Chosen People

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September 22, 2019

My mother died four years ago yesterday. 

From childhood, I remember her explaining how it works in heaven. At dinner in heaven we will eat with forks and spoons, but with handles too long to feed ourselves. With a three-foot arm and a four-foot spoon you could feed your foot but not your mouth. You can do the math, or try it, or take Polly Keller’s word, which is what I did. In heaven, it is written, “they will hunger no more.”[1] So how does it work? Mother explained. Each person feeds another from across the table. Dinner is a dance with forks and spoons, a feast of laughs and songs. In hell, she mentioned, the same food and silverware is on the table, but no one thinks to feed the other, so everyone is hungry all the time.

I don’t know where my mother got her intel, so we’ll just have to wait and see about the long-handled forks and spoons.

In the meantime, churches operate like that, financially. There is no end of ways that you can spend your money: a newer car, a nicer place to live, a trip. But you give freely to support the ministry and life of this Cathedral, which in turn we give back out for free: prayers, visits, counsel, classes, breakfast, laughs and songs. That’s how it works at Trinity Cathedral.

To what end? 

The “cure of souls.” We are animals, but more: we think. We are thinkers, but more: we love. Animal, rational, and spiritual: our souls combine those three dimensions. What a piece of work! What I call soul, Martin Luther King called personality, explaining that whatever in law or life enhances personality is just, whatever tears it down is not. We affirm the soul here, and feed it, and hand it a four-foot fork or spoon. 

In this morning’s gospel Jesus gives astonishing advice. Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth, he suggests, so that when the money is gone these friends, I quote, will “welcome you into the eternal homes.” I wonder, did Jesus say that with a wink? In Game of Thrones, that was the kind of thing we might expect to hear from Little Finger, the master of tit for tat. We know that Jesus Christ did not practice tit for tat, nor believe that we can buy our way in to heaven—so the answer almost has to be yes: Jesus was smiling when he said this, and people who knew him laughed. 

Turning serious, he says this:

Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much.

People nod. “That makes sense. Don’t trust someone who cheats a penny-ante poker with the family jewels.” 

Now he comes to the hard, pointed truth.

If then you have not been faithful with dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.

The crowd thinks that one over and so do we.

For our part, we probably hear the accent on the last line: “You cannot serve God and wealth,” he warns. We quietly ask ourselves: “Is God or wealth my master?” In the cure of souls, that is a crucial question.

But his crowd back then would have heard him stress the “true riches” of Israel’s inheritance.  For context, our Old Testament readings from Psalm 79 and Jeremiah––Did you hear them? ––recall a terrible catastrophe, the destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon, and the exile of the people:

From the psalm:

O God, the heathen have come into your inheritance; they have profaned your holy temple; they have made Jerusalem a heap of rubble.

This is Jeremiah:

My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick.

Now comes Jesus to the people Israel. To expectant Jews, happiness would be Israel restored to life under the rule of God instead of another foreign master, Rome. Belief had spread that Jesus was sent by God to make that dream come true. Crowds were stirred up. “The kingdom of God is at hand,” he announced, adding fuel to the fire. But now Jesus throws cold water on it: “If you have not been faithful with dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?”

Tragically, in fact Israel was moving headlong towards its second great catastrophe. Soon, Rome would sack the city, destroy the temple, and disperse the inhabitants around the empire.

End of story? No.

Remarkably, that did not end the history of the people Israel. Improbably, a nation of Israel was re-established in 1948. Writing in 1950, Karl Barth wondered at the long story of the Jews since Jesus as almost a miracle of history.

They outlived the Roman Empire . . .  just as they have notoriously outlived other empires since. They are still there. This is in itself a highly astonishing fact. We have to remember how small they were. We have to remember how unfavorable the conditions were for their continued existence. We have to remember what had become of the powerful nations which had once been their enemies, the one-time Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians and Syrians . . . We no longer know any of them as they once were. But in spite of the destruction and persecution and above all the assimilation and interconnection and intermingling with other nations, the Jews are still there . . . and how active and prominent they are, a leaven which maintains itself and in its own way succeeds amongst other elements; not often loved or even assisted or protected from outside by the others, but quite the reverse; usually despised for some obscure reason, and kept apart, and even persecuted and oppressed by every possible spiritual and physical weapon, and frequently exterminated in part; yet always and everywhere surviving.[2]

Barth pointed to this as a sign of the power of God over human history.[3] In the continuing story of the Jews, he tells Christians, we are “confronted with the fact of God’s electing grace.”[4]

Now back to Jesus.

Jesus was fierce in his commitment to his people.[5] He was sent by God to Israel—but not, it turns out, with the salvation they had most expected. The Kingdom of God in Christ was not the triumphant turning point for Israel in history.

Religiously, something like a divorce occurred, Jesus going one way while his people, mostly, went another. Jesus asks in Matthew: “Have you never read in scripture: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing and it is marvelous in our eyes.”[6]

It is another near miracle of history that the message of salvation through Jesus Christ has spread throughout the world. People of every tongue and nation are encompassed by it––including our tongue: southern English with a twang.

The gospel for the world begins with a miracle at Christmas; continues with a ministry that was literally a dream come true: sight for the blind, sound for the deaf, etc. Money couldn’t buy the riches people received from Jesus. “Unto you that fear my name shall the son of righteousness arise with healing in his wings,” said God through the prophet Malachi.[7]

Strangely, that led to its own catastrophe, the crucifixion. Through Israel, our proxy, we couldn’t take yes for an answer. Barth said it: the cross is humanity’s “no” to God, but God says “no” to our no. Christ becomes the proxy for the world—not this or that part of it, but the whole shebang. And on the third day he rose again.

Our inheritance is life in Christ, through death, eternally. In faith we already have it and stand proxy for those—Gentile, Jew, the whole shebang––who so far haven’t seen it. We live by its rhythm from birth (which feels almost miraculous), through death (which is always somehow catastrophic), to resurrection in the new creation. Day by day we are reborn a little, die a little, rise again a little, which is our present share­­ in our inheritance. That rhythm in our lives sustains us.

To keep it going, to stay faithful, we feed each other with our long spoons. Back and forth and forth and back, the church of Jesus Christ goes on.

[1] Rev. 7:16

[2] Barth, CD III.3, 211-212.

[3] Karl Barth, CD III.3, 210.

[4] Barth, CD III.3, 223.

[5] To a woman of Syria who asked him for help his first response was to deny her. “It isn’t right to take the children’s food and feed it to the dogs.”  He quickly changed his mind, but his priority was clear. (Mark 7:24-30)

[6] Matthew 21:42

[6] Malachi 4.2, KJV