Sunday, August 30, 2015

Weeding and Whiting

(no audio this week... sorry.)

Proper 17b 2015 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The Pharisees and scribes asked Jesus, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders?”

A few weeks ago I spent a few days in Baltimore at my future retirement home. The abundant rain and warm weather — and when they say “warm” in Baltimore they mean it! — had produced a huge amount of growth in the modest back yard. The worst of this was that most of the growth was of weeds! In particular, a plague of morning glory vines had covered almost everything else in the garden, strangling two rose bushes and knocking them to the ground, and wrapping around a peony and a fig tree. By the time I pulled up all of the morning glory vines, and a few other weeds, I had a four-foot high pile of garden refuse to dispose of. Fortunately, the local hardware store supplies five-foot high brown-paper refuse bags for just this purpose — a purpose they are fit for, as I noted last week!

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Would that it were as easy to get our lives in order as it is our gardens! We heard a reading from the Letter of James — not our Saint James (the brother of John and son of Zebedee) but the James referred to as the brother of the Lord, and who served as an early leader of the church in Jerusalem. In it we hear some good advice about the sort of spiritual gardening that is necessary if we are to bear fruit. James tells us we need to strip away the “rank growth of wickedness” so that the welcome and implanted word — the word of God that Jesus himself had likened to seed scattered on different kinds of soil — might germinate within us, so that we ourselves might become, as he says, “a kind of first fruits” to the glory of God. Just as in a garden, this can be hard work, as we strip away the parts of our lives that are keeping us from proper and productive growth.

The problem with this kind of personal reform, as with some garden weeding, is that it isn’t just an external sprucing up that is needed. Weeds have roots, and if you don’t pull up the root with the stem and stalk and leaves you may just have made the problem worse, or at best deferred the problem until the stem and stalk and leaves pop up once more from the stubborn root underground. Many weeds, as you likely know, are even gifted with the ability to break off their stem just at ground level and make you think you’ve solved the problem, only to pop back to life in a few days twice as strong as before. I spent a good bit of my time a few weeks back, as I wrestled with some crab-grass, twining my hand around and around on the stalk, down to the ground so I could dig my fingers in to grasp the root and pull it up.

It is the same way with our bad habits — it is so easy to make a list of New Year’s resolutions that are forgotten within a week. Saint James gives us the example of one who is a hearer but not a doer — “all show and no go” as they say in the Islands. Such people look in the mirror, but the moment they step away, forget what they look like.

The point Saint James is making is that righteousness isn’t about appearances, about the outside — but what is going on inside. If that inner word of God is smothered by vice it will perish; but if allowed to breath and grow and bear fruit, it will eventually show on the outside. Good roots from good seed bear good fruits, if they are planted in good soil with depth to grow and freedom from weeds.

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

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

As important as washing your hands may be, there is something superficial about it. It cleans only the outside; it does nothing for the inside. In another Gospel passage Jesus will accuse the Pharisees of being like whitewashed tombs: lovely and clean on the outside, but full of corruption within. A lick of paint to cover the evils of the heart, like weeding that fails to get the root as well as the stalk, is a half-way measure that may be worse than doing nothing at all! Jesus contrasts the talkative lips that honor God with literal lip-service, and the all-too-fallible and sinful human hearts that conceal God-only-knows what evil mischief deep within, where sin crouches for employment, ready to leap out at the first opportunity.

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

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Surely that is the message for us today, and it is echoed in the teaching of Saint James. He calls for the inside of the believer to be purified — weeded of the rank growth of wickedness, and transformed inwardly by the implanted word of God, like a seed planted in a cultivated garden plot, ready to grow inside the heart of a faithful person, so that the righteous person can actually do what God requires — not only hearing the word with the ear or speaking it with the lips, but actually doing what it requires; not being like those who look at their superficial reflection — their outside — in a mirror, but who take the word in, in to the heart, where it empowers the righteous to act rightly, and the good to do good.

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

God’s hand is working on us now — twisting around the stalk and reaching down into the ground where sin and unrighteousness take root. May we be ready to allow this gardener to do his work in us, to cleanse us from all sin, that we may be prepared to bring in a plentiful harvest on the great last day!+

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Fit for Purpose

God is working out a purpose for which we have been equipped appropriately...

Proper 16b 2015 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Solomon asked the Lord, “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!

There is a wonderfully useful phrase from the early years of this century, used primarily in England as part of product regulation, advertising, and licensing: “Fit for purpose.” It certifies that a product actually does what it is supposed to do, or is suitable to accomplish the work for which it is designed, created, marketed, sold, and used. Leave it to the English, you might well say — we Americans so often seem to be satisfied with products that not only aren’t fit for purpose, but which readily admit so right on the label. I’m thinking of those health food products that say one thing in big, colorful letters, but in the fine print add something like, “These statements have not been verified” or “Not intended for the treatment of disease.” There was a bit of a scandal a few months back when independent testing of some herbal supplements revealed that not only did they not contain the advertised amount on the label, they didn’t contain any at all!

And how many of us — as we try to invest for retirement or education — are wooed by the offers that claim that they can multiply your money like loaves and fishes, and they say look how well we have done in the past — but then in a little footnote say, “Past performance is not necessarily indicative of future results.” Makes you want to join Arsenio Hall in saying “Hmmmm.”

Such advertising is not just inconvenient; it can lead to a life or death situation, or financial ruin. I doubt anyone will die on account of getting less than the advertised dosage of Echinacea or St John’s wort — but we hear often enough about product recalls to know that when an item isn’t fit for purpose it might be lethal. From defective air-bags to defective ignition switches, automobiles seem to be a focal point for such tragic insufficiencies — and when an automobile isn’t fit for purpose, it can end your, or someone else’s, life.

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In our Scripture readings today we hear of aspects of our religious heritage that are all fit for purpose in different ways. They have both physical and spiritual aspects. And as the Apostle affirms in so many other things, it is the spirit that is important.

First comes Solomon’s Temple, about which we hear part of Solomon’s prayer of dedication. We heard in the earlier readings over the last weeks from the Court History about how David wanted to build the Temple, but God told him that he had no need of one, and that it wasn’t for David to build anyway, but for his son Solomon. And Solomon clearly understands that the Temple isn’t there because God needs it: God is where God chooses to be, God does not need a house or a home. Solomon admits this in that beautiful prayer of dedication. He knows full well that God has no need of a house to dwell in — in other words, the purpose for which the Temple is “fit” is not for God to “fit” inside. “Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you,” Solomon affirms of God. The Temple is not there because God needs it — but human beings, creatures of flesh and fragile as frail, need to focus their attention, have a sense of direction, to move their hearts Godward — and it is that purpose for which the Temple is fit. It is to be a house of prayer for all people, both Jews and Gentiles, a place towards which and within which prayer is to be made on earth, and God, who is in heaven, will hear those prayers. That is the purpose for which Solomon built it, and for which it stood for hundreds of years, until it came to be abused by the very people for whom it was designed as a holy place. I won’t dwell on that — but just remind us all that when something is designed with a purpose, and is fit for it, it is meant to be used to that end. In time the Solomon’s Temple and its successor came to be misused — not as a place of prayer, but of commerce — and double-dealing commerce at that; as well as being defiled idols set up within it, and even used as a storage shed for somebody’s unused furniture. These were not just different purposes — but bad purposes, real misuses of the holy place.

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That doesn’t mean that there may not be other purposes or uses for some thing, unintended by the designer. If that were the case, TV’s inventive Mr McGyver would have bit the dust many times over. And who here hasn’t used a paper clip for something other than clipping paper!

We see a bit of that in our reading from Ephesians today, where the Apostle takes the language of military armor and imbues it with spiritual meaning. Everyone knows that in the real world a belt is not truthful — except to the extent it might tell you that you are putting on a little bit of weight! Earthly shoes will not really help you preach the gospel — though a good pair of walking shoes might speed you to your church on Sunday morning. No earthly shield will protect you from evil, nor will a helmet save your soul — though it might save your head if you go on a construction site. And as for a sword being the Spirit of the word of God — well, as a wise man once said, the pen is much mightier than a sword when it comes to telling the truth.

In all of these cases the Apostle is re-purposing these pieces of equipment — like McGyver — to make them fit to the purposes he intends. It isn’t the belt that counts, but the truth it symbolizes; it isn’t the shoes, but the gospel itself; it isn’t the brazen shield and helmet but the power of faith and salvation, not a sword but the living Word of God itself — this divine armor is fit for the purpose of any of God’s armed forces here on earth, ready to stand against the wiles of the devil, or the rulers and authorities of the present darkness, the spiritual forces of evil — some of them perched in high places. These are the purposes for which God’s armor is not only fit, but essential.

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In our Gospel, we return, as we so often do, to the two things that Jesus gave to his disciples on the night before he suffered and died for us — the Bread and Wine of his own flesh and blood, the gifts of God for the people of God. This heavenly food and drink is fit for the purpose God intends.

You will note that in this passage there are some who do not believe the label — Christ’s words of promise. They are looking for the fine print that says, “These claims have not been independently verified.” They say, “This teaching is difficult” — and surely it was! To be told that you needed to eat a man’s flesh and drink his blood in order to be saved! Who could think that made sense, particularly in a Jewish world in which eating blood any way at all is strictly forbidden, and even a chicken has to soak in salt water to draw out any blood, to make it strictly kosher.

Jesus acknowledges how hard this teaching is — but he promises that those who are open to the spirit will understand and believe; and that even this is the work of God, at work in them, by grace through faith, to give them ears to hear and hearts to believe: ears and hearts fit for God’s purposes, to hear and receive God’s grace.

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It is three thousand or so years since Solomon prayed in his Temple, some two thousand years since the Apostle wrote of divine armor and Jesus spoke of his flesh and blood. The Temple was destroyed, but many other houses of God — such as this small example in this little corner of the Bronx — have been built since then to help us to turn our hearts and minds in a Godward direction, in the knowledge that God hears and answers our prayers; and as that these places are fit for the purpose of hearing God’s word. Many Christian souls have found God’s armor fit for purpose in combating the forces of evil set against them — heroes of the faith who have shed their blood rather than depart from the purposes for which God intended them. And that bread and that wine of our Holy Communion, the flesh and blood of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, has nourished countless thousands of thousands with the promise of eternal life.

As the old hymn puts it, “God is working his purpose out.” We, my friends, are called to be fit for that purpose. Gathered in this place, equipped with this armor, fed with this spiritual food, with God’s help so shall we be.+

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Surprising Wine

The Real Presence gives a new meaning to reality...

Proper 15b 2015 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The Apostle wrote to the Ephesians, Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit.

We take a bit of a break this week from the Court History — now that David sleeps with his ancestors and his son Solomon is on the throne; and we’ll return to hear more about Solomon next week. But today I want to turn to Ephesians and the challenging Gospel account concerning the flesh and blood of the Son of Man.

And I do that with reference to — of all things — a Christmas movie, one of my favorites, The Bishop’s Wife. I’ve spoken of it before, so you know it is a real favorite of mine. It dates from the 1950s and I have the DVD, along with Miracle on 34th Street, It’s a Wonderful Life, and Alastair Sim’s version of Christmas Carol. Every year (starting with Miracle on 34th Street on Thanksgiving!) Br James and I watch the whole collection.

All of these movies tell of transformation, as so many Christmas movies do. And doesn’t that make sense, given that Christmas is all about the greatest transformation of all, when the Word was made Flesh and dwelt among us? And since this hot summer weather we’re experiencing makes thoughts of Christmas and snow and cold welcome, let’s reflect for a moment on this well-beloved, snow-filled movie.

The Bishop’s Wife, as you can guess even if you’ve never seen it, is about an Episcopal bishop and his wife, their friends and acquaintances, and an angel —played by Cary Grant— who comes in answer to the bishop’s prayers, but answers them in unexpected ways. “No spoilers” in case you haven’t seen the film, but I want to mention one minor character, an old professor who lost his job teaching at a college for tangling with the board of trustees who run the place. This grumpy and curmudgeony old professor is a scholar of early Roman history. He is the kind of man who believes in the rational and the provable, and who put away his faith — and most of his joy — when he grew from childhood to the supposed maturity of adulthood. Even though he has lost his position at the college, he longs to work and exercise his mental muscles, so he has been planning to begin work on a great history of Rome — planning for nine years, but has yet to put pen to paper!

When the bishop’s wife and the angel visit one day, the old professor offers them a glass of sherry, and the angel performs a hidden miracle, and transforms the almost empty sherry bottle into a wine-merchant’s nightmare. For as with the widow’s jar of meal and cruse of oil, no matter how many glasses of sherry the old professor pours from the bottle, it never empties! But the truly miraculous thing, the surprising and wonderful thing, about this wine, as the professor later discovers — and tells the bishop when he too suspects that unearthly forces are at work— is this: “This wine never dulls the senses. However much you drink, it never inebriates; it only inspires and invigorates.” So much so that the old man finally sets to work on his history, and even recovers his long-lost faith in God.

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The Apostle writes to the Ephesians, warning them not to get drunk with wine, but to be filled with the Spirit. We all know that too much wine can deaden the senses, and strong drink can ruin ones life — and the lives of others — when taken to excess. But we also know that wine in moderation can gladden the heart and soothe the stomach. I even have a friend who suffers from essential tremor — and her doctor prescribes a large glass of red wine each evening!

And we here in the church also have been taught that a special kind of wine — the wine of which we sip or dip the tiniest amount when we come to this altar rail — wine can do far more than merely heal our ills. This wine, this communion wine, is the means by which we share in the blood shed by Christ, and it can not only lift up our hearts, but save our souls unto eternal life.

The fictional professor’s fictional sherry became more than sherry when the fictional angel touched the bottle. But the wine of our communion truly becomes more than wine in reality right here upon our altar, when the Holy Spirit descends upon these gifts and upon us, and they are transformed and we are transformed, and we experience the presence of Jesus Christ, his Body and his Blood. Through these gifts, offered here, then taken and eaten, taken and tasted, we participate in the great miracle, next to which a never-ending bottle of sherry, or jar of flour or cruse of oil, must rank as mere parlor tricks. For the bread and wine of our communion, true food and true drink, is also truly the means by which we share in the flesh and blood of the one who came down from heaven, the Word made Flesh who came down at Christmas and rose at Easter and abides with us still, and in whom we have life everlasting.

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But, speaking of reality, do we really believe that? Think for a moment what is commonly meant by saying, “I saw him, flesh and blood!” That means for real, in person! Do we really mean it when we say we partake of the flesh and blood of Jesus when we come to this altar? And if this is hard for us to understand, think about what it must have been like for those in the synagogue of Capermaum, who heard these ideas for the first time.

For there can be no escaping Jesus’ meaning. He is not talking about some kind of memorial banquet to be held in his honor. He is not planning a philosophers’ cocktail party like Plato’s Symposium, where people discuss the meaning of life over their wine goblets. He is not even talking about a pagan mystery rite in which the participants imagine that they partake of their gods’ essence as they eat a sacrificial meal. They are all, to quote another favorite Christmas film, “but shadows of the things that were.” What we encounter in the Holy Communion is not a shadow from the past, but a reality from before time and for ever.

For it is of Christ’s own body and blood, his flesh and blood, that he speaks when he says he is the living bread. He knows that before long he will go to Jerusalem, where his body will be nailed to a cross, his very real flesh torn by very real nails, his blood will be poured out, his very real blood will sweat from his brow, and flow from his pierced hands, his feet, his side. He when he speaks of eating his flesh and drinking his blood, at the end of this address he says, “This is the bread that came down from heaven... whoever eats this bread will live forever” — and there can be little doubt that as he twice says “this” he points to himself, so that no mistake can be made as to his meaning. And that is why the crowd say, “How can he do that!?” And we might be tempted to say the same, except that we are fortunate enough to live after — after the crucifixion and the resurrection; to know that he is speaking of his own saving death, the real death of the real Jesus, the real man from the real town of Nazareth, the man standing there talking to them in flesh and blood, talking about his flesh and blood which is the only means to give life to the world.

This is hard to understand, but it is what Jesus said. And I believe we ought to take him at his word, as the church has done for nigh on two thousand years. What Jesus said and the church has taught, is that the bread we eat and the wine we drink— while not enough to satisfy an earthly hunger or make us even slightly tipsy — is sufficient, through the Holy Spirit, to unite us to the sacrificial and saving death and resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord. Our Holy Communion is no mere memory; it is not just a reminder, but participation — in which we do not simply remember but partake of our Lord’s blessed Body and precious Blood. This is, truly, echoing the proverb, wisdom’s banquet to make us wise, Christ’ssacrifice of his own Body and Blood. This is the festival meal in which God’s Holy Spirit comes to us and fills our hearts so we cannot help but sing, as we join the apostles and prophets, the blessed martyrs and confessors, the saints in glory and the saints who still walk and work among us, in giving thanks to God the Father through the Spirit, at all times and in all places, in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Sunday, August 09, 2015

Home to Roost

David's vengeance is his own punishment, from roof to roof to roof.... but Christ shows us a better way.

Proper 14b 2015 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another… Live in love as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

There is an old saying that the wrongs you do are like chickens; they always come home to roost. Over the last two weeks we’ve heard the sad story of King David’s great sin — his adultery with Uriah’s wife Bathsheba, his plot to murder that good man by putting him in harm’s way and then withdrawing all support, and his cover-up of the whole nasty business. But what men may hide, God exposes, and last week we heard how the prophet Nathan confronted David for his terrible crime, and pronounced a terrible judgment: that just as David had stolen another man’s wife, when he spied her from the rooftop and lusted after her, so too David’s own harem of wives will be taken from before his eyes, and given to his neighbor to lie with them in the open daylight, for all to see; and the sword will never depart from his house. David pronounces that the judgment is just, but I don’t think he realized how bad it would be when these particular chickens would come home to roost.

For the neighbor who will commit these crimes against David, who will lead an armed rebellion against him, who will try to steal the throne from him, in fact will be the closest kind of neighbor, one from within his own house. It will be none other than his own son Absalom. Our excerpts skip over the incident, but Absalom starts a palace rebellion, and gets most of Israel on his side against his father David, getting a great deal of military support in what we now would call “a coup.” David has to flee his beautiful palace, leaving behind only some of his harem to keep an eye on the house. At this point you would think David would have remembered Nathan’s prophecy concerning the penalty, the price, he would pay for his sin: for at the urging of one of Absalom’s advisors, the rebellious son Absalom pitches a tent on the roof of the house and throws an orgy on that roof with his own father’s harem - in the sight of the sun, as Nathan had prophesied, and in the sight of all Israel. Truly these chickens have come home to roost — and with a vengeance, right up on the top of the roof, in the sight of all the world.

And this roof on which Absalom now has his way with his father’s mistresses is the same roof from which David had spied Uriah’s wife down in her bath. Call it poetic justice or just plain justice — but there it is, and the prophecy is fulfilled.

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Today we hear the final aftermath of this tragedy, and it too involves a roof — this time the roof of the city gate. The tide turns against the rebellious Absalom and his supporters, and while he is on the run, riding his mule, he has the misfortune to get himself caught in the branches of a tree. He’s caught by his lavish hairdo — Scripture tells us that he only cut his hair once a year, and when he did it weighed twelve and a half pounds! Vanity, in this case, is its own reward, as the rebellious son is caught with his own hair, his own hair of which he was so proud, caught by the tresses in the branches of an oak, as the mule rides on, slaughtered by Joab’s armor bearers, against the orders of David, who had told them to deal gently with his son when they captured him.

Word finally comes of all of this — and David, who set the tragedy in motion when he spied Bathsheba from the roof of his palace, is now at the depths sitting at the base of the city gate, looking up to hear the news from the sentinel who is posted on the roof above, when the word comes from the battle. And the word that comes pierces David like a spear: Absalom his son is dead. Vengeance, like the chickens, is home to roost, but it does not give David any satisfaction. On the contrary, it brings him great, great pain. For his vengeance is also his punishment.

And perhaps the most surprising thing is that David still has enough love in his heart for this rebellious son of his — this son who tried to steal his kingdom, who had his way with his mistresses — David still has enough compassion to mourn his death, and he laments with weeping as deep and as lavish as his lament over Saul and Jonathan. This is surprising, but at least it also shows us what kind of person David is; for all his faults he is not, after all, a completely heartless villain. He was ready to forgive his rebellious son, even after everything he had done; as he had forgiven him many times in the past — because Absalom was no saint, believe me — and of course the problem is, that the more his father forgave him the more he encouraged him to greater and greater rebellion. So David is responsible, in many ways, for his son’s bad behavior.

But David is also true to his own name; David, in Hebrew, means “Beloved.” He is a lover, not a hater. He is able to feel the pain of losing this rebellious son, this good for nothing son, because he loved him, even though he turned against him, even though he rebelled against him, even though he committed the scandalous assault upon David’s own mistresses.

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We are, of course, called to forgive our enemies, to do good to those who harm us. But I can’t in good conscience put forth David as an example for us to follow. But we can learn from his tragedy that there is power in forgiveness. I can’t commend David as a good example in part because of what continues to happen in the rest of this Court History, which isn’t part of our Sunday readings. But if you look into the later chapters of Second Samuel and the start of First Kings, you will see that David’s ability to forgive and forget runs dry by the end, and even on his deathbed he is giving orders for payback against all who had offended him, like the Godfather he is, instructing his made men to see to it that “all who disrespected me get what’s coming to them.” So I can’t really commend David as a great saint; he forgave his son, to his own detriment, but at the end he wanted payback against everyone who had done him wrong.

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So let me turn from this imperfect model of David to the better counsel of the Apostle: who reminds us of the power of forgiveness in that passage we heard from Ephesians. It is an appeal about anger and sin, about speaking the truth to one another because we are part of one another — in Christ and through Christ. Absalom never learned the lesson of love — for each time his father forgave him he was back doing the same thing or worse the next time, until his final rebellion literally caught him up short. Yet even then, David was ready to forgive him.

That is the one thing in David’s sad story we can emulate: to forgive even when the wrong done to us is serious; to turn away from bitterness and anger, and wrath; from wrangling, and slander and malice — and to be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another as Christ has forgiven us. We are not called to be imitators of David, but imitators of God in Christ: to live in love as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

What this teaches us is that forgiveness isn’t easy; forgiveness is costly — it isn’t easy to return a word of love when a word of hatred has been given. But this is God’s way of dealing with us; God who came to us in Christ Jesus “while we were yet sinners” while we were in rebellion against him, a rebellion as real and as dangerous as the rebellion of Absalom against his father. But in spite of our sins, in spite of our rebellion, God reached out to us in forgiveness; the ultimate and costly forgiveness bought with the price of Christ’s own blood, upon the cross, for our salvation.

Christ offers himself to us, as a perfect sacrifice and fragrant offering: he gives himself to us as the bread of life, so that whoever eats of it may have life, and whoever believes in him may never be thirsty. This is the bread of forgiveness, to which we are led by the Father — for no one can come to this feast unless the Father calls them. And the Son has given us a promise — that he will raise us up on the last day.

Chickens will come home to roost — and we will reap what we sow! If we sow dissension and anger, we will reap the grapes of wrath; if, however, we sow the good seed to make the bread that nourishes to life at the great harvest — if we forgive and love one another as Christ has loved us, we will harvest the bounty of blessing that the Lord has promised to us, in his holy word.+