Wednesday, March 04, 2015

March 8, Lent 3, Walk to the Cross #3: Investment

Exodus 20:1-17, Psalm 19, 1 Corinthians 1:18-25, John 2:13-22

In St. John’s version of the Cleansing of the Temple, Jesus did this early in his campaign, right after he turned the water into wine at the wedding. Both times his actions are symbolic, but how opposite his actions are. Water and wine, and then wrath and a whip. Extravagant generosity and extreme judgment.

It’s no coincidence that he does this at Passover, the holiday when three years later Jesus will be killed. Already knows he’s in for it. He knows his words will be misunderstood and his actions opposed, he knows that to do what he has to do and say what he has to say, they’ll do away with him. He’s walking into a three-year Lent. To do the right thing, you have to sacrifice. To commit to the right thing, you have to pay for it. And so he’s obviously angry and aggrieved. Just because it’s the right thing doesn’t mean you don’t get angry and aggrieved!

Because sacrifice and suffering are not good things in themselves. You are not called to seek out martyrdom. You are not called to get up on the cross but to walk on under it, to be realistic, to face the real cost of leading lives of ethical love.

You know this from experience. If you have loved, you have suffered: the death or misfortune of a loved one, or from having lost out when you did what was right. If you don’t want to sacrifice, don’t love. Loving your neighbor as yourself is more than being nice and neighborly. It means that you might make substantial sacrifices on your neighbor’s behalf. If your relationship to your neighbor hasn’t cost you anything, then it isn’t love yet. All of us need a few relationships that cost us something, to practice this kind of love. One good way is to go to church, where you have to love other people just as unlovely as you are.

Love costs even God. It’s suffering and sacrifice even for God when God commits to us. That’s the sign of the cross upon God’s heart. In the story of Noah we saw the grief of God for the results of the Flood, and we saw the bow and arrow in the clouds as the symbol of God’s sacrifice. For God to commit to a special relationship with Abraham and his seed was a sacrifice for God, for now God must suffer the relentlessly bad behavior of Abraham’s children.

So it’s in God’s interest to move the relationship along and do something about that behavior. God wants God’s partners to be ethical. And so God gives to the Children of Abraham the Ten Commandments.

This was a new thing in the world. The gods and goddesses had never had much interest in ethical behavior, whether of their immortal selves or of mortal human beings. But the Lord God is on a mission to develop an ethical humanity for the healing of the world, and the Ten Commandments are part of God’s business plan to do that, as well as them being for our own good.

You can think of the Ten Commandments as a mission statement. Because God includes us in God’s mission God invests in our behavior, and our behavior represents the character of God. God’s wants God’s people to be examples, exemplars, living symbols, so that from looking at our behavior the rest of the world can reckon what God is like and what God wants.

What the world would prefer is that God show himself and prove himself by means of supernatural interventions and convenient miracles and fixing things and stopping things. God does not do it that way, and maybe God is foolish not to. Maybe God is so foolish as rather to be known by the behavior of those who believe in God.

God’s reputation is in our hands and our lives. We are entrusted with God’s image in the world. Our behavior is a house for God. Our thoughts and actions and our bodies are God’s temple. The Commandments are a blueprint for the temple of God that is our behavior. God offers this pattern of behavior as something so designed that our performing it converts us into a people whose culture and character brings the righteousness of God into the world.

You can examine these Commandments one by one, but they are best in their unity, as an entity, as say a solid with ten sides, like a decahedron, a great large jewel, that God is casting into the world.

Or you can think of them as the ten links in a chain, suspended from the first link and the tenth link, hanging between the love of God and the love of neighbor, with the eight links in between about the love of both, for if you look closely you realize that each of the eight commandments between is about both God and neighbor.

All the commandments interplay. So you can also think of them as a house, in which each commandment is a structural member holding up the whole. As I said, God inhabits the house of our behavior.

For Christians they are wisdom instead of obligation. For us, the Torah is not obligatory, as St. Paul said last week, but we are obligated to learn God’s wisdom that we can find in them. And we must be willing to pay the price that they demand of us. Like the sacrifice of your freedom of speech that comes with not bearing false witness. Like your sacrifice of sexual freedom that comes with not committing adultery. Like the surrender that comes with not coveting your neighbor’s lovely brownstone, especially if you rent. To love your neighbor as yourself is often a sacrifice. As I said, if loving your neighbor hasn’t cost you, it isn’t love yet, it’s only being nice.

During Lent you confess that in your ethical behavior you have failed to be good representatives of God. But here’s the deeper level of God’s investment: God will be recognized even in your confession of your bad behavior. God will be recognized not as the God who is known by loving the good and successful, but the God who is known by loving the weak and the fallen—not as the God who loves the righteous, but as the God who loves the sinner.

How foolish God looks against the wisdom of the world. The most important ethical behavior that you can do and by which God wants to be known is your telling the truth about yourselves. You do that with extravagance and extremity, like Jesus in the temple, when you confess “there is no health in us, miserable offenders.” Uncomfortable words? If confession doesn’t cost you your comfort, you haven’t confessed yet. 

“If loving your neighbor hasn’t cost you yet, it’s only being nice.” It’s true for God as well. You are God’s neighbor, God gives you space and room to life your life as you develop it, God treats you with respect, and then because God loves you, it costs God too.

God abides you the way you are, God abides you in your weakness and suffers you in your failures. It costs God every day to keep on loving you as God’s self. But that’s what love does, that’s what love loves to do. So I am telling you again that this pilgrimage of Lent is not about us, it’s about the exploration of God.

Copyright © 2015, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

March 1, Lent 2, The Walk to the Cross # 2, The Chicken and the Pig

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16, Psalm 22:22-30, Romans 4:13-25, Mark 8:31-38

This morning we get the very first prediction by Jesus in the Gospel of Mark that he’s going to be killed. But he doesn’t say how. He doesn’t specifically say he’s going to be crucified. It’s only after his argument with Peter that he turns to the crowd and issues his challenge that anyone who would follow him must take up his own cross. But he does not actually say that he’s going to die on one. It’s because we know how the story ends that we make the connection between these two statements, but his disciples did not know it yet. We can’t assume they would have made the connection.

The obvious thing to expect was that the Lord Jesus would be stoned to death, because it was the Jewish leaders who opposed him, not the Romans. The Romans would certainly despise him, but they did not consider him a criminal, not even at the end.

Maybe Our Lord had worked it out for himself that the Jewish leaders, in the manner of oppressed people working from the underside, would try to manipulate the Roman government to kill him, and if the Romans were to kill him that would be on a cross. But if Jesus had already worked that out, he doesn’t actually say so here.

I think it’s important to keep the two things clear at this point. Because when Jesus mentions that if you want to follow him you must take up your cross, he means exactly that, that you take it up and carry it, and there the metaphor stops, and he doesn’t say that you must die on it. That he might die on it does not mean you should. You just carry it.

Jesus doesn’t want his disciples to die with him. He doesn’t want them dead, not yet. He doesn’t want them to be crucified with him. That would be a waste, because if they died, they would stay dead. They would not rise again, not yet, as that was for Jesus alone. The resurrection which the Jews believed in had completely to be refashioned by the rising of Jesus ahead of everybody else. It would be only him, and he would want his disciples still alive after his death so that he could empower them with his Holy Spirit. And even then, they would still be carrying their crosses. To carry your cross is a kind of living, not dying.

"But Pastor, if a cross is a sign of anything, it’s a sign of death." Yes, but what Jesus says is that you carry it — you bear it, you hold up, you keep on going under it, you keep on living but with a sign of death on you. You live under the cross, not on it. It’s a subtle difference but significant.

Do you know that joke about the chicken and the pig? When it comes to a breakfast of eggs and bacon, the pig and the chicken feel quite differently. The chicken’s a donor, but the pig’s committed. Or as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “If you haven’t found something worth dying for, you aren’t fit to be living.”

Did you see the movie Selma? The movie wonderfully depicts the earnest and heated arguments among the Civil Rights leaders over strategy and outcomes, and opposition and threats and dangers, and the constant, looming potential for death. Right from the start of the movie Orville and I were crying for those little Sunday School girls who were murdered in church. And we know how the story ends for Dr. King himself, although the characters in the movie don’t know it yet.

So Peter and the Lord Jesus are having themselves an argument. They rebuke each other. Just as the Lord Jesus had rebuked the evil spirits and rebuked the storm upon the sea, so now he rebukes Peter. But Peter had rebuked him first. “Jesus, we didn’t sign up for you to lose. And even if you do rise from the dead for a second time around, what good will that do? Nothing will have changed, and they’ll just kill you again! And we all go back home in shame, like Viet Nam vets.”

“Don’t you talk to me like that. You satan. I was already tempted by your words when I was in the wilderness for forty days. You think I haven’t thought this through? Shame on you. This is not about me, Peter, this is about you. You don’t want me to die because you want me to fix all this for you. You don’t want me to die because you want me to make the change and carry you along.  You want to be a chicken and contribute. Well, if you’re not ready to be a pig, don’t follow me.”

To take up your cross means that you live your life as if it is worth dying for. You totally invest yourself, but you have no control of the result. You bet your life on what you believe in, although you don’t control the ending. You can’t protect the results of what you do. You can’t preserve what you’ve put into it. You can’t save it, and you can’t save your life. But you live it anyway, and hard.

I don’t know how much uncertainty the Lord Jesus lived with in his own mind. I know what he believed, but belief is always ahead of certainty. (I have a mental image of Our Lord reciting the Apostles Creed to himself when he was down. I know, I know.) We know from the lesson that he believed in his resurrection, and we know that he believed in his ascension into heaven, which he mentions at the end of our lesson, his coming “into the glory of the Father with the holy angels.”

And then he says that he will be ashamed of us when he is there, whenever we are ashamed of him and his words. He’ll be ashamed of the very people he’s pleading for, like a very good lawyer with a very good conscience. When he intercedes for us his face might be red. Because he loves us and yet he is ashamed of us. Don’t misread this that he will then reject us or abandon us. He doesn’t say that. He did not abandon Peter when he was ashamed of him.

How often has the Lord Jesus been ashamed of the church that he loves. Our racism. Our greed. Our classism. Our corruption. Our child abuse. Our divisions. Our subservience to reputation and money and wealth and the blessings of the government. Our self-absorption. Our fear. Our lack of faith.

He suffers that. From love. That’s part of the suffering he brings with him into heaven. Yes, his suffering has a final victory, but it’s suffering nonetheless.

In him God suffers too. God suffers the shame of how the world which God created has turned out, the shame of God for putting this world under the stewardship of our stupid species, the shame of God for the relentless disobedience of the children of Abraham, and the shame of God for the relentless scandal of the Christian church.

But God has borne the shame. God does not reject the species God breathed into. God does not abandon the children of Abraham or discard the sinful church. God stays with us. God continues to invest in us. That’s what love does, and God would not be ashamed of us if God did not love us so.

God’s committed. God is not a chicken. Dare I say that God’s a pig? Yes, in my second parish, my farmer’s church in rural Ontario, I had three families who raised pigs, and for all those beautiful and very intelligent little piglets and for their very loving mothers, let me say that God’s the pig, God is totally committed. And in God’s honor you can bear your cross. Because God has done the miracle of turning this sign of death, this instrument of execution, this symbol of hatred, God has turned this cross into a badge of love.

Copyright © 2015 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Friday, February 20, 2015

February 22, Lent 1, The Walk to the Cross #1, Invitation

Genesis 9:8-17, Psalm 25:1-10, 1 Peter 3:18-22, Mark 1:9-15

The church’s tradition drives you into the wilderness of Lent for forty days. You are on a mental pilgrimage, a six weeks’ journey to the cross. Along the way the scriptures will show you signs of the cross and hints and shadows of the cross — the shameful cross, the form of execution that the Romans designed to humiliate you with a shameful death. Why does Jesus walk into it so consciously, so open-eyed? Why would God want such a thing?

It was God’s idea that Jesus be tempted in the wilderness. It was at the motion of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit came down upon him as a dove and then became a driving force in him. Listen again to verses 12 and 13 [my translation]: And straightway the Spirit drove him out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness for forty days, being tested by the satan, and he was among the wild animals, and the angels served him.

The temptation story is first reported by St. Matthew, but when St. Mark takes his turn to tell it he offers different details. Both of them say that it happened right after his baptism, both say it was forty days, both say that angels ministered to him, and both say it was the satan who tempted him. For both of them, this satan is not a demon from hell but the satan of the Book of Job, that is, a spirit of this world who is in your face with the hard and cold cruelty of existence, and your weakness, and God’s indifference. But while St. Matthew reports the conversation between them with the famous three temptations, in Mark the testing is more general, and without words, and thus more emotional, which would be typical of Mark.

St. Mark doesn’t say specifically that Jesus fasted. He says the angels served him. All throughout? Like God served the children of Israel with manna, the “bread of angels,” during their forty years in the desert? Like Elijah, who got fed by ravens when God had driven him into that same wilderness area, and then by an angel before his pilgrimage of forty days? It’s St. Mark who adds the detail that Jesus was among the wild animals. How much among them? Scared? Not scared? Like Daniel in the lion’s den? Like Noah in the ark, huddling with the animals for forty days and forty nights of rain, and dark, and fear? How lonely did he feel? How miserable?

What were the voices in his head? “What am I in for? How can I be certain what to do? Who will advise me? What if I slip? What if I make an innocent mistake? A rookie mistake? An error? When does an error become a sin? What if I sin? What if I’m not perfect? What if I become one more disappointment in the history of Israel? What if I lose my strength? What if I lose my way? What if my way’s not clear? Must I be alone or can I find allies? Who will support me? Should I get a part-time job? Can I have friends? What if I meet a woman and desire her? What if I meet a guy and I desire him? Do I really have to be so different from everybody else? What if I don’t have the stuff? What if it doesn’t work? What if my anger goes beyond righteous anger? What if I fail?”

I am sure he felt his anger. “How much am I supposed to accept the guilt of everybody else? Why do I have to take on the shame and grief of everybody else?” He had to have felt for himself the world’s frustration. He had to feel our doubt. “Why does God allow these things? Why does God allow us all to suffer? Maybe God will not remember me. Maybe God will not rescue me. What if God forsakes me? Maybe God is not so good. Maybe God is not so great. Maybe the satan is right. My vision is not realistic. I just have to accept that the world is hard and cruel, and we flutter if we can until we die. All we are is dust in the wind. I need to protect myself. Get a real job, find a lover, get a life!” I hope the angels held him up when he was down.

Can you identify with him? That’s what you’re supposed to do these forty days. Feel your self in him and all your doubt and pain and shame and guilt and fear. You get tried and tested and tempted by the world, and the Holy Spirit does not spare you from it. You will find that the more you try to live by your faith, the more the world will test you, and the further you follow Jesus, the more you will be tried. Why does God allow it so? Didn’t Jesus specifically tell us to pray that Our Father not lead us into temptation? He doesn’t have to. Your conscience tempts you enough.

Because, why are you suffering? You know that some of your suffering is just plain going to happen in a world where nature is indifferent to your feelings. You know that some of your suffering comes from doing what is right in a world that prefers what’s wrong. And you know that some of your suffering comes from the wrong that you have done. And how do you know which is which? Your conscience accuses you. That’s your trial, that’s your testing and temptation. Your self-awareness. When you’re alone with yourself, are you an angel or a beast? Or both? And how can you put your soul at rest?

Look up at the rainbow. That’s the first sign of the cross. It’s not about the colors. It’s about the shape. It’s archery. It’s a weapon, and it’s pointed back at God. When God sets the longbow in the clouds, that means its arrow is pointed back at God. It’s the expression of God’s own conscience, and the symbol of God’s suffering in the death and destruction in the flood of all those moms and dads and kids. It’s the sign of God’s own grief and sorrow and regret. It’s the sign of God’s aloneness and God’s trial, of God’s own wilderness, and no angel dared to pick God up.

The sign of the longbow in the clouds tells us that God thinks this: “I will not do that again. I will not destroy this human race again. When I get tempted by my righteous anger once again to free my lovely world from this one violent species, that shape in the clouds will remind me that I would rather kill myself. I would rather not be God than ever do that again. Better that God is dead than God do that again. Better I let the atheists be right. ‘Cross my heart and hope to die.’”

I have a close friend who says he can no longer believe in a God who would do those things. And God says, “Me neither.” God says, “I can imagine that I should not exist.” That’s partly why God never attempts to prove God’s own existence beyond a reasonable doubt. God never bothers to prove God’s goodness even with a preponderance of the evidence. Proving things is not God’s mojo. Not even about God’s self. God works by invitation. God invites you into the darkness where God is going. “Follow me into the darkness and the silence. I am going to die now.”

God dies. On the cross. God shoots the arrow at God’s self. The whole bad conscience thing is put to rest. That’s the strange design. The logic is difficult, the transaction is uneven. It seems to be based on God so totally having identified with us that in God’s self-sacrifice your guilt is all absorbed, like asteroids getting sucked into the Black Hole of God’s death. The cross of Christ is the paradoxical combination of the righteous anger of God with the regret and pain of God, the sorrow of God, the humiliation of God.

God’s identification is an invitation. God invites you in to God’s own self. The signs of the cross do their work upon your conscience to draw you in to explore God’s inner self. It is God’s spirit pushing you into that great wilderness who is God, drawing you into to the depths of God. “Probe me. Try me. Test me. I’m opening up my chest that you can probe your fingers in, and feel my heart. Put your hand into the wound within my side. Explore me, journey into me.”

That’s what Lent is really about. It’s about God and what God is like It’s not really about your sins, those are just the tickets in. You surrender your tickets to enter into God. And I am telling you, ahead of time, that at the end of your pilgrimage what you will find is Wondrous Love.

Copyright © 2015, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Melody's Sermon from February 8, Epiphany 5, at Old Dutch Church, Kingston NY

And She Began to Serve Them

Mark 1:29-39;  1 Corinthians 9:16-23

Corrie Ten Boom was active in the Dutch underground in WWII. She’s one of our few Dutch Reformed saints. She and her father and sister sheltered Jews and other refugees in their home in Harlem. Eventually the three of them were arrested and sent to Dutch prison camps. Ten Boom tells, in one of her writings, how someone in her barracks had managed to smuggle in a tiny Bible.  They carefully tore out the pages and secretly passed them around to each other, day after day, month after month.  It was their only reading material.  Ten Boom says the Bible had never been so alive for her; the snippets of text were like current events, the latest news---that relevant, that riveting. More necessary than food.

(I do wonder if she felt quite that enthusiastic when she drew Leviticus.) But I envy her that experience of scripture being so alive.  Do you have to go to prison to make the Word of God alive?  When I looked at the Mark text, I felt resistance, like the stories were behind closed doors and would not let me in. When I looked at the 1 Corinthians text, I felt annoyed.  Here’s Paul, what, boasting about how humble he is?  Here’s Paul, pushing me away with his paradoxes: “I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all.” I wonder if the Bible ever feels this way to you?  Does the Bible sometimes push you away?

Take this mother-in-law in Mark, Simon’s mother-in-law, being healed of a fever.  Why doesn’t she get a name?  Why did Jesus call these four fishermen? Why were all the disciples men? Why is it that the first person healed in the gospel of Mark seems to get healed so she can make the disciples lunch?  And behind that there are questions I get asked all the time, as a chaplain: Do you think Jesus still heals people?  Are miracles only for Bible times?  Will God heal me? Why so much suffering?

I read all of Mark, chapter 1 again. And again.  And I prayed. The gospel of Mark, of course, starts off with a bang.  There’s urgency.  Immediately this and immediately that. It’s also spare, few details.  In Chapter 1 there is no birth story, no coming of age story, and no mention that John the Baptist is Jesus’ cousin.  It’s John the Baptist preaching repentance, it’s Jesus’ baptism, his time in the desert, no specific temptations mentioned. Then there is John’s arrest.  It is John’s arrest, in Mark, that is the catalyst that catapults Jesus into ministry.

Why did John get arrested? He was telling people to repent. That sounds like harmless church talk to us, so used to freedom of speech, so accustomed to the separation of church and state. In John’s context, however, politics and religion was one thing, inseparable.  For that matter, it’s probably true for most countries today. So “repent and be baptized” was a political/religious statement in the context of the Roman Empire, where there was no freedom of speech.

“Repent and be baptized” is in your face.  It questions the order of things, including the carefully worked out political deals between Herod, the Jewish puppet king, and the Romans. John’s message felt like, maybe, the demonstrators chanting, “we can’t breathe.”  Or like that blogger in Saudi Arabia who was writing positive things about democracy---you know, the one who will be flogged publicly every Friday for the next six weeks. When Jesus hears that John has been arrested he knows that John will be tortured, surely. Killed, probably.  Jesus, in taking up John’s message, is running toward danger.  It’s like he’s heading straight for Selma.

Repent, for the kingdom of God is near. Jesus feels in his bones that the time is ripe for him to act. Jesus feels in his bones that the Spirit of God is with him and in him and through him.  He surrenders control, he surrenders to his baptism, as Pastor Renee’ preached about a couple of weeks ago.

He thought he was going to be a preacher, like his cousin John.  But the Spirit had other plans. I don’t imagine that Jesus knew every morning when he got up what was going to happen that day.  He didn’t have s script. (That’s what the incarnation means; he lived inside time, like us, yet was free, by God’s Spirit, from the fear of the future and the fear of death.) So I imagine when Jesus enters the house of Simon, he doesn’t know what’s going to happen; all he knows is that he is empty of everything but love. In the Spirit’s love he touches her. He’s not supposed to do this of course.  If he were really culturally competent he, as a man, would not touch a woman who is not his wife.  He touches her and pure love heals the fever, tssssss, like water putting out a fire.

Jesus’ mission is one:  he is healer and teacher, he is prophet and priest. His disciples, when they began to follow him, were aware of the prophetic agenda; they can feel, in this Jesus, that God is very near.  But they didn’t know he could heal people.  Once the Spirit’s physical healing power is released, they forget all about the first mission. When the sun goes down, after the Sabbath, the “whole city,” as Mark puts it, is at Simon’s door. The love pours out of Jesus, he can’t control it. It’s a healing frenzy.  And the disciples want nothing more than that it continue.  But healing people is not Jesus’s whole mission and he knows it. He finally goes to bed, but I don’t think he slept much that night.

As soon as it is light he goes out to a deserted place to pray.  He needs to get away from people. He needs to be with the Spirit in prayer. He was beginning to feel enslaved.   Tell me again, dear Spirit, help me discern. I get the part about setting the captives free and telling people to turn from their evil ways, but there’s no end to these sick people. Healing. As a culture utterly obsessed with physical health, we can understand. People want this even more than other freedoms, even more than freedom of speech or freedom from fear, or a lot of other freedoms you could name. But Jesus recovers himself in prayer; Jesus recovers himself in fellowship with the Spirit. Healing is a sign of the kingdom of God that points us toward the healing of the world, but it’s not the whole thing. He says, surely disappointing his starry-eyed disciples, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came to do.”

Once I was visiting a man in the hospital who was recovering from heart surgery.  He had nearly died so you can imagine that he was very grateful to be alive. In the course of our conversation I asked him what he hopes were now that he had been given this second chance.  He thought for a moment and he said, "Well, I really like to watch TV."  At least he was honest.  I don’t know what I said, probably just nodded and gave him a blessing. But my inside voice was yelling---you’ve been healed to watch TV? Are you kidding me?

Simon’s mother-in-law gets the connection between grace and gratitude, between word and sacrament, between healing and service. Her healing is like a baptism. She gets up to serve them because she has been filled with another kind of fire, the pure energy of the Spirit. She chooses to serve them.  Simon Peter doesn’t order her to serve them, she chooses it. She has felt in her own body that the kingdom of God has come very near.  She knew that service was the only option she could freely choose. She knew what Paul knew: For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them.

I spent the past few days on retreat at Holy Cross Monastery, just south of here on the Hudson. It was a healing and nourishing experience. I observed the monks and how they share the tasks of hospitality. They take turns doing dishes. Cleaning up.  There’s somebody vacuuming.  There’s somebody sorting the clean silverware, making the coffee. They offered us worship five times a day-- scripture, chanting, sacrament.

I stood before the icons--I mean that specific tradition of religious paintings, not statues---which are everywhere at Holy Cross. In particular, I was struck by a small icon just outside the chapel, above the little bowl of holy water. It depicts an angel, a human looking angel with skinny brown legs, whose arms are holding the head of John the Baptist. Beheading.  Is there any death more abhorrent to us? Yet, both  John and the angel are looking right at you,  making eye contact. They look both fierce and peaceful, as icons do, as if to say the kingdom of God is very near, as if to say all things shall be well, as if to say even death shall not separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus.

Corrie Ten Boom’s father and her sister Bessie died in prison camp.  Before Bessie died, of tuberculosis, she said to her sister Corrie, “There is no pit so deep that God is not deeper still.”  This is what Jesus knew, this is what Simon’s mother-in-law learned, in being healed by Jesus, this is what the Spirit knows and wants us to know.  Another way to say it?  The kingdom of God is very near. I imagine Corrie and her dying sister as icons, looking at us, inviting us to see that kingdom.

Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them. See her as an icon; she’s looking straight at you.  She says, my story is not meant to teach you that women were born to serve men.  This is not about men or women, slave or free. Look again, look deeply and you can see Christ in her, you can see Jesus kneeling to wash his disciples’ feet.

Look again.  Can you see yourself in her?  Can you see in her that you are healed and forgiven, freed to love and freed to serve?  Why is there so much suffering?  Why is the kingdom of God so hard to see? I guess we’ll be asking these questions until we die.  I suspect that some of you are suffering right now as much as Corrie Ten Boom and her sister suffered.  I suspect this because I have been a chaplain for 20 years.  This means that I have been privileged to see the face of Christ in people who are suffering, day in and day out. I have seen joy and felt love and peace.  I have felt the kingdom of God come very near.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

February 15, Transfiguration, The Mission #11, You Can See It

This is the Transfiguration Window at Durham Cathedral in England.

2 Kings 2:1-12, Psalm 50:1-6, 2 Corinthians 4:3-6, Mark 9:2-9

Our gospel lesson starts at chapter 9 verse 2. I don’t know why the editors of the lectionary left out verse 1. It looks to me like verse 1 tells us what the Transfiguration was about, at least in part.

Here’s verse 1: “And Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Kingdom of God having come in power.’ And after six days, Jesus took Peter and James and John and led them up into a high mountain by themselves.” 

And there they saw what Jesus said they would see, they saw it in his body all lit up, they saw the Kingdom of God having come in power. You know the connection between power and light. When the lights come on is how you know the power is on.

Now let’s call Peter “Pete”. Do you remember what Pete Redell said last Sunday? Where you here for it? He told us he could see the Kingdom of God! He said that the reason he does all this volunteering in church is because when he does it he can see the Kingdom of God.

Had Pete been reading our lessons ahead of time? Or was Pete channeling Peter? Or (and now I am serious) was Pete bearing witness that Jesus has done some work on him, that Jesus has done this in his life, that the Lord Jesus has given him eyes to see the Kingdom of God revealed in ordinary places?

Pete said something else last week. He listed four things that make a church go. The first was belief in God, the second was the mission, the third was money, and the fourth was volunteers. Now you might make a different list, but when Pete talked about mission, and you all responded, then I thought, great. You’re making mission a high priority, so I can bring this sermon series to a close. Mission accomplished! So I will be starting a new series for Lent, next Sunday, and calling it The Walk to the Cross. But one last sermon on The Mission.

The mission of God is the kingdom of God. What Pete Redell hath joined together, let no man put asunder. The kingdom of God is the Bible’s most important image for the mission that God is on, and that’s in both Testaments. Jesus kept proclaiming it because the Jewish people wanted it, and they wanted it because the Torah and the Prophets told them to.

The kingdom of God doesn’t show up so much in the epistles of St. Paul, but his equivalent is the phrase, “the power of the resurrection.” Notice that word “power” again. That’s the same power that lights up Our Lord in the Transfiguration, and the power which, in our Epistle reading, gives the light to the glory of Christ. This glory is not a static glory, but dynamic, like sunlight, pouring out energy and giving life, the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, which Peter, James, and John could see there on the mountaintop, they could see the Kingdom of God having come in power.

The Kingdom of God, the Reign of God, the Realm of God, the Dominion of God, the Commonwealth of God, the Sovereignty of God, call it what you want, this is the summation of God’s active mission in the world. God’s sovereignty is a saving sovereignty. God is on a mission to save the world, and heal it and cleanse it from the sin and death that we brought into it. The coming of the kingdom is how the mission is accomplished. And that’s why Our Lord taught us to pray, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” We pray, "Accomplish your mission, O God."

God’s kingdom comes not just by God sending it. God brings it, it comes with God, God comes. God came, in that man Jesus of Nazareth, God incarnate, the Incarnation was God’s mission trip into the world to save the world. And as we’ve been seeing in this sermon series, God saves the world not in the gross conglomerate, but as communities of individuals.

God saves you. God makes you a citizen of his kingdom already before his kingdom has fully come. You are not just the object of God’s mission but also a subject in God’s mission, for Christ has made you kings and priests, the power is to empower you. You have freedom in this kingdom, and discretion, and you get some say in it. You get lit up yourself!

I’m guessing that the burning power of God’s kingdom that was in Elijah and Moses in their own day is why they were there on the mountain, but St. Mark doesn’t explain it. Neither does he describe how the Lord Jesus was transfigured, only to offer the metaphor of his clothes getting dazzling white, whiter than any detergent could make them, meaning there was no natural way available to make his clothes so bright. Does this mean that his clothes were lit up from the inside?

The art of glass-making was not yet developed enough for St. Mark to have used glass as his metaphor. But let’s imagine a stained-glass window. The bright-white robe of Jesus is illuminated by the light shining through the window. That’s the light of the glory of God and it lights him up as it shines through him. And his shining illuminates the rooms and the spaces of your lives. Everything is illuminated. You can see the kingdom of God in your life. His light gives you enlightenment. That is the Christian version of enlightenment, to receive in yourself the light that shines through him.

This stained-glass window is meant to be looked at, but more, to be looked through. It’s less an illustration than an icon. The window is way up there, and you look through the window into heaven. You gaze at the figures of Elijah and Moses in the window in order for to see the two of them in heaven. The window is solid, but it’s not a wall. It’s a portal, it’s a star-gate.

So now imagine the Lord Jesus as a door of glass, a door that swings both ways, and God comes through him this way in among us, and you go through him that way to enter his kingdom as it comes.

It’s scary. Simon Peter was afraid to go there. I think he was like me. The more he’s afraid, the more he talks, and he talks when he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. He says it was great to be there, but why don’t we take a break now. Why don’t we just gather some branches and leaves and make some sukkoth booths for you three saints and we’ll just hang out with you for a while. Peter was suggesting hospitality because he felt like he needed a safe place, he needed some sanctuary.

I sometimes wonder if our very positive missions of sanctuary and hospitality can be a similar temptation for us at Old First. That we like to hang out in our safe place and stay back from daring missions that might be more challenging. We can be fearful. Which is why it’s great that our 2nd Mission Team is moving ahead on adult education events that deal with issues controversial. Race, justice, sexuality, climate change — these issues are scary and they may raise tensions among us. But let's go there.

While it’s true that the mission of God is certainly for our own healing and peace and comfort, it’s also true that the mission of God goes out into the world to engage the troubling issues of the world. And this is true in your personal life, when the kingdom of God engages your own privacy. The mission of God is scary because Jesus warns us that you may die from it if you give yourself to it. And yet you won’t let it go, because you know it leads to life, and it keeps on calling you.

My friend Josh is the pastor of the Reformed Church in Woodstock, NY, and he said to me this week that the Transfiguration shows us that there is something very personal about the Kingdom of God; it’s not a theory, it’s not an ideology, it’s not a utopia, it’s rather all wrapped up in this person of Jesus.

And that’s the first mission of our church, our mission which takes priority among our other very valid missions, and this is to keep holding up to your view this person of Jesus Christ, this very human being in whom God has come to us, and to listen to him who is God’s Beloved Son.

So we will focus on that for the next few weeks of Lent. We will follow him on his specific mission, his personal version of the mission of God, on his walk to the cross. He has to go through the gory to get to the glory. He has to suffer the crucifixion to win the resurrection. And why will he do this? What is his motivation? He is the Beloved. That’s what God calls him. He is the capital B Beloved. He embodies love. Even the light in him is love.

He shows us the motivation for God’s mission in the world, for God so loves the world. Conglomerate and person, global and one-by-one. And when you see the kingdom of God, you will see that all the power in it is the power of Love, capital L Love. It is the Love of the God who calls you and says, “Come in with me.”

Copyright © 2015 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Friday, February 06, 2015

February 8, Fifth After Epiphany, The Mission 10: Freedom for Service

Isaiah 40:21-31, Psalm 147:1-11, 20, 1 Corinthians 9:16-23, Mark 1:29-39

(This Sunday we are ordaining and installing new deacons and elders.)

Flora belonged to my church in Hoboken. Flora was an elderly immigrant from India. When she wasn’t working in a sweatshop she took care of her granddaughter. One day on her way to work she got hit by a car, and she was in a coma for a week. She came out of it confused and unable to speak. One day Melody was with me at the hospital, and Flora looked at us and then she spoke. She said, “Have you had anything to eat?” She had begun to heal. Taking care of people was her deep desire.

Apparently like the mother-in-law of Simon. When Jesus healed her, the first thing she did was get up and serve them. Was it because she was now free to care for other people or because she was entangled in a traditional sex-role of servitude? They may look the same. How can you distinguish?

The healing of Simon’s mother-in-law is the first healing in the gospel of Mark. We take it for granted that Jesus healed the sick, but that’s not what they were expecting of the Messiah. They wanted a chief, a brave, not a medicine man. When Simon told Jesus that his mother-in-law was sick it was not a hint for Jesus to heal her, but why the guys will have to serve themselves, and why Jesus should avoid the back room.

Jesus could have stood up in the front room and shouted out, “Be healed.” We know from last week that his voice has that authority. But he goes in to her, and touches her, and lifts her by the hand. He violates a social boundary and he breaks three rules: he does physical work on the Sabbath day, he touches a woman, and he touches someone unclean. He is making a point, but more deeply he’s expressing the desire of his heart. He’s expressing the desire of God.

He can express his desire because he is free. He is not entangled in the net of expectations. You could call him “unattached”. Not detached, but unattached. Not absent, but very present. As one of you said last week, he is remarkably comfortable in his own authority. He is untangled in order to be invested. In the words of First Corinthians, “he is free from all in order to be a slave to all.”

St. Mark tells us that at sundown the people brought to Jesus all the sick and "demonized". The physical and the spiritual are not separated out because the effect is the same: the people are in bondage. But they have been taught that God will not forgive them or return to liberate them from the Romans unless they first strictly keep the laws of kosher and the Sabbath, so they have to wait till after sundown. They are entangled, they are not free. To give them some of his own freedom is why Jesus heals and cleanses them, and the purpose of his freedom is manifested in Simon’s mother-in-law, it is the freedom for joyful service. What love does, what love loves to do.

St. Mark says the whole city was crowded around the door. Jesus could have stood on Peter’s rooftop and commanded, “Let the diseases all be healed and let the demons be cast out.” But he deals with the people one by one. He’s making a point, but more deeply he’s expressing the desire of his heart. He’s expressing the deep desire of God.

And God’s desire is the reason for the strategy of the Incarnation, one of the reasons why God became a human being: to be in physical contact with each person one by one. I have told you that God is on a mission for the salvation of the world, but God intends to do it one by one.

If God remains pure spirit, then God is detached and everywhere at once. But a human being is in one place at a time, and touches other people one by one. God wants to touch you one by one, so a working Incarnation is God’s own mission strategy.

The Incarnation has its pros and cons. Jesus is both more connected and more limited. He can’t be everywhere at once. And there’s only so much of him. He gets exhausted. So even Jesus needs to take a break. He goes off to pray. He hopes it’s true what Isaiah wrote, that "those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength." And his Father does for him what he’d just done for Simon’s mother-in-law, God takes hold of Jesus’ prayer and lifts him up and gets him back in service.

The crowds will be back at the door when he gets back. He could be there for them. That’s what his disciples assume he will do. The disciples are excited. This is great. Hadn’t he told them they would be fishers of men, and look how full their nets are now. “Come on Jesus, you’ve got to come back.” They feel the pressure of the people’s neediness. But he tells them they’ll be moving on.

The disciples are enmeshed, they are not untangled from their nets. Don’t we know it. We set our agenda by the people’s expectations, to give the people what they want. It’s really that we are afraid of human need. We fear the neediness pressing in on us, and we want Jesus to relieve it. “Relieve the symptoms here, O Jesus.” But he is not compelled by what people seem to need.

Jesus was being tempted here. In the gospels of Matthew and Luke the temptations come from the devil. In Mark the temptation comes from Jesus’ ministry, to stay there healing everyone. If he moves on, he will disappoint the people there. To be free of them will be criticized as detachment, or that he doesn’t care. To keep himself from enmeshment and entanglement he must remove himself to pray and keep centered on his deepest desire, the desire that he shares with his Father.

Elders and deacons. This story is for you especially today. You will feel like the disciples here. You will feel the need and the pressure of the need. But you can act like Jesus, caring and loving, not detached, but unattached, so that you can really care and love. The people have elected you, but this is not really a democracy, because it is Jesus whom you elders and deacons represent, which is why we not only install you but also ordain you. Ordination means you are taking on the office of Christ.

The Reformed Church is the only Protestant denomination which ordains deacons and elders along with pastors. A Reformed Church consistory messes up the familiar boundary between the clergy and the laity. Intentionally so. We do not distinguish between offices which are spiritual and offices which are practical. We do not separate the spiritual and the physical, their spiritual work as elders and deacons and their down-to-earth concerns as the board of trustees; indeed, the spiritual directs the physical. Our model is the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, and our elders and deacons are first and foremost representatives of Christ, and their first obligation is the Mission that God is on.

So elders and deacons, you listen to the voices of the congregants, their desires and opinions and their needs, and their voices will keep calling you back to them. Listen to them in love, attend to them, and keep in touch with them, but then you must turn around and pray and wait upon the Lord, and listen for where Jesus is calling you to, which may be beyond where the people feel their need. If you do not pray for them you will not be able to lead them. If you don’t hand them over to to God, you will be enmeshed with them and you will not be able to keep on rightly serving them. You are free from your people in order to be free for your people, and you get that freedom in prayer.

So here’s the vision of the mission. The elders and deacons expand the working Incarnation in the church. The reason they work in pairs or in groups is because they spread out the contact, they spread out the one-by-one, they expand the Incarnation. That’s also why they are not called away from their day jobs; they are fully among you to touch you one by one. Just by their offices they express the mission of God coming into the world, not to take you out of the world, but to save it.

Their roles are different but never separate. The elders are responsible for you who come to the door, and for bringing you through the door, and bringing you to Jesus’ table, and laying hands on you when you are down, and telling you how to behave in Jesus’ house. The deacons lead you back out from Jesus’ table, and they gather your gratitude into service like Simon’s mother-in-law, and they help you take the healing out the door and into the city, extending the lifting-up of God.

Together, and with me as pastor, we forge a small community of Jesus. We do all five of our missions with each other. We worship together, we learn from each other and enjoy each other, we offer each other sanctuary and we offer each other hospitality, in order to maintain this historic congregation we have inherited. There is no separation between the spiritual and physical, and that’s because of the Incarnation, and the motivation of the Incarnation is God’s great love for us.
Copyright © 2015 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

February 1, Epiphany 4, The Mission #8: Sanctuary and Hospitality

Deuteronomy 18:15-20, Psalm 111, 1 Corinthians 8:1-13, Mark 1:21-28

The public career of the Lord Jesus was about three years. At first, Our Lord did his preaching and teaching in the synagogues. Later on, not so much, as the opposition mounted against him. Already at the beginning is the first hint of that opposition, in the synagogue that welcomed him.

In those days a synagogue was less a sanctuary than a meeting house, a town hall, a union hall. There was no division between the laws of religion and political economy—it was all one. You went to synagogue for training on how to be Jewish in daily life, how to apply the ancient rules of the Torah to current situations, how to get along under the Romans and still be holy, how to share the marketplace with your pagan neighbors and still be clean.

You went to hear the scribes lay out the rules and regulations in the commentaries by the best minds of Judaism from prior centuries, and especially the carefully collected precedents. To keep these precedents in current application was the job of the scribe. What no scribe would ever want to claim was a fresh, new, personal interpretation.

You went to synagogue to worship, for prayer and praise and spirituality. You went to hear the stories from the Torah–of creation, of the patriarchs, of the exodus–the stories that told you God’s meaning for the world, and what your special Jewish place was in the world. You went to hear the readings from the prophets, as Moses had predicted. The prophets told you to hope that your God would remember you someday. You went to synagogue to keep your hope alive.

And here was sudden hope again. This Jesus, this thrilling Jesus giving his new teaching, daring to offer his fresh and unprecedented interpretations with his risky applications—it’s exciting even if it might not work. Maybe he is right. Maybe things are breaking open finally at last.

But that will be trouble for some of them. They will have been compromised. They will have their secrets. Like this one guy, in what St. Mark calls an “unclean spirit”. What does that mean?

Don’t think of it as a demon from hell. It’s natural, because they drew no line between the natural and the supernatural, and they took the natural world as spiritual, so this unclean spirit is relatively natural but it’s nature out of whack. It’s unclean like your shirt is unclean when your spaghetti sauce is on your shirt instead of your plate. Things where things do not belong. Nature made unnatural. Rotten, corrupted, like rotting meat. Pollution, a toxic environment.

This guy is in the power of corruption. Maybe he’s got a toxic boss, or a toxic family. Maybe he’s Sheldon Silver at schul, or Tony Soprano at Mass, or a drug-dealer with his mom at church. He is captive to powers greater than himself, powers human and more than human, powers which pass the boundaries of reason. He is beholden to corruption both natural and supernatural. As most Jews were in Jesus’ day, more or less, intentionally or not, actively or passively. The Roman soldier, the Roman taxes, the Roman imperium, Roman idolatry, and Roman gods and goddesses. Spiritual. Unclean.

So Jesus is a threat, for all of his good news. This guy is threatened because he can recognize Our Lord’s holiness and purity and he can sense the implications for people like himself. So he says to Jesus, “What are we to you? What do you care about us? I know who you are, the holy one of God, and that will be no help to us in our lives here, you’re only going to bring us trouble. If you win, we will be your casualties.” Well, that’s kind of true. That’s insightful.

What you’ve got here is a contest of insight, on both sides. Just as Jesus could see more in the scriptures than the scribes could, so this guy can see more in Jesus than the others can, and when the guy opposes him, Jesus can see more on him than others can. There is a contest here between two spiritualities, the spirituality of the world gone out of whack, and the Holy Spirit of God in Christ.

This guy has knowledge, apparently more knowledge than others in the synagogue, but not enough knowledge. He doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. He does not have the knowledge of God’s love. He can’t, because he’s beholden, and he can’t let go of what is binding him. So he fears the power and authority of Jesus as even more oppression and domination. He cannot see that this power and authority of Jesus is for the freedom of God’s love.

Jesus rebukes him, and silences him, and casts him out, and with the first two actions the author doesn’t clearly distinguish whether Jesus is addressing the unclean spirit or the guy himself. And this, I think, is accurate to our experience of spirituality and its effects. Where does spirituality begin and what does it include? And not all spirituality is good. That’s one implicit lesson in this story.

Spirituality is in. People are wanting spirituality again, certainly in reaction to the empty mechanistic worldview of modernity and its desacralization of the world, reducing everything to physics and chemistry and mere biology.

And I can understand that people like to say that they are spiritual but not religious. Religion looks toxic, violence is done in God’s name, and organized religion is corrupted. This week one of our members told me that she’s the only one who goes to church of all her good friends in Park Slope. Religion? No thanks. Church? Nah. Oh yes, Jesus said nice things, but to consider him having some authority or Lordship, for example, is a non-starter. “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” What the guy said—the guy in the synagogue.

How much of it is fear? That member and I were talking about the pervasive fear in people’s lives today. Existential fear. For all of our modern achievements in science and technology we have not been able to solve the problem of fear.

I believe that people are more fearful today than they were when I was young. More fearful for the safety of their children than my parents were. More fearful for our health. More fearful economically. Fearful ecologically. Fearful of what we’re doing to the planet. Fearful of terrorists, fearful of foreigners. Fear is driving our elections. Around the world, people are saying to each other what the guy said, “Have you come to destroy us?” 

The fear is so pervasive that it is spiritual. Indeed, it’s because it is spiritual that it’s pervasive and powerful. And in this crisis we are called to be prophetic to identify this fear for what it is.

It’s easy to be negatively prophetic, as so many Christian voices seem to be today, which advocate retrenchment, and defensiveness, and call for division, and tolerate violence. They may have knowledge. But not love. We need to be prophetic and knowledgeable not in a spirit of fear but a spirit of love. 

What are the pervasive fears in your own life? What fears have power over you to force your choices? What fears compel you, and what fears limit you? What toxic relationships are you in? What deals have you made that are not really clean but you fear they are too costly and convulsive to get out of? I believe that for you to consider the Lordship of Jesus is always an exercise in examining your deepest fears. He challenges you. Can you believe that he is challenging you in love?

You know what I’m afraid of? Whether I have the ability and capacity to lead this congregation through its difficult challenges for the next few years. I fear that our growth and progress in the last few years could all come crashing down. What if the renovation of our sanctuary is a reach too far? What if we fail? What if I fail? What if it divides our congregation? What if I don’t lead us well and keep us together?

That’s my own personal share of our general spirituality of fear. I want to be free from the grip of my fear. I want to accept my fear and be free in my fear. I want to do what Melody said last week and run towards that which makes me afraid. I want to aim for the Lordship of Jesus.

I want to do this because of our mission, the mission of our church. Our mission is not just to gather more people into our church to make our numbers grow. Our mission is not just to worship together and educate each other. Our mission is to witness in public to the character of the authority of Jesus Christ, and how his authority leads to the freedom of love. And we have two practical ways to do that public witness within this general spirituality of fear: Sanctuary, and Hospitality.

Sanctuary and Hospitality are the two distinctive missions of Old First. That these two missions were sort of forced on us by our building is providential because these two missions are so relevant to our public culture within its general spirituality of fear. They are the opposite of fear. They are public works of love. They are prophetic, because they point to the Kingdom of God, and they witness to the character of Jesus, and his authority over you gives you the freedom to love.

Copyright © 2015 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.