Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Accept or Reject?

Do we accept all that God offers, even when we cannot see how it will be to our good?

Lent 2c • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!

All of our Scripture readings today give us powerful examples of acceptance and rejection — and the consequences of those actions. And as the lessons show, those consequences can affect not only the individual but generations to come.

We are presented first with Abram, and God’s promise of a reward. Abram is by no means ungrateful, but he is clearly not content: whatever God gives him will end with him — for he has no heir or descendant. The reward stops with him. And so God makes a promise to go along with the reward — God promises that Abram’s descendants will be more numerous than the stars. Abram believes, but then also seems to step back for a second time and ask God how it is he can be sure of this promise. And there follows a dreamlike passage in which Abram sacrifices a number of animals at God’s instruction and then enters into a deep and terrifying darkness in which he has a vision of smoke and fire passing through the midst of the divided portions of the bloody sacrifice, and a final promise from God: “to your descendants I give this land from the river of Egypt to the great river Euphrates.”

This is a story of multiple acceptances and very little rejection. Abram understandably can hardly believe the blessings that God is ready to pour out on him and his descendants. He’s a bit like one of those folks on The Antiques Road Show who when told their old jug is worth $25,000, say, “No!” But God accepts Abram, and his sacrifice — and Abram responds by accepting God’s promise in that vision of the night, of smoke and blood and flame.

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The reading from Philippians takes a sharp turn towards rejection, however. Paul is lamenting some who have rejected the cross, and even made themselves enemiesof Christ’s cross and salvation. These are people who have made a choice — they have rejected Christ crucified and have chosen earthly things: starting with their own bellies. These are perhaps some of the Greeks for whom the cross, with all its shame, is foolishness, as Paul would say to another Gentile congregation in Corinth. So they reject the way of the cross — reject following in the footsteps of Jesus and taking part in the sufferings that come with such faithfulness, and seek instead a life of comfort and personal satisfaction. Paul contrasts those who reject the way of Christ with himself and those believers who have accepted Christ, who have put their trust in him, even though they might at present be suffering persecutions and humiliations — as did Christ himself. And so Paul counsels them to stand firm in their acceptance of their Lord and Savior, in that cross with all its shame.

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Finally we come to those who not only reject the cross but Christ himself. Jesus personifies this rejection in the city of Jerusalem: the city that rejects the prophets and those who are sent to it. Jesus knows, of course, that the cross lies ahead of him and he will no more swerve aside from it or reject it, than would the faithful of that community at Philippi under the guidance of Saint Paul. For they know the truth, as Jesus knew, that salvation comes through and by means of that suffering. As the coach will say, “No pain, no gain”; or as an even older and more profound saying puts it, “No cross, no crown.”

But Jerusalem, Jerusalem, as the prophets had warned, likes to sit in comfort and safety — it wants the gain without the pain, it wants the crown without the cross — and in doing so forgets its reliance upon the Lord and God who is the only source of its strength. It is so jealous of its comfort and security that, like the Wicked Witch in “The Wiz” — that musical adaptation of the Wizard of Oz — it shouts out, “Don’t be bringing me no bad news!” It doesn’t want to hear the corrective words of the prophets, the words of warning that might save it. And in the long run that proud city rejects not only the prophets, but the Savior himself. And in doing so it loses its gain, and forsakes its crown.

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And what about us? Do we accept the things that come to us from God’s hand, or are we sometimes moved to turn up our noses when what befalls us does not suit our immediate needs? Or even more so, causes us trouble or pain? Do we ever fall into the trap of despair, as Abram almost did — unsure of how God can bring an answer out of all this mess we seem to have gotten into; beginning to doubt, beginning to lose our trust — not in our own abilities (which we are probably wise to doubt) but in the power of God to do all that God has promised for us? Do I? Do you? Do we, as a community, as a congregation, as a church? Do we let our insecurities or mistrust stand in the way of receiving the blessing that God has promised to pour out upon us when we offer that sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving to God’s holy name? Do we work through our doubts and confusion, facing them and working through them like a dream of smoke and fire and blood — passing through that painful sacrifice to the gainful promise on the other side?

Do we follow the example of Saint Paul, imitating him and living in accordance with the example that he set — working hard even when the reward seems far off; holding fast to the cross for the life-preserver it is in the flood of this mortal life? Do we grasp it — the cross of Christ — as a refuge anchor in the storm and the strife? Or do we let our bellies be our guide — our bodily needs and wants and desires and ambitions, unwilling to suffer any discomfort or inconvenience and so treating the cross of Christ — even his death on the cross — as irrelevant, or at best something to be put on the shelf or the end table, along with the Bible that hasn’t been cracked open in many a day?

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No, my friends, let us not reject the one who is so willing to have us accept him. Let us not be like Jerusalem of old, a city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it; Let us not be like the disobedient children who when called home to safety instead run away to danger and destruction.

Listen, listen, he is calling us still, calling us to come to him, that we might take shelter under his wings. In the storm and the stress, in the smoke and the flame, we may not be able to see him reaching out to save us — we may at most see only the barest outline of his cross before our eyes. But he sees us, my beloved sisters and brothers, he sees us and knows where we are and if we will not reject him he will gather us up into the safety of his loving arms.

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Some years ago there was a terrible house fire in an old three storey frame building. You know these kinds of things happen in the Bronx all the time, especially in hard winter when someone accidentally knocks over one of those kerosene heaters they shouldn’t be using in the first place. Well in this case, the family managed to escape the house — or thought they had, until the father did a quick count of all the children on the sidewalk, and then heard that most horrible sound: his little boy calling to him from the second floor window, as the smoke billowed around him, blinding him so that he could see nothing. The father wanted to rush back into the house, but the crowd held him back, so he ran and stood under the window, calling up to his little son, telling him to jump. The terrified child, his eyes clenched tight against the stinging smoke, yelled out, “But Daddy, I can’t see you.” And his father shouted back, “But I can see you! Jump!”

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That decision to jump is sometimes as hard to make as the decision to follow God’s invitation to trust in him with all your heart and mind and soul and strength. It is hard — but it is the way to salvation. Let us not reject the one who stretches out his arms of love on the hard wood of the cross, who calls to us to come to him — to run, to walk, to crawl, or even to jump into his loving saving arms — even Jesus Christ our Lord.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Truth Times Three

Three half-truths crack open three whole truths.

Note: audio is missing the first few lines... sorry!

Lent 1c 2013 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead you will be saved.

As is the case on the first Sunday in Lent every year, our gospel passage tells of the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. This is a very dramatic episode; in fact, screenwriters have found it to be among the easiest episodes from the life of Christ to portray on film. The script practically writes itself: Saint Luke in particular sets the time and the scene the way any screenwriter or storyteller would do, right at the top of the page. It is after the baptism of Jesus, and the spirit has led him into the wilderness. There he has spent forty days, being tempted by the devil. We are only presented with the last three temptations, but Luke says this has been going on for forty days, during which time Jesus has eaten nothing — and if you want to get a sense of what that might have been like I suggest you try going for forty hours and see how it feels.

So the scene is set and the dialogue very quickly ensues. In fact the dialogue happens so quickly that I fear we are likely to lose the impact and the import of these three temptations; so I would like to take a little time this morning to look at each of them in greater detail. These three temptations point to three half-truths. Jesus transforms these halves, doubling them into three full truths: truth times three.

The first temptation is a natural: Jesus is famished and so the devil tempts him with food, in particular with bread — but note that he does not simply present him with a nice freshly baked loaf of bread; he urges him to make it himself by transforming a stone into bread. Jesus responds by quoting the Scripture, Deuteronomy 8:3, “One does not live by bread alone.” You know there is more to that citation, that verse; but Jesus, quoting the Scripture in this way, is doing something that the rabbis of his time often did — that is, they relied on the scriptural literacy of their students, and at the same time tested that literacy, by only giving half the verse, to see if they would come up with the second half on their own; to test the understanding of the hearer. They would know the rest, as I’m sure you do — after all, that’s why the rabbinical students were studying, and as far as the devil goes, there’s an old saying that the devil can quote scripture to his purpose — which we will see in a moment. So in this case, you all remember the other half of this verse: “but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”

To those who know that Scripture, this unspoken half of the verse should resonate with great power: for not just what but who is the word that comes from the mouth of the Lord? It is not just the Law that comes from God, the written word given on Mount Sinai; but it is also the Son of God himself — Jesus — the living word of God, spoken from before time and forever; the one who comes forth from the Father, the Only-Begotten Word of God. Moreover, he is also, as we will see later in the gospel, the one who gives himself as bread, for the life of the world. So the half-truth that the devil presents is that the son of God can transform stone into bread; but just as at the wedding in Cana of Galilee Jesus showed that there was a far more to his mission than a mere magic act, so too here he shows the whole truth: that life itself is not merely something that comes from eating earthly bread but from heavenly bread and from the word of God, living and true.

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The devil’s next temptation involves a change of scene and a vision of all the world’s kingdoms. With this comes the half-truth that the devil can arrange for Jesus to come to power in these earthly lands if he will devote himself to the devil’s agenda. Anyone who reads the newspaper or watches CNN can see the stories of politicians whose rise to power was built on betraying the very principles they were called upon to defend. Dare I mention using campaign funds to buy yourself a watch that’s worth more than what most people make in a whole year?

Jesus once again responds by quoting Deuteronomy 6:13, substituting one word, “worship” for “fear.” And if in the first response Jesus gave part of a quote to imply the rest of it, here he alters one word, picking up on the devil’s offer that if Jesus will worship him the devil will give him authority over the nations of the world. This altering of a single word is another rabbinic tool: bending a text by substituting a close synonym to make a point, as Jesus does here to show a greater truth: there is no cause either to worship or to fear the devil. God alone is the source of all right judgment and truth. To rely upon the devil to come to power is to build on a very shaky foundation indeed — as we have seen when countless tyrants, liars and hypocrites, and politicians, topple from power when they are exposed for their betrayal of the truth and their failure to fear the judgment of God — for we are all answerable to that power.

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Finally there is one more change of scene, and also a change in tactics. Perhaps a bit annoyed at having had Scripture quoted at him, the devil decides to quote Scripture himself, offering not just one but two quotations from it — in this case both from Psalm 91. Once more Jesus responds by quoting Deuteronomy 6:16. Obviously there is some truth in the devil’s challenge; after all it comes from Scripture: God does indeed protect his own. But Jesus wisely points out the whole truth: that God’s protection does not mean we are to test or challenge God by putting ourselves at risk just to show that God is God. God doesn’t need us to prove that God is God. God is God whether we prove it or not!

But another and more important truth in this last challenge and response lies in the last verse of the passage: Jesus says, “do not put the Lord your God to the test,” and the gospel concludes, “when the devil had finished every test he went away, awaiting an opportune time.” “When the devil had finished every test.” This is Luke’s way of highlighting what in fact has been taking place here in the whole scene: the devil has been testing Jesus, but in doing so he has also been testing God — for Jesus is the Son of God incarnate, and the devil knows that full well, just as he knows his Scripture; but he has gotten so caught up in the coils of his own lies that he has forgotten who it is he is speaking to. He may think he is only preying upon the human weakness that Jesus has embraced in becoming human — the human weaknesses of hunger, ambition, and fear — but the devil has forgotten — as he so often does, poor fool that he is and always has been — that in spite of his human weakness Jesus is the Word of God incarnate, he is the bread of heaven, he is the true power and authority of all creation by whom all things were made, and not someone who can be put to the test by one who lost his legs in the Garden of Eden, condemned to spend the rest of his life belly-squirming in the dust.

So it is no wonder the devil chooses this moment to slither away and bide his time. Jesus’ last response might just as well have been, “Just who do you think you are talking to!” You shall not put the Lord your God to the test. The devil has gotten so tied up with his own charms that he has forgotten just who Jesus is — and that sudden reminder is enough to send him slithering back to his snake-hole. “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.” For all his talk, the devil is an awful coward.

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And so my friends let us take away these three important whole truths from this short drama: First, Jesus is the word of God and the bread from heaven, and it is by him, in him, and through him that we are called and invited to live. Second, he and he alone is and ought to be the only object of our worship and our service — any power or glory that comes from any other source is to be rejected for the worthless and undependable trash that it is. Third and finally, we are called upon not to test, but to trust, and to bear in mind who it is with whom we will have to deal at the end — the devil will not be our judge. The devil may be our accuser, but our judge, who shared our life as we share his, will also be our advocate, and redeemer, and he will speak on our behalf. What does Saint Paul say? “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead you will be saved.” We have heard this day three precious truths, to support that confession and that faith, my friends, three precious truths from the heart of the wilderness and from the heart of God, through Jesus Christ our Lord.+

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Sweet Talk

Can hard words be made softer with love?

Epiphany 4c 2013 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
All in the synagogue spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.

Our second reading this morning is one of the most beloved passages of Scripture. One might say, as Katharine Hepburn famously said of calla lilies, that it is suitable for any occasion. In addition to its use in regular Sunday worship, it is also read at weddings and funerals alike. Given the many people only attend church at weddings and funerals, this may be one of the few texts of Scripture that such unchurched people hear, the only portion of Scripture they are likely to know when at all. Who can forget Prime Minister Tony Blair’s reading of this very passage at Princess Diana’s funeral. That was seen by millions on television around the world, some of whom never darkened the doors of a church after their baptism, or will again until they are carried in and out by the staff of a funeral home.

But to return to our text, it is indeed a particularly beautiful passage, and in addition to its beauty it carries an extremely important message, similar to that from last week’s reading about how an apostle speaks — whether in preaching, teaching, or prophecy — must be imbued with love. Otherwise, a message delivered without love will be like the disruptive clamor of a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. In short, the teacher or preacher is advised to sweet-talk: to speak with gentleness and patience and grace — and above all, love.

The problem, of course, is that the message a preacher is sometimes called to deliver is not in itself very sweet. There are times when difficult things have to be said. Adding a spoonful of sugar to a batch of nasty medicine is not always easy. This is a perilous balancing act — even for one who is the soul of diplomacy and tact.

You may of heard the old story of the three old Cajun fellows who were out one night in the bayou, driving their backwoods Lincoln Continental — a pickup truck — after they’d all had rather a bit too much to drink. Although it’s hard to tell sometimes how much is too much to drink, when you’re dealing with an old Cajun fellow. At one point the truck swerved but the tree didn’t and the driver, one Boudreaux by name, went to meet his maker rather sooner than he thought he might. The other two were shaken up but drunk enough to stagger away from the wreck. René said to Pierre, “This is terrible. Who’s going to tell Mrs. Boudreaux?” Whereupon Pierre volunteered, “I will handle this. I am the soul of diplomacy and tact.” And so the pair staggered off to Boudreaux’s house.

Pierre stepped up and knocked on the door and Mrs. Boudreaux answered. Said Pierre, “Are you the widow Boudreaux?” The startled woman replied, “Why I am Mrs. Boudreaux, but I’m not a widow.” To which Pierre, summoning all of his diplomacy and tact, said, “The hell you ain’t!”

Surely preachers are called upon to deliver their messages in a truly more tactful and loving way. But sometimes, sometimes the word the preacher is called to preach, the word placed in his mouth by God himself — as we saw God do in the case of young Jeremiah — sometimes that word will be a word of plucking up or pulling down, a word of destruction and overthrow, as well as building up and planting. As you likely know Jeremiah did have some hard things to say to the people to whom God sent him, and for his thanks got thrown down a well and later put into prison.

And let’s face it, even our Lord Jesus Christ himself did not fare much better when he went to his hometown of Nazareth and began to preach in their synagogue. And if you’ve ever wondered why more isn’t said about Nazareth in the Gospels — this is why. He received no welcome and once he left he left it for good. Oh, it all started off fine, as the people observed how nicely he spoke and how gracious were his words — but then of course a few of them began to say, “Isn’t that Joseph’s son?” — as if to say, “Where did this carpenter’s boy get to talk so fancy?” Jesus of course saw through this at once and challenged that congregation with a reminder of the fact that the greatest miracles and the most powerful prophecies are not worked or spoken in the hometown setting — in large part because of the doubt those in the hometown hold about the one who would work miracles — if the people would only believe and trust instead of doubting. So Jesus reminds them of figures from Jewish history — foreigners for whom miracles were worked by the greatest of the prophets, Elijah and Elisha. He’s only telling them the truth, mind — it’s all in the Scriptures, it’s just the history — and he’s still doing it graciously, not calling anybody names — and yet they are thrown into a rage of anger and set to throw him, not just down a well, but off the cliff at the edge of town. As I said, if you wonder why he never went back to Nazareth...

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So how does one sweet talk when the things one needs to say may be received as bitter? How does a preacher preach the truth if people would rather hear sweet lies and comforting words that do them no good? How do you sweeten bitter medicine that might save a sick soul’s life?

I answer that it is in the “doing good,” it is in the “saving” that provide the clue. For it all depends on what you think love is. There is, as novelist Iris Murdoch noted, a vast difference between being “nice” being “good.” Loving words are loving because you love the one to whom you speak — not because the message itself is sweet and nice and pleasant. The medicine you need to survive an illness might taste awful, but it will do you more good than the sweet-tasting stuff that does nothing for you. Love may have to say some difficult things sometimes, but can do so with patience and kindness; without envy or boasting or arrogance or rudeness. Love does not insist on its own way, nor is it irritable or resentful — but nor does it rejoice in wrongdoing, for it rejoices in the truth. And so it is that sometimes love must speak a hard truth but in a loving way in order to reach the one who needs to hear that word — for the good of his or her soul — perhaps a word of challenge or of reformation, or of repentance. And if that word is spoken in and out of love and concern for the salvation and well-being of the one to whom it is spoken, and if it is received with that same spirit, then truly even a hard word can be spoken with love and heard and received with love.

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Once in the early 19th century, Methodist preacher Peter Cartwright was told that President Andrew Jackson was going to attend worship at his church that morning, and he was advised not to be provocative — contrary to his reputation. This was an era of hellfire and brimstone preaching, and Cartwright was known to be able to make the sparks fly.

When the sermon time came, Cartwright mounted the pulpit and began, “I have been told that President Jackson is here this morning; and I have been asked to be subdued in my remarks. But I would not be true to my God and to the commission placed upon me, were I to guard my words with anything other than the truth itself. And the truth is that President Jackson — much as any sinner in this place — will go to hell if he does not repent.”

You likely could have heard a pin drop at that point as all eyes in the congregation turned to look at Jackson, sitting stony faced in his pew. But after the worship Jackson, as he left the church warmly took Cartwright’s hand, shook it fervently and said to him, “Sir, with a regiment of men like you I could whip this world into shape.”

Sometimes a hard word has to be spoken; sometimes a hard word has to be heard. But speaking the truth in love does not mean speaking lies with love — in fact, if you’re lying you cannot be loving. But hard things can be said if they come out of love for the one to whom you speak, and it they are said in love for the one to whom you speak, and if the hearer knows as well that love is where those words come from, and receives those words with love. And if their ears are tuned to the notes of love they will hear your words with the intent and purpose to build up rather than to destroy.

May all our words of truth be spoken in love and heard with love, that good may come of them, and God’s name be glorified, to who, as is most justly due, be ascribed all might, majesty, power and dominion, henceforth and forever more.