Thursday, June 12, 2008

Sermon for June 15: Genesis Stories: Sarah Laughed

Proper 06, Genesis 18:1-15, Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19, Romans 5:1-8, Matthew 9:35-10:8

These three lessons we get every third year, according to the schedule of the Common Lectionary. This time around I will not preach on the gospel lesson. I will touch on the epistle, but my focus is the Old Testament lesson, as it will be for the next few months.
We’re watching God gather, protect, and preserve a community of faith. We’re tracing God’s long-term strategy of blessing inside the corruption, a strategy so gradual, so fragile, so limited, and so ambiguous. Why does God do it this way? Why doesn’t God just intervene and fix it all? The strategy of God is never easy to believe. To keep believing in God’s strategy requires the exercise of faith.

Last week we saw that God made promises to Abram and Sarai much earlier in their lives, promises based on having children. Well, that was now impossible. Sarah was in her nineties, past her menopause, and that was that. I guess the promises of God were a joke.
Abraham is now a wealthy bedouin, who lives a life of ease. But when he offers hospitality he has no son to stand with him at his right hand, no son to convey his commands to the servants, so when Abraham runs around like this he acts beneath his dignity and honor. This is a symbol of his shame.
I wonder how much he still believed the promises of God? And when his eyes met Sarah’s eyes, how long did they hold each others’ glance? Did they regard themselves as suffering? They were privileged with wealth, they were blessed, but how much suffering was in their shame?
Do we dare raise such a thing with God, when other people are grateful just for a morsel of food? Compared to Myanmar and Sichuan, what right do we have to consider our own suffering? Or to hold up to God the matter of God’s promises that seem to us unkept?
Sarah had been a beauty. When Pharaoh saw her he tried to take her for a trophy wife. Yet her desirability had faded, and most desirable was that she bear a child, which she had not, and that was shame. Even her lowest slave-girl could laugh behind her back. Was it for shame that she kept herself inside the tent, that she just didn’t want to deal with the eyes of the public?
Both of my grandmothers had cause for shame, especially since they lived in a pious culture that was conservative and critical My father’s mother was born illegitimate. But she had learned to live above that shame. She had a husband who loved her, and a son, and she could show her face in public and be present in their shoe store and go to church and to the Ladies’ Aid and such.
My mother’s mother had to endure the shame of her husband’s long-term infidelity. Despite that in her day she had been beautiful. And whereas illegitimacy is never your own fault, the infidelity of your husband always comes back on you. So in those days my grandmother almost never went to church, where those pious and critical Hollanders would look at her. She didn’t go to Ladies’ Aid, but she worked untiringly at home for her family and neighbors and everybody else.
Both of my grandmothers laughed, but differently. My father’s mother could laugh out loud among church people. Her open and hearty laughter lives on in the laughter of my dad.
My mother’s mother laughed in private with her children, and with her non-church friends, and then with us grandkids. My sister and I loved to listen to her stories and her songs and her jokes. She was a comic, and she could get us all to laugh. Later I also listened to her biting comments and her bitter commentary, and under that I learned to sense her longing.
Both of my grandmothers were women of faith. My father’s mother had a faith like Abraham, and she was known for it. My mother’s mother’s faith was more like Sarah’s, and sometimes, I think, she believed in God because she didn’t know what else to believe in. Amen.
In this story, Sarah gets both judgement and sympathy. Like when she denied that she had laughed. That was a lie, that was wrong, but the story is sympathetic to her in that what she did in private was exposed without her consent. And the story implies her dignity by making Abraham look a little comical. The energy of her laughter, at least in the opinion of one our deacons, is the energy of disdain, like, "Hey stupid, I’m ninety-five years old." The story regards her dignity. But dignity can hinder us, because living by faith can make us look as comical as Abraham.

The story has play in it. It is playful in its editing. The visitors play a bit with Abraham. And hasn’t God been playing Abraham and Sarah for some years now, making a promise and then holding off on it beyond its possibility? And they’re supposed to just keep believing? Is this what God expects us? Doesn’t God show us some regard? Are does God always keep the winning till the very last trick? How can you be the partner of someone who plays cards like this? Why does God choose to win it only in the end and with such a risky strategy, like a suicide squeeze play with two outs in the ninth?
We know that to live by faith is to live with risk, to live beyond the certainties of evidence, and to live by hope is to live in terms of the future. But when we talk about being blessed, doesn’t that include the experience of now? We can believe in a later and greater blessing if we receive some portion of it now. How much present suffering or shame or emptiness can we tolerate and still regard ourselves as being blessed? We don’t want to see life as a joke. That is not to live by faith and hope and love. We do not expect to be exempt from suffering, but we shouldn’t we expect to have enough blessing to mitigate the suffering?

I think the effect of God’s blessing in our lives is not so much to mitigate the suffering as to process it. God blessing engages our suffering in order to process it, and to generate from it the products of faith and hope and love. Not only our own suffering, but the suffering of our spouses, of our lovers and our friends, the suffering of our children and the children of the world, the suffering of the poor, and of the animals, and of the planet. Not least, the suffering of guilt and shame.
The blessing of God is meant to process all that suffering into faith and hope and love.
The process moves through stages, as suggested by St. Paul. You find yourself in suffering, and suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and it is hope that gets us through our suffering. This is one of St. Paul’s circular dynamics, one of his gracious cycles.
Of course suffering can result in a vicious cycle, from suffering to defeat to bitterness to hopelessness and disappointment. What makes the cycle turn the right direction is the wind the Spirit blowing on it, it is the love of God that keeps pouring against it to make it turn the right direction. The addition of love to suffering is what produces endurance, and the addition of love to endurance is what produces character, and the addition of love to character is what produces hope.

We have to submit to that love and even bend to that love, and that bending may be at the cost of our dignity and it may feel like foolishness. We have to not mind laughing at ourselves. And our participation in that love is how we share in God’s blessing of the world. God’s blessing is not the absence of suffering, but how God’s love can process suffering into faith and hope and even greater love.
Oh Sarah, beautiful Sarah. God still finds you beautiful, even in your old age, more lovely than before. God delights in you. And your last years shall be your best. You will not be a matriarch of dignity, you will be laughing and playing with your little baby boy. And you won’t care.
Copyright © 2008 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Sermon for June 8: Genesis Stories: Abram and Sarai

Proper 05, Genesis 12:1-9, Psalm 33:1-12, Romans 4:13-25, Matthew 9:9-13, 18-26

Here is God’s new strategy, here in Genesis, with the story of Abram and Sarai. I mean God’s new strategy compared to the previous strategy which we saw last Sunday in the story of Noah’s Ark. I’m talking about the strategies of God for dealing with our corruption of creation and our violation of God’s good order and the intricate violence of human sin.

The strategy with Noah was huge and cataclysmic, while the strategy with Abram is small and very gradual.
The strategy with Noah was from the outside, from the windows of heaven and the fountains of the deep, while the strategy with Abram is from the inside, in the depth of his soul through the windows of his mind.
The strategy with Noah was to wash the planet clean, without regard for human interaction, while the strategy with Abram is to cleanse the human individual, one by one, and develop a community to bless the broken world.
The strategy with Noah took forty days and forty nights, and the strategy with Abram has taken forty centuries: twenty centuries BC and twenty centuries AD, first of leading up to Jesus and then of following him.

Forty days of divine catastrophe and forty centuries of divine forbearance, and patience, and interaction and investment, and of human hope and faith as the medium of God’s activity. God does it now through us. We move from a clear and sudden judgement to a long slow blessing, often small and weak and hidden, often ambiguous.

God tenders God’s sovereignty through our partnership and God filters God’s activity through our faith, and because God works it through our faith, to see it work takes faith, especially as this strategy contradicts so much of typical religion. To make sense of it takes faith and hope and love. To believe in it requires the wisdom of forgiveness and long-suffering. Indeed, to stay with it requires us to become like God, to be like God in how we deal with the corruption and violence in the world and even in ourselves.

Jesus shows us how a human being can be like God. And he invites us to follow him in this. His ministry is a ministry of blessing. He finds Matthew at the tax booth, and he blesses him, he blesses him by calling him to follow him. Matthew was working for the enemy, he was serving the system of taxation that was oppressive to his own people. Jesus judged him, yes, there is an implied judgement in Jesus calling Matthew to get up and follow him, but this judgement is not a condemnation but a blessing. It is a blessing that requires a change in Matthew’s life. To receive the blessing requires Matthew to make a judgement about himself and a decision to risk the blessing.

If Matthew was ethically compromised, the ruler of the synagogue was the opposite, he was honored and esteemed, and Jesus blesses him as well; he brings his daughter back to life. He touches her. He needn’t have touched her, his word was powerful enough, as with Lazarus, but he chooses to touch her, and thereby makes himself unclean. It was unkosher to touch a dead body. But here we see the strategy of God, which is counter to typical religion, so it takes faith. He was also made unkosher by unclean the woman touching him, the woman with the flow of blood. He made himself unkosher by eating food with sinners and traitors, as unkosher as was Matthew just by occupation.

Of course the Pharisees were upset, because the mission that they had been given by God was so fragile, and under siege, and compromised, and they felt it had to be protected. But the blessing of Jesus is not a blessing to be protected nor achieved, but a blessing to be risked by giving it, and given precisely to those are not considered to deserve it. Like to us.

This strategy of Jesus is the strategy that God began in Genesis already with Abram and Sarai, who had nothing to offer to God’s plan but simply to receive it and go along with it. God was beginning to gather a community here, a community of faith, and the purpose of this community was to be blessing, not just to themselves, but to rest of the world.

That is the mission of the chosen people. That’s why God made Abram and Sarai’s progeny the chosen people. And that is why God was giving them the promised land. They were chosen for mission. It is a privilege, yes, but for purpose. It was not for gathering to themselves, protecting their own special sanctity, preserving their own future. It was for bringing blessing to the other people of the world. (This theme of the activity of blessing is another theme that I will be developing the next few months as we follow these stories from Genesis.)

But what a difficult strategy of God. There are great drawbacks to being chosen. Downsides and liabilities. What about everybody else? If God will have a relationship now with Abram and Sarai and their descendants, doesn’t that imply a rejection of everyone else, or at least benign neglect? And what about the gift of the Promised Land. Did God consult with the people already living there? Doesn’t giving the land to Abraham’s descendants mean taking the land from someone else? If God graciously gathers, protects, and preserves some people in the community of faith, what about everybody else?

I cannot fully defend for you the strategy and choices of our God. Yes, I can maintain that being chosen is not for privilege but for mission, and I can repeat that the gift of the promised land is not a right based on ethnicity but a provision to enable the mission of blessing, and that the enjoyment of the promised land was always conditional upon obedience and repentance, and that God would take it away from them just as easily as giving it. But the election of certain people for a special bond with God is a problem, because deep in our hearts we know that separate but equal is finally not equal

So I find myself sometimes ambivalent about the choice and strategy of God, and even a little guilty, especially when I do interfaith activities and dialogue. I can’t take the easier tack of unitarianism or universalism; I don’t want to discard the difficult angularities of the story of the sovereignty of God, the reality of God’s strategy, God’s choices, God’s covenants, God’s commitments, God’s special bond with Abraham and Israel.

I am committed to God’s unique identity in Jesus Christ, who both connects me to Judaism and Islam and also is a stumbling-block, because we call him Lord. And this is a bit of trouble for our democratic instincts. The Yes of God here means the No of God there, and of that No we cannot help but feel unease and even a little bit of guilt.

Well, maybe this guilt can be a doorway for us. It opens us to a deep kind of humility. Just because we have been given the truth does not entail that we know better. Just because we are made holy does not mean we’re not unclean. And so we have a constant sacrifice to make, and that is both to keep requiring mercy and to practice mercy. And we cannot practice mercy unless we keep requiring it for ourselves.

Jesus says to the Pharisees, "Go find out what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’" He doesn’t tell them to sit down and research it. He tells them to go, find out. They have to find it out by acting it out. It’s not a theory but an attitude. It’s not an idea, it’s a skill. It’s a practice. It’s a habit. It is from out of our guilt that we discover and display our blessedness. It’s from the place of our own corruption that we exhibit grace and the condition of our own uncleanness that we exhibit holiness. The rights and privileges that come with our election to the community of God are the right to humility and the privilege to repent. I desire mercy, not sacrifice. The greatest sacrifice that God demands is that we live by mercy.

When Jesus came in to heal the little girl, they laughed at him. They meant it for mockery. If we try to bless the world like Jesus did, we will get laughed at. And we will deserve it. We can accept it, and keep on blessing people and blessing situations and blessing the world, in many foolish ways, and we can accept the laughter of mockery as the laughter of our judgement and our joy.

Copyright © 2008 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Twelve Questions For the June 8 Gospel

The Gospel for this coming Sunday, June 8, is Matthew 9:9-13, 18-26. This is not a sermon on it, but some questions which I bring to it, to try to open it up.

1. I wonder why Matthew has stitched these little stories together, the story of Matthew's own calling from his seat at the tollbooth, the story of Jesus eating dinner with the sinners, the story of the ruler's daughter, and the story of the woman with the flow of blood. Why does he make it a single story?

2. I wonder what it means to get up and follow. That happens twice in our lesson. Matthew "got up and followed" Jesus. Then later, after dinner, when the ruler comes to beg the help of Jesus, he "got up and followed" the ruler. Jesus does what Matthew did. Is he giving Matthew an example? Does it mean that if we follow Jesus, we first have to follow him away from our place in the world, and then follow him right back into the world when it's in need of us?

3. I wonder why the emphasis on hands. The ruler asks Jesus to "lay his hand upon his daughter." Then the women comes up and touches the fringe of his cloak. Then when Jesus sees the ruler's daughter, he takes her hand in his hand and he raises her up. Your hand, her hand, his hand, her hand. What do these hands mean? Can I put my hand on God? Can I have the hand of God on me? Is this why we do the laying-on-of-hands?

4. I wonder why Jesus touched the ruler's daughter. Why didn't he just speak to her? We know he could have done that, we know the Word of God has power. We know that when Jesus resurrected Lazarus he didn't touch him, he just said, "Lazarus, come forth." Why did Jesus touch her?

It was a thing undone in Israel, touching a dead body. If you touched a dead body you became unclean, you became unkosher. This prohibition made a lot of sense, there was good medicine behind it. Jesus disobeyed the prohibition. He touched her.

It's not because he was invulnerable, we know that he was not invulnerable. Did Jesus want to take on her corruption? Or is he saying that he is more powerful than corruption? Was it because the healing power was coming out of him, that it had more pressure than the power of corruption coming in? His healing power had such pressure, such voltage, that it even sparked across the tassels of his cloak? Does he touch the girl, because the woman first touched him?

5. I wonder why Jesus calls the woman "daughter." Is it because he's on his way to heal another daughter? I wonder what it is to be a daughter. I wonder how this woman feels when Jesus calls her daughter. Does it belittle her? Does it raise her up? Does it encourage her? Does it represent his natural affection, his feeling for her misery, his sympathy, his pity, his love? Is the love of God like this, so natural, so sudden, so immediate?

6. I wonder if it's like a resurrection for this woman. Was what happened to the girl the truth of what happened to the woman? No, she wasn't dead. But because of her bleeding, she was unclean, she was ritually unclean, she was considered contaminated, permanently contaminated.

She was not allowed to set her foot inside the synagogue. She was not allowed to go up to the temple. She was officially untouchable. By the law of Moses, any one who touched her was also made unkosher. And anything she touched, another person, even another person's clothing, just her touch made that untouchable. That's why she tried to touch him secretly. For Jesus to heal her, wasn't that a resurrection for this woman? Is the healing of the woman and the girl the same?

7. I wonder why the one daughter was active in her healing, she reached out, and the other daughter was passive in her healing, she just lay there. It wasn't the young girl's faith that saved her. Maybe the father's faith, but not her own faith. But Jesus clearly tells the woman, "Your faith has saved you." Is he giving her a commendation, or is he teaching her? Is he saying that it wasn't her actual touching of his robe that saved her, but her faith? Is he telling her it wasn't something magical, that touching without faith would have been powerless?

8. I wonder if Matthew combines these two stories to show us what faith really does. If not for the second story, we might think it is our faith itself that saves us, that whether we get healed or not depends upon our faith. But the second story shows us that it is the power of God that saves us, that heals us, not our faith. Our faith is not the energy that does it. Our faith is the extension cord that we plug into God. We might have thought that for the woman the extension cord was her hand on Jesus' cloak. But this was just a physical expression of the invisible extension cord of her faith, plugged into God's grace. His cloak and her hand was like a sacrament: "as surely as you eat the bread with your mouth, so surely does Christ feed you with his own body."

9. I wonder what it means to be saved. Today when people ask you if you're saved, what they mean is, "Will you spend eternity in heaven?" But clearly in this story Matthew means something else, for when Jesus says to the woman, "Your faith has saved you," he's not talking about eternity, he's talking about the here and now. What does salvation mean now? I wonder how God saves us now, already in this life. Is it like saving drowning swimmers? Is it like saving money, or saving dessert till last? I wonder what salvation all includes.

10. I wonder how important is physical healing. Is it something in itself, or is it a powerful symbol or even a sacrament of something else, a means of grace, a means to an end? This little girl must die again, this woman will get sick again. Salvation: is it restoration? Is it the restoration of an older woman to an ordinary life, the restoration of a daughter to her father, the restoration of a family? Is it reconciliation, that God will eat and drink with us? Is that salvation, to sit at God's table, alive and clean, and be at peace?

11. I wonder at the theme of shame, lying just beneath the surface of these stories. It was a thing of shame for a rabbi to be eating with these sinners. It destroyed his credibility. They would say he lacked integrity. How could he speak for God? He made himself unkosher by eating with these sinners. He should be ashamed of himself.

And the woman lived in shame. A sickness of shame. Any time we have a sickness or infirmity "down there," in that part of our bodies, it's a thing of shame. In certain circles, even ordinary menstruation can be thing of shame. And when it's constant, that's a life of shame.

And then the people laughed at Jesus. When he said she wasn't dead, they laughed at what he said. They ridiculed him. Can you feel the shame in that? They scorned him, they scorned him in the ruler's house, they scorned him at dinner with the sinners, and the woman lived a life of scorn. I wonder if Jesus is entering the suffering of the woman that he healed, if he's entering the alienation of the sinners that he ate with, and I wonder if that's what his disciples must also do if they get up and follow him. Can we expect to be laughed at and ridiculed? Is that the price of victory over shame, that we "despise the shame" (Hebrews 12:2).

12. Finally, I wonder how we find out what it means that God desires mercy and not sacrifice. He told the Pharisees to go and find out what it means. He didn't tell them to go look it up. Maybe the only way to learn it is to go and do it, practice mercy, entering into lives of shame and sinfulness, touching and eating, and even enjoying the pleasure of their company, do you know what I mean, trusting in the power and the pressure of God's righteousness in us. Is this what it means to get up and follow Jesus?

Copyright © 2008 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Sermon for June 1: Genesis Stories: Noah

Proper 04, Genesis 6:11-22; 7:24; 8:14-19, Psalm 46, Romans 1:16-17, 3:22-31, Matthew 7:21-29

Heidelberg Catechism Q 54: What do you believe concerning "the holy catholic church"?
A. I believe that the Son of God through his Spirit and Word, out of the entire human race, from the beginning of the world to its end, gathers, protects, and preserves for himself a community chosen for eternal life and united in true faith. And of this community I am and always will be a living member.

Now that Pentecost is behind us, the church calendar has entered what we call Ordinary Time. It’s called "ordinary" because we’re not in one of the two great seasons of Christmas or Easter, and Sundays are plain Sundays. Since our scripture lessons don’t have to relate to the seasons, we let the lessons follow the Bible books as they unfold. The gospel lesson will now just move continuously through Matthew.

And during Ordinary Time we also release the Old Testament lesson from having to serve as background for the gospel. We let the Old Testament lessons follow their own course and tell their own story. For the next few months we’ll be following the stories of Genesis.

I love these stories. We need to know them. We need to see how these Old Testament stories are gospel too, they are good news. My theme for these stories will be those phrases from the catechism, how from the beginning of the world, out of the entire human race, God was gathering, protecting, and preserving a community chosen for eternal life and united in true faith. Of this community we are part. Those of us who are not Jewish have been adopted into this community, and these are the stories of our adopted ancestors, and how God dealt with them.

I said recently that the story of Noah’s Ark is one of the favorite children’s story of all time. To debate its narrow historicity is to miss the point. We hardly need reminding that catastrophic floods are facts of life upon the surface of this planet. The ancient editors of Genesis have described the flood as an undoing of day three of creation, resulting in the death of everything created in day six. I would say therefore that we can read this story not as ordinary history but as primordial and paradigmatic. Sort of like the Iliad of Homer. This story gets repeated all the time. The story tells us what the world is like, and what God is like, and what God wants for the world.

We see in this story God’s anger and God’s judgement and God’s purging and washing clean. We see God’s indignation at humanity for corrupting the world from what it should have been. We sense God’s frustration, and we can imply God’s private grief and suffering.

We see in this story how God’s judgement includes a plan for salvation. It’s not that judgement is from a nasty God and grace is from a nice God. They are both from love, for the God who loves the world is grieved at all our violence and corruption, and out of love will not abide it, but also out of love will not destroy it, but graciously will save it, with a method of salvation that serves God’s justice and the integrity of God’s judgement.
We see in this story the vulnerability and fragility of our lives and the lives of other creatures. We are companions with the animals, and we are all so small against the larger forces of the planet, which can kill us by the thousands and the millions without pity, even though these forces ethically are innocent.

We see in this story that God requires our connection with animals, and holds our species accountable for the fortunes of the planet and all its creatures. We are made for this planet, and our salvation is for the restoration of this planet, not for our escape from it.

Even though this story stands on its own and in so many children’s books, it was given to us as one chapter in the larger story of salvation, the story of the covenants that God kept making, first with Noah, and then with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, and then with Moses and Israel at Mount Sinai. By means of these covenants God was gathering, protecting, and preserving a community chosen for eternal life and untied in true faith. We will be watching this covenant history unfolding in the next few months.

But notice today how God, through Noah, gathered the animals and protected them and preserved the future of life on earth. The animals were Noah’s congregation, a zoological community of faith, who all were rescued for life because Noah believed the gospel of God’s judgement and God’s salvation.

Okay. Now this. The storms and troubles of our lives are of three kinds.
The first kind is the ordinary trouble of the world, which is natural and ethically innocent. Cyclones and earthquakes and floods. The fragility of our bodies, that get infected, that get disease, and strokes and heart attacks, for no other reason than biology, and we are not exempt from biology nor from geology nor meteorology.

I said to you recently that we can know from Jesus’ Ascension that we are not to interpret such disasters and diseases as the judgements of God, but simply the fragility of life in a world in which the laws of nature do their job without regard for mercy or compassion.

The second kind of trouble is the extra trouble which humanity has added to the world, what Genesis calls the "corruption of the earth," because we have "filled the earth with violence." You could write the history of the last two centuries in terms of violence and our attempts to deal with it. Exploitation in all its forms is a kind of violence. We are continually reminded that when we answer violence with violence, no matter how good our intentions, at best we only divert it and mostly we compound it. And now our exploitation of the earth has begun to aggravate the first kind of trouble.

The third kind of trouble in our lives is the judgement of God. This trouble comes exclusively through God’s Word. God doesn’t send diseases and disasters to judge us, whether by tremors or by terrorists. At least since the Ascension, God is faithful to judge us simply and completely through God’s Word. And by our response to God’s Word is how we either condemn ourselves or save ourselves.

God’s judgements are the wake up call, and they make us sense our guilt and give us shame and trouble us. This trouble is designed to drive us to the very God who judges us. All our own devices for solving our guilt and shame are only swimming against the flood. God tells us rather to get inside the ark.

The solution to the third kind of trouble is by our faith—faith in what God has done for the world in Jesus Christ. Outside of that is only judgement. Faith is not your power to swim. Faith is believing the instruction to get your hind end into the boat. It’s not our faith itself that saves us, but the faithfulness of God. Faith is our investment in the faithfulness of God.

The solution to the second kind of trouble is partly by us but mostly by God. Our corruption is beyond our own capacity to fix it or solve it. The Bible’s conviction throughout is that God will have to intervene somehow. But at the same time we can disembark out the boat and enter back into the world and we can serve the world as Jesus did with love and grace.

The solution to the first kind of trouble is not ours to make. And though God promised never to destroy the earth again because of human sin, I don’t know that God ever guaranteed to prevent us from doing it ourselves. We are invited to expect a new creation, a new heaven and new earth, where God’s intention for the world will be just as physical and natural but perfectly hospitable to human life, and something of a Paradise. Of that we only have the promise and not the sight. But already we have loved ones who have disembarked upon that farther shore.

Where all these Old Testament stories will lead us to, at the end of Ordinary Time, is the story of Mary and Joseph, and their baby. That’s the story of when God the Son became a creature, and God became a passenger on the boat.

Because there was no room for them in the upper deck, they laid him down in the lower deck, in a feed-trough, in the fodder which Noah had gathered for the feeding of the animals. I think that’s why children love to crowd the animals around the baby Jesus.

We love it that the Son of God is deep in the boat with us and all the animals. And we love it that God the Father is the Noah of this great ark. We are meant, like children, to feel the story, in all our storms and troubles, as the story of God’s love, which will see us through.

Copyright © 2008 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

In Memoriam: Vincent Edward Walker, 1964-2008

June 2, 2008

On John 11:1-45, The Raising of Lazarus.

It is a terrible honor and a grievous privilege to preach this funeral sermon for Vincent Walker. This sermon will be in two parts. This first is about Vincent, and the second is about his family and us. Nineteen days ago, at his kitchen table, in the presence of Deborah, he told me a remarkable story, a testimony, actually. I told him he needed eventually to tell it to others as well, so now I must do that for him.

As you know, Vincent was very sick since January, and we still don’t know exactly what his sickness was. Even the tumor on his brain stem left so much unexplained. He was paralyzed on one whole side. He struggled to recuperate, and he finally was able to come home. About a month or so ago he had a sudden total paralysis, but through water and touch and prayer he experienced just as sudden a healing. The doctors can’t explain it, and he was convicted that it was miraculous. I gave him examples from scripture and experience to confirm his conviction, because a miracle is simply a physical event that first, defies our explanation, and second, that leads to wholeness.

Was it healing? Yes. Even though he died so soon thereafter? Yes, because healing is not just physical recuperation, but when you are made whole, morally and spiritually. And that particular experience was the climax of a general process of healing that Vincent had been experiencing through the whole course of his illness. He dared to say to me, in Deborah’s presence, that his illness had been good for him; not that the illness itself was good, but that he had gained from it, and not least in terms of gratitude and spirituality.

In the hospital wards and waiting rooms and even on the sidewalk he had been touched and moved by the prayers and grace of even perfect strangers. And although he had always known of God and believed in God, he now had a whole new level of experience with God. And he felt that his sudden physical healing was the climax of that.

I told him that he had experienced an early foretaste of the final resurrection. Like with Lazarus in the gospel. The raising of Lazarus was not the final resurrection, but a foretaste of it, for Lazarus would someday have to die again. But the power of the Lord Jesus finally to call us forth from the grave is the very same power to call us to rise up out of sickness.

I have reason to believe that the voice of Deborah was the last voice Vincent heard. I know whose was the next voice Vincent heard. It was the voice of Our Lord, calling him, like Lazarus, "Come out"; calling him, "Vincent, come out of your death and come into the presence of your God."

And so, for us who remain here, we must bless God, if only at the level of our faith; we must bless God, because Vincent has reached his goal. Earlier than he expected, no doubt earlier than he would have wanted, but we are not given the choice of when, and in moments of clarity we recognize that this is for the best. But when we look back over the last few months we have to understand that Vincent must have been getting ready, practicing to hear the voice of God. His last few months were preparation, were they not?

I have wondered how Lazarus must have felt when he was told by God to return. Like winning a race and being asked to run it again. We might imagine that if given the same chance as Lazarus Vincent might ask to come back, for the sake of his wife and his two boys. From our perspective that makes sense. But our perspective is so limited, and we know that Vincent is already seeing the future of his family from the perspective of eternity, and the perfect knowledge of the grace of God, so that even about his family, it is well with his soul. And his witness to us who are left behind would be to hold fast to this same God whom he beholds with unveiled sight.

The name Vincent is from the Latin for the victorious one. For him it his final victory but for Deborah and Justin and Evan it’s a grievous loss. Justin and Evan are young enough that the pain is not so sharp, though they will feel the ache of it for years to come. Deborah already feels the greatness of her loss, not only of her husband and her co-worker, but, as it seems to me, her best friend, and the father of her sons.

It is pointless to lessen the loss by comparing it to the losses from the earthquakes in China or the cyclone in Myanmar or the War in Iraq, for every loss by death is infinite and incalculable. It is not for nothing that Jesus wept; even though he knew what he would do, still he wept. It is unchristlike not to weep and grieve this loss. And even to groan as Jesus did. I am certain that in spite of God’s awful wisdom in calling Vincent home right now God also grieves for his family left behind. It wasn’t just Jesus in his humanity that wept, it was also Jesus in his divinity. God is grieving here for us.

It’s right in the midst of death that Jesus calls us to our deep capacity, which we so rarely go down into, but keep ourselves upon the surfaces. We are spiritual. We are the creatures that are special because we are spiritual, and we are designed to live by faith, not sight. So must this family do now.

And we all of us are called to support them according to the nature of community we have with them. The community of their families, the community of their church, the community of their neighbors and their friends. We must support them and encourage them to live out of that deep place in our spiritual capacities that can sense the long-term healing of the world, and that can work the reconciliation of this grief into a long-term wisdom and compassion. It is for us to help them through the inevitable temptations of frustration and resentment and bitterness. Grief can mature into wisdom, and anger into compassion, and it is only the heart that is broken that is open.

In the Biblical Book of Judges, Deborah was the judge and the leader who was proven stronger than any man, and she led the children of Israel out of misery. Deborah Rennie Walker, I don’t know strong you feel, but I recognize in you an inner toughness and resilience. You must be the leader now, and you must judge, and keep your eyes upon God’s promises like your namesake did.

In the history of the early church Justin was the pagan philosopher who converted to the faith and learned to understand the ways of God for the larger world, and gave his life for it. In the history of Celtic Christianity, Evan is the Celtic version of the name of St. John, who mystically saw deep into the heart of God, and was a friend of God, and wrote this story of Jesus and Lazarus to encourage the early Christians during loss and persecution. So we will pray today that as God has seen fit for Vincent to be victorious ahead of time, so the Spirit of God will strengthen these three to be strong and tenacious in their hold on the world and no less on the promises of God, so that they too may be victorious, and even in their loss and grief, honor thereby the name that is their legacy, Vincent Edward Walker. Rest in peace.

Copyright © 2008 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.