Thursday, January 20, 2011

January 23, Epiphany 3: On the Shore and In the Hills

Isaiah 9:1-4, Psalm 27:1, 4-9, 1 Corinthians 1:10-18, Matthew 4:12-23
Jesus moved out of his home town of Nazareth, up in the hills, and rented a house down at the lakeshore, in Capernaum. Imagine Jesus in his house: in the mornings doing carpentry, making furniture for the merchants, or going out to frame houses for Gentile settlers. He makes his mid-day meal, takes a nap, and then he goes out for his walk. He loves to be out among the people. He likes to walk along the lakeshore. One afternoon he comes back from his walk with four other men. They sit down in his front room, he makes them all coffee, and they talk. More coffee, more talk. Late that night, they go back home. I wonder, how many days a week do they come back? How much do they keep fishing, in order to feed their families?

On Fridays they go with him up into the hills. Every week another synagogue, arriving at sundown, repeating the prayers with the people, socializing overnight, going to service on Saturday morning, preaching and teaching, getting invited for coffee, healing the people, then still more coffee, and then walking back downhill, and home to Capernaum.
The campaign platform was the same as John the Baptist’s. "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near," but the emphasis was more on the second part. For John, you had to go down to the water and repent, to get clean and ready for the kingdom soon to come. With Jesus the kingdom has come, ready or not, and he was taking it up to the people, in their ordinary lives, and just to accept that kingdom is the same thing as repentance.

In their villages, not in Jerusalem. In Galilee, not in Judea. In the Bronx, not in Manhattan. In the north, in the region that Moses had assigned to the tribes of Zebulon and Naphtali, a region that had always been a battlefield, one army after another marching through, pillaging their crops and ravaging their women. A region of Jews in poverty, and of Gentile settlers controlling the means of production. The Jews were in depression, and they felt like exiles in their own land.
The Jewish revolutionaries, the Zealots, had their headquarters in Galilee because it was more open and less controlled than Judea. Jesus had more freedom here to develop his campaign. Had he stayed in Judea, and announced in Jerusalem that the kingdom of heaven was at hand, he would have would been arrested with John the Baptist. But Galilee was also a better venue for Jesus’ new version of the kingdom of heaven. He didn’t bring it as a kingdom of independence, but a kingdom of interaction. It’s not for ridding our life of enemies, but for loving our enemies close at hand. It’s not for isolation but engagement. It’s not for getting rid of troubles, but for dealing with our troubles. The kingdom of heaven is for the mixed-up reality of our lives.

And to join him in his campaign he didn’t call priests or scribes or soldiers, but ordinary working guys. This was not the first time that he called them. Last week we read of the first time he called them, in the Gospel of John. They were down in Judea, standing beside the Jordan River, disciples of John the Baptist. And then when John pointed out Jesus to them, they went to him, and began to follow him. Then there was a gap. John the Baptist got arrested and his campaign was dispersed. The disciples went back to Galilee to fish. And now a second time they’re called, but instead of their looking for him, he comes to find them, right in the midst of their ordinary lives. And now they have to balance their fishing with the immediacy of discipleship.

Following Jesus is not magic. It’s usually gradual, in fits and starts, with gaps and hesitations, and with doubts and disappointments. It happened in stages that Peter and Andrew became disciples. That’s how we experience it. Following Jesus is rarely a sudden simple thing or one nice gradual evolution. You get an experience where you really take notice of God, which feels like a call. And then there is a gap, and you wonder if it was real, and if anything has really changed. Then you have another experience that takes you further, and you feel called again. Now God is asking more of you, a greater measure of devotion, God is calling on you to do something which may cost you, and you have to put down what you’re doing, and make new room in your life to keep on going where Jesus is calling. And when you think you’ve got it down, there’s more.

Jesus calls them on the lakeshore—not in the desert nor in Jerusalem. My favorite place on the planet is a rocky lakeshore up in Canada. In the summer I love to get up at dawn and just sit there for a couple hours. The lakeshore is a boundary, a limit, yet it’s not a wall, it’s an open boundary, the lake is open wide before me, and I can enter into it. And the lake is always right there all the time I’m doing whatever I’m doing on shore.

That’s what discipleship feels like to me, that’s what repentance feels like, not like putting yourself through fire or through torture, not punishing yourself, but like living along the lake, living along the boundary between two worlds, two realms of existence. The one realm is the one we’re born into and we’re used to it, where we can make our own way, thank you very much, where we don’t have to follow anybody. You make your bed, you cook your meals, you do the dishes. The other realm of existence is right there, always with you, as close as heaven is to earth, but it’s wide open, and I’m drawn to it but I’m unsure in it. When I look at this world I"m used to from within the air of heaven, the very same world becomes a different world, a strange world, in which all of my certainties are made uncertain, where all my confidence must be humility, where I need a leader and a guide, someone I can trust. And he says, "Follow me."

That’s very open-ended. I’d like to know first where he’s going. Why not just tell me where we’re going, give me the directions, and I’ll go straight there on my own? And why not just tell me what I have to repent of? I don’t mind repenting, just tell me what I did wrong, and I’ll say I’m sorry, and I won’t do that again. But Jesus doesn’t stand up in the synagogues of Galilee to say, "This is wrong, these thirty-seven things are wrong." If Jesus did that we could keep a list and check it off. He doesn’t tell us precisely what we have to repent of, he just says, "Repent," and then he says, "Follow me." He leaves it very open-ended.

Discipleship, repentance, the coming of the kingdom. These are all aspects of a single package. The kingdom is what Jesus brings, and to receive it is repentance, and to explore it is discipleship. The kingdom is what Jesus brings, and to receive it is repentance, and to explore it is discipleship. So then what is required of us?

On the one hand, everything is on the table, The boundary runs through all things. There are not some parts of life which are in the kingdom of God and other parts which are exempt. Every action, every possession, every relationship, every issue, every interest, every dollar, everything about you, everything you think or hope or say, it all belongs to the kingdom of God. The call is fully comprehensive. You must be ready to put anything down right now, from your plans to your possessions. In nothing are you self-sufficient, in nothing are you fully competent, in everything you need instruction, in everything you need healing, in everything you need forgiveness, and for everything you need repentance. Repentance as an attitude, not a self-evaluation or a listing of rights and wrongs you’ve done, but repentance as an attitude of full reception.

On the other hand, there is no stress to this. It is total but it is light. There is no pressure to this. Look how easy Jesus takes it. Look he patiently he campaigns, how much time he takes, how much room he gives. How just a little is a sign and seal of a whole new world. There is no pressure because the kingdom has already come, we don’t have to earn it or build it but receive it. You explore it by enjoying it. This is a kingdom where the law is love and the power is joy.

Copyright © 2011, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Eagle's Wings: From a John Donne sermon

This was just sent to me be a parishioner, and I love it:

Eagle's Wings. ". . . So are those words which are spoken of God himself, appliable to his Ministers, that first, The Eagle stirreth up her nest, The Preacher stirres and moves, and agitates the holy affections of the Congregation, that they slumber not in a senselesnesse of that which is said.

"The Eagle stirreth up her nest, and then as it is added there, She fluttereth over her young; The Preacher makes a holy noise in the conscience of the Congregation, and when hee hath awakened them, by stirring the nest, hee casts some claps of thunder, some intimidations, in denouncing the judgments of God, and he flings open the gates of Heaven, that they may heare, and look up, and see a man sent by God, with power to infuse his feare upon them;

"So she fluttereth over her young; but then, as it followes there, She spreadeth abroad her wings; she over shadowes them, she enwraps them, she armes them with her wings, so as that no other terror, no other fluttering but that which comes from her, can come upon them;

". . . And so the Minister hath the wings of an Eagle, that every soule in the Congregation may see as much as hee sees, that is, a particular interest in all the mercies of God, and the merits of Christ."

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

January 16: Epiphany 2, The Lamb and the Dove (for Christina Taylor Green)

Isaiah 49:1-7, Psalm 40:1-11, 1 Corinthians 1:1-9, John 1:29-42
We had our consistory meeting on Monday night. The consistory is the governing body of the church, the elders and deacons and myself. I’m always a little nervous before these meetings, because I am accountable to them, and I felt unusually vulnerable because we were discussing my salary, and also because I needed to retract some information I had given them the month before. But it was a very good meeting, and at the end we all felt very positive. We had many things to celebrate, because last year was a banner year for Old First. We want to share these things with you at our congregational meeting next week after church.

On Tuesday morning, as is my habit, I got up at 6 am to keep working on this sermon, studying the lections, trying to listen for a word from God for me to communicate to you today. At 8 am I took a break for breakfast, and turned on NPR, and I heard the latest report on the shootings in Tucson, and suddenly I found myself weeping, weeping for the congresswoman, and the judge, and the other victims, and for Christina, the little nine-year-old girl, weeping for our nation, and grieving our violence and our indulgence of our violence. I am usually inured to this, I try to be professional, but maybe I was still vulnerable from the night before.

"O Lamb of God, who takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us. O Lamb of God who takest the sins of the world, have mercy upon us. O Lamb of God, who takest away the sins of the world, grant us thy peace." Agnus dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, misere nobis. For many centuries the church has been singing this and praying this, especially when we face our violence and fear and misery, and the damage we do to each other and to the world.

"Behold the Lamb of God." John the Baptist was the first to say it. He was the first to identify the Messiah as the Lamb of God. Where did he get that from? That’s not what they wanted from the Messiah. They wanted a lion, a victor, a leader, not a lamb. Lambs get sacrificed, lambs get eaten, lambs are victims, lambs are like little nine-year-old girls.
I think I know where he got it from. He testifies that he saw the dove come on Jesus. He reports that he saw the Holy Spirit come down on the Messiah like a dove. That’s not what he expected. He was expecting the Holy Spirit to come down on him like fire. There were prophecies of this. The fire of holiness, the fire of power and judgment and purgation. And what the people will have wanted was an eagle, a properly royal bird, the symbol of power, like the Roman eagle, carried by the legions in their power and their victory. Eagles and lions, the symbols of kings.

The dove is a Biblical symbol of two things. In the story of Noah’s Ark, the dove is the sign of the judgment over, the healing of the world, of restoration and reconciliation and peace. In the law of Moses, the dove was a poor person’s sacrifice. If you could not afford a lamb you could substitute a dove. When the dove came down on Jesus, John the Baptist saw these things.

The baptism of Jesus is reported in all four gospels, but as usual, John reports it in a way that differs from the other three. He reports it after the fact, in terms of what John the Baptist had to say about it afterward. The Gospel of John assumes we know the other three, just as the history plays of Shakespeare assume that you already know the history. And what it reports is a moment in the conversion of John the Baptist, how his expectations of the Messiah were converted, and what he saw in Jesus even converted his interpretations of the prophecies that drove him. Having seen the dove, he began to see the Lion of Judah as the Lamb of God. Who takest away, not the enemies of Israel, as King David would have done, but the sins of the world. That kind of peace.

But lambs are sacrificed, like the Passover lamb. Well, his sacrificial death will be the instrument of liberation and salvation, though not from slavery to Pharaoh and the Egyptians, or from oppression by Herod and the Romans, but from the sins of the world. The sins of oppressors, the sins of enslavers, the sins of assassins, the sins of 22-year-old paranoid losers with guns, the sins of terrorists and politicians, and our own sins, our sins against our loved ones and our friends and even against ourselves. He takes away those sins. That is the policy and program of his kingdom, for he is a king, he is the Messiah. The kingdom of the Messiah brings many benefits in its healing and peace and reconciliation, but the very first article of the constitution of his kingdom is to take away the sins of the world.

It is for another occasion for us to discuss the theological mechanism of the atonement, by which his sacrificial death accomplishes the removal of our sins before the face of God. But it is for us today to commit to take away each other’s sins, because we are citizens of his kingdom and the first article of his constitution is a law for us. He has taken away the sins of the world, then how can we hold our sins against each other? Together we confess our sins here every week, in the prayer of confession, and then together we sing the kyrie, Lord have mercy upon us, and then when we hear the absolution of our sins, and then we pass the peace to each other. It is required of us. It is the coming of the kingdom that we do. Because he is the lamb of God, we are doves to each other. We pass to each other the peace of Christ, a peace that is greater than our own, and yet as citizens we rise to it each week. You let your dove take wing. You rise to your belief that each other’s sins have been taken away by the Lamb of God.

When Simon, the brother of Andrew, came to see Jesus, Jesus told him, You are Peter. That is who you are. When St. Paul addressed the congregation in Corinth, confused and contentious and conflicted as that congregation was, he called them saints, sanctified, full of grace, enriched in every way, not lacking in any spiritual gift. That is who you are, Old First. On the face of it you are a strange and peculiar collection of individuals who have come here for who knows what and who knows why, but do you know who you are? You were called collectively to be God’s servant, and God’s call came to you through whatever who knows what or why that brought you here. You are a community within the kingdom of the Messiah, a beloved community, in the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., you are beloved of God, in order that you might love each other and love the world, even its violence and misery and fear.

It is too light a thing, Old First, that you should speak peace just to each other every week. It is too light a thing that you should do church just for each other and your loved ones and yourselves. God has given you as a light to the nations. To your nation. To your community. It’s because of what happened in Tucson that’s it’s so important what you do here. The peace you practice here, the sacrifices of love that you offer each other in the name of Christ, this is the light to the nations.

The very first words that Jesus says in the Gospel of John are very simple. He says, "What are you looking for?" Two men say, "Where are you staying?" He answers, "Come and see." Where are you abiding? How can I be close to you? How can I feel close to God? Where can I go that I can feel God’s presence in my life? Where can I experience your kingdom coming? What are you looking for? I want my sins to be taken away. I want to be able to let go of the sins of others. I want there to be some relief and resolution to my weeping when I hear the news. I want to have something to celebrate with other people. Yes, yes, you are right to want these things. It is God’s Spirit in you that inspires your wanting them. And in your coming here together each week to find these things you will see these very things come to be. Because the Lord is faithful and has chosen you. I give thanks because of the grace of God that has been given to you.

Copyright © 2011, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.