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.+

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.

+ + +

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.

+ + +

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.

Above and Beyond

The challenge is not just to return good for good, but good for evil.

Epiphany 7a 2014 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.
I’m sure all of us have heard, or perhaps even said those words, “go the extra mile.” Churches will even talk about “extra-mile giving” to describe contributions that members make beyond their regular tithe or offering. The contrast is between actions seen as a duty, and those that are above and beyond the call of duty. The military will recognize such actions by awarding a medal or a commendation.

The problem is that the “extra” or “second mile” that Jesus talks about is not about doing better than good. He is not talking about doing good at all. In fact, he says that this is about how to deal with evildoers. Do not resist them, he says; if someone hits you on the right side of your face, let them hit you on the left as well; if they take you to court to sue you for your shirt, give them your jacket, too; if they force you to go one mile, march another mile for good measure. None of these are good things; these are nasty things done to you by nasty people — evildoers; and Jesus says that not only are you supposed to put up with it, but to welcome more of the same treatment. Most surprising of all, he continues by saying that you are to pray for these evildoers who persecute you, and to love your enemies. “Going the extra mile” is not meant by Jesus as a shorthand for generosity to those who deserve it. No, it is about acting like God.

+ + +

For God, Jesus assures us, makes the sun rise on the evil as well as the good. God sends sweet rain on the righteous, but on the unrighteous, too. If we are to show that we are children of God, we are challenged to behave like our Father in heaven, to act like God in this crazy way that God acts — when God rewards with good even those who are evil; to do good even to those who do not, by our understanding, or any by reasonable standard, deserve to be rewarded; to forgive those who trespass against us.

This is not an entirely new teaching, though Jesus puts it in terms that are considerably more blunt than they had been in the past. There have always been those who adopted the other point 9of view: the tit-for-tat of doing good in return for good done, a kind of reversal of the Golden Rule: not doing good as you would be done by, but doing good — or evil — as you are done by, a gracious act in return for a gracious act, a tit for a tat, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. There were always those — and there still are — who would talk about “the deserving poor” as if being fed when you are hungry or given something to drink when you are thirsty was something you had to qualify for.

In response to such people who thought that good treatment must be earned, the Lord spoke to Moses, charging him to tell the people that they were called to be like God — to be holy as God is holy. So when they reap the harvest, they are not to reap every last patch, or gather what falls by the side; they are not to strip every last grape from the vines, or pick up those that fall on their own — even though the grain and the grapes belong to them, they are to leave these portions of their own crops for others, for the poor; not because they deserve it, but because they are poor, and this is how God means to provide for them: to let the people be good as he is holy; to let some of that good filter through to them.

This may be hard for some to understand. They might complain that it is an unfair attempt to redistribute wealth, or combat income inequality by taxing those who have to give to those who do not, and who, moreover, do not deserve to be helped. Think of old Ebenezer Scrooge, who scoffs at the idea of giving a little so that the poor could have some food and drink and means of warmth at Christmas-time. “Why?” is his cold-hearted question. When told that some of them might die, he proudly shows his lack of care, “If they had be like to die they had best be quick about it and decrease the surplus population.”

And sad to say, the world is full of Scrooges to this day. There are plenty who want an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, to be rewarded and praised for doing what is really only a duty to one’s fellow human beings — not just those you like, not just your friends and your family, or those who pay you back, but even, as Jesus said, your enemies, and those who persecute you.

And my friends, I will admit that this doesn’t make sense. But it is how God acts; it is how God asks us to act: not just to do good when we are done good by, but to do good even when we are persecuted, punished, and put upon.

+ + +

I will end this reflection by telling you the story of an Irishman named Gordon Wilson. One day in November 1987, Wilson and his twenty-year-old daughter Marie were watching a parade on the streets of Enniskillen, in Northern Ireland. Just as a group of parading soldiers and police came by, a terrorist bomb went off, leveling the brick wall next to which Wilson and his daughter were standing, and the wall collapsed and buried them both under several feet of bricks. Wilson couldn’t move, but under the pressure of the bricks he felt someone take his hand. It was his daughter Marie. He could hear her muffled voice, “Is that you, Dad?” He answered, “Yes, Marie.” In the background he could hear distant sirens, and the sounds of people moaning or screaming. He asked, “Are you all right, Marie?” “Yes,” she said, but then she began to cry and moan, and the moan built towards a scream. He asked again if she was all right, and between sobs she kept assuring him that she was, and then she became more quiet. Finally, after a long silence, she said, “Daddy, I love you very much.” Those were the last words she spoke, as she sank into unconsciousness.

They and others injured by the terrorist attack were unearthed and taken to the hospital, where Marie died. Later that same day a reporter asked Wilson if he would consent to an interview. His injuries were relatively minor — just a broken arm and shoulder — so he agreed. After telling his story, the interviewer asked, clearly expecting and answer that he could really make use of, “How do you feel about the people who planted that bomb?”

Wilson surprised many when he said, “I bear them no ill will. I bear them no grudge. Bitter talk is not going to bring Marie Wilson back. I pray, I shall pray tonight and every night for God to forgive them.” Over the next months and years, people expressed amazement that he could forgive such a terrible act. But he explained, “I was hurt. I had lost my daughter. But I wasn’t angry. Her last words to me were words of love, and they put me on a plane of love. I received grace from God through those words, and through the strength of God’s love for me, to forgive.”

+ + +

Love... your enemies, Jesus said, and pray for those who persecute you. God willing, none of us will ever be asked to walk the extra mile that Gordon Wilson walked, a walk of forgiveness and an affirmation of life even in the face of death. He could have walked a very different path, he could have walked a way of anger and revenge. Instead he chose the path of love, a love that overflowed from his dying daughter’s hand, and brought him peace.

May we be so washed in the love of God that we too can learn to walk the extra mile, to turn the other cheek, and to forgive. In this may others see and know us to be children of a loving, forgiving God; for God forgave his enemies, though they nailed him to the cross. Such is the way of God, to turn the other cheek, to go the second mile. Let us strive to be perfect as he is perfect, holy as he is holy; to be like the one who is above and beyond all, to be like the one whom we worship, and follow him whom we adore, even Jesus Christ our Lord.

Right Judgment

Judging rightly means judging as one would be judged, with mercy and forgiveness.

Advent 3a 2013 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is standing at the doors.

Last week we continued our journey through this Advent season in which we look forward to welcoming the Christ child at Christmas, and Christ himself at his coming. We reflected on the virtue of hospitality — an essential element in welcome. This week we turn to a related concern, this time raised by the Apostle James the brother of the Lord in his general epistle. Although elsewhere in the epistle he is concerned with how people regard the outsider or the visitor — the words about hospitality — in today’s passage he is more concerned about how the members of the church treat each other. In addition to counseling patience, James urges his congregation not to grumble against each other, not to judge each other, for the true Judge is standing at the doors and ready to appear upon the scene.

Of course, the problem is not with judgment itself, but with a particular kind of judgment, the kind that leads to grumbling — and that is negative judgment, judgment that finds fault, judgment that convicts by finding guilty rather than acquitting and finding innocent. For just as we hope that the everlasting Lord, when he comes in glory to judge and rule the world, will acquit and forgive us all of our faults, so too when make decisions in our lives — and surely we must make decisions from time to time — pray that we judge graciously and generously, acquitting and forgiving rather than convicting. In fact we are reminded in the oldest prayer in our tradition — the one that Jesus gave his disciples when they asked him to teach them how to pray — that we are to forgive others who trespass against us even as we ask God to forgive us our trespasses.

So the problem is not with judgment itself, but with harsh judgment, negative judgment, or judgment that is based on the wrong evidence. To quote the great Martin Luther King Jr, the wrong kind of judgment is that which judges people on the color of their skin rather than on the content of their character. This is precisely the kind of grumbling judgment and prejudice about which James warns his congregation. Do not judge on the basis of superficiality, or outward appearances — for God himself does not judge that way; God looks to the heart, and even there forgives rather than condemning. As Jesus himself said, when he was confronted for healing a man on the Sabbath, “Do not judge by outward appearances, but judge with right judgment.”(Jn 7:24)

The problem is that those who opposed Jesus only saw his action in terms of when it took place — on the Sabbath — rather than on what it was in itself, the miraculous healing of a man, a thing that is good whatever day it is done on, and a sign not only of goodness but of grace, evidence of the power of God.

+ + +

And it is to examine such evidence that we turn to our gospel reading. John the Baptist has heard in prison of the wonders that Jesus has performed, and he sends messengers to him, to ask if he is the one for whom John has been waiting, for whom he has served as the forerunner. Rather than answering with a simple yes or no, Jesus instead lays out the evidence. In a sense he puts the ball back into John’s court, leaving it to John and his disciples to make a decision about who Jesus is on the basis of the things Jesus has done. He lays the evidence before him, and allows him to make the judgment. He gives John and his disciples the opportunity to make a right judgment, based on the very same evidence which has led others to condemn Jesus: again, because rather than looking at the evidence itself — the what, the actions of healing and the restored lives — they are caught up in the circumstances of when and where.

But Jesus focuses on the miracles themselves: “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” To which he adds, because he knows that so many have already taken offense at him, “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

Now it will not have escaped your attention that in our first reading today from Isaiah a number of promises were made concerning the kind of evidence that would attest to the arrival of God’s kingdom, coming in glory and majesty. And among those promises are exactly those sorts of miracles that Jesus performs: “The eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.” The tragic irony is that in spite of this checklist of signs to indicate the arrival of the Lord, there are still some who judge wrongly; there are still some who utterly miss the point — thinking that the day on which the healing happens is more important than the healing itself. Yet Isaiah promises these signs as indications of the Lord’s day in a cosmic sense — the day of the Lord’s coming. What could be more appropriate to do on the weekly Lord’s day — the Sabbath — than the Lord’s work promised for the day of the Lord’s coming at the end of time — the universal Sabbath? And who more appropriate to do the Lord’s work on the Sabbath than the Lord of the Sabbath himself?

So Jesus presents the evidence of his actions, leaving it to John the Baptist, and to John’s and his own disciples, and even to those opposed to him, to judge whether he is the promised one — or not. The evidence is there; the promises have been kept. It is as plain as the nose on my face — and that’s pretty plain! To note another portion of Isaiah’s prophecy, it is as plain and clear as that great highway through the wilderness — clear and broad and easy to follow, free from bumps and beasts; so smooth and clear that no traveler, not even a foolish one, will go astray.

+ + +

Yet, sad to say, there are some who take offense, who go astray; there are some who can not or will not accept this evidence, the fulfillment of the promise so long awaited. Like those who judge wrongly on the basis of their prejudice, looking at the color of skin rather than the character and actions of those whose skin it is; like those obsessed with things being done just the right way, or at the right time by the “right” people, rather than on the results; like those who see the healing of the blind and the lame and can only be bothered by the fact that it was done on the weekend rather than on a weekday; like those who grumble against their fellow Christians for whatever superficial reason, neglecting to appreciate that they too stand under the everlasting judgment — like all of these, are those who judge wrongly.

You might say it would be better not to judge at all — and I think our Lord had a word or two to say on that — and if the judgment is going to be negative it is surely true. But if we can judge only with the loving and forgiving mind of Christ, the open mind that looks to the evidence of goodness, and if it finds faults, forgives the faults and the shortcomings — of which we all know we have plenty ourselves; if we approach each other with the judgment of the mind of Christ, the mind that loves and forgive others even when offense is given — for surely each of us from time to time has given offense, even if it is by accident — then the mind of Christ will be ours indeed. After all, there is no sure way for me never to give offense — but I can hope to have the strength never to take offense. It is beyond my human power never to make a mistake or do wrong, but it is always within my power to forgive when a wrong is done against me.

And so my sisters and brothers in Christ, let us always look for the good and forgive the bad. As James wrote to his congregation, “Be patient, beloved, until the coming of the Lord.” He is the judge, and he will judge rightly, and forgive us even as — but only as — we have forgiven others.+

Why God Came

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+ + +

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

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

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

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

+ + +

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

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

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

+ + +

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

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

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

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

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

A Dangerous Trade

Being a prophet means telling the truth, and telling the truth can get you into trouble; but telling the truth can set you right with God -- and who do we think we are fooling anywy? -- a sermon for Proper 10b

Proper 10b • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Amos answered Amaziah, “I am no prophet nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’”

All of us here, I’m sure, were brought up with the lesson always to tell the truth. Although I’m sure it has fallen out of fashion by now, I can recall being brought up with the stories of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln — both famous truth-tellers. Washington, as a six-year-old child, simply “could not tell a lie” — even when it meant that he had to incriminate himself about having used his little hatchet to debark his father’s favorite cherry tree. This was before the U.S. Constitution and its fifth amendment barring self-incrimination. It is a little hard to picture six-year-old George Washington calmly saying, “I decline to answer on the grounds that it might tend to incriminate me,” instead of, “I cannot tell a lie.”

And of course “Honest Abe” was renowned for his straight-from-the-shoulder directness, both in his early days working in a general store and later as an attorney, and later still as President. It is said that once when he realized he’d short-changed a customer in the general store when he was a young man, he traveled all the way out to their farm to bring them the proper change, which amounted to a few pennies. Of course, in the case of Lincoln it is about greater truths, and truth-telling, than that for which he is most remembered. Truths such as, “A house divided against itself cannot stand. This government cannot endure... half slave and half free.” That was a powerful truth, and Lincoln a powerful truth-teller in his willingness to tell such a truth when others counseled a go-along get-along, easy-peasy sort of accommodation of a diversity of opinions on the question of slavery.

+ + +

The problem is that telling the truth or being a truthful person can be dangerous — when what you say is a challenge to the Powers That Be; when some truth you reveal is an embarrassment to those in high positions; when the uncomfortable truth does not incriminate you, but possibly charges others with serious crimes; when a truth you proclaim undermines the power-base of some entrenched authority — all of these are situations in which the truth will not set you free, but may end you up in prison or on the scaffold.

+ + +

Lincoln spoke about a house divided against itself, quoting the Scripture; and Amos the prophet describes a similarly troubled construction, a house whose walls are no longer upright, but tilting dangerously. God himself stands in judgment against the house of Israel, holding up the plumb-line of his truth against its tottering walls. It is a kingdom whose king Jereboam has introduced a golden calf into the sanctuary at Bethel, and for good measure — or perhaps I should say, bad measure — another golden calf at a temple in Dan. God holds up the measure of his plumb-line against this tilting, tottering wall, and calls on Amos to warn that the house is doomed to collapse — for if a house divided against itself cannot stand, what hope is there for a house divided against God! Jereboam has done the unthinkable — he has forgotten what happened when Aaron made a golden calf for Israel while Moses was on Sinai meeting with God to obtain the law written with God’s own hand on tablets of stone. And yet Jereboam has not only installed one golden calf, but set up two of them: one at Bethel near the southern border with Judah, and the other at Dan in the far north, two golden calves in temples at opposite ends of his kingdom. And Jereboam has committed the ultimate blasphemy, telling the people, “These are your gods who brought you out of Egypt.”

Amos tells the uncomfortable truth about this blasphemous idolatry, in words that the people, the priests, and the rulers cannot bear to hear. But, all things considered, he gets off with a warning, as the priest Amaziah urges him to flee from the king’s temple, to head down south to Judah, to flee the country and earn his bread down there, far away from the king of Israel. Truly the people and their rulers in the north have turned from God and no longer even want to hear the truth, let alone act upon it; but Amos is given the chance to flee for his life.

+ + +

Our gospel passage, on the other hand, shows us what befalls a truth-teller who persists in proclaiming a truth, in spite of warnings. It is hundreds of years later, and the issues are different, but it is still a king and a prophet who are at odds. John the Baptist castigates Herod the king for having married his sister-in-law. In doing so, John has made many enemies: not so much Herod himself, who is intrigued by this prophet and even interested in what he has to say. But Herod’s illegitimate wife has a serious grudge, as the Scripture says, and she finds a way to force Herod into silencing the prophet once and for all, tricking the ruler into doing what he would do on his own by simple persuasion. It isn’t enough that the prophet has been slapped in prison — no, he must be silenced, and in the most brutal way possible, by having his head cut off. Only his death will satisfy the anger of Herodias.

+ + +

Yes, telling the truth can get you into trouble. You see the warning given to Amos, and the fate of John the Baptist. I don’t think I need to remind you about what happened to Abraham Lincoln. And how many other tellers of truth down through the centuries have suffered at the hands of those who would rather believe a comfortable lie? If human beings were cruel enough to lay their hands upon the one who was Truth Himself — the Son of God come to deliver us from the lies that Satan wove around us — if the Word of God himself suffered and died, nailed to a cross in spite of having done nothing wrong — it is evident that truth comes with a price, a high price.

Yet this is the price we know that God demands. Though human beings may be bought off with a lie, God cannot be so cheated. God stands with his plumb-line poised against every person and community, against every corporation and country, against every individual and institution, poised with that plumb-line to test how upright it is. For that is what a plumb-line does: it shows how true and on the square and level stands the house, whether our own personal house or household, or the household of our state or of our church.

Honesty, truth, and clarity are what God demands of us — no deception or delusion, as if God could be fooled, but a willing engagement with the truth of his Word and his promise. As the Apostle Paul assures us, “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished upon us.” So let us, then, when we fail, not try to conceal our failures under a cloak of comfortable lies from the one who sees through all our pretense anyway. Let’s take the example of young George Washington, and incriminate ourselves willingly — for it is only in admitting our guilt and confessing our sins that we will find mercy and forgiveness through the amazing grace of God. God stands with his plumb-line against our hearts; let us, my friends, be honest with him who is so ready to forgive.+

A New Direction

We receive many calls in our lives, in many different directions; only one of them leads us to Jesus -- a sermon for Epiphany 3b

SJF • Epiphany 3b • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
When God saw what the people of Nineveh did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

A few weeks ago, just prior to the Iowa caucuses, I was watching a CNN interview with some undecided Republican voters. One of them said something that amused me: “I think the country is heading in the wrong direction. We need to make a 360-degree turn!” You understand, then, that the reason I found this amusing, of course, is that a 360-degree turn puts you heading exactly the same way you were before you made the turn, maybe even a little dizzier than before — what this voter wanted was a 180-degree turn. I can certainly understand how dizzy undecided voters were in the Iowa caucus. In the weeks leading up to it and since we saw an electoral merry-go-round and roller coaster ride of a campaign — and the campaigners! One day one was in the lead, only to plummet on the next. No wonder people are feeling confused!

+ + +

But whether you are a voter or a cruise ship captain, if you really feel like you’re heading in the wrong direction, it’s the 180-degree turn you want. One thing I’ve experienced in years of traveling is that it is sometimes the sign on the other side of the street that you have to turn around and look backwards at to see that is the most helpful in getting you turned the right way round. Fortunately in these gymnastics I’m not the one driving!

I raise all this because our readings today strike the note of the second theme of Epiphany. The first theme, about which we talked last week, was belief. And in response to belief comes this second note — conversion, or tousethe classic word, repentance.

We see this perhaps most vividly in the story of Jonah — although the first part of Jonah’s story isn’t part of our reading today. You will recall that Jonah had tried to run away from God when God first gave him the task of preaching to the people of Nineveh. He headed 180 degrees in the opposite direction from Nineveh, out into the Mediterranean Sea. He learned his lesson in the belly of the great fish. Then God commanded him, as our reading begins this morning, a second time to do as he was told and to preach repentance to the people of Nineveh. And when he did head the way God commanded, and preached repentance, the people believed him — that’s the note of belief that we sounded last week. They believed, but not only did they believe him but they too repented. And I mean major repentance! The whole population of that great city — a three day’s walk across — a lot bigger than the Bronx! — fasted and dressed themselves in rags as a sign of humility and repentance. And then — surprise, surprise — even God changed direction — changing his mind and withholding the calamity he had said he would bring upon that wicked city for all its past sins.

This wonderful story of changing directions tells us three powerful truths: you can’t run away from God; you can change your ways and turn your life around; and even God will change in response to your repentance and amendment of life.

+ + +

When we turn to the reading from the First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians we hear Paul sounding a bit like Jonah himself, announcing that the time has grown short and the end is near as the present form of this world is passing away. But while Jonah called for clear repentance — a complete 180-degree turnabout — Paul seems tobedescribing a somewhat different new direction. He does not tell people to walk away from their wives or their sorrows or their joys or their possessions or their businesses. Rather he counsels all of them to adopt what I’d call “an alongside attitude” towards all these things — more of a 90-degree relationship, or like parallel lines — continuing alongside all of them but at a little distance, perhaps arms’ length. For all these things, Paul assures them — everything about life as we know it — will be fundamentally changed by God when God comes. The change of direction is more in an attitude of detachment, than in actual movement in the opposite direction. The world, it seems, is to be taken with a grain of salt — not clutched to the breast, but held lightly. We are called to travel lightly through this world.

+ + +

Our gospel passage also involves taking a new direction. Jesus starts, again much like Jonah, preaching repentance to the people by the Sea of Galilee. But then he encounters Simon and Andrew and something changes in the nature of the call he issues. He offers a call to go in a totally new direction. Unlike the call of Jonah to the people of Nineveh, this new direction does not involve sorrow or repentance for what is past. Unlike the urging of Paul to the Corinthians it does not involve keeping a light hold on what is now. The call of Jesus is a call to let go of what is now and walk into the unknown future that is not yet. He calls Simon and Andrew and then James and John to come and follow him into a new life, in a totally new direction into a totally new world unlike anything they have ever known. He calls them, in short, into the kingdom of God. This is a call to a higher life. Not any kind of degrees — 360 or 180 — not left or right, or north, south, east or west; but up — up into the life of Christ, being, as John said,“born from above.”

+ + +

We all receive different calls in our lives — the calls can be like all of those we heard about this morning. When we have done wrong God does call us to make that 180-degree turn and repent — and has promised to forgive when we do so.

We are also called, as Paul called the Corinthians, to sit lightly with this world, this world that is passing away: our relations and our possessions are only ours for a time and we will one day have to part with all of them — and they with us — when we pass from this life — and so best to cultivate that sense of detachment, as Saint Gregory the Great once said, “To possess the things of this world without being possessed by them.”

Finally, God also calls us through Jesus Christ, in his own direction — towards him who is the shepherd and master of our souls. We have all received these different calls in our lives. But this last call — the call to the new life in Christ — that’s why we’re here this morning. Jesus calls us to follow him as surely as he called Simon and Andrew, and James and John. He calls us to walk in his way: he makes us his disciples and equips us to make disciples of others — to fish for people, as he told those fishermen.

Brothers and sisters, we share in that apostolic work as fishers of people. Even as we are drawn along in the great net cast out by those who have gone before us, we too can reach out our hands to offer help to others to bring them with us too. We may not be able to tell them with a certainty where we are heading. The only certain thing is that if we follow Jesus we will be with him where he is. And where ever that is, isn’t that the place you want to be? With all your heart and soul, with Jesus? Idon’t know about you, but as the old song says, “Where he leads me I will follow... I’ll go with him, with him, all the way...”+

Hard To Forgive

There is no debt ceiling on forgiveness. A sermon for 9/11/11, Proper 19a.

SJF • Proper 19a 2011 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God. So then, each of us will be accountable to God.

It is timely that the Scripture readings appointed for this day should deal with judgment and forgiveness. As you are no doubt keenly aware, this Sunday marks the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on America, the day that will for ever live in infamy by its numeric nickname Nine-Eleven.

It is abundantly clear that much was done on that terrible day that cries out for forgiveness. America was viciously attacked; thousands of innocent people met death in its most terrifying and capricious form, doomed to die by horrible means, suddenly and unprepared. Many were vaporized in an instant, unaware what was happening to them. Others were forced to make that agonized and desperate choice between being burned alive or hurtling to their deaths on the street below. Many more were crushed under the weight of those buildings, suffocated and snuffed out in darkness. None of us who witnessed that horrible day will ever forget it, and the TV news shows will not let us forget even if we wanted to, as they run those video clips again and again, and endlessly analyze.

What makes forgiveness all the harder in this case is that those who carried out these crimes knew what they were doing. They wanted their acts to be as terrorizing as indeed they were — that’s why they are called terrorists: they did not mean only to bring destruction, but to instill fear, horror, and anguish; and this not only in those they directly harmed, but in our society and nation as a whole.

How can we forgive such wrong? How can we forgive such terrible crimes? We know how hard it is to forgive someone even when they say they are sorry — how much harder to forgive those who do not ask for forgiveness, who think that what they did was right and justified, and even think they were doing a religious duty!

If somebody steps on my foot in the subway, and then apologizes, it’s fairly easy for me to forgive, although I may still feel the pain in my foot. If someone steps on my foot by accident and then looks at me like it was my fault, I will not be in such a forgiving mood. But if someone looks me in the eye, and then deliberately stomps on my foot, with a “so there” thrown in — well, what am I to do?

My natural impulse is to feel that only the repentant deserve forgiveness; that forgiveness is something that must be earned and asked for. It is only logical, this calculus of tit-for-tat: only those who acknowledge their faults deserve to be forgiven. This seems fair and square.

Unfortunately, God does not make things so easy for me. God does not say to me, Forgive those who say they are sorry. God does not say to me, Forgive others in proportion to their repentance for the harm they have done to you. God does not give me the option of measuring how much I forgive against how much someone else repents — or doesn’t. I am not told to balance my forgiveness against another’s apology; instead I am told to balance how much I forgive against how much I have been and expect to be forgiven. The wicked slave in Jesus’ parable is punished in the end not for his failure to pay his master what he owed, but for not forgiving the debt that was owed to him.

+ + +

This is a hard teaching, no doubt about it. How much easier to keep it to myself; to treat forgiveness as if it were simply earthly coin of the realm: to balance the books of grace as if grace were a commodity that I could control, so much forgiveness doled out for so much apology; no forgiveness given unless asked for, and certainly not given to those who do not ask for it or to my mind deserve it.

What does God think? That forgiveness should be free? Do I want grace to abound when I am the wounded party and no one says they’re sorry? Does that make sense to you? Don’t we want forgiveness to be costly, to be won from us, purchased from us, earned from us by those who have done us wrong? Like the worst of the medieval bishops who sold indulgences and offered the church’s absolution in exchange for gold, dare we fall into the corrupted tit-for-tat that puts a price on grace?

+ + +

And of course, there was a price for grace — it’s just that we did not pay it. For all the while we quibble and bargain, bartering forgiveness as if it were ours to dole out, a quiet figure hangs before us on a cross. He is the one who committed no wrong, earned no just punishment. He is the one who suffered so much at the hands of those who meant to do him ill, and even thought it was a religious duty to do so, who they were right and weren’t in the least bit sorry for what they did. As that innocent man was dying, after having been unjustly tried and tortured, as he hung up there to die, they did not look with sorrow or pity upon the one whom they hated. They cursed and mocked him as he died, spitting in his direction, putting out their tongues and treating him as the greatest fool who had ever born. All the weight of the world’s wrong gathered there and pressed down upon the crucified Christ: all of the hatred, all of the sin and ignorance and pride that had been stored up or would yet come to be. The sin of the whole world pressed down upon that dying man as he hung upon the hard wood of the cross.

And what did he do? He begged God to forgive them. He stretched out his arms of love. He did not cry out to his Father, “See what they do, O Lord my God. Punish them as they deserve!” No, he cried out, “Father forgive them, they know not what they do.”

Christ is our example and our Lord. He to whom the greatest wrong was ever done, forgave in full, forgave it all. No wrong, however bad, however painful, done to us can match what was done to Christ, yet he called out to God to forgive in full, without being asked by those who most needed the forgiveness, without the repentance of those who sinned against him.

And he challenges us to do the same: to find the strength to forgive those who sin against us, recalling how, in him, our debts have been forgiven. In order to do so, we will need to fight against our natural human impulse for revenge. We will need to quell our anger and our wrath, to recall that God has said, “Vengeance is mine,” and to echo the words of Joseph in the Old Testament passage this morning, and say, “Are we in the place of God?”

After we have quieted our anger, we will also need to go further, to quiet our need to hear the apologies of those who have done us wrong, and what is worse, who continue to wish to do us wrong. This will not be easy. It is not easy to forgive when you have been badly wronged, seriously injured, terribly assaulted. Do you think Jesus found it easy — dying there on the cross? It won’t be any easier for us to forgive. It is not easy to forgive when you know that the hand stretched out to forgive may receive another bite worse than the first. It is not easy to forgive — but it is the only way to be forgiven. The wise man spoke truly, “We will all stand before the judgment seat of God.”

God challenges us to stretch our little fabric of forgiveness until it covers a multitude of sins. Not seven times, but seventy-seven — which is to say, there is no debt ceiling on forgiveness. God reminds us that he is judge, he is the one before whom every knee will bow, every tongue confess, the one to whom we will all be required to render our account: the account of how much forgiveness we have freely given away.

Let us pray. Eternal Father, help us to find the strength to forgive those who have injured us, to pardon those who have assaulted and wounded us, that when we come to the last day to stand as we must before your judgment seat, we may find the wells of your compassion and forgiveness overflowing for us, through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Not Without Warning

The individual Christian may be a plaintiff or witness, but never a judge. — a sermon for Proper 18a

SJF • Proper 18a • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
So you, mortal, I have made a sentinel for the house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me.

Today’s reading from the book of the prophet Ezekiel was a favorite of Saint Gregory the Great, for two reasons. First of all, the name Gregory means watchman or sentinel; secondly Gregory was the pope — although the sixth century was a time when the powers of the pope were far less far-reaching than later popes would claim. But Gregory was particularly sensitive to his role and responsibility of caregiver and watchman over the church, for he was, first and last, a pastor. Such a wise pastor was he that the book he wrote on the subject of pastoral care was so highly regarded that for centuries after when bishops were consecrated they were given a copy of Gregory’s guidebook for pastors instead of a Bible. It is not for nothing that he gained the epithet, “Gregory the Great.”

+ + +

One of the major aspects of the watchman’s work — great or small — is the task of giving a warning. In Ezekiel’s case he is given the responsibility, when he hears a word from God’s mouth, to pass it along to the people as a warning, so that they may turn from their wickedness. Note that it is not Ezekiel’s own judgment that is at issue — he is given no authority to judge others. He has not authority to condemn or even to warn them if they are merely doing something that displeases him. He is only to pass along the warning he receives from the mouth of God himself; he is not a judge but a messenger.

And the purpose of the message is not condemnation but rescue: it is a warning to save those whom God perceives doing wrong, to be headed down the wrong path. For even God does not seek to punish the wicked but rather that they would turn from their evil ways, turning back from the path of crime and folly.

+ + +

Of course this fits in well with the teaching of Jesus, who commands us not to judge others. As you know he was particularly critical of the Pharisees and other busybodies who spent their time trying to take specks out of other people’s eyes when their own eyes were blinded by a beam or a log. Jesus gives us no right to judge another.

This does not mean, however, that people have to put up with bad behavior when it is directed towards themselves. As Jesus says, “If another member of the church sins against you...” you have every right to go to that person and make a complaint to them. Only if and when they refuse to hear what you say are you then authorized to take other members of the church with you to confirm the evidence of a crime committed against you. Then and only then, with continued refusal to listen, is the matter to be made public to the church at large. And it is the church that is finally given the authority to determine if the person is in the wrong. In short, the individual Christian may be a plaintiff or a witness, but never, on his or her own, a judge. Only the gathered assembly of the church has the right to pronounce the verdict of judgment — and what they decide on earth is also decided in heaven. In these matters the voice of the church is understood as speaking the verdict of God.

+ + +

This is why it is so important to understand that the authority of the church is not personal but corporate. Pope Gregory understood this — though some of his successors in the papacy began to accumulate powers as if they belonged personally to the pope rather than to the pope as the senior watchman among many sentinels.

The individualistic model, in which one persons sets him or herself up as the judge over others, inevitably leads to trouble — even when the individual is wise and prudent. We have all seen what happens, especially in recent months, in the political arena when a leader ceases to listen to his people, and becomes a dictator over them rather than a good leader concerned for their care and their well-being.

This form of tyranny and judgment is particularly problematical when it happens in the church. And I say that not only because it goes against the teaching of Jesus, but because it inevitably leads to quarreling. Notice how seriously Saint Paul considered the gravity of quarreling — just how bad he considered it: listing quarreling along with jealousy, debauchery, licentiousness, reveling and drunkenness as utterly inappropriate behavior for the church.

And the solution he offers is the opposite of judgment, which is love: “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” Just as Jesus himself summarized all of the other commandments under the law of love of God and neighbor, Paul repeats this message in his Letter to the Romans, summing up the whole law of Moses in that one word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” It is love, not judgment, that brings peace and harmony.

That is a solemn warning from the mouth of God himself in Christ Jesus our Lord: love and do not judge. If another member of the church does you personal harm, and wrongs you in some way, you have every right — perhaps even a responsibility — privately to let that person know they have done something to harm you. But gently, charitably, and in a spirit of forgiveness — not a spirit of judgment and restitution; for remember that Jesus also said that we are to forgive those who sin against us not on the basis of their repentance but in the knowledge that we will only be forgiven as we have forgiven them. This, ultimately, is the spirit of love, which, as Paul told the Corinthians, “bears all things.”

If the harm done to you is grave, seek out the one who has injured you and in all charity seek to fulfill the law of love in gaining that one back. If need be — if the person denies the injury or refuses to acknowledge the harm they have done to you — then and only then bring it to other witnesses or finally even to the church: but not in a spirit of quarreling or jealousy — for these are just as bad as all of the other sins that disrupt the good order of the church.

+ + +

We pass through life not without warning — warnings from God speaking in our own hearts, warnings from sisters and brothers alerting us when we have done them harm, and warnings from the church that calls us back to the fulfillment of the law of love that Christ himself ordained for us.

Beloved, let us love one another as Christ loved us and gave himself an offering and sacrifice of God, and in whose name we pray.

The Debt of Gratitude

SJF • Proper 6c • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jesus said, “I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love.”

Saint Peter once said, “God is no respecter of persons.”Acts 10:34 A more contemporary church leader, the late Canon Edward Nason West of our own cathedral church, put it more bluntly when he said, “God loves everybody; he simply has no taste.” What they both meant by this is that God is completely unimpressed by people’s self-righteous attempts to get on his good side, and that God is also completely at ease with sinners who struggle to turn to him in faith, however low they may have fallen.

In our Gospel today we have both sorts of people. Simon the Pharisee is a righteous man, a man who has followed all the rules, colored within the lines, payed his taxes on time and stayed within the speed limit. And he’s rather pleased with himself. That’s not to say he thinks himself perfect. He knows that he must have missed the odd requirement of the Law here or there so insignificant that it may have slipped his mind, done something in ignorance without intending to. But on the whole his conscience is clear; and to cover all his bases, every year he will have gone up to the Temple to make the guilt offering to cover any of those sins he might have committed unintentionally and in ignorance, just to keep the accounts balanced. Simon is content with his own righteousness. As far as he’s concerned, his debts are paid; he doesn’t owe God anything — he thinks.

Suddenly, into his neat and orderly world, there comes this woman, this sinner, the kind of person Simon would have crossed to the street two blocks away to avoid even coming near her. The very odor of her perfume would make him sick to his stomach. And not only does this woman of the streets come right into the dining room — along with a whole jar of her offensive perfumed ointment — but she then puts on a scandalous display, uncovering her head and loosening her hair (neither of which any respectable woman of that day would even think of doing in public) and then bending down and weeping and wiping his guest’s feet — with her hair! — and covering them with that expensive perfumed ointment.

And you can well picture the look on that Pharisee’s face as the odor of the perfume wafts down the table in his direction. And no doubt his face betrays his dismay, dismay at this woman’s interruption, and further dismay that Jesus doesn’t react the way he would, cringing from the touch of those unclean hands, if not kicking them away! Yet Jesus seems unperturbed by it all. “Just what is going on here?” the Pharisee asks himself.

+ + +

And so may we. First of all, to understand this scene, we need to picture this dinner the way it would have taken place two thousand years ago. People in those days, in that time and place, didn’t sit on chairs at a dinner table. They reclined on couches, leaning on their elbows, dining off a low table, usually C or U-shaped, with all the guests on one side. Leonardo da Vinci got the picture partly right in the “Last Supper” — everyone on one side of the table — though he placed the disciples on chairs rather than on couches. But if you’ve seen any of those gladiator movies, or stories of ancient Rome, you’ve seen what a classical banquet was like. Servants would wait on the table from inside the U, a very convenient way to avoid having to reach around or over the dinner guests to serve and clear the table. So you can picture Simon, and Jesus, and the other guests, reclining on couches. And this, of course, is how the woman of the city was able to stand “behind Jesus at his feet,” and wipe them with her hair, which would have been quite impossible had he been sitting on a chair at a modern dinner table! So as Jesus continues to recline on the couch, this woman is at the other end, weeping and wiping his feet with that perfumed ointment. And he just lets her do it.

Well, Simon is aghast! The odor of scandal is steaming towards him in an offensive cloud. Bad enough this woman has gate-crashed his dinner party, bad enough that she’s acting like this, but Jesus doesn’t seem to be bothered in the least! And that only increases Simon’s dismay.

What Simon has missed in all of this is that when Jesus accepted his invitation to dinner, when Jesus consented to spend time with him, it was just as much an act of grace as when Jesus allowed this fallen woman to wash his feet. Though Simon’s debt may have been smaller, it was a debt nonetheless.

That’s the God’s honest truth, and Jesus tells a little parable, much in the style of that parable we heard Nathan tell David, a parable to try to get the Pharisee to see. Who will show more gratitude: the one whose cancelled debt is big or the one whose cancelled debt is small?

For the Pharisee has forgotten that he has been forgiven too, that in spite of all his best efforts, he still has a spiritual debt —a debt of thanks — maybe not as much as the woman of the streets, but a debt nevertheless. But since he feels that whatever sins he’s committed and been forgiven for are so small, hardly worth mentioning, he doesn’t feel much gratitude towards God for forgiving them. After all, that’s the deal, isn’t it? The Pharisee’s attitude is: “I follow the rules, I do the right sacrifices, I fast on the right days, I say the right prayers, and if I do happen to make some small mistake, commit some small sin, God forgives me, right? So I should be grateful, too? I’m the one doing all the work!” And because he is forgiven what in his own eyes is little, he loves little, showa little gratitude. After all, he thinks he’s earned forgiveness.

The woman, on the other hand, has sinned big time and she knows it! But she also knows that she has been forgiven big time. Although she has been in the gutter — perhaps because she’s been in the gutter — she knows just how low she’s gone. She can’t go any lower! Like the prodigal son she has come to her senses because she has lost everything, but also because she has seen the rescuing hand of God, reaching out to her, the hand that is there for her. From where she has fallen she can see God reaching out to her, and her heart overflows with gratitude.

Oscar Wilde once said, when someone accused him of living in the gutter, “Sir, we are all in the gutter, only some of us are looking at the stars.” Wilde remembered what the Pharisee forgot: that all — all — are sinners in the eye of God, that “there is none righteous, no not one,” and that all forgiveness comes from God, and that “happy are they whose transgressions are forgiven.” Happy — full of gratitude! The Pharisee walks down the street so carefully, eyes downcast to avoid stepping in something unpleasant, or having to deal with people of the wrong sort, people from whom he averts his gaze as he walks with downcast eyes, he never looks up to see the grace unfolding around him: grace working in others, and grace available for him, if he only realized he needed it just as much as they.

But the sinful woman, from where she has fallen, even from the gutter, turns to God in faith and hope. And her heart overflows with gratitude in the knowledge that God has not rejected her; God, unlike the Pharisee, does not turn his gaze from her, but looks into her eyes with the forgiveness that breaks her heart, and opens it. God has not abandoned her or lost track of her no matter how far from the path of righteousness she has strayed.

+ + +

What is important to learn from this Gospel is not that those who love are forgiven the debt of sin, but rather that those who are forgiven the debt of sin still owe a debt of love. Note carefully what Jesus says: “Her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence — that is, because of that — she has shown great love.” The woman’s love does not cause God’s forgiveness any more than the Pharisee’s righteousness causes forgiveness. You just can’t earn God’s forgiveness. No way, no how! God loves us and forgives us because it is God’s nature to love and forgive. Not because we’ve earned his love, but because we are his children. Forgiveness is his gift to us. And the Pharisee and the streetwalker, and all of us, are forgiven by God as we turn to him by grace and in faith, whether our sins be scarlet, or the palest shade of pink — we all receive the forgiveness that comes from a gracious and loving God, free and unmerited. And when those waters of forgiveness pour over us we should shout out in gratitude, loving our God who loved us and saved us.

+ + +

This is a hard teaching to understand, and it has divided the church from the days when Paul wrote to the Galatians on up through the Reformation and even today. But the Gospel truth is clear, the truth Paul preached and Peter waffled on: God is no respecter of persons, and we are justified by faith, not by doing the works of the law.

That doesn’t mean we should give up on trying to do good; nor does it mean we should consciously go on doing bad — heaven forbid! What it does mean is that we should never forget that we are children of a loving and forgiving Father in heaven; and that whatever we have done or failed to do, God has forgiven us in Jesus Christ — he has nailed all of our sins to the cross, all of them — and in thanks and gratitude for the grace he has shown us we should love him in return.

We gather here to give thanks to our heavenly Father for all his goodness and loving-kindness to us. By his grace we all have been forgiven whatever we have done amiss, whether much or little. Can we do anything but give thanks to him, to show him our love for him by loving each other, as he commanded us to do? Search your hearts, my brothers and sisters, search your hearts and give thanks to God for all he has done for you, for the mercy he has shown you in forgiving your sins and drawing you close to him. Break open the alabaster jars of your hearts and pour out the abundant and fragrant oil of loving thanks to the Lord, the Almighty, and give him the praise and thanksgiving worthy of his Name, even Jesus Christ our Lord. +

God of Love or Logic?

SJF • Lent 4c 2010 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The son came to himself and said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough to spare, but here I am dying of hunger!”

The Parable of the Prodigal Son is one of the great, memorable passages of the Gospel, familiar even to many who may never crack the pages of a Bible — it was even made into a ballet with music by Prokofiev, first performed in Paris by the Ballet Russe in 1929, and at the New York City Ballet many times since!

But in spite of how familiar it is, this parable still bears our close attention, as our familiarity can cause us to miss details revealed by taking more time with it.

We’ve just heard it, so I won’t repeat the story. But I want to remind you of where it comes in the Gospel of Luke. This will help us to understand who Jesus is speaking to, and what he is getting at, why he told the parable, and what he means by it.

The fifteenth chapter of Luke begins with Jesus teaching and preaching, and tax collectors and sinners are gathering round eagerly to hear him, like people starving and thirsting for a gracious and generous word. The Pharisees and scribes, with their focus on salvation through personal propriety and righteous observance of the law, grumble among themselves and tsk-tsk that “this fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” In response to these clucking tongues, Jesus launches into a series of three parables — all three of them dealing with recovery of something that has been lost: a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost son. All three accounts end with a celebration — though in the parable of the lost son, the most elaborate and detailed of the three, the celebration comes in the middle.

For though the celebration begins shortly after the prodigal son’s return, and the recovery of “the lost,” that isn’t the end of the story. There is an additional character, mentioned only in passing at the beginning of the tale, but making his full appearance at the end: the angry elder son. He complains about the celebration, and the manner of his complaint suggests he’s stored up quite a few resentments about how he feels he’s been treated by his father. And yet, the father assures him that he loves him as well, and that his inheritance is secure — but that they must celebrate and rejoice at the repentance and return of the younger son, rather than grumbling about it.

Now, given the placement of this parable in the gospel, and those to whom it was told, and why, it is abundantly clear that Jesus intends the younger son to represent the sinners who have turned their lives around and come to hear his preaching, and the older son to represent the scribes and Pharisees themselves, with their grumbling complaint about the “sinners” being paid any mind at all, including Jesus eating with them.

This is perhaps the gentlest rebuke to the scribes and Pharisees in the whole Gospel — certainly unlike the strong condemnations with which Jesus greeted them a few chapters earlier. Here the parable presents even the Pharisees with some Good News, assuring them that they too are “always with the Father,” and that “all that is his is theirs.” Perhaps this is Jesus’ last effort to reach out to them, to get them to see that they do not need to occupy themselves with judgment of those they deem unworthy, they need not be lost in their own self-righteous anger but can break free of it and find their way home, and come to join the celebration, rejoicing in the breadth of salvation, in which all who are lost are ultimately found!

+ + +

That is an important lesson in itself. However, I’d like to note one more thing about this parable. We tend to romanticize the younger son — even if we don’t make his story into a ballet! We tend to see him as a figure of heartfelt sorrow and repentance. But look closely at the text and I think you’ll see instead something more like calculation than sorrow, even if it leads him to change his mind and come back home. He’s spent all his money, taken the lowest job you could imagine for a Jew — feeding pigs! — and realizes what a mistake he’s made, comparing himself to the hired hands back home and seeing how miserable he is. He is sorry — but mostly because of the mess he’s in, sorry about his own discomfort more than for the pain he caused his father, more sorry for the consequences of his action than for the act itself.

So he makes an entirely pragmatic and practical decision to go back home — motivated not so much by love for his father, as by hunger in his belly. He makes a quick calculation that he couldn’t be any worse off as a hired hand, so it’s well worth taking the chance of returning home.

+ + +

The thought of calculation reminds me of another young man’s story — a real one this time, but with a similar theme. Blaise Pascal was a 17th-century French scientist and philosopher, famous among other things for inventing one of the earliest mechanical adding machines before he was twenty years old. He is also known for his having undergone a religious conversion and for his adherence to a strict sect of very pious Roman Catholicism.

Now, as you know, it is not common for scientists to be fervently faithful or embarrassingly pious, so it is no surprise to find that in addition to his fervor and mysticism there is also a more calculating and rationalistic side to Pascal’s faith. He knew as a scientist that he could not prove that God exists, but as one of the originators of probability theory, he had to admit that God might exist. And so, in what came to be called “Pascal’s Wager” he calculated that if God exists, it is wisest to win eternal life by placing your bets on God — for, if God doesn’t exist, you’ve lost nothing, but if God does exist you stand to win everything! It’s a compelling notion, and it has held up well for over 300 years. A modern form of this wager is the comment of a believer to an atheist: “If I am wrong about God and life after death, I will never know; but if you are wrong, you will!”

There is a similar kind of calculation in the younger son in our parable. “Better take a chance on my father welcoming me back, rather than starve to death for certain, here.” But you can also hear the wheels clicking in the mind of the older brother, too — though to a different calculation: not the younger brother’s “it can’t get any worse so what the hey, let me go home”; but the colder calculation of the older brother’s carefully tabulated column of resentments — “Working like a slave for years, never disobedient, never got so much as a goat to have a party with my friends...” I can picture him, red-faced and angry, perhaps about to burst into tears. How long has this good obedient son been holding in this catalogue of resentments and injuries? Storing up all the debt he things the father hasn’t paid him?

+ + +

And perhaps that touches something in the father, too. But it is not simply a response to the calculus of resentment, any more than his response to the younger son was based on a calculus of repentance. This isn’t about calculus, or logic, or anything like that. It is about love.

The father doesn’t love the younger son because he repents, or the older son because he remains loyal, but because they are his sons. It is not about calculation: either the calculation of a gamble that you might be forgiven, or the calculation that if you tote up enough obedience and loyalty you will get a rich reward. Like the generous employer who gave the workers in the vineyard the same wage regardless of how long or short their work-shift, the generous father in this parable loves his sons not on the basis of what they’ve done or failed to do, but because they are his children. It is not about calculation, but relationship; not about logic, but love.

This, ultimately, is the message Jesus wanted to get across to those scribes and Pharisees, the message the tax-collectors and sinners had already understood, the message that the God of Love intends for us. God’s love is not based upon what we do or fail to do; God’s love is not something we earn by being good or lose by being bad. God’s love is a gift that came to us, reconciling us and the whole world to God, even while we were yet sinners — not counting our trespasses but forgiving them, wiping the slate clean and cancelling the debt, hitting the delete key on the whole spreadsheet of human sinfulness.

Christ did not save us because we were good, or because we repented, but because we needed saving and he loved us so much that nothing could stop him from saving us, even at the cost of his own life, by which he showed us the greatest love.

This is how the lost are found, how the dead are restored to life; this is how new life begins, how new creation starts, and this is why we celebrate — as we must — and keep the feast, through Jesus Christ our Lord.+

The Prison of Oneself

SJF • Proper 9a • Tobias Haller BSG

For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.

+In a film of a few years back, The Statement, Michael Caine plays an aging French Nazi. As a young man he had participated in the massacre of fellow villagers who were Jewish. He himself is a devout Roman Catholic who has been shielded by the church — moved from monastery to monastery around the country — because he belongs to a mysterious organization, a “church within the church,” similar to if not identical with Opus Dei — the group given a rather fantastic interpretation in another more recent film, The Da Vinci Code. He is constantly on the run and lives between the terror of being assassinated or abducted to Israel to stand trial, and wallowing in emotional outbursts of repentance.

In one particularly telling scene, he is kneeling in his tiny apartment, resting his arms on a small table adorned with various devotional objects, weeping and wailing his heart out in a paroxysm of repentant anguish. At the end of this emotional display he seems a bit calmer and relieved; but as he stands he almost trips over his old dog, lying on the floor all this while behind him. Suddenly possessed with a savage rage, he begins kicking the dog mercilessly, cursing at the top of his lungs. And whatever sympathy the audience might have had for him, it disappears in a flash.

More importantly, the problem with this Nazi isn’t just that he can’t escape his past, it is that he can’t escape himself. He is not just a good man who did a bad thing once years before and has yet to pay the price — he is a bad man who thinks his bouts of repentance will make up for the fact that his heart has not changed in all those years: the heart that led him to betray his fellow villagers in order to preserve himself. In fact, he isn’t even really repentant — he just doesn’t want to get caught; self-preservation is still the rule. The irony is that he is already caught: he is free only in the sense that he is not in a prison made of stone and iron — his real prison is his own self - the very self he so earnestly wants to preserve.

+ + +

Saint Paul has a similar problem, but finds a better solution. He too has done something awful when he was younger, as a persecutor of the church who arrested Christians up and down the country, and even saw to it that some of them were put to death. But even after his conversion he realizes that not only can he not escape his past — even though he has really repented of it — but that he cannot escape himself. He keeps on sinning: he knows what he ought to do, but he doesn’t do it; he knows what he shouldn’t do, but he still does it. As he says, “When I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.”

Now, Saint Paul is not unique in this: in fact, this is pretty much the human condition when it comes to good behavior. None of us is perfect, and all of us fall off the wagon from time to time — and even if we are able to avoid the sins of intention, the ones that we have to work at (such as pride, envy, and hatred) it is difficult if not impossible to avoid the sins that derive from the emotions, such as anger — the sins that arise unbidden and almost irresistibly.

The boundary between who we are and what we do is open and easily crossed — you don’t need a passport to go from one country to the next: and it is sometimes hard to tell the difference or make the distinction between being and doing. The late science fiction author Kurt Vonnegut once observed, “Socrates said, ‘To be is to do.’ Jean-Paul Sartre said, ‘To do is to be.’ And Frank Sinatra said, ‘Do be do be do.’” Our being and our doing are intimately connected, however you sing the song. As I noted in my sermon a few weeks ago, the sum of who we are is largely determined by the choices we make and the things we do in our lives — and we do not always choose rightly even if we want to, and we have to deal with the consequences of our wrong choices as much as we enjoy the rewards of our right ones.

+ + +

But to get back to Saint Paul: even as he complains about his situation, he doesn’t stop there wallowing in his own inability to be perfect, his own inability to escape himself, his own flesh and members, which seem to be a law unto themselves and lead him to do the very things he doesn’t want to do. He knows that there is someone to rescue him from what he calls “this body of death” — and isn’t that a powerful phrase to describe the prison of oneself, the Death Row of ones own body?

Paul knows that as bad as he is, as harsh is the sentence he deserves, he has been saved — rescued, quite literally from death, delivered from solitary confinement in the prison of his own incapacitated self, a self that without Christ Jesus can look forward to nothing but condemnation and destruction and death. The rescuer has come.

No wonder daughter Zion rejoices greatly, no wonder daughter Jerusalem shouts aloud — the cavalry has come to the rescue! Or perhaps I should say “Calvary” in this case, for this isn’t about horses and chariots, but about the Son of God come in the likeness of sinful flesh, to deal with sin, by nailing it to the cross and sealing the new covenant in his own blood, and then to rise in glory.

It is this new covenant, the covenant of the Spirit in the blood of the Savior, ratified by God in his rising from the dead, that allows us to escape the prison of our selves. He put the power of the flesh to death in his own flesh, so that those who walk according to the Spirit can find both life and peace in him; rescued and reprieved, and pardoned, to rise with him.

And you will notice that Paul’s teaching on this is fully in keeping with Jesus Christ’s own assurance on the subject. He calls us from the weariness of carrying the heavy burden of our selves — our sinful flesh weighed down by the burden of the law, which cannot save but only makes us more conscious of how low and sinful and weary we are, as if, like villagers in some medieval town, we had our sentence carved on heavy wooden signs to carry around our necks.

He has taken that heavy, weary burden upon himself — borne the weight of the sins of the whole world, and in exchange has placed upon us only his easy yoke and light burden, easy and light enough that the weakest and weariest can bear it.

And what is that burden? Of what does the yoke of Christ consist? Not an endless quest after perfection; not a repetitious wallowing in emotional bouts of repentance that may bring momentary relief but can offer no permanent escape from the prison of self. No, what he asks of us is simple, so simple that the wise and intelligent sometimes miss it, and it is up to infants to proclaim it — what he asks is summed up in that one word, Love: to love our God and our neighbor.

Like any good yoke this one is balanced: it has two arms, and you cannot use it unless both sides are engaged — have you ever seen villagers carrying two pails of water with a yoke? It’s no good trying to carry one, or one full and one empty! So too with the yoke of the Spirit, the easy yoke that Jesus places upon us, so that we may walk in his way, bearing only the light double burden of love — a burden that steadies without wearying, for love never fails nor grows weary.

The double love of God and neighbor delivers us from the law of the flesh, from the prison of ourselves, because it turns us from ourselves towards others — towards God and our neighbor. We are no longer obsessed with seeking forgiveness for our sins in bouts of repentance — our sins have been forgiven, not because we earned their forgiveness, but because Christ died for us. “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set us free from the law of sin and death.” We remember and confess our sins here in church week by week not to earn God’s favor, but to remind ourselves of his love for us in having forgiven them already. In that knowledge we are strengthened in the Spirit to return that love to him and share it with our neighbors.

This is the means by which are liberated from the prison of ourselves — when we recognize that the door has been opened, the chains have been cut, the locks unlocked and the gates flung wide. The King of glory has entered in and done his work in rescuing us from sin and death: his incarnation has reversed our incarceration! All we need do now is walk through the door bearing his yoke of love, and walking in accordance with the Spirit. Let us take his yoke upon us and learn from him, the one gentle and humble in heart, yet strong to save: Jesus Christ our Lord.+

Purposeful Spirit

St James Church • Pentecost A• Tobias Haller BSG
I will give them a new heart, and put a new spirit within them.

Given the options for the readings appointed today, I have chosen to omit the account of the descent of the Spirit from Acts. This passage describes the day on which the Spirit blew through the windows of the house where the apostles were huddled together, appearing as a flame on each, and giving them the gift of miraculous speech. I omit this reading today in part because the story is so familiar, but more importantly so that we can focus on the readings from Ezekiel, Corinthians, and the Gospel. For today I want us to reflect together not about the story of the Spirit’s descent, but its purpose; to focus not on the what, but the why.

Why did God’s Holy Spirit descend in tongues as of fire? Why, after all, does anyone light a fire? Well, might one do so for warmth, for light, as a signal, to clear a field of a rank overgrowth, or destroy a pile of refuse? Or to create a fire-break in a forest or field, to prevent a wild-fire from spreading? In short, what is the use of fire? If we can answer that question, we will gain a better understanding of God’s purpose in sending the Holy Spirit down to earth — a Spirit sent not as a showy display like a fireworks celebration, but sent with a purpose to do God’s work, not to entertain, but to empower.

+ + +

In his First Letter to the Church at Corinth, Paul catalogues the uses of the purposeful Spirit. And these uses reflect the fire of the Spirit at its most fruitful and productive. These are the gifts of the Spirit that nourish and build up the church itself, making it grow strong. This is like the fire that bakes the bread and cooks the food that nourishes us; the fire that warms our spiritual home, the church in which we gather; the flame that gives light, that drives away the darkness and gives us the knowledge of God’s presence, and serves as a light to our feet so we may follow in God’s way — — as it has from the days the children of Israel followed that pillar of fire in the nights of their Exodus. The Holy Spirit is called the “Comforter” and here we find the gifts that give comfort — which doesn’t mean “make cozy” but “make strong” — to fortify. The Spirit provides gifts that feed, that protect, that enlighten and encourage. And, as Saint Paul assures us, though there are varieties of gifts, the source is the same, the one Holy and purposeful Spirit of God.

+ + +

But what about the other side of fire? For in addition to its comforting ability to provide us food, warm shelter and light, fire can also be used to burn. Fire has two sides: it can build up but it can also tear down. This other side of fire — the destructive side — is reflected in the spiritual mandate described in our other readings. It is the power to find out evil and to expose it to the light and heat of God’s forgiving and yet all-consuming love. This fire burns up and removes all that is detestable, the prophet Ezekiel assures us. This fire is so powerful it can change our hearts of stone into hearts of flesh, like the refiner’s fire that takes hard, lumpy and unpromising ore and melts out the precious, ductile gold. This is a fire turning us towards obedience and away from reckless wandering, calling us together like a great flaming lighthouse beacon, assembling us from all the places to which we have been scattered, turning our backs upon our foresworn foolish ways, so that we face the light — and the shadows of darkness lie behind us, and we gather together around the cleansing flame, to unite our transformed and refined hearts with a spirit to obey and love the Lord our God.

+ + +

This power is reflected in the gift Jesus gives to his disciples, as he breathes on them and opens their hearts to receive the soon-coming Spirit. In doing this he gives them the power to forgive sins.

The fact is, sin makes good kindling. It burns easily. And the important thing about the burning of sin is where you stand in relation to the fire! If you are caught up in your sins, if you try to hold on to them, you’ll be burned up with them; and we all know the name of the place where that fire burns, the place where soul and body are destroyed. If you’ve ever wondered why hell is so hot, it’s because all the dry wood of sin burning there so easily.

But Jesus offers us the better way, the way out of the destructive fire, so that the sins can be burnt up apart from us, burnt up like the discarded rubbish and trash they are, as we stand free and clear, able to see our past debts cancelled and forgiven, and reduced to ash, never again to harm us.

You know, there used to be a custom — it may still be done this way — that when churches took out loans so as to construct their buildings, when the loan was finally paid off they would have a mortgage-burning ceremony. The fire would consume the paid-off debt as if it never was. The fire of the Spirit can do the same with sin — Christ gave his church the power to do this, to cancel the sins of its members, and make them as if they never were, burnt up like a bill that has been paid off, or better yet, cancelled! We do often speak of a cancelled debt as having been “forgiven.” And surely Jesus calls us to remember this when we pray the prayer he taught us, as we ask God to forgive our debts even as we forgive the debts others owe to us. To forgive a debt doesn’t mean that it’s been paid off, after all — it means it has been set aside, the slate on which the debt was tallied wiped clean, the bills dropped into the fireplace, as the one to whom the debt was owed says, ‘Forget about it.’ That’s what forgiveness means.

This is good and great news, that there is a way to defeat sin, and Christ has committed it to his church. It is the flame of forgiveness that burns sin away, cleansing and purifying and giving life. The original Pentecost — not the one in Acts, but the one God commanded Moses to celebrate — came to be commemorated as the day on which God gave the law from Mount Sinai. But the Pentecost that we celebrate is not about the giving of the law but the giving of the Spirit: for the letter of the law kills, but the Spirit gives life. Some think the way to fight sin is to keep battering people with how bad they are, reminding them how sinful they are, beating them over the head with the law, like a creditor who keeps sending you past due notices. That is the way of the law.

But the way that Jesus shows us is the way of forgiveness, the way of setting sin aside. He takes all those bills and past due notices and drops them in the incinerator of forgiveness, the flame that burns urged on by the breath of our Lord, as he gently blows on that flame to burn up the debts of past sins. That is the way of the Spirit. And it is the way God means us to follow.

+ + +

These then are the powerful uses of the fiery Spirit, God’s great gift to the church. It is the beacon that calls us together, reassembling us from wherever we have wandered. It is the giver of the comforting gifts of nourishment, enlightenment, and protection, the gifts that build up the church. It is the fire that gives light to discern the way, to reveal our faults, and then consume them — to liberate us from their power, as we lay our sins upon the fire of God’s love and they are consumed and removed and forgiven forever —
— even as we set aside the sins of others against ourselves, allowing the flame of forgiveness to consume all we might otherwise hold against each other.

May we always respond to the beacon that summons us, rejoice in the light that renews us, be comforted with the warmth of the flame that enfolds us, and be freed from bondage of sin by the promised gift of the purposeful Spirit, through Jesus Christ our Lord.+

Perseverance of the Saints

Saint James Fordham • 24c • Tobias Haller BSG
Be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable…

We are now in a pilgrimage toward All Saints’ Day, and as we go, we will take some time to look at the theme of sainthood. The scripture readings today give us examples of one characteristic quality of the saints: persistence or perseverance. Saints — and that includes the big famous ones as well as the little less-well-known ones, the ones who have died and are at rest, and the ones who still crawl or walk or are carried on this earthly way — saints don’t give up, and they don’t give in. They persist; they persevere.

But their perseverance isn’t just stick-to-it-iveness, or dogged, bullheaded obstinacy. The saints persevere and persist in what is right, in what is just.

Consider the widow in today’s gospel. It’s clear she’s got a problem — though her cause is just, she’s been stuck in a town with a hard-hearted, hard-nosed judge on the bench, a man who doesn’t fear God or pay any mind to people. But the widow keeps coming to the court, demanding that her case be heard. She persists in her cause, perseveres in her pursuit of justice, and the judge, finally, gives in, worn down by her constant insistence that he do what is right. It’s easy to see the example of heroic sanctity in this widow’s struggle. One thinks of Harriet Tubman, or Saint Clare of Assisi, or Saint Elizabeth of Hungary, women with single-minded devotion to what was right and true and just, women who wouldn’t take no for an answer even from the pope or the king or the president, and who brought the machinery of inequity to a halt with their persistent resistance, grains of sand in the gears of injustice.

+ + +

But what about our other exemplary persistent person in this morning’s readings, Jacob. Jacob is not a completely attractive character, and hardly a saint. He isn’t particularly interested in justice, or even in doing what is right. He is far more like the parable’s judge than like the widow. He isn’t afraid of God, and as for people, he cheated his brother out of his inheritance. And if that weren’t bad enough he tricked his poor, old, blind father into giving him the blessing intended for his brother, whom he left high and dry with neither inheritance nor blessing. No wonder Jacob is worried what his brother Esau may do to him now that he is returning home after years spent in the next county with his father-in-law. He’s grown rich at his father-in-law’s expense, by playing fast and loose with the breeding stock he was supposed to be tending, doing an early form of genetic engineering to make sure he got the best of the flock. He’s built up a fortune, and he’s got a lot to lose if Esau looks for payback.

Jacob has reached a tension point in his life — what we’d now call a “mid-life crisis.” He’s made it rich through persistent conniving, but he’s about to have to face the music. Esau is heading his way with a small army, and Jacob is forced to stop and think what to do. And of course the conniving and deception doesn’t stop. Clearly willing to cut his losses, he divides his possessions, and is willing to risk losing half if he can keep the rest. Then finally he panics, and he sends the rest on ahead of him, across the river, until he is left all alone in the night.

And suddenly, into that solitude a stranger comes, a mysterious figure who wrestles with Jacob in the dark night of fear and distress. But even in the midst of his fear, Jacob’s old persistence comes to the fore. He doesn’t let go; he doesn’t give up. Even injured, with his hip out of joint, Jacob holds on to the stranger with whom he wrestles, this nameless opponent, through the dark night and into dawn.

And though he never finds out the stranger’s name, he himself receives a new name. This patriarch who strives and struggles with men and with God, finally pins God down by sheer persistence. For it is God with whom he wrestles, though Jacob doesn’t realize it until the match is over — and God blesses him with a new name: no longer Jacob, but Israel, the father of the nation that will bear his name.

Jacob persists through this unfavorable time. But something else happens to him. He is transformed. He is given a new name, a new name with a surprising meaning. For Israel — among other possible readings — means, “God perseveres.” Though God appears to lose the battle, God wins the war, the war that had been played out in Jacob’s heart from the day he cheated his brother out of his inheritance, and tricked his old blind father into giving him his blessing. God perseveres because in this night of struggle, as Jacob faces the impending loss of all that he’s gained through his shady deals, in the loneliness of that night by the riverside, Jacob is transformed from sinner to saint, from a heel who until then did nothing but take, into a patriarch who will learn what it is to give. By finally letting go of everything else he has, and holding on to God alone, Jacob emerges with a blessing far better than the one that he stole from Esau. Jacob won the wrestling match, but God didn’t give up: God won Jacob.

+ + +

There are many saints who fit this picture, men in mid-life crisis who find that God is the only sure foundation for their lives. I think of Saint Augustine of Hippo, who held God at arm’s length for so many years, until he finally gave in. As a young man about town he was famous for his prayer, “O God, give me chastity; but not yet!” You can see him in the stained glass window by the door in the Peace Chapel, talking to his mother, Saint Monica, a good example of that other kind of persistent saint, whose perseverance played a big part in finally changing Augustine’s mind, and bringing him to the fulness of the faith.

I also think of John Newton, whose name I have mentioned in the past. He was a slave trader, a man engaged in the worst sort of bartering in human flesh and lives. Yet one night in the hold of his slave ship in the midst of a terrible storm, he turned his life over to God, when he realized how wretched and blind he had been. And you will recall how he later became an Anglican priest, and wrote the best known hymn of all time, “Amazing Grace.”

+ + +

He is also a lesson to the fact that persistence in itself is not a virtue. For Newton continued in the slave trade for some years after his conversion — it took time for the full message to sink in, and had he persisted in that horrible trade instead of letting the conversion work, his persistence would not have been to his credit.

It is persistence in the right, it is holding on to God, that makes a saint. The saints are those who hold on to the right, or when they finally come to see that they have been wrong, let go and hold on to God alone — as God holds on to them. Those who, like Timothy — another saint from today’s readings — are fortunate enough to have been brought up from childhood in the right way, persist in that path even when the times turn unfavorable. And those like Jacob or Augustine or John Newton, who start off in the wrong direction, and work hard at persistently digging deeper into self-centered but comfortable oblivion, even they can be blessed with a crisis that turns them around, that robs them of everything they thought was theirs, of everything they have, so that only God is left for them to cling to, wrestling through the dark night — or dark weeks or months or years — until transformed by God’s persistent blessing.

For God does not give up, even on the worst of us. That is the great good news of the saints. That is the great good news for all of us — called to be saints. God persists, and even if we are tempted to let go of our hold on God, God will never let go of us, persistent and persuasive as God is. So let us give thanks to God, and give thanks for all the saints, the saints who fight for justice and the saints who just plain fight, the saints whose lives shine bright as a rainbow from beginning to end, persevering in the right, and also those who flare up in a sudden flash of redemption like a torch at midnight, transformed by God’s persistent and persuasive grace.

If we cling to God, God will not let us go. And saints who plant themselves on that firm foundation have chosen well indeed. The soul that flees to Jesus, to repose in his strength and his love, he will never desert to its foes — that soul, though all hell shall endeavor to shake, God will never, no never, no never forsake.+

Making Friends and Influencing People

SJF • Proper 20c • Tobias Haller BSG
The steward said, “Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.”

Today’s gospel contains one of those difficult passages: a parable that doesn’t seem at first to make much sense. Jesus seems to praise a dishonest steward for his dishonesty, and more than that, appears to counsel his disciples to do the same, to “make friends by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” A hard text, it’s true; but if I’ve learned anything from wrestling with the Scripture, it’s that the hard parts provide the richest reward in understanding if you take the time to study them with care. Like Jacob, if we hang onto and wrestle with God’s word — all night if we have to — though we may feel a little out of joint by morning, we will also receive God’s blessing, and a glimpse of God’s wisdom.

+ + +

So let’s look at this difficult parable of the rich man and his shifty servant, and the even more difficult conclusion that Jesus draws from it. The main problem with the parable itself isn’t the behavior of the dishonest servant; after all, servants are often dishonest, and this man isn’t the first to have squandered a master’s property, and get the boot because of it. So he sets himself to make friends in the town — because he’s too weak to work by the sweat of his brow and too proud to beg — in order to assure his future. He offers a cut-rate discount to all the people in debt to his master, in the hopes that when he’s out of a job they’ll remember his generosity and take him in.

So far, so bad, we might say! But then comes the surprise: the master, finding out about the dishonest servant’s debt-forgiveness program, far from saying, “You’ve cheated me out of half of what was owed me!” instead praises this man for acting shrewdly!

Now, I have to confess I have wrestled with that part of the text for a long time, but then recently I had an experience that reminded me of how this works in the real world. A few weeks ago I bought a new TV set at a sale price, after a good bit of shopping around. I got it for half price, which to me seemed like a very good deal. I didn’t realize how good until I saw, in another so-called discount store, the same model listed at full price, but then “marked down” by only a third — so still costing more than the same one I bought at another store! And, get this, the “bargain” price at this discount store was for a floor display model, while the one I got for so much less at the other store was new in the box!

And I realize now, of course, in light of this Gospel, that even the price I paid was probably more than the store paid the manufacturer — so that even if they weren’t making a big profit, they were actually making more than the store that kept the same TV set unsold on their shelves because people knew they could get it cheaper elsewhere.

If you look at the gospel’s rich man and his shrewd manager in that light, we can probably guess that the amount the customers owed to him may well have been twice the actual value of the debts — so that even at the discount price of 50 or 20 percent off, the rich man was still probably making a profit — or at least breaking even — and getting the wheat and oil in hand that he could sell elsewhere for even more! Unsold goods on the racks and shelves — and uncollected debts — aren’t money in the bank. So while it looks like our rich man and Circuit City are taking a loss, discount business-people are shrewdly keeping their cash flowing, using the money from what they sell at a discount to buy what they can sell at greater profit. Truly, the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light!

So it is that the shrewd servant in our gospel is not only making friends with those to whom he offers a discount, but earns his master’s praise for bringing in real commodities instead of just accumulating accounts receivable and a pile of unpaid bills.

+ + +

Now, of course, Jesus was not interested in offering his disciples an MBA degree from Harvard Business School. This is a parable, remember: a story that stands for something about the life — not of the business world — but of the kingdom of God. And where, in God’s kingdom, do we hear about forgiving others their debts? Where do we hear of the authority and commandment that Jesus committed to his church to offer forgiveness of sins to those who repent and seek to live a new life? Aren’t we assured in the prayer we pray every day, the prayer that he himself taught us, that God will forgive us our sins only when — and to the same extent that — we forgive those who sin against us? Isn’t this the way we are called to “make friends” by means of the shrewd wealth of forgiveness, the forgiveness that seems to give away (for that is what for-give means: because once we’ve forgiven something we can’t hold on to it any longer)? Because we’ve given up control over what was owed to us, we have stored up a wealth of gratitude for this forgiveness of debts, so that we can be welcomed in by those whom we have forgiven.

+ + +

None of us, after all, can ever pay God back for all we owe — not only for all we’ve been given, but for all the debt we’ve incurred by the wrong we’ve done. We all need that “discount” of forgiveness that God has committed to his franchise holders here on earth, the leaders and members of the church, to whom God through Christ has committed the mark-down ministry of the forgiveness of sins. This is the only commerce in which the church is called to engage: the shrewd discount sale that spreads the good news of the kingdom, that God in his great generosity is setting aside the cost of sin — which is death — and has nailed it to the cross in Christ Jesus, the one mediator, who gave himself as a ransom for all, that all might be saved. He paid the full price, after all, and the only thing he saved was us.

+ + +

The problem is that some church leaders and members don’t always act so generously with the forgiveness committed to them. They hold back on God’s grace; they set conditions and limits on how much forgiveness they will dole out, and are choosey about those to whom they will give it. They will lavish forgiveness on their own sins, thinking them trifles, while holding others to — and judging others by — a standard they themselves are unable to attain.

We see this kind of behavior prefigured in the wicked and deceitful merchants whom the prophet Amos cursed, who use false balances, who make their measuring cups small and put their thumbs on the scales. Far from forgiving debt, far from holding to a square deal, these thieves steal even from the widows and orphans, from the poor and needy.

These are those who not only do not forgive, but who try to hold others to a higher standard than they live by themselves. They reckon their own sins light, but when another of whom they disapprove comes before them, they put their thumb on the scale and shake their heads. “Oh, you couldn’t possibly afford this; you’ll have to make do with a cheaper cut!” So say those who tilt the scales of justice unfairly; and the Lord assures us he will never forget any of their deeds.

The truth is, my friends, Jesus, the friend of sinners, calls us to be friends of sinners too — and that’s good news, for it would be a very lonely world if we could only associate with people who were free from sin. That would be a club with no members, like the one Groucho Marx referred to when he said, “I would never belong to a club that would have someone like me as a member!” Fortunately, we are assured, all of us having sinned and yet been forgiven, that God does welcome us into the fellowship of the church — on the sole condition that we welcome each other as well, forgiving those who trespass against us, as we have been forgiven our trespasses, setting aside the debts of sin, marking-down the cost at a super discount: for Jesus paid the price long ago, on lay-away, once and for all, and it is up to us simply to pass along the savings.

You know the option, my friends; we have no excuse, and we know what will happen if we don’t forgive. This is a fire sale I’m talking about. The world is passing away, and we are called to live each day with the going-out-of-business sale mentality. Do you want to save — and be saved? Well come to God’s great end-of-the-world sale, where he’s slashed the price of sin — put death out of business! — and rejoice in God’s abundant discount, as we forgive each other and so assure that we will be forgiven. So it is we will find at the last that we are welcomed into the eternal homes, where we will forever praise our only mediator and advocate, the friend of sinners and the ransom of the world, even Jesus Christ our Lord.+

The Quality of Mercy

SJF • Proper 5a 2005 • Tobias S Haller BSG

Jesus said, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’”
Mercy is one of those words which we hear very frequently, but which I fear we do not always quite understand in all of its fulness. At its simplest, I’m sure most of us think of mercy, or being merciful, in terms of letting someone off the hook, not punishing someone for something they’ve done — what the courts call leniency. But mercy of this sort, the lenient sort, usually tells us more about the one who is let off the hook than about the person who is lenient. The reasons for mercy have their origin not in the quality of the one who is merciful, but with the nature of the crime, or the mitigating circumstances surrounding it. The poor woman who stole the loaf of bread because her children were starving is given a job instead of a prison sentence; or the criminal who has to care for his elderly mother is given a reduced punishment. These examples do show us that the judge is not callous or unfeeling, but the focus is on the needs of the one to whom mercy is shown.

+ + +

What about the one who shows mercy? What is mercy like in and of itself? One clue is in our reading from Hosea, which Jesus quotes at the end of our Gospel today. You’ll note that the translators of the New Revised Standard Version from which we take our readings chose the phrase “steadfast love” for the Hosea text, and “mercy” for the Gospel text, to translate the very same concept. And this is an important clue for a fuller understanding of the nature of mercy — especially as the Jewish people understood it. We Christians need constant reminders that Jesus was a Jew, born and raised in a Jewish household, as a child and man growing up in a Jewish culture.

The Jewishness of Jesus is important because our present day concept of mercy comes more from the Romans than from the Jewish or even the Christian tradition — from Roman culture and Roman law, and the Roman language, Latin. in which the word for mercy is misericordia. Some of us here remember when Our Lady of Mercy Hospital up to the north of us went by that name! It tells us how the Romans felt about this concept. For the Romans’ word for mercy means, literally, heart-pain. It is not far off from the similar Roman concept of compassion — suffering-with. So for the Romans mercy is basically about feeling bad for someone, having a heart-ache for somebody, knowing how they feel, and taking the matter to heart. This is the mercy and compassion, the misericorida and compassio of “misery loves company.” And surely this kind of soft-heartedness has its place; surely we are called to feel sorrow for those who suffer pain — even when the pain is self-inflicted. None of us likes to hear, “What a fine mess you’ve gotten yourself into!” And if we are to do as we would be done by, we will allow our hearts to be touched by suffering, even when we might be tempted to be judgmental instead: for we shall all be judged with the judgment we give, and be forgiven even as we forgive.

+ + +

But there is even more to the idea of mercy than this Latin view suggests. The older Jewish concept is steadfast love, which gets translated as “mercy” once the Romans get hold of it. This is about — not less — but more than feelings, more than soft-heartedness or compassion or sympathy. Steadfast love sets that false cliché from the book and movie Love Story, on its head: real love means not less, but far far more than having to say you’re sorry, or feeling sorry for someone else. That kind of mercy is good as far as it goes, but it often doesn’t often go far enough! The true steadfast love that God shows always goes the limit — that’s the steadfast part; and it is always loving — which as we know from the teaching of Jesus is intimately bound up with the very nature of God. As the Psalm says, “the steadfast love of God never ceases.” Steadfast love is as much beyond mere soft-heartedness as the power and love of God is beyond mere human capacity.

+ + +

We have just such a comparison in the passage from Hosea this morning. The people who erred and strayed from God’s ways acknowledge their guilt, and promise to return to the Lord. After all, they say, God’s mercy never ceases; God is as reliable as the spring rains! And God picks up this weather-reporter’s metaphor and responds that the Israelite’s love is like a morning cloud, like dew that evaporates even as the sun comes up, unreliable and transitory. God, Hosea assures us, does not want such transitory fly-by-night and gone-by-day love. God is not interested in a one-night stand! God wants his people to show him the same steadfast love that he shows them. When God pours out his showers of love, what does he ask in return? A morning mist, an evaporating cloud? No: as another prophet, Amos, said, God wants justice to roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream. Hosea and Amos both maintain that God is not interested in sacrifices — no amount of burnt offerings can weigh in the scale as much as steadfast love, enduring love, a merciful heart that not only feels the pangs of another’s suffering, but moves out to help and lift up those who suffer. The mercy of God, the steadfast love of God, or — as Coverdale translated this same word for his English Bible, in the form still preserved in the Psalms in the Book of Common Prayer, the “loving-
kindness” of God — does not simply weigh the victim and find him pitiful, does not simply feel sorry in a pang of the heart, but stoops down to lift up the fallen, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked and visit the sick and the prisoner. The steadfast love, the mercy of God, binds up all wounds and brings healing and restoration.

And it does so out of a deep sense of relationship and covenant: the love of God for humanity is portrayed throughout the scripture in the image of a spouse caring for his beloved. God’s love for us is steadfast not simply because we may be miserable and God is merciful, but because God is faithful and true and enduring — and because, as I reminded us on Trinity Sunday, we are made in God’s image, and so capable of loving God in return. Mercy, steadfast love, is thus a double blessing.

+ + +

The greatest English poet wrote of mercy using just such language. It is not hard to imagine that Shakespeare had in mind this passage from Hosea, and indeed the incident from the Gospel, when he wrote the Merchant of Venice. You may recall that the main character, the Jewish merchant Shylock,isout for vengeance. He is a wounded man, a wronged man, but he is incapable of getting past his own hurts to understand the hurt of others. He hardens his heart, much as the Pharisees portrayed in our Gospel, apparently unable to understand generosity in others, or show mercy himself. As the court gathers to render judgment, Portia, disguised as a young attorney, appeals for mercy in these famous words:

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
’Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The thronèd monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly pow’r doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
deeds of mercy.

This was Portia’s appeal to Shylock, and it is the appeal that Jesus made to the Pharisees, when they saw him break the rules and eat with sinners. He was showing them the power of God to forgive, and inviting them to do the same. Those who think themselves righteous, those unaware they too are “standing the need of prayer” — in short, those who have forgotten or ignored the mercy and steadfast love shown to them, and hence are unable to show mercy or forgiveness or steadfast love to others — will not enter the banquet, not because they have been excluded or kept out, but because they will not come in; they will not sit with those they condemn even though God himself is there with them.

For God came to show his mercy, to show his steadfast love. He came to lift the fallen, to bring the healing of forgiveness to those who, sick with sin, had come to think of themselves as beyond cure, beyond hope, beyond redemption. This, my friends, is the mercy and the steadfast love of God, from which we have all benefitted, and which we are all, each of us, invited to share. May we, this day and always, rejoice that God has saved us through his steadfast love, and showing thanks and love in return, spread the Gospel of his mercy to the ends of the earth.+

For as in Adam...

SJF • Lent 1a 2005 • Tobias S Haller BSG

If, because of one man’s trespass, death excercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who received the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ... Just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.

We come once more to the first Sunday in Lent, that season of preparation and penitence that the church sets aside for us each year, a time to prepare for Easter and a time to review our faults and failings, and take the gracious opportunity offered us, to renew our commitment to follow our Lord.

We heard today a reading from Saint Paul’s Letter to the Romans, and we will hear more from this important scripture over the next weeks. This is the longest of Paul’s letters, and it contains his mature and careful analysis of the human condition and the divine response to it. So over the next weeks I will focus on Saint Paul’s teaching in my sermons, and I hope that by doing so we may find encouragement and renewal and hope as we hear what Saint Paul called “his Gospel” — which is nowhere clearer than in this letter to the Romans.

The passage we heard today lays out Paul’s argument in miniature: sin and death came through Adam, and forgiveness and life come through Jesus Christ. He will go on to develop this through the following chapters of his letter; but let us follow his example and begin at the beginning.

We are helped in this by having in our first reading what filmmakers call “the back-story”. This story takes us back to the garden, and the first gardeners! And in that passage we are reminded once more of that literally fatal decision to take the advice of a snake in the grass instead of following the commandments of the Lord in the heavens.

Saint Paul takes this story, and argues that sin does not just lie in people doing what Adam did. None of us are given the option to turn down the fruit that Adam and Eve ate. Rather, Paul shows us that sin is something we inherit, a kind of genetic predisposition to a fatal disease, a contagion that spreads and kills. Paul says, “As sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin,... so death spread to all because all had sinned... Death exercised dominion even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam.”

Now we are apt to see this as unfair. It is hard for us to see why all should suffer because of one, that all people should be condemned to death because of the mistake of one person. We want to think in terms of individuals taking responsibility for their own actions, good or ill. But is that how the world actually works? Of course not. Don’t we know that the crimes committed in society touch us all; and that the wrongs we do touch others, more than we know sometimes? Saint Paul is right: sin is not just about individual choices; it is a disease that spreads, that infects even the innocent and corrupts even the good. We are all connected; we are all in this together.

I was reminded of this a few weeks ago watching Laurence Rees’ PBS documentary about the horrors of Auschwitz. What happened in that horrific place is literally beyond imagination, which is why it is so important that these documentaries continue their testimony — especially as the last generation of eyewitnesses is dying out.

This documentary was different from any other on the topic I’d seen, in that, unlike most such films which simply deal in black and white, good and evil, this film also covered the uncomfortable shades of gray. What the film made manifest was the way in which the evil of the Nazis infected everything they did, but also everyone they touched — even some of their victims.

For this documentary, in addition to showing the familiar and hard to believe horrors of the murder of infants and children and old women, also set before us interviews with Jewish men who were co-opted into the killing system, and German men who thought they had managed to slip through these horrors with their morality intact.

In order to conserve their manpower, the Germans picked out able-bodied Jewish men to do the dirtiest work: these Sonderkommandos, or “Special Units,” as they were called, were forced to herd the other prisoners to the pens where they stripped off their clothes; to conduct them into the gas chambers; and then, after the horrific screaming ended in twenty minutes or so, to open the doors and haul the bodies up to the ovens or the open pits. There thousands upon thousands of children, women and men were reduced to smoke and ash. Day in, day out, for month after month, the killing machine ground on. These Jewish men knew that if they resisted — as indeed from time to time some among them did resist — they too would get a bullet in the head, or even worse find themselves on the other side of the chamber door, huddled and naked and waiting for the sound of the poison gas pellets to drop down the chute — one task the Nazis reserved for themselves.

One of these Jewish prisoners, Morris Venezia, was interviewed in this film, and he revealed how the evil had infected him. In the last days of the war, the Nazis, eager to cover the evidence of their crimes, shipped out as many of the prisoners as they could. They were loaded on trains to be shipped off, much as they had arrived. Crowded and cramped in the train, Venezia managed to find a seat on the floor of the car. A German prisoner, probably a criminal who’d ended up in Auschwitz along with the other thousands determined undesirable by the Nazi state, offered Venezia a few cigarettes in exchange for being allowed to take his place sitting down for a few minutes. When, at the end of those few minutes of rest he refused — or was too weak — to get up, Venezia and his friendssat on him until he suffocated, and then threw his body from the train.

The shocked interviewer asks, “You murdered another prisoner, just to be able to sit down?” And the answer comes, “What? He was a German. His people killed thirty, forty members of my family. So he gave me a couple of cigarettes — for that he should live?”

It is not for the interviewer, or for you or for me to judge this man. Who knows what choices you or I might have made in the situation in which he found himself — where the only way to preserve his own life was to become a cog in the killing machine; where a seat on the floor of a crowded train car is worth a few cigarettes — or a human life.

It is for us all, however, to see how the choice of oneself over another, or one’s own people over other people, can poison and infect all that comes after— the hissing of the serpent is still loud in our ears, and the taste of that fruit is still cloying at the back of our throats. Death has spread through the human universe, and exercised dominion over us all — even though we have not sinned in the same way Adam did, we have inherited that tendency to look out for ourselves and our own, to preserve our own lives at the expense of others, even at the risk of disobeying God, and even knowing that whatever we do, we too must one day die as well.

This is the situation that Saint Paul sets up for us: the state of human life after the fall. And a dark and seemingly hopeless situation it appears to be! The good news, Paul’s Gospel, consists in the other half of his message. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. Just as we didn’t get ourselves into this horrible mess, so to we don’t have to get ourselves out of it! Jesus Christ has done it for us. Christ’s faithfulness unto death has undone death, the one giving his life for the many has removed death’s sting and healed us from the fatal disease of sin. “Just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” There is light, glorious light, up ahead, no matter how dark it seems at present.

This is the word of hope that I will take up next week as we continue our Lenten journey and our reading from Paul’s Letter to the Romans. But I want to end today with one glimmer of redemption that was also part of that PBS documentary. One of the persons interviewed throughout the film is a German man named Oskar Gröning. He was a young soldier serving at Auschwitz. In the interviews he tries to distance himself from any responsibility for the horrors that went on there. But the film-makers provide the harsh details he tries to soften. True, he was not one of those who poured the poison pellets down the chutes, nor one of those who divided the arriving prisoners to the left or right — the leftgoing to the labor camp, the right, mostly women and children and old people, off to be killed immediately. No, the 22-year-old Oskar Gröning, who had been a bank teller before the war began, had the simple task of collecting all the money stolen from the arriving victims, tallying it up in neat columns and bearing the loot to Berlin every few months. He was a cog in the machine of death, and even though he personally killed no one, his hands were red with blood money.

After the war he managed to avoid prosecution for war crimes. He kept his participation at Auschwitz secret, and became an ordinary prisoner of war. Posted to a prison camp in England, he joined a choir of German prisoners who traveled the country giving concerts in Anglican churches, billeted in English and Scottish homes. As he said, “Everybody wanted to have a singer stay with them, so we had a good night's sleep and got a good breakfast and the next morning we were taken back to our gathering point and off we went to the next place. It was great.”

I watched these comments with growing anger as the filmmakers documented Oskar’s happy and contented life unfolding — getting a good job as a factory personnel manager, sunning himself on the beach with his family, snoozing on the back porch with his dog in his lap. My anger was roused as these happy scenes were intercut with interviews with Jewish survivors who lost everything but their lives at Auchwitz — their families, their property, their self-respect, even for some the sense of their own humanity. And I kept wondering, is there no justice? Is there no redemption? Will Oskar Gröning ever understand?

And the good news? Yes, the good news is that finally Herr Gröning did understand. For there was one thing he would not stand. Not too many years ago a few German historians — if you can call them that — came forward and began to deny that the holocaust had ever happened, that while a few Jews here or there might have been killed or deported, the stories of Auschwitz were massive exaggerations, part of a Jewish plot to defame and insult the German people.

And that is when Oskar Gröning came forward. He’d kept his secret all those years, never letting anyone know he had even been at Auschwitz — not even his wife or his children. But faced with the monstrous lie of the revisionist historians, he stepped forward: He said, “I see it as my task, now at my age, to face up to these things that I experienced and to oppose the Holocaust deniers who claim that Auschwitz never happened. And that's why I am here today. Because I want to tell those deniers: I have seen the gas chambers, I have seen the crematoria, I have seen the burning pits — and I want you to believe me that these atrocities happened. I was there.”

This took a change of heart, this ability to confess and testify. And it renews my hope that even in a world infected by sin, the truth can sometimes shine forth. I cannot and I will not put Herr Gröning’s act at the level of heroism or virtue — but it was the beginning of repentance and a recompense, a first stepfor him on the pilgrimage back to true humanity.

How much more powerful is the free gift of the truly innocent one, the one who had done nothing wrong at all, when he offered himself on our behalf? Beloved, let us think on these things this Lent, how far we have fallen, how much we owe, and above all, let us give thanks to our Lord Jesus Christ, the one whose abundant grace and free gift of righteousness exercises dominion in life, now and to the end of the ages.