Answering the Call

SJF • Epiphany 2a 2010 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Listen to me, O coastlands, pay attention, you peoples from far away! The Lord called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.

Last week, we celebrated the Baptism of Jesus, and I spoke about the inauguration of his mission and ministry. It was at his baptism that Jesus began to undertake the task that the Father in heaven had sent him to accomplish, in the three short years that would end on Calvary and in the garden tomb from which God raised him victorious over death. His baptism marked the initiation of his mission, his response to the call from God.

But when did that call come? And what form did it take? And what about the calls that each of us receive from God to take up our own work for God’s purposes for us and for the kingdom?

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In one sense, God’s call to Christ was issued from before time and forever, within the eternal and everlasting communion of the Persons of the Holy Trinity itself. There was no time when the Son of God was not in perfect communion with the Father, from and of whom he was eternally begotten, God from God, light from light. And long before the creation of the world — even before there was such a thing as “being before” — the Son knew the mind of the Father, God’s will for the world, and God’s purpose for the Son of God, with a perfection of knowledge that is beyond our understanding.

So why is it that Jesus waited thirty years to answer that call? Let me remind us again as I did last week that apart from the account of the child Jesus left behind in the Temple at about the age of twelve, and his response to his parents that he needed to be about his father’s business, the Scriptures are silent as to what Jesus was doing during those years. We know nothing of him as a teenager, or as a young adult. Only about the age of thirty — getting very close to what the ancients would consider middle age — and believe me, the older I get the younger thirty sounds! — only then does Jesus step forward, as if responding to the call for the first time.

Many scholars have tried to fill in those missing years, with many interesting speculations — some of them hanging by a very slender thread. Some suggest that Jesus spent his youth as a zealot, or among the Essenes, or part of one of the other small groups of sectarians that emerged in that very difficult time of religious and political foment and struggle. Some suggest that Jesus was of a more traditional bent: a pupil of Jewish tradition, on his way to becoming a rabbi, a student in one of the schools of the Pharisees, and a Pharisee himself.

Don’t be so surprised! Not only would that explain why many Pharisees did become followers of Jesus, but also why many other Pharisees opposed him: there is nothing like the anger that a committed sect can express towards one of its own members when they part ways!

More than that, there is a verse in John’s Gospel that appears just before the passage we heard today. The Pharisees send to ask John the Baptist if he is the Messiah, and after denying it he says, “Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me: I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” And of course that turns out, in the following verses, to be Jesus. Suggestive? Yes; conclusive? No.

So, as I don’t want to speculate further than the Scripture allows or suggests, when it comes to the question of when and how Jesus heard the call of God, let me stick with the things that are abundantly clear. There are two things that Scripture tells or shows us about Jesus that help to explain how Jesus came to the point of acting on his call, and beginning the course that would take him to Jerusalem, to death on the cross, and rising from the grave.

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The first is the fact that Jesus lived and breathed Scripture: not so odd that the living Word of God should be familiar with the written word of God. But I’m not talking here of any kind of memories from before time, some innate familiarity with the Law and the Prophets. I’m suggesting that Jesus studied the Scripture as any young Jewish boy or young man of his time would have done —
— that he heard the prophets and the law expounded by the local rabbi; and at least once, in that precious episode from his late childhood, he spent a short time in the company of the most prestigious teachers of the law in Jerusalem, the rabbis, at precisely the time of life when a Jewish boy would enter manhood. Scripture doesn’t tell us so, but we know from historical accounts that this was when the great Rabbi Hillel was teaching, and there are clear echoes of that rabbi’s thought in the teaching of Jesus. (This is where it would have made sense that Jesus later spent some time as a pupil in the school of Rabbi Hillel, one of the two great Pharisee rabbinic schools that dominated Jerusalem in those years. And of course, what do John’s disciples call Jesus, when they first approach him, on our Gospel account today? “Rabbi!”) But I’m veering into speculation again — I’m sorry, but it is an attractive idea!

But let me stick with the fact that wherever Jesus learned the Scriptures, he knew them intimately, and his intimacy with those precious words, particularly the words of the prophets, spoke to him, and echoed in his mind and heart, playing their part in awakening the dormant call to his true identity, his true self as the chosen one of God, the Messiah.

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The second thing we know about Jesus is his close association with his cousin John the Baptist, six months his senior. This would not be the first time that the example of an older relative, a cousin or a brother, would inspire a young person to undertake a similar course of action — how many young people go into medicine, or the armed forces, or teaching, because an older relative has inspired them — a fact of which the elder may not even be aware? Jesus clearly saw something very special in John the Baptist, knowing what he would later say, acknowledging his greatness; just as John the Baptist clearly saw something very special in Jesus.

And that is where the internal call resting in Jesus’ heart was answered by an external call — a special kind of endorsement and ratification — from John the Baptist. The very person to whom Jesus has looked up and emulated turns and says those astounding words: “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’” And he testifies about what happened at the baptism of Jesus, how the Spirit descends, in fulfillment of the promise, that he would one day see someone upon whom the Spirit would descend, and that this would be the Son of God! The light bulb went on in John the Baptist’s head and it all came together. And I have to note that when John, in today’s Gospel twice says that “I did not know him” it doesn’t mean he didn’t know Jesus, but that until that moment he didn’t know who he was. There is a big difference between, “I didn’t know who he was,” and “I didn’t know who he was.” Suddenly the light bulb goes on in John’s head, the prophecy comes true, and he realizes, “This is the Son of God.”

And it is at this moment that in Jesus’ mind as well the light shines — and he realizes as well who he is: the internal percolation of the prophecies he has studied for years suddenly mesh with the external proclamation of John: the realization that he is “the one who comes from before” — not just before John, but before everything; as Jesus would later proclaim, before Abraham; in a very real sense before Adam, before the worlds were born, Jesus rested in the eternal counsel of the great I AM. The words of Isaiah suddenly take on this powerful meaning, “The Lord called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.” Jesus realizes that Isaiah is talking about him!

And with that realization, Jesus immediately begins his ministry: which also starts with calling — calling some of John’s disciples, and then through Andrew giving Peter a new name, and then finding Philip and through him Nathanael, and soon the apostles are at work and the Gospel is brought to light.

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And what I want to say to you today is that God’s call can be just the same — is just the same — for us. God has called each and every one of us. From before we were born, while we were still in our mother’s womb, God has a purpose and aim for each and every human being made in the image and likeness of God. As someone once very bluntly put it, “God don’t make trash.”

God has a goal for each person born, from before they are born, and the call is planted in every heart. And to awaken our awareness to that call, as we grow and learn and come to understand it, God gives us the Scriptures — the same Scriptures that nourished the boy Jesus and guided him into adulthood. And God also gives us examples: older brothers or sisters or aunts or uncles or cousins or parents or friends, who by their witness and their encouragement can help fan the spark into a full flame of glory as we answer the call that has lain dormant in our hearts for all those years.

And guess what: these two things come together in the church — where the words of God and the people of God are joined together in teaching and preaching and praying and praising. This is where this elements come together: word and sacrament together, vitally important to our lives as faithful people, and as a church, as we seek to answer — each of us — our own call. What does the old hymn say? “Let none stand idle” — let us answer the call. As Paul told the Corinthians, called as we are to be saints: The testimony of Christ has been strengthened among us, so that we are not lacking in any spiritual gift.

The call has been issued, God’s call to each and every one of us, he has given us the Scriptures and our fellow Christians old and young to guide us; he has give us gifts, each of us: gifts that the Spirit will spark to life if we allow God’s grace to work upon us. God is calling us. There is work to do. Are you ready?+

Risky Business

SJF • Proper 26c• Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jesus said, “Zacchaeus, make haste and come down; for I must stay at your house today.”

While the Gospel is full of people whose lives were changed by contact with the saving power of Christ, I’ve always been attracted to the story of Zacchaeus, the tax collector from Jericho. And that’s not just because Zacchaeus is the biblical hero of short people! Rather it is because of the wonderful risk that Zacchaeus took, and the answering risk that Jesus took in response to it.

This biblical event is like one of those old medieval paintings with two panels facing each other, each of which tells half of the story, but which also reflect each other in meaning or theme.

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The first panel shows us the little tax-collector climbing a tree, getting up above the crowds so that he can see Jesus. Now, it is important to think for a moment about what prompted this little man to do this; tax collectors normally don’t climb trees! We can be sure that Zacchaeus has heard something about Jesus, maybe only the noise of the crowd, but wants to know more. The text does not tell us what exactly he has heard; perhaps he’s heard about the healing miracles, or the wise teaching Jesus has given as he has moved from town to town. Perhaps he’s heard that this Jesus has gotten on the wrong side of the Pharisees — which is the neighborhood he himself lives in and knows quite well! Or perhaps he’s heard of the experience of his colleague, the other tax-collector Levi, who invited Jesus to his home for dinner and ended up with the name Matthew. Perhaps Zacchaeus has heard about some of the stern stories Jesus has been telling about rich people and their fate — the same stories we’ve been hearing in the gospel over the last few weeks — and being a rich man himself, is perhaps becoming a bit worried about what might lay in store for him! Or perhaps all he hears is the noise of the crowd and naturally wonders what is going on to cause such a commotion.

Whatever the impulse, it is enough to inspire this little man to action. Being a short person myself, I can understand the frustration he must feel when the crowds block his view. When I was in England last week, in London, I missed most of the changing of the Guard. Not the big show at Buckingham Palace but at the Horse Guards nearby; and not on the parade ground where they troop the colors but in the inner courtyard, where are there are just two horses and 14 guards — but still only saw the two on horseback, because I was at the back of the pack! I got a better view, to be honest, of the backs of peoples hands as they took pictures with their cell phones.

So I understand what it is like. But more importantly, I can also understand the power of the call of Christ that must be at work in him to allow him to set aside any sensitivity over his height, and take a risk. This little man — rich though he is — you must understand, is not a popular man in Jericho; he is an outcast in his own town no matter how rich he is; as I noted already, he is a man considered a hopeless a sinner by the religious leaders. And no tax collector, good or bad, is ever particularly popular with those from whom the taxes are collected. It wouldn’t be too far off, if we were to do a modern version of this story, to picture Danny DeVito in the role of a local loan-shark or swindler. That is how the people of his time regard tax-collectors, who make their living not so much by the legitimate collection of taxes, but by bribes and extortion, and the hand that goes this way — you know what I mean: behind the back, under the table! Out of sight. Such people — people who make their treasure that way — treasure as well what little respect they get — remember how important respect was in the world of the Godfather! — and to risk the ridicule of climbing a tree, risking the contempt they already know from their neighbors.

What must be the power of the grace of God at work in this tax-collector that he risks making a fool of himself by climbing a tree so he can see Jesus. He knows he will look ridiculous, but he doesn’t care. He wants to see Jesus, and so he nails his pride to that tree. Perhaps he knows, somewhere in his heart, that this is the most important thing he ever does in his life; the most important thing: to see Jesus Christ.

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That’s the first panel of this picture. The second panel shows us Jesus doing something equally surprising and equally risky. He calls Zacchaeus and tells him to come down, and invites himself to the tax-collector’s house to be his guest.

Jesus flies in the face of convention in doing this, as outrageous in Jericho as he’s been elsewhere in his ministry, mingling with folks the Pharisees and scribes think are beyond the pale, the riff-raff, the low-down. But Jesus is, after all, only doing what he was sent there to do: bringing salvation to a son of Abraham dispossessed by his self-righteous brothers. Jesus flies in the face of custom and tradition, and evokes a change in a man who was thought past hope. The change in Zacchaeus, the thankful response to salvation crossing his threshold, as he turns his life around, literally turning his riches around and returning half — half — to the poor, and four times over to anyone he has wronged. He experiences true wealth, the sure and certain knowledge of God’s love and forgiveness, the Good News in all of its fullness, compared to which all the treasure he has accumulated over the years is, as Saint Paul called his learning and pedigree, so much rubbish.

But that is still to come. For now, the panel shows us Jesus calling Zacchaeus, and the tongues start to wag at once: “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.” You’d think by now the religious leaders would have gotten the message, but clearly they still haven’t got a clue. They don’t understand who Jesus is, why he is there, what he is doing, what risks he is willing to take. All they see is their own outrage: that nasty little sinner Zacchaeus, and Jesus going with him as his guest. In the panel painting you can see them heading off to dinner, while the crowd stands in a huddled group off to the side, shaking their heads and clucking their tongues.

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That’s the second panel. Now I have a surprise for you. Maybe not such a surprise if you’ve seen those medieval panel paintings. Because just as in a medieval altar piece, these panels fold open, to reveal something else. When we fold open those two panels, a third panel is revealed, that draws the themes of the first two into one. It shows us someone else taking the greatest risk of all; someone else lifted up high, someone else regarded by the crowds as a sinner, ridiculed, jeered at, mocked at. It shows us the crucified Christ. For the same Jesus Christ, accused for dining with a sinner would himself one day be lifted high upon a tree, not so that he could see us, but that he could be seen. Hanging there in the shame of the cross, he would once again be called a sinner by the leaders of the people, but be justified by God’s love for his only begotten Son when he raised him from the dead. He would reveal himself thus to the whole world for the sake of the whole world. He would open the treasury of true riches that cannot be stolen by thieves, corrupted by rust or moth, or stored up but never used for the good they could have done, if only we would use them. Jesus reveals his love in his death, not just for the sons of Abraham, but for every son and daughter of the living God, his Father in heaven, and our Father in heaven. Jesus reveals himself as the friend of sinners who seeks out the lost and will not rest until all are gathered at his feet to fall in worship and adoration, to marvel at this one man whose death brought life and immortality to many. And so the central panel shows Christ in glory upon the cross, the tree he climbed for us, not so that he could see us, but that we might see him, and be drawn to him, and be saved by him.

But for now let us close the panels — in our gospel readings, Jesus is still on the road, and Calvary lies up ahead, where we will revisit it in a few weeks, when on the last Sunday before Advent we will once again look upon the king in his glory upon the cross. Let us return to that scene in Jericho, the one on the outside of the panels, with Zacchaeus going off to dinner with Jesus, as the crowds mutter in the background.

The Gospel does not record if or how Jericho changed because of Christ’s visit to Zacchaeus’ house. Jericho may not have changed, but one of its citizens did, and we have seen the beginning of that change in the gospel. But going forward from that do you not think that from then on guests at Zacchaeus’s table were treated differently, as they treated him differently, now that he had changed from being a corrupt tax collector to one who went out of his way to pay back four-fold anyone he’d ever wronged. Regardless of how high or low, we can be sure that they were greeted with joy, and respect, treated with humility, and served with open hands. We can also be sure that Zacchaeus retold that story time and again, the story of the day he risked making a fool of himself for Christ’s sake, climbed a tree to see the king of glory as he passed, and shared his table with the one who would one day take the greatest risk of all, and share himself with the whole world upon the cross. May we too risk the embarrassment of seeking Christ and being Christians in a world that seeks its own way instead of the way of God, today and every day of our lives, risking being Christians even if people think we are foolish to be so, climbing a tree if need be, and striving to see Jesus, and welcoming him into our hearts, to the glory of God the Father, through the power of the Holy Spirit. +

The Debt of Gratitude

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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