Thursday, April 23, 2015

April 26, Easter 4: This Is the Life #1

Acts 4:5-12, Psalm 23, 1 John 3:16-24, John 10:11-18

The Easter Season is eight Sundays long, from Easter morning through to Pentecost. That’s an ancient tradition with its roots in Bible times. It’s only a recent tradition that the Fourth Sunday of Easter is Good Shepherd Sunday, but that’s the theme of our gospel lesson today. It’s the second half of a longer speech by Jesus, where he repeats several times, “I am the Good Shepherd.” Our section of it begins at verse 11, but just one verse before it, in verse 10, Jesus says this: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

What is this life, this abundant life, that Jesus gives us? How is it different from the life we have already and that we share with other creatures like dogs and sheep? Don’t bugs and bacteria have life abundantly? And why does Jesus say that he lays down his life? Why give us life just for us to lay it down? What does life mean in the Bible?

Today I’m starting a sermon series on Life. Twelve sermons. This first one is theological, so be patient for the later ones which are more practical. I’ve never preached on Life before. We all take life for granted, right, as if we all know what it means, but I dare you to define it.

Even modern scientists don’t agree on a definition of life. One definition says that “life is the popular name for the activity peculiar to protoplasm,” but that leads to circular explanations. You could say that life is when the elements of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, and sulfur form compounds. That’s what astronomers look for in their search for extra-terrestrial life. But what if alternative lives were based on silicon instead of carbon, like the Horta in that Star Trek episode.

A complication is that those five elements occur together in substances that are no longer living. Bones. We say that a bone is dead because it lived once, while a stone never lived so it is not dead. A stone is essentially immortal. At our cottage we have stones that are 3.96 billion years old. That’s older than our church. A stone may be immortal but it does not have eternal life. Eternal life and immortality are not the same.

When the New Testament was being written the whole question of life was big in the popular science of the day. Is life an energy? Is life a force? Are the stars and planets alive? Is fire alive? Did life arise out of fire? So said Heraklitus. Or out of the air? So said Anaximines. Or out of water? So said Thales.

Modern science basically goes with Thales, with our image of the primitive planet’s primordial soup, in which some chemical compounds somehow came to life. We don’t know how to replicate it in the laboratory, nor why it doesn’t happen in nature anymore. “As far as known at present all living substance arises from already existing living substance.” A living thing has to get its life from something already alive.

Look at your hand, and the life that’s in your hand. That life, which you got from your parents, goes unbroken and uninterrupted all the way back through some pre-historic primates to some primitive sea-creatures to those primordial protozoans who first came alive. Is it really possible that all plants and animals alive today share a common stream of life that got started three billion years ago from one common source? We assume so but we have no direct scientific proof and we are no more absolutely certain of it than they were in Bible times.

In the midst of these uncertainties we Christians make a claim that the ultimate source of life on earth is the Holy Spirit. We say that in the Nicene Creed, when we say that “we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life.” That’s not a scientific claim, we don’t mean that, but it was certainly always meant as a philosophical claim. We’re not just talking about spiritual life, we’re talking about life on earth, that marvelous stream of life that we share with plants and animals.

We mean that this stream of life has its source in God’s own self, in God’s own inner life, which God shares as a gift to all the creatures of the world from bacteria to bugs to birds to us. We mean this natural life is not just the platform for our Christian faith, it is the target and the interest of our Christian faith. We mean that we are saved in order to live this life, not leave it.

The resurrection of Jesus is an affirmation of this life. Yes, it’s also a judgment on this life, but it’s not a rejection. It’s a saving of what we were ruining and losing by our own designs. The Lord Jesus was resurrected for the life of the world. This is why we celebrate Easter for eight weeks long, to give it time to enter into our lives, because the resurrection of Jesus is not just a one-off, hip-hip-hooray and let’s all go to heaven now, but rather that Easter begins a new reality that enters into the life of the world and into its time and space, and that it takes its time to do its patient and comprehensive transformation of our present lives into the “life of the world to come.”

Now here’s a complication. We use the English word “life” for three different Greek words in the Bible. There is βιος (bios), from which we get biology, ζωη (zoë), from which we get zoology, and ψυχη (psyche), from which we get psychology. The three words overlap, and two of the words have other meanings too, so it’s a tricky business. But when the Lord Jesus speaks of "abundant life" and "eternal life," it’s always zoë, that greatest and broadest stream and energy of life which the Holy Spirit gives to the world from its source in God’s own life. We will watch for this in coming weeks.

When Jesus speaks of "laying down his life," then it’s psyche, which is more personal. Your psyche is your personal life-force, located in your breathing, and it also means your soul, your natural life, which you share with other breathing creatures. What Jesus says in the gospel is expanded in our epistle, in the first sentence, that we too ought to lay down our lives for each other.

But the very next sentence uses the third word for life, bios, but it’s hidden behind that English paraphrase, “the world’s goods.” How did they get that from a word for life? Well, life in the sense of making a living, your livelihood, what you do for a living. I wish they had left it literal, and stronger: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has a life and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?”

It’s not about the world’s goods. It’s about your power, your purpose, your health, your energy, your momentum, your career, your trajectory, your course of life. Your living and your livelihood are what get saved by the power of the resurrection, your purpose and power and energy are confirmed and convicted and converted and transformed by the power of God’s love, so that you can invest your power and your momentum in the lives of others who may need it. As God does.

Don’t misunderstand what it means to lay-down your life. It does not mean surrender. It is not necessarily dying. It’s more like investing or depositing. Like laying down some cash on the table, or putting down some chips in a card game. Jesus did that with his life. He was investing in us, depositing his life in our living history, putting himself into our sin and grief and judgment, laying his life down within our death, yes, and losing it as you might lose your investment, or lose your chips in your card game, but then he won it back again.

That’s what Peter was doing before the Sanhedrin. He was laying his life out in front of people who had the power to punish him. These are the very same rulers whom Peter was afraid of on the night before Jesus died, which is why he had three times denied him. Now these rulers didn’t know Peter from Adam, so they didn’t know about Peter’s guilty conscience which had condemned him and then how the forgiveness and peace of Jesus had reassured him. So Peter has his second chance and now, because he’s not afraid for his life, he puts himself out there, he lays out his life to them and appeals to them to believe like him and get forgiven and saved like him. He’s loving them.

This is what Life looks like. One scientist has identified life as the reversal of entropy, the reversal of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, that instead of everything always breaking down to simple states of equilibrium, life is what builds, gathers, grows, risks, adds complexity, adds color, adds music, shares itself, feeds, nourishes, hopes, dreams. You invest your own life in the possibilities of others beyond you.

So this suggests that the source of life is not water nor fire nor earth, but love, and not just any love, and not determined by philosophy, but the love which God demonstrates to us in action, in the action of Jesus laying down his life for us, and in the constant investment of God in you as your Good Shepherd. You know you’re alive when you know this love in your life.

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

Saturday, April 04, 2015

April 5, Easter 2015: Women's Work

(This is the painting that graces the reredos of our sanctuary, The Empty Tomb, by Virgilio Tojetti. In St. Mark's account the young man is seated inside.)

Isaiah 25:6-9, Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24, Acts 10:34-43, Mark 16:1-7

This was women’s work, what they were doing, these three women, early at the tomb, taking care of things after the men were all done. Like after the church suppers of my childhood. Like on an ancient battlefield—the losers retreat, the victors chase them, and then the women come out to tend the wounded and the dying and the dead. The disciples of Jesus had fled and were in hiding. Did the women buy their spices in the dark because they feared the danger all around them?

A corpse begins to stink in just a few hours, and it was long past that. They wanted the spices to cover the smell so they could dress his body. These women were the ones who had been providing for him all along, and had seen to his necessities, so even his corpse was precious to them. In this way they were closer to him then his disciples were, these women who had birthed and nursed and held and swaddled and cleaned and fed and dressed the bodies of others—women’s work. So one last time they come to dress him and hold him and grieve for him whom they have loved and lost.

And when they get there, even his body is lost to them. The tomb is empty, except for the young man, who is described but not explained. Was he expecting them? Is he an angel? He acts like angels do in his disregard for human feeling. When the women are alarmed he says, “Don’t be alarmed.” How helpful is that! He matter-of-factly gives them instructions, which they do not carry out. They flee in fear, they don’t tell nothing to nobody.

And that’s how the Gospel of Mark concludes, with their terror, their amazement, and their fear. End of story. What? Don’t they meet up with Jesus, like in the other gospels? Like in Matthew, Luke, and John, where they encounter him fully alive, robust, and powerful, and his disciples walk and talk with him and even eat and drink with him? Not in the Gospel of Mark, at least according to our most ancient manuscripts. The later manuscripts offer a couple of longer endings, like the extra verse we did not read this morning, which provide more conventional conclusions. Because, like, how could St. Mark end his Gospel this way?

It’s not to discount those post-resurrection appearances that were already reported in the earlier writings of St. Paul and St. Matthew. St. Mark is not denying them, he rather assumes we know of them, but he wants to convey his own literary emphasis. In the Gospel of Mark, the miracles of Jesus are met with emotions that are strong and unpredictable and often negative. When Jesus walks on water his disciples are terrified. When Jesus is transfigured they are terrified. And all three times that Jesus directly predicts his resurrection his disciples speak against it from the fear of it.

The Gospel of Mark is always wonderful but never comfortable. The good news is always good but not always nice. The salvation shakes you up. The good news of salvation is so drastic that it is fearful. The choice before you is so total that it’s a whole new world in the midst of this one, and that means everything you thought was certain and dependable is shaking loose with instability.

In the reality of our world—and the women knew this as well as we do—it is just not possible that a corpse already stinking should come back to life. And if it did, who knew what it would be like? A walking dead? A zombie? Of course the women are terrified. Who wouldn’t be?

We don’t like terror. We have a war on Terror. In recent years the word “terror” has come to have a technical political meaning. Every morning we read another report of some act of terror somewhere. When an airplane is smashed into an Alpine mountainside and 148 people are killed, the first thing asked is, Was it Terrorism? And after the investigation we can say No, it wasn’t Terrorism.

But of course it was. In the larger sense. That great sense of grievance, whether personal in the case of the pilot, or corporate in the case of Al Qaeda. “We have been wronged, the world has done us wrong, America has done us wrong, the West has done us wrong, we have been wronged and we will make them pay.” Suicide bombers give evidence that often it’s less about wanting to win as wanting to make us pay. It’s revenge. It’s an anger that claims to be justified, to be righteous anger, seeking justice in revenge. We regard them as terrorists. They regard themselves as aggrieved.

And here is an end to all our grievances. The tomb is empty. You came here to grieve. He is not here. You came here with preservatives, to hang on a little longer to what you lost. One more loss in a life of constant losing, one more death in a culture that kills the innocent, cutting down your best and brightest in its jealousy.

You came here in your grievances, you came looking for the one who was crucified, but he is not here any more. He’s done with that. He has left behind your grievances. He has gone on ahead of you, and you must go there too. Where? Into what strange new world? Of course it is fearful, and you have to fear it before you can receive it. You have first to fear the loss of your life in order to receive the gift of your new life. It might not be nice news but it’s good news.

Now that I’ve spoken about terrorism, let me speak about my marriage. I would say that over the six decades of my life, the greatest fact in my life, the greatest gift, has been the love of my wife Melody. The thing about her love is that I cannot control it, it’s outside of my control. As she reminds me, I cannot see inside her head, I cannot read her thoughts. She habitually disagrees with me on certain things and I can’t convince her. Her love for me is real, a real force in my life, again every day, and yet I can’t explain it. I have learned that her love for me does not depend on me. Her love of me is independent of me. I live in it but I never really possess it. I admit I’m a little afraid of it. You know: if I can’t control her love, then can I count on it? I have to believe in her. I have to faith in her. Well, she is more than deserving of my faith.

I offer this to you as a metaphor for the resurrection life of Christ. It is something so good for you and yet so independent of you and outside of your control that it’s no wonder that you fear it. It is a reality which is also such a mystery that of course you find it alarming. You cannot make it fit. It will not fit. To want it explained is to want to posses it. The Bible never tries to prove it, because it can’t be made to fit inside your current categories, it rather challenges your categories. The only way to choose this life is to receive it as a gift, and to receive it every day again.

The resurrection of Jesus is not the solution the disciples would have chosen for their problems. The resurrection of Jesus is not the answer the children of Israel would choose for their grievances. The resurrection of Jesus is not what any philosopher would have proposed to solve the greatest problems of the world. As the solution to your personal problems you would not choose the rising again of Jesus. But it’s what God offers us.

The personal problem that St. Mark addresses is the problem of your fear. It’s in fear that he ends his part of the story so that it’s in your fear that you take up your part of the story. It’s one of your besetting problems. Your fear for your future, your fear that your needs will not be met, that your place will not be kept, your losses not paid for, your interests discredited, your story discounted, your grievances disregarded. You fear that this resurrection story might not be true and that all things will just get worse and never better.

There, in your fear, is where you must start, but your fear does not predict the solution to your fear. Your fear does not determine its own resolution, and you must not let your fear control how it gets answered. Let your honest fear be judged and die with Christ in order to receive God’s answer and plant your identity upon God’s promises.

You came looking for the one who was crucified so you could grieve your losses. You won’t find him here. He’s gone ahead of you. He has gone beyond your grievances. He doesn’t make your life so far add up. He doesn’t give you that satisfaction. If anything, when you look back on your life, he shows you how much more you have to repent of then you knew of. But that repentance is not required for you to receive the gift he gives you. The only thing you need to receive the gift he offers you is that you want that love, that love that you cannot possess, that love that you cannot deserve but still receive, that love for you which does not depend on you.

So all of you are doing women’s work today. Whatever your grief and grievances you did come here for love, because even deeper than your fear in you is your desire to love. And I know you want his kind of love, you want to believe in his kind of self-giving love. That kind of love is doubted and feared and even hated but it is vindicated by the resurrection and offered for your desire and belief. And just in your believing it begins to work its power in the world. You can believe it. When I say “Christ is risen,” it is your desire that the universe be run by love that lets you answer, “He is risen indeed, Alleluia.”

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

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

March 22, Lent 5, Walk to the Cross 5: The Sign of Jesus

Jeremiah 31:31-34, Psalm 51:1-13, Hebrews 5:5-10, John 12:20-33

These Greeks who want to see Jesus — whether they are tourists or converts or something between we are not told. Nor are we told if Jesus even connects with them. What they seem to represent to the Lord Jesus is the wider world outside of Israel, the world that God so loved. They are the sign of the world coming to God, to the God who is coming to the world, and where God meets the world and the world meets God is in this guy Jesus, who is both the Son of God and the Son of Man.

Why did they want to see Jesus? What they indicate is how people come to God, with all kinds of different motivations, a whole great range of motivation, all the way from curiosity like tourists to desperation like the dying, and with all sorts of desires in between. You yourselves are in this range and you move about this range at different seasons in your life. Some seasons in your life you desire God from curiosity, and other seasons in your life you desire God from desperation, from hurt, and fear, and pain. Your sin is ever before you (Psalm 51). Sometimes you are moved by love, and sometimes you are moved by guilt, and guilt and love are so close together. You want to see Jesus, and you’re not sure why, but you suspect that seeing him might get you some answers for the world, or some relief, or some hope and reconciliation.

I doubt that the Greeks wanted to see Jesus because they thought he was going to die. In all the range of what people wanted to see Jesus for, I doubt that anyone wanted to see him because he was going to die. No one who desired him desired that. And yet, when Jesus was told that they wanted to see him, he knew it was time for him to die. How did he arrive at this? What was he thinking? Why did he choose this? Did he choose it freely or were those his “orders”? Did he choose it for God? Was God letting him choose it for the both of them?

I asked a number of people why Jesus had to die. One person gave me a simple answer: “Because it was that bad.” That’s a good answer, but it’s intuitive; it’s artistic and dramatic. Implicit in this answer is that it’s us that are that bad, the totality of us. But let me ask you, isn’t the infinity of God’s goodness sufficient to surpass how bad we are and how bad it is? Couldn’t God still say “Ally-ally-in-free?”

Another person answered that sin costs. That makes sense. The universal human intuition that sin costs is the basis of our various systems of criminal justice. All humanity agrees that when a crime is done, then somebody, somewhere, has to pay something, somehow. But just because it’s a universal human intuition doesn’t necessarily make it proper to the gospel. Conventional wisdom often gets God wrong. Do we get this from God or do we impose this on God, that sin costs?

If you were to ask the official catechism of the Reformed Church, the Heidelberg Catechism, why Jesus had to die, the answer is that “God’s law demands it.” This answer is a decent summary of the Biblical stories and the Biblical laws. But that only alters the question. You could simply ask the question in different terms: “Why did God set up the law this way, that Jesus had to die?”

We could point to the universal necessity of sacrifice. Jesus did that himself in this lesson. A seed has to die in the soil in order to bear new fruit. A tree has to die and fall to the ground in order to renew the soil for new life. When salmon run up their rivers to spawn, they die, and their dead flesh brings the nutrients of the ocean into the upstream environment for the good of all the other species. We could multiply examples of the law of nature that some measure of sacrifice is necessary to the renewal of life. And from this can we say that the law of nature is actually a law from God. But is God confined to the laws of nature? And again, the question remains, why did God set nature up this way?

Parents make sacrifices for their children, lovers for their lovers, and friends for their friends. It’s the expression of real commitment. “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” We do it for love. So the necessity of sacrifice in the law of nature is a sign which points us to the love which is at the center of the universe. We say that God is love. Not just a nice and easy love, but a sacrificial love, a costly love. This love of God which runs the universe is displayed to us in the life and death of Jesus and proven to us by his sacrifice upon the cross.

If this is true, it makes some sense of that promise from the prophecy of Jeremiah about the new and everlasting covenant. The Lord Jesus was obviously attracted by that prophecy and he believed he could make it work. Jesus seem to have seen his death as the final covenant, which can never be broken, because it is guaranteed upon the sacrifice of God’s own self, and doubly so: God’s self, and God’s only child, who is dearer than God’s self.

So Jesus is mounted up on the cross as the target of that arrow of God, the arrow in that archery bow that God had set within the clouds at the time of Noah, with the arrow pointed up at God and at God’s heart, when God had said to Noah, “Cross my heart and hope to die.” Jesus put himself up as the target and the arrow is let loose and it flies at the target who is God’s son upon the post and it hits the heart of God. Jesus died in the place of God. People say that Jesus died in our place, as our substitute, which is true, but it was also in God’s place that Jesus died, as a substitute for God.

Why did Jesus have to die? So that God could die in him. You know it is philosophically impossible for the God of the Bible to die, but God was able to die in the death of Jesus. God was able to take the blame for the world, which is that bad. God was able to say, I will accept responsibility, even though it’s not my fault. I am doing it for love. God was able to make that ultimate sacrifice of love. God wants to show us what God is like, and wants to show us the direction of the world, and how we sustain each other, and how we give each other life.

Why did Jesus have to die? Because the secret of life is love. Love is what generates life. And the love of God is so passionate and powerful that it can die and not be stopped by death, because the love of God is not a what but a who. The love of God and the love who is God is what carries you through death and meets you on the other side of death.

The road of Lent that you are on and the road that God is on are converging at the cross, the narrow gate that leads to the resurrection. You are on the road towards your own death and God will meet you there, and then God will carry you on that single dark and narrow pathway of the dead, to the other side, to the resurrection, where God puts you on your feet again.

You are not told very much of what it will be like there. But I can tell you this: you will be living in that same love, and you will at last be able to give that love back fully, with no flaws, with no half-heartedness, you yourself that boundless love which is the love of God. You want to see Jesus because you want to see that living love which is the deepest desire of your own life. You’re on the right track, you’re on the right road. The Lord Jesus welcomes you to invest your life in that same God that he did.

Copyright © 2015 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

March 15, Lent 4, The Walk to the Cross: The Awful Trophy

Numbers 21:4-9, Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22, Ephesians 2:1-10, John 3:14-21

Our gospel lesson is the second part of the conversation of Jesus and Nicodemus. That conversation comes early in the Gospel of John, at the beginning of Our Lord’s three-year campaign. And we can infer that the Lord Jesus can already see the cross in the distance, because already, this early, he talks about the serpent in the wilderness as a figure of himself. According to St. John, the Lord Jesus saw his whole campaign as a long walk to the cross, a three-year Lent.

I’d say that already before his baptism Our Lord had contemplated that story, before his coming out. And I wonder: in those eighteen years of his silence between his bar mitzvah (anachronism warning!) and his baptism, how did that awful story challenge him, and what guidance did it give him, and how did he come to regard that story as prophetic of himself?

When we read the story today, we are put off by the petty vengefulness of God to send those snakes. But when the story was first recorded it was assumed that any god had the right and the privilege to do such things whether humans liked it or not.

This is the kind of story that people raise in objection to the Bible and its God. They don’t want that kind of a god. If they want a god at all, they prefer the loving God of Jesus, the God who “so loved the world.” And yet the Lord Jesus himself was able to hold together his belief in the God of the serpents and a loving God the Father, and he speaks of the two things together in one speech.

Indeed, he sees his own future in that brazen serpent. Does he expect to be a trophy on a pole? The brazen serpent was a trophy, of an ancient sort. It was not a modern trophy, like the Stanley Cup. If hockey teams got ancient trophies, the winners would skate around the rink lifting up on their sticks the skates and sweaters and helmets of the losers, and, depending on the franchise, even the face-mask of the goalie with his head still in it.

You get it that the body of Jesus lifted up on a cross was a trophy for the Roman soldiers, when that body was identified as of the "King of the Jews". He’s not just been killed, like the thieves on either side of him, he’s been defeated. And does Jesus think that this is what God wants? What sort of a God is this that Jesus believes in?

On the face of it, your Lenten pilgrimage is about your repentance of your sins, but as I have said, your repentance is not really about your sins but about your discovery of God, this God whom Jesus believed in. This God is not the nice progressive God of Brownstone Brooklyn. This God is both more wonderful and more terrible than that.

So like when you read the news today, and you get indignant and upset, I would say that when God reads the news God doesn’t get just indignant and upset, God has “wrath”, as St. Paul says. Does God have the right to God’s wrath, even if we don’t like it that God should have sent the snakes? What is God’s wrath directed at, and at whom, and for what reason?

Isn’t more at stake for God than for us? How complex and inclusive is God’s love? When God so loves the world, how many species does God love, how many landscapes, how many glaciers does God love, and how many young black men and how many coral reefs, how many aboriginals and even young terrorists does God love, not to mention yourself, and your history, and your conscience, and your very body? Consider how much does God’s love include and to what extent, and then let’s talk about God’s wrath.

What Jesus did is remarkable. When he said to himself, I will be that brazen serpent, he faced the wrath of God and he took God to the cross with him. He said to himself, I will be the Son of Man, interceding in heaven for my people. But he also said to himself, I will be God, the God up in heaven who judges the world, but also the God up on a cross; I’m the God who requires it and the God who endures it, the God who lives and the God who is dead on the trophy of humanity. 

The Lord Jesus embraced that all, and gave himself to it. And why? He saw the deal that God had offered the Israelites in the desert, and made that same deal universal for humanity. The deal is expressed in all three of our lessons in their own ways: If you look upon him, if you believe in him, if you believe the deal that is being offered you in terms of him, and the relationship behind that offer, then you will be saved, you will not die, you will live. Not because of anything you can boast of, not because of your own victory, but because you have been defeated by his love.

Last week I reminded you that during Lent we pray the confession that “there is no health in us.” It takes some complex reasoning to repeat those words with honesty and understanding, and it takes faith to repeat those words with hope and joy. So your walk to the cross during Lent is when you rehearse the steps of that complex faith and reasoning which Our Lord worked out ahead of us, that bundled into the judgment of God is the sign of grace and the promise of love. God does not take away the snakes. God does not take away the darkness. But the light shines in the darkness. You can see the signs of light. The energy of that light is the energy of the love of God.

What do you want from your Christian faith? Do you want to add God to the world as it is, to make the world better? Okay. Do you want to add God to your life as it is? Okay. Do you want better health? Good. But if Jesus is the serpent, it’s beyond better health, it’s about healing from poison. To add God to your life means yielding your life, arresting it for God to start it up again. To add God to the world means accepting the judgment of God upon the world, which means your dying to the world and the dying of the world to you. Not that God condemns the world. No, God loves the world. God condemns the poison in the world which is the power of the world, to which we’ve built up tolerance and tell ourselves we are immune to.

What do you want from your Christian faith? If you want success, God offers you rescue.
If you want sympathy, God offers you challenges.
If you want respect, God offers you forgiveness.
If you want fairness, God offers you reconciliation.
If you want honor, God offers you mercy.
If you want spirituality, then Jesus points you to the serpent on the pole, so that you desire the God who is up there on it too.
If you want answers to the problem of God in the world, the answer that God gives you is love, a very deep and ancient and complex love.
Your pilgrimage of Lent is your exploration of this God, who is rich in mercy, who out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ, and raised us up with him, and seated us with him, to show us the immeasurable riches of God’s grace.

Copyright © 2015 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, February 26, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright © 2015 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Friday, February 20, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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