Saturday, July 11, 2015

July 12, Proper 10, This Is the Life #10: The Meaning of Life, the Universe, and Everything

Caravaggio's Beheading of John the Baptist

2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19, Psalm 24, Ephesians 1:3-14, Mark 6:14-29

The Bible loves King David, but it also shows him for the shrewd politician he was, and how his most admirable actions were calculated to advance his ambitions. This is noticed by Queen Michal, his trophy wife, whose hand he had won from her father, King Saul. Her father’s political instincts were abysmal, and he was his own worst enemy, but he never tried to work the crowd, and he had not even wanted to be king. Her brother, Prince Jonathan, was never ambitious and calculating, but loyal and fearless and pure of heart, and really the best man in the whole cycle of David stories.

But they were dead and David had won and she can see what he’s up to. He’s bringing the Ark of the Covenant not back to its proper home in the Tabernacle up north in Shiloh, where the priests are assigned, but into his new fortress, and he plays the priest. He is God’s man, and now God belongs to him. How strange of God to allow some guy to so possess him. There is much to forgive in King David, and we forgive him much, because he had a great soul and was "every inch a king."

In the gospel story, Herod "plays the king" but is only a pretender. He is Herod Antipas, one of the sons of Herod the Great. When his father died, the Romans ended the Kingdom of Judea and made it a province under a Roman governor (that would be Pontius Pilate), and they let Herod Antipas be the Roman ethnarch of Galilee. But he wants to be king like his father was, in Jerusalem. He wants to be anointed King of Israel, the messiah, the presumptive nominee of God, and the deputy of Caesar while he’s at it. He imitates the behavior of Caesar’s family: incestuous, lascivious, lavish, boastful, superstitious, and visibly religious. He does feel guilty about what happened to John the Baptist, so it would be nice he came back from the dead.

He doesn’t understand Jesus. He certainly doesn’t see him as a rival messiah. Jesus isn’t acting like a messiah, he’s acting like a prophet. Not like David but like Samuel. Like Elijah, like Elisha, not like King Jehoshaphat. Prophets can be trouble, but not as competition for the throne. And even when Jesus eventually does make messianic claims, neither Herod or Pontius Pilate are ever threatened by him. They kill him because it’s so easy, not because they’re in danger from him. By all the expectations, both in strategy and outcome, Jesus was a failed messiah.

And yet St. Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians, claimed that this dead guy, this loser among a tribe of self-defeating losers, living at the back end of the Empire, that this guy was the pivot and center and focus of universal history. We are so used to this claim that we don’t recognize how nuts it must have sounded at the time. It’s not just audacious, it’s so preposterous as to have been nonsensical. Of course we Christians have spent 2000 years making sense of it, or we think we have, but I have good friends for whom it makes no sense at all, and it remains preposterous.

“You think that this universe has a creator (of which there is no clear evidence nor any necessity for it being true) and that this creator picked one galaxy out of the millions of galaxies, and from this galaxy one star, and on this one planet one species, and then ignoring all the many tribes and nations of the species just this one tribe, and just this one guy, to carry some meaning to the universe? That the whole universe is ‘gathered up’ in him? And that this one Friday-to-Sunday weekend was some ‘fulness of time,’ of 13.8 billion years? What are the odds? What about other planets? Do you think our planet is the only one with life on it? Why would you want to think such preposterous things?”

Fair questions. People ask them not from malice or meanness. I find them challenging and hard to answer. Yes, it kind of is preposterous. The whole thing is actually absurd, as Kierkegaard points out in his little book Fear and Trembling. And then he claims that’s why it hangs on faith.

Of course, in St. Paul’s time they imagined a vastly smaller universe, and they didn’t imagine the planets as other worlds, which could bear life. But what the Greeks and Romans would have found preposterous was that the Jewish god was the only god, and that this god was omnipotent and could be everywhere and could know everything, even what you thought. And that the world they had so wonderfully analyzed in their great tradition of philosophy and poetry would have completely to be rethought and revisioned and reimagined and reclassified and recapitulated in terms of this failed Messiah guy, just because his followers claimed he had been raised, and that his rising had converted him from a failed Jewish Messiah to some victorious global Christ of God.

Why do we believe such things? Why then, and why now? Well, if it helps, at least the odds are no better for this universe being the way it is without God than with God. Scientists report that the mere existence of biological life presumes a fine tuning of the universe against which the odds are also unthinkably enormous. Just your bare existence today is preposterous.

And the enormity issue is perspectival: We measure the enormity of the universe in billions one way, and the incredibly tiny spaces within atoms in billionths the other way, and did you know that the median is actually about the size of the human body? As my son-in-law the artist says, “Why shouldn’t God be so big?”

But that’s just room for belief, not reason for belief. What you believe about this dead Messiah was his vision for what God should be like, if there is one, and what God should want, against all other explanations in power at the time, which vision of his was vindicated by his rising from the dead (on which it all hangs!).

You believe in this dead Messiah’s vision of the interplay of law and liberty and love, a vision his own religious leaders found too dangerous not to get rid of him, which vision God vindicated by raising him from the dead.

You believe in his vision of righteousness and justice and the interplay of truth and politics that the Romans found so preposterous they had to mock him with a humiliating death, but which vision God vindicated by raising him from the dead.

You believe his vision of what a kingdom could look like, which the combined authorities found too challenging not to take him out, but which vision God vindicated by raising him from the dead.

And you love his personal vision of what a leader and a servant should be like. He was the Son of David but with Jonathan’s character and purity of heart, and there’s nothing we have to forgive him of.

You believe this story because what it tells you about life itself, life on the planet. All that he spoke of confirms the purposefulness that you sense in ordinary organic life, that life wants to live, and he confirms that the mystery of life is meaningful, that the meaning that you sense in existence is not just your wishful thinking imposed upon some hard reality of ultimate randomness.

That a flower opens and a bee goes in,

and that crows run through their repertoire of different calls to each other across the lake as the morning lengthens,

and that this planet has developed a species that can learn to read its rocks and by means of its geological strata tell the planet’s story to itself,

and that all this abundant purpose-driving and meaning-making is going on all the time around us without us but also through us to include us, tells us that it is not necessarily delusional or wishful thinking to see meaning in the universe, and that indeed it is reasonable at least to hope it’s true that “meaning is the essence of existence.” (“De zin is het zijnde van het zijn,” H. Dooyeweerd.) 

And that’s all what you get encouraged of when you believe that God raised this failed Messiah from the dead.

And that’s what inspires you to “live for the praise of his glory.” It’s not that God needs your praise nor even desires it. It’s that your appropriate humility leads you to wonder, and awe, and thus to deeper humility, and in that deeper humility to joy.

Yes, you are mixed. You want to live for yourself as much as for his glory. You are more like David than like Jonathan, and what you see can tempt you to the cynicism of Queen Michal. But you have also caught the vision of his salvation and his forgiveness,

and more, you notice his lavish grace that is widespread in the world, and you’ve got to sing of it,

and you reckon your world as blessing, and you want to thank someone for it,

and you testify that when you look at your own small share of the universe, it looks to you like your purpose and meaning has always been to live within the love of God.

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

Saturday, July 04, 2015

July 5, Proper 9, This is the Life #9, Weak Life

Staphylococcus bacilli

2 Sam 5:1-5, 9-10, Psalm 48, 2 Cor 12:2-10, Mark 6:1-13

The latest New York Review of Books has an article of relevance to this sermon series of mine. It’s a review of two new books on the origins of life on Earth. One book tells how this planet would have remained as inhospitable as other planets to most forms of life if the earliest microbes had not developed photosynthesis, which liberated oxygen, which profoundly altered the atmosphere, making the planet suitable for all other life-forms since. It’s not that this planet happens to have life. It’s rather that life has made this planet into a home for itself.

The other book tells about the earliest evolution of those microbes, how random molecules became the first living cells. Just to exist, a cell has to perform a process of building complex protein molecules, and cells do this using what are called nanomachines, minuscule devices that gather certain chemicals, break them down, and rebuild them into the chemicals needed by the cell.

When that first happened on this planet’s surface, 3.5 billion years ago, something came alive. I quote: “The nanomachines possess attributes of life, and when brought together in a cell they clearly cross the threshold into the self-regulating, replicating entity that we recognize as a living thing.”

But this raises a conundrum. A machine implies a purpose and a product. Cells make nanomachines for the purpose of their products, and no cell could exist without those products. But how could there be nanomachines existing before there were cells to want their products?

Is it possible that the first nanomachines came into existence willy-nilly, randomly, as if a pair of scissors were formed by some random molten iron suddenly cooling into that shape, both hinged and sharp? Before there was paper or cloth? This conundrum has led to proposals that the first organic proteins might have come from off-planet, from an asteroid, or even Mars. But no one has a real solution.

In reading the essay I noticed how often the author resorted to such words as “mysterious” and  “magical”. Science can tell us so much about life—this strange power that has occupied the third planet in our solar system—but science knows that there is more to life than science can account for. It’s as if life is a power with its own purposes.

Life wants to live. Life makes order out of disorder and generates magnificent biodiversity. Life has taken over this planet’s minerals and liquids and vapors and even its weather. As it says in Genesis 1, “Let the earth be fruitful, and multiply.” And then a million years ago, life generated a species that was capable of imagination, and self-awareness, and transcendence, and freedom, as if life had reached the ultimate purpose of its purposes.

This power and purpose in life is what humanity has accounted for by the notion of spirituality. The more-than-physical about physicality and the more-than-biological about biology is what we call spirituality. We locate it in the soul, the breath, the animating spirit, the constantly vibrant air that inflates your body and inspires your mind and flows in and out of you to connect you with the living planet’s atmosphere and thus with every other breather of that same air and thus with every other soul and heart and mind.

The Lord Jesus sent out his disciples with power over the unclean spirits. This was for healing the bodies of the people and liberating the landscape and cleaning up of the culture of the villages. As I’ve told you before, these unclean spirits are not demons from hell. They are the natural spirituality of the landscape and culture that is out of whack because of human sin. They are unclean, dirty, polluted, and infectious, and like every corrupted system they oppress the weak and oppose the good. So Our Lord has sent his disciples on a campaign through the villages to restore the ordinary life of the people to the kind of whole and healthy life that life should be.

St. Mark reports it without explaining it. We are left with mysteries. How long did this campaign last, and how far did it go? Where did the unclean spirits go after being cast out? Why do this only for a while? Why not do this in Jerusalem? Did they lose the power they’d been given? If they could have power over the spirits, why not give them power over the Roman soldiers, or over the tax collectors who enforced the system of debt and poverty?

Then there’s the mystery of Our Lord’s lack of power in Nazareth. He had just had power over the wind and the waves, and the power in his body had electrified his clothing, and he’d just raised the dead, but in his hometown he feels powerless. And he’s surprised at their unbelief in him.

This complicates the conventional picture of Jesus taught by the church. The Son of God finds himself powerless? And by surprise? Because of his lack of support by those whom he’s known all his life? The liquids and vapors of the planet submit to him but his second and third cousins can resist him. A conundrum. And who are these creatures who can resist the power and authority of God?

We are the first living creatures on the planet to oppose life. We are the only living things to cultivate the power of death. We are that species in whom life has developed freedom, and we are the only species to poison and pollute the biodiversity of this living planet. We are the unclean spirits of the Earth. We’re not demons from hell, but we’re certainly creatures out of whack. And apparently God will not intervene miraculously to fix us or stop us. God lets us resist the good life of the world. God lets us get away with doing what we want until it is too late. Why does God seem so weak?

And then this weakness that we see in the Lord Jesus at Nazareth is held up as a virtue by St. Paul. That weakness should be a virtue went against all the aspirations of the Hellenistic culture of the day, as well as our own cultural preferences, not to mention the deep instinct of life itself, which uses power for its purposes. A strong organism is a healthy organism. In terms of our first two lessons, a strong king is a great king and a strong citadel is a sure refuge.

This is why the gospel of Jesus has to be believed, instead of being proven, because it feels contradictory and it seems to go against nature. When the disciples preached repentance there were those who would not believe them. The Lord Jesus told them not to resent this, but just shake off their rejection like dust off their feet. Do not fret at unbelief, just move on to your next opportunity. God does not force it, God respects our freedom. God invites us, God waits for us.

And we make God wait. Repentance feels like weakness and surrender and like dying, and life wants to live. To be sorry is to lose and remorse is a defeat. Your lawyer will tell you to not admit your guilt. Your in-house attorneys will advise you to settle with no mention of wrong-doing. And aren’t there worse guys getting away with it, so it’s not fair anyway. Repentance will cost you. Is it maybe true that there will be no real racial justice in this country unless we consider some form of reparations? Isn’t it true that it’s the perceived economic cost more than anything else that keeps us from doing environmental justice?

Repentance only begins in remorse, it’s more about repaying, refunding, restoring, rebuilding, reviving. If you think of the Apostles Creed, toward the end, what follows the forgiveness of sins is the resurrection of the body. That’s the process: repentance is sort of a machine that takes what’s dying and converts it into life. Where it comes in the Creed is under the work of the Holy Spirit, who is the Lord and giver of life.

Repentance is a mystery you have to learn and a magic that you practice. It’s not a bondage but a liberation, a clearing away, a cleaning of the poison, for the new and godly life to grow within the old. And you don’t deny the old life or even hate it, but rather the old and unclean life becomes the soil for the rising up of the new and godly life. Even what’s been bad and sordid and dirty in you has the value and purpose of being the fertile soil for the life of grace and love. This machine works like magic, and the magic of it, that you learn to work, is what St. Paul means by grace.

This grace is what you use within your new and godly life to love that old and dying life that still lives on in you. Do not hate your weaknesses, please do keep on loving that old and dying you that still lives on in you. Even your fallen self is the object of your love. Clean it up in love. That’s what God does. Imitate in yourself how God is with you and with the whole life of the world. And that’s why God filled this planet so richly with life: so richly to receive God’s love.

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

Friday, June 19, 2015

June 21, Proper 7, This is the Life #7: Fearing For Your Life

1 Sam 17:1a, 4-11, 19-23, 32-49, Psalm 9:9-20, 2 Cor 6:1-13, Mark 4:35-41

I can vouch for Jesus sleeping in the boat. I worked on a boat for four summers on the Great South Bay of Long Island. It was an old fishing boat (a "pound boat"), with low decks and the cabin in the back and a big hold in the front. It took us an hour every morning to Fire Island and an hour back at night.

One morning we had a bad storm and it was so wet on deck that I climbed down into the hold and lay on the ropes and canvasses. The boat was rolling and pitching and the hull was getting pounded. Then all of a sudden I woke up. I had fallen asleep. In that storm. I guess that’s how much I trusted the skill of my boss, Joe MacMillan, and also how much I loved being out in the wind and the waves.

Don’t get the gospel story wrong. The disciples woke up Jesus not with a request but with a reprimand. What they expected was not a miracle but that he show some interest. And after the miracle they were even more afraid! They went from the ordinary fear of the dangerous chaos of nature to their terror at the power of Jesus’ word. In contrast is the calm—the sudden calming of the sea, and the calm of Jesus all throughout.

Jesus has done what only a god can do. Psalm 148: “Sea monsters and all deeps, stormy wind fulfilling God’s command.” The pagan gods and goddesses did such things, and also routinely took on human form, and if they were pagans the disciples would have been glad and grateful and offered up sacrifices. But they were Jews.

For them there was one God, and this One God never, ever took on human form, and so nothing here computes. They can’t make sense of it. That’s the great root of their fear, the vast disparity between what they’ve just witnessed and what they’d always believed. Jesus be calm, but he stands in their boat like a hole in their universe.

And yet he remains a human being. For all his impossible extra identity, he’s still a man who is living by his faith. So if God got Noah through the flood, Moses through the Red Sea, Jesus then could trust that the God who had given him a mission would protect him enough to see it through.

So does that mean that we are supposed to be fearless if we follow Jesus? Fearless like David against Goliath? Was St. Paul fearless in his endurance of afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, and hunger? Are we supposed to be like that? If you get afraid, does that mean your faith is weak?

You might think that from what Jesus says to them, at least according to our translation: “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” We hear that as a reprimand. But maybe Jesus is asking an honest question—he’s honestly curious why they’re afraid. No, I think that’s pushing it. And yet this is not a good translation. He doesn’t actually ask them why they’re afraid. He actually says this: “Why are you timid, do you not yet have faith?” You can make the Greek word even stronger: “Why are you cowardly, why are you craven, do you not yet have faith?” It’s not about fear but the effect of fear.

And it’s more a challenge than a reprimand, because the force of the Greek is “not yet have you faith?” This “not yet” carries through the Gospel of Mark: when the disciples see him walk on water they are terrified, when all three times that Jesus predicts his death and resurrection they are afraid of it, when he gets transfigured on the mountain they are terrified, and finally on Easter morning the women see the empty tomb and get the message from the angel and they depart in fear. Still not yet?

Well, right, isn’t that the journey of your life? Learning to manage your fear, so that your fear informs you but does not control you? That you not fear your fear, that you not cower?

How do you accomplish this? Well, as you grow up you develop those inner resources that help you control your fear, and you also control it by your loyalty to a greater cause. That’s where faith starts. If you’re a Christian, you factor in your faith in the promises of God, because of your faith in the character of God. You trust God because you believe that God is trustworthy. And so what God is like and what God promises has to affect the schedule and the ranking of your fears.

Fear is natural even though it does not exist in most of the universe. Stars feel no fear, rocks feel no fear, they have no need of it, because inorganic things exist always and exactly in unity with their conditions. But once a thing is alive, that thing maintains itself in creative tension with its conditions. The essence of life is the drive to survive, so that which resists its survival must be overcome, and that which opposes its survival is a threat. When creatures evolve enough complexity to have emotions, they develop fear against what might injure them or kill them. Our particular species fears more: we also fear what might constrain us or restrict us or ruin our purpose and meaning.

This Sunday again, in the Eucharistic Prayer, I will pray this: “You have given us life, and being, and you preserve us by your providence.” So we are grateful to God that we even exist, and that we have biological lives, and that God providentially preserves our lives to us, even if we know enough not to bind God to our life-plans as we see them.

But we mean more than our sheer biological lives, we also mean living, daily life, and all the activities of life. How do faith and fear relate to this? Because your ordinary life is most of your mission. To do your job and to raise your kids and love your people is most of your mission. We’re not in the boat now, we’re back on land. We’re out of the drama and into the daily round. It’s not Goliath we’re facing, it’s mortgages and traffic and unemployment and infections, where your fears are not so frantic but they fester.

Last Sunday morning I heard Krista Tippett interview Sister Simone Campbell, one of the “nuns on the bus.” She said that she finds it remarkable how Americans are fixated on security—in our national policies, in how we eat and travel, in how we raise our children. We build so many barriers against the world’s uncertainties. We keep telling ourselves we’re the free-est people who ever lived. But people from prior centuries would pity how confined and constrained we are. There is so much beyond our power to control that we keep tight control on what little we can.

It is a problem when your felt need for safety keeps you from following Jesus in obedience. It is a problem when your fear keeps you from the freedom to love. And then we are shocked when a child dies or a good work fails or a saint dies young whom we thought was indispensable. But God does not reveal to you the ends of your lives nor the outcomes of your missions, and it is not to certainty that God calls you to but to faith and trust and to let God be God and you be in a creature in God’s care.

In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is a teacher. And this teacher of his disciples is also the commander of the sea of Galilee. Who is also the commander of the deep, dark waters of creation in Genesis. Who is speaking to us now. I invite you to believe that whatever Jesus tells his disciples is in harmony with the deepest structures of the universe. Whatever Jesus calls you to today makes sense of the world the way it really is, despite the current public certainties.

I invite you to believe that this voice of this teacher is the voice of the creator, and therefore I invite you to cultivate calmness. Calmness as a spiritual discipline. Calmness as an exercise, calmness as an attitude. Calmness within, not from what you attain but from what you receive. The calmness you can have when you feel at home in the world, in even the wind and waves. The calmness you can have when someone else is in charge. The calmness when it does not depend on you. The calmness of a child being loved.

The most important obedience for Christians is not in what you do but what you trust God for. What drove St. Paul to go through hell and high water was his passion to share this truth of such a loving and gracious God. And this same truth is what allowed the Lord Jesus to sleep in the boat. The opposite of fear isn’t courage, it’s love. So you know that deep fear in your life? You know what it’s for? It is to keep you climbing ever inward and down into God’s great love for you.

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

Saturday, June 13, 2015

June 14, Proper 6, This is the Life #6, Your Life Is Not Your Own

1 Samuel 15:34-16:13, Psalm 20, 2 Corinthians 5:6-17, Mark 4:26-34

What do you think—does life exist only upon the planet Earth, or is life also out there in some other galaxies somewhere? We have not found it yet, not as far as we can tell. You know there is no purely scientific reason to assume the existence of life elsewhere. Just because it’s here does not require that it be elsewhere.

So then, when we confess in the Nicene Creed that God created “all that is, seen and unseen,” and then also that the Holy Spirit is “the Lord and Giver of life,” are we saying that God made the whole vast universe but maybe chose only to put life in one small planet in the orbit of a minor star at one end of a third-rate galaxy? Really? Of course that’s not unlike God having chosen David from all the more likely sons of Jesse, indeed from all the other persons living in the world that day. But even if it makes sense Biblically that doesn’t make it easier to believe.

It is strange that life should be so rare, because the necessary elements of life are widespread in the universe. All you need is for the five elements of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, and sulfur to start forming compound molecules, provided that some of the oxygen and hydrogen are already formed into water, H2O, and the water is not ice or vapor but liquid, which admittedly does narrow the planetary options. All it takes is for those five elements start forming into their compounds.

But that’s the trick, because to do that, those elements have to go against the Second Law of Thermodynamics and have to counter the natural resistance of entropy. So life would be that force, that drive, that inexplicable drive that seems to want to form those compound molecules, and keeps forming them into ever more complex structures until you get to ant colonies and blue whales and the human brain. That’s life, so extremely simple, and yet so rare.

We don’t know how this drive arose within the universe. The laws and theories of astrophysics do not predict it nor account for it. We can make our guesses only when it comes to our own planet. Scientists suggest that this drive must have spontaneously self-generated a couple billion years ago in earth’s primordial soup. Okay. But if that happened once why doesn’t it ever happen any more? Right now absolutely everything alive has inherited its life from a parent or progenitor. So then to get life going did some spark come from the outside? We have not been able to replicate such an event in our laboratories. Life is all around us and we still can’t explain it.

Life distinguishes the planet Earth. You could argue that life is that system which distinguishes our planet from the other planets. Life is very much more than just those five elements forming compounds; it’s all the profusion of protein-building and DNA-constructing and organic creativity and evolutionary invention and then bacteria and then eye spots and then orchids and spider webs and hummingbirds and camouflaging octopuses, not to mention singing and dancing and wine-making and love-making. All that is life; only with life do we get all that. And only on this planet?

Science tells us that for all this to exist it took exquisite fine-tuning of the energies and elements. One tiny difference since the Big Bang here or there, and none of this exists. Is that fine-tuning just coincidental? Was it God’s guiding hand? Was it the Holy Spirit who touched the spark of life into those five elements to give the inner drive to form new compounds? Whatever it was, apparently that first spark is all it took, because once it gets going, life asserts itself. Well, it has to, because it must assert itself against entropy—life is that which swims upstream against the press of entropy.

You can see how strong this opposition is by how quick and irreversible is death. You take your last breath, and in no time all your cells go out. Once they go out that’s it, they’re dead, and no force in the world can ever turn them on again. Your wonderful body becomes that awful thing we call dead meat, and all your once-living proteins are now only food for other living things. And yet—and yet a seed, a little dry mustard seed, can hold its life in suspension for many years. Such a mystery.

Life can be cut-throat and unforgiving. Life is as fragile as it is powerful. Life has to assert itself to stay alive. Life gambles, life experiments, life invents, life evolves, life adds variations, life adds order in opposition to entropy. Life is driven to grow and develop and expand. Like a seed within the ground. The farmer scatters it and then sleeps and rises and counts on it to have its way.

So the parable of the Lord Jesus is not coincidental. The life that he talks about in his parable is not just a homey example. It’s not that organic life is just neutral and you can add spirituality onto it. In the Bible, even ordinary biological life belongs to the Kingdom of God and is in the providence of God and under the sovereignty of God. You don’t have to be a six-day-creationist to believe that life on earth is in God’s purpose, and you can accept the whole theory of evolution and still believe that God ordains it and desires it, and you can fully go along with modern science and believe that God is the source of life and the Lord of life, and that what life serves in all of its mystery and majesty is what God wants it to serve. You can believe, not unreasonably, that the drive that’s in life is the drive that God has given it, and that drive is part of the parable. Ordinary biological life on earth belongs to the kingdom of God.

But if life asserts itself there is a problem. The inner drive is a problem in the case of our species, which is unique among all the species because of our strange self-awareness. We assert too far, and we come to think of our lives as our own. We decide that the main purpose of our lives is self-realization and our operative stance is self-validation. These things have their place, but as every sin is the perversion of a virtue, so these natural assertive drives in us become rebellious and idolatrous and demonic. We want freedom from everything but ourselves. Selves get selfish. And destructive.

But if we think of the planet as God’s garden, that it belongs not to us but to God, and that God has put us in it as stewards to serve God’s purposes and not our own, then we find that confining, like we’re the zookeepers of God’s vast zoo or the servants on some planetary Downtown Abbey. We don’t want to be servants, thank you very much, and we assert ourselves against the rule of God, or if we’re religious we say that we are loyal and yet we keep side-stepping the rules of God. And the cost of our invention and creativity is dwindling biodiversity and accelerating desertification, not to mention our constant violence and inhumanity to each other, and what war shall we start this week?

The assertiveness of life within our species is a terrible force unless it’s countered by the fear of God. Fearing God. Modern people hear that as a negative. Well, that’s as it should be. There should be some negative in your relationship to God. There is part of you of which God is your enemy and rightly so. God is your death as well as life. Your fear of God is the sensation of the vast disparity between yourself and God, who finally does say that you must die. Your life force which is so precious to you must go out. And yet it’s in love that God says that, that God spares you from the awful possession of a life of your own that will go on forever and ever in infinite assertion. It is a loving who God takes back the gift of life from you, even when you struggle to hang on to it.

You are choosing to not live for yourself. You are choosing the offer in the Epistle by St. Paul, who says that "Jesus died so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them." You’re handing your life back to God, all your assertion and your right to life, and yes, from the outside this looks likes servanthood, but this service is not servility. In fact, it gives St. Paul a new kind of assertion, and twice he says that he has confidence. You can feel his drive and energy. You can be just as assertive and creative, but in the project of your own conversion. That’s the Christian offer that I remind you of again this week. There is no proof. But try it.

Because you don’t have to maintain your own Christian life. If you’re in Christ, boom, "there is a new creation" anyway. You don’t have to force it any more than the farmer can force the seed within the ground. God has planted mustard seeds within you that will grow up and branch out within you to give space and shelter within you to all the various birds of your peculiar personality. Because your life belongs to the kingdom of God. God is taking that force of life in you, which was given to you at your birth, God is carrying your life into the new life of the world to come. If that new life will have even greater mysteries, it will still enjoy the familiar certainty of God’s love for you.

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

Saturday, June 06, 2015

June 7, Proper 5, This Is the Life #5: Life in the Balance

The late Christopher Hitchens

1 Samuel 8:4-20, 11:14-15, Psalm 130, 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1, Mark 3:20-35

Our first lesson is an example of the Biblical principle of “accommodation.” God accommodates to us. This principle is a tool to handle God’s apparent doubleness: God is eternal and omnipotent, yet God also comes down into our history and yields to us and works with us in creative tension with our resistance. The Israelites should have no king but God, but they demand one anyway, so God works in tension with their opposition for the solution that will be the house and lineage of David.

There is tension in our gospel lesson too. Jesus says, “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” That’s a nice thing for him to say to the people around him who admire him, but outside the house, when Jesus’ mother hears of it, she will be embarrassed and dishonored. His siblings can retort that to do the will of God is to follow the Torah and honor your mother! They are thinking their big brother is over the edge, and should be stopped for his own good.

Already in chapter 3 of Mark’s Gospel begins the opposition to Jesus, from both his family and the people in charge. You can understand the motives of the leaders. The Middle East has always been a powder keg. Everyday life was always in the balance. Of course the leaders felt they had to keep control. And Jesus was threatening the balance. He made them nervous. They didn’t get what he was up to and they couldn’t foresee what he’d do next.

A committee of legal experts has come up from Jerusalem to investigate and issue an opinion. They decide he is a sorcerer, that he has real power, but it’s the unclean power of the enemy. Of this opinion Jesus is unforgiving. “You can slander me,” he says, “and I can forgive you. But you cannot slander the Holy God and get away with it. It’s one thing to deny that I’m with God, but it’s another to have equated God and Satan, to have disreputed the Spirit of God. I’m over with you guys.”

And yet his parable is playful: You guys say I am doing my healings by the power of Satan; then the house of Satan must be divided against itself, and it therefore cannot stand, so then I am Satan’s self-destruction, and that makes me good news for you even in your opposition! Even when you oppose me I am working in your favor, and from your opposition I will create a greater good.

When I was in the hospital this past week, recuperating from my little stroke, Rabbi Bachman came to visit me, and lent me a book by the late Christopher Hitchens. It’s called Mortality, and it’s a brief and brilliant atheistic meditation on dying from cancer. Listen:

“The absorbing fact about being mortally sick is that you spend a great deal of time preparing yourself to die with some modicum of stoicism (and provision for loved ones), while being simultaneously and highly interested in the business of survival. This is a distinctly bizarre way of ‘living’—lawyers in the morning and doctors in the afternoon—and means that one has to exist even more than usual in a double frame of mind.”

And then he adds, “The same is true, it seems, of those who pray for me.”

Precisely. This doubleness that is bizarre for Hitchens is familiar to believers. If you believe in God then your way of living in the world is always simultaneously preparing to die and being busy at survival. It’s what St. Paul describes in the epistle. “So we do not lose heart even though our outer humanity is wasting away, our inner humanity is being renewed day by day.” We are always balancing death and life within our lives, not just at the end, and if it’s true in theology it’s no less true in biology.

Living things have to eat, and they eat by killing and consuming other living things. Well, not always. Some plants survive on purely inorganic matter, but most plants require large amounts of organic matter in the soil—matter that was living once. Animals eat tissue that is still alive and we kill it to eat it. This is obvious with carnivores. Herbivores often don’t kill the whole plant, but they do kill the parts of the plants they eat. And to eat a seed or a fruit is to kill off a future life. Biological life depends on dealing death; biological life assumes the constant tension and balance between what Christopher Hitchens calls preparing for death and being highly busy with survival.

For this sermon series on Life I have been reading up on biology. Did you know that there are no reptiles in Iceland? Because they’re cold-blooded they can’t survive the climate. Birds and mammals have evolved warm-bloodedness as a strategy for global expansion.

A polar bear brings her own heat with her; but then to burn enough calories to keep her body warm she has to eat much more than any reptile does. She has to balance consumption with exertion, with the balance always tipped just enough past the median to stay alive.

And you too, Brooklynite, just to stay alive you have to eat things that were killed by someone else for you or are cooked or chewed to death by you, even if you’re a vegan. You practice both death and life just to stay alive.

It is no wonder that so much of religion hopes for an immortality that will be purely spiritual and disembodied and unbothered up in heaven. We won’t have to eat. That’s how many Christians interpret St. Paul, that he is telling us that we long for an immortality that is disconnected from this created world.

That’s actually not what St. Paul hoped for. He was trained as Jew, and he looked for the repair and restoration of this created world, and a disconnected heavenly immortality would be for him an unbearable lightness of being. And yet we so easily misunderstood him as offering us escape. Well, bodily life as we know it is always a struggle to survive, and if it’s a creative tension when it’s good, when it’s bad it’s the hypertension that put me in the hospital last week.

This past year I watched my granddaughter learn to walk. Nobody taught her. She was driven to discover it, to rise up on her feet against the force of gravity. To balance herself she had to master the complex interplay of many muscles in tension and expansion. And then to walk she learned to push and pull against her gravity. Propulsion uses gravity. If you have no weight, you cannot walk!

I say this is to help us with St. Paul’s terminology, that you are being prepared for an eternal weight of glory. Weight of glory—what does that mean? The terminology is Jewish. In Hebrew, the word for glory derives from the word for heavy, kabod. Glory has weight. If something’s glorious it’s heavy. You might think of the sun, one of our favorite images of glory, which is light and bright and weighs millions of millions of millions of millions of millions of kilograms. Heavy is good. It’s not a burden.

The Bible is not offering the lightness of the disembodied glory of Olympian immortality. St. Paul encourages you to hope for a real world more solidly enduring than we can imagine, of such gravity to make light of all our current afflictions, and a city of God so massively majestic that by comparison all our current achievements are as flimsy as tents in the wind.

And until then you have these tensions in your life. You have your hopes and then there are your outcomes. You have what you pray for and then there’s what you get. You see the vision of righteousness, and then you feel the sad reality. You want to live by your convictions but you have to manage your disappointments. You sing of glory and you suffer your afflictions. You pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done,” and then you wonder, “How long, O Lord?” We Jews and Christians design our beliefs around the promises of God, and when there’s no delivery we can hear the people say, “Where is your God?” And you ask that question of yourself. I do. Can it be really true that what cannot be seen is more solid and lasting than what we can see? Or is it just bizarre?

I invite you to believe it, though there will be no proof for it before how it all turns out. It’s not just believers that have these tensions, everybody has them, every creature has them, and the difference is how you interpret them. Stoically or creatively. I want you to read the constant doubleness of your life as a sign of the continuing creativity of the active goodness and investment of God within your life and in the world, of God who even submits to you and accommodates to you in your own situation and your needs and hopes and dreams.

Whatever tensions you feel in your life, whatever you have to balance just to keep on going, I invite you to interpret it all within the massive love of God, and from within that love to act on it. That God should wait and submit to your real experience in the world is the measure of how much God loves you.

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

Friday, May 22, 2015

May 24, Pentecost: Life #4: The Lord and Giver of Life

Ezekiel 37:1-14, Psalm 104:25-35, 37, Romans 8:22-27, Acts 2:1-21

Today is the Day of Pentecost, the eighth Sunday after Easter, and the consummation of the Easter season. We have finished a journey we began three months ago, on February 18, when it was still freezing outside, on Ash Wednesday. From ashes to tongues of flame. Ashes for death and fire for life. We put ashes on your faces. Shall we light your heads?

Ashes are the residue of fire. Fires can mean death too, and speaking scientifically, a fire is no more alive than ashes are. Yet many cultures use fire as a symbol for life. I guess because it’s energy. When you light a fire in the woodstove you also warm the heart. So what the flames on the heads of the disciples signify is the life of God.

Well, so does the breath, as in the prophecy of Ezekiel, the animating breath of God. When God breathes into you, you get a soul. But the flames mean that you get God’s soul too. The flames are the sign of God’s own private inner life, God’s own native energy, the inner heat of God’s personality. This is the hot breath of God, the inner soul of God, who has now come into these people.

Where does God live? In heaven? Or in God’s people? Or both? Do you want that for yourself? How much do you want God inside you? Would you rather keep God in heaven and keep possession of yourself?

It struck me this week, for the first time in my ministry of thirty-five years, how strange is the exchange that happened in those last ten days of the Easter season, from the Ascension to Pentecost. An earthling moves into heaven and then the divine soul moves into earthlings. It’s not so much trading places as a mixing up. Why does God do this?

Let me lay it out more carefully. If we say that the Lord Jesus is at once both God and man, then on Ascension Day, as the Son of God he returns to heaven, but as the Son of Man, he enters heaven for the first time. (This story cannot be explained without some logical conundrums.) If we say that he took his seat at the right hand of the Father, that means that somehow God has taken into God’s self the flesh and blood humanity of a real human being, with his original fingerprints, and of Jewish ethnicity. An earthling is mixed into God. Does that mean that God has changed? (What this does to the eternal changelessness of God I can’t begin to comprehend.)

And then, ten days later (at least from our perspective from within time, because heaven is outside of time), we say that ten days later this flesh and blood Jesus sent the Spirit of God down to the ground to live inside other earthlings, and to do so for keeps. And when we say the “Spirit of God” we don’t mean just one third of God, or just an energy from God, but the soul of God, God’s inner self. So now what we’ve got is a human in heaven who sends God down to earth! (I’m just working it.)

Why this exchange? Why this mixing up and trading places? I may say that this is where our sister religions of Judaism and Islam think we Christians go off the rails. Especially Islam. How dare you bring down God like this? How dare you raise one of us up to the level of God? And even as Christians we might well ask what the point is. What’s the value in it anyway? What good does it do anyone?

Well, it has no value, for example, if the goal of salvation is just to get us to be good. All this mystical traveling and exchanging is essentially superfluous mythology which is better jettisoned to stop distracting us from trying to be good. Similarly it has no value if the goal of salvation is to get you into heaven when you die. If the point is to get your sins forgiven so that you won’t go to hell when you die, then this strange exchange that brings God down to earth is only an expediency like a lifeguard in the water, who gets in only to get you out.

You were probably taught that the point of the gospel is primarily that, to get you into heaven when you die, and, secondarily, that you live a good life here until you get there. Like in the gospel songs: “This world is not my home, I’m must a travelin’ through, if heaven’s not my home, Lord then what will I do. The angels beckon me from heaven’s open shore, and I can’t feel at home in the world anymore.” “When I die, hallelujah by and by, I’ll fly away.” I love those songs, but I am teaching you that God means this world to be your home, and that you’re not just traveling through.

Because it will be God’s home too. So instead of the images of escape, our epistle today gives us the image of pregnancy. The world is pregnant, and expecting, and, yes, is in some pain and discomfort until the birth. This is the discomfort of cleansing and sanctification and transformation, sufficient for the world to become the mansion of God.

This global salvation story gets personal for you by the Holy Spirit living in you already, invisibly but effectively, preparing you too, converting you and developing you and enriching you and blessing you. Then, finally, by means of your death and resurrection, the Spirt transforms your soul and body to be capable of carrying in your flesh the life of the world to come.

I’ve been saying that life on earth is not just an accident of physics and chemistry. I’ve been saying that life on earth is a gift of the Holy Spirit, to plants and animals and humans. We’ve been repeating that the Holy Spirit is the Lord and Giver of life. I have said that the source of life is the inner life of God, of which the energy is love. But now we’re adding something more, the second stream of life within the world, which was not there at creation, but which comes from the new creation, the life of the world to come.

The first life is the breath, and the second life is the hot breath. The first life is the creating love, the general love, the philosophical love, the love of a father for his children, and the second life is the passionate love, the suffering love, the sacrificial love, the groaning love, the love you hear in labor pains, the love that sighs too deep for words.

The epistle says that the whole creation groans because of us. The glaciers are groaning as they calve too fast. The ground is groaning in Oklahoma from what we’re doing beneath it. The migrants and the refugees are moaning on their open boats. Do we even dare to hope that this might be the birthpangs?

The groaning of creation becomes the inner tension of your souls in you who are believers. In this time in-between you feel like you are double, with two lives going on inside you, the original life, which has been corrupted and polluted by your sin, the life that is judged by God, but yet is still and no less loved by God, and then also the life of the world to come, which never replaces your old life but constantly converts it and revives it.

Your soul and God’s Spirit, your breath and God’s heat. On the one hand you are enduring, you’re waiting, you’re sorrowing and sighing. On the other hand you feel your contractions, the movement and the heat and every contraction gives you hope, and I’m telling you that your hope is not a delusion. I’m telling you that you can believe that your life already belongs to the life of the world to come.

So the Holy Spirit is for you personally, to comfort you and inspire you and quicken your personal spiritual gifts. But the Holy Spirit is also beyond you and beyond the church and beyond the Christian religion for the whole life of the world, and for the future of this world.

What this means for us as physical human beings we are just given hints of. What it means for plants and animals we can only wonder at. What it means for the planet we can only hope for, but our hope can inspire us to witness and action. The Holy Spirit moves you to think beyond your own practical benefits and applications. It wants joy for the world. The Spirit calls you to wonder and to the pleasure of your imaginations. It’s like being pregnant. Start imagining. Start envisioning. Dream dreams.

My take-home is for us as a congregation, and for our future and our mission. Look, if the work of the Spirit is to get us into heaven when we die, then our space for worship might as well be an ugly windowless mega-church with mega-screens and sound equipment. If the goal is just to get us to be good, then we might as well worship in a public auditorium.

But if our vision is the sanctification of this real world as the mansion of God, then you have sufficient spiritual reason to renovate that sanctuary as a witness to what God’s mission is. It’s a Pentecostal mission, it’s a Holy Ghost building. It speaks in the tongues of its stained-glass and its stenciling and its multi-colored arabesques. You should renovate that sanctuary not only to express your mission but also as your witness to God’s mission, who is reclaiming this created world as God’s beloved sanctuary, and who is giving you your own place with God within it. You should renovate that sanctuary to bear witness to all the riches and wonder of the love of God, that God so loves the world, and all that dwells therein.

Copyright © 2015 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Friday, May 08, 2015

May 10, Easter 6, Life #3, The New Life of the World

Acts 10:44-48, Psalm 98, 1 John 5:1-6, John 15:9-17

This is the third sermon in my series called “This Is the Life,” and what we’re doing every week is asking our scripture lessons what they can tell us about Life. And I don’t mean just spiritual life, but life in the broadest sense, the life we share with animals and vegetables. There’s something about life in all three lessons, and I’ll take them in the order that we read them.

The reading from Acts is a snippet from a longer story. Peter had a dream of a great sheet let down from heaven full of unkosher food that he was told to eat. When he awoke he was brought to the house of Cornelius, an Italian, a Roman army officer, who’d gathered his colleagues and family. Peter preaches a sermon, and then our snippet opens with God interrupting him. God comes down into these pagans just as God had come down into the disciples at Pentecost. Now there were good reasons for Peter to hold off baptizing them, but the Holy Spirit didn’t bring Peter there to say No!

God was coming back into the larger world outside of Israel. Yes, God was always there, but now God was coming actively, openly, publicly, vocally, visibly, savingly. For a very long time before this, going back to Abraham, the Creator of the world had been purposely confining his saving presence to Israel. And Israel got used to that, and figured that the temporary was permanent, and that the means was the goal. This narrow expectation did not change automatically among the first Christians. But God did not wait for them to be ready. God suddenly enters into the lives of Italians as fully as the Jews. God is coming into the whole wide world. Not just individuals, but the nations.

The Holy Spirit is the Lord and Giver of Life, and that means not just spiritual life but the Life of the world. I want you to think of God’s salvation and God’s interest as widely and holistically as possible. So that when the epistle speaks of conquering the world, it doesn’t mean defeating the world, it means winning the world!

If you think of the broad Biblical story, when God created the world, it was empty of life until the Holy Spirit breathed on it. And when God created human beings to be stewards of the world, they were just lumps of clay until God breathed into them and they became living souls. But we rebelled against God and fled from God and got bad breath and corrupted our own lives and began to pollute the world within our care.

We developed a life that the Bible calls the old life. But a new life begins with the resurrection, and the Holy Spirit brings that new life into the old life. It doesn’t replace the old life but it enters it and judges it and purges it and cleans it and heals it and loves it and wins it to transform it. That’s the patient work of God in your own life, and what you experience in your own life is a smaller version of the work of the Holy Spirit in the world.

That’s my first take home. The Holy Spirit inhabits not just your so-called spiritual life, but the whole of your life, your speaking and thinking, your working and eating, your politics and economics, your home and family, your sleeping and loving, your laughing and playing, your singing and dancing. Not just for hymns but also for opera. God started with the Italians, after all.

From our epistle reading we get four signs of Life. Being born, and then water, and blood, and breath. The epistle says that you are born of God if you believe. You who were born into the old life are born again into the new life of the resurrection that the Holy Spirit is bringing into the world through you. It’s called being “born” because it’s all encompassing, like a whole new life, and also because you didn’t choose it.

You didn’t choose to be born the first time. Your birth was the result of the choices made by other people. And Jesus says this in the gospel: “You didn’t choose me, I chose you.” It’s one of the great mysteries of Christian experience that although in your perception you have to choose it and you keep on choosing it, yet behind the curtain of experience it was God who was choosing you. Why you? Why not somebody else? God does not answer that.

But here is what you can believe, and to your comfort. As I said two weeks ago, no creature alive today has generated its own life. Just so, you cannot generate your own new life, so you don’t have to, it does not depend on you or how good you are at it, you just receive it.

How can you be certain that you are receiving it? Not by measuring your own experience. When I’m in Canada, I often don’t feel like a Canadian, I feel like a native of New Jersey. But my passport testifies that I have become a Canadian. Well, your baptism is your passport that testifies to the certainty of your being in this new life. The epistle calls that the testimony of the water. And the testimony of the blood is the display, in Jesus’ crucifixion, of God’s sacrificial love for people like you. Your certainty is not your own experience but in the nature of God and the fact that God has claimed you.

Water and blood: the liquid necessary for life and the liquid full of life. But in the Bible, your life is carried in your breath. In Greek, the words for breath and spirit are the same. The Holy Spirit is the Holy Breath of God, the inner life of God. You have been taught to think of your soul as like a ghost, immaterial and immortal, non-physical, but the Bible is more concrete, it regards your soul as seated in that vital column of your breath inside your body, moving in and out.

Let me point out here that in Bible terms, and despite what many churches teach, your personal life did not begin at your conception. You did not yet have a soul with your mother’s womb. In Bible terms you first came alive at your first breath. And as your very first cry was greeted with joy as proof of your life, that you could breathe on your own, just so those Gentiles in the story broke out in tongues with joy, infant believers, newly born, and with new life.

And as your breathing connects you with the atmosphere outside you, so your soul connects you to the Spirit of God. And as the springtime breezes can enter your lungs to refresh the air within you to revive you, so the Spirit of God enters your soul and blends in with you to give you new life within your old life.

Our gospel reading gives us three aspects of life that we have seen before. The first is living as abiding. The second is bearing fruit. We talked about them both last week. The third is laying down your life. We talked about that two weeks ago. I said that it’s as much about laying in your life or putting your life. He says this: “Greater love has no one than this, that you deposit your life for your friends.”

Don’t understand this only as, “Well, because I love you so much, I will sacrifice my life for you.” It doesn’t exclude that, it happened to him the next day. But it’s more about living than dying. There is no greater love than investing your soul in your friends, putting your life into your friends. Really? Friendship? Is that the new life of the Holy Spirit? Everybody has friends.

Look, families invest in each other naturally. As the epistle says, if you love the parents, it’s natural to love their children. Even in the old life, that kind of love happens all the time. We share the same traits, we share the same habits, we look like each other, we have the same color. We are family. It’s not wrong to call the church the family of God. But did you ever notice that I never do?

You must have seen those internet videos of animals of different species who are friends. A dog and a chicken. An owl and a cat. By nature they’re enemies, because one of them is the other’s food! Their friendships go beyond raw nature and even against raw nature. So what I’m saying is that in the life that the Holy Spirit is bringing into the world, it’s friendship love more than family love.

In our gospel, at this climax moment in Jesus’ life, this most intimate hour with his disciples, he doesn’t call them brothers, he calls them friends. That’s an unprecedented category of salvation in the Bible. It’s one great step past the family of God. And I’m so glad of it.

Friendship means freedom. You don’t choose your siblings, but you do choose your friends. Friendship has no birth order and no hierarchy, so friendship means equality. God loves you as a friend. Not that God is reduced to sentimental human friendship, like Jesus is your best friend, but rather that you are raised to be a friend of God to share in the life of God. Of course you can’t be God’s equal, but God most certainly respects you, and gives you freedom, and no matter what you do or say or think, will never stop loving you and will always want to, well, just be with you.

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