Thursday, September 11, 2014

September 14, Proper 19, Transformations 3: Rescued

Exodus 14:19-31, Psalm 114, Romans 14:1-12, Matthew 18:21-35

We begin with the Parable of the Unforgiving Slave. This parable is spring-loaded. It has contradictions within it. At first, the king is extravagantly merciful to the slave, and at the end, he has the slave tortured because of the slave insulting his mercy.

Okay, but is Jesus really saying that God the Father is like that with us, both extravagantly merciful and also extremely vengeful and exacting? The church has taught just that. You know, “Jesus loves you more than you can ever know, and if you don’t believe that, he will roast you forever in hell.” That doesn’t add up. It doesn’t hold. That’s what I mean by the parable being spring-loaded.

As I wrestled with the parable, Melody advised me that it was comic, and I should read it as if the king were Tony Soprano. One of his capos comes to him and says, “Tony, I’m in trouble, I gotta deal.” Tony says, “I get it, these things happen. I can be very generous. You show me respect, and we can deal.” Then Tony hears that this capo shakes down a junior underling for not a lot, and Tony is furious and sends his guys to torture him. It’s not just generosity, it’s honor, it’s what’s in your heart. “So you better show respect, or you might find my heavenly Father like Tony Soprano, know what I’m sayin’?” So the last line of the parable is not a doctrine, it’s a punch-line, it’s a wake-up call.

What’s in your heart? You can always count offenses against you. Forgiving another person is not about keeping count. It’s about respect, it’s about respect for God and the mercy of God. You have to have a heart for mercy, that you know in your heart the mercy of God to you, how God is merciful to you beyond your reckoning or measure. Your practice of forgiving another person has to take place within your heart. Because you’ve got to forgive some fellow Christians who don’t even want your forgiveness.

You have to forgive in your heart because you might have to stay away from that person for the sake of your own safety. Because it’s not just every new sin you have to forgive, but the same sin, and it caused you such damage that every time you deal with the damage you have to forgive him all over again, in your heart, countless times. You have to renew your forgiveness like you renew your Metrocard. Renewing your forgiveness is part of the renewal of your mind which is the transformation we address today, the transformation of a broken heart into a heart for mercy.

How do you achieve this transformation of your heart? By exercise? By practice? By self-improvement and self-discipline, by the discipline of forgiving others? By mindfulness of others? All these, but not chiefly these. The most important mindfulness is not what you achieve but of what you have received, that you have received mercy. By believing that you have received more mercy than you can account for. That you have been surprised by God, jostled by God, pushed by God. You have been rescued, you have spared, you have been protected, you have been saved.

Do you think the Children of Israel would ever have entered that Red Sea if there were not chariots behind them? Do you think they’d ever have fled  Egypt unless they’d had to? Like it or not sometimes, you have to receive salvation. You don’t achieve it, you receive it, it’s mercy, it’s rescue. Christian transformation is believing how fearfully you are rescued.

These poor Hebrew peons had never been to the beach. They’d never seen the sea before. They knew the ancient geography, that this Red Sea was an invasive arm of the great encircling sea that was at the rim of the world, the cold, dark boundary of life on earth. Here before them, jutting into the world of life, was an arm of that great and deadly deep. This sea was death to them. They will have been terrified. What about their children? How did they even drag their animals into it? Just so, your own salvation is more fearful rescue than it is self-improvement.

As for the Egyptians, they were both thrilled and frustrated. The Israelites were trapped. But chariots can’t fight when they’re in a column. They have to race around the flank of the army on foot to attack from the side. And the Israelites were protected by the walls of water. But the Egyptians are blood-thirsty, they want revenge, and into the trap they go.

As I said last week, I’m not concerned how historical you take this story. But you can take it as one of the great informing stories of the world, the defining image of salvation for Jews, and for Jesus, and for the renewal of your own minds and how you see yourselves and what is the ground of your transformation. The salvation is how you pass through death into this life, this life right now, your life right now.

You live your lives right now as rescued, protected, and spared. Your transformation is knowing yourselves as saved. Not for judging others as unsaved, but that you know yourself as the subject of great mercy, behind you and beside and before you.

Just so, the parable invites you to believe that the deep truth about yourself is that you are a debtor who is pardoned, a trespasser justified, a criminal rehabilitated, a slave redeemed, that you live and die as the constant beneficiary of an expansive and undeserved mercy which is the love of God.

You like to be self-reliant and competent. But you can believe that you’ve been granted salvation, that you’ve been made right with God, not from your competency but out of sheer grace. Your belief tells you how to see yourself and also other people, especially those who are in your debt. You express your belief in your behavior which is also grace. Which makes for a community who express our transformation, a community with a heart for mercy and for love.

In the gospel lesson it’s expressed in forgiveness. In the epistle it’s expressed as hospitality and welcome. You welcome the person whose religious practice violates your own. You welcome the person whose very identity contradicts your own. The conservative welcomes the liberal and the liberal welcomes the conservative. You are showing respect, respect for the welcome of Jesus who has welcomed you. You find yourself within this little community of diversity not on your own for you are not your own, you belong to the Lord, who has claimed you by rescuing and sparing and saving you. So you show respect. So you open your heart.

You and your children are assaulted daily but the true facts of a world today, the clash of civilizations and the posturing of politic, the burden of indebtedness and the compounding of interest and the exacting of fees, the fear of the future of the planet, a world of aggression and ideologies. Strange that the strategy of God to counter this, the strategy going back to Jesus and St. Paul, is for small communities of transformation. But that’s how you serve God in the transformation of this world. That’s our mission.

And part of our mission is to teach these children who have registered for Sunday School this week. To pull these children with us into the Red Sea before they know any different, that they get comfortable walking between the walls of water, to get used to knowing themselves as saved and rescued and protected, that they know the prayers and the rituals which confirm the mercy in which they find themselves, so that in all the pollution of the hatred and violence in the world they can practice breathing into their bodies the Spirit of God. You might not think of this what we do here today as world-changing. But apparently God does. So respect it, honor it, bless it, support it.

Your transformation is immediate, it is always now, it exists out of time, because it is the work of God in you. The mercy of God is the compulsion and the freedom of God’s own nature, which is love. The mercy in which you exist is God’s extravagant love for you.

Copyright © 2014 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Friday, September 05, 2014

September 7, Proper 18, Transformation 2: Passing Over

Exodus 12:1-14, Psalm 149, Romans 13:8-14, Matthew 18:15-20

For the next few Sundays we will be reading from Exodus. These stories are important for two reasons. First, they are the foundation stories of Judaism, especially the Passover and its annual commemoration. Second, these stories shaped the mind of the Lord Jesus, and he found in them the pattern of his Passion, especially in the Passover. If you want to know Jesus, you need to know the Exodus.

The Exodus stories are wonderful and sometimes horrible. Today the wonderful liberation of the Children of Israel comes with the horrible slaughter of the children of Egypt. Such a story raises two problems: their history, and their morality.

First, their history. These stories tell you what happened, but can you take them as historical? Their details are improbable, unless God really did those terrible miracles. It begs the question to argue that because the miracles are impossible the stories could not have happened. There is no independent evidence from other ancient documents to either contradict or support what Exodus reports. I would say that you can believe that something really did happen back there, something otherwise impossible, but also that the report of it was written down centuries afterward, and that the Exodus stories were carefully crafted not for objective facts but for theological and dramatic purposes, something like Shakespeare with his Histories or the canvasses of Velazquez.

We want to steer between fundamentalism and liberalism. We don’t care to try to prove these stories as factual but neither do we presume to think that we know better than the stories do. The great Jewish scholar Umberto Cassuto wrote that the Book of Exodus is so artfully and subtly constructed that it’s impossible to pull it apart and get behind it, so that if you want to get anything out of it you have to take it as it is with all of its improbable details. We shall let the story speak in all of its literary power so that through it God may speak to us to us today.

Second, their morality. We are rightfully horrified that God could have slaughtered all those Egyptian children, no matter how many Hebrew children the Egyptians had killed beforehand. Not even for God, do two wrongs make a right. Of course, no nation has ever let its slaves go free without bloodshed. Think of our own Civil War. And in ancient times, people just accepted that gods could act like this. But how shall this be good news for us today?

Well, we have to remember that the Exodus stories are not about morality. They’re not about justifying the good and condemning the bad. They’re about God’s election and God’s judgment — God’s election of a humble people, in this case Israel, and God’s judgment on a people of pride and prejudice, in this case Egypt.

Of course we are troubled by questions about God’s jealousy and wrath, but these will be answered for us only in the long-term, as we follow the story of God’s self-revelation through the unfolding history of Israel to its drastic climax in Jesus. Here in the Exodus stories, election and judgment are displayed in naked conflict with the world, which conflict is only resolved for us in Christ, when God enters the world and takes on our flesh and so tragically and wonderfully accepts the judgment on himself. (O’Donovan, Resurrection and the Moral Order, p. 158).

So the Passover story leaves you up in the air with morality unresolved, and you can only come down to land with the morality of Jesus. To read this wonderful and horrible story you have to be like an angel who passes over the violence, because on the doorposts of history you have haltingly spread the blood of Christ, the Passover lamb of the Christian people. Agnus dei, qui tolles peccata mundi, miserere nobis. “O Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.”

The positive and wonderful affect of the Passover for the Children of Israel was their transformation. That night, when they all did one thing together, in fearful obedience to God, that night the tribes became a communion, the rabble became a congregation, the slaves became a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.

It was a traumatic transformation, as we will see in the coming weeks. They had not planned for it nor asked for it. They had not asked to leave their homes in Egypt. This God of Moses — they don’t know this God from Adam. After centuries of absence he suddenly remembers them, and says he’s on their side, and by powerful signs and wonders he gives them what they had not asked for.

They had not asked for freedom, just for some relief. They had not asked to be transformed. They did not know where they were going. Moses did not hand out any road-maps. And if God did this to the Egyptians today, who knew what God might do to them next week?

Even to escape the slaughter of the firstborn must have been traumatic. If not for believing the strange instructions they all would have suffered the same as the Egyptians. You see how it works: To survive the judgment you must believe in the judgment. If you trust the Word of this God, the judgment of this God frees you instead of punishing you. For them it was freedom from slavery in Egypt. In your case it’s freedom from the guilt of your sin. Without even waiting for you to confess your sins, God unexpectedly and gratuitously just passed over them. You are free.

So that’s the gospel here. In the oven of oppression and in the face of destruction, these poor slaves and their children find themselves transformed by the grace of God in such an unexpected way. And so you too, you who are the beloved child of God, you find God’s transformation in your own life in unexpected ways, especially where you are most fearful and oppressed. For years your God may have been silent in your life, but now God calls you to receive the transformation God is giving you. To believe it is to receive it, it is God’s gift to you.

What this transformation consists of we will be exploring over the coming Sundays. I’m not sure where we’ll come out. We will not make it a self-improvement plan or a burden of works-righteousness. Today your transformation is simple and immediate: it is simply that you switch environments. You step from the environment of slavery into the environment of freedom, into the Kingdom of God, into the realm of freedom from the power of sin.

In the one environment, sin compels you and it compels your response to the sins of others. In the new environment, sin is there, sins exist, but they have no power any more, they are forgiven, they are like tigers in a zoo or like black-and-white snapshots. In this new environment of freedom, sins are no longer occasions for compulsion but opportunities for the exercise of grace.

Switching between these environment means switching also between the two cultures which have adapted to these environments. Switching environments is immediate, and switching cultures is gradual. You switch gradually from the culture of fear and greed and anger to the culture of grace and hope and love. So therefore this is what your transformation consists of: learning to see yourself as living within the Kingdom of God’s grace and thereby accepting and learning the culture of that Kingdom, which is the culture of God’s love and reconciliation.

You can see that culture in our gospel lesson, in the method which Our Lord requires for dealing with an offense against you by someone also in the church. In the old culture, you rightly take offense, and you complain to other people and you line up your allies against the offender. We do this all the time. It’s being bound to the offense. In the new culture, you loosen the grip of the offense on you. You go to the offender first, and you follow the steps to work it through.

In the end you might not achieve your hoped-for reconciliation, but already you’ve invested in the other person, and so you have implicitly begun the process of forgiveness already in yourself, and that means you are acting in your freedom. The method has its limitations for use outside the church. But even within the church it can be challenging, so you learn to just mostly not get offended. You keep raising the threshold of offense. You just pass over their offenses against you. And then you’re really free.

So the culture of a community of love is by no means that we never offend each other. It’s how we deal with our offenses, being bound to them or loosened from them, in the environment of bondage or the environment of freedom. This is what you want. This is why you are here today. You have entered this environment of the love of God to learn the culture of God’s love within the world. God loved you first, and God will love you all the way.

Copyright © 2014 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

August 31, Proper 17, Transformations 1: Transforming Self and Sacrifice

Exodus 3:1-15, Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45, Romans 12:9-21, Matthew 16:21-28

[Our Gospel today is only one-half the story. Let me start with the Gospel from last week.]

First, about the Gospel, then about Exodus, and then to our target, which is Romans.

Peter says to Jesus, “Yes, you are the Messiah. Now don’t throw it all away! The last thing a Messiah
should do is get yourself killed, especially by the Romans. That would mean you’re not the Messiah! The whole point is for you to be a triumphant winner, not a tragic loser. If you get killed, then you’re not the one we’re all expecting, and you’re not what I signed up for.”

I think Jesus responds to him so hotly because Peter was voicing a temptation so painfully real for him. You think he wasn’t constantly tempted to try it Peter’s way, the conventional way? You think it was easy for Jesus to figure out the right way to be the Messiah? “What am I, nuts? I’ve been born to royal status and I have power and potential and possibilities and I’m throwing it all away. Simon Peter, don’t you think I thought of that? You think I want to do it like this? I’m just trying to do God’s will. Which might not be what you people want.”

His people were looking for a War of Independence, a Revolutionary War against the Romans, and
Simon Peter wanted to be a Paul Revere. “To arms, to arms, the Redcoats are coming!” Well, the purple togas, actually. If Jesus had said, “Take up your arms,” thousands would have followed him. But he says instead, “Take up your cross.” The cross is not yet here a Christian symbol, it’s a Roman military symbol, it’s the Roman firing-squad, only not as nice. He’s saying, if you follow me, you’re in for it. Don’t misunderstand him. He doesn’t mean, “Give in, surrender, and do what they tell you.” Rather the opposite: “Rise up, rise up, but not with weapons, even though they will come back at you, and if you stay the course, your life is on the line.” When Jesus calls for self-sacrifice, he doesn’t mean giving up or giving in, he means a kind of empowerment, an active but non-violent engagement which does not yield to threats.

The thing about such self-sacrifice, the remarkable empowerment, is the freedom implied in it, the self-determination. You have to be self-defining, self-referential. Jesus determines his Messianic strategy not by any of the available Messianic expectations, not even from his closest friends. He determines his own strategy from his own imagination. And in this way he’s acting like the God who spoke to Moses from the burning bush a thousand years before.
Moses says, “Who shall I say sent me?” He isn’t being cute—he really doesn’t know God’s name. He knew the names of the Egyptian gods and goddesses, and what each one controlled and which particular element each one expressed: the sun, the moon, death, the Nile, etc. He knew what name to call on whenever he needed a heavenly favor. But which god are you?

“Tell them Yah-weh sent you.” Or “Jahu.” We’re not sure how to pronounce it. They used to think it was “Jehovah,” but that was a mistake. It’s four Hebrew consonants: Yod He Vov He. It’s actually two verb forms from the conjugation of the verb “to be.” What does it mean? You can’t nail it down. There’s play in it. It’s got a spring inside it that keeps flexing open and closed.

It means: I am who I am. Or: I am that I am. Or: I am as I’ll be. I’ll be as I am. I’ll be as I’ll be. I’m who’s who I am. I’m who’s who I am. My name is Yah-weh, the Lord, capital L capital O capital R capital D.

I am absolutely self-defining, I fit no definition, I am absolutely self-determining, absolutely self-referential, absolutely non-dependent, absolutely free to be as I intend to be and free to do as I will do. I am the self-generating God, I generate my own existence, I did not arise within the universe, in fact I invented the universe, I invented the whole of idea of existence.

I am that free, and because I am so free, with no other obligations or conditions which limit me, you can count on me. Because I will be what I am, and in my very freedom is my faithfulness, my fidelity, my constancy and my integrity.

Mses has to wonder: You can say that, and we’ve heard ancient tales about the god of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but where were you these last four hundred years of our residence in Egypt, while we Israelites gave our due respect to Egypt’s gods and goddesses? And where have you been these last eighty years of our slavery and misery? Sitting above the heavens in your untouchable bliss of self-reference and self-definition? (The Bible doesn’t answer this.) What has this god ever done for us? And now I’m going to tell Pharaoh that you sent me?

How should Moses love this God? They had just met. How should the Israelites love a god who was only a memory? They had to learn to believe this Yahweh, and to learn all the pregnant meaning of the Holy Name, especially the freedom and the faithfulness, they’re going to have gain a lot of knowledge and then also go past knowledge into faith. They’re going to have to be “transformed by the renewal of their minds,” as the Epistle said last week, which transformation is a process, a journey, a long walk, “a long obedience in the same direction,” and it’s a process that you have to go through too, this Christian transformation.

In order to end up at today’s Epistle, Romans 12, the kind of behavior described therein, which is nothing other than a practical expression of the kind of self-sacrifice which Jesus calls for, a self-sacrifice which is actually and almost paradoxically a gaining yourself, an empowerment, when you see that it’s a cycle, a rotation, from self-sacrifice to self-determination to self-sacrifice to self-determination, if that cycle is driven by the double energy of your freedom and your love. Your self-sacrifice is done in freedom and when it’s also in love it generates a greater self, a freer self, a more self-determined self, a growth of soul, which is able to self-sacrifice and yet to experience that sacrifice as gain. It is the constant cycle of the cross and resurrection in your life. It’s part of the inner transformation of your soul and the renewal of your mind. It also requires a transformation of how you think of sacrifice, as something living and gainful.

Notice in Jesus in his combination of self-sacrifice and self-determination, his empowerment in his freedom and his love. He denounces the Romans and the Pharisees but refuses to hate them or hurt them. He prays forgiveness for his abusers as they mock him on the cross. He keeps to his course in spite of everything they throw against him. Jesus is constant and faithful, he is as he is and he will be as he will be, he’s being what God would be within this situation, for he is the image of the unseen God and in him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and in a lesser way we are in God’s image too. Jesus expresses both God and you, at least your vision for yourself.

Last week I ended up talking about self-sacrifice as a key to Christian action in the world. There are many good things you do in the world that do not require sacrifice, but if you’re trying to figure out a strategy for specific Christian witness, you look for at least two things: first, that it means some measure of real self-sacrifice, and second, that it has to do with something right in front of you, in which you have real interest and responsibility, and for which you have gifts. And so the renewal of your mind means learning newly to see what is in front of you and also learning what self-sacrifice requires and what it does not require.

When Jesus says give up your life, he doesn’t mean what the world expects, like asceticism, giving up your ordinary life, your goods and family, like a Buddhist monk. He means you to keep on living in your daily life. Neither does he ask for heroes or martyrs: the only death that you must die is to yourself, to your own agenda and your expectations. But once you see what this yields, it then makes all the sense in the world. And you think, how did I ever want anything different. It’s the life described in our Epistle, Romans 12. “Let love be genuine.” Like God’s love for you.

Copyright © 2014 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Proper 9, July 6, The Story of Rebekah: How Do You Know When It's a God Thing?

Genesis 24:35-38, 42-49, 58-67, Psalm 45:10-17, Romans 7:15-25, Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

[We have to read verses 50-57, or we miss the force of Rebekah’s answer in verse 58.]

Rebekah says, “I will.” I will, I want to. Her bold answer is the key to her story. She decides to go right away, to leave home right away, and that’s a leap of faith.

She had the right to stay home ten days. Those ten days would have been lucrative for her, days for collecting many gifts from all the neighbors, in her new status as the fiancé of a sheik. She gives that up when she says, “I will.” That’s the choice she makes, and it’s the only choice she’s given here.

Consider how little she had to say. Her marriage was arranged by her father and brother with the servant of Abraham. Nobody asked her for her opinion. It was not done. She was not part of the negotiations. Nobody asked her, “Do you, Rebekah, take Isaac, to be your wedded husband?” She never gets to say, “I do.” But then, against the odds, she says, “I will.”

She goes against her family. They assumed she would say, “Of course not.” That’s the little game they played against the servant of Abraham. They expected her to want to stay ten days, in order to honor them. The ten days were for the honor of the family, and for the family getting many gifts as well. But her choice denies them their fair share of the customary loot, and what will be their compensation for never seeing her again? What was she thinking, that she said, “I will”? This is to live by faith, to be a stranger to your family, to be an alien in the world.

Rebekah goes against the social laws of her day, and St. Paul writes, But I see in myself another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells within me. And yet Rebekah chose not to be captive to the social laws of her day, she chose for freedom, but at what great risk, for what did she really know was ahead for her?

Think of Rebekah in the midst of her family when Jesus says, But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, “We played the flute for you and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.”  She did not dance and she did not mourn, she set her eyes forward and looked to the promise she could hardly see. This is to live by your faith. You live in the future, you live for the promise, with its freedom and its loss.

In all these Abraham stories, Rebekah is the character most like him. Like him she left her home behind to go to an unknown land. Yet her choice cost her more than Abraham’s did, for she risked her family’s loyalty. She did it anyway. Which is what Jesus did. Jesus is like Rebekah.

Take Rebekah as your mother. I invite you to say, against the odds, “I will”. Choose for the future, choose for the promise, accept that you may be a stranger and a pilgrim in the world, that you go against the conventions and assumptions and expectations, that you be charged with disloyalty, and disappoint your loved ones. It might mean neither eating nor drinking, and being criticized for that, or eating and drinking, and being called a glutton and drunkard and friend of sinners.

Yes, you do want to live your life like this, you do want Rebekah as your mother, you do want, every day, to say, against the odds, “I will.” You do want to keep stepping out into God’s promise.

Your experience will be more like Rebekah’s than like Abraham’s. Her experience is closer to your own. The call of Abraham came directly from God. What Abraham heard was the voice of God and no one else. And God kept talking to him throughout his pilgrimage. But God never talked to Rebekah. Her call to faith came through the invitation of another human being, in the voice of the servant of Abraham. Her call was not direct but indirect, like your own.

So her response was riskier than Abraham’s. How could she say this was God’s will? Isn’t it much easier to be able to say, “I’m doing this because God told me too,” than to have to say, “I’m doing this because I wanted to, and I’m risking that it’s right.” You meet some pious people who explain their decisions by saying that they’re doing what God told them to do. They’re afraid to say, “I want.” You might think you have to say the same. It would sound more pious. Well, you can be too pious for the Bible. You don’t have to speak like that. You don’t have to say, “God told me so.” You can say, “I want to.” I will go. I choose what I choose, and I trust God.

God wants us to say, “I will,” God wants us to say, “I want.” Only not in terms of the flesh, but rather in terms of God’s promises. Typically we say “I want” in terms of our flesh, as an expression of desire, or lust, or greed, or for our fair share, or to satisfy an appetite, or in conformity with the laws of society and with the rules and conventions of the world.

That’s what Paul means by his term, the flesh in Romans 7. He doesn’t narrowly mean your physical body, but all of your life as you stand apart from God, both body and soul as you resist God’s Spirit, human culture in resistance to God’s Word. Your flesh commands your wanting and your willing. Like Rebekah’s family, who lived conventionally, but apart from the promises to Abraham, and independent of the providence of God, and all the risks involved. The point is to convert your willing and wanting from resistance to trust, from gratification into faith, from satisfaction into hope, and from possession into love. I know you do want this.

How often you find yourself discouraged in your wanting and willing by the resistance and confusion inside you. How often you find yourself choosing the very opposite of what you really want. You choose poorly, and you see it only afterwards. “Why did I choose this, what was I thinking?”

St. Paul describes your condition with compassion.  I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. . . . I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. It’s easier for non-believers, because if you stay within the flesh at least you are unified, but as a Christian you always feel like there are two of you: your life in God’s Spirit and your life in the flesh. Should you turn the other cheek or should you fight for justice? Should you accept your suffering or work for change? Should you tithe or pay down your mortgage? It never ends. You get frustrated and discouraged. How do you know that what you want is from God? How do you know that the Holy Spirit is in you? You know it precisely from the struggle in you, from the doubleness of you, from your unsettling duplicity. That you want the God thing, that you want to say “I will,” and that is what God hears.

The whole family of Rebekah is inside you, Bethuel her father, Milcah her mother, Laban her brother. They are always with you, and you will always be drawn to their interests, and to the social laws they represent, and the laws of the flesh, and your appetites. You will be giving in. And you will keep returning to God in confession and humility and grief and deeper longing.

But at the same time more deeply in you is Rebekah, your mother, the distant matriarch of Jesus, she is real in you, she is the deepest part of you, and that’s the you that God keeps looking on. Midst the clamor of the voices of the family system inside you, God can hear your voice, God knows what you really want, God knows what is your deepest will, even in those many times that you can’t see it through, God knows it, and recognizes it, and reckons it to you as perfection. God believes you when you say, “I want to,” even when you have a very hard time believing it yourself. God believes in you more than you believe in yourself, because God love you even more than you love yourself.

Copyright © 2014 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

June 22, Proper 7: Hagar and Abraham, Choose Between Your Fears

Genesis 21:8-21, Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17, Romans 6:1-11, Matthew 10:24-39

Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 88-90.

Our story from Genesis doesn’t make Abraham look so good. Abraham was in a fix, but the story is on Hagar’s side. In a prior story, God had promised Abraham that he would be the father of nations, and that his descendants would posses the promised land. Such promises depend on your having children, of course, but Abraham had none. So finally his wife Sarah proposed that Abraham sleep with her lovely young slave-girl Hagar, and if Hagar had a son, Sarah could take him as her own, for him to inherit their riches and the promises. This plan Abraham did not protest!

When slavery was legal in America, Black girls were taken all the time by their White masters. According to the ordinary ethics of ancient times, Abraham did nothing wrong. Hagar had no rights. But according to the standards of the Torah this was adultery. More subtly, Abraham insulted God, because he took God’s promises into his own hands. Abraham feared for his future, so he took the ordinary ethic of his day and the standard sexual privilege of powerful men.

Hagar had no rights. Abraham had the power of life-and-death among his household. He had the right to sex with his slave-girl, and Sarah had the right to give her to him, and also to take the slave-girl’s child as her own, even though Hagar would nurse him and do all the work of raising him. Abraham had the right to disinherit the boy whenever he was inconvenient. He also had the right to free his slaves. As he did with Hagar.

But even in freedom Hagar had no rights. Her freedom was no benefit to her. In those days, every woman had to be under the protection of a man, lest any other man might have his way with her. Every town or village would be dangerous for Hagar and her boy, and so she took her chances on the desert. Of all that Abraham did to Hagar, setting her free was the worst.

By the standards of the day he does nothing wrong, but the story depicts it as dishonorable. He does it in the dark, before the dawn, by himself, surreptitiously, and he packs her provisions, which is a servant’s job, and he does it on the cheap, with just some bread and water. He who had hosted a lavish feast to honor little Isaac. He puts the skin of water on her shoulder, touching her body, which once he had loved. She submits to him again. This is how he treats the mother of his son, his firstborn son, for some years his only son: dishonorably and shamefully.

We are troubled by God’s complicity. God tells Abraham to do what Sarah said to do. True enough, God was not complicit in the use and abuse of Hagar in the first place, and it was from Abraham doubting God that this shameful outcome resulted. True, God promises Abraham that Hagar and Ishmael will survive and someday flourish, but imagine him trying to tell her that as he casts her out in the dark. She’d need to have even greater faith than Abraham exhibited.

God rescues her, but it’s not pretty. Why does God allow her to suffer first? And why is it the crying of her boy that God responds to? Does she count for nothing? God watches her suffering from heaven, and only saves her at the last resort. Okay, so God prefers to wait till other hopes are gone. Or do we say that God is always just in time? And that we have to learn the hard way that the right time is not our time? You can’t get around the mysteries of faith.

I do not think that the opposite of faith is doubt. Not most deeply, most existentially. I think the opposite of faith is fear. It’s fear that drives your doubt. You fear that God will not come through. You fear that God will be unfair, or that God will not deliver on God’s promises. You fear that even if God is real, and good, and true, and loving, still God is an ideal, whose promises are ideal, and not to be banked on, so you just have to make do with the darkness of things.

Sarah was operating out of fear for her little boy Isaac, and so to protect him from what she feared she let Hagar and Ishmael suffer. Abraham was also operating out of fear. It specifically says he was distressed. He was afraid of Sarah’s anger, and afraid of dissension in his house, and maybe afraid of his slave-girl and their son, which is why he treated them so shamefully.

Not all fear is bad. Fear has its place. There is such a thing as healthy fear, and the Bible is firm on fearing God. When you plan your future, you have to build in healthy fear of certain things. And you have to choose among your fears. Which do you fear more? Global warming or a weakened economy? Terrorism or state security? Freedom from fear is one of the famous Four Freedoms, but that’s impossible. Freedom means only that you get to choose among your fears.

So often God’s promises run counter to the world’s expectations, so how are you supposed to apply them to the secular world where these promises have no self-evidence nor privilege? It’s natural for you to fear that God will not deliver on God’s promises, and so you yield to the conventional standards of the world.

This fear is addressed by Jesus in our Gospel: Jesus tells his disciples not to be afraid, precisely because following him will bring you new things to be afraid of, and because God’s promises so raise your expectations of the world that you will have more opportunities for doubt than those who do not know God’s promises. Jesus calls you, not to have no fear, but to face your fears and choose between them.

The standard dynamic is that your fear turns back your faith, but I am inviting you to let your faith prioritize your fears and help you choose among your fears: That fearing God you do not fear death. That you fear love, and that you fear love so much that you do not do anything that is not love. That you fear justice, so much that you do not do injustice, even to preserve yourself. That you fear truth and hope, even if your family is against you. That you learn to fear with love and to love what you fear. The great goal of following Jesus is to fear only that which you must love. Fear what you love above fearing anything else.

The Lord Jesus says he came to bring a sword. That sword is not for you to use against someone else, but on yourself, your own worst enemy. St. Paul says it differently in our Epistle. He tells you that you are two of you, simultaneously, the old self always dying, and the new self always rising. As certainly as you are baptized, your old you has been crucified with Christ and your new you has been born again in you. You both live on in you, your you who is enslaved to sin and death and your you who can already breathe the freedom that Jesus had. Your conversion is a daily thing, converting your old you to your new you, and every day you convert yourself again. And when you die, at last you will be only one of you. Your old you will be dead for good, and only your new you will have a future, when you attain your resurrection from the dead.

Slavery and freedom. Which Hagar was better off, the Hagar who was hated by her mistress but who enjoyed the warm security of slavery, or the Hagar who was free, and therefore in danger and at great risk? That’s a tough call. Hagar had figured out how not be afraid of Sarah, but now she has to be afraid of what she does not know and can’t control. Which is more fearful: slavery or freedom? Both of them have much to fear; we see nation after nation backing away from the chance for democracy and choosing the slavery of security.

The freedom of Christ means new things to be afraid of. The light of his love exposes you and you want to hide. His stubborn, quixotic honoring of you makes you feel ashamed. He even loves your old and sinful self, and you should too, but when you want to defend it and explain it he just forgives it and wants it peacefully to die, so that only you live on. You will fear until you die. But perfect love will cast out all your fear. Fear only this, the absolute love of God for you.

Copyright © 2014 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved. 

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

June 8, Pentecost: Community of Jesus #6: Wind, Fire, Earth, Water, and Wine

Acts 2:1-21, Psalm 104:25-35, 37, 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13, John 7:37-39, 20:19-23

All the Jewish pilgrims were gathered in Jerusalem because Pentecost is a major Jewish feast — one of the three great feasts of the Torah, the feast of Shavuoth, the feast of sevens, the feast of weeks, seven weeks, seven times seven, 49 days plus 1 after the Passover.

It is a double feast: it’s the feast of the first-fruits from the gardens and the fields, plus the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, where the congregation of Israel stood as one beneath the mountain where God came down in wind and fire and spoke to them, 50 days after the first Passover.

After the last Passover of Jesus, 49 days plus 1 after his first Easter, the signs and wonders at Mount Sinai are recapitulated in the wind and fire. The God that spoke to Israel at Mount Sinai now speaks to the pilgrim who represent, like delegates, the Jews of all the world. But this is new: from now on God will speak in human voices and in every language, whatever it takes for all of you to get the message. The Holy Spirit loves diversity and multiplicity. In Jesus you get the unique and once-for-all, the only-begotten, and in the Spirit you get ever-unfolding variety and experiment.

It’s the feast of the first-fruits. If Israel is the first-fruits of humanity, and if the first-fruits are now brought in, then it’s time to start working the fuller crops, and for all the other nations and ethnicities and orientations of humanity to be spoken to, and become God’s people too, and receive the Holy Spirit, and bring their gifts to God, the fruits of their own languages and music and traditions and cultures and histories.

This is what the Holy Spirit has been up to ever since that Pentecost. It’s not just your souls that are of interest. It’s not just your souls that belong to the Kingdom of God. It’s also your bodies and your voices and your accents and your dances and your fiddles and your pencils and your poems and your fishing poles.

This outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon all flesh is the greatest benefit and application of the Ascension that we marked last week. The Lord Jesus, in his human flesh, is not among us, he is not in the world in the ordinary way, because he is somehow, in some unexplained way, representing us before the face of God. But in his divinity he is with us in a greater way than before: he pours out on us a double portion of his Spirit. The Holy Spirit is a power and energy, for sure, but more than that, the Holy Spirit is another person of the Trinity, the person of the three who is the soul of God, the peculiar self of God, the who-ness of God. And that God comes among us and inside us.

Jesus had told his disciples that it would be better for us if he left us than if he remained with us, because while he was with us in the flesh, God was dwelling among us in only one particular person, taking up one small space, and all eyes were on him. But he has left, and sent his Spirit, and now God is spread out among you all, in all of your locations and your persons, and all eyes are on us.

With Jesus it’s the One, and with the Spirit it’s you the many; the result of Pentecost is that the story of Jesus is succeeded by the story of you. What Jesus has accomplished by his once-for-all death and resurrection is that God is in you, delighting in all your various particulars and personalities, God enjoying and employing all your various aptitudes and gifts. Jesus couldn’t speak English; you can.

From our lessons today we get four images: wind, fire, earth, water, and wine. The first four are the four elements of ancient times. We will take them in that order: air, fire, earth, water, and wine.

The first one, wind, is also breath. The Holy Spirit is the wind of God and the breath of God. The breath of God is the soul of God, God’s inner self, which God breathes into us. Not the animal soul that you’re born with, but the uncreated and transcendent soul, the soul more powerful than death and sin and guilt, the soul who never tires nor fatigues, who never is exhausted or expired, a soul who is pure love and faithfulness even inside your unlovely infidelities, this breath who forgives your sins and inspires you to forgive each other too.

You can’t see the wind, but you can see what’s moved by it, and you can feel it only indirectly, by pressure on your skin. Don’t be dismayed that you don’t feel the Holy Spirit inside you. What you feel in yourself is the pressure and movement of the Spirit against the rougher surfaces of your personality. The Holy Spirit makes you grieve until your grief is done, it rubs against the guilt in you until your guilt is cleaned away, and it erodes your selfishness until your self is made smooth. Slowly you begin to feel yourself softening and flexing and expanding in capacity and love, as the Spirit inflates you and inspires you until it so perfectly fills your inner spaces that you won’t feel it at all.

Not just in you but also in the world. The Holy Spirit is the wind of God that is loose in the world. We name a wind by whence it comes but where it will go we can only guess. God is in the world to inspire the world and quicken it, and God is opening new ways in the world.

The second element is fire, and the fire is the presence of God. The burning bush, the flame upon Mount Sinai, the pillar of fire by night, and the tongues of fire on their heads. The fire is another sign of God’s own self. The Holy Spirit is both God’s energy and God’s own personality. God’s person is dangerous. God burns you in judgment. But the fire of God will also comfort you and warm you up and keep you safe against the cold and dark malicious dangers of the world.

The third element is the earth, and that’s for you and your embodiment. God made you from the dust of the earth and God loves the earth. You see that in Psalm 104: "God’s Spirit renews the face of the earth." Don’t be misled by the notion that to be spiritual is to be unearthly. God rejoices in the earth and all of its creatures. God’s Spirit hardens the rocks, and spices the air, and browns the earth, and salts the sea, and freshens the rivers. God makes you a garden, that you produce the fruits of the new creation in your life. God enjoys the flowers of your personality and God takes pleasure in your work. The Holy Spirit is in you to come out of you for the unfolding of the world. The Holy Spirit is given to the church to come out of the church for the healing of the nations.

And fourth, water; the Holy Spirt is the living water who satisfies your thirst and brings life to your dry dust. The Spirit is the river that rises in you and flows out of you. The image that Jesus offers in the gospel comes from Genesis 2 verse 10. God planted a garden in the East called Eden, and out of the Garden four rives flowed to water all the earth. Just so your own spirit rises out of you into the life you make, into what you do and into your relationships. And the Holy Spirit mixes God’s water with yours to overcome your pollution and keep your river running fresh.

The Holy Spirit is pure water. But of course there is no such thing as pure wine. Every wine is a different mixture, from its particular variety of grape, and its particular soil, and its vintage and its pressing and barreling and bottling and aging. Our Lord turns water into wine. Our Lord turns the water of the Holy Spirit into the particular varietal of your peculiar life. The gospel wonderfully transforms the purity of the Spirit into the manifold diversity of all your lives. The Holy Spirit loves diversity, even while in the One Lord Jesus we find our unity. The Lord Jesus is perfect and unique, and the works of the Spirit are passing and provisional and mixed and broken, but even for that they are no less the realities of God’s salvation in the world. The water of Jesus is the wine of the Spirit.

And that is you, Old First. You are one of God’s realities of salvation in the world, and you must believe in yourself as the work of God. You can believe in yourself, Old First, despite how mixed and broken and provisional ou are, because, as you repeat in the Creed says, you believe in the Holy Spirit, and thus you believe in the Holy Catholic Church.

I take great pleasure in the diversity of this congregation, even in small compass, your variety of ethnicity, race, and orientation, which variety we celebrate today with the recognition of Timothy and Zoë as new members, two new crew-members on this old boat that sails before the wind. We know where the wind came from but where it’s going we can’t see until we get there. Our course has slightly changed again because they are now on board, with their peculiar histories and gifts. But you rejoice in these adjustments because you want to love them, and you want to love them because they are loved so much by Our Lord.

Copyright © 2014 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

June 1, Easter 7, Community of Jesus #5: Cloud-Based Believing

 Acts 1:6-14, Psalm 68:1-10, 33-36, 1 Peter 4:12-14, John 17:1-11

We’re going to have a baptism today, but I’m not going to do it, because it’s for my granddaughter and I want to stay out of the way. I didn’t baptize her mother either, or my son. I wanted to just be the father, and now I want to be just one of the grandparents, the four of us. The minister who’s doing it is Rev. Howard Major, who for 28 years was the pastor of our sister congregation in New Paltz, so he’s had lots of practice.

As for this sermon, well, it’s never wise to preach to your daughter, and neither to your son-in-law. So momentarily I will regard them not as family but as the member and adherent of this congregation that they are, who have rightly brought their child to the water. So it’s true that this is a nice day for our tribe, but only coincidentally.

This baptism is not about biology, it’s about mission. The place that Dave and Anni have within the liturgy is as officers of the church, officers with a mission in the life of this little girl. They represent the church within her life. For the next few years they are her surrogate Sunday School teachers, her surrogate elders and deacons, and her pastor by proxy. For her they are the Community of Jesus. The three of them are a small Community of Jesus, in an apartment, with a dog.

And all of you are surrogates as well. You today, who are this congregation, you represent an entity greater than yourselves. You represent the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. That’s the church into which this little girl is being baptized. Yes, her name is written in the register book as a baptized member of Old First church, because it’s in the form and matter of local congregations that the universal church exists, but this particular Community of Jesus is the surrogate for the great Community of Jesus extending around the globe and reaching far into the future and stretching back through time to that first small gathering in Jerusalem on Ascension Day.

So the register of names is a very long one, from the Book of Old First stretching back to the Book of Acts. At this end, Naomi Beatrice Eppley, and at the other end, going backwards: Jesus’ brothers, and his mother Mary, and then Judas Jameson, and Simon, James ben-Alphaeus, Matthew, Bartholomew, Thomas, Philip, Andrew, James at number 3, John at number 2, and Peter number 1. I wonder what your number is, Naomi, in that great list? I wonder how many other names today are being added to that register in other congregations, from the ends of the earth back to Jerusalem? God knows their number. God calls them each by name.

Let’s talk about that Ascension Day. How high up into heaven did Jesus go before the cloud removed him from their sight? Was it a low cloud, like the cloud upon Mount Sinai in the Exodus and the cloud upon Mount Hermon at Our Lord’s transfiguration, or like the cloud in South Africa at Cape Town which covers the long flat top of Table Mountain like a Tablecloth? Was the cloud that low? I believe we are to take it so. The point is not that the Lord Jesus went so far away as that he passed into the unseen reality all around above us.

How far up is heaven? I have spoken to you of this before. We assume it is way up. But in the Bible, heaven was felt as close. It started just above the ground, and then it was heaven all the way up. Mountains were thought of as poking into heaven, and thus the mountain-top experience—in the realm of light and air, where birds and spirits lived beyond the grip of gravity, the realm of freedom. The point of heaven isn’t altitude but attitude. It’s not far away, it’s all around, but invisible to us, unless it opens up to us somehow.

Right now this room is full of radio waves at different frequencies. Only few of them are visible. There are in here microwaves and short-waves and AM waves and FM waves, and they are carrying a million messages of information and conversation. You can’t sense them unless you have a receiver of some kind. Some of these waves can travel great distances and bounce around the atmosphere. Once I was driving in Canada at sundown and I picked up the broadcast of a Mets game. On short-wave radio you can communicate with anyone around the world. But if you lack the device or the power to run the device you are senseless of this conversation, no matter how real it is.

This is what heaven is like, the heaven which Jesus entered on Ascension Day. It’s the great and living conversation all around above us, the reality beyond the grip of gravity, unbound by time and space, but powerful, and present to the world, and the earthly world is very much within its interest. The radiation in it is the power of Our Ascended Lord, and the information in it is his living Word. And when you also enter that conversation, that is what we call prayer. When we raise up a child in the Christian faith, we teach the child how to tune in to the wavelength of that great conversation already going on. That’s why prayer is just as much about listening as it is speaking.

There’s a story about a man who was exhausted and discouraged. His friend was a person of prayer, and he asked her what her secret was. She said, "I have no secret, I just pray." He said, "I pray too, but I don’t think my prayers even reach the ceiling." She said, "They don’t have to go that far." When we read in our Gospel Lesson of Jesus praying in the Upper Room for his disciples on the night before he died, that he lifted up his eyes to heaven, what he saw with his eyes was the ceiling. And the prayer that he was praying then for his disciples is what he’s praying in heaven for you now.

The Heidelberg Catechism says that you can find comfort in the doctrine of the Ascension because it means that Jesus intercedes for you in the presence of his Father. He knows exactly what it’s like to have a body, to be hungry, to be hated, to be beaten and abused, to be a refugee, to be a little child bundled about. And because Jesus knows, God knows. When Jesus prays in heaven for this little girl it’s not at a distance but here among us, under this ceiling, in our midst.

Now what about that cloud in the story? In the Bible the cloud is the sign of the presence of God which also hides God from your sight. Is God really there or not? What is God up to in there? This past week I just started to do some cloud-based computing. It’s a little scary, not having my files securely on my hard drive. Not even my programs. They’re out of my possession. I really don’t know where those files are, but I can always get at them.

Dearly beloved, you are called to practice cloud-based believing. Your knowledge is not with you but with Jesus in the cloud. The programs you operate are not with you but with Jesus in the cloud. That’s a hard lesson, but it’s for the best.

The disciples had to face this now. The disciples had not foreseen that Jesus would be leaving them. They liked having him back, back from the dead in flesh and blood, standing right there with them, ready to do some politics, but then he left them. Now they have to deal with a cloudy new reality which is not clear to them but into which they must project their belief.

So much is not defined. Like how it works, that he still has a real live Jewish human body with hair and nails and such, and exist somehow the way he does. What space and time can hold him? And who are these two men? Where did they come from? They are not angels, they are men, with bodies too. Did they come here from the future? Is that where Jesus is? My best answer is Yes, and my message to you today is that from the future he is bending our history towards his kingdom of righteousness and peace as we slowly come to him.

You can’t see the future of this little girl. You can’t define what lies ahead for her or what kind of choices she will make. But you can project your belief into the future of her life, her future which the Lord Jesus is bending towards his final righteousness and peace, because he is already there, and at the same time he is also here with her, under this ceiling.

You know, Our Lord is the real guy doing the baptism, and as certainly as Rev. Major pours the water on her head so certainly does the Lord Jesus pour his Spirit into her heart. When Rev. Major repeats her name so certainly does Our Lord repeat it too, and announce it to his Father, and the Father delights to say her name and love her. And when you all witness it, be reminded that God knows your name as well, and delights to say your name, because of how much God loves you.

Copyright © 2014 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.