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.”

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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.”

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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.

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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.+

We Will Be Satisfied

How much can our tastes change when we "taste and see that the Lord is good." -- A sermon for Easter 5a 2011
SJF • Easter 5a • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
To you then who believe he is precious; but for those who do not believe, “The stone that the builders rejected...” and “a stone that makes them stumble.”

We are presented today with one of the great strangenesses of human experience: that a thing which can be delightful and wonderful to one person can be horrible or disgusting to another. Much in life seems to be a matter of taste: when it comes to food or music or art, or even religion — what one person finds delicious or pleasing or inspiring, another finds nasty, ugly or repulsive. This could be a matter of nature — something with you from birth — or of nurture — learning to enjoy something you found distasteful as a child, like broccoli — or to find displeasing something you really quite enjoyed as a child, like making mud pies.

Some of it clearly relates to the person him or herself: some people are by nature capable of hearing sounds or tasting tastes — either pleasant or irritating — that others cannot, and this has a real impact on their enjoyment of or distaste for certain kinds of music or food. In fact, there is a chemical — phenylthiocarbamide, in case you’re interested — that people with a particular genetic makeup taste as strongly bitter, while others cannot taste it at all. We all know that some people cannot abide broccoli or asparagus, and this is in part because they are genetically more sensitive to naturally occurring bitter chemicals in those vegetables. A taste which many tolerate or even enjoy due to the inability to taste it in its fullness, such people find intolerably unpleasant.

My point is that the vegetables, and the chemicals in them, are just what they are: the difference lies, as is said of beauty, “in the eye of the beholder” — or in this case, the tongue!

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In our reading from the First Letter of Peter, he describes Jesus as a chosen and precious and living stone. He is the cornerstone of the spiritual temple which will be the church of God — for those who believe. But for those who do not find him to their taste, to the builders who reject the cornerstone, he becomes a source of scandal and stumbling and fall. The one and the same stone can be — for those who accept and believe in him — a precious protection from shame; but for those who deny or reject him, he will bring subjection to that very shame and stumbling. The point is that the joy or anguish is not in the stone itself, or I should rather say, himself — for it is Jesus of whom we speak here — the joy or the anguish is in that proverbial “eye of the beholder.” Whether the stone will be your rock of ages, cleft for you to find refuge; or a stumbling-block that makes you trip and fall depends on you, and how you treat it: with respect and acceptance, or with rejection and hatred.

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We see the two sides of this reaction in our first reading, and can side by side set the personalities of Stephen and Saul. For Stephen the deacon, Christ is Savior and Lord, worth dying for — and he sees the heavens opened to receive him as he dies. For Saul, this crazy new teaching is heresy of the worst sort, and Christ, the founder of this pestilent sect, is a mischief-maker rightly rejected by the authorities. One and the same Christ can lead a man to lay down his life in witness to him, and drive another to the extreme of murder — though, of course, we also know that once Saul came to know Jesus better, on that road to Damascus, he too saw the light — literally, and it blinded him for a time — and he developed finally a taste for Jesus, and even beyond that a bold willingness, like Stephen, to suffer and die for him. As I said, not all things are determined by genetics, and we can be nurtured in directions we might never imagine. Who would have thought that Saul the vicious persecutor of the church would become one of its greatest champions? More than his name changed when he became Paul!

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And that is ultimately the good news in all of this: our tastes can change. We are not always newborns who can only tolerate milk. As we grow older we can learn that a little bitterness — offensive to a child’s tongue, a sensibility that only wants sweets or pleasant things — that little bitterness or sourness actually makes certain foods taste sweeter. We come to understand that a little piquance actually brings out the sweetness of certain foods, or that a dash of Scotch Bonnet pepper — which to a young child can be a truly nasty experience — brings for the adult who has learned to enjoy it, just the right savor and relish to a dish, without which it would be dull, stale, flat, boring and intolerable. We can learn to appreciate certain kinds of music or art by studying them, and realizing that our first impressions may have been based on our own ignorance, not on some quality inherent in the art or music itself.

And when it comes to God — and Christ Jesus his Son — well, God is God, after all; and he assures us that he is in fact the Way; as he said last week, “the gate”; and if we enter, as we are invited so to do, he will invite us to “Taste and see.” He invites us to his supper.

In the old legends of the Holy Grail — the cup that Jesus used at the Last Supper — it was said that the Knights of the Grail, those who dwelt in the Grail Castle and served there, lived on nothing but the Holy Communion. But the legend also says that each and every one of them experienced the bread and wine they received as if it were his favorite dish, whatever food they liked best. Though always and only bread and wine, though of course also the Body and Blood of Christ, one of the knights would experience its taste as roast pheasant, another as beef, still another as the finest venison. To each one it brought complete satisfaction and joy, though it was only and always what it was, and their only food.

Jesus similarly promises that in the Father’s house there are many dwelling places — and no doubt each of those blessed to follow in his way, abide in his truth, and live with his life will find the dwelling place uniquely suited and furnished to each one’s taste and desire.

And what of those who take another way, or reject his truth, or devalue that life and the lives of those who accept and follow him? It is not for us to judge. Who knows? If such a murderous and hateful one as Saul can be brought round in the end, who are we to set limits on the grace and the power of God? And more than that, ought we not examine ourselves in the meantime and see if something in our own behavior as Christians might be keeping others away?

When I was growing up, we lived next door to a man who had a large garden, and he always gave my mother vegetables. Among the vegetables there would always be one or two eggplants, which we never ate because my mother didn’t like eggplant, and always said, “You wouldn’t like it,” when I asked why she didn’t prepare it. And so we never had it. It was only years later when I was grown up and living away from home that I gave eggplant a try — and it turned out I loved it! (I told my mother the next time I saw her after that, and she just grimaced — she couldn’t believe it, — clearly she was more sensitive to whatever it is in eggplant that gives it that bitter taste; she had never learned to enjoy it, that bitterness that is part of “the eggplant experience.”)

But I had learned. You can learn. You can change. Saul changed...

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But it is not for us to judge the tastes or fates of others. God the Father has prepared a house with many dwelling places in it — and some of those places may have been prepared for some of the most unlikely people! As the old joke says, they may be the ones surprised to see us there! These may be people who had never imagined themselves as Christians; they may be people who have taken offense at something they’ve seen an individual Christian or a Christian church do; they may even be among those who have at first rejected the very cornerstone of faith. It is not for us to judge, however; it is our task to celebrate as much as possible, to show our joy in the Lord in such varied and persuasive ways, that even those who may have been at first put off or reluctant to do so, might venture to taste and see that the Lord is good. They may find that, after all, the thing they rejected in the past is now just what they most desire, and come and join us at the feast where there is room for all, and all are welcome, and all — all — all who come to the banquet shall be satisfied.+

Particularly Clean

SJF • Epiphany 6b • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG Naaman the Syrian asked, Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel?

There are two things about the Christian faith that often provoke controversy, sometimes even within the church. The first is the claim that Christ is unique, the sole assured way to salvation. This doctrine is embodied in Jesus’ statement that he is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and that no one comes to the Father except through him. The second is the observation that what God demands of us through Christ is neither complicated nor difficult, but simple. And this is embodied in Jesus’ statement that his yoke is easy and his burden light.

We can find a foreshadowing of both of these doctrines in the story of Naaman the Syrian warrior — and leper. Naaman hears of a cure of his illness from a young slave who was kidnaped from her home in Israel. He sets off loaded with treasure, expecting some kind of grand royal reception. What he gets, however, is a message from the prophet Elisha to go and wash in the Jordan seven times. And the Scripture describes his anger at what he perceives to be off-handed treatment.

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Naaman’s anger has two aspects, which reflect the two Christian doctrines I mentioned a moment ago. First, he finds it is absurd that there should be anything special or unique about the River Jordan. Aren’t there rivers back in Syria that are bigger and better? What’s so special about the River Jordan? Second, the Syrian general expects an elaborate healing ceremony, some kind of a ritual where the prophet will come forth and call on God by name and wave his hands over the diseased spot.

But the general’s servants know better, and they give him very good advice: if the prophet had asked for something difficult, wouldn’t you have done it? How much easier simply to do as he says, to wash and be made clean? And so he does, and is healed, and comes to realize that the power of God is at work both in its particularity and in its simplicity. Only God can save and heal; and what God asks is simple, as simple as the faith to do as you are told.

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Let’s look more closely at these two attributes of God’s power and working. First, God’s power and working are particular. God could have chosen to settle his people Israel by some other river than the Jordan; he could have taken them up to Syria to settle by the Abana or the Pharpar. For that matter, when they were in captivity in Egypt, he could, instead of bringing them to the Promised Land, simply have wiped out Pharaoh and kept them comfortably settled by the Nile — a far more impressive and significant river than the Abana, the Pharpar or the Jordan. Or, choosing instead when he led them forth from Egypt, in forty years of wandering he could have led them to the Tigris or Euphrates or even the other way on up north and into Europe. God could have led his people to the Rhine or the Seine or the Thames. Or, he even could’ve inspired them to build boats, and bring them to the Hudson or the Mississippi! Why, God could even have settled his people by the shores of the Bronx River running through the Botanical Garden just a few blocks away!

But he didn’t. God settled his people in Israel by the Jordan, and that was where the slave-girl came from who told Naaman about the prophet, and that was where the prophet lived, and that was where Naaman went, and that is where he was healed. There; and no where else.

In the same way, God could have chosen to become incarnate in fifth century BC India, or in twelfth century Japan or fifteenth century Mexico. But he didn’t. God chose to be incarnate, “God in Man made manifest,” in the person of Jesus Christ, born in a suburb of Jerusalem in the reign of Caesar Augustus of Rome and Herod the Great of Palestine. This Jesus would be a man of a particular height, speaking a particular language, of a particular complexion and build, and most importantly, and particularly and uniquely and most importantly God from God, light from light, true God from true God.

The uniqueness and particularity of Christianity after all doesn’t lie in its content but in Christ himself — personally. Other religions have creeds and scriptures, liturgies and teachings and moral advice, many of them similar to Christianity in many respects. But only Christianity has Christ, the Son of God. It is in him that the Christian faith finds its uniqueness and particularity.

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So it is that Christians believe God’s power and working to be particular. And God’s power and working are also simple and direct. God could have commanded the prophet Elisha to put on a big show for Naaman the Syrian, something to impress him with thunder and lightning and spells and incantations, wavings of the arms and high drama. Instead he simply told him to take a bath, seven dips in the river.

In the same way, Jesus could have healed that leper that approached him, in the Gospel we heard this morning, with an elaborate ritual. He could have placed upon him some complicated act to perform after he was healed. Instead he simply touched him and spoke the word, and told him to do no more than what the Law of Moses already asked, a simple offering to the priest to certify the cure.

The simplicity of Jesus’ teaching is given in his own summary of the ancient law of Moses: to love God and one’s neighbor. That is the simplicity of Christian duty, simplicity so simple that sometimes it is hard! How many Christians down through history have afflicted themselves with terrible penances instead of simply doing what Jesus asked, to love God and their neighbors! And even that love takes a simple form — to do to others as we would be done by.

This is so simple and so fair that even a child can understand it — perhaps better than many an adult. Perhaps that is why Jesus said we had to become like children if we are to enter the kingdom of heaven. For children know what fairness is — believe you me. If you don’t think so, just try a little experiment with two children: sit them side by side and give one of them a dish of ice cream and the other a bowl of oatmeal, and you see if they can’t tell the difference! Of course, it takes a bit longer for the child to learn that fairness also means giving up something. I’ll be if you tried that experiment you might find a child ready to share the ice cream. It takes a while to learn that sometimes, but children do often grasp it, and you can see them, especially if they don’t know you’re watching, sharing, giving up his or her own toy, or learning to share it with another — that takes a while, sometimes; and sometimes we forget, too soon.

And yet children often seem to grasp that spirit of generosity to others that can put many an adult to shame. And perhaps that is why Jesus said “come to me as a child does” — with a clear sense of what is fair, but also a willingness to be generous, a willingness to share with others.

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After all is said and done, Jesus does not ask heroic feats of us. He has done the heavy lifting for us. He bore the cross for our salvation, and he asks us each to take up — each of us — our own cross, not his. He carried his cross, and he only asks us to take up our own, and follow him. This yoke of our own cross is easy and the burden light. For even given his unique and particular power, he asks of us only a simple task. He does not expect us to do anything more than to accept his love: to love him and to love each other just as he has loved us.

And to help us on our way he touches us in the sacraments and he speaks a word to us in the Scriptures, and he says to us, Be made clean. Be made clean from the false self that seeks only itself, and turn to the true self that gives itself for others. Be made clean from the burden of guilt so that you may accept the yoke of service. Be made clean of the elaborate show of religion so that you can experience the simplicity of faith. Be made clean of running about in confusion and aimlessness after this or that way to salvation, so that you can run the true race with your eyes fixed on the finish line, where an imperishable crown awaits you.

The way lies before us, as particular and clear as a lane marked out on the 400-meter track; the task lies before us, as simple as putting one foot in front of the other. All we are asked to do is follow: to run with perseverance the race that is before us, led by the one who goes before us to prepare a place for us: the one who has touched us in Baptism; the one who has spoken to us in the living word of his Scriptures; the one who has washed us clean in his blood; and the one who has fed us with his own body at this holy table: even Jesus Christ, our only mediator and advocate, to whom we offer our praise and thanksgiving, now and for evermore.+