Sunday, December 28, 2014

About to Lose Control

The light shines in the darkness, and we cannot control it... nor should we!

Christmas 1 B 2014 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God, for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.+

The Pointer Sisters famously sang, “I’m so excited, I just can’t hide it. I’m about to lose control and I think I like it.” That’s a bit how the Scripture readings make me feel about this Christmas season in which we are now gathered, here on the fourth day of Christmas. The halls are decked with boughs of holly, the trees and windows with sparkling strings of lights. Good will bubbles in many hearts and the recent giving of gifts and the celebration of holiday meals has gladdened many. The church has done its duty and hailed the coming of the newborn king, and gathers again today on this First Sunday of Christmas to continue to give thanks.

Isaiah’s song is as infectious as that of the Pointer Sisters, full of joy. And Saint Paul rejoices with God’s Spirit in a song of joy about the liberating power of the incarnation. And John the Divine sums it all up in his glorious hymn that celebrates the new creation that came about when God’s holy Word — which was from the beginning with God and was God — came to what was his own, the world God created and the people whom God chose.

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Ah, yes. Come he did. But then John give us a harsh reminder. It is harsh reminder from John to us, echoing down even to this day: “He came to what was own, and his own people did not receive him.” The light of God shines forth, but it does so in the darkness; and even though the darkness does not overcome it, the darkness remains dark to all who do not heed that light and word and believe.

And the situation is the same for Isaiah and Paul. That wonderful wedding song that Isaiah sings, the great rejoicing that is so exciting he just can’t hide it, like a bride or a groom on their wedding day — this joyful song is proclaimed in the midst of a low point in Israel’s history, the aftermath of their captivity in Babylon. Zion is yet to be raised from the dust and restored to its place of vindication, and Isaiah’s prophecy is just that: a fervent and poignant hope and promise for the future.

As is Saint Paul’s encouragement to the Galatians. It is true the faith has come and been revealed in Christ, and that they have eagerly accepted this good news, but their congregation is still being troubled by nay-sayers who are telling them they can’t really be saved unless they submit themselves to the controlling disciplines of the Law. Saint Paul reassures them in this controversy that the discipline of the Law has had its day, and its day is done; for in the fullness of time, Christ has come, born to redeem those under the law, and “redeem” here means literally posting bond to get them out of jail! These Galatians have been rescued, adopted into the household of God not because their obedience to the law, but by the price of the blood of Christ. It was a costly redemption, made good on the cross.

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So it is that all this excitement and joy from all three Scripture passages emerge from times of suffering and struggle. And is it any different for us? Are our Christmas celebrations taking place in a time more blessed than the end of the Babylonian Captivity, or the first century domination of the world by Roman legions, or the cantankerous and contentious early days of the church?

When we look closely at our own time, what do we see? The boughs of imitation holly and the sparkling Christmas lights are in all likelihood produced by underpaid workers toiling in unsafe conditions in Bangladesh or Shanghai. Talk of things being infectious is likely not about the Christmas spirit or the upbeat songs of pop and rock, but of Ebola, or Dengue Fever, or those old standbys: influenza and HIV. War rages on in the Middle East, and in the hearts of our own cities unarmed men are strangled or shot by the very people charged with protecting the populace from danger.

But I will tell you something. I am excited. I just can’t hide it. I’m not sure I’m about to lose control, but I will be so bold as to echo Isaiah, and Saint Paul and Saint John and say: As dark as the days may seem, as awful as they no doubt are, still the light shines in that darkness, and that darkness will never overcome it. For God in Christ has come to his own and we — his own by adoption — have received him. We have been released from prison and entered into God’s own transition plan

to get us back into life — but not just the old life that got us into trouble, when we were put upon by disciplinarians and lawyers, and were judged by our foes and abandoned by our friends. We are transitioning into the new life, the life of a child of God, redeemed by God and adopted by God. It is time to dress for the occasion with jewels and garlands, to rejoice like a garden in spring, to shine forth in the blazing light of dawn, to cry out to our God, “Abba! Father!” For we are no longer in slavery but, free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, free at last!

And this, my friends, is the message of Christmas. No matter how dark the day or night may be, there is a beacon of joy to be found in the light of Christ. This is something to be excited about, so excited that we just can’t hide it. Nor should we hide it, for this is a message too great to hide, news too good not to share.

We really do need to lose control — and I think I like that: for the message does not belong to us. The message of salvation has been given to us to share, to spread, to sing and tell of this great joy and freedom that we now celebrate in Christ. For our own sake we had best not keep silent, had best not hide this light under a bushel or put it under the bedstead. This light is greater than we can control; it is a light to lighten all peoples, a light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness shall not ever overcome it.

So let us, not just today or for the remaining eight days of Christmas, continue to sing of the joy and excitement that we know in our hearts. Let us give thanks through the gift of God’s Holy Spirit poured out upon us, in the knowledge of the birth of our Savior in Bethlehem of long ago, and born anew each day in our hearts. “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God!” And I’m so excited that I just can’t hide it. I’m about to lose control — and I think I like it!+


Sunday, December 14, 2014

Who Are You?

Do you know who you are? and what God has made of you?



SJF • Advent 3b • Tobias S Haller BSG

The priests and Levites asked John, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” +

“Who are you?” That’s a question that confronts us all from time to time, probably more often than we are aware. Sometimes we proclaim our identity without our even noticing we are doing so, as when we wear an I.D. card at work, clipped to a lapel or a pocket or a belt-loop, or on a cord or a ribbon or a chain around our necks. Most of us have probably been to meetings or conferences and been presented with one of those big sticky name tags saying, “Hello, My Name Is…” with a blank. Making sure everyone knows who’s who is important — at least everyone who is supposed to know. By wearing such a name tag you broadcast your identity to whomever wishes to take the time to look.

I was once at a conference out west where the delegates were warned to remove their name tags if they ventured outside of the complex, outside of the hotel conference center— a thief could see your name, would know your room was empty, and might break in during your absence! Even something as seemingly innocent and harmless as a name tag
could get you into trouble.

Other forms of the question, “Who are you?” are even more obviously threatening. A sentry challenges you as you approach the border: “Who goes there?” Or the question can be phrased in such a way as to make you feel quite uncomfortable or useless or less than worthy, as in, “Who do you think you are?” or, even worse, “Who do you think you are?”

John the Baptist was on the receiving end of just this kind of harsh question in today’s Gospel. “Who are you?” the authorities demanded. John first established who he was not: not the Messiah, not Elijah, not the prophet. “Then who are you?” they demanded with impatience. John replied, “Just a voice crying out in the wilderness, Straighten things up! Get your act together.”

Not content with that answer, they continued to press him. “Then why are you baptizing, if your aren’t the Messiah, or Elijah, or the prophet?” (This is where the“Who do you think you are” tone of voice comes in!) And John had the last word as he says, in effect, “If you think the Messiah will simply baptize with water, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!”

John knew who he was and who he wasn’t. And he knew that his call from God to prepare the way took precedence over other people’s demands that he behave himself, that he not get above his place — which is to say, they really wanted him to behave not as himself — not doing what he knew God wanted him to do — but to behave the way they wanted him to behave, to be what they thought he ought to be,

and do what they thought ought to be done; and more importantly for him not do the things they didn’t want him to do.

But John knew who he was and who he wasn’t, that he was not the light, but a witness called by God to testify to that light, and he would behave himself accordingly, whether the authorities liked it or not. He was a messenger, and he would deliver his message even if they killed him for it; which indeed they did. He knew what God wanted of him, and he did it.

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John is not the only one in our readings today who — at God’s call — finds himself behaving differently than his original identity might indicate, differently than people might expect. That is the wonderful thing about God’s call, God’s empowering call, God’s transforming call. It leads to behavior out of all keeping with human expectations, human limitations, some times even our own limitations, our own low expectations of ourselves.

Isaiah understands this personally: He knows that the Spirit of God is upon him, from the time of his first call, his first anointing, when he said, Lord, who am I? I am not worthy!

God sent an angel to take a live coal from the altar and touch it to his lips, to transform him to give him the strength and confidence to say, “Here am I; send me!”

Isaiah understands the transforming power of God, and he assures us in our reading today that at God’s call a great transformation will take place. The people will be given a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness in place of mourning. They will be inspired to raise up the ruins, to restore the desolations; they will be clothed like brides and bridegrooms with the garments of righteousness.

At God’s call things get turned completely around; as we heard last week: even the mountains get leveled, the valleys get filled in. And this week Isaiah continues his vision of this new world, where the behavior of God’s people is governed not by who they think they are, or what others expect of them, but by God’s penetrating and energizing and transforming call to them to be what God intends them to be.

In the fallen world, people are expected to act in accordance with their perceived identity, to behave themselves in accordance with the world’s demands and the limitations of their standing in society. Everybody in the fallen world had best know his or her place and position in the pecking order. But in God’s topsey-turvey world the reality is different: when we become conscious of God’s call, we are not limited to act only as people expect. It is our call from God, not other people’s expectations, that governs our behavior. We are not limited by our apparent identity.

We are called by God, who shatters expectations, who creates new heavens and a new earth, in which the former things are not even called to mind. We behave ourselves in accordance with God’s call, not the world’s limits. We behave ourselves in accordance with our deepest, truest identity, as children of God, made in God’s image, redeemed by God’s love, clothed with God’s righteousness, and sanctified entirely by the God of Peace. And that’s when we can do more than we ever could imagine possible.

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I would like to conclude my reflection this morning with a word or two about one of the great saints of the church — what better way to honor the examples of people God has called than to raise up our awareness of them!

For God calls some of the strangest people to his service: I mean, look around! Look at this crew today; we are all called, my brothers and sisters, strange as we may be God calls us and wants to make use of us.

Well, one of the strangest people God ever called was named — get ready — Samuel Isaac Joseph Schereschewsky. (He’s got the whole alphabet in there somewhere...) He was an unlikely figure to become a Christian saint. He started his life asa Lithuanian Jew, but he became an Episcopal priest here in New York— he even studied at the same seminary that I attended down in Manhattan — and he was elected the Anglican Bishop of Shanghai, China, in 1877, but then, he suffered a stroke in 1883, resigned and settled in Tokyo, Japan, where he died in 1906. Now that’s some unexpected journey; from a childhood in Lithuania, to death in Tokyo, with New York and China in between! And some might think his journey ended in China with the stroke that left him almost completely paralyzed. But the fact is, he kept working on a project he started before the stroke: he set out translating the Bible into Classical Chinese. In spite of the stroke, Schereschewsky continued working on this project, typing about two thousand pages of text, poking at his typewriter with the one finger of one hand — the only part of his body he could still move. In 1902, a few years before he died, he was recorded as saying, “I have sat in this chair for 20 years. It seemed very hard at first. But God knew best. He kept me for the work for which I am best fitted.”

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God calls us to be what God wants us to be, God calls us to the work for which we are best fitted, for which he created us to be and re-creates us to be — clothed in his power — and God can make use of us strange creatures, even when we might say, How useless is an old man who can only sit in a chair and type with one finger! God knows all the possibilities that are before us, and within us, and inspires our hearts to do what we can with what we have,

with the strength God provides. Isaiah knew that God would transform the world. John the Baptist knew that the light towards which he bore testimony would one day shine brightly through the dark world’s midwinter night. God calls us to be what God wants us to be, what God created us to be, and re-creates us to be, what God inspires us to be, and lifts us up to be, and sometimes, as in the case of Samuel Isaac Joseph Schereschewsky, what he sets us down to be. God does know best — and God calls us, us strange creatures, to do the work for which he knows we are best suited, for which he equips us with the skills to work in just such a way as to work God’s will, even in our infirmity and weakness, but all to God’s glory.

So when you are asked, “Who are you?”; when the border-guards of this fallen world challenge you with “Who goes there?”; when the proud and impatient try to put you down with a “who do you think you are?” you can say to them with all confidence, I am a child of God and I will follow God’s call, and I am going where God sends me, or staying put where God puts me! But whatever I do, God is the one who has called — and who are you to deny that call?+


Sunday, November 30, 2014

Homeland Insecurity

The call goes out: be alert, stay awake.

SJF • Advent 1b • Tobias S Haller BSG
Jesus said, Therefore, keep awake; for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly.

Ever since the 2001 terrorist highjackings of planes used in the attacks on New York and Washington and the one that crashed in Pennsylvania, Americans have lived under a cloud of uncertainty such as has never before overcast our land. Gone are the days of, “it can’t happen here.” Not only has it happened, it has happened with a vengeance. And ever since then we’ve lived with the heightened awareness that it could happen again. Just when we thought things might return to normal, something happens somewhere in the world — in London or in Paris or in Nigeria — to remind us it might happen here again. We are geared to that motto, “If you see something, say something” — and every package sitting on a subway seat takes on a threatening air; and the color codes of yellow, orange and red alerts push us to the fiery end of the rainbow.

We all know how wearying this can be, perpetually being on our toes in this jaundice-yellow-alert world, and wondering when the next terrorist shoe-bomb might drop, when the next cloud of anthrax might spew through out of the air of a little Piper Cub airplane, or botulism get dumped into our reservoir just a few blocks from here, or Ebola deliberately be spread. For it isn’t just bombs any more, in the days of SARS and Ebola and avian flu. I grew up in the days of “duck and cover” - but now it’s “cover your cough” and slather Purell on your hands. Boy, is the Purell company making out! We become numb in this constant state of alert, and so, we become less alert than we really should be.

And it is important to be vigilant, we who have been taught that an empty backpack left on a subway train is not something to be ignored but reported; we who have learned the drill for quick traveling through the airport screening devices — what to wear and what not to wear! These daily reminders are there to snap our attention back into focus, to call us up sharp with the realization that we are at war — a war not fought simply on the battlefields, but in our airspace, on our street corners and in our public transportation system, in the air we breathe and the hands we shake. This call to keep alert is no nonsense.

+ + +

We in the church are also called to keep alert — by our Lord. And the church’s Homeland Security System has been working for quite a bit longer than our nation’s. We’ve been on guard ever since our Lord ascended into heaven and told us, through the disciples, that he would one day return. But because the return has been so long-delayed, so long-expected, we experience the fatigue that comes with trying constantly to be alert. And so the church has its color-coded system too: though the colors are different from those used in Homeland Security — from the other end of the rainbow. Our major color for alert is purple: the purple of Advent, which is the purple of royalty, to remind us that the message of Advent is, “the King is coming; be alert.”

Jesus gives us the example of a man who leaves his home in the care of servants, each servant with a task to perform, each one with a job. And the warning is: be at your work when the master returns; don’t let him find you asleep at the switch, or snoozing by the door. Be watchful, be ready, for you do not know when the master will return. It could be in the evening, even at midnight, or at the break of day.

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When you are an employee, you know how important it is to be found working when your boss comes around to check up on how things are going. It is truly amazing how quickly a game of solitaire can disappear from a computer screen, when you hear footsteps behind you! For you know the only way to be ready, is to be ready. Preparedness, by its very nature, is not something you can do at the last minute!

We are called to be awake, awake in the middle of this world’s long night, the particular “middle” that Jesus speaks of, the middle between his first coming among us as a child, and his second coming among us as a king in glory. We live in the middle between his first advent and his second. And we had best be prepared, even if he does not return on our watch.

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Some people have tried to combine these two forms of preparation, combining the sacred and the secular, the church and the state, the watchfulness of Homeland Security and the watchfulness of the Advent season. Along with storms and plagues of this last year I’m sure you’ve heard some folks use language of the Apocalypse — as they do any time anything terrible happens. You’ve heard me say this before. Several times since I came here in 1999, we’ve seen the announcements and heard the predictions from the far-out fringes. Some see the war in the Middle East as a fulfillment of ancient prophecy; and when you add the recent storms and earthquakes and epidemics, well, they are just sure that the second coming is right around the corner.

Well, as I’ve assured you in the past, they are definitely and completely wrong, for two reasons. One is common sense and the other is Scriptural. First of all, the common sense: these are in large part the same people who do this every time something happens — you’d think they’d learn, or we’d learn. They keep warning people it’s about to happen; and the date comes... and goes... and everything’s fine. How many of us here remember being told you had to hoard your canned goods before midnight on December 31, 1999. Remember that? Now, I don’t want to embarrass anyone, and I’ll be the first to admit I had some bottled water and extra batteries on hand that week. But it is not because I was afraid that God was going to be ending the world on New Year’s Eve — it’s that I was less trusting of Con Edison! Moreover, those of us who were here that night, here at Saint James Church for our midnight New Year’s Eve service starting at 11 p.m., know that the Lord did come among us that night — in the same way he’s been coming to Christians for as long as they’ve gathered in twos or threes in his name to break bread and to pray, right here at this altar, hidden under the forms of bread and wine, and coming into our hearts that cold winter’s night.

Second, and most important, is the fact that those who claim to know when Jesus is coming are contradicting Jesus himself. In today’s Gospel, Jesus says, “About that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” So those who claim to know when Jesus is coming are claiming to know something that Jesus himself said he didn’t know, nor the angels.

Think about it: the very reason Jesus told his disciples to be alert, to stay awake, was because he could not tell them exactly when he was going to come again — a secret known to the Father alone. If Jesus had known exactly when he was coming, why tell them to be alert, to stay awake and be on the watch? He could just as well have said, “I’ll return on the 28th of March in the year 2087. So just take it easy until then.” But Jesus assures us that he doesn’t know when he is going to come again to judge the world, only that he is going to come again to judge the world. And so he said, Be alert, keep awake.

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One thing is abundantly clear from our gospel message today: as the bumper sticker puts it, “Jesus is coming; Look busy!” We believe that God had (and has) a purpose, an aim in Creation, and anyone who’s pitched a ball knows that if you have an aim, you have a target. God had an aim in casting creation into being, as it arced on up through the history of the chosen people, on to the coming of Christ at his incarnation, and on forward to a future as-yet-unknown. That is when he will come again and make the whole creation new. For God’s creation is not an aimless exercise.

My brothers and sisters, that we are called to keep awake in the middle between these two extremes; neither thinking we’ve got the timetable for the last judgment in our pockets or on our mobile phones, nor imagining that there is no last judgment coming. No, we are called to stay awake in the middle, in the middle of the night, in the middle of our lives, in the middle of a world that alternately bristles and panics or wearies and ignores. We have been warned to be at our work, and to be alert to our salvation when it comes. For that is God’s purpose, God’s aim for us, that we do God’s work, and that we might be saved.

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It was said that the great evangelist John Wesley was once asked, “What would you do if you knew the Lord was going to return tomorrow afternoon?” He said, “I would tonight sleep soundly, and rise at my accustomed hour and greet the day with prayer; then I should visit any of my congregation who are sick, and spend the rest of my time at my desk composing my sermon for the next Sunday: for I would want the Lord to find me at the work he has given me to do, and not in idleness. He has given me many days to serve him; and I would serve him as well on the last as on the first.”

Jesus may come tomorrow afternoon. He may come next month; he may come a million years from now. When he comes is not for us to know. That he will come is the substance of our faith. The best way to be prepared for his return is to recognize that he comes among us still in everyone we serve and honor in his name. Even though we do not know the hour of his coming, we are called to be awake and at work in the middle of this world’s long night. We’ve got the graveyard shift, my friends, and we are to keep awake, to be alert, to do God’s will, for we do not know when the cry of alarm will sound, when the last trumpet will blow, the king return in glory. May we be found doing his will when he comes.+


Sunday, November 23, 2014

The King Is Here

SJF • Proper 29a • Tobias S Haller BSG
Jesus said, When the son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory... and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.

We come now to the last Sunday of the church’s calendar year — you know our calendar doesn’t quite match up with the secular and civil calendar that starts in January. Our church year starts on the First Sunday of Advent — next Sunday — and so this church year ends this week.

It ends with a celebration that goes in some places by the name of the Feast of Christ the King. It’s a reminder of who our King is, the King of kings and Lord of lords, the one under whose feet, as Saint Paul told the Ephesians, all things are put in subjection.

Our gospel today shows this our King in action. The Son of Man comes in his glory, sits on his throne, and executes judgment. Talk about an executive order! For this is not just an order, but a judgment; and a chilling judgment it is. For those who are rewarded are not great heroes and martyrs. No, the reward of blessing is given to people who did very ordinary things: who fed the hungry and gave the thirsty something to drink, who welcomed the stranger and clothed the naked, who cared for the sick and visited prisoners.

And those who are judged guilty, are not perpetrators of horrible crimes — those who here are sent away into eternal punishment are not mass murders and terrible villains. No, they are people who simply failed to do the same things the blessèd ones did: who gave no food to the hungry or drink to the thirsty, who shunned the stranger and provided the naked with nothing to wear, who didn’t care for the sick or visit those in prison.

And the reason these two groups of people are judged as blessed or cursed is because those they served or rejected were not just anybody — they were the King himself in disguise.

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We’ve all heard stories about kings in disguise. It is a daring enterprise for a leader to put on a false beard and eyepatch and a humble garment and wander among his subjects. He had best have a strong will and a solid ego, for the things he hears may not be to his liking. Without his crown, without his royal robes of state, a king may be treated just like anybody else — for good or ill depending on who is doing the treating. One of my favorite stories is that of King Alfred, who was hiding from Danish invaders back in the ninth century. He hid undercover for a while in a peasant’s hut. One day the peasant’s wife told him to keep an eye on cakes baking on the griddle while she went out on an errand. With all of his troubles, his mind wandered, and he allowed the cakes to burn. When the woman of the house returned she gave him a ferocious tongue lashing — not knowing, of course, that she was speaking to her king.

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But we don’t have that excuse. We’ve been given the warning of who our King is. Jesus, our King, has told us in words of one syllable that as we treat the least of those who are members of his family, so we have treated him. When we fail to give food to the hungry, when we neglect to give drink to the thirsty, when we don’t welcome the stranger, or fail to give clothing to the naked, when we don’t care for the sick and ignore the prisoners: we are doing it to him.

We at Saint James Church have a number of opportunities, not just as individuals as we walk through the streets day by day, but as a congregation, to honor our Lord’s royal presence among us. Let me just mention a couple with immediate impact in the next few weeks.

First of all, this Thursday is Thanksgiving Day, and as we have done for the past several years we will have a midday worship service and then serve hot meals to any who come to our door that afternoon; and I invite all of you to come and help in that service and to share in that fellowship.

Second, your vicar and deacon have at our disposal a small fund which comes from the loose plate offering received several times each year. It is called “adiscretionary fund,” and it is used entirely for charity and outreach. When someone off the street comes to the office door and asks for something to eat, or help filling a prescription, or money for the train home to Yonkers, it is from this fund that we’re able to give a fare-card, or a few dollars. Deacon Bill has been using part of his discretionary fund to provide food to the hungry through the Elijah Project: it’s a wonderful and creative way to share, and involves members of the parish in the work of sharing. And believe you me, it is at this time of the rolling year, as the winds grow cold, that more and more people are in need of help. So today’s loose plate offering will be set aside for that purpose, and so I ask you to be generous, helping us to help others in your name. There is an old saying that the ministry of hospitality may lead you to entertaining angels unaware. Believe me, when we serve any who are in need we are not just serving angels, we are serving Christ our King as well.

These are just two concrete and real things you can do to honor our King in disguise as he spends time among us, in the here and now, so that in the day of the great “then” he will recognize us as having treated him as he deserves.

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I mentioned King Alfred a moment ago. Well, a story is told of another English king, George V, who planned to pay a visit to the northern industrial city of Leeds. The town council was very excited, and posted banners announcing the royal visit throughout the city. Multitudes flocked in the streets to celebrate, waving the Union Jack and cheering to the sounds of the brass bands. A children’s school was fortunate to have its schoolyard right on the route of the railway train upon which the king would leave the city. It was agreed and arranged that the children would be outside in formation to greet the king as he went past, and he would wave at them in return. The children were, of course, terribly excited. The great day came and the children were ready to sing their song of greeting. Down the track, out of the long tunnel, the royal train came into the bright sunlight, the engine steaming and chugging its smokestack, the steam whistle loudly announcing the arrival. The train slowed as it came by the schoolyard and his Majesty King George V emerged from the coach at the end of the train and took up his place on the platform where the assembled children could see him. He was dressed as he normally did: in a black morning coat, striped trousers and vest, and a silk top hat. He waved politely to the children with his pocket handkerchief, and then the train picked up speed and he slipped back into the coach. The cheering of the excited children subsided, until there was only the sound of one little girl who was weeping her heart out. A teacher asked the little girl why she was crying. And the child looked up, and through her sobs and tears bitterly complained, “I thought we were going to see the king; but it was only a man in a top hat!” She was expecting to see the king looking as he did in the picture on the classroom wall, with his crown and red robe trimmed with ermine. That’s what she was expecting, but that’s not what she saw.

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What do we expect our King to look like? As we pass by a hungry person on the street do we think, “This is not our king, for where is his crown?” When we see someone cold and shivering in a threadbare coat, do we think, “This is not our king, for where is his regal robe?” When we hear that someone is sick and alone, do we assume, “This could not be our king, for a king would have courtiers and officials to take care of him.” When we see a stranger, do we say to ourselves, “This could not be our king, for where are his ambassadors?” When we hear of a person in prison, do we think, “This could not be our King, for no king would ever be convicted of a crime and sent to prison!”

What do we expect our King to look like? He has told us exactly how he looks. He looks like a man — a man hungry or thirsty; he looks like a woman — a woman far from home and looking for help; he looks like a child — a child sick and alone. For our King is King even without his crown, even without his robe of state; even without his top hat and morning coat! He is our King even when he is hungry, even when he is thirsty, or sick, or naked, or lonely, or in prison. He is even our King when he is nailed to a cross — and he did that for us.

What shall we do for him? He has told us. “Oh, that today, you would hearken to his voice.”+


Sunday, October 12, 2014

Dressed for Dinner

One garment can save your life... and it is free for the asking!

SJF • Proper 23a • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
When the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe… +

Have you ever gone to a dinner party or social function and arrived to find that you were not, as the signs outside some posh restaurants say, wearing “proper attire?” Depending on the degree of the inappropriateness, this can be either mildly annoying or intensely embarrassing! Some fancy restaurants will keep a stock of ties or sports jackets on hand for the sake of gentlemen who show up deficient in one category or the other. Snooty they may be, but they are not so foolish as to lose business by turning away potential customers. Still, you might well risk getting a haughty look and a gesture towards the door, if not a helping hand from a bouncer. And if it’s a private function, you have no recourse, but to endure “the eye” from all the other guests.

It is very uncomfortable to feel out of place, and since, as the politically incorrect saying goes, “clothes make the man,” few things in polite society make one feel more out of place than being improperly dressed for the occasion.

And there are times when being improperly dressed can be more than an embarrassment. It can be a matter of life and death. You probably know the various TV reality shows that consist of amateur video of terrible accidents and disasters. It’s not the kind of show I really care to watch; not because it’s violent — I mean, I like a good action picture as well as anybody — but because unlike the fictional tales of Bond or Bourne, these videos are real, real tragedies of real people in horrible situations, and I just don’t like the idea of real tragedy being transformed into entertainment.

One of them, though, a terrifying one that I did happen to see, starts calmly enough. What you see through the camera is a group of skydivers jumping from a plane; and the camera follows them because the cameraman is one of them. As they descend towards the distant ground they are weightless, and you see them do a wonderful ariel ballet that forms all sorts of lovely patterns, then one by one they open their chutes and disappear.

But then, something goes wrong. The camera starts to shake uncontrollably, then begins a free-fall of its own, tumbling and twisting dizzily as it plummets to the ground, occasionally as it spins catching sight of a terrified man twisting in the air. In the excitement of the filming, the cameraman himself has forgotten his parachute. The most important thing to wear, the thing that would have saved his life is still sitting up on the plane, where it can do him no good.

+ + +

Yes, indeed, what you wear can save your life. In today’s gospel we have just such a story of how serious failing to dress properly can be. This isn’t just any old dinner party; this is a royal wedding banquet. And here is one of the guests sitting, as it were, in cutoff shorts, a tank-top, and flip flops. No wonder he is speechless when the king confronts him! What can he say? Before he can say a word, he is bound hand and foot and tossed out into the darkness outside the brightly lit banqueting hall, there to weep and gnash his teeth.

We are apt to sympathize with this poor guy. After all, he wasn’t one of the original invited guests — they refused to come, and they also faced the king’s rage. This man without a wedding garment is one of the second-string guests, the stand-ins, the ordinary folks who just happened to be in the neighborhood going about their business — or lack of business — when the king’s slaves gathered them all into the banquet hall. How could he be expected to have a wedding robe?

Yet that seems to be just what this unreasonable king expects, and out the poor guy goes. As with so many of Jesus’ parables, it doesn’t seem fair. He hadn’t been invited the first time around. He hadn’t asked to be invited the second time around. Yet he is treated as if he deliberately chose, with full notice and plenty of opportunity, as if he had received an engraved wedding invitation stating what proper dress would be, to come to the wedding without the proper attire.

So what is this parable all about? In particular, what is this wedding robe, that makes it so important? The man in question, after all, isn’t the bride or the groom, or a groomsman or the best man; he’s just one of the guests — invited at the last minute at that. What is Jesus teaching us in this parable? What’s is it about?

+ + +

First let me note that not all of Jesus’ parables are what’s called “allegories” — that is, a story in which each aspect of the story symbolizes something definite. Most of the parables are not like that; they are intended just to make a single point. And it misses the point in those cases if you try to explain each detail as if it corresponded to something else. But some of Christ’s parables, such as the story of the seeds falling on the different kinds of soils, which we heard earlier this year, do call for this kind of interpretation. Jesus himself demonstrated that by explaining what each kind of soil, or lack of soil, represented. So too this parable of the Wedding Banquet, and the Guests and the Wedding Robe is worth looking at point by point.

Those who refuse to accept the king’s invitation, for instance, represent those who refuse the Word of God. It may well be that the ones who kill the messengers, and have their city burned as punishment, represent the leaders who refused to heed the prophets and whose hardness of heart, according to Jewish tradition, was responsible for the capture of Jerusalem and its destruction in the days of Jeremiah.

In the second part of the parable, the church is portrayed, the church with open doors, where all are invited to join in the feast. But — and here’s where the wedding robe comes in — the heavenly banquet hall is not a fast food franchise. It is serious business, this kingdom of heaven, and there are no “dress-down Fridays” to say nothing of Sundays!

But don’t for a minute think that Jesus is talking about a dress-code for Sunday worship! As Jesus’ brother James reminded the early church, don’t turn away someone from your church who may be dressed poorly; Jesus loved the poor, and he spent most of his time with them. So this is not a parable about us dressing up for Sunday worship.

But remember, at the same time, the symbolism; the elements of the parable are symbols, not to be taken literally. This isn’t about literally dressing up, it’s about a wedding robe that here doesn’t represent a wedding robe: it’s a symbol of something else. The wedding garment is a symbol here: it represents the clothing from above, the new self that is put on in Christ.

One who sits at the Lord’s table is expected to have been clothed anew with the white robe of baptism, the robe that covers all our other clothing, just as Christ’s death covers all our sins. A few of us, on Sunday, literally do wear that ancient white baptismal robe — the ministers who serve at the altar here — you can see them all, dressed in these long white robes. In the early church, that was the kind of robe that would be put on someone when they went to be baptized. (And don’t we still today dress up even little babies in a little white suit, or a little white gown? As I sometimes say, there’s sometimes more fabric than baby, when I’ve done some baptisms here!) So this white baptismal robe is called an “alb” from the Latin word for “white” — as in albino! This alb is what we now have as a relic of that wedding robe. It represent new life that begins when you are baptized, the new self that is reborn in Christ.

For Christ has removed the shroud of death that covered all nations — he has swallowed up death for ever. And instead of that old winding cloth, that old shroud, he has given us this new garment of life. That’s why the man gets into trouble because this garment is available to all, this new creation in Baptism — that’s why the man without a wedding robe had no excuse — the free gift of God in Baptism is available to all who chose it, and the banquet table is open to all who are baptized. God’s heavenly banquet is like one of those restaurants that keeps a supply of neckties and sports jackets to provide for anyone who comes to the door not wearing one — there is no excuse for anyone not to abide by that dress code. The waters of baptism are available to all without cost, flowing freely for all of humanity — available — but not just “available” for Jesus wants all the nations to be baptized in those waters, as he sends out his disciples at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, telling them, Go and baptize all nations; baptize them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. The church received those marching orders, and it has a mandate to go to all the world, to open the doors and invite everyone in, in to the baptismal waters, and the heavenly banquet.

To be baptized into God’s righteousness: That is what it means to be properly dressed for God’s table. It’s not about the clothes you wear, it’s about the new life that comes from above. As that great old prayer says, “We do not presume to come to this thy table trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies.” Those manifold and great mercies take the form of the wedding robe of baptism, into which all are invited to come. The chiefest mercy is the gift of grace through the death of Jesus Christ our Lord, into whom we are buried in baptism, with whom we share in this heavenly banquet, and in whom we rise to everlasting life. We dare to approach this table because we are clothed in the wedding robe of baptism, we are wearing protective garments, the armor of God, the new creation that comes in baptism.

The new garment of the baptismal self is more than proper attire; it is more than a jacket and tie, it is more than a tuxedo — it is even more than a parachute! It is the uniform of the blessed children of God, the robe of state of the royal children of God, the vestment of salvation — it is being clothed with Christ. Beloved sisters and brothers here today, however else we may appear to be clothed, in our ordinary clothes or in our Sunday best, or these ancient relics of earlier days, however we are dressed in physical clothing, let us give thanks to God that we wear as well the wedding robe of baptism. It is the garment whose one size fits all, and is given away for free — but nonetheless it is fit and proper for those who join the chorus of praise at the Lamb’s High Feast, the king’s great wedding banquet. +


Sunday, September 28, 2014

Turn Turn Turn

Walking in the Way sometimes means turning around... the meaning of repentance

SJF • Proper 21a • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The son answered, I will not; but later he changed his mind and went.

Starting this coming Friday evening, our brothers and sisters of the Jewish faith will observe the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. In the synagogues they will read the Book of Jonah, a story of repentance both by the ones preached to, the Ninevites, and the preacher, Jonah himself. The Jews call this reading Ha Teshuvah, and it means “The Turning Around.” It can also be translated as The Repentance. But that’s where the problem comes in.

When we hear the word repentance we tend to think in terms of how we feel. We focus on how sorry we are about something we’ve done, how guilty or uncomfortable we feel. But turning around isn’t about feeling; it’s about doing. It is not a state of mind, or disposition of the emotions. Rather it is an act of the will, a movement of soul and body.

Everyone knows you cannot right a wrong just by feeling sorry about it! Even an accidental, unintentional wrong, like bumping into someone, requires at the very least an apology. And if that bump is rather more solid, such as a bump of an automobile, recompense for damages will be in order. It is not enough simply to feel sorry about wrongdoing, regardless of intention — you actually have to do something. You have to act, you have to move.

Think for a moment about the important part physical movement plays in the heart of the Jewish people: start with Abraham’s long pilgrimage from the land of Ur of the Chaldees, then the journey to Egypt in the days of Joseph, then that long Exodus back to the promised land, that forty-year-long wandering in the wilderness, from which we’ve been hearing highlights; then exile to Babylon, followed by another return to the land of promise.

And you know the story didn’t end there. After the time of Christ, after the times described in our New Testament, the Romans finally lost their patience with the numerous rebellions of the Zealot revolutionaries, and they burned down the Temple once again, sending the people into exile, scattered to the four winds. The Zionist movement of the nineteenth century reawakened the urge in Jewish hearts to return; and finally, after the horrors of the Holocaust, led to founding of the nation of Israel, and you need only look to today’s headlines to see how jealously that land is guarded against any critics and all enemies. And every Passover Seder still ends with that prayer, “Shanah haba b’Yerushalayim — Next year, in Jerusalem” so strong is the call in the Jewish heart to return home.

Over literally thousands of years, this idea of returning, turning back, returning to the land of promise from the many lands of exile, became a symbol for departure from the way of sin, for returning to the way of righteousness and peace. Movement, then, is an intrinsic part of the way the Jewish people have understood and understand themselves. Movement is embedded in every Jewish tradition — almost as much as food! — and that includes the Jewish Law itself.

The Jewish Law isn’t just about rules you obey, it is about directions that you follow, it is a Way in which you walk. Sin is described not just as doing bad things, but as straying from the path, or losing one’s way. And righteousness is not about sitting still — to live the righteous life you have to get up and go!

Jesus grew up with this understanding of the law and righteousness, and it is at the heart of his teaching. Righteousness, Jesus teaches us, does not lie in promises, but in performance. It isn’t enough just to collect brochures for the righteousness cruise; you’ve got to get on board the boat and take the journey. You can’t just talk the talk — you’ve got to walk the walk.

And so it is that repentance — returning to the right path when you have wandered astray — is not simply a matter of a change of heart or of mind. Repentance, turning around, goes beyond the change of heart and mind to include a change of direction. If sin is heading the wrong way, then salvation lies in heeding the moral compass, turning around, and heading back towards God, pleading to God, “Show me your ways, O Lord, and teach me your paths.”

+ + +

Jesus tells a short parable today about two brothers: and the key to the parable lies in that brother who changes his mind and turns back to the task that he had at first rejected. But the fawning subservience of the second son does nothing to fulfill the father’s will. He may at most have gained his father’s favor for a moment, but, as the old saying goes, ‘Wait ‘til your father gets home’ — and finds the work undone and that quick promise broken. He will not be so quick to trust that son the next time he makes a promise to do as he is told!

The other son, after that first refusal, comes to his senses, however. He realizes he’s offended his father by his hasty refusal to do as he was told. But he doesn’t just feel bad and dread the next encounter with dear old Dad. He pulls himself together and not only changes his mind — he goes! And it is only in the actual turning and going, in spite of his earlier denial, that this first son accomplishes his father’s will.

Jesus aimed this parable at those priests and elders who came to him and challenged him. They had a high respect for the Law and many interpretations of it. They knew it backwards and forwards; but they had built what they themselves called “a fence around the Law.” And in the process, they made the Law harder to follow; they made it like a beautiful park fenced off so that it was hard to find a way in or through it. In their hands God’s Law became a monument, rather than a path to walk upon. As Jesus would say to the Pharisees on another occasion, “You do not enter yourselves but you prevent others from entering.”

+ + +

You know, there’s a restaurant in Georgia called the Church of God Grill. You probably wonder how it got that name! Well, it started out as a little storefront church — you know the kind I mean; there are dozens of them in every big city. The people of this particular little church would cook up and sell chicken dinners every Sunday after their worship service, in order to raise funds — much like many parishes do. But before long they found that more people were interested in the chicken than were interested in the worship, so they shortened the church service. Eventually the demand for the chicken dinners became so great that there was no time for worship at all, so they just closed the church and opened the restaurant, but kept the name, the Church of God Grill.

A bit closer to home — closer to me anyway, and to Mark [Collins] who studied there and served here as his field placement; and Sahra Harding who also served here and studied at General Seminary — the General Seminary is going through some tough times right now. In fact, it’s gotten so bad that the faculty have gone on strike. It’s a sad story; and I don’t know the details — I just heard about it yesterday.

But I do remember something from my time at the Seminary almost twenty years ago that reminds me of that Church of God Grill. I was having lunch one day in the cafeteria — which of course can’t be called a cafeteria in a seminary; it has to be called “a refectory” — but I’m having lunch, and at the table with me was a member of the administration. She was in charge of financial aid to students — scholarships and grants, which believe me you need when you are going to seminary — and we were just talking about the state of things at the seminary, and she said, “You know, the real problem with the seminary is: we end up spending more on each seminarian than we take in, in tuition and fees. If we could just get rid of all the students we could really have a great school!” The sad thing is she was serious.

That’s missing the point. And how often do people miss the very important points about what things are for — what they are meant to be. How often do they become an institution that is preserved long after the purposes for which the institution was meant are no longer being served? How do you keep that flame alive? Keep that fire of knowing what it is you are for and what it is you are meant to do? what you are called to do? It’s hard to be constantly renewed, constantly aware of the needs that you can serve if you will keep true to the cause for which you were started in the first place. But like that Church of God Grill, and like some people in the seminary, it seems they lose track and become focused on the thing rather than what the thing is for.

And so the same kind of thing happened with the scribes and the elders, with the priests and the Pharisees — at least some of them. They got so caught up with protecting the Law as a thing that they forgot that it was not meant for lip-service, but for action. It was a Way in which they were called to walk, not a thing they were required to admire and study and argue about, but to live. Jesus reminds them that the Law is something living only when you live it. It is not a piece of property to fence about, but a path to be walked; a freeway, not a barricade; a door to enter the kingdom, not a door to be locked and guarded. And so it was that the prostitutes and tax collectors who simply turned around and followed John the Baptist were responding to the spirit of the Law, and walking in God’s Way, while the self-righteous scribes, the elders, the priests who thought that keeping the law meant keeping it fenced in and protecting it, were instead fencing themselves out of the kingdom.

+ + +

So it was, and so it has always been. There will always be those who think God needs to be protected, that righteousness is about appearing righteous, saying the right words, rather than walking the path that righteousness requires. There are many who are satisfied with a religion that looks good, a religion that feels good, a religion that sounds good, but which accomplishes little of God’s will, who are big on promise but small on fulfillment, who dress the right way and say the right things, who sit in Moses’ seat, but fail in those important tasks that require them to stand up and get to work — visiting the sick and the prisoner, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and welcoming the stranger.

This is, sisters and brothers, a challenge to all of us. Let us not become the Church of God Grill. Let us receive strength and power from God not merely to honor him with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up ourselves to his service, and walking before him in holiness and righteousness all our days.+


Monday, September 22, 2014

God's Justice Isn't Ours

thank God we don't get what we deserve... (apologies for the quality of the sound this week. This was recorded on the organ bench rather than the pulpit...)

SJF • Proper 20a • Tobias S Haller BSG
The landowner said, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?”

In spite of the fact that we’ve had a mild summer, it’s a little muggy today, and all things considered I can still sympathize with the workers in our gospel this morning who had to bear the burden of that long day and that scorching heat. So, to prepare for the coming fall season — it starts tonight! — and the winter that will no doubt be close on its heels, let me to remind you of a scene from one of my favorite winter movies, A Christmas Carol. I’m thinking of a scene from Scrooge’s younger days, when his employer, Mr. Fezziwig, throws the annual Christmas party for the workers at his warehouse. The Ghost of Christmas Past notes Scrooge’s pleasure at the festivity, and comments, “A small matter to make these silly folks so full of gratitude.” When Scrooge protests that it isn’t small, the Ghost reminds him, “Why! Is it not! He has spent but a few pounds of your mortal money: three or four perhaps. Is that so much that he deserves your praise?” Scrooge responds, more like his youthful former self than the cold mean thing he has become, and says, “The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.” And even as he says those words, he realizes how much he has changed since those happy days, before money became the golden idol of his worship, and as he feels the Spirit’s stern look upon him, he lowers his head in shame.

Well, in our gospel today we see a man very much like Mr. Fezziwig — the landowner in the gospel is eager to employ people, but also generous even to those employed only for a fraction of the day. Had he been like Scrooge, you had better believe he would have divided up those wages according to the hours worked, and the latecomers would have been pro-rated at only a fraction of a day’s wage. But this landowner is generous, and he does as he chooses with what he has.

+ + +

But wait a minute. If he is really so generous — as he describes himself — why doesn’t he give those who worked all day long an extra bonus? Why is it that they just get what they bargained for, while the latecomers get more than their fair share? For those who worked all day in the heat of the sun, and only get that agreed-upon daily wage, this does not appear to be generosity — at least not to them! — but favoritism. As far as they are concerned, it simply isn’t fair.

And you know what? They are right; it isn’t fair; but the landowner doesn’t claim to be fair — no, he says he is generous. And that, my friends, is the point of the parable.

Generosity isn’t about giving everyone what they deserve, or more than they deserve, but about the freedom of the giver to give out of his abundance to whomever he chooses — freely, not under constraint as if the giver were paying a debt, but solely because the giver wishes to give.

Now of course, this is a parable; and like all parables in this one Jesus is trying to tell us something about God and our relationship to God — what God’s kingdom is like. He is telling us about God’s generosity, as well as reminding us about human envy, how easy it is to presume upon generosity, to expect it, to resent it when others receive it and ourselves not.

+ + +

The lectionary pairs this gospel with the story of the Israelites complaining against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness of the Exodus. There is a Yiddish word that describes this kind of whining complaint: to kvetch. Well the children of Israel are the biggest kvetches in history, complaining and whining again and again. Even though God has delivered them from captivity and is bringing them into a new land of milk and honey — they kvetch! And even though they don’t deserve the treatment God delivers, God hears them and answers their kvetching and gives them the manna, the bread from heaven. God pours his grace and mercy on people who really don’t deserve it, people who have earned no credit with God and have even complained against God’s chosen leaders, kvetching like spoiled children. They don’t deserve God’s grace.

Which is, of course, what makes it grace. For grace and mercy are precisely needed where credit isn’t earned, where grace isn’t deserved. None of us is so good that we deserve salvation; none of us earns it, however much good we do; God doesn’t owe us anything. And yet our loving God gives us everything — even himself, in the Son of God, Christ Jesus our Lord. God isn’t fair by human standards, the standard of “get what you deserve”; but God is good — and God is generous, and treats us infinitely better than we deserve. Even the grace of believing in God is a gift from God, as Paul told the Philippians: “He has graciously granted you the privilege ... of believing in Christ.” God is like the landowner who surprises the part-time workers with full-time pay; God is like Mr. Fezziwig who doesn’t count the cost of bringing joy, but simply brings it. And God brings that joy not just on Christmas — believe you me, though that is when we commemorate the start of it all — but on every day of the rolling year. God, thank God, is gracious and merciful and abounds in steadfast love. His grace covers the multitude of our sins, and the generous outpouring of his blood washes away our guilt. None of us have worked for the whole of the day — all of us are latecomers, and God chooses to be generous to us because God isn’t fair by human standards, but because God is good through and through, the fountain of all goodness, the generous well that never runs dry.

For there is only one day’s wage, my friends, one day’s wage worth working for, one day’s wage with which we can be paid: the one day’s wage of the one Lord’s Day which will last forever, the one day’s wage of entry into the kingdom of heaven. God can give us no more than that, nor should we desire more — and he is generous to those of us who come late, as he is to those who came early: why, he even lets the last in first — so generous is this God of ours.

+ + +

Let me close with another parable. Once there was a man who died and came to the pearly gates where Saint Peter greeted him. Peter, in addition in to carrying the keys, had a clipboard in hand. He said to the man, “Before we let you into heaven there are a few questions you have to answer and I have to fill out this form. You see, we work on a point system here in heaven — maybe you’ve heard something about it. You tell me the good things you’ve done and I’ll score your points — and when you reach a hundred points I’ll let you into heaven. Is that alright?” The man thought for minute and then began to recite his good deeds. “Well, I was married for over 50 years and I never cheated on my wife all that time; I never even looked at another woman with lust in my heart.” Saint Peter said, “Very good; better than most, in fact; though as I recall you made that promise on your wedding day; but well done, considering it’s so rare: that’s worth three points.” The man was a little surprised at that score, but continued, “I was very active in my church — I went every Sunday and I was a longtime member of the men’s group.” Peter said, “Excellent; remembering the Sabbath and keeping it holy: that’s another point! But being a member of the men’s group? You are a man, aren’t you? I’m afraid I can’t give you any points for that.” The man was starting to feel very nervous, and said, “Well, I was also very generous with my wealth. I tithed to my church and I gave all my old clothes to the Goodwill.” Peter responded, “Let’s see, clothes you didn’t need any more... a tithe of your wealth… I recall hearing Jesus saying something about giving up all your possessions to follow him; but, hey, I’m in a good mood. I reckon that’s worth another point.” Exasperated, the man said, “My goodness, at this rate I’ll never get into heaven based on what I’ve done. I can only throw myself on God’s mercy.” And tossing aside the clipboard, Peter said, “Oh, that’s worth a hundred points right there. Welcome to heaven.”

+ + +

No my friends, God isn’t fair by our standards. He rescues and feeds ungrateful, disagreeable, judgmental, ornery kvetches and wretches and feeds them with bread from heaven. He gives to the latecomer the same favor as he gives to the one who works all day. And he gives us himself, my friends, he gives us himself. So let us not be envious, but rather thankful that God’s generosity exceeds even our greatest expectations, and that his goodness and mercy and grace endure for ever and ever.+


Sunday, September 14, 2014

Limited Forgiveness

Are there limits to what God will forgive?

Proper 19a • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
His lord summoned him and said to him, You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you? And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.

Today’s Scripture readings confront us with two deeply troubling passages. In the reading from Exodus, God delivers his chosen people Israel by causing the waters of the Red Sea to part so that they can pass through on dry land — safe and secure to the other side. So far, so good. But then God brings those walls of water crashing down upon the chariots and the drivers of pharaoh’s entire army, all those who had followed the people of Israel into that miraculous channel. There is no getting around the horror of this scene, and even though the Israelites will go on to sing in joy about their deliverance, we are treated to the reminder, in that closing verse, that they also saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore: bodies bloated, twisted, sodden with water, eyes glazed, staring sightless the sky— strewn on the seashore like so much rubbish or rags. It is a truly horrible, nightmare scene.

Exodus goes on to record that Moses and Miriam and the children of Israel celebrated and sang in thanksgiving for their deliverance, rejoicing in the downfall of their enemies. But there is also a Jewish tradition that when the angels in heaven began to join in the song,

the Holy One himself told them to stop. God said to the angels, “The works of my hand are perishing in the sea, and you want to sing praises?!”

That leads me to ask, why is God so hard on the Egyptians, who are the works of his hands as much as are the children of Israel? Why not let them escape with a lesson learned? Why toss them into the sea and bring those waters down upon them so that not one of them remained?

The clue to answer these questions lies in that second terrible reading we heard today — that story from Matthew’s gospel about the unforgiving slave, the one who although forgiven himself fails to forgive another slave, and so pays a terrible price — not just being thrown into prison, but being tortured until he should pay the entire debt. Jesus tells this tale in response to Peter’s question about how often one should forgive someone who offends against you. Probably thinking himself generous, Peter suggests seven times would be more than enough — but Jesus responds with a number eleven times that: one is to forgive 77 times.

That multiplier eleven reminds me of just how many chances Pharaoh is given — ten times Moses comes before him demanding that he let the people go, and all but the last time he says No; but then he backs out of his agreement and sets out after the people of Israel to recapture them. But even then, he gets one last chance — the eleventh — when he sees the waters part and Israel escape on dry land. He has the opportunity to see the hand of God at work in this miraculous deliverance, one last chance to repent the error of his ways and turn back; to forgive and forget. But he doesn’t take this eleventh chance — he orders the chariots forward. Which is how he ends up losing his army in the depths of the Sea.

At first this faces me with a dilemma — if God says you should forgive those who sin against you 77 times, why is God so hard on Pharaoh, and on that wicked slave in the parable. And the answer is that God forgives everything but the refusal to forgive. The wicked slave’s master forgives his debt, but not his failure to forgive another’s debt.

This answer shouldn’t really be so strange to us. To be forgiven one must forgive. Isn’t that what we say every day in the Lord’s Prayer: forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us? The moment we stop forgiving, whether the first or the eleventh or the seventh or the seventy-seventh time, we are cutting off forgiveness for ourselves, cutting it off as surely as the waters of the Red Sea were cut off and then turned back on again.

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God, it seems, is ready to forgive any sin except the sin of being unforgiving. And that is so because nothing is so unlike God — and what God wants for his people — as being unforgiving. I said a few weeks ago that the mercy of God is like a well that never runs dry, and that is true. God is always more ready to forgive than we are to repent of our own sins — but the lesson before us today is that God is not ready to forgive us our failure to forgive others for their sins against us. In other words, God wants us to be like God — to be loving and forgiving. We cannot be like God in power, or in wisdom, or in any of the other ways in which God so far surpasses merely human life — but we can forgive

when others sin against us.

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In his letter to the Romans, Saint Paul makes this point very clearly: “Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.” I reminded us a few weeks ago of the clear, succinct teaching of Jesus, “Do not judge.” For judgment is the opposite of forgiveness — and in the long run, as Paul suggests, it is a form of idolatry in which we put ourselves in the place of God and act as if we were the agents of God’s judgment. But what God wants from us is to be God’s agents of forgiveness — to spread the grace rather than the fear, to forgive the debts and the trespasses, the harms and the hurts, the offenses and the crimes. How did John the Evangelist put it: “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved.” Christ commissions us as his agents in spreading that work — the Son’s work — not the work of condemnation, but the work of salvation and grace through the forgiveness of sins. We are not called to store up grievances and grudges but to pour out grace and gratitude.

The irony is that some people think they are acting most like God when they judge others; when in fact we are most like God when we forgive others — for it is in God’s nature to forgive. And the only thing, it seems, that God will not forgive is that narrow, stingy, mean, nasty tendency not to forgive.

We learn a lesson today from Pharaoh and his army, his chariots and his horsemen; we learn a lesson from the slave in the parable — when given the opportunity to be tough and mean, to hold people to standards that meet our expectations (even when we fail to meet the standards others set for us), to keep people down instead of setting them free: God has shown us how to act, in graciousness and generosity, and with forgiveness, so that we too may be forgiven every fault or failing in our lives. Mark the words of Jesus: “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

Brothers and sisters, let gratitude and grace abound, the gratitude of forgiving one another all we owe each other, and the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit will truly be with us ever more.


Sunday, August 31, 2014

In the Name of Love

God is Love. That's it.

Proper 17a 2014 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Let love be genuine… hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection… Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Have you ever faced a task beyond your ability? Have you ever been given a job that made you feel totally inadequate, one you couldn’t get out of no matter how hard you tried? Well, if you have — welcome to the Moses Club. Our Old Testament reading this morning gives us the beginning of the call and ministry of Moses — and you can see him wriggling with those same feelings of inadequacy that we do, feelings that would follow him throughout his long career as shepherd to the wearisome flock of Israel.

But what this scripture also shows us is that God has an answer for those feelings of inadequacy, those moments — or years! — of weakness and incapacity like Moses; those times of getting it just completely wrong like Peter in our Gospel today: the realization that you can’t do it alone, but you also don’t have to do it alone. Sometimes all you have to do is get out of the way and let God be God!

Now, most of us are well aware of how almost nothing we do is truly done by ourselves alone: that we all depend upon each other for virtually every aspect of our lives. As the old saying goes, If you see a turtle on the top of a fence-post, you know he didn’t get there by himself!

It is in part the joy of Christian community, as Saint Paul encourages the Romans: its members support each other with genuine love, with mutual affection, with zeal and ardent spirit serving God in each other, outdoing each other in showing honor to each other. But a big part of the good news is that it isn’t just each other we depend on — ultimately all of us and each of us depend on God, who helps and supports all of us. He does it by his presence with us, his teaching to guide us, his patience to give us time to complete the work, and the nourishment to bear the fruit God desires. And all of this is because of the love of God.

“Let love be genuine,” Saint Paul said to the Romans. We catch a glimpse of the most genuine love there is in today’s reading from the book of Exodus, when Moses encounters God in that bush that burns but is not consumed: the love of God that is an eternal flame that does not consume the inexhaustible being of God.

Love is eternal because it is reborn in every instant. Love — God’s love — is always now. This is especially true when you compare love to the other two theological virtues, as they are called, faith and hope. remember what St Paul said? “...these three, faith hope and love; but the greatest of these is love.” Faith looks to the past, and gives thanks for all that God has done. Hope looks to the future and trusts that God will provide. But love lives in the present, if it lives at all.

After all, it is no good telling someone you loved them once, or that you’ll love them some day — who wants to hear that? And even hearing someone say, “I have always loved you” or “I will always love you” wouldn’t mean anything unless the one saying it loves you now. Love, true love, is eternal because it is alive in every moment. Love is a fire that burns, but does not consume.

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Moses confronted that love that day he was keeping his father-in-law’s sheep, living as a stranger in a strange land. The God of love chose to reveal himself to Moses for one reason: he had heard the cry of his people in Egypt, and would deliver them, because he loved them, because they were his. The eternal love of God became, in that particular time and place, (as it always does in every time and place) the present love of God in action. The God of faith that was past, the faith of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, their faith in God; the God of the hope for the future, that God would visit his people and take them and deliver them out of Egypt; the eternal and everlasting love of God would be revealed on that mountain — as God reveals himself as the God who is love, burning but not consuming: the one who was, and who is, and who is to come — is always Love. As Saint John would affirm many centuries later, “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”

Some theologians have focused on this story of the burning bush, and the Name that God tells Moses to call him by, as a way of emphasizing God as pure Being, He Who Is, or “Being itself.” I would like to suggest that Saint John’s description is more apt — rather than get involved in the debate about the nature of being, simply declare that God is love. And that when we love we are most like God.

When Moses complains to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?” God responds, “I will be with you.” In other words, God is assuring Moses that he isn’t going this alone. God will be with him. And as a sign of his presence, God — after a little bit of needling from Moses — tells Moses his name, which is I AM , or in Hebrew Ehyeh.

Now Hebrew, unlike English, doesn’t have tenses, at least not in the way English does. (I hope you’ll pardon this Hebrew grammar lesson, because it is important if we are to understand God’s Name; because it doesn’t translate very easily into English, and I can hardly think of anything more important, given this reading!) Instead of past, present and future, Hebrew verbs have only two forms called perfect and imperfect: the perfect describes an action that is completed and finished. It’s the “been there and done that” of language. The imperfect, on the other hand, describes an action either that was repeated or continuous in the past, or something that is happening now that hasn’t yet finished, or that is going to happen in the future. It might seem odd to think of God referring to himself using the imperfect. After all, we always think of God as perfect! But the difference in language is that perfect is dead — it’s the past, it’s done; it’s finished. What God is saying to Moses is that he is without end — there is always more to God. We can plumb the depths and think we’ve understood God, but we’ve only touched the surface, the outer edges of God’s being. God is without end; never finished.

This imperfect form of the language is what God uses when he says I AM WHO I AM: in Hebrew, Ehyeh asher ehyeh. This not only means “I am who I am,” but, “I have always been what I have always been,” and “I will be what I will be” or “I am now what I have always been and will be.” All of this is summed up in this name: and what a wonderful way to know the name of the eternal that has always been, is now, and ever shall be.

This is God’s Name, and it assures us of the kind of presence we can rely on in our weakness or our inadequacy. Not just someone who “is there for you” but someone who has always been there for you and always will be there — for you, and with you now: whose very name means Eternal Being Present. Truly, our help is in the Name of the Lord: the eternally present helper.

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My brother in Christ Thomas Bushnell made a fine observation about this not too long ago, in relation to what I said about those three virtues of faith, hope, and love. He pointed out that while we are called to have all three — faith, hope and love — there is a reason for love being the greatest, and being an attribute of God’s own Being. We have faith, but God does not need to have faith — God is the object of our faith. We have hope, but God doesn’t need hope; God knows what is to come better than we do! Faith and hope belong to us relate us to God, because we have faith in God and hope for God’s plans for us; but love is the means by which we reflect God’s own being, as mirrors or likenesses of God, made in God’s image; and this responding love joins us to God; for God not only has love, the love we have for God, the genuine love that we have for each other and for God, joins us to God. For God not only has love, but as Saint John says, God is Love; and whoever loves abides in God, and God abides in them.

After all, as St Paul assures us in his Letter to the Corinthians, in that famous passage so often heard at both weddings and funerals (and what better places are there to be reminded of the power of God who is love!): Love believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love believes all things; it has faith. Love hopes all things — it includes both faith and hope — but love endures because it is embodied in the eternal nature of God, and it is through love that we are joined to one another and to God. That love of God is eternal — it burns forever, and never consumes the source of its flame.

When you feel week, when you feel inadequate, when you feel you’ve been given a task you can’t possibly even begin to undertake, trust in that love, my friends in Christ; the love that God shows to you and through each of you to each other. It will raise you up from being a member of the Moses Club to being an eternal life-long member of the communion of God: in whose name we pray, Ehyeh asher Ehyeh, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.+


Monday, August 25, 2014

Unlikely Heroes

Some have greatness thrust upon them...

Proper 16a 2014 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, “When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birth stool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.” But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live.

One of my favorite television programs is a British program that is broadcast on PBS — no it’s not Downton Abbey, though I enjoy that one too. No, my real favorite — in fact one I have to number among one of the best TV programs I’ve ever seen — is the series Call the Midwife. If you haven’t seen it, I commend it to you as it is well worth viewing. Just remember to have the box of Kleenex handy. It is powerful and moves me, every episode. The series tells the story of a group of Anglican religious sisters and the lay midwives who work in the impoverished east end of London in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Watching the program has been made all the more poignant to me as I learned that our own dear Monica Stewart — God rest her soul — served as a midwife in London during just that time. I had always known her as a registered nurse working in Harlem at Metropolitan Hospital until she retired, but I didn’t know of her earlier career as a midwife working in London until I read her obituary. She delivered over 8,000 children in her career. Who they are and where, now— who knows? But that’s 8,000 world-changing possibilities in whose coming to be Monica played an important part. Blessings be upon her!

Back to the television series: the thing that moves me most about it is the basic goodness of the characters; none of them are great or famous — although Princess Margaret does appear in one episode — and all of them have their foibles — probably including Princess Margaret — but there is a deep and prevailing goodness about them, a goodness that forms their lives as they go about their work of bringing life and saving lives. Their lives are framed towards the good, even if they sometimes falter; and sometimes they reach greatness. They are unlikely heroes.

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So too are the midwives in today’s reading from the opening chapter of Exodus. Things have changed since Joseph served as Pharaoh’s right-hand man. A new Pharaoh has come along, one with a deep resentment towards the Israelites. For these aliens have prospered in Egypt as the Lord had promised Jacob and Joseph. And so the new Pharaoh institutes a wicked plan to keep their population in check — he orders the midwives to kill all the little boys as they come to birth.

This is a haunting foreshadowing of another order by another wicked king, Herod the Great, an order ironically evaded by another Joseph, with his wife Mary and the child Jesus, by escaping to Egypt rather than from it.

Pharaoh gives his horrifying command, and the midwives respond out of their fear of God; for they fear God more than they fear Pharaoh and they have the courage to disobey the king. These women, whose task in life was to assist in the most natural process possible — a woman giving birth to a child — become unlikely heroes. And as the story continues, more unlikely heroes appear: the Levite’s wife (Moses’ mother), who hides her baby for three months before turning him over to his older sister; and then that sister herself as she places him in the river, in that little ark made from a basket sealed with bitumen and pitch, placing him in the river there — and here’s the big surprise — Pharaoh’s own daughter finds the boy, and even recognizing that he is a Hebrew child whose death has been ordered by her father, she chooses to protect him and have him brought up in her own household — ironically giving him to his own mother to nurse — but also in the end giving him a name, a name that will resound through Jewish history and even up to our day, Moses.

Who would have thought that this unlikely cast of characters — and I hope you will note that all of them are women, young and old — who would have thought that they would be the means by which God’s chosen deliverer of his people would be himself delivered from certain death. Without these women, each and every one of them, the people of Israel would have remained in their slavery in Egypt. These women and their heroism is unexpected and unlikely, but marvelous.

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Perhaps, though, we shouldn’t be so surprised. Heroism is not always what you think it is going to be. Who, after all, turn out to be the real heroes? When it comes to warfare, the great heroes aren’t the generals with their famous names; the heroes are the privates and the corporals and sergeants out on the front line risking their lives in the thick of battle, sometimes losing their lives to save their comrades. And I’ve been around hospitals long enough to know — nothing against doctors, mind you — but many of the real heroes are nurses and EMTs and technicians, the anesthesiologists, the nurses aides — all those others who work, quietly, but sometimes find that they are the ones who end up saving a life.

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In the church as in the world there is plenty of room for heroism — there are, as Saint Paul pointed out to the Romans, many different gifts that differ according to the grace given to each. Not everyone is called to be a hero — yet, who knows when the opportunity for heroism might arise. Those Hebrew midwives studied the art of helping women give birth — a noble task in itself — but they never imagined that they would help save the future savior of Israel. They thought their job was birthing babies — not saving nations.

There is a line in Shakespeare’s play, Twelfth Night: “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” It is the same with being a hero: most truly heroic acts are not performed by those who set out to become heroes, but by ordinary people who find themselves in extraordinary situations in which a heroic act is required — and who then respond. Who knows when the gift that is given by God according to the grace of God for ministry, for teaching, for exhortation, for generosity, for diligence, or even for cheerfulness — who knows when such gifts might not, given the opportunity, blossom into heroism given the right place and time.

For there are ministers who serve in dangerous circumstances. Priests and ambulance drivers serve on the front line of battle; there are teachers who persist in teaching what they know to be right even when the authorities want to persecute or prosecute them for teaching science when what those authorities want is a dumbed-down refusal to teach what science offers; and there are students like Malala Yousafzai who persist in gaining an education even when there are some who would kill her — who tried to kill her — because they think girls are not supposed to go to school. Those who persist in doing what is right against such opposition are unlikely heroes, but heroes they are.

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One last unlikely hero appears in our readings today — Simon son of Jonah. Who would have thought that a simple fisherman would become one to whom the Lord of heaven would entrust the keys of heaven? Who would have thought that the man who just two weeks ago sank into the water instead of walking on it, when his fears outweighed his faith; that this man who would go on to deny his Lord three times before the rooster crows — who would have thought that this unlikely and wavering candidate could be a hero? Yet when the Spirit descended on that great day of Pentecost, when the Spirit came down on Peter and the apostles, that is just what he did: he is the one that stood up and would go on to face down the High Priest and the authorities and to proclaim the Gospel, even though in the end it brought him to the cross himself, crucified head-down in Rome.

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And so it is for all of us my friends — none of us here are born great. I doubt if any of us will be called to achieve greatness — but, who knows, who among us may have greatness thrust upon us — by being put in the right place at the right time to make use of the gift which we may have thought was purely practical, purely a useful trade, purely a way to make a living, suddenly transformed by the situation in which we find ourselves into something marvelous. Who among us may find some gift transformed into a way to be a hero and perform an act of heroism?

That’s what makes it grace, my friends. To become a hero is not something any of us should expect or even desire. Let us rather hope that if we are ever placed in the position to make such a use of the gifts that God has given us that we will have the courage so to do — to become unlikely heroes. Glory to God, whose power working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.+


Monday, August 18, 2014

Unexpected Good

God is a well of mercy that never stops flowing...

Proper 15a 2014 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Joseph told his brothers, “Do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life.… So it was not you who sent me here, but God.”

Some years ago, Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote a book called, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. This was not a book written from the dispassionate standpoint of a scholar and teacher. Rabbi Kushner was dealing with a personal tragedy as well — the death of his own young son. Even had he not experienced such a tragedy in his own family, he would not have needed to look very far to see many examples of bad things happening to good people. All you have to do is turn on the TV news to see plenty of examples of such tragedies. There is a whole subsection of theology dealing with just this question and I could go on and preach a couple of dozen sermons on the topic.

But for today I want to take a different approach and look at a different question, the opposite question: Why do good things happen to bad people? And I do that because of the continuation of the story that we heard this morning from the book of Genesis. We heard the start of Joseph’s story last week — how his brothers, jealous of their father’s affection, were on the point of murdering him; and how a sequence of events led them to sell him into slavery in Egypt. Today we jump almost to the end of his story — in between last week and this Joseph is framed on a charge of sexual misconduct with his boss’s wife, thrown into prison, makes use of his skill as an interpreter of dreams to get out of prison, and more than that, to be raised to a position of high power in Pharaoh’s kingdom. And he uses that power to store up supplies of food for the world-wide famine foretold in Pharaoh’s dreams — a pair of dreams that Joseph is able to interpret as a warning from God that a famine will strike the whole world.

When his brothers arrive, Joseph takes the time to indulge in a bit of payback: in the previous chapter — for they have come to Egypt to beg for food, for the famine is indeed world-wide, but have failed to recognize Joseph as their brother. This gives him an opportunity to play a few mean tricks on them — which, of course, they fully deserve. After that payback he finally chooses to reveal himself to them, in large part because he wants to see his elderly father again, and he knows that the famine is only just beginning and will get much worse. And the lesson he derives from this, is that even though his brothers did a truly terrible thing to him — he now sees that this was God’s way of working; God has taken this very bad thing and made a good thing come out of it. As Joseph would say in the last chapter of Genesis, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people.” So it is that a good thing came out of the actions of bad people; and in the end, even good things for those bad people.

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And that’s the hard part for us to understand. We expect wrongdoers to get punished, not rewarded. We expect bad things to happen to bad people. The problem is that this is a point of view that puts us in the place of God; it puts us in the position of judging others, deciding that they are bad and deserve punishment. And it isn’t really a question of being right or not — that is, it may be perfectly true that the people who we think are be bad are bad, and do deserve to be punished. The problem is that in placing ourselves in the judge’s seat and condemning others, even if we are right, we forget that we too are guilty — perhaps at times even more than those we condemn.

This is one of the hardest teachings of Jesus to wrap our heads around. How many Christian leaders seem to think that their primary task is telling other people how bad they are? How easy it is to forget that a central teaching of the Christian faith is, Do not judge! How easy it is for Christian disciples to consider themselves equal to their master, competent to judge — and even worse, getting on a high horse to decide who is a worthy recipient of God’s mercy.

We see them do that in today’s gospel reading. A Gentile woman, a Canaanite, approaches Jesus and begs him to cast a demon out of her daughter. And notice that at first Jesus says nothing. Matthew goes out of his way to include that detail: Jesus doesn’t answer her at all. He keeps silent. Is he waiting to see what the disciples will do? Will they intercede and join in her plea for mercy? Will they say to Jesus, Look at this poor woman? Jesus doesn’t have to wait long because they very quickly urge him to send her away because she keeps shouting after them. And at first he confirms their action — for he tells them that he was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel. Even when the woman comes and kneels before him, and asks for help, he says that it isn’t right to take children’s food and throw it to dogs. But she insists that even the dogs get the scraps — and Jesus acknowledges her great faith and her daughter is healed instantly.

Just as Joseph puts his bad brothers through the ringer — framing them for theft and putting them in prison — before finally revealing himself to them and forgiving them; Jesus puts his disciples to the test, and gives the woman herself a hard time, before relenting and responding in mercy.

And mercy is the point, the point we often miss. Because God is judge, we tend to want him to act like a judge, particularly when we agree with the guilt of those who are accused. We want to see the judge hand down a hard sentence when other people are before the court. We want to see that hard sentence passed, and that the guilty are punished as they deserve — we want bad things to happen to bad people. And so we want to see God act as a stern judge.

Except when we are the ones standing before him. That’s when we want God to be merciful. The problem is that God doesn’t change — God is always just and always merciful. God is always bringing good out of bad. Joseph’s brothers do a terrible thing in trying to kill him and getting him sold into slavery. But God uses that very action to put Joseph in the position to save the lives not only of his brothers but of countless other people, as God gives him the wisdom to understand Pharaoh’s dreams, and to store away enough food to last through the seven-year famine that will afflict the whole world.

Jesus teaches his disciples a lesson about mercy in this gospel we heard today — a lesson about mercy and faith. For recall how just last week he chided Peter, when he sank in the water he tried to walk on: “You of little faith!” Yet here — in front of Peter and the other disciples — he praises this Canaanite woman, this Gentile pagan, without doubt a worshiper of false and foreign gods, he praises her and gives honor to her “great faith.” Imagine how Peter felt at that moment!

Jesus answers the prayer of one who is not among his lost sheep, who is not his child, who is no better than a dog in the household. He does good for one who deserves no good — not because she deserves it but because he is merciful. Mercy is what it is all about. All, as St Paul said, are under disobedience, so that God can show mercy to all. It’s all God’s mercy, grace, and favor that saves us. I’m reminded of a quote from Mark Twain: “When you get to heaven, you will have to leave your dog outside. Admission to Heaven is by favor. If it went by merit, you would stay out and your dog would come in.”

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In his letter to the Romans, Paul the apostle makes that point in big letters. All are placed under disobedience so that God may show mercy to all. There is none perfect, no not one; and yet God causes his sun to shine and the sweet rain to fall on the just and the unjust alike. God is a well of mercy that never stops flowing.

God may have seemed, Paul says, to have turned on his people, his chosen ones, the descendants of Joseph and his brothers, the people of Israel. But Paul insists that their disobedience is temporary and their punishment is temporary, for the very purpose of allowing the good news of salvation through Christ to be extended out beyond that Jewish household to those very Gentiles whom the Israelites think are no better than dogs, unworthy of salvation and doomed to destruction. God is showing mercy to the Gentiles and will do so for Israel in due time. Good things do happen to bad people: for God is merciful. God takes the twisted, broken mess of our lives, what we in our foolishness or our selfishness have spoiled or ruined, and God cleans us up, repairs us, restores us — redeems us.

There is a refrain in the Psalms: his mercy endures forever. Let us give thanks for that at all times — for his mercy endures forever; not seeking God’s judgment, for others or ourselves — for his mercy endures forever; but trusting in God’s mercy — for his mercy endures forever; that even the disobedient and the sinful will find redemption and release — for his mercy endures forever.+