Saturday, November 21, 2015
Heidelberg Catechism 112, Lord's Day 43
Revelation 1:4b-8, John 18:33-37
The Ninth Commandment:
“Don’t bear false witness against your neighbor.”
“For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” And listening to the voice of Jesus is Pontius Pilate. But not comprehending. Pilate famously retorts, “What is truth?”
For Pilate, truth is not something you can “belong to”. Truth is a tool. Truth is only accurate information or useful intelligence for purposes of power. And truth can be inconvenient and even dangerous, so you try to control it or avoid it or maybe twist it. You can even take all true words and reconfigure them so they end up as a lie. The most effective lies are mostly all true. What you want is power over the truth, you don’t want the truth to be bigger than yourself, as it would have to be if you were to “belong to” it.
The truth that you can belong to, the truth that is bigger than the world, is the kingdom of God. This kingdom is in the world and for the world but not from the world, because the seat of its authority is heaven. To see the world as under the kingdom of God is to learn the truth about the world. And to follow Jesus is to testify like he did to the truth about the world.
Jesus in on trial here. He is not a Roman citizen, and the governor is both judge and jury, but justice is not the governor’s first concern. He wants accurate information for the sake of political utility. He really does want to know if Jesus is the king of the Judeans, because that will affect how he should deal with him.
Three times Pilate asks him for information. Three times Jesus responds as not accountable to him. Neither is he nasty or defensive. He does testify, but not according to Pilate’s agenda. He testifies to his own identity and message, and he takes one more chance to bear true witness, even to Pilate, of the hope that is within him. He is a “faithful witness,” but Pilate does not get it, because he does not belong to the truth. So he will let him die, and Pilate figures that would be the end of it. He does not comprehend that his politics will allow this “faithful witness” to become “the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.”
Now let me step back for a moment and notice the happy coincidence between the lessons for this Sunday and the resumption of my series on the Ten Commandments. The coinciding of these lessons with the Ninth Commandment has led me to interpretations of both the lessons and the commandment that I would not have come to otherwise. This has happened before. It says something about the complex richness of scripture. But also about the subtlety of the providence of God, that even coincidences are taken into God’s sovereignty. The Ninth Commandment talks about the truth of your witness, and the Gospel shows us the “faithful witness” who testifies to the truth.
What this means for how you keep the Ninth Commandment is that what makes your witness of your neighbor false or true is ultimately not a matter of your own accuracy but whether what you say about your neighbor belongs to the truth that the Lord Jesus has for the world. If you “belong to the truth,” and therefore “listen to the voice” of Jesus, then you imitate his voice when you speak about your neighbor. The truth that you want to tell is not your own truth—a truth that you think you’re in control of—but the truth of God’s kingdom that is larger than you so that you can belong to it.
If your speech about your neighbor is to belong to God’s kingdom, what that means is that your speech must be an act both of mission and of love. That means you have a positive responsibility for your neighbor’s reputation. You are not responsible for your neighbor’s character. That’s up to your neighbor. But you are responsible for your own contribution to your neighbor’s reputation. Yes, your neighbor’s reputation is your sacred trust, but even more, part of your mission in the world is to enhance your neighbor’s reputation as best you can as an act of love.
If there’s anything we humans like to do, it is to talk about each other. We are social animals, and we have the gifts of speech and memory. Our social relations are complex, and we’re always adjusting how we fit in with each other. Can I trust you? Am I safe with you, can I be candid with you, or must I take care with you? And we help each other with scouting reports about each other.
You hear things. Should you pass these things along? The commandment is clear. It doesn’t say, Don’t start false witness, it says, Don’t bear it, don’t even convey it. Not even if it might be true; that isn’t good enough. If you’re not the one who can be responsible for the truth of it, then you must not bear it.
Learning silence is a Christian discipline. Learning to be quiet. This its not because testimony is unimportant. Rather the reverse. "For this you were born, for this you came into the world, to testify to the truth.” Because your testimony is so important, you want to reserve it for when it counts. Reporting on others is not for being funny, or interesting, or smart. Reserve your witness for when it’s the truth that is at stake. Or when you know a truth about a second person that might be dangerous to a third person, and then you have to speak judiciously and faithfully. Good silence is for good speech.
You can do this. Your speech can be true and not false. Not just true as accurate, but true as in tried and true and steady and straight and faithful. What you say about your neighbor you say in faithful relationship to your neighbor, and for your neighbor’s good. Your speech contributes to the healing of the world.
Christian witnessing has a great tradition. The caricature of it is that your job is to tell other people what they need to do in order to be saved. But that’s not witnessing, that’s preaching. Witnessing is about what you yourself have seen and heard. It is to cultivate in yourself the love of the truth, the truth that is larger than yourself and larger than the world, the truth about what the world is for and how to live in it and how to treat your neighbors in the world.
The Bible often presents world history as a great, long trial of which the final verdict still awaits. Will God be vindicated, or is God false? Is Jesus Lord, or is it all made up? There is as yet no final proof for either side, and most of the evidence presented is circumstantial. The case for God most heavily depends on witnesses. That’s us, that’s you. “You shall be my witnesses,” said the Lord Jesus. And as witnesses, your character and reputation affect the value of your testimony.
When it comes to your own small trials, the reputation of your character will have everything to do with how you speak about the other people in your life, and what you say of them: your criticism and your praise, your mixture of complaints and compliments, and the credibility of your gratitude. Whether you convey your inconvenient truths in sacrifice and love. Whether your truth belongs to you, to use it as you need it, or whether you belong to the truth and you love that truth that is larger than yourself. How you express the Ninth Commandment so much affects your credibility as a Christian in this world.
You can do this. You can love the truth. And the truth that you can love is not the information of your intelligence, but the truth of Jesus Christ and his truth about the world and his truth about yourself and his truth about your neighbor. He tells you who your neighbor is: the foreigner, the stranger, the outsider, the outcast, the refugee, your enemy. You can speak about your enemy and your neighbor as a way of bearing witness that the overarching truth about the world is the love that God has for the world, and as a way of testifying that the most important truth about yourself is the love of God for you.
Copyright © 2015, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.
Sunday, November 15, 2015
Hebrews 10:11-25, Mark 13:1-8
The first Dutch Reformed Church in America was founded in Manhattan in 1628. After that the colonists began to settle this end of Long Island, and they established villages in Flatbush, Flatlands, and Brooklyn. Eventually these three villages jointly sent petitions to Governor Pieter Stuyvesant for churches of their own, but he kept denying them because he had no domine available to assign to them. Their petitions always included the village of Brooklyn by name.
Then in 1654, a ship landed at Manhattan with Domine Polhemus on board; he was on his way to Holland from Brazil. Governor Stuyvesant prevailed upon him to stay here, and assigned him to Long Island, and so in October of 1654 he issued the declaration which established the Dutch Reformed churches in Long Island. Only, this one time, the document fails specifically to mention Brooklyn. Was that just an oversight?
We don’t know exactly when our first service was. We don’t know when our first consistory was elected. We do know that by 1656 our consistory was meeting and that it had been holding services. We know that in all subsequent documents Brooklyn was always included again with Flatbush and Flatlands, and no separate act of establishment was ever issued for our Brooklyn church, as if the act of 1654 included us without mentioning us. So we don’t really know when the exact date of our anniversary should be. Our birth was in the shadows. Our church began in mysteries we cannot solve.
Our subsequent history is the building up and then tearing down of one church building after another. Five times the stones went up and four times the stones came down. Our fourth building was on Joralemon Street, downtown, a great big edifice for a huge congregation, a Greek Temple, modeled on the Parthenon, but after only fifty years, and we don’t know why, that congregation dwindled drastically, so those temple stones came down, and the remnant relocated here to try and revive the old congregation, and in faith and hope they built this great gothic temple.
Hindsight tells us that they built too large, because although our congregation did revive, it never surpassed a third of the sanctuary’s capacity. Forty years ago our congregation almost closed, but once again the remnant has revived. Now our temple needs total renovation, to which we recently committed. Tomorrow evening the Consistory will affirm the roster of a steering committee for the renovation. We have labor pains ahead of us. We do this labor because the epistle calls us to “hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.”
It’s in faith and hope that we labor precisely because there is so much we cannot know. Who knows what the future holds? How long will our work endure? We make our plans but we cannot count on them. Every morning on the news we hear the predictions of Jesus always coming true. We hear of wars and rumors of wars. Nations rise against nations, and kingdoms against kingdoms, and earthquakes in various places, and famines on the increase with the warming of the globe. Yet Jesus tells us not to be alarmed.
How not be alarmed? How can we be safe? Not just from terrorists, but if our current carbon-consuming lifestyle is unsustainable on this planet, then what kind of cold, poor, hungry lives await us in the future?
He says this is the beginning of the birth pangs. He means that all this mess and uproar are the labor pains for something new, some new creation. But he said that 2000 years ago. Is that still true? Did he mean that only for his own generation, or did he see a horizon that was limitless, and still beyond us even now? He said that the end is still to come, and we can feel that God’s great work is incomplete. We feel the incompletion of the communion of saints, the unfinished forgiveness of sins, the not-yet resurrection of the body, and that the life of the world to come is still to come.
The epistle says that we can see the Day approaching. How far off is that approach? Is it like looking at the stars at night? What’s in your eyes is a light here present that was born of a light far distant, and you are seeing light that has traveled for thousands of thousands of years to approach your eyes. You can see the Day approaching across a vast horizon. So how many more years will this labor take? We do not know. Does God know? Or does God see it differently?
We celebrate our anniversaries because we are stitched into the fabric of time. God is not. God is free of time. God enters into it, as with Jesus, and time is one of God’s good gifts to us, so we make the most of it and count on it, but time is only relative. Our bodies experience time as regular and steady but actually it’s flowing and fluid. Einstein rediscovered that, but the prophets and apostles had already seen it. The prophets and apostles call us to seek our constancies behind the relativities, the constancies that regulate the relativities, and correct them and cleanse them and nourish them.
There on the table is the communion beaker from 1684. Most of the time we keep it securely with its twin in the New-York Historical Society on Central Park West. That beaker has been a constant through all our building up and tearing down. I remarked on this six years ago. We don’t know what our previous sanctuaries looked like on the inside, but they all were reflected on the silver surface of that beaker in their turn. As were the faces of the communicants who raised it to their mouths to drink the blood of Christ. The beaker’s engravings have been worn thin over the years by the thousands of hands that held it and passed it — Dutch, French, Africans both slave and free, Canarsee Indians, British soldiers, and New England transplants. Members and relatives and strangers.
Six years ago one of you told me how that beaker spoke to you. You told me how liberated you felt when you realized that no matter what happened to our building, we would still have that beaker and our congregation would survive.
Of course it’s not so much the beaker itself as the mystery that we do around that cup. We do time travel, we do space travel, and the beaker is the portal, the gate of heaven. The beaker makes a space, it makes a place, it makes a temple just by being there. Locus iste, a deo factus est. “This is the place made by God as an inestimable sacrament, beyond reproach.” (Our Gradual anthem today.)
This is the place, this is the moment, the timeless now behind the changes and relocations, the constancy behind the relativities. This is what our epistle calls the single offering perfected for all time. This is the place where you can believe the completion of the promises, when you glimpse the full communion of the saints, and you touch the forgiveness of all sins, and you can taste the resurrection of the body.
In just a few moments the choir will sing about “the light born of light, Jesu, redeemer of the world.” You could translate the Latin as “Jesu, redeemer of the age.” This present age which seems to be getting worse as much as better. The world that is too much with us late and soon. Our business is constant but incomplete. So we gather every week to pray. We are supplicants, and we dare to hope that our prayers and praises will be heard.
We come in faith and hope that they are heard, but we do not know what God will do with them. We are used to that, that even makes sense to us, we’d actually rather it not be up to us what will be done with them. That’s why we give them up to God. We are stuck in all the relativities, and we would rather leave things with the Constancy.
But we don’t come here just to lose ourselves in mystery and wonder. As the epistle says, we keep on “meeting together to consider how to provoke one another to love and to good deeds.” That’s not bad. That gets real. Especially when our fear of terror and insecurity tempts us to abandon love as unrealistic and short-sighted. Do you know of any other organization in society which meets together every week in order to provoke one another to love and good deeds? Congregations do.
We come in and we go back out. We enter the timeless Constancy in order then to engage the passing relativities. You enter the light to serve in the shadows. You drink from the cup to pour yourself back out with good deeds and love. Love breathes in and love breathes out. There is a pulsing life within the universe, a great and constant life, whom we call God, the source of life, and the breathing of this God is love.
Copyright © 2015, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.
Saturday, October 31, 2015
Isaiah 25:6-9, Psalm 24, Revelation 21:1-6a, John 11:32-44
It’s a mystery to me why the resurrection of Lazarus is not reported in the other gospels, but only in John. It’s the quintessential miracle, and it also sets in motion the arrest and death of Jesus. So, did John make it up? Is it fiction?
I mean it was impossible, from what we know of biology, and from our experience of how the world works. Of course everyone in the story presupposed that too, and the point is that Jesus is that one guy who was able to defy the impossibility and the presuppositions of our experience and call how the world works into question.
We have here the power of life versus the power of death. Death always wins in the end, right? You can hold off death, but only for so long. If only Jesus had gotten there in time. But once death happens, it’s too late, it’s irreversible, there is no coming back. Everybody knows that. The people in the story knew that. Medicare knows that. Hospitals count on it. Life insurance companies literally count on it.
The Bible knows it too. Death is normal in the Bible. Once a Biblical character dies, she’s out of the story. Only twice in the Old Testament, and four times in the New Testament, is anyone dead raised back to life, and none of these are important characters whom we read about again, and they all must die again. Not counting Jesus. For everyone else, death always finally wins.
Most of the universe is dead. I mean that most of the known universe has physics and chemistry but not biology, and is inhospitable to life. There may be other planets where life occurs, but even then the amount of life within this universe is infinitesimally small. And it would seem that for life to survive on such planets, it can’t be just present, but must take the planet over, like on our own. It must occupy the planet and overpower those non-biological forces which prevail on inhospitable planets. Life has changed our planet to suit it, creating soil out of rock, and creating an atmosphere with its weather. Life has layered this planet with an amazing biodiversity of species and a synchronicity of ecosystems and sounds and smells and colors and wonders like spider webs and hummingbirds.
And now suddenly, in this last century, that biodiversity is catastrophically dying off, and in this most recent decade we can feel the weather losing its subtle synchronicity and for the first time we know of, we can feel the power of death increasing on this planet Earth, our island home, and it’s our fault.
We didn’t mean to do it. We were just trying to make life better. We started warming the globe in the last ice age. Our whole human civilization depends on generating fires and flames and sparks and electrical currents and we always meant well but now we’ve reached diminishing returns and it’s out of hand and now death is gaining power on this planet. And we feel it and we’re afraid.
Most of the universe is dead, biologically, but metaphorically it’s stupendously alive, if you think of light as having a life of its own. This universe is full of light. It’s altogether inhospitable to us, but we love it and rejoice in it and all its wonders. And even though you know that you have to die, and that death will finally overpower your life, you find that you can believe that behind this good and terrifying universe is a good God who enters into time and space, and seeks us out in it.
Okay, so you can believe in God, but then why should you believe in eternal life? To believe in God is the classic way to reckon with the mysteries of our experience of the natural universe, but why do we add this intrinsically unnatural belief in life after death? Why should Jesus call it “the glory of God,” that a dead human body, already stinking from decomposition, should be reversed in its natural entropy and brought back to life? Against the very laws of the universe as God created it.
Is this not a sign for us? Does this not give us hope for our planet? Does not the power of the resurrection call us to Christian witness on climate change and Christian action on fossil fuels? I believe so. God has put into our hands some power of life over death, but that power is for the good only if we use it for service and healing against our immediate gain and passing comfort.
Okay, I can believe in new life again, but Lazarus will die again, so why eternal life? There is no mention of it in the Old Testament. The Old Testament is against the notion from other religions that the human soul is naturally immortal. The Lazarus story argues against the immortality of the soul, for if the immortal soul of Lazarus had now reached its goal and entered the bliss of heaven, how could it be a good thing for Jesus to command that soul to enter back into the inevitable suffering of a mortal body? In the New Testament it’s not the immortality of the soul but “the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.” But still, I can believe in God, but why believe in this?
The “why” is because of the character of the God you believe in. This is a God who knows your name, and knows it forever. This is a God who knows your own personal story and regards it with timeless significance. This is a God who invests in you. This is a God who, well, loves you.
This is the God who created time and space, and who is unbounded by time and space and thus who loves each and every one of you beyond the limits of time and space. This is the God who imagined the universe and called it into being, and this is the God who holds your personalilty in her mind and can call you back into being. Suzy Smith, come out. Albert Luthuli, rise up. Kim Dae-jung, come out.
We do not hold these truths to be self-evident. They are impossible. They are not inconceivable, and they help to make sense of other things, but they do leave questions we can’t answer and open us to greater mysteries. What will we be like? When the City of God comes down on earth, and God will dwell on earth, what will it be like to have a human body that will not die? How like, how different?
Isaiah says that death will be swallowed up forever. What are we going to eat? Tofu? Manna? Isaiah envisioned a feast of well-aged wines and rich food filled with marrow. Bone marrow comes from killing animals. How will this work? We are given only glimpses of the life everlasting.
“Behold, I tell you a mystery.” How should it be otherwise, for God means us to be thoroughly invested in the world as we know it now. And yet at the same time we’re invited to see this world as open-ended, and having a truth beyond us that is the best truth for us. And the best we can know about this greater life is revealed to us and displayed to us in this person of Jesus of Nazareth. It is from him and only from him that you can extrapolate the resurrection of your body and your eternal life. From what happened to him, and from what he said and what he did. Like with Lazarus, not as the final proof, for Lazarus will die again, but from Lazarus as an invitation and a pledge.
So on the basis of that pledge I will repeat the names of some of our own saints from Old First. We remember them. Some of them we remember in our stained glass windows, some we remember on our communion silver, some we remember in our street names and subway stops, and some you can remember personally:
Margrieta Van Varick,
Mary Jane Gaul,
Henry Van Order,
John Montrose Morris,
Ruth Fitch Wallace,
We remember these.
Altogether there’s about 4000 Old First saints, and only God remembers all of them. Well, more than remembers. Holds them in thought. Blesses them through death. Looks upon them in their future. Intends to love them forever, and love them so much as to share God’s own existence with them forever, whatever that existence might mean, and who knows.
But that’s what All Saints Day is about. Not about us. But about the love of God for us, and how vast and expansive and enduring and surpassing and sustaining and reviving is God’s love for you.
Copyright © 2015 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.
Saturday, October 24, 2015
Heidelberg Catechism 110-11, LD 42, Psalm 34:1-8, 19-22, Hebrews 7:23-28, Mark 10:46-52
This episode in the Gospel of Mark takes place right before Palm Sunday. That’s the very next thing after this. Jericho is the final stop before you make the turn for the road up to Jerusalem. When the Lord Jesus makes this turn, there’s nowhere else for him to go.
The climax is coming. The procession is gathering. His followers expect him to show himself triumphantly now as the Messiah, the Son of David, going to set up his new government in Jerusalem, and kick out the Romans, and reinstate the Kingdom of God as a real live kingdom on earth. They can taste it, they want to see it.
There are details reported in this episode that you wonder how much to read into. Like the repetition of the blind man’s name: Bar-Timaeus, the son of Timaeus. Is the emphasis on his name because the name Timaeus is a Greek name? Does this imply his father was not a Jew? Does this mean he’d be uncertain of his welcome in the Kingdom of the Messiah?
Then there’s the movement in the titles by which Bartimaeus addresses Jesus. First he calls out to him as the “Son of David,” which is the political and Messianic title, when he cries out for mercy. Like, could the candidate please display with some royal charity his grand munificence? And maybe cut him a little slack when the Kingdom comes? But then when he gets his interview, he addresses Jesus as “my rabbi.” Why the lesser title?
Does this mean that if you want the Lord Jesus to be your Messiah, your savior, you must approach him as your teacher, so that from his teaching you can learn to see the Kingdom of God? Do you want to be able to see that too? Don’t you want to see the Kingdom of God, right now, in Brooklyn, in this church, in your own life?
Jesus says, “Your faith has saved you.” (Our NRSV translation missed it.) When he says “saved,” he doesn’t mean just getting well. He means more, that Bartimaeus is fully inside the Kingdom of God, he’s gotten on the bus. His faith was in his actions, his actions of calling out loudly and then getting up and casting off his cloak, casting away his long identity, his dependence on charity, and getting on the bus that Jesus was driving. Like you did this morning to get yourself here.
You came here today to see the Kingdom of God. And when you’re looking at things from within this kingdom, you have to look again, you have to “see again,” because now everything looks different than it did. It’s like in Harry Potter, where the wizards can see so much more in the world that ordinary muggles do. It’s like Dorothy going from the familiar black-and-white of Kansas to the shocking color of Oz. And would it not be wonderful to watch the World Series in 3-D?
What it means to be saved is to get on the magic bus that Jesus drives. That bus has magic 3-D windows, and when you look at all the scenery around you, everything ordinary has a whole new look. You can see the Kingdom of God in everything.
You’ve got to be on this bus in order to get the Eighth Commandment. Well, you don’t need the Kingdom of God to tell you not to steal. The laws of secular government tell you not to steal, as the Catechism reminds us. But the Catechism also says that for Christians, we have to obey this commandment a long ways past the negative prohibition into the positive practice of sharing. You’ve got to see this commandment in 3-D, because it’s not just about the goods that belong your neighbor, that they are not for you, but about the good life of your neighbor, which does belong to you.
The Catechism draws its expansive interpretation from what the Lord Jesus said in our Gospel lesson two weeks ago. That wealthy young man proudly said that he’d kept the commandment all his life, and then the Lord Jesus told him to sell it all and give the proceeds to the poor. And that means more than charity. That’s expensive generosity. That’s sharing enough that it will cost you.
Simple charity would leave Bartimaeus still begging on the roadside. Charity leaves the economic systems as they are. We’re talking about the Kingdom of God, and that means new rules, and seeing everything differently, and re-viewing everything. It means that every economic system is judged by the Kingdom of God.
Now it’s true that the New Testament never proposes an economic system. That’s not because economics is in a different realm than religion. No, the opposite. It’s because every economic system gets judged by the Kingdom of God. Especially on how the system treats the poor. Our various systems are the bus-stops, and the Kingdom of God is the bus.
Why does the driver keep stopping? For you to take a good look at the systems. But look, the driver keeps staring at the various individuals on the sidewalk? Why does he do that? The Epistle tells us why. He is praying for each one of them. The Son of God is making his intercessions for every one of them. We had better do that too.
And as we look at them on the sidewalk through our 3-D windows, we can see them in full perspective, where they came from, and what systems have disserved them and opposed them. The Catechism calls these systems the “schemes which are made to appear legitimate.” Slavery was legal in this boro for half our congregation’s history. Colonialism was legitimate foreign policy even into my childhood. Just because something is legal does not make it moral. The very things that make me richer and more comfortable can impoverish my neighbor.
In the economic order of the world today, we who do not steal personally, and who are even very generous individually, we participate in and even benefit from systems and structures and patterns that internationally are regarded as “legitimate” but which effectively “cheat and swindle” the more vulnerable populations of the world and “squander” the resources of this planet. I’m using the language of the Catechism, but I am looking through the bus window right behind Pope Francis.
So we passengers have to turn from our windows of perception and judgment and look back at the driver, and in his name be repentant of our share in the misery. “Son of David, have mercy on me.” And he intercedes for us. We have to accept his grace in order to live within our systems, but also accept his sight to witness to our systems, so that our wealth might be a common-wealth, for the good of the disadvantaged and the poor.
You Christians need to take a ride on this bus every once in a while, just in order to see again. But let’s get off it now and walk. Let’s talk about our walk and how we address the world each day.
We’re talking about regular charity, yes, and generosity, but more than that, sharing, and sharing so generously that it costs me. That takes faith, in the providence of God, because lots of black-and-white evidence is against it. Scarcity. Violence. There is powerful evil and sin and greed in the world, and most certainly that malice will take advantage of your generosity. If you share, you will be stolen from.
You have to be clear-eyed about the malice and exploitation. You have reason to be afraid. The Christian antidote to fear is not courage but faith. The Christian practice of sharing means opposing fear. The Christian practice of generosity means opposing defensiveness.
You don’t want to see through rose-colored glasses. I do not trust a one of those panhandlers on Seventh Avenue, all of whose names and stories I know. I don’t trust them but I do love them and I pray with them and give them a bit of change and I leave the results up to Jesus. So for your actions you can put your faith in the teaching of the Son of God, and for your security you put your faith in the providence of his Father that his teaching is grounded on.
And even though your generosity is might be resentful and your sharing half-hearted, what saves it for your conscience is your sometimes desperate faith in that greater generosity of Jesus that he shares with you. And when you act out of your faith, you can see again the Kingdom of God.
Richard Wilbur famously wrote that “love calls us to the things of this world.” That same love calls you to share the things of this world, because the world belongs to God, and God is love.
Copyright © 2015, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.
Saturday, October 17, 2015
Heidelberg Catechism 108-9, Psalm 104:1-9, 25, 37b, Hebrews 5:1-10, Mark 10:35-45
“Don’t commit adultery.”
Last year ago I was asked by a respectable colleague how I could be orthodox and yet justify same-sex marriages. I told him I had a number of reasons, but my clincher was the old Reformed Church liturgy for matrimony.
It’s a very simple service. It’s basically the vows, scripture, and the prayers. In the Reformed Church, marriage is not a sacrament, but a free covenant which gets celebrated by the church and blessed by God. In the Reformed liturgy, I actually don’t marry the couple. I just “pronounce” them married and bless them. They marry each other, and that by means of their vows.
There are two sets of vows, the legal and the sacred. The first set are the “I do” vows, the legal vows of consent. The second set are the sacred vows of marriage: “I X take you Y to be my wedded wife / husband, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish till death us do part. And thereto I pledge myself, truly with all my heart.”
It is making those vows that forges the marriage, and it is living those vows that carries the marriage through the years. So what I told my colleague was that I realized that those exact vows could be said by two men to each other, or by two women, and since it’s those vows that make marriages, those vows and marriages I could celebrate and bless.
I’m not so compelled by "traditional" marriage. Traditional marriage is an exchange of a woman as a possession between two men, often for compensation, and on behalf of the clan. “Who gives this woman to be married to this man!” For centuries now marriage has been evolving among us, driven by our desire for freedom and equality. The more freedom and equality we have, the weaker the strictures of clan, or social class, or gender, and so the more important are the vows.
I tell you all this by way of illustration. Because for gospel people, especially, marriage is not about clan, or class, or property, or even really about sex. Marriage is about two people looking each other in the eye and making vows, and those vows are pledged by the whole of yourself. What that requires most of all is fidelity. And what fidelity gets expressed by is practicing chastity.
The Heidelberg Catechism is right, but only so far as it goes, and it doesn’t go far enough. It says that what the Seventh Commandment means for us is chastity, which it does, but I’m saying that even more it means fidelity. Faithfulness. Trust. Mind to mind, soul to soul.
So yes, committing adultery is unchastity, but more important is that it’s infidelity. Because it’s living your vow that makes your marriage. The sex you have is the illustration and celebration of your vow. Sex is very powerful and what makes sex safe is the safety and security of your vow. If you break your vow, you are being unfaithful in many ways, not only to your spouse in body and in soul, but also unfaithful to your children, and unfaithful to the public that witnessed your vow, and unfaithful to God, in whose name you made your vow, and unfaithful even to yourself.
Chastity is the physical expression of fidelity. Chastity in marriage expresses fidelity to your spouse. And chastity in singleness is fidelity to yourself. You can be single. You can be single and whole and complete. You can be single and have your physical integrity. You don’t need to lose yourself or try to find yourself in somebody else’s body. You can be faithful to yourself.
St. Paul wrote in First Corinthians that he wished we all were single. This was remarkable for a Jew. In Genesis, at creation, the male and female couple was the image and likeness of God. But in the new creation, in Christ, the image of God is Jesus, a single man. His being a male was for the sake of his royal inheritance. His maleness was not for the sake of his sexual expression. This is big.
If you are in Christ, your married state is temporary, “till death do you part.” Your eternal state will be as single. And this carries through into our lives now. For Christians, to be good at being married you need to be good at being single.
Those of us who got married young have had to learn this along the way. If you are not able to be single, to be by yourself, to be able to be alone, then your marriage is co-dependent. To stand on your own is to be free, and it’s from freedom that the best vows come. When you vow to your spouse out of your freedom and not of your neediness, then you can be the best helpmeet for your spouse. So this seventh commandment is for couples, but even more it’s for you as individuals.
If we’d had this commandment two weeks ago, the gospel lesson for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost would have steered this sermon toward the issues of divorce and remarriage. But our lessons for today are taking us towards how to keep faithful in relationships in general, especially when we fall in our relationships.
Jesus says to his two disciples, do you think you can drink from the same cup that I do, and take the same bath I have to take? They say, “Oh yes we can.” And of course they don’t, they will desert him, they fail the relationship, they are unfaithful. And yet Jesus promises that they will drink from his cup and bathe with him, but he means the cup of his blood and reconciliation and the baptism of his death and resurrection. He means that his faithfulness will reclaim them and restore them. Time and again. Against our failures and infidelities is the promise of God’s grace. You can live in that. And living in that, you can share that. You can do that.
The practice of fidelity means practicing putting trust in other people. It means relationships of trust. As you engage the world, as you walk your way through time, as you deal in all your relationships, you deal in trust. With some relationships fidelity, but with all relationships some trust. And what comes with trust is risk. Not only because other people are free, and they have the right to their own interests, but also because other people are as fallen as you are, and you all fall short of your best intentions and you all have your own little infidelities.
You will betray the trust of others and others will betray your trust. Now some people are so damaged or so bent that you had better not trust them at all. But your default desire is restore your trust and rebuild relationships. So it’s not so much that you’re always having to forgive each other. It’s more that you offer each other a constant state of grace. You trust each other precisely in your weaknesses and failures and disappointments. You are there for each other at your worst as much as at your best. For better, for worse is as much for your relationships in general as it is for marriages.
It’s a good thing that Christian perfection is not static but dynamic and restorative. We see this in the Lord Jesus. Our epistle lesson says that he learned perfection through his obedience. Because the obedience of Jesus was never a legal obedience of toeing the line, but an obedience of relationship, his relationship of loving his Father and serving his God.
That included risk, and silences, and God not rescuing him, and at the cross his Father turning away from him. He was tempted and tested in the relationship, and it cost him loud cries and tears and agonies. Like at times in marriage. Yet he stayed faithful.
And this is hope for your marriages and for your interpersonal relationships. You are constantly perfecting your relationships like works of art, building into their final beauty all your failures and scars and your mutual disappointments and how you rebuild your trust.
It’s a work of the Holy Spirit. In the last third of the Apostles Creed you will say that you believe in the communion of saints. And with that comes the forgiveness of sins. To have communion with each other means to practice forgiveness. But communion precedes forgiveness because the practice comes out of the reality already given to you by the Holy Spirit, the state of grace in which you stand and the habit of grace that you share with those whom you want to love.
So then, the physical and emotional expression is chastity, the discipline is fidelity, the state you are in and the space you share is grace, and the energy and goal is love, the love that the Holy Spirit brings to you from God.
Copyright © 2015, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.
Sunday, October 11, 2015
Heidelberg Catechism 105-7, Lord's Day 40, Hebrews 4:12-16, Mark 10:17-31
The Ten Commandments were not originally presented as a list, despite how you often see them. Neither were they numbered, nor in a two-column chart. They are a single speech of God, like a unified poem, with rhythm and texture in the writing. They are like an elegant recipe from a classic French cookbook, wherein each ingredient contributes to the whole. Some ingredients get elaborated, and others are mentioned only briefly, though not for lack of importance, but because they are more obvious. The Ten Commandments are the ten-step recipe to get you loving God above all and loving your neighbor as yourself.
You notice the texture at the Sixth Commandment. You get a sudden return to prohibitions after the positive language of the Fourth and Fifth. Remember that the First, Second, and Third were “Don’t, Don’t, Don’t,” three negatives, and then Four and Five were positives, “Remember,” and “Honor,” and then Six is Don’t again.
Not only that—Six, Seven, and Eight hang together as Don’t, Don’t, Don’t. In just nine total syllables: Don’t kill, don’t adulterate, don’t steal. These three are by far the shortest of all ten: “Lo-tirtsakh. Lo-tinahf. Lo-tignov.” Three commandments in nine punchy syllables, while it takes 128 syllables to command the Sabbath Day. Why this sudden brevity? I haven’t figured it out yet.
It’s usually explained that the first five commandments were particular to Israel, and thus more theological, while at Six they get universal for all of humanity, and thus are only moral. I don’t agree with those distinctions. My favorite commentator (Cassuto) says that the brevity is because while one through five were new ideas, everybody already knew what killing and adultery and stealing were. I’m not convinced by this line either.
We certainly don’t know it now. Certainly not in America. In this country we’d have to put a great big asterix next to the Sixth Commandment. Somebody told me that in 2013 three times as many pre-school children were shot to death as armed policemen. We don’t seem able to stop this, which suggests to me that killing has some compelling power over us. Do you find it not a little troubling, for example, that a comedian will tell her talk-show host that at her last performance she killed her audience? We talk about killing so lightly.
Our nation believes that we posses the right to kill. On foreign soil we kill people routinely in order to protect our economic interests. Domestically we hold that every citizen is guaranteed the right to kill by the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution. We don’t say it like that, but what the right to bear arms implies is the right to kill. For every citizen to have this right is a modern liberal belief, ironically. The historically conservative belief is that the right to kill is given only to the government, and that by God. You see that in the Heidelberg Catechism that we just read. This was the general belief of the Sixteenth Century, and they could reference their belief by the epistles of St. Paul.
The prohibition which our nation does seem to believe in is this: “Don’t die.” The prevention of our own dying is what we spend our money and resources on. If we can’t prevent it then we do our utmost to delay it. Delaying our deaths for on the average just six more months consumes some outrageous proportion of our health-care dollars, but we can’t find some way to prevent the killings of our school children.
“Thou shalt not die” is more powerful among us than “Thou shalt not kill.” This consuming fear of our own death becomes an idol which allows the sacrifice of children. But your neighbor’s life should be as precious to you as your own. Don’t die is ultimate selfishness. Don’t kill is ultimate love. You’d rather die than someone else be killed. Even if your neighbor is your enemy. You’d rather die than your enemy be killed.
Really? How fully should we take this Fifth Commandment? Does it mean to never kill at all? How about animals? You kill bugs, and mice, and maybe you kill fish, but would you kill a dog or a cat? What’s the difference? We have to kill. The animals we eat. Even the plants that we eat.
There is no eating without killing. Killing is part of the natural cycle of life. And it is by no means unnatural for animals to kill fellow members of their own species. It isn’t nature or natural science that prohibit you killing another human being. The philosopher Thomas Hobbes demonstrated that the state of nature is not what you would call humane. The only morality of nature is the survival of the fittest and to kill or be killed.
What makes it wrong for Jews and Christians, at least, depends on God. It’s because every other human being carries the image of God, and you are not allowed to extinguish that image. This commandment means that to love God prohibits you killing other human beings. Every killing of a human is a strike against God.
The Hebrew verb in the commandment is Ritsakh, and that’s a different verb than the one for killing animals. This verb is used for any human killing, from innocent accident to manslaughter to murder. The later tradition says it’s narrowly murder that’s prohibited, which tradition is quoted by Our Lord himself in our Gospel lesson; and hadn’t the same God who had given these commandments also told Israel to kill the Canaanites and exterminate the Amalekites? But if it meant only murder, there was another more specific Hebrew verb for that, which is not the verb in the commandment. It is general and stark and simple: Do not kill. How inconvenient.
So the commandment is less precise than we might want. By design. It’s not black and white, it has lots of gray. And the way the Gospel goes, you can’t just simply say, “I don’t do that,” as the rich young man in our Gospel did. In Matthew chapter 5, the Lord Jesus says that you break this commandment any time you merely hate your neighbor. He says that’s murder in your heart. And what Jesus says is taught by our Catechism.
The imprecision of the commandment is intentional—for you to keep on measuring all those gray areas in your life: Am I killing here? Is this killing okay? Am I hating? Am I disrespecting? Am I dehumanizing? Why am I doing it? What am I afraid of? What do I want? All of us are always guilty of this commandment in the Christian sense. This means that you should confess it as a sin even when no one can accuse you of it. Daily. That’s my first take home. Confess the sin of killing every day. Actually it’s very liberating. It helps you to define your define your personal goodness not by your own proud rightness but by the gift of grace that you humbly accept and joyfully share.
My second take-home is that killing is always an evil, even when we have no choice but to do it. I wish I could be an absolute pacifist, but I can’t. I can imagine a well-ordered militia taking arms in communal self-defense, but even then, every killing is a failure, every killing is an evil and a grief, even of your enemy who attacks you. For a Christian, the death of your enemy is not your victory. It’s an evil, which you ask forgiveness of as the lesser of two evils, but it’s still an evil. It’s a defeat even when you win. There is no such thing as a good war. Don’t kill, because even when you have to do it will cost you, and cost you dearly.
My third take-home is positive, it’s about what you can do in your Christian walk and how you address the world. You obey this commandment by practicing kindness. Most religions consider kindness a virtue, but for Christians it is non-negotiable. You must cultivate kindness, as the subset of love, as the action of love when it comes to your neighbor.
You act in the interest of your neighbor without regard for your own interest. You do good without payback. Not servility, not submission, sometimes it might be telling someone No, or even that you be willing to share bad news. The point is that you are of the same kind as your neighbor, so it means fellow-feeling, and patience, and listening instead of telling. You are probably kind in some ways and not in others. Kindness is unpredictable and it requires many judgment calls, and you’ll make mistakes. It’s tricky to distinguish selfishness from proper self-regard. So kindness is an attitude you really put to some practice in.
Don’t get down on yourself when you don’t feel it. It isn’t always natural. It’s a gift of the Holy Spirit, according to St. Paul. You practice it as opening up your life to God. You have to let God be kind through you. Because God is kind. You see that in the Incarnation, God becoming one of us, the ultimate act of kindness and of fellow-feeling. “And even if you kill me, I will only love you back.” It’s how God keeps the Sixth Commandment. The kindness of God is the active demonstration of God’s love for us.
Copyright © 2015, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.