Thursday, February 27, 2014
Exodus 24:12-18, Psalm 99, 2 Peter 1:16-21, 16-23, Matthew 17:1-9
What did Jesus know and when did he know it?
Did the Transfiguration take Jesus by surprise or did he know it beforehand, or did he make it happen? Did he anticipate that his physical body would light up from the inside? Did he summon Moses and Elijah? Did he call on God the Father, and did his Father listen to him, just as the Father told the disciples they must do? Was this for his own benefit, or for the benefit of Peter, James, and John? Did he take them up for company, or that they be eyewitnesses? That after his resurrection they could connect the dots and imagine its significance? How did Peter know that it was Moses and Elijah? Matthew gives us very little explanation.
Of the three eyewitnesses, Peter was the only one to write about it afterwards, in his second epistle, which you just heard. But many scholars regard this epistle as pseudepigraphal, that it was written by some later author who attributed it to Peter to give it authority. This hypothesis causes more problems than it solves (violating Occam's Razor), and it makes the anonymous writer a liar in his claim to have been an eyewitness. (I don't think the early church was that stupid, and I think it says more about scholarship's lack of imagination. We have no proof that Peter did not write it.) James wrote an epistle, but he never mentions the Transfiguration. Neither does John in the gospel he wrote. He didn’t need to, because Matthew, Mark, and Luke already had, and apparently it did not contribute to his literary plan.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke were all telling it second-hand, so it’s not surprising that they report the details differently, though not drastically so. You’d expect them to select and describe the details to fit their respective literary plans. The details in Matthew typically evoke the Torah and the Prophets. Matthew always shows Jesus fulfilling the Old Testament.
You’d also expect these variations in reported details in the case of a real event in history which is also a singularity and thus a mystery.
As an event in history it has real details which are textured and complex, the varied meanings of which are brought out by the different reporters.
As a singularity it stands outside our categories and normalities and every description is approximate at best.
As a mystery it calls to us beyond our comprehension. The details are offered to us but they are not explained. They are windows for your wonder. You have to look through them. You engage this story with your imagination no less than with your understanding, and these two of your faculties serve and discipline each other.
It’s obvious that Peter did not understand what they were seeing. He was trying to understand it, which is why he made that comment. Peter was trying to use his knowledge of the Torah, of when Moses came back down from Mount Sinai, when his face was shining with real light from having reflected the glory of God for forty days, and so they built a separate tent for him. “See, Jesus, I know my stuff.” Nice try, Peter, but you’re missing it.
Notice that in this case Jesus does not rebuke him, as he does several times elsewhere. He doesn’t respond at all. Matthew doesn’t explicitly judge what Peter says. It’s the later gospels of Mark and Luke that tell us that Peter did not know what he was saying. But there is a judgment implied in what God says from the cloud: “Listen to him!” That implies: “Peter, will you just shut up!” So it’s no wonder they fall to the ground and are overcome by fear. Of course the cloud and the light and the voice are enough to overcome anyone, but what if that voice behind the cloud is telling you off!
They were witnesses of something they were missing the point of. You know what that’s like. You’ve had it that you’ve seen things directly but you did not get what was going on. You have observed events of which you’ve missed the point. Later on you figure it out, or someone explains it, and you wonder how you missed it. I can remember my father sitting in his chair and shaking his head and saying to himself, “Meeter, you dope.” It’s a double failure: your failure of understanding and your failure of imagination, each compounding the other.
I suspect it was their missing the point of the Transfiguration that Jesus ordered them not to speak of it until after his resurrection. The Resurrection was the greater event and singularity and mystery for them to embrace and imagine and understand, which they then had to read back into what they had witnessed on the mountain.
So you can hardly blame them for having missed the point. They do not yet have the categories by which even to imagine it. And Jesus does not rebuke them. It’s only a mild and minimal judgment on them that they should keep it mum. He nudges them kindly and gets them up and tells them not to fear. He did not say it, but I’ll bet he was thinking, “Father forgive them; they just don’t get it, what they do.”
Missing the point. Is that a sin? It can be innocent. Like in math class, or like not getting a joke. The method of this sermon series is to ask each set of scripture lessons what they might tell us about sin, but is that even fair to the story? Would Matthew glare at me, and say, “You know that’s not the reason I wrote this story down for you. It’s not about sin. It’s not about your problems. It’s about the Lord Jesus, and how the light of the glory of God was fully within him. You know it’s not always about you. You’re the one that’s missing the point.”
But St. Matthew, you like rabbinic methods, and you like to interpret one scripture by another, and I don’t know if you read the correspondence of your upstart colleague, St. Paul, but in his letter to the Romans he wrote that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” and if these three guys fall short of God’s glory then we can see in them our sinful state, with their faces in the dirt and overcome with fear. Not any specific sinful actions, but our sinful condition. We generally and typically fail to imagine and we fail to understand, and we fall short and we miss. It’s our habit, it’s our inclination, when left to ourselves, and to our own devices and desires.
You know what the children of Israel did, when Moses was up on the mountain those forty days and he left Aaron and Hur and the elders in charge. They made a graven image of a golden calf and worshiped it as their god, just a few weeks after they had all agreed to the covenant. And Aaron made it for them, just a month after he and the elders had enjoyed a sit-down dinner on the mountain with the Lord. “What’s wrong with you people? Can’t I leave you kids alone for one minute?”
We miss the point because we have our agendas, our expectations, our prior understandings, and our preferred imaginations. This is what we want, that is what we’re looking for. We fail to understand ourselves as existing for the glory of God and not for ourselves, and we fail to imagine ourselves as enjoying God forever. We hugely miss the point. We tragically miss the point. Because falling short of God we fall short of ourselves. We fail in our expectations of ourselves and our desires for ourselves. We fail to understand God’s purpose for us and we fail to imagine God’s vision for us.
Do you get it that what was suddenly visible in Jesus was not only the glory of God but also the human future? This story calls Jesus both the Son of God and the Son of Man. The vision the disciples see is God’s vision for you. You’re meant to be something like Jesus. As I have said many times before, you were designed to have the capacity for that.
You will be photo-luminescent. It is not impossible. You’ve heard of fireflies and lightning bugs. You’ve heard of electric eels, and the wonder that they survive their own voltage in the water that kills their prey. You will have power. You will have energy. You will light up, you will shine from the inside, you will be glorious. But not for yourself. I’m pushing the metaphor, but I’d rather push it than miss it. I’m talking about your moral and spiritual capacity, your capacity for mercy and service and justice and love, your capacity for holiness and righteousness, the capacity which you fall short of now.
It’s not so much the specific sins you do, it’s that you settle for the disappointment that you are. It’s from your doubts and your despair, it’s from the general sadness of life and its shortness and its frailty, it’s from domestic violence and civil wars and the prevalence of greed within the marketplace, and that the world is manifestly so unfair. It’s from your guilt that hobbles you and weakens you. The problem of your guilt is the real problem of your sin.
The problem of your guilt is what we deal with in the season of Lent, which begins this Wednesday. So stand up on your ground and offer up your face and get some ashes on it and wear the symbol of your condition.
In our opening collect, you just prayed, “Grant to us that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory.” Changed into his likeness will be Easter, and bearing your cross is Lent. The doorway into Lent is the Transfiguration, which both knocks you down and picks you up. God the Father says, “Listen to Jesus,” and the first thing Jesus says to you is, “Rise up, don’t be afraid.” God kneels down and touches you.
God says, “Get up, let’s go, I’m with you now before you have arrived. I’m giving you my glory now; not the glory of perfection but the glory of your reconciliation. You are translucent with my mercy, you are translucent with my love.” You see, you are like stained glass with all your stains and streaks and ripples and distortions. But all that sin in you just gives more color and texture to God’s light in you.
Get your faces up from the dirt and look around you. You can see the same translucence in each other, and you can love each other for it, how the veins and the ripples of your condition display the greater depth and power of the glorious light of the love of God in you. The light that shines out of Jesus in the Transfiguration is the light of God’s free love. The Lord Jesus Christ is the wonder of the love of God for you.
Copyright © 2014, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.
Thursday, February 20, 2014
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18, Psalm 119:33-40, 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23, Matthew 5:38-48
Listen to this compact summary of this gospel lesson: You disciples must love your neighbors just as you love yourselves, and no less must you love your enemies. When you do this you are imitating God, who loves his enemies no less than his friends, who blesses the righteous and the unrighteous without distinction. You imitate God because you are children of God, and children imitate their parents. Your imitating God is what distinguishes you among the peoples, who all love their friends but not their enemies. In your distinction lies your specialness, your holiness, your godliness, your god-like-ness. Your imitating God is not merely your obligation; it is your goal: "be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect" (from Greg Carey).
There’s a challenge: to be perfect. Sure, God may be perfect, but how can we be perfect too? The challenge of the Lord Jesus echoes the prior challenge of Moses in Leviticus: "You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy." Is that what perfection is, is it the same as holiness? How do you get this holiness?
In other religions holiness is a state of being, of being set apart, it comes with a special status or a special closeness to divinity, like when we say, "His Holiness, the Dalai Lama," or "His Holiness the Pope." But in this religion of Leviticus it is intended for everyone, and it’s not a state of being but a habit of action. It’s not for being set apart, but how you engage the world, the real world, including agriculture and commerce. I should be able to address every one of you as "Your Holiness," or how ’bout, "Your perfectness."
What Jesus means by perfection is not flawlessness, but a thoroughgoing integrity and unity of action and intention. Elsewhere the Bible calls this doing something with all your heart and with all your mind and with all your strength. This thoroughgoing integrity and unity of action and intention is true of God and natural to God. Your goal is to get there too. You do what is right because you want what is right. You have developed your moral character to such an extent that the reason you do not sin is because you don’t want to sin, and not because you are afraid of the penalty. You just don’t want what it offers. You do what you do out of love and not out of fear. You certainly must calculate the consequences of what you do, because innocence is not the same as naiveté, but your calculations do not drive you: you do what you do even when it looks like you will lose.
This is what Jesus just two weeks ago called "the righteousness which exceeds that of the scribes and pharisees." Which righteousness you want, which is so reasonable and desirable and yet so unattainable, so that every week you come back here and confess that you "have sinned, that you have not loved God with your whole heart nor have you loved your neighbors as yourselves," that you have not attained that thoroughgoing integrity and unity of action and intention, and you are "truly sorry" and you "humbly repent."
You’d like to attain it, you’d like to imitate your Father in heaven and act how God acts, but you settle for an ethic of what human nature can accept and attain on human terms only. So that while we say that terrible sinners are guilty of crimes against humanity, we also say of ordinary sinners, "Well, he’s only human." We settle for a tolerable level of sin. Jesus says, "No, don’t settle." You don’t have to settle. Sin is neither essential nor inevitable. Sin is not a necessary way of life.
I will tell you a story I’ve told you before. I knew a farmer in Michigan who farmed black dirt, what they call muck, you get it when you drain a swamp. All along the ditches were rows of trees. In order to increase the efficiency of his machines, and get a few more rows of carrots in, he cut down all those trees. The resulting absence of birds increased the number of bugs, and he had to increase his use of pesticides, which then burned and desiccated the soil, which then was blown away by the winds, which were no longer hindered by trees, and he lost another foot of soil every few years.
So I’m saying that the laws for the poor in Leviticus are rooted in the laws of creation. You treat the poor and the alien a certain way because of how God made the world. God created the biological world with superabundant inefficiency and generosity. The fruits by which one species propagates itself provide the food for other species too. Pine cones and red squirrels, pollen and bees, springboks and leopards, and the examples are infinite.
So to imitate God in farming is to "not reap to the edges of your field nor gather the gleanings of your harvest nor gather the fallen grapes" but with generous inefficiency to leave them for the poor and the alien, "I am the Lord your God." To love the Lord your God who is the creator and sustainer of the earth is to love the poor and the alien in structural terms. I’m saying that structural generosity to the poor and the alien is not charity but integrity.
On the other hand, not to honor the creator and sustainer of the earth, but to live within nature as if you could do with it as you please, is sin. To regard your property and wealth as yours to do with as you please, without regard for how God wants you to use it in the interest of your neighbor, is sin. It may be legal, but a standard of only legality is to settle for human-level goodness.
Of course this is costly. You lessen your profits, because your profit is in the extra beyond your expense, in the abundance beyond necessity, in what might be gleaned. Discipleship is costly. Take Jesus’ examples here: When a Roman soldier orders you to carry his pack a Roman mile, you have no choice but to obey. He can’t demand from you the second mile, but if you offer it, though it cost you, you are now free, you are empowered, you are not the victim. You are now hosting a Roman soldier in your land instead of being occupied. For disciples, such hospitality is worth the cost.
It costs you mightily to stand your ground and turn the other cheek. When you get struck it’s cheaper to give in and back away. To stand your ground and offer up the other cheek but not strike back is a daring thing. Because now he might strike you worse and knock you down. The stand-your-ground law which Jesus offers is non-violent, with no weapons, because you must love your enemy as you love yourself. Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis would still be alive. To stand your ground with a gun in your hand may be legal, but you’d have to say that it is sin.
Don’t give in to evil. Stand up to it. Violence is neither natural nor inevitable. Challenge it with all your life. Not foolishly, not heroically, but in community, with strategy, protecting the weak and defending the abused and relieving the oppressed, not letting them be sacrificed again.
It’s a very tall order and I am scared of it. What about the larger evils of the world, what about Syria, what about Ukraine. The Ukraine has been heavy on my mind this week, as I know it has been for some others of you here. Do we just sit back? Would our intervention serve our economic interests or the sanctity of human life, and would we pay the terrible cost of the latter, by sacrificing our lives for the lives of others? Are the foreign policies of nations exempted from what Jesus says here? How can we say they are?
Over the centuries Christian thinkers have wrestled with this and given us much painful wisdom. Is there such thing as a just war, a right war? No, not absolutely, not after what Jesus says. War is always sin, but it may be the lesser sin. When we go to war we dare not celebrate our might, nor can we confidently calculate the consequences. We can only say that we go to war with penitence and repentance and heavy hearts, and God forgive us.
But what about you? In your own life where you have power and discretion? How do you deal with your personal enemies, and how do you handle your own prosperity? You want to be realistic, but not sin. You want to be perfect, but not a Pollyanna. You’d like to imitate God, if that’s feasible. You’d like to be holy, if that’s available. You’d like to love as far as Jesus has challenged us.
You do have to start with yourself. You perfection in love is to love your own inner enemy. You recognize yourself in your persecutor. Your enemy is a mirror for yourself. As you love them you love yourself and you forgive yourself. Your holiness is not from having no sin but from recognizing your sin and processing it, just as God has done with you. You confront your sin within you, you stand your ground against your sinful self. You love the sinner inside yourself, neither naively nor heroically but humbly and because God does. This is the unity and integrity of action and intention which is love, and you love yourself in imitation of God’s love for you.
Copyright © 2014, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.
Friday, February 14, 2014
Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Psalm 119:1-8, 1 Corinthians 3:1-9, Matthew 5:21-37
The Gospel of Matthew is considered the driest of the four gospels. It doesn’t have the emotion of Mark, or the music of Luke, or the drama of John. It’s considered the most rabbinic, because it emphasizes teaching and it frequently quotes the Torah and the Prophets. It emphasizes righteousness and piety. Matthew is a strict teacher who is no fun in class and grades low but still you learn a lot.
Two months ago I was scanning through Matthew and our future scripture lessons in order to plan my preaching, and I was inspired, let’s say, to do a series on Sin. Yes, Sin, your favorite topic. Every week I hear you tell God that you "have sinned against him in thought, word, and deed, by what you have done and by what you left undone," and I believe you when you say it and I’m sure God does too. So I checked with the consistory, and they all agreed that a series of sermons on Sin was a good idea, especially as we get into the penitential season of Lent: Just what is it that you keep saying you are sorry for?
So from now through April 6th, I will ask the same question of the scripture lessons every week: What can this next set of lessons tell us about sin? We will gradually develop a picture, maybe sharp, maybe fuzzy, some insight, some wisdom, a challenge, conviction, and we will believe that through our considering these scriptures God will be talking to us and Jesus will be teaching us.
First off, from Deuteronomy, we see that to sin is to make the wrong choice, to choose for death instead of life, and to choose to not observe God’s commandments, decrees, and ordinances. Which tells us that sin is a consequence of having freedom. If there is no freedom there is no choice, but only compulsion.
We humans have a measure of freedom unique among the animals. Eagles always act like eagles, and never like blue herons. Loons never choose not to act like loons. They never choose for their death and adversity against their life and prosperity. But we humans have the freedom to make this choice.
It is obvious from history that we frequently use our freedom to choose for death and adversity. Animals work by instinct, whatever that is, but their instincts always serve their life and prosperity, whereas we humans have this strange instinct to choose the bad instead of the good. And we would choose the bad even more than we do if not for the limiting sanctions of God’s commandments, decrees, and ordinances.
So from Deuteronomy you could define sin in two complementary ways: You could say that your sin is your failure to choose the good, when the good is offered to you in terms of God’s commandments, decrees, and ordinances. You could also say that your sin is your strange instinct to misuse your freedom, an instinct so strong it’s a compulsion. You have freedom, but you fail your freedom.
Listen again to this quotation from last week: "Freedom is responsibility for your every step and gesture, freedom is for choosing to act honestly and honorably or dishonestly or dishonorably, freedom as in life."
That quotation was from Masha Alyokhina of the Russian punk band Pussy Right. She said, "Freedom as in life." And Deuteronomy says, "Choose life."
The choice for death is Sin. Death is a penalty for sin, but not as if God were a traffic cop or a hockey referee handing out penalties. It’s more like sin is extremely unhealthy. Death and adversity are the inevitable and cumulative consequence of sin. Like poor health from a poor diet. God has made the world to be a certain way, with consequences over time, despite however free you think that you can be. On the whole and over time, there are two roads, with divergent ends, and the road you take makes all the difference.
From First Corinthians you could define sin as immaturity, a failure to grow up. You know, like an infant who is nursing needs to have a natural selfishness, but it’s wrong for an adult to act with that same selfishness. A twelve-year-old should act like a twelve-year-old, but it’s wrong for a thirty-year old to act like a twelve-year-old.
Your immaturity --- because you are given freedom --- your immaturity will descend to immorality, however harmless or harmful your immorality may be. You are responsible --- because you are given freedom --- to rise to spirituality, the true arena for which your freedom is designed. You are given freedom in order to be spiritual, truly spiritual, that is, to live in communion with the Holy Spirit of God, and to get your cues and signals for your choices from God’s direction instead of from your appetites and your compulsions and your fears.
Over time, your choices develop into your character. Every choice you make, for good or ill, does not stand on its own, but is influenced by an earlier choice and sets conditions for your next choice. Choosing X today instead of Y makes it just that little bit more likely for you to choose X again tomorrow. Your failure to develop your character towards God’s direction, then, is sin.
Sin is not so much the discrete bad thing you do, but your general direction, your inclination, your inertia, your momentum, your habit, your condition, your nature. So choose your character, choose your life, choose what you hear me pray every week at the communion table — choose to "grow up in all things into him who is the head, even Christ our Lord."
Now from Matthew. We get some sins according to the Ten Commandments as interpreted by the rabbis and then as intensified by Jesus. The rabbis considered it possible to make your way along the straight-and-narrow of obedience and blessing and life. But Jesus makes everybody guilty. You’re all on the way to death, you’re going to be tossed into that smoldering garbage dump called the Gehenna, which is his metaphor for a shameful death. Or at least a piece of you, like your eye or your hand, tossed into the garbage in order to save the rest of you.
This lesson caused the church to consider divorce a sin more negative than it is in Judaism and Islam. Right. But think about it. Jesus was speaking to a context in which women had no choice in their marriage or divorce. A marriage was a contract between a bridegroom and the bride’s father. The bride never said, I do. Nor did she have anything to say in the case of her divorce. Her husband could end the contract at will, and just give her his certificate. He could marry someone else and not be guilty of adultery.
Jesus says, "Uh-uh, not so fast, big boy. No matter your new legal status, you’re still committing adultery against your ex. And if she gets caught in adultery, it’s your fault." So Jesus makes the man responsible for any and all of the woman’s guilt. Because the man has the freedom. That’s the force of what Jesus is saying here — not to prevent remarriage after divorce, but to challenge the man’s responsibility that comes with the power and the freedom that he has.
Or this: both orthodox Judaism and Islam make the women responsible for whether they are attractive to men. If someone other than your husband looks on you to desire you, it is your fault, you did not suitably cover yourself. The Holy Koran is explicit that women must cover their attractiveness in public in order to spare the weakness of men.
But Jesus lays it on the male! (It would be anachronistic to call the Lord Jesus a Feminist, but he is remarkably pro-women in terms of his context.) Jesus is saying that if you as a man look at a woman to desire her, it is your problem, not hers. If you need relief, don’t make her cover herself, but you cut out your own eye. You deal with your instinct when it’s descended to compulsion. You deal with your own character.
It’s about character and rising to spiritual maturity. It’s about being able to just say Yes for Yes, and No for No, without making all kinds of guarantees or promises or vows or corroboration or excuses. Just Yes or No. When someone does wrong, you don’t need to hate him or insult him. Just make your Yes, Yes, and your No, No. If someone is foolish, you don’t have to mock him or knock him down. Just make your Yes, Yes, and your No, No. Character is about how you use your freedom, and how you take full responsibility for yourself, in God’s direction. To do that is to have a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees. And to not do that, is what we call Sin.
It’s about character and it’s about life and about freedom and so once again it’s about love. For you to look at each other with pleasure but not lust, with delight and not desire, and with honor, as each one of you is living your own life in your own way but all in God’s direction, that is to look at each other in love.
(PS: Particular thanks to the commentary by Marcia Riggs in Feasting on the Word.)
Copyright © 2014, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.
Friday, February 07, 2014
Isaiah 58:1-12, Psalm 112:1-10, 1 Corinthians 2:1-16, Matthew 5:13-20
This week I was wrestling with three problems. First, one of you members had asked me a theological question: "Why aren’t we adding more books to the Bible, and how come we don’t have a Third Testament after the Old one and the New one?" Good question.
My second problem was trying to make a sermon that would speak to the new elders and deacons we are installing today as well to the whole congregation.
My third problem was that my sermon wasn’t going anywhere. By Thursday morning all I had was a moderately interesting lecture on Biblical themes that was all head and no heart. I got up from it to start my breakfast and I said to Melody, "I can’t get this week’s lessons to talk to me."
And then as I was finishing my omelet and listening to Morning Edition on NPR I was caught by a story. It was an interview with two members of the Russian protest punk band Pussy Riot. They had been at the Barclay Center in a concert for Amnesty International.
Well, I’m not fan of punk bands and this band’s name made me uncomfortable. I didn’t like what they had done that got them in trouble two years ago in Moscow. They entered the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of Christ the Savior and right in front of the altar they staged a provocative musical protest. Of course they got arrested and convicted of hooliganism and put in prison for two years—actually a labor camp. That was terrible, of course, and it’s not their cause I did like. They were protesting the loss of free speech under Vladimir Putin and also the Orthodox Church’s collaboration with Putin’s government. But I didn’t like them desecrating a church. Any church.
Well, I got converted. As I listened to their story on NPR, all of a sudden our lesson from Isaiah 58 came to life. It’s like they got their protest strategy right out of Isaiah, as if God were saying, "What to me is your magnificent cathedral? What to me is your beautiful icon screen and your altar? What to me is your glorious liturgy and your fasting twice a week? Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free?"
The conflict between the freedom of the Gospel and the yoke of organized religion that we hear of in Isaiah 58 is also the conflict between the Lord Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 5, and between Martin Luther and the Roman hierarchy during the Reformation, and in every single church today if we honestly examine ourselves. I represent organized religion. I keep asking you to serve on this committee and that, and devote your time and money to the cause of this old church, and maintain this building as a sacred place, and follow our liturgy, but does this all truly serve the freedom of the gospel?
I was so taken by the story on NPR that I posted the link to it on my Facebook page. You might recognize the voice of the interviewer, David Greene. He interviewed the two band members who had just been released from their two years in the labor camp. They were Nadya Tolokonnikova and Masha Alyokhina, along with their interpreter. He said to them, "You are both mothers, and you both have young children. If you had known what your punishment would be, would you have done this protest? Do you have any regrets?"
It was Masha who answered: "This might be hard to understand, but I am actually grateful to the leadership of Russia for providing me with this experience of being in jail. I think I became a freer person as a result, and understood many things that will now enable us to work on fixing this prison system." David Greene sounded surprised. "You feel ‘freer,’ you say, what do you mean?" She said, "Freedom as responsibility for your every step and gesture, freedom for choosing to act honestly and honorably or dishonestly or dishonorably, freedom as in life."
I could have been listening to Ruby Bridges or Rosa Parks. Or the Apostle Paul. And now the epistle lesson was coming to life. I could hear the freedom in it, the radical freedom of the Apostle Paul when he came to Corinth. You see, the Corinthians were prosperous and sophisticated, but he did not tailor his message to their expectations. He did not calculate for his success. He was free of what might impress them. He decided not to know anything among them except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. I could hear the freedom in that, because of what Masha Alyokhina had said.
Even in the labor camp those two young women were free. Their story judges all our talk of freedom in American when you consider what we use our freedom for. "Don’t tread on me." For so much self-indulgence and individual independence. Their freedom is for the cause of justice in their land and their greater service in dangerous places. Freedom does not reduce the sacrifices in your life, it just changes that for which you sacrifice. Like with Jesus Christ, and him crucified. The Lord Jesus said, "Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven." He means the righteousness not of obeying the rules or even keeping clean, but of getting on God’s bus, of siding with God in what God is doing in the world, as in Isaiah, as in the prophets and the Torah, as the Kingdom of Heaven has its way within the world.
I know I do get sentimental, but I believe that on Thursday morning I was spoken to by God. Not through NPR. I’m not that much Park Slope. But through the Bible as it was conversing with the morning news. The great theologian Karl Barth said that a preacher has to have the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. And that is the third testament. That’s the answer to your question.
This old Bible that we have is sufficiently rich and relevant to engage with freshness all the other words around us in the air, and in your magazines and meditations. God still speaks, through the harmonies between the gospel and the news, or in the contradictions between the prophets and the book you are reading, or in the interplay between the epistle and you just heard on the phone. The third testament is the Bible’s conversation with our culture and with your mind and your life.
In just a few moments I will be asking five of you if you believe that you were called by God into your sacred offices. It’s a problem. Can you believe that God was behind it when you were contacted by someone trying to fill some vacancies in the interest of organized religion? Was God behind it on Thursday morning that I happened to make my omelet at 8:15 AM instead of at my usual 7:45?
You can’t know for sure, and there is no proof. It would be nice to just hang it all on God. But you can’t, and you shouldn’t, because the point is your freedom even when God calls you, that you answer the call in freedom, and you have to make the choice, and you take responsibility for your choice without being able to prove it. As Masha Alyokhina said: "Freedom as responsibility for your every step and gesture, freedom for choosing to act honestly and honorably, freedom as in life."
I am asking the five of you to do what seems to be rare in organized religion. Please keep this 359-year-old monument to organized religion open to the freedom of the gospel and therefore a light for the world and a city on a hill. Guide this congregation to be a communal conversation with God, a living third testament, the conversation between this old Bible and every latest thought and motivation. With your bodies and your emotions. With politics. With science. With literature. With painting and art. With breaking the bonds of injustice and sharing your bread with the hungry and bringing the homeless poor into your house.
I know that’s what you want, what you have heard, what you have seen, that’s why you are here, that’s why this congregation has elected you. God has given you the Spirit of wisdom that you may serve this congregation in doing these good works, so that this part of Brooklyn might see your good works, and give glory to your Father in heaven.
You all have so much freedom here. No one forces you to do anything, except the IRS. You will not be put in jail for using your free speech. Be worthy of the gift that you enjoy. You have so much freedom in this church. Your freedom is for responsibility. And your chief responsibility is to love. I want you all to love these elders and deacons. And I want you to love them because God loves you.
Copyright © 2014, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.
The NPR link is here: http://www.npr.org/2014/02/06/272359826/pussy-riot-russian-prison-sentence-will-help-us-fiix-system
Saturday, February 01, 2014
Presentation 2014, Malachi 3:1-4, Psalm 84, Hebrews 2:14-18, Luke 2:22-40
We were just getting started with Matthew’s account of the career of the Lord Jesus in Galilee, so why are we interrupted with this story from Luke about his infancy? It’s because today, February 2, is the Lesser Feast of the Presentation. The lesser feasts are not observed by Protestant churches, except for the Episcopalians, but our lectionary inserts cater to the Episcopalians, and so, for the sake of your having the lessons in print, we too will observe the Lesser Feast of the Presentation.
February 2 is forty days after December 25. The forty days comes from the Torah, specifically Leviticus 12, which rules that for forty days the mother of a newborn boy is unclean, and that on the fortieth day she is to present herself with a sacrifice for her purification. That’s what Mary and Joseph were doing here, combining it with the sacrifice for the redemption of a first-born son as required by Exodus 13. And then the little family went back home to Nazareth in Galilee.
And right there is a problem. How do you make that jive with Matthew? Matthew says they had their house in Bethlehem until the Magi came, and then they went to Egypt as refugees, and only after that did they return to Nazareth. Conservatives try to line these stories up, like defense attorneys with conflicting witnesses, and Liberals, like prosecutors, say it shows you can’t trust either story. I suggest that you live with the contradictions in the Bible but always accept the lesson in front of you as having authority in the moment, and that it authoritatively makes a claim on your life or authoritatively offers you a promise or a challenge or comfort.
This story has comfort. Simeon takes the baby in his arms, and I’m thinking how a grandpa gets comforted just by holding his little granddaughter. In the baby’s swaddling Simeon feels the consolation of Israel, so he knows his watch is done, his vigilance complete, and he sings his farewell song: "Lord, you now have set your servant free to go in peace as you have promised; for these eyes of mine have seen the Savior, whom you have prepared for all the world to see: A light to enlighten the nations, and the glory of your people Israel."
The song of Simeon is the last of the four songs which frame the Incarnation in the Gospel of Luke. First is the song of the young maiden Mary: the Magnificat, which has become the traditional canticle for evening prayer. Then comes the song of the old man Zechariah: the Benedictus, the canticle for morning prayer. Then comes the song of the angels to the shepherds: the Gloria in Excelsis Deo, which we sing in church in different ways during Christmastide and Eastertide. Today you get another old man’s song. The Nunc Dimittis is the canticle for night prayer, before you go to sleep. It’s the lullaby of the Christian soul.
Now master let me go
in peace at your command.
My eyes have seen the Savior
you gave the world to see:
for Gentiles to be light,
for Israel our glory.
(sung to the Genevan tune, 6. 6. 7. 6. 6. 7.)
There are layers of prophetic meaning here. Simeon’s language is both emotional and technical. To call this baby "the glory of Israel" is a very big deal. It’s more than just calling him "Messiah". He’s saying that the glory of God has just returned to the Temple. The Temple had been lacking this glory internally, despite its external magnificence from the extravagance of King Herod. The original Temple, back in history, when Solomon had erected it, was filled by the shining and burning glory-cloud come down from heaven, the sign of God’s "real presence" here on earth, the demonstration of God-with-us.
Tragically, that First Temple got burned and demolished by Nebudchadnezzar and the Babylonians, the great catastrophe. A century after that, a Second Temple was built by the Jewish exiles who had returned from Babylon. But the shining cloud of glory did not return to it.
The Second Temple was empty of the "real presence" of the Lord. As if God was keeping his distance from his people. So Israel was always disappointed and depressed. They needed consolation. This is what the prophet Malachi was speaking to when he said, "The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple." But for very many years the promise of Malachi was empty and unfulfilled.
So Simeon kept vigil. And with his prophetic eyes he saw the baby as the sign that God was coming back. He saw the Presence in the Presentation. He saw the presentation of the baby as the presence of God. At this extravagance of insight the parents were amazed. That their baby should be the Messiah was one thing, the future king, but to fix on him the Glory, the sign of God’s real presence, well, what would you do with that?
The comfort is a challenge. Such a promise. Such a claim upon their lives. "Welcome, O God, of course, but please back off a bit!" Who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? In their thrill they also feel a sharpness. The knife of the priest will soon be killing the turtle-doves in Joseph’s arms, and the soul of Mary will be pierced by a sword. This child will be the cause of much effect, and opposite effects, with painful consequences to himself.
The salvation of God is not a pretty thing. When God is with us God doesn’t smile politely. For he is like a refiner’s fire. The sunlight you need for life and warmth and sight will burn your eyes if you look at it and burn your skin if you’re exposed to it. God’s light is a surgeon’s laser beam that cuts you open to reveal your inner thoughts. When you embrace the Lord you cannot help but expose yourself. When you engage the words of Jesus in the gospel you cannot help but expose your prior commitments and belief, and expose how far you will go with him, and reveal how much you’re willing to believe of what he says. There will be some pain in it.
Will you comfort me, O God? You challenge me, you cut me, you batter my heart. Will you massage the heart that you have battered? Will you mend the soul that you have cut? Will you heal the flesh that you have burned? Will you console the child you have challenged?
Life is hard enough without God’s presence in our lives. You get battered enough already, just from life itself. You have pain enough, and there are easier comforts close at hand. You have guilt enough without needing God to remind you. Your errors and mistakes keep coming back at you. You bring enough of your own hurt and pain upon yourself. You recognize what we are doing to our planet and other species and other people. You are disappointed in your discipleship. You doubt the divinity you believe in and your faith in God has as much depression as delight. If God is going to challenge you, then God had damn well better comfort you.
You have heard it said that God will never send you any suffering more than you can bear. But you know that plenty of people get suffering that is more than they can bear, and it ruins them. But that suffering is not sent by God. God does not send suffering. That suffering comes either from the cruelty of humanity or from Nature and its unconcern with fairness and its utter lack of sympathy for your pain. God could stop it or prevent it, I suppose, but none of the other animals demand this of God, and they seem to find life worth living, and even enjoying to their capacity.
But we human animals have moral imaginations, so for us it is a test. And so what’s offered for comfort is the promise from our second lesson that the Son of God is tested as we are. The soul of Mary’s son gets pierced as well, the Son of God gets cut, and the soul of God is pierced. It’s God who is carried in with the turtle-doves. God suffers your suffering. Is that cold comfort? It is a little on the cool side. It’s a hard comfort, not a soft one, it is for strengthening, and you must rise to it. The comfort is a challenge and it only works by its claim on you. God is with you, and so you have to be with God. God suffers with us and you suffer God, and the world God made, and the way God is with the world.
And God suffers you. That’s the atonement part. God is pierced to fully pay for all your sins and set you free from the tyranny of the devil, which tyranny is only the grip of your guilt, the guilt that you deserve, the mess you made, the hurt you cause, your familiar greed, your deep regret, which troubles your conscience, but which he keeps cancelling. The Lord is the pair of turtle-doves who are pierced and cut to purify your uncleanness and cancel your guilt and comfort you. "Yes, yes, I know, I know what you did, it’s okay, it’s okay, don’t worry, I took care of it, hush, little child, hush dear, your mommy loves you. Your heavenly father loves you."
Copyright © 2014, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.
Thursday, January 23, 2014
Isaiah 9:1-4, Psalm 27:1, 5-13, 1 Corinthians 1:10-18, Matthew 4:12-23
Jesus takes up the announcement of John the Baptist, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” That’s general. And then he makes it personal. He summons Simon and Andrew. He knew them already as followers of John the Baptist, who was now arrested, which maybe had confused them and doubtless disheartened them, and it’s no wonder they respond so eagerly to the summons.
The summons includes the hint of a commission: “I will make you fishers of people.” Which metaphor is strange, if you push it, because fishermen are enemies of fish; no fish ever agrees with having been caught. Or is there a hint that salvation has some death, some disruption, some repentance? He summons James and John as well, and just as quick they leave their father in the lurch and go with Jesus. The four of them have been fished and are caught themselves.
What about their wives and children? “Sorry kids, no fish tonight.” Such a disruption in their lives. A new kingdom has arrived and exercised eminent domain and imposed the draft, and for their families the disruption is a forced repentance. On Sabbath days their families have worship without them, because on Fridays they go with Jesus up into the hills. Every week another village, arriving at sundown, sharing in somebody’s sabbas meal, socializing overnight, sleeping on some rug, going to synagogue on Saturday morning, preaching and teaching, sharing some food, healing the people, then back home to Capernaum. “Well, well, isn't it swell to have you back!”
The announcement of Jesus was the same as John the Baptist’s, but Jesus shifted the meaning, and put more stress on the second part: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” With John, you had to go down to the river and repent, to get clean and ready for the kingdom soon to come. With Jesus the kingdom has come, ready or not, and he took it from the lake-shore up to the people on their dry hills, in their ordinary lives, and to receive that kingdom and to live within it is the repentance.
In this sense, the calling of the four fisherman is atypical and for their specific job. More typical is that the people remained in their villages and occupations. Jesus was teaching them within their habitations how to inhabit the kingdom that was there. The healings were the sign that the kingdom had come, their deep significance was liberation.
In their villages, not in Jerusalem. In Galilee, not in Judea. In The Bronx, not Manhattan. In the north, in the region of the tribes of Zebulon and Naphtali, the borderlands of Lebanon and Syria, a region that has always been a battlefield, one army after another marching through, pillaging their crops and ravaging their women. A region of Jews in poverty, and of Gentile settlers controlling the means of production. The Jews were in depression, and they felt like exiles in their own land.
The Jewish revolutionaries were headquartered in Galilee because it was less controlled than Judea. Jesus had more freedom here to develop his campaign. Had he announced in Jerusalem that the kingdom of heaven was at hand, he might have been arrested too. Galilee was also a better venue for Jesus’ new version of the kingdom of heaven.
He didn't bring it as a kingdom of independence but of interaction. It’s not for isolation but engagement. It’s not for ridding your life of enemies but for loving your enemies close at hand. It’s not for getting rid of troubles, but for dealing with your troubles. It’s not the bright light of the noontime, but the light that shines within the darkness. The kingdom of heaven is for the mixed-up reality of your lives. It’s the light that shines before you to help you find your way. It’s the light that shines on your skin to give you courage.
He did not summon priests or scribes or soldiers, but ordinary working guys. And unlike with John the Baptist, who waited for people to come to him, as these guys had done the first time, here the Lord Jesus comes after them, right in the midst of their ordinary lives. And they have to deal with the disruption. Following Jesus is not magic. It’s usually in fits and starts, with gaps and hesitations, and with doubts and disappointments. That is your experience as well.
That’s open-ended. You’d like to know first where he’s going. Why not just tell me where we’re going, give me the directions, and I’ll go straight there on my own? Why not just tell me what I need to repent of? I don’t mind repenting, just tell me what I did wrong, and I’ll be sorry and I’ll address it. Nope. Open-ended. Liberated.
You are called to freedom. And that means disruption, because freedom is always a disruption. But your life is full of disruptions anyway, though they are milder and less dangerous than the disruptions of their lives in Galilee then or Syria now. You manage your disruptions all the time, and you choose among them. To choose for certain disruptions is the meaning of repentance and discipleship. It’s all part of a single package. The kingdom is what Jesus brings, and to receive it is repentance, and to explore it is discipleship, and to embody it is healing.
It is both liberating and disruptive because everything is on the table. There are not some parts of your life which are in the kingdom of God and other parts which are exempt. Every action, every possession, every relationship, every interest, every issue, every dollar, everything you think or hope or say, it all belongs to the kingdom of God. For everything you need instruction, in everything you need healing, in everything you need forgiveness, for everything you need repentance.
Repentance here is not that you are feeling bad or sorry, but total receptivity, allowing everything on the table, including self-examination. I’m talking about freedom even from yourself. And that’s disruption. To let go of your nets is nothing compared to letting go of your image of yourself.
How did God call you? What were you doing when you heard that voice that brought you here? What did it sound like? The voice of God that called you was hidden in some other voice, some other thought, some other consideration. Maybe an itch you had. Maybe a vague feeling that you needed to do something, make a small change, maybe simplify your life, or maybe add some complication. You thought, I need some more religion in my life, some more spirituality, or some healing, or some ethical inspiration. These were your own thoughts in your own head.
I’m telling you that behind your thoughts was the calling of God. I’m saying that in, with, and under your thoughts, though indistinguishable from your thoughts, and indiscernible to any objective examination, except your own imagination, I’m saying that God is calling you to follow this strange character, this Jesus.
How do you determine which calls you answer on your phone? When my blackberry rings I check to see if it’s a name in my address book, and if not, I don’t pick up. They can leave a message and I might call back. Of course I’ve got ring-tones for people I always answer and ring-tones to warn me of people I don’t. How do you know it is God calling you?
You can tell, if it requires some new learning.
You can tell, if it requires some repentance, some self-examination and some disruption of yourself.
You can tell, if it means some liberation, some freedom.
You can tell, if that freedom and liberation is directed towards healing and wholeness and reconciliation and community.
God is giving you the knowledge you need to choose among your disruptions.
God gives you the light to make your way through the darkness.
God gives you companions to walk along with you to help you and affirm you and listen along with you.
You can tell, if the single word summery for it is Love.
Copyright © 2014, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.
Friday, January 17, 2014
Isaiah 49:1-7, Psalm 40:1-7, 1 Corinthians 1:1-9, John 1:29-42
The New Testament offers us four different gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. It’s a big question which one was written first, and which depended on the others. The traditional answer is that they were written in the order they appear in our Bibles. So Matthew was written first, and then Mark, and then Luke made use of both Matthew and Mark, and then John was written last, and differently than the others, but assuming the story the others had told.
To my mind, John’s Gospel is a lot like Shakespeare’s plays. Not his tragedies or comedies, but his histories, like Richard III or Henry V. Shakespeare assumes your prior knowledge of the story, and in his drama he unfolds its meaning. Just so, the story already given, say, in Matthew, gets unfolded in John’s dramatic dialogues and long soliloquies. But the difference with Shakespeare is that the author of this drama was a participant in the story. It’s as if Richard III had been written thirty years afterward by the king’s best friend. The author was an eyewitness.
John never depicts the actual baptism of the Lord Jesus. Matthew did already, as we saw last week. John assumes it and unfolds it in the interaction of his characters. Let’s lay it out. It’s the day after the baptism happened, and John the Baptist is standing there, stage left, and upstage center is a small crowd. Stage right Jesus enters, and walks in. John points to him, and says to the crowd, “Behold the lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world. This is he before whose coming I had been speaking of.”
Then John turns towards us, the audience, and he breaks the fourth wall and testifies to us: “I had not known him, but when I baptized him I saw the Spirit descending like a dove upon him, by which I knew he is the Son of God.” The scene closes, exeunt.
Next scene, the next morning. Stage left, enter John the Baptist, now with two of his disciples, Andrew and Philip. Stage right, Jesus enters and walks in. John points. “Behold the lamb of God.” This time, his disciples leave him and cross the stage to walk behind Jesus. Jesus turns to them, and he says his very first lines in John’s Gospel: “What do you seek?” They said, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” And he says, “Come and see.” Jesus turns up stage, they follow him, and we see a small table and a rug, and he sits down and they do too, and John the Baptist exits.
Time passes. It’s late afternoon. Jesus is still there, but only with Philip. Off to the right we see Andrew and his brother, Simon, and Andrew says in a stage whisper, “We have found the Messiah.” He leads Simon over to Jesus, but Jesus speaks first: “You are Simon, son of John. You are to be called Cephas.”
How did Jesus know his name? Was it supernatural knowledge, or normal recognition? Why did he give him that nickname? Cephas is translated as Peter, and they both mean Rocky. Was it a compliment? Did “Rocky” have the same associations it does now? Did Simon have a reputation? Or was Jesus being prophetic?
Why did Andrew and Phillip address Jesus as Rabbi if they thought he was the Messiah? Since when was the Messiah supposed to be a Rabbi? That was never in the prophecies. Were they holding back a little, curbing their enthusiasm? They had reason to be careful, because the government was not too keen on the chance of a Messiah.
What did they talk about that afternoon? Fishing? Sports? Taxes? The Romans? The Kingdom of God? Did they ask him about the Lamb of God thing? Like, “Why did John the Baptist call you the Lamb of God, and how do you plan to take away the sin of the world?”
“O Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world.” “Agnus dei qui tollis peccata mundi.” “Behold the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world.” It’s become important in Christian liturgy, but John the Baptist said it first, right here, and how did he come up with it? Since when was the Messiah supposed to be a lamb? He was supposed to be the Lion of the Tribe of Judah.
A lamb is meek and mild and not too bright, but good eating, and fit for sacrifice. Was it because the metaphor of the lamb unfolds the meaning of the dove which John the Baptist had seen come down? In the Torah, a dove is the poor person’s substitute for the lamb, and the lamb was sacrificed to take away the sin of Israel. Of Israel. Not the world. The Messiah was for Israel. Why did John the Baptist say, “the sin of the world?” These new combinations of Biblical expectations would give Andrew and Philip and Jesus lots to talk about that afternoon.
What John unfolds, more than the other gospels, is people having fellowship with Jesus. Is that what we’re supposed to have? St. Paul in the last verse of our second reading says that you have that fellowship. But how can you have the fellowship of someone who is so distant? Is Jesus not distant from you? Yes, you know of him from history, and from the language of the church, and you pray to him and sing to him, and you know that this strange character, sometimes man, sometimes God, is at the center of your religion, which is fine and as it should be, but he is distant, and how shall you have fellowship with him?
Well, despite the suggestions of so much evangelical Christianity, it’s not going to be like it was for Andrew and Philip. The Lord Jesus is not going to be your best friend, nor will he walk with you and talk with you and tell you that you are his own. So do not think, “What’s wrong with me that I don’t feel Jesus close to me like that?”
It’s no wonder that Muslims think we Christians have two gods: the Father God in heaven and the Junior God with us here somehow. Even St. Paul’s language can suggest we have two gods, the Father and the Son, and the second one is the one that we have fellowship with. So let me issue this corrective: There is nothing wrong with your Christian experience if you don’t feel like you have Jesus up close or in your heart. He came to do a job, in his Incarnation, and he did it. He came to teach and to reveal and in his sacrifice to take away the sin of the world and he did that, and then he ascended into heaven, and his job was not to stay on to be your special friend and junior God.
You have fellowship with him in two ways: in terms of his being absolutely human and his being absolutely God, not some sort of mixture in between.
First, in terms of his being absolutely human you have your up close and friendly fellowship with him by means of your fellowship with other believers. If not Andrew and Philip, then Tom, Dick, and Harry and Sally, Nancy, and Beth. When you sit down together, and speak to each other about your spiritual and ethical lives you are having your appropriate personal fellowship with Jesus. He is among you not as a separate character but as your community itself. (John's Gospel lays this out in chapters 14-17,)
The Holy Spirit makes him present in, with, and under your very human interaction and conversation with each other, and also as you serve the needy and the poor. I am inviting you to believe that when in fellowship with each other you discuss these stories about him and his miracles and metaphors of doves and lambs and water into wine, and that although you cannot actually distinguish him from your own experience, to believe that he is with you to strengthen and enrich you in every way.
You also have fellowship with Jesus as he is absolutely God when you relate to him as God, the One God. Jesus as God is not other to you than the whole God, the very God of very God. When St. Paul says in our epistle that you call on the name of Jesus Christ, he means that when you name Jesus Christ as the center of your faith, that Jesus does his job and makes himself the medium, the means, and the way for you to have that fellowship with God which is appropriate to the Almighty and Eternal God.
The form of your fellowship is worship, praise, and adoration, and love. You love God not as some friend, but as God, who though distant to your sense experience is present to your imagination and your soul. You do not have any direct sensation of God, but I am inviting you to believe that the Holy Spirit comes into and under your self-enclosed experience so that what you imagine might be true really is true, that you are having direct fellowship with this almighty and invisible Spirit behind the universe whom we call God.
Not because you achieve it but because God comes to you to have fellowship with you. God is the lamb who comes into the world. I invite you to believe that God is the dove who comes to you in love.
Copyright © 2014, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.