Saturday, January 14, 2012

January 15, Epiphany 2, Passionate Spirituality: Up and Down the Staircase

1 Samuel 3:1-20, Psalm 139, 1 Corinthians 6:12-20, John 1:43-51
“Truly, truly I tell you, you will see the heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

If this were a megachurch I'd be cueing the praise band to start playing Stairway to Heaven by Led Zeppelin. A rock and roll version of We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder. In Jacob’s dream it was not really a ladder but a staircase, like on this picture of a Chaldean ziggurat from the world of Jacob. The top of the ziggurat was the house of a god, and the priests of the god would ascend and descend on the staircase. In Jacob’s dream the priests were angels, and then God came down the staircase and actually stood next to him. So Jesus is telling Nathaniel that he himself is the staircase between God and humanity, and that God comes down in him.

Let me tell you about two interviews I heard on the radio, two weeks ago, on the Brian Lehrer show on WNYC. They were reruns from 2011. The first interview was with the Nobel Peace Prize winner from Liberia, a woman named Leymah Gbowee. She is featured in a documentary called Pray the Devil Back to Hell, which our deacons screened here two years ago. Ms. Gbowee is a Christian peace activist who helped to end the Liberian civil war by gathering both Christian women and Muslim women in vigils of prayer. She said that their spirituality was critical to their campaign. Not just their non-violence and their interfaith approach, but the action of their prayer.

The second interview was with the British biologist Richard Dawkins, who is a campaigning atheist. He argued that belief in God is not just irrational but bad for the world. He said that religion is nonsense because it is not confirmed by science. And then he made an incidental remark which I found telling. He was reviewing how species diverge within the evolutionary process, on islands, for example. And then he said, “Or in lakes, which are just islands of water.” What? “Just islands of water”? No they’re not. Not if you think about it. (Lakes are not "isolated": they have streams in and streams out. The rare exception of crater lakes just proves the rule.) But Dawkins tends to argue by reduction. He reduces his definitions to fit his preconceptions and then he rules out whatever does not fit his definitions. That enables him to rule out spirituality as supernatural and therefore nonsensical, because what is natural is only that which can be verified by science.

Some people are impressed by his arguments and others are dismayed. You need not be either. His arguments are circular and they “beg the question”. He doesn’t speak for science proper but for the ideology of scientism. Now it is true that spirituality cannot be proven scientifically, but that does not make it nonsensical. Spirituality helps to make sense of certain natural phenomena which science cannot measure, like the power of the women of Liberia. Those women are wiser than Dawkins in not dismissing spirituality as supernatural, and their knowledge of nature is richer and more complex. By them you can be impressed, and encouraged in your faith. They show you the richness of spirituality, and the power of its engagement with the world, with the real world, the natural world, including politics.

The combination of politics and spirituality is implicit in the gospel lesson for today. We are at the Jordan River, where John the Baptist has been holding a long-term revival, a camp meeting, awaiting the Messiah, the descendent of the dynasty of David, who has the royal title of the Son of God, a priestly king, both spiritual and political, a Gandhi, a Martin Luther King. The Messiah was identified by John the Baptist, to the crowd, just the day before our lesson. And now the partisans of John the Baptist must consider moving their allegiance on to Jesus.

Jesus has been observing the crowd in order to recruit some followers. He calls out Philip, and then Philip goes to get his brother Nathaniel, who is skeptical. He knows about Nazareth, which he thinks is a dump, and which is never mentioned in the prophecies. But he comes along. When Jesus sees him he compliments him. Nathaniel wants to know how Jesus knows him, and Jesus says that he’s been watching him. Then Nathaniel blurts out, “I recognize you as the Son of God – that is – the king of Israel.” He does not mean by those words that Jesus is God — that recognition will come much later. But he does recognize that, in this Jesus, God has returned to Israel.

Jesus answers Nathaniel by calling himself not the Son of God but the Son of Man. That sounds like less, but to Nathaniel it will mean more. It’s from the prophecy of Daniel, from the vision of a human being getting elevated up to a place in heaven before the throne of God, in order to share in God’s government of all the world. Not just Israel, but all the kingdoms of the world.

That raises the stakes. It also lessens the relative importance of the politics of Israel. Jesus is saying that he’ll be beyond all that. That will present problem to test the interest of Nathaniel.

Are you passionate about politics? Is your passion for a particular candidate, or more for the issues, like justice, or freedom, or the economy and ecology? What are you passionate about? To what do you give your time and your energy, for what are you willing to sacrifice and for what do you freely pay the cost? What do you want to tell your friends about?

This series of sermons is on “passionate spirituality”. Passionate spirituality is a vital sign in which our congregation is relatively weak. Well, no wonder, we’re easy-going, we want to be non-judgmental and welcoming to everyone. With such a bias we risk passivity instead of passion. So what shall our congregation be passionate about?

The purpose of human spirituality is not just for the well-being of ourselves but for beyond ourselves. Its purpose is to connect us to God and to the things of God. Our species is distinct among other animals in this natural capacity. Call it a gift of God, call it a result of evolution, call it both. We call our bodies temples because we believe that our bodies are naturally spiritual as well as physical, and that the spirituality of our bodies is the medium by which we connect to God. Not just to connect to God, but to love God. That’s a core belief we share with Judaism — that the purpose of our spirituality is to love God, to love God more than anything else. That’s the passion in passionate spirituality.

How do we access this God? Jesus call himself the stairway, for going up and down. His person, his story, his gospel, his teaching, his healing, his suffering, his sacrifice, his resurrection, his spirit poured out on us. He is telling his followers that it’s on him that we can lift up to God the world and the things of the world. And also that God comes down to us, to be with us and among us and to love us. It’s not a stairway of escape from the real world, but a stairway of God with us for the salvation of this world.

In a few moments we will have our congregational meeting, and it might not feel very spiritual. We will talk about business and money, how much we spend and how much we need. We will talk about our programs and our challenges. We will talk about the down-to-earth matters of our mission and how we address the real resources that we have. Like our sanctuary ceiling. How much is this really spiritual? Good question. And the answer is in the spirituality of Jesus, and in the connection that he has made between our love of God and the real life of the world.

So my take home today is for the congregation as a whole. We shall find our way into the future if we always start with Jesus Christ, the son of God and son of man. Classic Christianity. Focused, but not narrow. Faithful, but not fundamentalist. Confident but not judgmental. Humble and embracing, centered and inclusive, passionate and rational, spiritual and natural, loving and realistic, ancient and modern, Christ-centered and progressive. We may face with confidence our challenges and uncertainties by remembering to be a community of Jesus who welcomes persons of every ethnicity, race, and orientation to worship, serve, and love God, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Copyright © 2012 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

January 8, A Passionate Spirituality of Engagement

Baptism of Jesus, Genesis 1:1-5, Psalm 29, Acts 19:1-7, Mark 1:4-11

Let me open this sermon with a checklist which I took and adapted from a lecture I heard recently by Bishop N. T. Wright.

1. We’re in a global cultural shift from Modernism to Post-modernism. Modernism believes in progress and humanistic ideals, and it produced the great institutions of government and education that we value. Post-modernism doubts how great those institutions really are, and to progress it says, “Yeah, right,” and to humanistic ideals it says, “All I know is what works for me.” Humanity is just individuals with individual needs and individual truths. And so we are watching the general fragmentation of global society. Do Christians have anything to offer here?

2. We’re in a global struggle between secularism and fundamentalism. They fear each other and feed on each other. Most of us Christians are stuck in the middle. The fundamentalists say we’re secularist, and the secularists say we’re fundamentalists, and everything is polarized. We are so afraid of being labeled as the one or the other that we are silent on the issues of the day.

3. We’re watching the unsated idolatry of Mars, the god of war. After the outrage of 9/11, the leaders said, “We have seen evil out there,” and then they said, “We will deal with  evil by dropping bombs on it.” What were we thinking? Must Christians be content with this?

4. We’re in a global crisis of credit and debt and we’re struggling with banking and the purpose of banking. When we hit the credit crunch, and the great banks asked for relief, we were quick to bail them out. But what about the nations of the global south which have been groaning for decades under the load of debt to those same banks which kept enabling the foolish spending of their former dictators? Do not the prophets and the gospel have something to say on this?

5. We are watching the global polarization of the rich and the poor, and the wealth of America is less and less a commonwealth. Do Christians have any prophecy to offer here?

6. We’re watching the increasing unhealth of our global ecology. The cause of global warming is disputed, but the fact of it is not. We are taking increasingly great risks with our landscape and our groundwater in order to extract every last bit of natural gas and oil. We are making deserts of our oceans. If the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, have we got anything to offer here?

7. We’re watching the fragmentation and polarization of our American democracy. We no longer can agree on what “truths we hold to be self-evident,” we are unable to have a civil debate, and our government is unable to address our problems. Can we not offer some new wisdom here?

8. We’re developing the awesome power of biotechnology at the same time we are less and less able to agree on ethics to use this technology. Can we not offer some new creativity here?

9. We’re watching the fragmentation of ethics and aesthetics. We are not able to agree on what is good and what is beautiful. We are developing a brutalist culture with pretty surfaces, and works of art are valued only for their market price. Can Christians not offer some healing here?

10. The polarization of medical care.
11. The fragmentation of the global community into new kinds of nationalisms.
12. The fragmentation of sexual identity.
13. The problem of political Islam.
14. The power of electronic communication both to connect us and to dehumanize our daily interactions.
15. The prurient preoccupation of our media on the sex lives of celebrities at the same time as its silence on the real life conditions of most of the people on this planet.

Have we Christians got anything helpful and healing on these problems that we’re facing?

Let me be clear that I am not saying the church as an institution should be making statements or forging policies on these issues. Not that the church should never ever take a stand on an issue of the day, but it should be rare and only when the gospel is at stake. This is not so much from a lack of capacity or expertise as a matter of the church’s proper mission. But to engage these issues is the calling of the church in the organic sense as the community of God’s people.

I am saying that Christians should be addressing these problems and issues from out of our discipleship and in service to salvation. Not as the institutional church, but as Christian persons in our places of work and play and as Christian organizations which target particular issues. And I am also saying that a function of the institutional church is to nurture the spirituality that you need to address these problems in the world. You need to be spiritual to engage these issues with a view toward healing and justice and peace, and just to stay involved and fight the fatigue you need to be passionately spiritual, which belongs to the mission of a congregation like Old First.

I’m returning to my sermon series on passionate spirituality. Our congregational surveys keep telling us that of the eight vital signs of a healthy, growing congregation, our weakest vital sign is passionate spirituality. This may partly be a function of the survey’s bias in the meaning of this vital sign, and I will address this bias two weeks from today, on January 22. But it’s still a vital sign. This sermon is an introduction, and I hope you can stay with me over the coming weeks.

We are naturally spiritual, just because we’re human beings. The universe itself is naturally spiritual. Spirituality is not something supernatural. We only call it that because it is beyond our ordinary senses and we cannot measure or predict it or control it. But we are estranged from our native spirituality and from the spirituality of the world, which only aggravates the problems in my checklist. And yet it’s not enough to just revive our natural spirituality. Indeed, just doing that can lead us back to ancient pagan bondages. You can be spiritual and still be enslaved.

We need the spirituality of the Holy Spirit, which is the gift of God’s self, who enters into you, as certainly as you are baptized. God’s Spirit enters into your own spirit, into your soul, and your mind and your emotions, within you to inspire you and strengthen you and heal you and to make you whole. The Spirit enable you to hear God’s word and understand it, and then to live it out prophetically and creatively in the world. Prophecy and creativity are gifts of the Holy Spirit.

From Genesis 1. “A wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” That can be translated several ways, intentionally I think. “The spirit of God brooded over the face of the deep.” Like a mother hen broods on her eggs to warm them into life. Like you breathe on your hands, or you breathe into your trumpet to warm it up, or you breathe into your woodstove to bring the fire to life. God breathed God’s Spirit into the ancient deep to waken it and make it ready to listen to the Word of God and then respond to it. “‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” The Spirit of God goes out into the world, into all the world, ahead of the Word of God, ahead of us, ahead of the church, and we follow it. We follow the Spirit, bringing the life-giving Word of God to all the world God loves, creatively and prophetically, for healing and justice and for peace.

Who are we to do this mission in the world? What resources do we have, what strength do we have, or wisdom or knowledge or expertise? Exactly, we are right to doubt ourselves. But then we hear God say, “With you I am well-pleased.” God finds us quite acceptable to share this mission, because it is God’s mission, after all, not ours, we are only partnering with God in it. It does not depend on us. We are told that the final future of the world already has begun, and the new creation cannot be undone. We are not told what it looks like or how we’ll get there, but we know who holds it and who pledges it.

How do you know that you’ve been given this Holy Spirit? You cannot know it scientifically, you have know it by means of belief. So I’m inviting you to believe that you’ve been given the Spirit of God, and I’m challenging you to be responsible to learn what that means. And yet you can feel the hints and suggestions of the presence of the Spirit within you, and those take the form of your desire for God, and your desire for the love of God. God does not put within you any desire that God does not satisfy. Your desire for the love of God already is a sign that God does love you. With you God is well-pleased.

Copyright © 2012 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.