could, it would not change the inner reality of who he is, and what he did. He chose not to risk trouble with the crowd, and sent the Lord of glory to his death.

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But enough about Pilate. Let us return to the one of whom Pilate washed his hands. The point Jesus is making, as he goes on to teach, is that tarting up the outside is no good if the inside is filthy. Washing your hands will not make you a righteous person. Jesus made this point to the Pharisees on another occasion when he talked about them being like whitewashed graves: pure and spotless on the outside but full of corruption and rottenness within. And here he contrasts the talkative lips that honor God with their literal lip-service, and the all-too-fallible and sinful human hearts that conceal God only knows what evil inclinations and mischief deep within, where sin crouches for employment, ready to leap out at the first opportunity.

In the present case Jesus is addressing the question of food — for the Pharisees would hold that even kosher food would be contaminated by eating it with unclean hands. But Jesus goes beyond the food question to expound on one of his favorite themes: what does God really want from us? Does God want merely the appearance of righteousness, a superficial ship-shape and bristol fashion on deck while down in the engine room is all is chaos and confusion and unruliness? Does God only want clean hands and a clean slate, or rather a clean heart, an inside cleaned and voided of all the wretched impurity that lurks within, and defiles as it comes out?

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The Apostle James — not our Saint James but the other James, who wrote the letter we heard this morning, believed by many to be the brother of Jesus — echoes this teaching in his call for the inside of the believer to be purified — weeded and trimmed of the rank growth of wickedness, and transformed inwardly by the implanted word of God, like a seed planted in a newly cultivated garden plot, ready to grow inside the heart of a faithful person, so that the righteous man or woman can actually do what God requires — not only hearing the word with the ear or speaking it with the lips, but actually doing what it requires; not being like someone who looks at his superficial reflection — his outside — in a mirror, but one who takes the word in, in to the heart, where it empowers the righteous person to act rightly, and the good to do good.

Ultimately goodness does not come from within us, as James testifies: “every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights.” But if we allow this graceful gift to enter us, to cleanse us inwardly of all our faults, then we can bring forth things other than those awful and defiling things that are all we could do on our own, without God’s grace. As Jesus is quoted as saying in the parallel passage in Matthew’s Gospel, “Clean the inside of the cup and then the outside will be clean.” The vessel that needs cleaning — inside — is us, and only God’s grace and God’s gift can do that cleaning, deep down where it matters, in our heart of hearts.

It is not enough just to wash our hands, or to hear the word — we are called and invited to take it all in, to allow God to cleanse us “through and through,” as the Psalm says to God, “Purge me from my sin and I shall be pure, Wash me and I shall be clean indeed.” God indeed looks for truth deep within us, and plunges the depths of every human heart. God will cleanse us and weed and cultivate our inward garden plot, so that his implanted word will bear fruit, and bring it forth accordingly.

Let us pray. Cleanse us, O God, in our heart of hearts, that we may be your faithful people, and do such good things as only your grace can empower us to do, that we may serve you not only with our lips, but in our lives, in holiness and righteousness all our days, through Jesus Christ our Lord.