Limited Forgiveness

Are there limits to what God will forgive?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

when others sin against us.

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

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

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

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

Unexpected Good

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Before Faith Came

We were locked in the maximum security prison of our own choices, our own pride and envy and malice. We were on death row, with nothing to look forward to but execution. But once faith came...

SJF • 1st Sunday after Christmas • Tobias Haller BSG
Before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came.+

I’m sure that all of us here remember the fairy tale of Cinderella — maybe I shouldn’t have sent the children off to Sunday School first, because they may remember it better than most of us — either we heard the tale when we were children, or we’ve seen one or more of the many film or TV versions, or maybe even the ballet or the opera. This tale of rescue from drudgery has remained so popular not only because it tells a story that we all can sympathize with and relate to — I mean, who doesn’t like a happy ending?— but because it serves as a parable of an important truth about human life and our relationship to God.

We all relate to this story because we all dream of release from whatever drudgery affects our lives. We all dream that someone magical will come along and wave a wand and transform us into something wonderful, and we will be lifted from the dust and ashes of the hearth to start a new life in the palace.

Many adults have their own version of this story. Some put such hopes in being a guest on Oprah Winfrey to find the keys to a new car under their seat; some hope for the arrival of that giant check from Publishers Clearing House; some prefer to hope for rescue by the magic wand of the slot machines in Atlantic City or Yonkers, or the MegaMillions Lottery — and there were two big winners a few weeks ago! But what I want to say to you this first Sunday after Christmas, is that our rescue has already happened. It has come to each of us and to all of us, though not in the way we expected.

That expectation, that yearning, that dream to be released from prison, to be restored to a high position, or to be lifted up to one, that dream burned deep in the hearts of the people of Israel in their captivity. In the midst of that dark time, in the midst of that imprisonment, Isaiah sings — he just can’t keep his mouth shut, as he admits! “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent,” he sings, and will sing and sing again that the deliverance of the Lord is coming, as sure as grass grows in the spring, as sure as when you plant a seed it will sprout up at the right time. This isn’t supernatural, Isaiah sings, but the most natural thing that is, that God is coming; and at his coming the whole world will see Daughter Israel raised up from the desolate ash-heap of captivity to be crowned as a royal princess. Not a fairy tale of a prince with a glass slipper or a coach made from a pumpkin and a wave of a wand and a Bibbidy-Bobbedy-Boo, or a jackpot on the slots in New Jersey with a ringing Badda-Bing — but a real, live, true restoration of a people held in captivity in a foreign land — returning home, restored and raised up.

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So Isaiah sings. But 600 years later that song needs a reprise. Deliverance has come in the meantime, but it was followed by yet other captivities and occupations. The people have gone from the frying pan of Alexander’s Greeks into the fire of the Roman Empire. Under that Roman occupation, deliverance once and for all has begun to seem as hopeless as ever it was, unreal as any fairy tale; a story perhaps to amuse the children but no use in the hard, cold world of politics and commerce, the world of rule and law and judgment and punishment, the world of power and corruption, under a pagan Emperor and a puppet king, Herod, who isn’t even a proper Jew, and has no right to be King, but is a hated Edomite, put in place by Rome. The world is dark, its heart grown cold and bleak, and hope is dim.

But into that darkness another strong voice speaks, a voice so long expected that expectation has grown weary, a voice so long expected that when it comes it comes as a surprise! The speaker’s name is John, and he comes to testify that something wonderful is about to happen. It isn’t about him, mind — he’s just the fairy godfather in this story — it’s about something else, someone else whose coming is about to light up the world.

And John, like Isaiah, can not keep silent; he will testify and cry out, “Here he is! This is the one I was talking about, the one who outranks me; the one who is from the beginning; the true light of the world!” So John proclaims the faith, faith in the true light that enlightens everyone.

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Saint Paul reminds us of what it was like before that faith came, when we were like prisoners guarded by a disciplinarian; like Cinderella under her nasty step-sisters and even nastier step-mother! And Saint Paul, every bit as much a fairy godfather as Saint John the Baptist, ushers us in to meet our new Father, the Father who is adopting us, who raises us from the status of an orphan to the status of one with the rights of inheritance — no longer a slave, but a child of God and if a child then an heir.

That’s what we all are, my beloved. We were all once prisoners and slaves, Cinderellas doomed to drudgery and captivity. But since Christ has come, we have become, each of us, a prince or a princess in the royal household, draped with the garments of salvation, clothed with the robes of righteousness, and crowned with the royal diadem.

And just as Cinderella didn’t come to her happy ending because of any virtue of her own, so too we do not come to this our happy ending because of any action or virtue of our own. No, we come into our inheritance from God as adopted children — it is God who has chosen us, not we who have chosen God. Faith is not something that we have in our selves, from our selves, as if we possess it: no, faith is something that happens to us, happens to the world in its darkness, happens to the world and brings it light and life.

Faith is not our doing any more than light is our doing — the sun rises because God makes it rise — and it is not some magical supernatural act but the most natural thing that is: something the God of nature has ordained to be just so — just like that grass that comes up in the spring, just like that seed that when planted, sprouts at the appointed time. This is something God has made to be.

And faith comes to us just as naturally. For God is the love that created all that is, and his love overflows from his own nature as the love that moves the sun and the other stars — the overflow of God’s grace has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit that is given to us. Faith is not our doing any more than being adopted or being born (or being born again) is our doing. Life — and new life — is just not our doing. It is God who picks us up and says, “You are mine!” Faith, in short, is not us discovering God, but God revealing that everlasting Love to us. As John assured us, “No one has ever seen God...” that is — none through their own power have ever or can ever see God; rather “it is God the Son who has made him known.” who has revealed God to us, pulling aside the veil of darkness that blindfolded human vision, so that we might see God literally face to face. It is as natural and fitting as that glass slipper sliding perfectly to fit on Cinderella’s foot. For we were made for God just as that slipper was made for her — and it is altogether fitting and proper that God should be at home with the creatures he created in his own image and likeness.

God — and faith in God — came to us, not we to him. Before faith came, we were simply prisoners who could never escape through our own efforts. We were locked in the maximum security prison of our own choices, our own pride and envy and malice. We were on death row, with nothing to look forward to but execution. But once faith came, came in person, came in the person of the Son of God, who opened the door, who opened that lock, who called us forth into the light, who lifted us up, who clothed us anew, who dressed us and crowned us and presented us to the court of heaven — once faith came, we were no longer what we were before, prisoners. Once faith came, we were the adopted children of God.

So let us then, beloved — for that’s what we are, God’s beloved — rejoice in our deliverance, rejoice in our freedom, rejoice in the light that shines in the darkness, and which the darkness can never overcome. Let us rejoice that we are children of God, chosen by him, adopted by him, rejoicing with our brother Jesus who came to us to save us, to show us how much God loved us, and who took us for his own, on that Christmas long ago.+

Wisdom From On High

We would be very foolish indeed to ignore such an invitation, to turn aside from such a host, to abstain from such a feast...

Trinity C 2013 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice? On the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand; beside the gates in front of the town, at the entrance of the portals she cries out: “To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all that live.”

Today is Trinity Sunday, and our first reading, from the Book of Proverbs, presents us with an opportunity to think about one particular aspect of the nature of God, the Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This portion of Proverbs begins with what is sometimes referred to as “The Song of Wisdom” — and it forms an important part in a whole complex of “Wisdom Literature” — a collection biblical and inter-testamental texts, the latter so called because they come between the Old and the New Testaments.

In the Wisdom Literature, Wisdom is not only praised as an abstract virtue or concept, but is personified, often, as in the text today, portrayed as a regal woman. Wisdom is portrayed as a woman in part because both the Hebrew and the Greek words for wisdom, ḥokmah and sophia, are feminine in gender, and the latter obviously even came to be a common woman’s name. So Wisdom is seen as a woman... but, I’m sorry, my friends; to the women here today I have to alert you not to take too much pride in this relationship with Wisdom, because the Book of Proverbs also personifies Folly as a woman! From a biblical standpoint, it seems women just can’t win, at least not all the time. Thank goodness some things change!

And one of the things that changed over time, particularly in the Christian era, was how Wisdom came to be seen, and about whom the texts were said to speak. And that is Jesus!

Now, you might well wonder how this movement from an abstract idea of wisdom as a virtue, to wisdom personified as a regal woman, a princess or queen, to wisdom incarnate as the Son of God, Jesus, took place. And so I’d like to explore that process with you a bit today, on this Trinity Sunday, the one Sunday in the Christian year when theology steps to the forefront.

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First of all, we know that the Jewish people had long valued wisdom as a virtue. Wisdom for them included knowledge, and people who knew a lot of things would be accounted wise. Solomon, for example, is held up as the supreme example of wisdom, as it is written of him in the First Book of Kings:

God gave Solomon very great wisdom, discernment, and breadth of understanding as vast as the sand on the seashore, so that Solomon’s wisdom surpassed the wisdom of all the people of the east, and all the wisdom of Egypt... He composed three thousand proverbs, and his songs numbered a thousand and five. He would speak of trees, from the cedar that is in the Lebanon to the hyssop that grows in the wall; he would speak of animals, and birds, and reptiles, and fish.

I’m not all that sure that Solomon would have been a great guest at a dinner party; but in addition to this kind of “know-it-all” wisdom, there was also high admiration for what we would call common sense, or even crafty shrewdness, or even cunning. There is no doubt that given the scrapes into which the patriarchs got themselves, the ability to be clever, shrewd, or even crafty, came to be admired. Being able to get out of a difficult situation, even if by the skin of your teeth, is an admirable quality. You will no doubt remember that parable Jesus told about the business manager who is about to be fired and who comes up with a scheme to win friends for himself by marking down their debts to his master — and then the master turns around and praises him for his shrewdness. So being a smooth operator was admirable, in a down-to-earth way.

And so it is that both book-smarts and street-smarts both come under the heading of Wisdom in this first understanding of the word. But as the poets and wise men, such as Solomon himself, began to extol the virtues of wisdom more and more, they began to take poetic license by personifying wisdom as that regal woman, Sophia. As I noted before, this plays both ways, as the writers of the Wisdom literature believed that there were few things more valuable than a wise woman, and few things worse than a foolish one, and they would play these images against each other by comparing and contrasting a wise wife with a foolish harlot. The Wisdom writers also wrote of how a man could be blessed by a wise wife but destroyed by a foolish harlot, and he would be a fool indeed after her tempting ways.

But wisdom itself they saw as the pinnacle of goodly virtue: a woman more precious than jewels or gold. The passage we heard today from Proverbs is typical: she is described as being with God from the beginnings of creation, working with God, like a master-worker cooperating with God in creation itself.

The author of the intertestamental Book of Ecclesiasticus, Joshua ben Sira, took the analogy even further, picking up where Proverbs leaves off and extolling Wisdom even more; he writes:

Wisdom praises herself, and tells of her glory in the midst of her people... “I came forth from the mouth of the Most High... I dwelt in the highest heavens, and my throne was in a pillar of cloud. Alone I compassed the vault of heaven and traversed the depths of the abyss. Over waves of the sea, over all the earth, and over every people and nation I have held sway... Before the ages, in the beginning, God created me, and for all ages I shall not cease to be. In the holy tent I ministered before him, and so I was established in Zion... in the beloved city he gave me a resting place... Come to me, you who desire me, and eat your fill of my fruits.... Those who eat of me will hunger for more, and those who drink of me will thirst for more.”

I think it is easy to see how the early Christians, hearing these texts, even though they are describing Wisdom personified, and though even here less as a woman than as a kind of emanation coming from God himself, could come to see that these texts are referring to Jesus, the incarnate Son of God. But there is one more reason even more telling, because the passage I just cited ends by saying, “All this” — that is, all that has preceded, the whole description of Wisdom — “all this is the book of the covenant of the Most High God, the law that Moses commanded us...” In short, Wisdom is identified as the Word of God, coming forth from the mouth of God and recorded in the Holy Scripture, most especially the Torah.

As you know, Jesus came to be understood to be the living and incarnate Word of God. This was due largely to the Gospel according to Saint John, and from there it was an easy step to go back to the Wisdom literature and see Jesus foretold in those texts. And so Jesus came to be understood by the early church as the “Wisdom from on high” dwelling with his people, inspiring them, as the Word of God incarnate, fulfilling both the law and the prophets.

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It is written in Proverbs, in the chapter after the one from which we heard the reading this morning, chapter 9:

Wisdom has built her house..., she has mixed her wine, she has set her table. She has sent out her servant-girls, she calls from the highest places in the town..., “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed.”

What the wise men wrote of, what the prophets foretold, we have come to realize at last. Jesus, the Wisdom from on high, calls us to this house, calls us to his table, and gives himself to us his faithful believers much as Wisdom gave herself to those she summoned — and he gives himself to us in that bread and in that wine. Jesus our Lord and Savior, and also the Wisdom of God and the Word of God, calls us to Take and eat, to take and drink — more than bread, more than wine, but the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. We would be very foolish indeed to ignore such an invitation, to turn aside from such a host, to abstain from such a feast. May we always gladly eat and drink at the table of the Wisdom from on high, in the Eucharistic feast committed to our hands by the Word of God himself, even Jesus Christ our Lord.

Not From This World

God is not a king who rules by the threat of power, but a lover who empowers us by the gift of love.

Proper 29b • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jesus said, “If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over... but as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”

Last week we reflected on the fact that no human being — Jesus Christ excepted — is quite like God. We are all, of course, like God in a few respects, having been made in God’s image. As the Catechism reminds us, right in the second question and answer, on page 845 of the Book of Common Prayer, this means that we, like God, are free: “free to make choices: to love, to create, to reason.”

Surely there is no doubt about God having these three attributes. “Reason” is God’s middle name, so to speak, for as theologians remind us, the Son of God is the Word of God — and that is the most meaningful and reasonable Word ever spoken: the Word through whom all things were made. In this we recognize God as the Creator of all that is and could possibly be. And as John the evangelist reminds us again and again, Love is at the very heart of who God is.

We human beings share in these capacities to love, create, and reason — but you can see at once that human likeness to God is limited in each one of these capacities. As I said in the sermon last week, “No man works like him.”

And as with God, so with God’s kingdom. The kingdom of God is similar in some respects to earthly kingdoms, but ultimately so different from all of them that even thinking in such terms could be less than profitable, if we get hold of the wrong end of the stick. Of course, that did not stop people from thinking about the kingdom of God in very earthly terms throughout most of human history. The form that Messiah takes in the Jewish tradition is precisely that of a king. Messiah in Hebrew, and Christ in Greek, both mean “anointed one” — and this refers to the fact that the way a person is made a king in the Jewish tradition — and in most others — is by being anointed. You may remember, for example, how God chose David out of all the sons of Jesse and sent Samuel the prophet to anoint him as king with holy oil, after Saul (whom Samuel had also anointed king at God’s instruction) turned out not to be a faithful ruler after God’s own heart, and willing to submit to God’s instruction and commandment.

Our reading this morning from the book of Daniel shows that this idea of God, and God’s kingdom, was still very much in vogue in the centuries before the coming of Christ, and even up through and into the time of his ministry. Daniel portrays what amounts to a coronation scene in which the one “like a human being” — or “like a son of man” as the older translation has it — comes before the Ancient One, the one Ancient in Days, to be invested with all authority over all the nations of the earth. And you will recall that the disciples asked Jesus if the time was coming when he would establish his kingdom in Jerusalem. The disciples saw the kingdom of God in very literal terms — an anointed King sitting on a physical throne in a particular earthly kingdom.

So strong is this image of God as a kind of super-king — a King of kings and Lord of Lords — that it persisted well into the life of the early church, as attested in that reading from the Revelation to John. That vision portrays God’s heavenly court as being much like an earthly court; the only difference being that Jesus is the ruler over all the kings of the earth.

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And so he is — I do not want to deny by any means that the Son of God is King of kings and Lord of lords. But I want to remind us that this is an image, a metaphor. It doesn’t particularly well speak to us in our days, anyway, when there are very few kings sitting on earthly thrones anywhere. God is not simply the boss of bosses, the capo de tutti capi as they would say in the Godfather. God is much more than that, but also different from that. There is a danger in seeing God as simply the biggest, the best, the boss, the most powerful ruler, or even as just “the supreme being.” And the reason for this is that it doesn’t well jibe with what the Catechism tells us about God — that the primary attributes of God reflected here on earth are freedom, reason, and love — not compulsion and power.

And this is in part what Jesus was getting at when he told Pilate that his kingdom “is not from the world.” His kingdom is not a kingdom of one power dominating all other powers. No, his kingdom is a kingdom based on truth — and here we must understand truth not just as a collection of all things that are true, a collection of facts, but rather as something about the ultimate reality of all that is — something about the being of God rather than merely the power of God. It is not so much that God is in control of things, a power working over other powers, but that God is the source of all life and light and power that any thing has.

This is what is meant when John the Divine reports, a few chapters on from today’s passage, that the heavenly creatures sing out: “Splendor and honor and kingly power are yours by right, O Lord our God, for you created everything that is, and by your will they were created and have their being.” The kingly power of God is not that of an invading general conquering someone else’s territory; it is the gracious authority of the one who holds all things by right, not by compulsion.

For God is not only the creator of all that is, but the sustainer of it: were God to withdraw his loving care from the universe for an instant, were God to turn his gaze away or blink his all-seeing eye, all that is would simply cease to be — for God is the ground of all being, the source and sustainer of all that is, all things being created and sustained by the left and the right hands of reason and love.

This can help us understand on the one hand the nature of God’s creative reason — for he is the Word of Truth, the truth of everything that is. God is not simply reasonable in the sense of being intelligible or logical — God is the very basis of what makes Reason what it is — why cause follows effect and one and one make two. God is not just the Great Because; God is the Great Why.

But above all, and on the other hand, and again as John reminds us again and again, God is love — not just the love of affection and friendship and fellowship, not even just as the most loving being — but as the sustaining cause and end and purpose of all love. God is not a king who rules by the threat of power, but a lover who empowers us by the gift of love.

Perhaps no one understood this better than Dame Julian of Norwich, a great saint of the English Middle Ages. In her Revelations of Divine Love she wrote of God speaking to her; and the form of God that she saw was the wounded Christ on the Cross. And that Christ on the Cross spoke to her, in these words:

I am he, the might and goodness of fatherhood; I am he, the wisdom and the lovingness of motherhood; I am he, the light and the grace which is all blessèd love; I am he, the Trinity; I am he, the Unity; I am he, the great supreme goodness of every kind of thing; I am he who makes you to love; I am he who fills you with desire; and I am he, the endless fulfilling of all true desires.

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Is God a king, even King of kings? Yes, so God is. But that kingdom is not from this world — it is to this world. For the love of God is not based on God needing anything, but having everything, so that all is a gift, a gift of freedom, reason and love, given to us by the one who took our nature upon, that we might grow into his nature; one who died for us, that we might live in him. So let us give glory to God, our true King and our Lord, to whom all might, majesty, power and dominion — and all freedom, peace and love — be now and evermore ascribed, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

No Man Works Like Him

There is no one quite like God when it comes to working salvation 2014 a sermon for Proper 28b

Proper 28b • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
When Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God... for by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.

You can tell from our Scripture readings this morning that Advent is almost upon us, as the passages chosen take on some of that aura of anticipation for the Great Day of Christ’s triumphal return, the judgment of the world, and the end of all things. But there is another theme in these passages, a theme not of expectation but of identity. For all three readings today urge us, each in its own way, not to be deceived by substitutes, cheap or elegant, but to hold out for the real thing. All our Scriptures today urge us to make a clear distinction between Jesus and all other ministers, who go from good to bad. The message is that Jesus is the Savior, the Son fo Man and Son of God, and no one else and no one other. As the hymn says, No man works like him.

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We start with one who isn’t a man at all: with the Archangel Michael, described in the vision of the prophet Daniel as the great prince, deliverer of God’s people. And while Michael the Archangel is clearly a deliverer and rescuer of God’s people, one who brings much good, he is also not the Christ; he is not the son of God. And this is revealed most clearly in his name, Michael. For in Hebrew, Michael, Mi k’ El, means “Who is like God?” — the implied answer being, of course, no one! Only God is God, and however great and powerful an angel or archangel may be, even Michael the leader of the hosts of heaven, the greatest of all angels and archangels, he is still a creature, a minister and servant of God, but not God himself. Michael is not God. No man — or angel — works like him.

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The Epistle to the Hebrews from which we been reading over the last few weeks has also been attempting, and continues, to make a distinction between the earthly ministers of God and the heavenly Son of God — who, while he has a ministry, and shared our human life and walked among us as one of us, is in his own full reality as the Son of God as much above the angels as the angels are ranked above rank and file human beings.

The author of this epistle has been referring to the earthly priests who serve in the earthly temple, the ordinary priests as well as their leader the high priest. And the message the author persists in delivering is that these priests have a ministry that is temporary and insufficient — good at most for the time being, but needing to be repeated day by day, and year by year, because the multitudes of their sacrifices cannot atone one for all for sin. For if the priests and their sacrifices could do away with sin once and for all they would not have to be repeated day by day and year by year. Even the great sacrifice of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when the high priest would enter into the holy of holies with the blood of the sacrifice and pronounce, that one time, on that one day, in that one place of the holiest part of the temple, speak the unspeakable name of God in the inner and most holy part of the temple — even that the most holy of all earthly sacrifices could not suffice to do away with sin once and for all — the most it could do is atone for sin year by year, one year at a time.

But Jesus, through the gift of himself on the cross, is superior to any merely human priest, even the high priest, for he offers the sacrifice of himself and he brings his own blood through the veil of the heavenly temple into the real holy of holies — the one of which the earthly temple is a mere imitation — a model or a replica, but not the real thing. No man, not even the high priest, works like him.

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Which is why, when the disciples show their admiration for the great stone structures of the temple and its surrounding buildings, Jesus declares to them that those stones will tumble to the ground — not one stone will be left standing on another. He is reminding them that this that the earthly temple which they behold there, however beautiful and glorious, is already the third or fourth such house of worship to stand on that spot — the tent and the tabernacle of Moses were replaced by the temple that Solomon built; the Assyrians destroyed that temple, and years later Ezra and Nehemiah repaired it, and then Herod the Great reconstructed it and built most of the grand buildings which the disciples are admiring at that point — the temple that took forty years to build. This temple, this temple of stone, however glorious, and its surrounding precincts, however majestic, are no more an eternal habitation than any other human construction. All of the predecessors to Herod’s Great temple have been replaced, and this one will be too. And all of them — every last one — are built as imitations of the true heavenly temple, which is above.

In this Jesus warns the disciples not to be fooled by imitations, architectural or, as he goes on to say, human. Recall how he said, “Destroy this temple and I will raise it up in three days” — and that in this saying he was referring to the temple of his body, which is the eternal and everlasting temple that sits at the right hand of the Father in the heavenly places. It is not the temple of stone and mortar that is the incarnation of God; it is Jesus Christ.

And just as he applies the prophecy of the raising of the temple to himself, so too he apples the lesson about imitations to himself personally: he assures them that some will come who will try to lead them astray, coming even in his name and even declaring, “I am he!” These false Messiahs will lead many astray, but Jesus warns the disciples to be on their watch. He assures them that say what they might, perform what wonders they will, no man works like him.

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And that is the God’s honest truth. No one works like Jesus. Even the best of us is like Michael, marked as it were with a label that says, “Who is like God — not this one!” Even the noblest and most costly sacrifice is pale and wanting beside the sacrifice of Christ upon the cross — the innocent giving himself on behalf of the guilty, a human being doing in that act what no other human being could do, because only he is Son of God as well as son of man.

But don’t be discouraged in this. each of us still has our ministry to carry out, even as we know that we are not like God and cannot work like him. There is good news in all of these lessons: we don’t have to do what Jesus has done — because he has done it. We get to ride on his coattails, having the confidence to enter the sanctuary by his blood, by the new and living way he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, because we are members of his body — so that we can approach the throne of grace with a true heart in full assurance of faith. He who has promised is faithful, for he has accomplished what no one else could do. For us, beloved, for us, who as members of his Body have salvation. Thanks be to God, that no man works like him.+

Look to the Skies

On the nature of covenants... from the first one whose sign was set in the clouds. A sermon for Lent 1b.

SJF • Lent 1b • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The Lord said, This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you... I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.

We come now to the first Sunday in Lent, and through the coming four weeks our readings from the Hebrew Scriptures will focus on the concept of covenant. On each Sunday the Scriptures will refer to one of the various covenants that God made with humanity, and with the chosen people — including, next week, the covenant which was marked in flesh and blood.

But today we go back to primeval history, to the covenant made between God and every living thing on earth. This covenant is marked with the sign of the rainbow set in the clouds after the flood. God promises that he will never again cause it to rain so much as to wash away all living things; and that the rainbow will remind God himself not to get carried away and destroy all living things by a flood. When God sees it, God will remember — as if God could forget!

This first and model covenant goes far to tell us what a covenant is — what is the nature of a covenant. It shows us that the covenant has two parts: an agreement or promise, and a sign or testimony to that agreement or promise. Think for a moment about the agreements or promises that you make yourselves in your own lives. Even the most basic and simplest agreement is marked at least with a nod or a handshake, isn’t it? That outward sign is what tells you that the other party has agreed; if they just stared at you blankly, how would you know if they have agreed or not? We need at least a wink or a nod if we are not to have serious misunderstandings. And the graver and more important the agreement, the more likely we are to demand more than a wink or a nod, or even a handshake. We are likely to want it in writing — some kind of testimonial stating exactly what it was that was agreed to, and the terms of the agreement; something towhich we can refer back, later down the road, if it appears the agreement isn’t being kept. We want something we can hold up and say, “But you agreed — here it is in black and white.”

Of course, the agreement God made with humanity in this earliest covenant wasn’t in black and white. It was in the colors of the rainbow, set in the clouds to remind all — even God himself — of his promise not to flood the world again.

How many of you recall that grade-school memory device for remembering the seven colors of the rainbow, Mr. Roy G. Biv? Anyone remember that? It seems that although we think of the rainbow as having seven colors, at least some of the ancients did not perceive so many gradations of color. One of the ancient Greeks refers to the rainbow as “three-colored” and it has been suggested that the Hebrews saw it as having four distinct colors. And that these four colors spelled out the sacred name of God himself, to which I referred some weeks back. So they may have understood the rainbow literally as God’s “signature” in the heavens!

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There is another unusual feature to this covenant, and that is its essentially one-sided nature: if the rainbow is God’s signature, his is the only one on the agreement. Usually, and in all the later covenants we’ll talk about, a covenant marks out an agreement in which both parties have a responsibility to do something. But in this case, God does not look for or ask for anything specific from Noah. It’s true that in a portion of the story not included in our reading, God does demand that Noah and his descendants — which is to say, everybody, all of humanity — are not to eat meat with blood still in it. Adam and Eve, as you recall from Genesis, were allowed to eat of the fruit of the earth — no meat — but God gives Noah and his family the right to eat meat, on the condition they not consume any blood. But this permission to eat meat and the commandment not to eat blood do not seem to be at all linked with the covenant about the flood itself or the promise not to flood the earth again, or with the sign of the covenant set in the clouds. This appears to be a completely one-sided covenant, a promise that God is making to himself as much as to Noah, and the rainbow is there to serve as an aide-memoire for God himself, like a string you might tie on a finger to remind yourself of some task, or a memo you might jot on a sticky-note, attached to the side of your computer monitor.

Still, this is precisely why covenants have such an external sign: the sign is the testimony that a promise has been made, the reminder and proof that the covenant exists. And whether it serves to remind one or both parties, it does its work most effectively when the covenant itself specifies the sign as part of the agreement — in black and white, or in the colors of a rainbow.

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As you may know, the various churches that make up the Anglican Communion are exploring whether or not we should adopt a covenant that has been proposed for all of the member churches to adopt. This would make more formal what up to now has been a relatively informal arrangement. The discussion is whether we should move from the realm of handshakes, winks and nods, to a written constitution of sorts. There is also discussion as to whether the draft document proposed meets the test of being something that we all can agree to. There seems to be some interest in having some kind of agreement, but no clear agreement as to what that agreement should be. I will be alluding to this proposed Anglican Covenant over the next weeks, but I do not plan to make it the focus of my reflections.

For today I will only say that it seems the proposed Anglican Covenant is a bit short on specifics and long on good intentions; that is, the things everyone is supposed to agree to seem fairly agreeable, but they seemed that way already — so some are asking, Why do we need such an agreement when a handshake will do. As one English bishop put it: if we can agree to it, we do not need it, and if we can’t agree to it, it won’t accomplish anything. And even in England, out of the dioceses that have voted on it, they are ten-to-seven against it.

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But as I say, this proposed bit of Anglican diplomacy will not form the substance of my sermons this Lent. (Thanks be to God!) My primary interest is in exploring the historic covenants of the people of God, and that will form the content of our Scripture readings over the next few weeks, and my reflections on them.

And to return to today’s Rainbow Covenant, let us remember its most striking characteristic: it is God’s covenant with the earth, a reminder to God to keep his promise not to destroy the earth with a flood. It asks nothing of the earth, or of the people who dwell on it. It is the sign of a promise made by God, signed in the colors of the rainbow, and set in the clouds for all to see. As I said in a sermon a few weeks ago, this is a real, “I’m God and you aren’t” kind of message; God is saying, in effect, “By myself I have sworn.”

What promise could be more faithful, what words more comforting, than a covenant from God, a promise that God sealed with a sign of God’s own making. When we look to the skies and see the sign of the rainbow, let us remember that this is a sign from God and of God, a reminder that God is faithful and never-failing, and will stand fast by his Word. Let it be a sign to us of God’s unchanging compassion, unfailing love, and great faithfulness unto me, and to you, and to every descendant of Noah who dwells on God’s good earth.+

Now You See It

God plays peekaboo with his children... a sermon for Last Epiphany B

SJF • Last Epiphany B • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.+

Throughout the season since the Epiphany in early January we have been exploring concepts revolving around perception, knowledge and belief. We have reflected on why and how we have come to believe in God, and how our faith and our belief changes our lives, transforms and transfigures our lives, and how we spread and share that faith, the faith in our own transfiguration through God. This Last Sunday after the Epiphany is no exception.

Today we return to the theme with which the season began, when we spoke of that old blind priest Eli and the attentive boy Samuel. The theme is vision and perception — partial or, more precisely in the case of our readings today, on again and off again. Now you see it, now you don’t.

The transitory nature of revelation seems characteristic of the way that God deals with — and appears to — humanity. God does not, it seems, choose to reveal himself in permanent form, but in transitory glimpses, passing appearances. Revelation is not a constant stream, but more like one of those fountains that pulses and pauses. You will recall that in the story of the young Samuel the passage began by saying that visions were rare and the voice of God was not often heard — until, that is, God revealed himself to the boy Samuel with news that made every ear in Israel tingle. Recall also that when God appeared to Moses at the first, it was not as a rock or a monument but as a burning bush; and when God was revealed to the whole people of Israel it was not in a form like a mountain, but in the form of a cloud that descended upon the mountain. God was a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night — not a thing like the gods of the Egyptians, idols of metal or stone. God was not an object, like the Golden Calf that the Israelites foolishly tried to substitute for the living God who had chosen them to be his people.

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So it is that God — constant as God is in his own being — did not reveal himself with a kind of permanent constancy in those bygone days. We can see an echo of this in the account of Elijah’s being whisked away by God, and the clear message to his disciple Elisha concerning it: Keep your eyes open and watchful — if you see me being taken from you, you will inherit that double share you asked for; but if not, not. Indeed, when it happens, it is so quick and astounding, all fiery chariot and horses and whirlwind so that Elisha only has time to cry out to his vanishing father in God before he is taken from his sight. Now you see him, now you don’t.

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One might say that Elijah performs a similar guest appearance, and disappearance, on the mount of the Transfiguration. Joining Moses as the representative of the Law, Elijah as the spokesman for the Prophets appears to the wondering eyes of Peter, and James and John, there on the mountaintop, conversing with Jesus. And sure enough, as soon as Peter the Big Fisherman opens his big mouth — trying to prolong the vision by building dwellings, instead of accepting the transitory revelation for what it is — as soon as Peter tries to lay hold on it, make it permanent, a cloud envelopes them and God himself has the last word: this is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him! And suddenly, Elijah, Moses and the cloud are gone, and only Jesus remains. Now you see him... and now you see him still!

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But isn’t that the point, after all. Jesus is still with us. He is the final revelation of God, the very image of God — the last word, as indeed he was the first Word, the Word who was in the beginning with God. and who was, and is, God, and who has appeared to us in these latter days for our sake and for our salvation. So at the Transfiguration it is not Jesus who disappears — he is the one who remains, and is the one to whom the others defer as they step from the stage: even God the Father himself, turning the microphone over to his Son and telling that small audience, “Listen to him.”

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Lent is about to begin this Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, and during it we will journey with our Lord on up to Calvary on Good Friday, and through the Holy Saturday vigil as he lies in the tomb, and then on to the great celebration of his rising on Easter Day. Over those three days we will take part in that last great game of peekaboo that God played with his children — now you see him, now you don’t — and again after a little while you see him once again, but then, at the last, for ever.

God played peekaboo with his children when they were young, but now that we are growing to maturity in Christ the time for the games of childhood is past. Good Friday was the last time God in Christ ever said to humanity, “Now you can’t see me!” ... and then, again, we see.

Easter put an end to that, when the light shone out of the darkness, shining into our hearts to give the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ our Lord, who, behold, is with us always, even unto the end of the age. His Father wants us to listen to him, and he himself wants us to walk with him, in his presence and by his light, every day of our lives. Let us do as he commands, our mission high fulfilling, and follow him where he leads.+

Like and Unlike

We are weak, but he is strong; and yes, Jesus loves us! -- a sermon for Epiphany 5b

SJF • Epiphany 5b • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

To whom then will you compare me, or who is my equal? says the Holy One. Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these?... Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.

Today’s Scripture readings begin with a passage from Isaiah that portrays God at his very most indignant. The passage is rather like the section of the book of Job, when God finally says, basically, “Just who do you think you are talking to?” Not Downton Abbey’s Maggie Smith at her most indignant could raise her eyebrows high enough or purse her frown so low as to capture the indignation that God reveals in this passage. The short message in all of this, as someone once said, is: God is God and you aren’t.

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But what of God’s ministers — those chosen servants, like Isaiah himself, or like Saint Paul, or like any of us here today called to serve God to the best of our ability, with the strength that God provides? Of course we are not like God in his ultimate creativity and power. And yet he has called us and challenged us to be like him in reaching out to others to help them where they are. And in doing this we are called to be as much like our brothers and sisters who are in need of help, as we are to be like God who is the source of the power that allows us to help at all.

Saint Paul understood the importance of meeting people where they are if he was to reach them — you can’t stand aside in judgment against people if you really want to rescue them; and it is no good standing safely on the shore and shouting advice on how to swim to someone who is foundering and drowning out at sea. What you need to do is become like them by jumping into the water and swimming out to save them; but unlike them in knowing how to swim. And so Paul to the Jewish people reasserted his own Jewish heritage in order to win them over. To those under the law he became as one under the law in order to win those under the law. To those outside the law he became an outlaw in order to win those other outlaws back. Even to the weak he became weak; knowing that it was God’s strength and not his own that would help him in his mission of mercy and salvation.

For ultimately all of the strength must come from God — God who, as Isaiah assures us, does not faint or grow weary. God provides the swimmer with his skill, and provides those who are weak with amazing and reviving strength if they will wait for him, renewing them so that they rise up as with the wings of eagles, and run without weariness and walk without becoming faint.

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In the long run — especially when we remember our weakness or our need of help — it is great good news that God is not like us — for as the old children’s song so rightly says, “We are weak but he is strong.” And it is his strength that supports us in our weakness. As with rescuers trying to pull someone from a marsh or quicksand, if we were not able to stand upon the firm ground of his strength we could not lift ourselves or anyone else to safety. If God did not give strength and skill to the lifeguard, he couldn’t guard any lives.

This morning’s gospel shows us Jesus doing exactly this, from the moment he takes the hand of Simon’s fever-stricken mother-in-law, on through his healing of the crowds that gather around the doorway to the house. He comes to those who suffer where they are, and heals them with a word or with the touch of his hand. He is full of the power of God as no other human being ever was or could be — and yet he is also completely like us, completely one of us, completely with us where we are. In Jesus, like and unlike come together and coexist in the perfect unity of God in Man “made manifest in making whole palsied limbs and fainting soul.”

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And, as that children’s hymn reminds us, “Yes, Jesus loves me...” and you, and you, and all of us. It is for love and through love, the love of God who created the universe and made all that is. That passage from Isaiah shows God standing there, like an artist, and gently gesturing towards this earth that he is made, that makes its inhabitants look as small as grasshoppers; he waves a hand gently in the direction of monarchs, who rise and fall, and rise and fall; he then, as an artist in an exhibit showing those wonderful photographs from the Hubble Telescope showing the depths and powers and infinite riches of the starry universe, and then, without a need to make much of a show of it, basically says, “This is my work. Consider it; consider it, and then consider the power that rests in God — and which God has so graciously deigned to share with those who wait for him, reviving them even in their weakest moments and giving them the strength to fly like eagles. God loves us, and it is for that same love and through that same love that Christ who is strong comes to us to strengthen us in our weakness, out of his own strength poured into our weakness, clothing our weakness, that we too may run and not grow weary, may walk and not grow faint. For he has given us work to do, and wants us able and ready to do it.

Brothers and sisters, let us rely not on our own strength, but on his strength, which is boundless, and strive to be like him in devotion and service even if we cannot be like him in power and majesty. Let us thank God that God is not like us in our weakness, but is with us in his strength, and will strengthen our hands to serve and to minister in his Name. This service and this ministry have been committed to our hands, yet the power and the majesty is his and his alone, God the everlasting Father, Christ the co-eternal Son, and the Holy Spirit, advocate and guide.

Blaming it all on God

One thing God cannot resist is his beloved saying, "You don't love me any more..." — a sermon for Advent 1b

SJF • Advent 1b • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSGO that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence... You were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.

We come today to the beginning of a new church year, on this the first Sunday of Advent. In the four weeks leading up to Christmas — which falls on a Sunday this year — we will be hearing many texts of Scripture dealing with the theme of preparation for the Lord’s coming, both his first coming among us in Bethlehem as a child, and the second coming when he will return in power and great might to judge and rule the world.

Today we heard, and on the next two Sundays we will be hearing, passages from the prophet Isaiah. I will be taking them as my primary theme for reflection in this season of anticipation.

It is hard to overestimate the importance of Isaiah both in Jewish history and in how the Christian church made use of his prophecies — many of which came in short order to be understood as explicitly related to the person and work of Jesus Christ. Passages from the book of Isaiah are threaded through our Advent and Lenten seasons in particular: for Isaiah is the prophet both of the Lord’s coming and of the Suffering Servant.

For the Jewish people, the prophecies of Isaiah were a source of comfort and reassurance in the times leading up to their captivity in Babylon and through it and beyond. So extensive are these prophecies that some modern scholars suggest that there may well have been two or even three different “Isaiahs” all contributing to this collection of prophetic writing over as long as four hundred years.

But my purpose here is not to engage in literary criticism or historical speculation — my interest is in asking what this text meant in its own time and what it means for us today.

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The text we have before us comes from the later chapters of the book of Isaiah itself. In its form it represents a good example of a fairly common biblical model: a personal encounter with God, combining elements of accusation, confession, and petition. Confession and petition we are all fairly familiar with — as it forms a major part of our own ordinary Sunday worship. But accusation? We Christians don’t normally display that Jewish characteristic of chutzpah — evident in people such as Abraham and Job and Jeremiah — to stand up and wag our fingers in God’s face.

But Isaiah does. In the first part of the passage he is basically saying to God, in a challenge, “Why don’t you show yourself if you want people to believe in you? Especially to those who deny you — those pagan nations that have been persecuting your people? Why don’t you act as you did back in the old days; when you tore open the heaven and came down like a mighty fire; when you split open the earth and made it quake?” Isaiah is challenging God to act as he did when he brought his people out of Egypt, when he brought about tumult and destruction in the land of Canaan, leveling the walls of Jericho, and delivered his people from the hands of those who sought to destroy them, bringing them to and settling them in a land of promise: that promised land of milk and honey.

Now, so far, in all of this Isaiah has been saying the kinds of things that appear elsewhere in Hebrew Scripture, especially in the appeals made to God in the Psalms. He is lamenting the fact that God seems to have hidden himself; that God is no longer manifest to the world, no longer helping his people. But then Isaiah says something rather astounding: “You were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.” I’m tempted to say, “Oh now it’s God’s fault!”

But fortunately, Isaiah doesn’t stop with blaming God for the sins of the people. As he makes clear in the rest of the passage, he is simply trying to show how completely dependent the people are upon God. Without God helping them, of course they fall into sin — without God’s constant help and support, even the best and most righteous of them is like a filthy cloth. The autumn season of this people is well underway: they’ve faded like leaves and their iniquities like the wind have blown them all away. They are like a tree that has been uprooted and removed from its soil. They are no longer planted in God, and so they wither away and perish. They have even given up praying — they are so disappointed and despondent because God has not shown himself for so long, has hidden his face from them for so long, that they have given up. They have despaired.

And then, of course, out of the depths of this despond, Isaiah turns to his affirmation: and yet you are our God. In spite of all of the feelings of abandonment, even of betrayal, God is still God and this people are the work of God’s hand. God is the potter and they are the clay. And Isaiah ends with an appeal to God to remember and forgive his people. The uprooted tree will be planted once again.

What Isaiah, and the other prophets and poets who wrote and spoke in the same way have learned is precisely how powerful are those words, “You don’t love me anymore”!

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This is the appeal that a loving God cannot and will not resist. For of course God loves this people, loves them as dearly as any lover ever did, loves them with the fiercely jealous love of a husband who suspects his wife has strayed, loves them with the powerful and protective love of a mother for her child in danger.

This appeal reminds me of a very powerful scene in a Yiddish film that was produced in Germany just before the Nazi assault on the Jews began in earnest. In its own way it was, sadly, as prophetic as Isaiah.

The film is set in a nineteenth century shtetl, in Eastern Europe in the era of “Fiddler on the Roof,” when and where the main enemies of the Jewish people were Russians and Poles, not Nazis. A village has been reduced to rubble by a marauding band of Cossacks. They’ve burned down the synagogue, raped the young women and killed most of the young men in the village. One old man is left sitting in the midst of the devastation, having rescued a precious Torah scroll from the fire. He sits in the ashes with the Torah scroll in his arms like a wounded child, rocking and weeping. And like a modern Isaiah, he raises his voice to God in a lament:

Why have you done this to your people, O God? Why have you allowed this to happen? Down through the ages, again and again we are persecuted and killed for your sake! I will not be silent; I will raise my voice and cry out to you, like a child who calls out to its mother. “Mama, Mama; it hurts!”

That old man, like Isaiah, hoped that God would hear and respond to this lament — though the response might be delayed, God the just judge — and even more the loving parent to these children — would hear this plea, and ultimately save and deliver his people. When all else fails, when other defenders are ready to give up, when human justice fails, the only plea that makes sense is to appeal to the highest court of all, before the judgment seat of the Almighty, even if it means calling out, “Don’t you love me any more?”

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So, while appearing to blame it all on God, this is actually an appeal to God, a way to evoke a response from God who will not ignore or reject the appeal of those whom God does love so much. It is an appeal to God to be God. For God is love, and is always more willing to forgive than we are to pray. So, then, let us pray that God will be God. And in our own times of trial, personal and communal, and feelings of loss or abandonment, kindle the fire of hope that God will save those whom he loves, and has called to be his own. That God will plant our leafless trees by streams of living water.+

Dorothy's God

SJF • Proper 16c 2010 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Our God is a consuming fire…+

If we were to imagine our Scripture readings today as items on a supermarket shelf, and then to take a look at the list of ingredients, we would find: sheer terror, sweeping hail, sprinkled blood, consuming fire, strange deeds, alien works, weeping and gnashing of teeth. I don’t know about you, but when I read a label like that I place the box back on the shelf, and look for one with fewer calories and less fat.

Today’s readings confront us with a God who is completely unlike us— whether thundering like a volcano on Mount Sinai, or in a technicolor spectacle with a cast of thousands on Mount Zion. So we find ourselves, you and I and every human being since Adam and Eve, gently returning this God to the shelf, and going off in search of the diet section. This God is just too rich and heavy; we’d rather just have an apple.

History ever since that apple in the garden is full of lo-cal religion, and the Letter to Hebrews cites another example. We’ll hear the full account itself in a few weeks, but I’m sure you remember it. The children of Israel, have been brought out of Egypt with mighty works, assembled by God in a holy place where they might be changed into a new people. They behold God’s majesty from afar, and God does them the great service of hand-carving his word in stone with letters of fire, entrusting it to Moses, who brings it to the people in a physical, visible form that can be seen and touched — for God deeply desires to be in Covenant with them. But Moses finds — what? — that the people have already lost their faith that God can deliver the goods. They turn from the living God to the works of their own hands, where they think they can take charge, in a faithless exercise of their own selfish self-determination. They want more control. They are happier with a manufactured god, a golden calf who won’t do much of anything for them— but who will ask nothing of them.

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Manufactured gods can take many forms. Politics has always played its part: from the time Isaiah refers too, when the rulers in Jerusalem vainly promised safety because they’d done a deal with death, through all the schemes that politicians have produced ever since: from the Divine Right of Kings to the Dictatorship of the Proletariat; big government or small government; Tory or Whig; Democrat or Republican; Tea-Party Independent or Party Loyalist.

The truth of the matter is, that behind all of these tin-plate gods, and all our more personal household gods, there lurks the fearsome knowledge, deep-down, that these substitutes can’t really replace the noisy, alien God on the mountaintop. Deep down we know that golden calves are powerless. But we put up with their powerlessness, and even in the long run try to whittle God down to size, to seek to treat God like one of these powerless Gods: to put God in a box. So we nurse the hope that as we approach the fearsome mountain we will discover that God will turn out, after all, to be a nice old man hiding behind a curtain off to the side. What we all want in the short run is a God like Dorothy’s Wizard of Oz.

We know that the special effects are our human substitutes for God, they are only special effects; they don’t really do anything; they don’t really change anything. But then, we don’t really want to be changed, do we? We just want what we want. We maybe don’t mind some external alterations, but we don’t want to be changed, transformed deep down where we need it most, right in our hearts. So we go for the superficial answers of artificial gods, of a carnival huckster turned “wizard.”

And the nice old wizard — the phoney religion — appears to deliver at first. Everyone seems to get what they want: a brain, a heart, courage, even a trip home. The short-run god appears to deliver.

But what happens in the long run? We know the disappointing answer. Artificial gods cannot save. The crash diet doesn’t work. The government, big or small, centralized or federalized, communist or capitalist, can’t solve the problems of the world, far less satisfy the inner needs of the human heart — where all of the world’s problems have their start. Artificial gods can’t provide us with what we need in the long run— just as artificial food can’t nourish us.

Artificial gods can only provide artificial blessings: love as mechanical as the Tin Man’s clockwork heart; courage as cheap as the Cowardly Lion’s plated medal; wisdom as thin as the Scarecrow’s diploma; and a home that there’s no place like, because there never was such a place.

The short-run solutions of artificial gods don’t last. What happened after Oz? Did the Tin Man go through a mid-life crisis and succumb to metal fatigue; did the Lion with his new-found courage perish in a fatal bungee-jumping mishap; perhaps the Scare-crow had a nervous breakdown? And Dorothy— or rather, let’s call her by her adopted name, Judy Garland; because even that wasn’t her real name, which was Frances Gumm — we know what happened to her: “home” for her became a sanitarium; and the false gods of drugs and alcohol got her in the end. The short-run, make-do, lo-cal, no-fat, man-made gods don’t work.

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So then, are we left with no other choice than the mighty fortress God, the One of Sinai and Zion? Yes, I’m afraid that’s it, my friends; for salvation lies on the mountain — for only there is the sure foundation that offers opportunity for change, the kind of change that means life: deep down change — right here — where change needs to begin. It is in God’s nature to shake things up— God is not safe, as C. S. Lewis said — God shakes us up, God shakes the world up, not to destroy it, but to set it, and us, right. God is like the cosmic Dad who fixes the TV by giving it a miraculous bang on the side. God is like the cosmic Mom who cleans the throw rug by briskly shaking it out the back window. God is the cosmic Lover who grabs hysterical humanity by the shoulders and gives it a shake — and brings it to its senses.

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But there is even more to this mystery. There is more than the fire and the flame, the lightning and the thunder. It turns out that God is behind the curtain after all. Not the deceptive and concealing curtain behind which the Wizard of Oz hid, but the curtain of the temple, torn open from top to bottom, revealing our God to be — not a carnival humbug with ready explanations and inadequate answers — but a naked, wounded, suffering figure nailed to a cross, forgiving those who nailed him to it: one who shakes us up in the depth of our being and changes us through and through, through the power of his loving, transforming, sacrificial forgiveness. What can be more upsetting than for someone whom you have hurt to say, “I forgive you”? That is what changes us, deep down.

Behind and within the earthshaking mystery, behind and within the utterly different, we discover someone who is utterly the same. We meet someone who ate at people’s tables, who taught in their streets — this same Jesus, of one being with the God who thundered on Sinai’s height, who was praised and will be praised on the hill of Zion, and who finally appeared in the scandalous and transforming power of his saving and forgiving death on that third hill, Calvary.

What is more, Jesus comes among us still — do you know that? — and deigns to be our guest. He eats at our tables— do we pay attention to his dinner conversation? He teaches in our streets — but are we too busy to take notice of what he says? His brothers and sisters are all around us, and as we do to them, we do to him. Do we reject the God who comes to us as one like us, as surely as those at the foot of Sinai rejected the God who revealed himself to them as something so unlike them? We do so at our peril. The Summary of the Law bids us love God and neighbor.

Our call is to remain rooted in God, safe in the mighty fortress amidst the storm, trusting that God will change us so that we can change the world, the world in which we meet God and neighbor. We are called to strive for the real well-being of every man, woman, and child whom we meet, in the knowledge that all of them are made in God’s image.

Our faith is not perfect, nor is our performance. We are still in the process of being changed, and we struggle and resist that change. We still try to keep God at arm’s length. The problem is, it’s very hard to pass through the narrow door to life with our arms held out in stubborn refusal to be led or carried. Our arms can be put to better use: to reach out to each other, to feed and clothe, to hold and if need be to carry each other. When we do so we are touching another child of God, and we change each other as God has changed us.

We have come this morning, after all, to something that can be touched. Not stone tablets hewn from a mountainside, but the responsive hands of our neighbors that clasp ours in peace.

Our hands in just a few minutes will join around this banquet table, hand to hand with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, and all the folk from north, south, east, and west, gathered with the spirits of the righteous made perfect. And so, let us give thanks, offering to God an acceptable worship — as we have been accepted — to the only God, living and true, who dwells in light inaccessible, but who deigns to dwell with us as one of us as well.+

The Fatherhood of God

SJF • Proper 7b 2009 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jesus woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And he said to them, “why are you afraid?”+

Happy Father’s Day! This being Father’s Day, I thought it would be good for us to reflect for a moment on what we mean when we call God our Father — as we do every time we say the prayer that Jesus himself taught us, literally almost every time we gather for prayer, either formally or informally.

First of all, it is most important to admit to our own experience of earthly fathers, as this will have some impact on us when we try to think of God our heavenly father. It doesn’t take too much earthly experience to recognize that not all earthly fathers are good fathers. I hope and pray that most of us here were fortunate enough to have good and loving fathers; but even if we have not experienced a bad father ourselves, we have no doubt heard about them or read about them, or perhaps had friends whose fathers were not as good as they ought to have been.

It is perfectly understandable for someone who had the misfortune to be brought up by either a neglectful or a cruel father to say, “I don’t want to think of God as a father, because my father was so terrible.” And it may take such people a long time to come to understand that the problem is not with God but with the bad experience they had of their own fathers.

The point is that God is not simply like any and all fathers, good or bad; but rather that God our Father in heaven is a good and loving father. All earthly fathers are called to be like him, even though many of them fail to be so — some simply because of the natural imperfections that all human beings share, others to a greater extent because they are truly bad fathers.

But that, thank God, is not God’s fault. God is the perfect father: and all of earthly fathers, even as we seek to emulate God’s fatherhood, will fall short in one way or another.

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Our Scripture readings today give us a glimpse into the nature of God’s fatherhood — into what kind of a father God is. We have before us, as it were, three pictures of God our Father in heaven, three photographs from the church’s family album, and they can give us some insight into who God our Father is, and what kind of a father God is.

On Trinity Sunday I cautioned about the error of contrasting the God of the Old Testament as harsh and judgmental, with the God of the New Testament as sweet and loving. There is only one God, who, as I said a couple of weeks ago is sometimes stern with us because of our failings but is always loving to us because we are his children.

I mention this because the reading from towards the end of the book of Job presents God in one of those sterner moments. You will recall that the book of Job consists almost entirely of a conversation between Job and his friends about the nature of God. They’ve been arguing back and forth about whether Job deserved the suffering that he has received, and whether God was fair in dishing it out.

And finally God speaks up, out of the whirlwind. And we have to admit it’s pretty stern stuff! However, even with the whirlwind and storm and tempest and the stern language, I invite you for a moment to hear this speech in a different light. Imagine a group of children, sisters and brothers, maybe one or two of them adopted into the family, perhaps at a slumber party, not having turned the lights out, and still talking among themselves as the shadows fall. And they’ve been arguing about is which of them loves their father best, and which of them the father loves best. And imagine them saying the kinds of things that children will say about their parents when they are off on their own. “I know Dad is tough but I can always get to him through Mom.” “If Dad really loved you best you would get a bigger allowance.” “Dad likes the best because I gave him the best Father’s Day present last year.” And on it goes into the night. And then imagine that the father is standing outside the door hearing every word.

Don’t you think that when the father opens the door he might say something very much like what God said to Job and his friends? Here is a picture of God who is angry, not because he hates his children, but because they have reduced him to a mere force to be reckoned with, and manipulated if possible. And so God lays it out: “Do you think you can work me this way? Tell me, if you know.”

And even here the language that God uses to Job reflects God’s care and nurture — notice how much the language about the creation of the sea makes God sound like a caring parent: when the sea is born, bursting forth from the womb, God makes a blanket out of the clouds, and puts a safety gate on the doorway at the top of the stairs, with a stern warning, to go thus far, and no farther.

So that’s our first snapshot of God: stern, yes; but only because he loves and cares so much.

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The second picture shows us God as the source of reconciliation and forgiveness. What could be more loving than that? Here is a father like the one in that other beautiful snapshot — the father of the prodigal son — who not only doesn’t store up wrongs and trespasses to hold against us, but gives us a fresh start: a new creation in which everything old has passed away and everything has become new. As Paul says, this is all from God who reconciled us to himself through Christ. And not only does God forgive us, and welcome us back, and let us start afresh — but even gives us a promotion, to serve with Paul as ambassadors for Christ, to spread the good news of reconciliation to all of our brothers and sisters, about what a wonderful father we have, a wonderful father who loves us, forgives us, and reconciles us. This portrait shows us God as generous and forgiving, the source of refreshment and grace and creativity — and a whole new start.

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The final snapshot really does look familiar. How many of us, especially as young children, haven’t had moments when a thunderstorm or windstorm or some other frightening event hasn’t sent us running to our parents looking for reassurance that everything is going to be all right?

I remember from my childhood — I was about six years old — a terrible hailstorm that swept through Baltimore. The hailstones were literally the size of golf-balls, and heavy enough to cause the roof of the house across the street to collapse under the weight. My younger brother and I were terrified, but I admit a little excited to see such a display — the hailstones were breaking car windshields up and down the street.

I remember my dad, though, standing at the screen door, and then suddenly bursting it open and rushing out onto the front walk, to gather up a few handfuls of the huge hailstones — with my mother screaming and shouting out to stop him. Those hailstones went into a mug of Coca-Cola after Dad came back into the house, and we all enjoyed a sip and enjoyed the clattering as it continued, no longer afraid now, as those hailstones continued to fall, and my father laughed, and Mom just shook her head at my dad’s impetuousness.

In our gospel passage today, don’t you hear the familiar voices of children crying out in the disciples’ complaint, “Do you not care that we are perishing?” Do you not also hear the familiar voice of a father having been awakened from his nap on the sofa to deal with a spider in the bathtub, “Why are you afraid.” God will manage those acts of bravado, calming the storm, and our fears, and even killing that spider in the bathtub, with one hand tied behind his back. God is our refuge and our strength, a very present help in trouble.

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These three family snapshots give us some sense of who God is — and taken together with all of the rest of the pictures in that family album we call the Bible, we can be assured of certain truths about God. We can be assured that God our Father can and will be stern with us — but only because he cares so much about us and loves us so much that he seeks to protect us from danger — both from a dangerous world and the dangers we get ourselves into when we turn away from him and treat him as something other than who he is.

We can be sure that however badly we stray God can and will forgive us and reconcile us to him, and give us a fresh start and a new life — and even a promotion!

And we can be sure that God will protect us when we are afraid, and shelter us from the storm and the night — calming the winds of fear, and assuring us that even when our faith is small, his power to save is great.

So let us give thanks to God our Father, the Father Almighty, our creator, our reconciler, our shelter from the stormy blast, and our eternal home.+

Three Things About God

SJF • Trinity Sunday 2009 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jesus said to Nicodemus, Are you a teacher of Israel yet you do not understand these things?+

Today is Trinity Sunday, our annual opportunity, on an almost-summer morning, to talk a bit about the nature of God — our Father and our Creator, but also Christ our Brother, and the Holy Spirit our advocate and guide. Today, in honor of the Trinity, I want to say three things about God, three things about the nature of God, about who God is, and what that means for us.

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The first thing I want to say is that God is One. This truth echoes forth from the first of the Ten Commandments, on through the most important Jewish prayer — the prayer that gives rise to all other prayer: Shema Yisrael Adonai Elohenu Adonai ehad — Hear, O Israel, The Lord our God is One Lord. And what was true for Israel is also true for us. Among the earliest errors to plague the church was the mistaken belief that the God of the Old Testament, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, wasn’t the same God who became incarnate in Jesus Christ. You will still sometimes hear people talk about “the angry judgmental God of the Old Testament” and the “loving God of the Gospel” as if there were two Gods. Well, I’m sorry, but we don’t believe in two Gods. We believe in One God — who is sometimes angry because we don’t do all that we should, but who is always loving because we are — even when we misbehave — his children, through the Holy Spirit.

Later, another misguided effort was made to parcel out history to the Trinity as if the Trinity were divided into three gods. A monk named Joachim of Fiore thought it made sense to give God the Father authority over the Old Testament times, Jesus the Son rulership for the few years he was on earth, and up until the time when things would be turned over to God the Holy Spirit in a new age of universal peace and love, which Joachim predicted would start about the year 1260. An interesting idea — but boy, was he ever wrong!

These errors, and others like them, forget that God is One at the same time that God is Trinity. The Trinity is not three Gods, but three Persons in One God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is the same God who became incarnate in Jesus Christ, and the same God who fills the church in the Holy Spirit. God is One. That is the first thing to remember about God.

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Now, in case you haven’t noticed, we are doing theology! How about that! We are all theologians, quite consciously at least one day a year, when Trinity Sunday invites us to look for a moment at the nature of God. For that’s what theology is, looking at God not so much for what God does but as who God is.

Theology was long ago described as “faith seeking understanding.” Note the order. Theology isn’t about understanding seeking faith — if you try to understand God before you trust and believe in God you will never get there. We are too young to understand God, but if we love God and trust God, loving and trusting as only a young child can, our faith and love seeking to understand, God will then pour the Holy Spirit into our hearts. And God will do this not to give us all truth — nobody has the corner on the truth market — but to lead us into all truth, as a loving parent leads a child to learn. God graciously leads us into the beginnings of the glimmers of understanding. as our hearts and minds are turned towards God. Even though we cannot comprehend God, we can at least turn towards God and allow our hearts to be warmed by the glow of his love.

This is what Moses did when he turned aside to see why the burning bush was not consumed. He did not know beforehand that he was turning towards the Holy One of Israel. All he knew was that he saw something marvelous, and like a curious child, he wanted to know more about it. The bush burned, and yet it was not consumed.

And this burning yet unburnt bush provides me with the second thing I want to say about God: God touches his creation, and makes himself known to us through that creation, but God is infinitely more than the creation. God is not just the Creator of Everything that Is, but the Source of Everything that can Possibly Be. God utterly infuses and saturates the whole of creation, and yet God was God before creation began, and God will still be God after this creation ceases to be, and the new creation is begun.

The word for this marvelous quality of God is holiness. God is Holy: intimately connected to the universe, the source of its existence, and yet completely distinct from it. Perhaps it might help to think of how water permeates and fills a sponge, and yet is completely distinct from it. The water is still water, filling the sponge, saturating every pore — and without the water the sponge is just a hard, dry thing of no use to anyone!

So it is that God infuses the universe, filling it and making it useful and meaningful and fruitful. God is holy, deeply present while remaining completely distinct: the bush burns but is not consumed, and Moses, though called by God to approach, is warned to “come no closer” than is absolutely necessary.

God fills the universe and makes it work, but when at the end of time the universe is squeezed out like a used up sponge, God will still be God. God is Holy: that is the second truth about God to reflect on today.

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The third thing about God that our Scriptures teach us is that God, in addition to being One and being Holy, is also Loving. God loves us; indeed God loves us so much that he has given us his only Son, to the end that everyone who believes in him might not perish, but have everlasting life. Saint Paul tells us that God’s own Spirit speaks in our hearts and calls out “Abba! Father.” The Spirit speaking in our hearts lets us know that we are children of a loving God, who is the source of our being.

The problem is we don’t always appreciate how much God loves us. So Jesus tells the old sage Nicodemus that the only way to know God’s love is to be reborn, to be born from above, not through the flesh, but through water and the Spirit, God’s own gift to us. God loves us, and has shown us how to love him back. But again, it is not about understanding God first, but about loving God first, about being reborn, being a new creation, about becoming once again a child who can wonder and love and trust.

Our own lives as children and later as adults show us that love comes before understanding. Most of us have gone through that human transition, from loving our parents when we were little, and then as we grew into our teen years and began to try to understand the world, finding it very hard sometimes to understand our parents! And then, as we and they grew older, as the turmoils of adolescence cooled down and we became adults ourselves, we became aware once more of the love that was there all along.

The great American humorist Mark Twain noted this phenomenon when he said, “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”

That is part of what Jesus meant when he said that it is as a child that we come to God, that it is as one reborn that we come to know who it is that is the source of our life, that God is Love.

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Remember these three things our Scriptures teach us today: God is One, dwelling in light inaccessible from before time and forever. God is Holy, untouchable, beyond our reach, burning and yet not consuming, pervading but distinct from creation. And God is also Loving, generous, giving us a new birth through water and the spirit and making us children of God, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ. May we ever thus be blessed by the God who is One, Holy and Loving, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.+