Friday, February 24, 2012

February 26: Lent 1, The Signs of God, part 1, The Sign of the Rainbow


Genesis 9:8-17, Psalm 25:1-9, 1 Peter 3:18-22, Mark 1:9-13

This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature this is with you, for all future generations: I set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.

Is there a God? The answer to that question is that we believe so, but we have no proof, and the Christian faith does not offer any proofs of God. What it offers is signs of God. The difference is subtle but important. Not proofs of God but signs of God. For proofs you can sit back in your chair and be a judge. For signs you have to get up and move to where the signs are pointing you. Proofs conclude and signs suggest.

Actually, though, in my experience, the question of whether there is a god is relatively infrequent. Most people seem to believe there is, of some sort or other, and the ones who don’t have usually thought it through. The much more frequent question is whether God is personal. Is God a personal God? Do the signs of God direct us to a God who is a personal God?

I usually answer Yes, because the God of Judaism and Christianity is a God who talks like a person, saying such things as “I am, I choose, I desire, I make,” and most importantly, “I love.” But actually the Bible never says it quite that way, that God is personal. It’s partly because of historic terminology. We use the word “personal” in modern terms and its current meaning has connotations from psychology and anthropology and law, which connotations cannot capture God. So it’s better to say that God gets personal with us. It’s better to say that God gets personal, if we also say that God’s getting personal is true to God’s truest self, and not just an act on our behalf.

(Note: When historic Christianity uses the word "person" for God, it's classically in the Trinitarian sense of one of the three persons of the Trinity.)

If God gets personal, and if God says, “I desire” and “I make,” then we should expect the signs of God to be signs of God’s initiative and God’s design, of God’s intentions and of God’s devices and desires. One of those signs is Holy Baptism, which we will celebrate today. Baptism is a sign that God gets personal with a little girl named Josephine. More on this later. For now let’s look at the sign of the rainbow, from Genesis. The sign is given to Noah — to Noah as the pastor of the congregation of the animals, to Noah as the high priest of the creatures of the earth. God selected the rainbow to be a sign of something new. A sign is a sign when it has meaning in itself and it also points to something beyond itself. So what does the rainbow mean and what does it point to? We can skip all the lovely speculations from tradition on the significance of the colors, because what’s mentioned in the text is not the color but the shape.

What God says is very clear: “I have set my bow in the clouds.” To “set your bow” has the specific meaning of an archery bow, a bow-and-arrow bow, loaded and stretched and ready to be shot. The stretching pulls the shape of the bow into a curve, and the curvature is convex to the target of the arrow. So if you imagine that God has set a bow in the clouds, then the imaginary arrow which is set into the bow is pointed up into the sky. God points the arrow back at God’s own self. The target of the arrow is the archer of the arrow. God is saying, “Cross my heart and hope to die, if I don’t keep my promise to the earth.”

How far can we go with this? Can we go all the way to Good Friday and the crucifixion of God’s Son? Is that when God let the arrow go and when God shot Godself, the dearest person of God who was hanging like a target on a tree? The arrow shoots across the seven weeks of Lent, the arrow points us to the road that we must take each year, the road to Jerusalem, our annual inner pilgrimage of our imaginations. That is the end of the road that we have started on today, this first Sunday on the seven weeks of Lent, our Emerald City and our fiery Cracks of Doom.

That’s where our gospel lessons will lead us in these next few weeks of Lent, following Jesus down this road. And the signs along this road are the signs which we will be reading from the Old Testament, the signs he read himself from the Torah and the Prophets, the signs that told him where to go, the signs that pointed him to God as well as to himself. These signs were personal to him. The sign of the rainbow was very personal to him, as it was personal from God.

If the sign of the rainbow is the sign of a bow and arrow pointed back at God, then it has many implications. It means, for one, that God commits, that God commits Godself. It means God says, “I take this on,” it means God says, “I’m in.”
Allow me that old joke, that when it comes to a breakfast of eggs and bacon, the difference between the chicken and the pig is that chicken invests but the pig is committed. God was like the chicken before the Flood of Noah’s ark, God had created a world and invested in it and appointed managers. When the managers bankrupted it, God wrote it off and sent the Flood to clean it all away. But after the Flood, God promises to be the pig. God commits. God says, “I’m in this now, I will enter it and be part of it, and I will see it through and win it back no matter what the cost, I swear it, even if it means the death of me.” And yes, that’s right, “a pig’s a dirty animal.” What kind of God is this?

The sign of the rainbow is also the sign that God takes personal responsibility for all the sin and suffering and misery of the world. Not that God is the one who is guilty or at fault, but like a newly elected president has to assume responsibility for all the mess her predecessor made, so God accepts responsibility for the evil that we human beings have let loose in the world. “Okay, I’ll take the blame, but I will also take the credit for what I do to deal with it.”

That’s a credit we human beings don’t like so much to give, because of our collective self-regard. But the Christian conviction is that if you are asking the question of whether there is a God or not, or whether God is personal or not, you cannot solve the question abstractly or objectively. You have to travel subjectively and personally through the signs of loss and grief and anger and evil and salvation. You have to consider that the signs of God look self-defeating. The foolishness of God.

The sign of the rainbow is that God gets shot with the arrow on our behalf. This feels like mythology, and maybe the myths are the expression of human efforts to explore the moral structure of world of God’s design. But as certainly as our prehistoric ancestors learned to make fire, so they learned that evil makes its victims, and they recognized that to rectify the evil seems to require the cost of sacrifice. And the sign of the rainbow tells us that God will be the victim of the sacrifice, to free us from the claim and power of the evil we have let loose in the world.

The sign of baptism is that the virtue of God’s sacrifice is applied to us. Not mythologically, not by some abstract mathematics of cosmic spirituality, which was the belief of the ancient Greeks and as well as many modern Hindus and Christians, but actively and personally, by God, by God’s Holy Spirit, as a living act of love. The sign of the water upon the head of Josephine is the sign that a living active God applies to Josephine those very strange things that God has done in human history to deal with the realities of human history.

The sign of baptism is the sign that God gets personal with Josephine. That’s the meaning of the exchange of names. I will ask the parents what her name is. That’s personal. In response I will announce the name of God, the personal name of God, the persons of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. When we put God’s name on her, that means that from now on this God is known as the God of Noah and of Abraham and of Jesus and of Josephine. Which God do we believe in? Well, one of the signs of God points us to the God of Josephine India Pope.

The signs of baptism and the rainbow are that God binds Godself to us. God says I’m with you and you’re with me. I will be your Noah from now on, and you will be my animals. We are the animals on the ark. You can be chickens; I’m a pig. Look, here comes baby Josephine, carried by her parents up the plank and through the door. The dogs run up to greet her. The elephants nuzzle her. Her mother puts her down to sleep between the lion and the lamb. It’s a lovely picture, even a little sentimental. It’s meant to be a sign that this God gets so personal as to love us.

Copyright © 2012 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

January 29, Epiphany 4; Passionate Spirituality 4: Unclean Spirituality


Deuteronomy 18:15-20, Psalm 111, 1 Corinthians 8:1-13, Mark 1:21-28

This casting out the unclean spirit is the very first miracle of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark. And it’s easy to get it exactly wrong. The main point of the story is not the miracle but rather the authority of Jesus’ teaching. The miracle is an illustration of the power of the teaching, it illustrates that what Jesus teaches has the power to cleanse what is unclean and to liberate those who are in bondage. The story is a liberation story, and it’s the teaching that liberates.

It’s easy to get this story wrong. It’s a mistake to assume the man in the unclean spirit was rabid or looked abnormal. I suspect the unclean spirit was not apparent to his compatriots. I mean the guy might have been unlikable, or maybe known for being contentious, or even one of those guys who might give you the creeps, but it was not with some demonic voice that he challenged Jesus. He regarded himself as reasonable. “Jesus, I see who you are, and I see where you’re going here, and you’re going to mess everything up and get the Romans mad and put us all in danger. You cannot win. It isn’t worth it. So leave us alone.” He thinks he’s making sense.

The man has an “unclean” spirit. The choice of words is important. Mark does not call it an “evil” spirit. If the spirit is evil effectively it is not so essentially. It is not a demon from hell. The Gospel of Mark is not a medieval document. We mistake the event to classify it as supernatural. Yes, it is beyond our rational analysis, but that only speaks to the limits of our mental capacity. The gospel regards the ordinary world as naturally spiritual. This unclean spirit belongs to the natural spirituality of the world. But the world has been disordered by human sin, and so the natural spirituality of the world has been corrupted, confused, out of place, and it infected him. Where it came from we are not told, nor where it went when Jesus cast it out. All we know is that it was no longer making the man unclean.

When the spaghetti sauce is in my plate it’s clean. But it’s unclean when it’s on my nice white shirt. The Brussel sprouts are lovely in their butter on the plate. But then you look away, and your little son who hates to eat them puts them in the pocket of his Sunday pants. Next Sunday morning when he puts them on again he will discover that his pants smell bad. And there’s not much he can do about it. He’ll have to surrender his pants to you to clean them. But he will feel guilty, and he may resist you helping him. He is resisting your authority, the very authority you need to use to help him out of his predicament. How often do we not resist our liberation.

Jesus is teaching with great authority. Who does he think he is to teach this way. He cites no standard reference books, he appeals to no other authority but his own. It’s as if he thinks he’s allowed to speak for God. This is both appealing and threatening, and the unclean spirit has the sensitivity to sense the threat of liberation and the threat of the authority of God. He calls him “the holy one of God.” He does not mean by this that he senses that Jesus is divine, though  Christians are quick to jump to that interpretation. At this point in the gospel it’s no more than that the  recognizes him as God’s anointed, as both a liberator and a threat, like King David.

[Note: I dropped out the following paragraph from my spoken version:]
Or like Joshua, the Old Testament general from whom Jesus gets his name. Joshua led the armies of Israel into the Galilee to liberate the land from bondage to the hideous idolatry of the Canaanites. That was unclean spirituality, and unhealthy too. I’m sure most of the Canaanites were decent people, just trying to live their lives, but they were in bondage. They had made gods and goddesses of the natural forces of the world, the forces of weather and fertility and sex. They feared those forces and they worshiped them and made themselves subservient to them, even to the sacrifice of their own children. Joshua cleared this all out and purged the corruption and cleansed the unclean spirituality. What Joshua accomplished must have looked like a reduction in spirituality, but now there was freedom for simple obedience to the life-giving laws of God. And so too the man in the synagogue was now liberated from the unclean spirit in order to be free to learn and live the teaching of Jesus. Joshua used the sword, and Jesus uses his teaching.

The teaching of Jesus appeals to your mind, to your understanding, to your proper use of reason, to learning and the love of learning. Don’t regard this story as anti-intellectual. The story implies the cultivation of a Christian intellect. You are called to learn the teaching of Jesus in all its richness and complexity. Your Christian intellectual pursuit is for you to receive God’s mission in the world and for you also to share in God’ mission in the world, for the saving of the world and the healing of the world.

Because the gospel story deals in spirituality, we tend to read it in terms of the supernatural. The bias of the modern mind is that the spiritual is somehow supernatural and therefore other than rational and intellectual and therefore contrary to it. The modern bias is that spirituality is anti-rational and often anti-intellectual. Many people are being drawn back to spirituality because of their frustration with the emptiness of modern rationality and the narrowness of the secular intellect. But the teaching of Jesus can answer this frustration and heal this fragmentation, because it offers a spirituality which is not an escape from reason, and a mysticism which is not anti-intellectual. The liberation in the teaching of Jesus is not an escape but a setting us free by setting things to right and bringing things back together and bringing rightful order to the world. The spirituality of Jesus is very much for your understanding and your reason and your mind. So the way to get at this wholesome and healing spirituality is by the open-hearted learning of his teaching.

His teaching attracts us and yet we resist it. We would rather help ourselves and liberate ourselves, but there are some powers and forces in the lives of each of us which no amount of learning or education or self-improvement or self-help can free us from. We are in their grip, and they are spiritual. We modern people don’t like to hear this, especially with our secular and scientific loyalties, but that’s part of what Jesus is teaching us. These spiritual powers can be economic or political, they can have the public form of ideology, or they can be collectively psychological, like the depression of an urban ghetto. Like certain neighborhoods of Brooklyn. Like that part of Baltimore in the TV show The Wire. In the fourth season one of those schoolboys says, “I know there is another world out there, but I don’t know how to get there.” Or the power can be like the power of addiction, which AA knows is spiritual. And we are powerless to get ourselves free.

But you don’t have to look for special miracles. The teaching of Jesus has that power. We can trust the power of his teaching. So if we let this story direct us in our Christian action in the world, it means that we can count on God using the teaching of Jesus to liberate and cleanse and put right those things in our lives which are disordered and disabling. The story directs us to rely on Jesus’ teaching for God to do the necessary miracles.

Everyone of us here is more or less unclean. For some of you it’s bad enough to be disabling. For some of you its from your early suffering. For some of you it’s from compromises that you feel you’ve made to get through life or to get something of seeming value in return. For some of you it’s your appetites, or your fears, or vows that you have made, commitments in your mind, conclusions you have drawn, or substitute freedoms that you treasure and you want to protect. And often we don’t know that we’re in the power of spirits more powerful than us until we are made uncomfortable by the very teaching of Jesus which we first welcomed. But still you want to welcome it, and that’s why you are here.

The teaching of Jesus is enough to give you get you clean and make you free. Not that it’s a magic pill. It’s teaching. It takes learning and reflection and it is best done by learning it in a group. This story takes place within the community of a synagogue. Nobody likes to be challenged in a group or healed in a group, but the teaching of Jesus is always in the context of community.  Because the goal of the teaching is love. You want to be clean for your neighbor. And you want to be clean for God. Which is a little threatening, but also compelling, because even when you are unclean, God loves you.

Copyright © 2012 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

January 22, Epiphany 3; Passionate Spirituality 3: Sharing Your Faith

by Jakob Steinhardt



Jonah3:1-5, 10, Psalm 62:6-14, 1 Corinthians 7:29-31, Mark 1:14-20

Some of you remember (we’ll call him:) “Harold”. He started coming to Old First about eight years ago. He had just moved to Brooklyn from Atlanta. He had come to New York to work for an activist organization called “Freedom to Marry,” which advocated full marriage equality for everyone, no matter what their sexual orientation. After a couple years he took a job with the Human Rights Campaign, and he moved to Washington DC, so he left our congregation, but I stayed in touch with him.

For the few years Harold was with us, he was a leader among us. He was like an extra pastor. He led us in Bible study, he preached for us, and he taught us to understand marriage equality and embrace it. Harold is prophetic and challenging, but he’s also a born encourager, and we loved having him around. In his youth he was called to the ministry. He had gone to seminary and fulfilled the requirements, but then he was denied by his denomination because he was open about being gay. He was disappointed and discouraged, but he never held it against God.

Why did Harold come to Old First? Why not an activist congregation more outspoken on the issues of sexual orientation? Well, several reasons, but he said that the first thing that brought him through our door was a sign we had out front. The sign we were running that month was very simple. All it said was, “The Bible is on your side.”

I remember having some internal hesitation when I put up that sign. Am I making it all too easy? Am I too much appealing to the Park-Slope feel-good self-indulgent consumer spirituality? What about repentance, what about God’s judgments? Well, anything can be misinterpreted, but what are we doing here, after all, if we don’t believe the Bible is on our side? The gospel is “good news.” That’s what it literally means. Yes, there’s bad news too, but the news that is bad is bad for what is bad, and it’s good for what is good.  It’s even good for what is bad, whether really bad or only thought to be bad. The news is good for what we don’t expect it to be good for, and that’s what makes it “news”. It’s “news to us!” we had not expected it, it was not in our estimation of the world.

“Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God.” In that simple statement there are two strange things. The first is that the arrest of John the Baptist would seem to be bad news. A bit unfeeling on Jesus’ part — and wouldn’t a Messiah try to get his cousin out of jail? Or maybe this is like our epistle, “Let those who have [cousins] be as though they had none, and those who mourn, be as though they were not mourning.” Like soldiers in the army. When a lieutenant goes down in battle, the captain does not stop to grieve but only fights the harder, because they are both committed to their common cause of victory.

The second strange thing is that Jesus was announcing “the good news of God.” That’s rare in the Bible and unique in the gospels. Usually it’s “the good news of the kingdom” or “the good news of Jesus the Messiah.” Here it is just “news of God.” Jesus had new facts to tell about this God, he was announcing that God was starting to operate in ways they did not expect.

The people of Galilee believed in God, and they knew they were supposed to love their God, but they’d had no news of God for centuries. They had begun to doubt that God was even on their side. The Sadducees taught that there was nothing more for them; just do the rituals and support the temple hierarchy and make the best of it until you die. The Pharisees taught that God was angry with them for their lack of holiness, and that a holy God would not forgive their sins until they earned it by keeping scrupulously clean. Another opinion was written up by Josephus, that God had rejected Israel and gone over to side with the Romans. Just check the military news.

Jesus comes with other news. But in the Gospel of Mark, he does not explain the news, as he does in the Gospel of Matthew. What Mark shows is how he acts it out. He demonstrates the news of God — he models it. We will watch him do this in the coming weeks, as we read the lessons from Mark. By watching what Jesus does we learn what God will do. By watching what Jesus is like we learn what God is like. And by extension what God wants.

We know that among the things God wants are chiefly two: that we love our neighbors as ourselves and that we love God most of all. Last week I said that to love God is the ultimate purpose of your spirituality. I said that your spirituality is the distinctive gift of our species of Homo sapiens, and I said that it simultaneously is given to us and has evolved in us in order to connect us to God and the things of God. Two weeks ago, in a sermon which I opened with a list of fifteen issues facing us, I said that our spirituality is also for engaging with the world, and for bringing healing and justice to the world. That kind of healing and justice depends on what God is like, no less than our loving God depends on what God is like. Spirituality goes both ways, to God and to the world, and if the goal of spirituality is love, then it I guess it should be passionate.

Let me remind you one more time why I keep on talking about this phrase, “passionate spirituality.” For the last few years the consistory of Old First has been using a tool for long-range planning called Natural Church Development. NCD is based on the eight characteristics of a vital, growing congregation. By means of surveys of the congregation, we determine which of those eight characteristics is the weakest at our church, and then we address that characteristic to strengthen it. We have done three surveys now, and every time our weakest characteristic is “passionate spirituality.” We are supposed to address it, but we have found it hard to get a handle on. Myself included.

This last time around a couple of our elders have suggested that the survey itself may be part of the problem, because the survey assumes some things that might not fit Old First. The survey questions suggest that passionate spirituality takes the form of energetically sharing our faith with other people. If not preaching to sinners like Jonah, then at least being “fishers of men” by witnessing to our neighbors and recruiting our friends. Well, how shall we do this when we put such a premium on our hospitality to everyone without conditions?

As of today I do not have a nice solution to this dilemma for Old First. I can feel that it has to with that combination in our Psalm today, that “power belongs to God, and steadfast love is yours, O Lord.” That could be a headline for the good news of God that Jesus demonstrates. I can feel that we in this congregation will share it with others by our actions and attitudes as much as by our words. I think of the example of “Harold”. But I also think it has everything to do with our view of God, the God who is the ultimate object of our spirituality.

What is God like, I want to know what God is like. And that will be my focus for the coming weeks. What is this God like whom Jesus demonstrates? I’m inviting you to stay with this, and contemplate what God is like.

Three weeks ago, on January 1, I preached a sermon on the circumcision of Jesus. I said that Jesus was circumcised to be a Jew, which means that one of the three persons of the Trinity is a Jew, and that in Jesus God was circumcised. I had almost scrapped it beforehand because it felt so impractical and irrelevant, but Melody read it through and told me to go ahead with it. I gave it up to God and preached it and I let it go. Two days later I got a call from California, from the president of a university. He had read the sermon on my blog and he wanted me to come out and preach it at a meeting of his board. What? He said he had never heard these things before, and he thought people need to hear them. He is a Jew, and he lost his family in the holocaust, and he had been called a Christ-killer in his youth. He told me that when he read my sermon he wept. He told me that most sermons tell us to be good, but what he wanted to hear is what God is like.

I am not going out there to convert him. I am going to share my faith, but not to convert him. That’s not the point. I am going out there to share the “news of God” as we read it in the gospel, and to celebrate that “the Bible is on his side,” and experience some healing and the love of God. That’s what I am passionate about, the love of God.

Copyright © 2012 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.