Right Judgment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Presto Change-O

There is more to Cana than miraculous catering...

Epiphany 2 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The nations shall see your vindication, and all the kings your glory; and you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the Lord will give.

We come now to the second Sunday after the Epiphany. Epiphany is the season in which we recall how Jesus showed himself forth, how he revealed himself to be who he was— as “God in man made manifest” — manifestation being a fair translation of Epiphany. This year the season is a bit short because Lent starts so early, but we did have the advantage of the Feast of the Epiphany itself falling on a Sunday two weeks ago, and so we got to celebrate the first great manifestation of the son of God: the revelation to the Magi, or Three Kings, as custom calls them.

Then last Sunday, as on every First Sunday after the Epiphany, we took note of the Baptism of Jesus — another revelation or manifestation of his true nature, when the Holy Spirit descended upon him like a dove in bodily form, and a voice spoke from heaven proclaiming him to be God’s beloved son.

And today we come to the wedding feast at Cana, which the evangelist John describes at the end of the reading as the first sign by which Jesus revealed his glory and led his disciples to believe in him. But isn’t it striking how different this episode is from the two previous events. At first glance it seems a bit like a parlor trick, or perhaps a little bigger than that, like a stage-show magic act. Why, Jesus even treats the servants in the same way a magician treats his assistants, instructing them to fill the stone water jars and then to draw some off to take to the chief steward.

Yet surely there is more going on here than simply a magic act, a bit of presto change-o. This is the Son of God, not a Las Vegas stage performance, however spectacular. So what is going on in this miraculous change of water into wine?

The editors who assembled the readings today knew what they were up to: for both the reading from Isaiah and the one from the First Corinthians have to do with transformation; and what is more, transformation as a sign and a revelation, a manifestation of the presence of God: an Epiphany.

Isaiah speaks of God coming to redeem Zion and Jerusalem, vindicating them and releasing them from their captivity — raising them up literally like Cinderella, to be taken from the dust and ashes and to become a crown of beauty and a royal diadem. Holy Zion would even be given new names; no longer Forsaken or Desolate, but now Hephzibah and Beulah — well, yes, the translators were probably right to give those names in translation; and their meaning is beautiful — “My Delight Is in Her” and “Married” — I think today very few young women would like to be named Hephzibah or Beulah.

But a change this is, what a transformation, what a wonderful manifestation of the power of God! Lifted from the dust to be set on the throne — no glass slipper, but a royal diadem — all by the power of God.

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And the transformation that Saint Paul describes in First Corinthians is no less wonderful — no less a manifestation of God’s Holy Spirit. It is a result of the action of God upon those people. God has taken these ordinary Greeks — some of them slaves, a few of them craftspeople, merchants, mostly working class, a few of them perhaps well-to-do, but none of them likely of the “1 percent” — God has taken these ordinary people and poured out upon them an abundance of spiritual gifts, each of them given as a manifestation of the spirit for the common good: the ability to speak with wisdom or knowledge or faith; the gifts of healing or the working of miracles; to prophesy or discern spirits, or to speak in tongues or to interpret tongues — and all of this not as a result of classes at Monroe College or the University of Phoenix, or even at the local philosophers’ school, but suddenly and miraculously and from above — a sure sign that this is the work of God and not merely human learning.

So when we arrive at the wedding feast at Cana, we are prepared — and called — to see the transformation of the water into wine as more than Jesus simply acting as a miraculous caterer. There is something deeply important, deeply significant, about this change, and John the evangelist is careful to alert us by placing important details in his account.

First of all note those opening words: “On the third day...” What else happened on a “third day?” Another great manifestation? Yes! And so John starts off right from the beginning, by mentioning a “third day” — we’re up to something important here.

So then notice how he mentions where the water comes from: this is not drinking water. This is water that has been set aside for rituals of purification — John even includes the important detail that the water is in jars made of stone; for under Jewish law stone vessels could never become ritually impure — if you put pure water into them, pure it will remain, until you draw it out and use it. And what did they use it for? This water was set aside for people to wash their hands, which one would do many times in the course of a ritual Jewish meal.

This is the water that Jesus chooses to transform— and the second thing to note is that there is a lot of it; each of those jars holds over 8 gallons — about what you would need for a large wedding party to be able to wash its hands several times during each meal in the course of a seven-day wedding festival, but also obviously much more than enough wine, particularly late in the celebration, as the steward notes - another detail to pay attention to. So Jesus takes water intended for rites of purification, and transforms it into wine for celebration — and not just any wine, but good wine, and not just a cup or a flagon or two, but 48 gallons — that’s about 240 bottles of wine.

So this isn’t just a simple magic trick, something to impress the disciples; but a sign, a manifestation to teach them something about the very nature of who Christ is. Just as Zion is not simply transformed into a free city, but into a royal diadem; just as the Corinthians are not just made into good pew-sitters and member of their local congregation, but are given powerful gifts as leaders; so too Jesus transforms water that had a merely earthly purpose — something as prosaic as washing your hands — into a sign of his kingdom and its coming: wine in abundance to gladden the heart of those invited to drink of its goodness.

All of these things reveal and manifest the glory of God: the restoration of the city once forsaken, transformed into the crown jewel of the kingdom; the astonishing gifts bestowed by the Holy Spirit upon the people of that newly formed Christian community in the Greek city of Corinth; and the transformation of washing-up water into gallons of the finest wine. These are transformations and manifestations far and away more important than the most spectacular magic act, more than a presto change-o or an abracadabra. These are the kinds of things that happen when the power of God sets to work. And God is working still — right here, right now, in your hearts, when you invite him in.

Let us pray. O Lord of transformation, you lifted up the forsaken city from the dust, you poured out gifts upon the people of your church, and you revealed yourself to your disciples by changing the water of purification into the wine of celebration: So send your mighty power and restore, and grace, and change us too, that we may bear forth your message of hope and joy to a world in need of change; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Sign of the Wine

SJF • Epiphany 2c 2010 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The steward said, “You have kept the good wine until now.”+

Have you ever heard the expression, You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear? It’s one of those proverbial impossible tasks, like spinning straw into gold, herding cats, getting blood from a turnip, or sculpting with Jell-O. Today we come to the wedding feast at Cana, like uninvited guests looking on from the sidelines, and getting a glimpse of an interchange between Jesus, his mother, and what we’d now-a-days call the head waiter. In this little drama, we witness the first sign through which Jesus revealed his glory, changing water into wine.

Now, just as a sow’s ear is no place to start if you’re making a silk purse, or straw to make gold, or a turnip to get blood, or cats for a parade, or Jell-O for a sculpture, water is not what you start with if you want to make wine. What you need is the fruit of the vine: grapes. The only water that comes into it is the rain that waters the vineyard: it’s grapes that wine comes from, and all of the water from the Creation through the Flood would have done no good to Noah, when it came to making the first wine, if the ground after the flood had not brought forth grapes. Everybody knows that, and they knew it in Jesus’ day just as well as we do now. Perhaps even better: Because every town back then had its winepress, and wine was the everyday drink of just about everyone.

So they knew then as we know now, that water doesn’t change into wine. In fact, water doesn’t really change into anything, all by itself, does it? Left to itself, it evaporates! Even ice and steam have to be frozen solid or boiled up if they are to change into another of H2O’s three states: fluid, vapor, and solid. Let solid ice melt, or vaporous steam condense, and you’re back to plain old liquid water. (That’s our chemistry lesson for the day.) Fact is, you can try to change water all you want, but all you’ll get is wet.

Nor can you simply add things to water to change it into wine, at least not good wine. You may remember the story of the stone soup that I some years ago. Of course water can become soup if you add onions, barley, carrots, meat, and salt and spices. Even if you added “wine concentrate” to water — something to make any wine-lover cringe — you aren’t really making wine — any more than stirring a teaspoon of Tang into a glass of water “makes” it into orange juice! Remember Tang? Whatever you do, no human power can change water into wine all by itself.

So that’s why what Jesus did is a miracle, which isn’t just something to amaze, it isn’t some magic trick, but something to instruct: it is, as our Gospel calls it, not a miracle but a sign — a sign that points to some great truth about who it is Jesus is. It is a sign that doesn’t just amaze but also reveals something about Jesus; it reveals his glory and leads his disciples to greater faith in him. Only Jesus could take water and make it change its very being, its very substance, until it simply wasn’t water any more, but wine — and good wine at that!

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Of course, the sign that Jesus performed isn’t ultimately about wine, but about transformation, about the kind of transformed lives that Jesus calls us to live. The amazement may have been about the wine, but the sign is about the change — the change that begins in him, when he became one of us, and changed human nature.

Sometimes we think that transformation is modifying how we act in response to the world around us. But transformation isn’t about a change in external shape or state or form, like water changing to ice or steam in response to the changing temperature. All of us know, from how many years of new years’ resolutions that have dissolved themselves early in the year, that simply promising yourself that you’ll keep your cool under stress; or telling yourself to build up a head of steam to finish a project long overdue, or that you’ve postponed, just won’t work. The pressure (or lack of pressure) of a changing environment doesn’t really change us but instead reveals what we really are, just as changing temperature and pressure show what ice and steam really are: water.

We will lose our cool under stress, and get burned out when the heat and pressure of responsibility rises, and we do get lazy and unproductive when the pressure is off. So human transformation isn’t about changing how we act or react.

But then is transformation about adding something to ourselves? No, for as we saw with water, transformation isn’t about adding ingredients to make either soup or reconstituted wine, or the beverage of astronauts! That doesn’t change the water, it just flavors it.

Sometimes we think that if only we could add something to ourselves, if only we had more money, or a different job, or even different clothes, we’d become different people. But we all know that more money doesn’t really change a person or a personality. The winner of the lottery may turn out to be just as miserable as she was before, when she discovers all those “friends” she didn’t know she had. A new job may bring out hidden talents, or even perhaps help you develop new skills, but you will still be you. And in spite of the proverb, clothes do not make the man — and he can end up being all dressed up with no place to go! True transformation has to go deeper — right to the heart.

Some years ago, Adolph Coors IV, then heir to the huge Colorado brewing industry, was at a prayer service and believed he had undergone a conversion: so he swore he would give up the beer-brewing business and lead a new life. Shortly thereafter, however, he recalled how Jesus transformed water into wine, and decided it was OK to stay in the beer business after all! His conversion was short-lived and his transformation was superficial and temporary.

The long and the short of it is that on our own we can (for a time) change what we do but we can’t for good and all, and on our own, change who we be. If we aren’t transformed inour very nature, no outward addition or action, or subtraction or restraint of action for that matter, is going to make us something other than what we are.

That water at Cana of Galilee couldn’t do anything or have anything added to it to make it into wine. What it needed was a word spoken by Jesus, to be poured into jars, and to be ladled out and tasted and enjoyed. True transformation doesn’t happen apart from Jesus. Those jugs of water could have sat in Cana from the wedding day to the day of doom, and never would have changed to wine unless Jesus had chosen to do as his mother asked. And when he did, all it took was a word of command to the servants: fill up the jars with water, and then draw out the wine.

So too, we will not change — we can not change — unless we are open to Jesus and the word he speaks to us. Unless we hear his commandment to be filled with his love, and then to pour out that love to those around us, we will never be transformed. We cannot do it on our own. We will remain empty jars standing in the corner unless we are willing to let his love be poured into our hearts, where by means of his word he can transform it into the joyful wine of God’s Spirit, which we can then share in rejoicing and fellowship.

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All of us are keenly aware of the horrific tragedy that has struck the people of Haiti this past week. All of us are, I am sure, strongly hoping that this tragic situation can be transformed. And to some extent it can — as we too are inwardly transformed and empowered by God’s Holy Spirit, in a burst of generosity to send help as soon as we can to those suffering people. As you know, tomorrow is Martin Luther King Day, and we normally take up a collection to support the MLK Scholarship. I want to suggest to you today that we split what we would normally send to that scholarship fund in half, and send the other half to Episcopal Relief and Development for their coordinated push to help the people of Haiti. I think Dr. King would approve, and I hope you do, too. Do you? Through the transformation of our hearts, our offering too can be transformed into practical help — we can’t change water into wine, but we can change money into food, medical supplies, and feet on the ground — we can convert our dollars into life-saving help.

And so in our own small way, may we, who have died with Christ in the water of baptism, heard his word of command in the Gospel, and drunk the wine of his most precious blood, be inwardly transformed by him who died for us, and who lives in us, even Jesus Christ our Lord. +