Monday, September 30, 2013

Lessons for the Rich

To work with what you have while you have it and can use it... for good.

P21c 2013 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.

One sign that fall has arrived, as sure and certain as the leaves on the trees turning from green to red and gold, is the appearance of another kind of green and gold — money — in the Scripture readings appointed for worship. This is no coincidence, as fall is the time when churches take up planning their budgets for the next year and engaging in stewardship campaigns. But money and its right use are major concerns not just for the church, but for every person trying to live an ordered and just life.

Money, in spite of the misquote of Scripture, is not the root of all evil. It is the “love of money” — as Paul reminds Timothy. Money itself is neither good nor evil. It is how you relate to it, how you make use of it — or how you allow it to make use of you — that is good or evil. Money is no more evil in itself than food, or sex, or relaxation. But all of these things provide a means to sin when they are misused. Something good, good when used as God intends, can become a gateway to evil when used to excess or to the wrong ends. Gluttony is the misuse of food; sloth is the misuse of leisure; lust is the misuse of sex; and greed is the misuse of money.

All of our Scripture readings today point an accusing finger in the direction of greed, and counsel ways around it or away from it. Amos issues a strong condemnation of the rich — not just because they are rich, of course, but because while they are rich, they “are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph,” that is, about the impending day of doom that is about to fall upon Israel. Like Nero fiddling while Rome burns, these easy-chair loungers are oblivious to the coming disaster. They will be horribly surprised when their world collapses around them, and their lives end, having spent their wealth almost as a kind of anesthetic, insulating them — but not protecting them — from the realities of a troubled world.

For that “real world” breaks in, shattering the plans even of the virtuous, even of the innocent. Whether from a suicide bomber last week outside a church in Peshawar, or 50years ago outside a church in Birmingham, Alabama, or from a gang of terrorists invading an upscale shopping mall in Nairobi, or a madman in a Navy Yard, horror and disaster can overtake even good and innocent people. As poet Kofi Awoonor, one of the victims of the attack in Kenya wrote in a prophetic poem,

We are the celebrants
whose fields were
overrun by rogues
and other bad men who
interrupted our dance
with obscene songs and bad gestures

If such horror can overtake even the innocent and perceptive, how much more the prideful and ignorant? In the midst of our shock and horror, it is well to learn the sad lesson that you can take your life in your hands even going to an upscale shopping mall, even going to a humble church. Upscale, downscale, or no-scale, Anglican or Baptist, — ruin can come upon you unawares.

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And so, being aware is part of what Jesus offers us in the cautionary parable of Lazarus and the rich man. We don’t get much detail about this rich guy, other than that he feasts every day but ignores — remains unaware of — that poor, sick man who lies at his gate. His riches seem to blind him to reality. Even the dogs pay more attention to Lazarus than this rich man does, this oblivious rich man. He is not even bothered enough to chase him away, far less give him something to eat. He is unaware — ignoring the poor man as much as those who were at ease in Zion and Samaria ignored the world falling apart around them. He reminds me of another verse in Kofi Awoonor’s prophetic poem:

On the seaside, the ruins recent
from the latest storms
remind of ancestral wealth
pillaged purloined pawned
by an unthinking grandfather
who lived the life of a lord
and drove coming generations to
despair and ruin

This rich man is clueless; he lives the life of a lord, but he is ignorant, he doesn’t even know what he is looking at. He is like that rich man who couldn’t believe it the first time he saw a one-dollar bill; he couldn’t believe they made money in such small denominations. It must be a joke someone cooked up! (He should have come to church more often...)

So too should have that the rich man in the parable — at least to the synagogue, where safe from bomb-blasts or not, at least he would have heard the warnings of Moses and the Prophets — perhaps risking his life, but hearing, learning, marking and inwardly digesting those words and so gaining his immortal soul. Instead, when his proverbial sell-by date arrives he is bundled off to Hades, there to suffer torment both physical and mental.

For not only is he roasted in flames, but he realizes that his five brothers are just as bad — and just as doomed — as he. They will join him in the pit of Hell if they do not repent and amend their ways — and yet when he shows perhaps the first spark of interest in anyone other than himself in his whole life, in wanting to warn them, he receives the sad sentence that nothing special will be done for them, any more than was done for him. The warning sign was there in the Law of Moses: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”; and that warning was proclaimed by the Prophets.

But this man not only did nothing for his neighbors, he didn’t lift a finger to help a man dying on his own sidewalk. That poor, sick, starving man was a beacon shining right on his doorstep, a light that could have saved him, had he not closed his eyes and turned the other way, pulling the blinds of his heart, closing the door of mercy, and barring the gates of grace.

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We too are shown such beacons of need; they shine on every street-corner of this great and terrible city. I don’t think that any of us here is so rich as to be blinded by wealth, and are much more likely to find it enough to be content with our food and our clothing. Yet we are still called to share what we have — rich or poor — what we have, with those who have not, as Paul reminded Timothy, “to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share.” And as for those who truly are rich, Paul has a word for them as well: not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on their uncertain riches, but rather on God who desires that everyone be rich in the Spirit, and richly provides us with everything we need.

So there is no way out of the responsibility to keep an eye open for the signs of need, those beacons of need — whether one is poor, rich or middle-class, there is always someone less well off who can be helped by one who has more. The important thing, as the parable reminds us, is to do this while we are able — for once the time of parting from this life arrives, all that we have accumulated will be beyond our reach. When the time of parting comes, we lose the power to do good with whatever resources we had, and only if we’ve made a will and given direction can they do any good at all, after we have gone.

This truth is brought out very poignantly in a scene from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Jacob Marley, unlike the rich man in the parable, is given the opportunity to warn his old friend Ebenezer Scrooge, so that Scrooge can escape his fate. And what is that fate? It is not quite like that of the man in the parable — whose punishment in part is not to be able to warn his brothers. No, Marley’s punishment, what he suffers, serves in itself as an additional warning to Scrooge when Scrooge looks out the window and sees, that, as Dickens describes it,

The air was filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went. Every one of them wore chains like Marley’s … One old ghost ... with a monstrous iron safe attached to its ankle... cried piteously at being unable to assist a wretched woman with an infant, whom it saw below upon a doorstep. The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, and had lost the power for ever.

Their fate is that terrible frustration not to be able to make use of earthly wealth — even for good — once they have departed earthly life. They end up helpless, chained to ghostly wealth that they cannot share in this world.

God calls us all to make use of what we have while we are able, as Dickens says, “to interfere, for good, in human matters.” We can still heed Moses and the prophets, heed the beacons of need on our doorsteps, on our sidewalks, and even more: heed the words of the one who did rise from the dead, who speaks to us still in the voice of Scripture and by echoing of the Holy Spirit in our own consciences — to do good, each as we are able, by the strength and in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.+

Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Ransom

Exploring the Atonement, one tree at a time, ending with the Rood, the Ransom.

Proper 20c 2013 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
There is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all.
We continue today with our readings from the letters Paul the Apostle wrote to his disciple Timothy with a short portion from the first of those letters. In a few words Paul declares his gospel — affirming that it is for this that he was appointed a herald and apostle, a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth. He even adds a parenthetical “I am telling the truth, I am not lying” just to emphasize his point.

He begins with a restatement of the Jewish creed: There is one God. But he then quickly moves to the Gospel truth that there is one mediator between God and humankind. This is Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all.

What Paul speaks of here is a crucial doctrine at the heart of what the Christian faith is all about: the Atonement. This doctrine asserts that Jesus somehow made right all that had gone wrong since humankind fell through sin. He did this by his birth, life, death and rising, mediating between God and humankind and settling accounts between them, making them “at one” — in case you wonder where atonement comes from.

But just as our other readings today show us that there are many different ways to settle accounts — some of them involving cheating customers with phony weights or a thumb on the scale, some involving a bit of clever discount bookkeeping — so too there are many different ways in which the single doctrine of the Atonement has been understood through Christian history. None of these understandings has ever been settled upon in mainstream Christianity as the only right way to understand the Atonement — in fact, what marks off most of the side-streams or backwaters in Christian history is their exclusive attachment to one explanation at the expense of all the others! So I give thanks that in our Anglican tradition we are free to explore and embrace all of the different ways of understanding the saving work of Christ — more grateful for the fact that Christ has saved us, than concerned with exactly how he did so. In fact, we are so grateful, we sing about it. Almost all of our hymns today reflect on one aspect or another of the Atonement. (From the Hymnal1982: 495, 368, 167, 158, 685) So let’s explore this stream of tradition a bit, starting with the words of Paul to Timothy.

He describes Jesus as a ransom. Some early theologians picked up on that language of “ransom” and wondered — to whom was the ransom paid? Some came to believe that by falling and failing as humanity did, we became captive to the one who led us to fall: Satan. So God ransomed humanity by paying Satan the ransom of Christ Jesus. This idea held on for quite a while, but eventually dissatisfaction with this line of thought developed: Why should God pay Satan anything! Why should God owe Satan anything at all? And so the ransom came slowly to be transformed into more of a debt, a debt that we incurred, a bill we had run up. Humankind had effectively gone into debt by disobeying God, to whom we owed obedience. Because this debt was owed to one who is the ultimate Good, God himself, it could only be satisfied by one, the debt could only be settled, as the hymn we sang before the Gospel (#167) puts it, by one who was “good enough to pay the price of sin.” So Christ paid our disobedient debt through his perfect obedience.

This “satisfaction” theory held on for quite a while — as you see from the hymns today, it forms a part of our devotional life — and it held sway for quite some time, but at the Reformation other ideas came forward. For example, the Evangelical Martin Luther didn’t find the idea that God was a creditor who held debts was entirely fitting, as it seemed a bit too commercial. So he drew on elements of Scripture that strongly portray Jesus as one who takes on our punishment, the punishment due to us — death — on our behalf, as a substitute, himself sinless, but reckoned as among the sinners in our place, taking upon himself the sins of the world.

Now, that’s a perfectly Scriptural view, and it’s a view forms a major part of our devotional life and theological life as Anglicans. At the offertory today, we will sing one of the great hymns that come to us from the Lutheran tradition: Herzliebster Jesu: Ah, Holy Jesus. (#158) As the third verse puts it: “The Good Shepherd for the sheep is offered, the slave has sinned and the Son has suffered” — why? — “for our atonement.” Pay attention to that as you sing the offertory hymn.

This idea of Jesus stepping into our place wasn’t quite strong enough for some of the most extreme Reformers, like Calvin. He wanted things a little “harder” than that. He insisted that the Atonement was more than voluntary substitution, and he stressed the notion that what we had done in the fall was not just a mistake, this was a criminal offense against God — a crime that warranted the death sentence. So in Calvin’s hands the Atonement took on a judicial or legal air, with God as judge, jury and executioner — as well as victim, since Christ is both fully human and fully God.

In more recent times some theologians have tried to hark back to some of the early musings of the fourth to the eleventh century, arguing for a more mystical understanding and a less legal understanding of Atonement — drawing on Paul’s teaching (1 Cor 15:2) that “as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” The notion here is that just as the fall of Adam touches all of humanity, so too does the redeeming act of Jesus in the Atonement — not simply focused on his death but on his whole Incarnation, life and teaching, Resurrection and Ascension — bearing a redeemed humanity along with him even to the throne of God. This sense of being made clean and redeemed by Christ is common in much of our tradition, including the hymn Rock of Ages (#685), that we’ll sing at communion — we are cleansed by his blood, the blood of his death, which is not punishment or debt paid on our behalf, but something in which we participate by our communion in him, being, as Paul said, baptized into his death, and so that we share in his life. (Rom 6:3-5)

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As I said before, and as you can see from the selection of hymns we sing today, all of these various views of the Atonement find a place in our Anglican tradition. They all have some basis in Scripture, and none of them is singled out — as is true in Calvin’s Reformed Protestant tradition and in some other Protestant sects — as only one acceptable way to understand the work of Christ in the Atonement. So because we are free to wander amidst this forest of different ways of looking at things, not getting focused on just one tree or another, I’d like to take a slight liberty and offer one more twist on things, returning to that word ransom, that comes to us from Paul’s letter to Timothy, but to look at it in light of that strange reading in today’s Gospel.

In this parable Jesus describes a rich man whose manager has been mismanaging his business. The text says, “squandering” — and it’s the same word used in the immediately preceding story of the Prodigal Son; the Prodigal Son who squandered his inheritance, in the chapter just before. In this case it must mean the manager is not a very good manager, is spending more than he is taking in, selling short and buying long. The rich man naturally calls for the manager to produce the accounts. And what does he do? In order to make friends with his master’s debtors he fiddles the books even more, getting from the debtors only a fraction of what they owe, even further depleting his master’s balance sheet.

The surprise comes when the master finds out about this, and instead of putting the crooked — there’s no other word to describe him — manager into jail, commends him; he doesn’t condemn him. The normal expectation is turned upside down. The manager has, in effect, ransomed himself at his master’s expense — it’s the master who is losing out here — and yet the master commends him for it.

So what I’d like to do is turn the ransom of Christ around in a similar way. Rather than stressing that humanity was held captive by Satan or death, or owed a debt to God, or committed a crime against God — all of which are true — what if we think of Christ’s ransom as being paid to us! Like the Prodigal Son or the shifty manager, we in effect hold God hostage — or try to do so — by our actions. As with the father of the Prodigal and the master of the manager, though, God doesn’t play that game — God goes along with it; he pays us the ransom himself, in the person of his Son giving himself to us. He brings out the ring and the robe and the shoes for the Prodigal, he kills the fatted calf; he commends the manager with a pat on the back; he forgives us even from the cross, completing there the Atonement by paying us the ransom of his life, what we demanded in our folly, but which he paid in full — not to God, but to us.

It is to us that Jesus gives himself, to us and for us, because he loved the world so much that he would not allow us to be lost. We held God hostage by our sins, and we crucified him when he paid us the ransom that we demanded in our folly. And by that cross we are saved. Praise be to him, by whom that price was paid!+

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Why God Came

God tests us, but loves us, and forgives us...

Proper 19c 2013 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners…

There is a strange phrase at the end of today’s Old Testament reading: “The Lord changed his mind.” Well, it certainly looks as if God changes his mind. It starts when God tells Moses to deal with his problem people as if they belonged to Moses: “Your people, who you brought up out of Egypt!” Sounds like many a parent when a child acts up! Have you ever been told, or perhaps even said, “Look at what your son has done! He sure didn’t get it from me!”? Well, God is giving Moses a hard time on account of the Israelites. And God is prepared to give them an even harder time! So Moses tries to placate God, to intercede. He suggests that if God wipes out the people he will get bad press back in Egypt. And God appears to change his mind, and let the Israelites be.

Well, yes, that’s what the story says. But let’s not forget who wrote the story: Moses. There is a rule when you study history, sacred or secular: consider who is writing it. From Moses’ point of view he is the calm one, the reasonable one. It is God who is flying off the handle.

There is another, better explanation for this passage, that takes account of the rest of Scripture: which shows that God is not likely to fly off the handle; God is not “flighty.” God is wise, powerful, loving, and just; but not flighty or given to whims. As the prophet Samuel would later say, “God is not a mortal to change his mind.”

So maybe Moses misses something in this event, in what is going on here. God is indeed testing his people Israel, as he will continue to do. But in this particular moment God is testing Moses. God wants to know what kind of leader Moses is. If God gives him the chance, will he say, “Yes, God, wipe them out! Make a great nation out of me!” Is that the kind of person God wants to lead his people, a people he’s loved and cared for throughout their bondage in Egypt? the people he’s delivered with signs and wonders, and to whom he has promised a land flowing with milk and honey, a people God loves even when they act up, as any loving parents love their children?

Of course not. Moses doesn’t reveal himself as as someone who would willing to condemn his fellow Israelites, to wipe them out so that he can be the founder of the new kingdom; he passes God’s test. Moses doesn’t grab the chance to become the father of a great nation; in fact he “reminds” God of the promises God had made to the real fathers, the patriarchs, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God then sees that Moses would even talk back to him, even confront God himself on behalf of his people; he will be a mediator, an advocate, to stand between God and his righteous judgment of those fellow-Israelites (as bad as they are) and beg God to be merciful.

So it isn’t that God has a change of mind or of heart, but rather that God finds that Moses is a man after his own heart. For the heart of God, is love, not destruction, it is mercy and forgiveness. As Jonah would discover hundreds of years later, in very similar circumstances, when God confronted him after he got upset that God didn’t wipe out Nineveh, and said to Jonah, “Am I not to care for this whole city — and you’re upset about a little sun shining on your head because the bush withered?!” People get to know God better when they face God — you know that!

There is a wideness in God’s mercy that goes beyond the measure of our mind: God’s grace is amazing; so it is understandable that Moses might have misunderstood what was going on that afternoon when he thought he calmed God down. Moses passed the test, he passed the trial, without even realizing he was being tested or tried! You might be able to picture God smiling to himself years later, looking over Moses’ shoulder as Moses wrote those words, “And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.”

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No, brothers and sisters, it is not in God’s nature to change his mind as a mortal does. For God is single-minded in loving, in forgiveness, and in willingness to put up with us in our error, our wandering, and our sin. The mind of God doesn’t change. Thank God!

Saint Paul knew this well. He had been a terror to the church. As he says of himself, “a blasphemer, a persecutor, a man of violence.” God didn’t change his mind about Paul; but God changed Paul. God didn’t wait for Paul to come to his senses. God met Paul on the Damascus road, while Paul was carrying in his bloody hands the death warrant for more Christians. God met Paul, a man who thought he was God’s own hatchet man on earth, who thought he was doing God’s work while he was killing God’s servants — and God knocked him senseless to the ground.

Jesus Christ appeared to Paul on the way to Damascus, revealing himself as one who forgives even before repentance; who comes to us while we are yet sinners; who reaches out to us even when we are at our most impossible, tooth-gnashingly, frowningest, mean and ornery and self-righteous, “I don’t need your help thank you very much” selves. Christ revealed himself as the Son of God who is love and who does not change his mind but whose mind is always towards the best for his children.

Over the next few weeks we’ll be reading from the Letters Paul wrote to his disciple Timothy. Today we heard, from the first letter, those familiar words, “The saying is true and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” These are familiar and comfortable words. We don’t often hear Saint Paul’s punch-line: “...Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners of whom I am the foremost.” Paul knows that the grace of God is poured out precisely where most needed, on the dry, hot, mean and angry ground of his own self-righteous self. The water of grace wells up in the desert waste where I am the only lone who is right, and everybody else is wrong and needs fixing.

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Jesus tries to tell the Pharisees and scribes the same thing. They have a chance to join him at the banquet, and instead they stand outside grumbling that he shares his table with sinners. “Just look at the company this Jesus keeps. Guess that tells what sort of a character he is. Birds of a feather!”

You know they were right! Those Jesus calls to supper tell us just what sort Jesus is. This is a true saying, and worthy of all to be received. That Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; to find the lost coin, the lost sheep. He came into the world to find the unloved, the disposable, the outcast, the misfit. He came to find those who know their need of God, and those so far-gone they have lost hope even in God.

But he also came to save the ones like Paul, the self-righteous ones who don’t even know they need saving; who think they have God in their hip-pocket, the ones who think they have it made. Those are the hardest sort to save, since they don’t even know they need saving! Jesus calls them to supper; some will respond, but some, rather than joining the feast, will stay outside, shaking their heads and grumbling. They cluck their tongues and shake their heads, deaf to the voices of all the angels in heaven rejoicing and shouting out loud that the lost has been found, and are sitting down right now to the banquet with the king of heaven. Outside, shaking their heads, they fail the test God put to Moses, hardening their hearts in the time of trial, and imagining they are righteous when they are absolutely and completely wrong.

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And it still happens. Time and again people who profess and call themselves Christians fail that test; they crumble in the time of trial, failing to refrain from self-righteousness, judgment, and prejudice — sometimes even violence — choosing instead to condemn and reject those they judge not up to their standard, forgetting that they too must answer to the one just judge of all.

Today is the 50th anniversary of the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. That bomb was set by the Ku Klux Klan, men who thought they were righteous, who wore on their chest the sign of the cross in a circle, believing themselves just and righteous, secure in their racial superiority. They didn’t just bomb an empty church building to destroy the property of that congregation. They set the bomb to go off at 10:15 on Sunday morning when they knew that church would be full of people, and killed four little girls who were down in the restroom combing their hair, getting ready for the Sunday service. It was Youth Sunday that day, so the place was full of kids and proud parents. And a group of men who thought themselves to be doing God’s work blew up that church.

God is just. God sees it all, and God doesn’t change his mind.

When it comes down to it, there is only one right answer for this test, a test that some so often fail when their limited hearts face God’s abundant grace. There is only one right answer in the time of trial, one right response to the prosecuting attorneys: the clucking tongues and shaking heads, the angry hands full of blood, and the self-righteousness of hypocrites. There is only one right testimony. It is a saying that is sure and worthy of acceptance, that Christ Jesus — our only mediator and advocate, our defense attorney in the time of trial — came into the world to save sinners — among whom, thanks be to God, we have had the grace to acknowledge ourselves numbered, and have accepted God’s welcome to come to this place and sit at his table. Blessed are those who know their need of God! Blessed are those invited to the supper of the Lamb!

May God shake self-righteousness and hypocrisy from the fabric of his world, bringing of all his children, even the most stubborn and resistant ones, even the ones who don’t even want to be seen dead in that company, into the banquet hall. So that we may then on that great day, join with Saint Paul and all the saints who once were sinners, in giving glory and honor to the great unchanging mind of our loving God, giving “to the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, all honor and glory forever and ever.”