Saved by Grace through Faith
Rob Gieselmann, August 9, 2015
The Torah – the first five books of the Bible – adjures you to write God’s words on your heart, to bind them on your hands. Teach God’s instructions to your children, and speak of them at home. Faith, you see, begins at home, with family. In old Jewish tradition the home is the schoolhouse – The word rabbi is actually the conflation of two concepts: teacher and father. The rabbi is parent, and the parent is rabbi. Teaching begins at home, and the first lesson to learn is: to love to learn. There is an old ritual – when a child is about to start school. The parents will write the Hebrew alphabet on slate, then pour honey over it – they give it to the child, inviting her to lick the honey. The lesson is that learning is sweet. Taste and see that the Lord is good, the psalmist wrote. And when it comes to Scripture and tradition, there is an extraordinary connection between food and soul, eating and love. To ancient Jews, the Torah itself was thought of as bread, and the word, the scroll, was metaphorically eaten. Taste and see.
Sometimes Jesus trips me up. On the one hand, in this morning’s reading, Jesus claims nobody can come to him unless the Father first draws that person. The implication is some people are in and some are out. On the other hand, Jesus says, you have to believe. Which is it, then? Who then is responsible for your faith: you, or God? Well, if Jesus is ambiguous, others are, too: Take the Apostle Paul. He sounds clear enough, when speaking about salvation – You are saved by grace through faith. Only, Paul never says, and it is ambiguous in the Greek, whose faith counts. Yours, or Jesus’? I can’t resist telling you – about a friend’s grandmother. Whenever people would ask whether she was saved, she would reply, Why no, and how unattractive of you to remind me. But thinking about Paul’s meaning, I for one hope it is Jesus’ faith that saves me. My faith is terribly and regularly flawed. Now I said this a couple weeks ago, but I want to be clear: When I speak about salvation – which I will do from time to time – I’m almost never speaking about the by and by. Salvation instead is about the here and no God wants to transform our struggling existence – our chronic isolation, our aloneness – and the feeling that perhaps our lives have little or no meaning – into lives of connection and purpose. Salvation is a chalkboard with Hebrew letters written on it, and coated with honey. Taste and see that the Lord is good. And I swear if Jesus’ faith is not the hinge to that salvation, then I’m in big trouble.
Last week – the prophet Nathan confronted King David after his illicit affair with Bathsheba. Nathan predicted: the sword will never depart from your house. In this morning’s reading, that civil strife is being played out: Several years earlier, one of David’s sons raped his own sister, David’s daughter. David didn’t do anything about it, didn’t punish his son, so another one of David’s sons, Absalom, executed justice – He killed his brother, the rapist. From that time forward, David and Absalom were at odds, father against son. And eventually, Absalom organized a rebellion against David. The rebellion failed, Absalom was captured and then killed. When David heard that his son had been killed – even though his son was his political enemy – his anguish was palpable. O Absalom, my son, my son, O Absalom. Would that I had died instead of you. And I, and every parent in this room, would have cried out in exactly the same way. Parents aren’t supposed to outlive their children, regardless of the circumstance. I had lunch this week with an old friend of mine, Eddie. The last time I saw Eddie was ten years ago, and he was unmarried. Since then, Eddie has married and fathered a son, now eight. We compared notes about being parents, and he remarked, I had no idea it would feel like this, this extraordinary. Being a parent, and most parents – fathers – I can tell you - there is a before and an after in a father’s life, before fathering, and after. And I don’t for the life of me understand why when Jesus tells us that God is Father – or parent. Well – why would anybody think God wishes ill of people, you, or anybody else? Or – that God will only accept you if you do something – or think the correct way. Where does that come from, anyway? The Father draws everybody, and the faith required is Jesus’ first, and all that is asked of you and me is that we show-up, with perhaps a little hope in our hands.
When Jesus said, God so loved the world, do you think he meant part of the world? He meant, the world. The whole thing. And when Jesus quoted Isaiah, saying that all shall be taught of God, He likewise meant all, and get this: I think when Jesus called God father, he may have envisioned God as rabbi, teacher and parent as one. Pouring honey across slate, so you can learn to love, and love to learn. Taste and see that the Lord is good. If I’m right, there is no ambiguity in Jesus’ words, just poetry.
Bert Ackerman sent me an excerpt from Richard Rohr this past week. Rohr wrote about St. Therese. She lived during the fourth century and must have at one point in her life, equated spirituality – faith – with being good, or perfect. She eventually rebelled against perfection and correct thinking, correct living - in favor of a faith of imperfection. Imperfection – like the six year-old who starts first grade tomorrow – he’s not supposed to know his multiplication tables, yet – And you and I are just beginning to learn to love. And there is this Rabbi, we call Father, who pours honey across slate …I don’t know about you, but that’s the kind of God I can love in return.