Sunday, October 18, 2015

Our Servant God

God is love and service....

Proper 24b - SJF - Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind: Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?

Two questions, among others, are asked in today’s Scripture readings: Who is this that darkens counsel with ignorant talk? and What do you want me to do for you? Thinking about these questions can help us answer the Big Question: Why are we here? and help us to understand what it means to be made in the image of God.

The first question comes from the latter parts of the book of Job. God finally speaks after a long silence. God has listened to Job’s three friends as they try to get him to admit he’s a wicked sinner — he must be, or why would he be suffering? God has heard Job claim his righteousness. And God has heard a young man try to defend God — as if God needed a defense.

So finally God speaks, to settle the argument. But when God speaks, it is not to provide a comforting answer to the question, Why do the innocent, and even worse, the righteous, suffer? There is no question that Job is righteous, yet suffer he does — but God doesn’t so much as address that question. When God speaks it is to reveal a deeper truth, to help Job — and us — see our place in the universe.
Job and his companions have been debating the meaning of life, the universe, and everything — just as we do. Finally God confronts Job, “Who is this that darkens counsel with ignorant words? Pull yourself together, and let me ask you questions.” And, of course, the questions God asks are beyond Job’s or any human being’s skill to answer. That is the whole point. God is saying, in a not-so-subtle way, Just who do you think you are, anyway?

Human pride is such that we often put ourselves at the center of the universe, and sometimes act as if we were in control. People have very powerful control needs. We are haunted by the fear that if we aren’t in charge, then no one is. Think for a moment what that means: the fear that no one is in charge if we aren’t. Isn’t this just a kind of faithlessness, that doubts the loving providence of God? And doesn’t it also paint God in our image rather than us in God’s — seeing God as a tyrant superman, controlling the world? Is that what God shows us to be the true nature of God whom we know in Jesus? When we think of God in terms of control, we forget that God assigned us — made as we are in God’s image — as the stewards in service to, not in control of creation.

Human need for control led to the human fall — thinking we should take charge “as if we were gods.” As if “being in charge” was the main truth of God — which it isn’t. The pagans see God as power: Zeus the storm-god armed with thunderbolts, Neptune ruling the sea with an iron trident. But we who know God in Christ know that God came to serve, not to be served, and to give his life as a ransom for many. As John the Beloved Disciple reminded us, God is love, and those who love — not those who rule — are most like God.

But human mistrust of the costly extent of God’s love was the gap through which the serpent wiggled, in his wily tempting: “Oh, you will not die... are you sure God is telling you the whole story? maybe God doesn’t want you to touch the fruit because you might become all-powerful like him?” The serpent led humans to forget that we were placed in the garden to tend it, to care for it — as servants, not owners. And they, instead of doing as God said, decided, “We’d better take the fruit and become gods ourselves, because who knows if God can be trusted to take care of us. It’s every man and woman for him or herself, and the devil take the hindmost.” And the devil did, and has been doing so ever since, nip- nip- nipping at our heels until we summon the strength to crush his head. (For our strength isn’t in our heads or hearts, where we resemble God, but in our very human heels!)
The tragedy was that we were already like God — made in God’s image and likeness. It was as God’s images that we are called to serve — so that should tell us something about God. And what is worse, we still forget that God is one who loves and tends and cares for the created world, the world God loved so much that he gave his son so that we might not perish. We forget the Gospel truth and project our fears about lack of control onto our beliefs about God, and so put God into the position of being a tyrant, a control freak whose primary interest is in forcing everything to his will — even though God tries again and again to show us that he is the source of all care and love and concern.
Listen to that language from the Job: God is concerned to provide rain for the plants, food for the young lions and the raven. As Jesus reminds us, and as the old song says, his eye is on the sparrow! God is the ultimate care-giver.

Jesus brings the point home in warning the disciples not to be like earthly monarchs who rule with an iron fist — surely in their lifetimes they had seen a few of those, from the Caesars to the Herods — the rulers of this world who could, at a whim, literally say, “Off with his head” and off the head would come! Jesus wants his disciples to be like him, like his loving Father in heaven: the God who serves and cares,the Lord who serves and saves, the God who is Love. If we can learn to live and love and serve in the manner of Jesus and his heavenly Father — and we can, for we are made in his image — perhaps we can understand what it means to be stewards.
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So what kind of a Lord is Jesus? First, Jesus is the original: “the firstborn over all creation.” He is the answer to God’s persistent question to Job, Who, who, who? The answer: Jesus the Christ, following in his Father’s footsteps! He is the one who was there at the beginning, as our Creed affirms: God from God, light from light, true God from true God. Through him all things were made, and without him nothing came into being.

He is also the answer to the disciples’ demand for thrones in the kingdom. He was there when the foundations of that kingdom were established! But look — he doesn’t work like a manager, sitting back and ordering the angels around, even though they are his ministers. The creator gets his hands dirty, at the beginning kneeling down by the riverbank to take the dust and mold us in his image, and at the Last Supper kneeling to wash the feet of his disciples -- and that is dirty work in a day when people walked around all the time without socks on! This is fitting for one who plied an earthly trade as a carpenter. But at the beginning of creation, it is he who sets a compass on the face of the deep, stretches forth the line upon it, shuts in the seas with hand-made doors, and lays the cornerstone of the earth while all the morning stars sing together for joy. Christ’s stewardship and service is from before time: he is the original worker.

Second, Christ’s stewardship is loving. His word to the disciples reflects his own loving service — they are to serve as they have seen him serve. This is particularly manifest in the ministry of healing, so it is appropriate that today is the feast of Saint Luke, the beloved physician.

For few ministries are more aligned with the image of God in humanity than the ministry of healing. I give thanks that many members of St James work in the healing professions. You nurses, nurses aides, caregivers, technicians — you are realizing the image of God in one of the most powerful ways one can: in service that gives life and saves life.

Finally, the stewardship of Christ is self-giving, not self-preserving. His stewardship challenges others to be as generous as he is himself: not to lord it over others, but to give and serve as the real Lord himself gives and serves.
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So what about us? Can we be like Christ, who is original, loving, and self-giving? Can we serve in the manner of the Lord? All we need is the faith to follow the example of our Lord himself: Christ the healer, Christ the worker. All we need is faith in him, and if we have even a tiny faith, even as tiny as a mustard seed, we can be like that seed that unexpectedly grows not into a mustard plant but into a mighty tree that also serves to provide a home for the birds of the air, and shade for the creatures of the field. Through this blessing of servant oneness in Christ, we can take our part in the loving stewardship which embraces and holds creation together, caring for it with the skills God gives, in self-giving love and charity.

The whole creation is waiting for us to accept our destiny, our true identity as children and servants of God who loves and serves. All God’s creatures are waiting: the birds flock and circle around us; the cats and dogs look up at us expectantly, waiting for the door to be opened; the horses stamp their hooves and snort; the fish and whales are gathering in schools; the spirits of the blessed wait in hope, while the devils in hell tremble in fear; and far out in the endless reaches of space the morning stars are holding their breath, waiting to burst into joyous song once more, when the whole creation is reborn — and we become all that we are meant to be — through the original blessing of the Father, the loving stewardship of the Son, and the outpoured gift of the Holy Spirit.+

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Naked Need

Learning the difference between "I need" and "I want..."

October 4 2015 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”

Today we hear the second saying of Jesus concerning children and the kingdom of heaven, to which I referred a few weeks back. This is the one that is better known, the one of which people most often think, when they think about this subject at all. Jesus wants his disciples to receive the kingdom of God like children in order to enter the kingdom.

But what does it actually mean to receive the kingdom “as a little child?” If “little” is the most important part of it, I guess I am half-way there, tall as I was when I was 14, as I never did experience the “growth spurt” they kept promising me would come along. But I don’t think that Jesus is giving much weight to physical size, so let’s set that aside for a moment. Whatever Randy Newman may have thought about short people with their little tiny hands and little tiny legs, we who are short have just as much of a challenge in receiving the kingdom as our larger companions. It is no more easy for me to fit through the eye of a needle than it is for a camel — or a rich man.

So what is it about children that Jesus wants us to emulate and embody? If not their physical size, is it their innocence? I don’t know about your experience of children, but I’ve known some children who behave as badly as any adult. St Augustine once observed that anyone who doubted the existence of original sin only need spend an hour in the presence of a crying infant: for Augustine, the crying child revealed the naked self-centeredness of all that it means to be a sinful human being — a center of “I need” and “I want” with no patience or care in the world so long as its needs or its wants are met.

And surely it is true that children can be selfish, possessive, dishonest, demanding, mean, cruel, and angry. The person who said “It’s as easy as taking candy from a baby” likely never actually experienced the wrath of a child so deprived — and God save your eardrums!

So, again I ask, what is it about a child that Jesus wants us to emulate? Could it be that very neediness and dependency? Could it be that St Augustine missed the point of a child’s dependency — not as a sign of sin, but of what it means to be human? Scientists tell us that one of the reasons the human family came to be — including the general favoring throughout most human cultures of monogamy, to which Jesus also refers in our reading today — that this is due to the fact that infant humans require lots of care for a long time: human childhood lasts for years. A young horse or a cow will be up on its feet within minutes of being born; but a human child will take months even to crawl, and more to toddle or walk. Human children are dependent for years on end, and this dependency has shaped the form of human families from the very beginning, including the need of a settled home for the upbringing of the child; or even more, as the saying has it, that “It takes a village to raise a child.” The long childhood of human children is both source and result of human society and civilization.

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Not that all human civilization is always civilized. A few weeks ago, the world was moved by the pictures of a little child dead on a beach — a child who drowned in his family’s efforts as refugees to find escape from a war-torn middle east. I would like to hope — and I still do hope — that this child’s death will not be in vain, and that the hearts of enough people will be moved to do all in their power to end this tragic crisis. But, sadly, as with the challenges around gun control, I know human beings are sometimes moved by tragedies, but rarely moved to action.

Still, I refuse to give up hope entirely. I know that while we all have that needy, crying, self-centered infant deep within us, we also have within the capacity to transform our need, not by losing it, but by presenting it to the one who can and will supply all of our needs. Perhaps this is what Jesus means when he says we need to receive the kingdom as a child — to receive it as a child receives a present, for surely heaven is a gift that none of us deserves, but which our Lord is prepared to give to each and every one who holds out their hands to receive it. It is not that we should give up our neediness, but that we should realize that there is one who can supply all we need; one who is ready to do so — to place his gift of salvation into our hands as easily as the Bread of communion is placed upon our palms or on our tongues.

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Seven hundred eighty-nine years ago today, a man from Assisi, Italy died. His name was Francis. He came from a well-to-do merchant family — his father sold cloth, which in those days before modern technology was far more of a luxury than it is for us today. Francis was a trendy young man with a taste for the finer things in life; but he experienced a conversion that is among the most powerful ever experienced by a human being. He did a complete turnaround and rejected all that he had, all that his family wanted for him, all that they had given him; even what they hadn’t given him — for he took several bolts of cloth from his father’s shop and gave them to the poor. His father hauled him up before the local bishop and complained he was ungrateful and wasting the family fortune, reminding the boy, “You owe me everything!” In a dramatic gesture, Francis called his father’s bluff and said, “You want everything? It’s yours!” and he stripped himself bare naked right there in the town square.

It may seem a bit odd to make the comparison, but Francis took on voluntarily the poverty that the good man Job suffered at the hands of Satan. Our reading today omits the verse, but it is fitting: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” As Job also says, in our reading today, “Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?”

Francis knew how to receive the good and the bad because he embraced a life of complete poverty, of complete need: he refused to own anything, and he lived as a beggar his whole life. He learned the crucial difference between “I need” and “I want.” In this he learned the secret of how to receive the kingdom as a child — he learned that what people need to live is far less than what they want to have. He learned how to be a child his whole life — a child who receives care and nurture not because she has earned it, but purely as a gift and because her parents and her society provide for that need.

He took it all the way, Francis, all the way to the end. Even as he was dying, he asked his brothers to let him strip himself naked once again, one last time, and to be placed upon the cold, dirt floor of his cell, on the ground, naked, so that he could die without any belongings at all, not even the clothes on his back: naked as he came from his mother’s womb, as naked as a new-born child. His brothers could not bear this for long, seeing that miserable, shrunken body — marked as it was in hands and feet and side with the miraculous gift of the wounds of Christ that he had received as a gift from God! — and they convinced him finally, at the last, that the robe in which they insisted he be clothed was only on loan, and didn’t belong to him. And so he died, in borrowed clothes, receiving Sister Death as he had received life — not as his own, but as something given by God.

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The New English Bible translates one of Jesus’ beatitudes as “Blessed are those who know their need of God.” Is this what it means to receive the kingdom as a child — a child who needs everything, and who can do nothing for itself? It seems to me that is a large part of it — being able to be in need, to be dependent upon God in the way we were dependent on our family when we were infants. Perhaps it is the family of humanity that needs better to learn how to care for children, so that all can learn what it means to be a child — a child of God and humanity — as Jesus himself is Son of God and Son of Man.

It is said that a society can be judged on the way it treats its children. I will go further and say that our society, and our world, will be judged on the basis of the way it treats not only its own children, but the children of others, the ones seeking asylum and refuge, the ones towards whom we who have stand in the position of being able to give, and to save. We need to learn that powerful difference between what we need to live as opposed to what we want to have. We don’t need everything we want. And what we have we can share with those who do not have. We dare not expect one day to receive the kingdom as a child, if we turn away the children who seek our help here and now, on God’s green earth, and be unwilling to share. Let us all, like Francis, give up the claim, and accept the gift, from the one who knows our needs before we ask, and gives us better than we deserve.+