Thursday, January 11, 2018
1 Samuel 3:1-20, Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17, 1 Corinthians 6:12-20, John 1:43-51
From our First Reading, I am going to explain how the prophecy of little Samuel develops.
The prophecy begins as recitation. Samuel recites verbatim what the Lord God had told him.
But this objective recitation gets framed within little Samuel’s subjective experience, his childlike mind and innocent thoughts and natural fear of what he’s been told. His experience of the prophecy becomes part of the prophecy.
And so does the hearing of the recitation by old priest Eli. The prophecy has become three-dimensional: the prophecy includes the objective recitation, plus the subjective experience of reciting it, plus the other subjective experience of hearing and receiving it.
And then it gets four-dimensional, when it extends through time, when the story is passed down and then written down in a book, so that it can be read out loud. The book itself is a prophecy. You know the First Book of Samuel is listed as an historical book in Christian Bibles, but in the Hebrew Bible it is counted among the Prophets. The story of the prophecy becomes the prophecy.
So when we read the story out in church, the prophecy gets prophesied all over again, and again in three-dimensions: the lector reading it out, which recapitulates the original objective recitation, then the experience of the lector and the preacher, which recapitulates Samuel, and then the listening of the congregation recapitulates old Eli and his “let it be.”
And the prophecy keeps moving forward into the fourth dimension of time, to open up space in the world, space in our lives, and in that space to welcome our questions and answers and our hopes and fears, inviting our faith, and in that space to call us into a community of mutual speaking and listening, generating our testimony and witness for us to share in shaping the world, so that we might share in creating the new creation.
I said last week that Biblical prophecy is typically conversational; not exclusively, but typically. Some prophets were loners, but Jesus gathered a fellowship, a community. Jesus says, “Follow me.” Follow me into my words, follow me into my life and conversation. And the Gospel reports this marvelous three-way conversation zipping around between Jesus, Philip, and Nathanael.
It’s electric and it moves fast, from the “follow me” to a “eureka-we have found him,” to a sarcastic put-down, to a second invitation, to a double-entendre compliment, to a defensive question, to a surprising answer, to an ecstatic profusion of titles, to a penetrating rhetorical question, to the climactic prophetic prediction. In the beginning was the talk, and the talk was made flesh and dwelt among us. We can detect an image of the Holy Trinity in this three-personned prophecy. The conversational prophecy began with Philip confessing his name, and it ended with Our Lord’s climactic prediction.
I said last week that Biblical prophecy is more typically speaking than seeing. But not exclusively. And when it is seeing, it is rarely seeing the future and usually seeing the hidden reality of now, seeing beyond the veil of human limitation, seeing the present world as heaven sees it. Here Jesus calls it “seeing greater things.”
And the vision that he predicts is strange. He adapts the Old Testament vision of Jacob’s Ladder, Jacob’s staircase, stretching from earth to heaven with angels moving up and down, and he makes himself the escalator! Shall we picture a giant, stretched-out Jesus, toes in the earth and finger-tips in heaven? Or the other way around, toes in heaven and fingers in the earth, so that we can see his face? Where is Jesus when he says, like little Samuel, “Here I am”? Is he in heaven as the Son of Man, representing us and pleading for us and judging us, or is he here with us, the Son of God in whom the whole of God is pleased to dwell? Or both? How to interpret this strange vision? Does the prophet always understand what she can see?
Prophecy tells more than we can understand in order to challenge our understanding and to nourish it. Prophets often don’t comprehend the greater implications of their prophecies. When Nathanael confessed Jesus as “the Son of God and the King of Israel” he meant those titles as equivalents, and at one level they were, so he was right, yet he did not comprehend the greater implications of those titles.
I know that I often have to speak to you of things I do not fully understand. And yet I always appeal to your understanding. So let me invite you to speak of things you do not fully understand. Not from willful ignorance, but because you want to be as open to what’s beyond you as was Samuel, you want to be as quickened by it as Philip and Nathanael were, and you want to enjoy it.
But prophecy can be trouble. It can tingle your ears. Little Samuel could sense the trouble in it. With touching economy the narrative reports him sleepless after the message, and then he goes about his chores as if nothing had happened to avoid Eli.
In coming weeks we will read other troubling prophecies. Biblical prophecy can sound hurtful or vengeful, but even then its purpose is to clear away and open up. It makes space in the world, space within the clutter of humankind’s initiatives, space within the rubble of human self-aggrandizement, and space within the garbage of human pride. Space in your own life, space within your fears and commitments and assumptions.
And into this space that prophecy makes, Jesus says, “Follow me.” He invites you to follow him into the great conversation that both judges the world and renews the world. He calls you both backward and forward. You follow him into these old books and stories, these poems and histories, these ancient narratives, and then as you talk about them with other listeners God speaks to you.
Somebody asked me how come God doesn’t speak to us anymore like in the ancient days. God is still speaking, but in a different way, by means of the four-dimensional Biblical conversation that you can be part of. It will be the Lord, though you can never neatly distinguish God’s voice from your own subjective experience or from the back-and-forth of dialogue, but by the Holy Spirit it will be the Lord. That’s the way that the Lord Jesus has set it up with his companions.
And you also follow him into the present and the future, as his conversation moves forward in time, and as you put it into practice, on your own and in community. Not just ethical practice, but prophetic practice, bearing witness to the truth amidst the prevalent confusion, and by your lifestyle you testify against the news which is not fake but has no hope.
One of you told me this week that it’s precisely in times that we are living that prophecy is relevant and necessary. Right within the sad and crazy world the dynamic conversation is gradually, and with humility, creating a new heaven and new earth. “Let this be, let that be, it is the Lord.”
Jesus says, “Follow me,” and what do these lessons tell you to say? Like little Samuel, you can say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” Because you have to do a lot of listening to share in prophecy. Listening like Eli too. More listening than talking. I love the picture of little Samuel being open to God by being present to himself. Being patient in the silence for the still, small voice of God.
And you can also say something more basic, what little Samuel said to begin with, “Here I am.” Three times he said it, “Here I am,” which in Hebrew is Hineini. I have spoken to you of this before. It’s what Abraham said to God at the sacrifice of Isaac. “Here am I, here I am.” It’s what the Virgin Mary said to the archangel. It’s what Adam failed to say when he hid himself from God.
You have to choose to say it, “Here I am,” because there is so much to push you off, and even the Word of God pushes you off at least a little bit. Why does the Bible say that? What does this passage mean? And do I have to join another conversation, do I have to enter another community? Can’t I just hear God’s voice on my own?
I am not saying you can’t ever. But the deep purpose of the conversational prophecy is that it requires love and it’s a practice of love. You don’t just listen for God, you listen for each other. You don’t begin with, “Let me tell you,” you begin with, “Here I am.” The love that little Samuel had for old Eli is important to the story. “Here I am, I present myself, I am present to you, I offer myself to you.”
Our great example is the three persons of the Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, eternally present to each other in their original and loving conversation. Even prophecy comes down to love. In love Jesus calls you, “Follow me,” and you practice love when you answer, “Here I am.”
Copyright © 2018 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.
Sunday, January 07, 2018
Genesis 1:1-5, Psalm 29, Acts 19:1-7, Mark 1:4-11
Let’s start with Heidelberg Catechism Questions 31 and 32. It’s from 1563, so it’s real old-timey:
31 Q. Why is the Son of God called “Christ,” meaning “anointed”?
A. Because he has been ordained by God the Father and has been anointed with the Holy Spirit to be: our chief prophet and teacher, who perfectly reveals to us the secret counsel and will of God for our deliverance; our only high priest, who has set us free by the one sacrifice of his body, and who continually pleads our cause with the Father; and our eternal king, who governs us by his Word and Spirit, and who guards us and keeps us in the freedom he has won for us.
32 Q. Why are you called a “Christian”?
A. Because by faith I am a member of Christ and so I share in his anointing. I am anointed: to confess his name; to present myself to him as a living sacrifice of thanksgiving; to strive with a good conscience against sin and the devil in this life, and afterward to reign with Christ over all creation for all eternity.
You see how the second question follows on the first question: as the word “Christian,” which is used of you, derives from the title of “Christ,” which is used of him, so your purpose and identity as a Christian derive from his purpose and identity as Christ. And if Christ is a prophet, a priest, and a king, then you as a Christian are also in some sense a prophet, and a priest, and a king or queen or ruler or whatever.
Today, in particular, prophecy. According to the Catechism, you share in Christ’s anointing as a prophet. And according to the Catechism, your prophecy is simply to confess his name. Yes, but there’s more, there’s more to your being a prophet. So my sermon series for the next six weeks is on prophecy, and what prophecy means, and how prophecy is for all of you.
Prophecy is not unique to Christianity. It takes different forms in different cultures and religions. It is often equated with predicting the future, but that’s just one part of it. Prophets are often called Seers, but Biblical prophets are more like Speakers. In Biblical prophecy the future is not fated, as with the Greeks. The Biblical future is dependent on our choices now, so the burden of prophecy is to tell the truth about the present, to name the truth about the present reality instead of avoiding or denying it, so that we can make right choices in the exercise our human freedom.
In some religions, a prophet is a human oracle, a mouthpiece of destiny or of the gods. In Islam, the prophet recites the message of Allah word for word, taking dictation from the angel. But in the Bible, the prophecies are often conversational, God and the prophet having conversations, so that the prophets’ personalities come into their prophecies.
A Biblical prophet is more than a mouthpiece, and is even a partner with God’s Holy Spirit in the Word of God. That’s true whether their prophecies are simply spoken, like Elijah’s, or written as literature, like the Major Prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah and the Minor Prophets Amos and Obadiah. The prophets of the Bible have some say in the Word of God, because their say-so serves whatever God is saying.
What prophecy shares in all religions is that its information is privileged. Its information comes from beyond the normal capacities of intelligence, its truth goes past the normal limitations of reason, and its visions go beyond the normal boundaries of human experience, and yet it always means to address our intelligence and speak to our reason and make claims on our experience.
Prophecy assumes a privilege and standing and even authority that cannot be proven from within our boundaries and limitations. So human reason and experience may well doubt the claims of prophecy and deny its privilege. When I first moved to Hoboken, in 1991, an old evangelist named Mr. Ulfilas Shah solemnly told me that God had told him that I was to be the missionary to the Hindus of New Jersey. I told him, Sorry, but God had not told me that. He did beg my pardon.
Because prophecy is from beyond the boundary, there is always some mystery in it, even if just a little. How open are you to mystery? How much mystery do you want in your life? I don’t mean mysteries as puzzles waiting for solutions given sufficient clues and right deductions. I mean the magnificent mysteries of the universe, the mystery of light, the mystery of life, the mysteries that human reason embraces but cannot contain, mysteries inspiring us to joyful wonder and humility.
How much mystery, how much transcendence do you want in your life? And do you want that transcendence to be empty, and the mystery formless and vague? If you are open to that transcendent mystery having form and shape and color and meaning, then you can be open to prophecy, and you can even aspire to being the minor prophet that you were anointed to be.
Some of the mysteries of prophecy are prosaic, like, what was going on in that story from our Epistle reading, Acts 19? What were those twelve Christians doing when they spoke in tongues and prophesied? We will never know for certain, the author does not explain it. We can guess with some confidence by consulting other passages, but interpretations differ.
One faulty but popular interpretation teaches a second baptism after water baptism, a baptism of the spirit that results in speaking in tongues. But Jesus did not speak in tongues when the Holy Spirit baptized him. When the Ethiopian eunuch got baptized, the manifestation of the Holy Spirit in him was his joy as he rode home in his chariot. When the Philippian jailer got baptized he washed St. Paul and served him dinner. A variety of manifestations all point to one invisible reality, which is God coming into the world as the Holy Spirit entering into ordinary people to dwell in you and inspire you. Transcendence inside you.
In a few minutes four of you will be standing before us to be recognized as new members of this church. You each have your reasons for doing this, but these reasons you have in common: you are publicly identifying as a Christian, you are stepping up to share some responsibility for this congregation, and you are publicly declaring some measure of allegiance to Jesus Christ. We will anoint you with oil, to remind you of the anointing of your baptism, which marked you as a member of Christ, and we anoint you to suggest the invisible transcendence of what you are standing up for.
Just by your standing before us you confess the name of Jesus Christ, which, according to the Catechism, is the beginning of your prophecy. So today I am calling you minor prophets. Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Jack, Margaret, Ann, Philip. And beyond that minimum what shall your particular prophecies be? What will you say? What kind of things will you say? If you have been given the Holy Spirit of God, then you have a say in what God says, so how will what you say serve what God says?
Human beings are the creatures who speak. Among all the creatures of creation, human beings are the ones who talk voluminously and of necessity. Christian doctrine teaches that this is because, among the creatures, we are the images of God. We speak because God spoke. So your speech, your use of words, your writing, is inherently sacred, no matter what you’re speaking of, from pots and pans to prophecies.
And this too, we are also the creative ones among the creatures, because we are the images of the Creator. And the way that God created was by God’s speech. God shaped and formed the world not with the hands of angels or giants but simply by speaking it into shape.
Your prophecy is your having a say in the shaping of the new creation. It’s not that you see the future but that you have a say in the future of the world. You have a say in the forming of God’s sovereignty, by the truths you tell about the world, by the interpretations you espouse, by the reports you make, you help to create the future by your speech and how you talk.
You are a Christian for the world, not only for the church. Your access to transcendence is your gift to open up the world that is closed in on itself. The truths that you tell you help people make their choices. By the stories you tell and your conversation you keep the world open to joy and hope and faith and love.
And you are prophetic about your self, you tell the mysterious truth about yourself. You believe it and confess it, that you are known by name by God. That God has chosen to inhabit you. Reason cannot prove it, it takes prophetic speech to say such a thing about yourself, that God has said to you, Phil, Margaret, Ann, Jack, you are my Child, my Beloved, with you I am well pleased. The very beginning of your prophecy is to affirm that you yourself are loved by God.
Copyright © 2018 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.
Wednesday, December 27, 2017
Good evening, and welcome to the 363nd Christmas of this church. Whoever you are, wherever you come from, whatever your belief or unbelief, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or something else, whether you worship Christ or simply admire him, I am glad that you came here tonight.
Christmas Eve is not church property, it is a public holiday with different meanings for different people, and all those meanings are welcome here. For Christians it means the dawn of redemption, the good news of the birth of the Savior.
For Jews it is ambiguous. The birth of Jesus anticipates so much Jewish suffering inflicted by Christians, and yet, this boy and his mother are Jews, so that the hopes and dreams of Israel are of unique and eternal significance for all of humanity. Christmas Eve is a Jewish gift to the world.
For Muslims it means that the prophet Jesus, Issa, peace be upon him, was born of a Jewish virgin named Mariam, and Muslims love Mary more than Protestants do. They also believe that Jesus never died—that he was born not to die. This is one of those places where we differ in our stories.
Do not think it strange that our quartet is going to sing that Appalachian gospel favorite, And Am I Born to Die. Why that dark note on Christmas Eve? Darkness belongs to Christmas Eve no less than the light. I mean we’re all going to die, all mammals die, all vertebrates die, but we are born to live. Jesus was born to live. But he was also born to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, and the strange thing about the human condition is that if you do that all your life, you will suffer for it, and you may well die from it. Memphis. Tienanmen Square. Multiply examples.
If you speak up, they’ll take you down. If you persist, they’ll silence you. If you resist the harassment of your boss, your career will suffer and you’ll lose your job. Yes, I mean the Me Too movement, praise God, and it’s remarkable that this old Christmas story is so relevant to it.
The Virgin Birth of Jesus means many things, but if Mary conceived him in her womb by the Holy Spirit (notice, not by God the Father, but by the Spirit), if she conceived him without the seed of any man, that means the total repudiation of male privilege, that means the absolute exclusion of masculine power from the firstborn of the new creation; Mary is an Eve without an Adam, thank you very much. And her song we call the Magnificat is as revolutionary as a song can get and still be legal.
And he is his mother’s son. He shares her DNA, and in fact no one else’s. Picture this newborn in the manger clenching his tiny fist. Me too! Of course his clenched fist is natural for infants, but take it as a symbol, a symbol of resistance, resistance to evil, resistance to violence and falsehood and oppression, the baby is born for the resistance. Which is why King Herod wanted to kill him and they had to flee to Egypt.
Not the armed resistance. That would be the male privilege and the masculine power, but the resistance of his mother, not a life-taker but a life-giver, who persisted through the scandal of her pregnancy with her purpose and belief. The persistence of her light shining in the darkness, and the darkness cannot quench it.
There are many meanings to the birth we celebrate tonight. We celebrate the young woman who bruised with her heel the head of the serpent. We celebrate the young woman who said, like Abraham, Here am I. We celebrate the mother who, like Abraham, walked with her son to the point of his sacrifice. We celebrate her son, who learned the Jewish way of righteousness and brought it to the poor and the outcasts and the meek of the earth. We celebrate her son, who took the Jewish forgiveness of sins and in dying offered it to all the world. We celebrate her son who took the Jewish hope for the resurrection and extended it to all the peoples of the world. If I am born to die, it is because “it is in dying that we are born unto eternal life. Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.”
We celebrate peace instead of war. We celebrate wisdom and understanding instead of conniving and manipulation. We celebrate welcome instead of exclusion. We celebrate angels singing to poor shepherds instead of to the comfortable entitled ones. We celebrate God with us. We celebrate a baby!
I was speaking last week with one of our younger members, quite an activist—demonstrating, marching, calling Congress—who told me that she was considering immigrating to another country, because she so despairs about the direction of our own. I asked her if she had any hope. She said, “Actually yes, from my friends having children. They’re having babies. I get hope from that.”
A baby calls us back to our best basic instincts: welcome, shelter, peace, inclusion, our own self-sacrifice, and most of all, unconditional love. Yes, someone else’s baby! The baby raises her tiny fist for the revolution of love. Mary’s love, your love, God’s love. Her tiny fist will open up to clutch, to hold, embrace, and in good time to bless and to heal. This is the Lord’s revolution, the revolution of love to which we bear witness when we celebrate tonight with all this music. Not only joy, but hope and love. God bless you one and all.
Copyright © 2017 by Daniel Meeter, All Rights Reserved.
Thursday, December 21, 2017
The Virgin Birth of Jesus is superfluous. It’s an extra. I mean that it is not necessary, for the work of salvation by the Lord Jesus, for him to have been born of a virgin. And even though the later traditions of the church figured his Virgin Birth as the proof of his divinity, the Bible itself did not report it for such.
The Virgin Mary did not take it so, for whatever she knew in her own body about his miraculous conception, she did not regard her son as divine, before his resurrection. All the apostles were moved to call Jesus “my Lord and my God,” by his resurrection, not his Virgin Birth.
No wonder two of the gospels do not even mention his birth, neither Mark nor John. Not that they did not know about it, as it was already reported by Matthew, the original gospel that both Mark and John depended on. Nor did they dispute it; it just did not rise to first importance.
When Matthew reported it, he told it from Joseph’s viewpoint, in terms of his dilemmas and his dreams. Matthew presented the miracle of the birth as fulfillment, as fulfillment of the prophecy in Isaiah, “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and you shall call his name Emmanuel,”—God with us.
Now, as many have pointed out, in that prophecy, the Hebrew word for “virgin” can simply mean young woman. Yes, likely unmarried, but a virgin only by implication of her being still untaken. So while it is not necessary for us to read virginity into Isaiah’s prophecy, neither is it untenable, but it too is a superfluity and an extra.
To call it a superfluity and an extra is not to take away from it. To say that it was not necessary is not to diminish it. No, because this God does not stop with what is necessary. With this God, the efficient is insufficient. God gives extras and superfluities.
This is especially true of God the Holy Spirit. Think of Pentecost, where in Jerusalem all the diaspora Jews could get along just fine in Greek or Aramaic, but the Holy Spirit rejoiced in the unnecessary extravagance of all their native languages. Think of Creation itself, in which the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life, brought forth the superabundant riot of life upon this planet.
The Holy Spirit loves manifold multiplicity, especially of living things, and this Holy Spirit loves bodies, yes, physical bodies. This Holy Spirit delights in the superabundance of living creatures, the inefficient extravagance of peacocks and hummingbirds, the unnecessary beauty of flowers whose efficiency is just to gather bugs and birds. The Holy Spirit is that person of the Holy Trinity who is responsible for the superfluous generosity and abounding grace of God. And this Holy Spirit who loves physical bodies descends to rest upon the womb of the Virgin Mary, for a Christmas present.
St. Luke reports the conception of Jesus in the womb of Mary specifically as the work of the Holy Spirit. Did you notice it’s not the work of God the Father? Why does everybody think so? It’s the work of the Holy Spirit. And just as the Spirit at creation brooded upon the waters of the deep, so now the Holy Spirit rests upon the waters of Mary’s womb, in order to bring about a new creation, a new humanity. Her son will be the first-born of that new creation. So not just a new Adam, but a whole new creation. O brave new world, that hath such people in it.
I am saying that while the Virgin Birth of Jesus is unnecessary for salvation, while it is extraneous to the necessities of God’s faithfulness, while it is superfluous to the covenant, from St. Luke’s point of view it is the new creation not required by the old. And I'm saying that it tells us something about Jesus’ humanity even more than his divinity.
I repeat that it’s not specifically the work of God the Father. This is important. In this case the Holy Trinity is working in Mary in the mode of the Spirit, not in the mode of the Father. In other words, this is not a case of some heavenly male privilege taking power over a woman and her body.
Indeed, that is the judgment implied by the Virgin Birth, the judgment of an absolute denial of male privilege. A judgment on masculine power. The elimination of the masculine contribution to the world’s solutions. Don’t you love it! Every year the problems of society help us see new things in this old, old story. God is saying, I’m just done with men here. Let’s leave it all with a woman. For this new creation, this new humanity, let’s start with Eve this time, and just leave Adam out of it.
There is the problem of her consent. Did Mary consent to this? And did it hang on her consent? The angel waited for her answer. Could she have answered No? The critics think she had no choice, that she was trapped into saying Yes. Well, St. Luke doesn’t picture it that way. He doesn’t picture Mary as submissive. Yes, she’s perplexed at the surprising greeting of the angel, and yes, she wonders how she could get pregnant without male seed, but she doesn’t say anything like, “I am not worthy,” or “I don’t know how I’m going to do this.” What she says is, “Here am I.” What Abraham said. “Here am I.” What the prophets said. It’s a strong response.
I figure that the Lord God knew enough about Mary to expect her positive response, just like when I ask one of you to volunteer for some job in the church. It remains your free choice, but I can estimate your interests and capacities, and that you like to step up. I think God knew that Mary would step up. This is the woman who a couple months later sang her song of the Magnificat, a song of praise, a song of positive self-awareness, of empowered servanthood, and of revolution—social, economic, and political revolution. Mary was the woman God wanted to raise the Messiah.
I have told you before that in the biological understanding of Bible times, a virginal birth was even more impossible than it is today. They thought conception was all from the seed of the male, and the mother was but the earth in which the seed was planted, so that the woman contributed nothing but a waiting womb. So for Mary to conceive in her womb was even more of miracle back then than it would be now.
And the point of the miracle was not that he was thereby God, but that he was the first of a whole new humanity. As Adam was formed from the dust of the earth, without the seed of any father, so Jesus was conceived in the womb of Mary, without the seed of any father. This new Adam of Mary’s womb is a new model human, who is formed not just by the dwelling of the Spirit, but by the answer of his mother. When she said, “Here I am,” he was conceived.
So there is a negative judgment against male privilege and masculine power in the Virgin Birth. But there is also a positive judgment in favor of humble human privilege. You get to say “Yes” to the Holy Spirit and her coming into the world and even into your life. Your “Yes” is important, your “Here am I” is critical.
The Holy Spirit wants to make a new you inside you, right inside your old new. Not an enemy of your old you, but a lover of your old you, warts and all, with all your sins and miseries, your doubts and your fears, all that you feel guilty of. That old you is loved by your new you, your new you being born in you by the Holy Spirit, and it is your privilege to Yes to that.
I think the Christmas carol gets it wrong. “O Holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray, cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today.” First, it’s the Holy Spirit who descends on you, just like on Mary’s womb. Second, the Spirit enters in first, before our sin is cast out. Third, what’s born in you is not the Holy Child of Bethlehem, but the holy child of You, your own new humanity, and it’s you who can say Here am I, and when you say Here am I, you yourself cast out your sin. It is your humble human privilege. And you conceive the coming of the Lord Jesus into the world, who is the leader of the new humanity, the humanity that will populate the new heaven and new earth.
There was no sex in the Virgin Birth, but there was love. Not romance, not that God loved Mary any more than anybody else, but God loved what Mary could do as a prophet and a matriarch. And the love that Mary had for her own child. As God entrusted Mary to love his Son, his only Son, and as Mary loved the firstborn of the new humanity, with her own body, so God loves you. As Mary carried Jesus in her womb, inside her body, so you are enveloped by the love of God for you.
Copyright © 2017 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.
Thursday, December 14, 2017
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11, Psalm 126, 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24, John 1:6-8, 19-28
John. Well, there’s two Johns. There is the John who wrote our Gospel, John the Evangelist, one of the twelve disciples, and the best friend of Jesus.
And there is John the cousin of Jesus, identified as John the Baptist in the Gospel of Matthew, John the baptizer in Mark, John the son of Zechariah in Luke, and in John he’s just plain John. The cousin of the Son of God.
He’s not the Word of God but the voice for the word. Not the light but the witness to the light. Not the Messiah but the pointer to the Messiah. John the pointer, the testifier, the witness, the voice, the confessor.
He is a mystery. When he’s asked about himself, he says, “I am not,” “I am not,” and, “No.” He is non-self-referential. Not, not, no. Then what is he? You can tell him in Christian iconography by his boney physique and leather belt and wild hair and his wild garment of camel’s hair. He is a man apart, a man whose life is his message. He’s a messenger for someone coming. He points into the crowd: “Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me.” We can’t tell whom within the crowd he’s pointing to. Not yet, because the one who is coming is hiding in plain sight.
There is mystery in the faith that we confess. Even the basic facts remain a mystery, the ones that we keep singing every week: “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” His coming again is of two kinds. His ultimate coming again will be the final great unveiling for every eye to see, and when that will happen, no one knows. But in the meantime he comes again each week. Christ will come again this week, but hidden in plain sight. He will come again this week, hidden in your week’s encounters and activities. “Among you stands one whom you do not know.”
And it’s our job as witnesses to point into the crowd and testify. If we’re not cousins of the Son of God, we are the sisters and brothers of the Son of God. We too give voice to the Word that is not heard. We too are witnesses who testify to the light within the darkness. We point to the one who is hidden among us in the crowded course of human events. We are the witnesses who testify in the great long trial of human history.
But if he’s hidden how can you point to him? Fair enough, but he told us whom he’d be hiding among, and what business and activities he’ll be hiding in. This morning he tells us in our reading from Isaiah, which you can take as the Lord Jesus telling us about himself, because this Isaiah passage is the one he chose to read when he introduced himself within the synagogue.
He’s telling us, look for me when you bring good news to the oppressed, look for me when you bind up the broken-hearted. Look for me when you proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners, look for me when you comfort those who mourn, who mourn for their city. Look for me when you build up the ancient ruins, look for me when you raise up the former devastations, and repair the ruined cities, and repair the devastations of many generations, in East New York, Brownsville, San Juan, Puerto Rico, Monrovia, Liberia. Christ will come again this week, today is a day of vengeance of our God, the year of the Lord’s favor. So the vengeance is a favor, a favorable vengeance, against the negative, against the devastation, robbery, and wrongdoing. It is a vindication. And he says that’s where you look for him.
I’m thinking of your pointing to him like in a courtroom, when the attorney asks the witness to point to the accused. “Is that person here in this courtroom? Can you point to him?” And where you point is into the seats of the onlookers behind the rail. What! Everyone turns their heads to figure out whom you’re pointing to. “Why should we believe you? What credibility do you have?”
Your credibility as a witness is your ordinary life. You’re not asked to witness in the subway or the street, you aren’t John the Baptist. Yes, you might be called out for active prophecy, if the community of Jesus designates you to speak out in public, or just sit down in the front seat of the bus.
Mostly it’s more mundane, and no less difficult, to bear your witness in the crowded events of ordinary life, in buying and selling, eating and drinking, working and playing, partying and sleeping, winning and losing, suffering and grieving, and through it all, in the words of First Thessalonians, rejoicing always, praying without ceasing, giving thanks in all circumstances, not quenching the Spirit of God in the world, not despising the strange words of the prophets in our Bible, testing everything around us, holding fast to what is good around us, abstaining from every form that evil takes within the world, letting ourselves be sanctified by the God of peace. To live like this we don’t remove ourselves from ordinary life, which gives us credibility whenever we point to him.
Always rejoicing is not so much a feeling as a choice. Always giving thanks is not an optimistic disposition but the choice to pray without ceasing your thanks to God, in every circumstance. It is a discipline. It’s costly. To always rejoice is its own kind of repentance because it’s your surrender of yourself. Joy comes from knowing what you’re not! Praying thanksgiving without ceasing is a kind of repentance because it forces your awareness and your sensitivity. It requires a habit that you learn, an attitude you practice and reinforce. You choose for joy in order to be joyful. When John the Baptist calls you to repent, you answer, Okay, I will rejoice! And when St. Paul calls you to rejoice, you answer, Okay, I will repent!
Advent repentance is not forcing yourself to wear the scratchy cloak of camel’s hair. Maybe for Lent, but not for Advent. Yes, you take off the clothes you chose to come in, that’s your Not, Not, No, and the Advent repentance is putting on new clothes of rejoicing. Back to Isaiah: You accept the glittering garments of salvation, the rainbow robe of righteousness, a garland of flowers like a bridegroom, and all the lavish jewelry of a bride. You rejoice in getting all decked out and you repent in wearing the costume that he gives you.
Isn’t this the joy of the pageant? That we get to dress up as angels and shepherds and wise men and sheep? Even for just a few minutes we forget ourselves, and inhabit the simple roles that ordinary people have dressed up in, once a year for how many centuries past. What is your garment of salvation? Shall you dress up as an angel? A shepherd? Or would dressing up as a donkey bring you more joy? Of course it’s beneath us to dress like that, but beneath us is where the joy is.
Is it delusional to choose for joy? Diversional, silly, irresponsible? Shouldn’t we be serious, considering how awful everything is right now? How can we rejoice amidst all the devastation and the robbery and injustice? How can we rejoice in the day of vengeance of our God? But the vengeance is the vengeance of flowers, a vengeance of jewels upon a bride. It’s the vengeance of life against the darkness and the cold, the vengeance of new shoots of green in the barren ground, the vengeance of a homeless mother giving birth out back among the animals behind the inn.
Choose joy to disconnect yourself from the evil that you witness against. Choose joy to abstain from every form of evil. Choose joy to judge the evil that you’re up against as stupid and banal, for all the power it claims. Test everything with your joy, and all the pretension fails the test of joy, and glamour cannot match the joy of dressing up as donkeys. Choose for joy to be open against depression and suppression and oppression, to not quench the Spirit. Choose for joy to judge the evil of the world without revenge, choose for joy to bear witness to the good.
Choose for joy in order to feel the coming of the Lord Jesus into your heart. And if joy is not self-absorbed, if joy is un-self-referential, if joy is outwardly directed (not necessarily extroverted, so often very quiet, in the listening) then you will feel the coming of the Lord Jesus into your heart when you are the one in whom he hides his business in the world.
You will feel his coming when you are comforting those who mourn. You will feel his coming when you are binding up the broken-hearted, when you are bringing liberty to captives and release to prisoners. You will feel his coming when you are raising up the former devastations and when you repair the ruined cities.
Whether as an angel proclaiming or a donkey as a beast of burden, you will know his coming when you share the wonders of his love, the wonders of his love. You will feel the joy of his coming in your heart, when you take your part and dress up in the wonders of his love.
Copyright © 2017 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.
Friday, December 08, 2017
Isaiah 40:1-11, Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13, 2 Peter 3:8-15a, Mark 1:1-8
For this sermon series I’m asking each Sunday’s quartet of lessons to sing the theme “Come, Lord Jesus,” and make music about how he comes into our lives and how we know it. But these last two weeks both quartets of lessons have answered my chosen theme with not just harmony but a counter-melody, with a strong theme of their own, the theme of repentance.
So that if we say “Come, Lord Jesus,” then how we meet him and greet him is with our repentance. Not just recognition or acknowledgment, but repentance, which means we have to learn a kind of repentance that is a welcoming kind. Call it making space in your life for your unconditional welcome of the Lord Jesus.
The repentance of Lent is more familiar. It means contrition and remorse. The word “remorse” suggests an inner death, with its penance and penalties and consequences. But last week we heard about a different side of repentance, repentance as an awareness, a sensitivity, a watching, the kind of active waiting you do when you are watching something moving and developing. Lent looks towards a death and Advent looks towards a birth.
And now to this Advent sort of repentance I am adding a new idea, that this awareness and sensitivity requires an attitude and a habit, an attitude of peace, a habit of peace, your choosing for peace, especially in the midst of turmoil and tumult.
We live in a day of global upset and cosmic revolution. The epistle offers apocalyptic images of what we experience daily in the world. When the epistle says “elements” it does not mean hydrogen and oxygen, but the basic structures of politics and power and the iron laws of economics and ownership, which are dissolving with a bang and a whoosh and fire.
It's partly the usual "raging of the nations, and the peoples imagining vain things," but strange to say, it's also the judgment of God coming into our world to shake it up.
Human power prefers the orderliness of oppression and the enforced stability of empire, a peace imposed by the force of arms. But the judgments of God come into our world like explosions of the settled order of things. They disrupt the laws of the market, they disrupt the controlling settlements of power and wealth and class and order and even of our sexual identities. The turmoil being caused by women who are saying “Me too” against the men who had power over them is partly the judgment of God against them, and it judges both conservatives and liberals.
The judgment of God upsets conservatives because its dissolves so much of cultural value that we’ve developed over the centuries. The judgment of God upsets liberals because it discloses the arrogance of humanistic self-sufficiency. The grass withers, the flower fades, and surely the people are grass. The turmoil upsets our stability and the tumult threatens our safety, and yet we are to live at peace.
Not a peace protected by our conserving structures, but a pregnant peace of something yet to come. The epistle says, While we are waiting for these things, we are to strive to be found by him at peace when he arrives. And the disruption of humanistic self-sufficiency gives you the space to lead lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for the hastening of the coming of the day of God.
This peace is a kind of repentance because it can feel like you are doing nothing, and not fighting back. You might be accused of submission. But peace does not exclude resistance and persistence. It’s a non-violent kind of resistance, it’s persistence without vengeance, it’s speaking truth to power with humility. It’s a peace that is not afraid of suffering, and the suffering that comes with it is the penance that’s in it. The suffering is the labor pains. It’s like you’re expecting. It’s Advent.
This week, after three powerful men were suspended from WNYC, I posted on Facebook how this felt both bad and good. A reply came from my former parishioner in Hoboken, who’s now a professor, and she’s had to face these things in her career. She wrote this: “I keep thinking about all of the women whose careers have been derailed, steam-rolled, or never even gotten off the ground to begin with, because of hostile, inappropriate, or unsafe workplaces and industries. Too often people make excuses that women don’t rise to the top of their professions because they aren’t as talented, as skilled, as committed, as whatever, when in fact it’s a wonder that ANY women can survive in any profession. Think about the reserves and resolve and emotional work that just persisting and staying afloat entails, never mind thriving or rising.”
To persist in peace is emotional work. It’s draining and discouraging. So to sustain your practicing peace you need comfort. To be found at peace when he comes you need some comfort in the meantime. Not a cushy kind of comfort, a plush comfort, but fortifying comfort, strengthening comfort. And where’s that comfort to be found? Not in our usual places, whether conservative or liberal.
When the hot wind of God’s judgment sweeps through our achievements to clear them away it leaves behind what feels like desert. Exposure. A terrifying openness and a fearful freedom. In the wilderness comes the wild man, John the Baptist, in dress and diet not within our element. He calls you to repent, that is, to realize that you are in the desert, to accept that everything is exposed, even in the US Senate and WNYC, even in our private lives.
And yet do not be defensive, nor arm yourself like a desert bandit, but be peaceful, and to stay peaceful, seek God’s comfort in the wilderness.
In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountains start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise. (W, H. Auden)
Look behind John the Baptist and notice a highway in the desert, a highway stretching off into the distance, beyond the horizon into the future, through this wilderness of thousands of years of time. It’s a high road, an ancient road, like a Roman road for human feet. It is a highway for our God, and it's a highway built toward you, for the Lord Jesus to come to you on. It’s illuminated, it’s shining with the glory of God.
It is the glory of the Holy Spirit, poured into your heart to strengthen and encourage you. The Spirit comforts you with an inner illumination that remains a mystery to you even when you have it in you. The Spirit gives you the inner conviction, not so much of having as desiring, the conviction of desire, the inner longing, the longing that confirms in you that what you want is true, even in the tumult and turmoil.
The Spirit gives you the power of humility and the knowledge that comes from your desire and your longing. The Spirit comforts you in your weakness (Der Geist hilft unsrer Schwachheit auf), with sighs too deep for words. Advent repentance is choosing for God’s Spirit to have her way in you, for her comfort to sustain you as you choose for peace in turmoil and tumult.
The glory on the highway is the glory of the Shepherd, who comforts you with his voice. He reminds you of his promises, his promises that counter so much of what the world would rather say. His promises may differ from what you wanted from him, so that to repent is to accept his promises instead. His voice reminds you that even in the tumult you may lead lives of holiness and godliness as you wait for and hasten the coming of the day of God.
Repentance is the call to admit the truth, and truth itself is a kind of comfort. We human beings are the creatures who are designed to be comforted by the truth. What truth means is fidelity, what truth means is faithfulness. And what is faithfulness but a sign of love. I think that’s why we take comfort in the truth, because behind truth we can read love. That also is what we human beings are designed to do, to sense the love behind the truth. Even in the tumult of the world you still can read the love of God. Come, Lord Jesus, we welcome you unconditionally into the waiting spaces of our lives, and we accept the comfort of your love for us.
Copyright © 2017 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.
Thursday, November 30, 2017
Isaiah 64:1-9, Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18, 1 Corinthians 1:3-9, Mark 13:24-37
If we say that Christ is coming, and that we must wait for it and watch for it, that means that Christ is absent in some way. In some measure he is not here. Is that true? And if we also say that in Christ is God, does that mean that in some measure God is absent, God is not here?
But isn’t God everywhere? The God of philosophy is not absent. The God of Descartes and Leibniz and Kant and Hegel is not absent, he just pretty much minds his own business and does his philosophical job. If the God of Karl Marx and Jean-Paul Sartre is absent it’s because there is no God. For Muslims, Allah is not absent in any way. For Hindus, God’s absence is impossible because God is in whatever is. “It is what it is.”
But one thing that Jesus Christ never said was, “It is what it is.” He told us that the world is not as it should be, that what is should be otherwise and will be otherwise, that there is more to come, that even though God is here God is not fully here, not on earth as in heaven, and that he himself will come again. So wait for it, don’t impatiently click off the youtube video, wait for it!
Maybe it’s not that God is absent but that God is hidden. Hidden in the heavens! Such that Isaiah implores, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.” So then is God’s hiding self-imposed, or is it that our sinful condition makes us blind to God? Isaiah suggests it is both: “There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you, for you have hidden your face from us, and delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.” If both are true, then God has to initiate God’s self-revelation and we have to repent in order to see God’s self-revelation.
Let’s say that God is hidden in plain sight. We can say that the almighty God behaves in the world as weak and powerless. Well, is that a dodge? Is that an excuse for all our unanswered prayers? Or rather that God does not act on our behest? God does not act powerfully to our satisfaction or expectations. God is not accountable to our philosophy or agendas. We don’t possess God, we don’t control God, and God’s self-hiding we have to understand a a kind of judgment. The very hiddenness of God in the world puts under judgment whatever we think we see about the world.
Can something be visible but also false? I think of the videos retweeted by the President. Can something be hidden and also true? Well, the Christian claim about the world is that much that is visible is not true. The Christian claim is that we see the same world as everybody else, but we see it differently, that so much of what’s visible, what people take as obvious, we take as not so true, not the full truth, and even false. The Christian claim is that the way to see the world truly is to see what looks obvious in terms of what is hidden, and to see that which is visible only to repentance.
I am talking about repentance as a kind of sight. This a different side of repentance than we do in Lent, that other penitential season, which is a repentance of self-examination, and sorrow, and even mortification. The repentance of Advent is more objective, more outward, not self-examination but hyper-sensitivity, not mortification but pregnancy, the opposite. In the words of St. Paul, an enrichment, a gift of speech and knowledge, a spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of Our Lord. Wait for it!
I’m talking about repentance as the kind of sight required to see what is only revealed. And what today we want to see, this first Sunday of Advent, this season of God’s coming, is not so much the presence of God, philosophically, but the coming of God dynamically, even historically, into our lives, the coming of God in Jesus Christ, the mystery available only to the sensitivity of repentance.
Last Sunday I said that the second coming of Christ will not be so much a traveling as an unveiling, an unveiling of the end that is already there, in the future where the Lord Jesus already is. Does that make any sense? Is that all metaphor or has it got some grounding for reality? Is this what St. Paul means in the epistle, that we are waiting for the revealing of Our Lord Jesus Christ? Is the revealing like an unveiling that he must do? How long must we watch? How long must we wait?
Two Sundays ago I said that in the Bible, time is conceived of differently than among us modern people. We think of time in Cartesian terms, as a kind of space, extended infinitely both behind us and before us, and we move our lives through the space of time on our time-lines point by point. I said that in the Bible time itself is moving, like a river, a stream, a wave that we ride upon, and that time is moving toward a goal, the goal of God, which is already there.
Bible-time is like a piece of music, that when you sing it, it carries you along until you reach its final cadences. Bible-time is like a video, a movie, an opera, which moves you as you watch it. Right now we’re in the second act, and a drama is unfolding looking bad, and only in the third act will the full tragedy be unveiled, like Tosca, or, maybe, like Falstaff, when a reversal into comedy is revealed.
You don’t watch an opera to find out how it ends, you already know how it ends. You watch an opera to see what you can see only when you’re within it. You know what’s coming, wait for it, wait for it. Not waiting as in a waiting room, but waiting as the kind of watching that we do in Advent.
The way that God is hidden is the same way that the third act is hidden from the second act. We can’t see it yet because some things have to happen before we get there, things have to develop before the potential tragedy unveils itself as comedy. The Lord Jesus has not yet taken the stage in the way that he will when we arrive there. Stay with it. Keep watching along. Wait for it.
Today I invite you to this watching and waiting that we can call “repentance” because of its operative humility. You take yourself off your own stage. You shut up and listen. You submit to the story, no matter how unlikely or extreme. You suspend your right to your disbelief. You surrender to the story and its music. You suspend your agenda and your right to your time. Wait for it! It is humility at the same time as it’s empowerment. It’s repentance with an undercurrent of joy, the joy of anticipation, like pregnancy instead of mortification, like waiting for a birth instead of a death, like Advent instead of Lent.
If God seems absent, or hidden, it’s because God chooses to enter the world in ways that look weak and powerless. There is a method to God’s madness. It’s first to allow for your own empowerment, even to require it, and second that your empowerment be of love, for love is your natural response to someone who is faithful to you but comes to you weak and powerless. The method in God’s madness is love. “O God, because I want to love you I will wait for you and watch for you as long as you take.” Because God waits for you and God watches for you because God loves you.
Copyright © 2017 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.