Thursday, September 29, 2016
Lamentations 3:19-26, Psalm 137, 2 Timothy 1:1-14, Luke 17:5-10
We’ve got some difficult scripture lessons today. Another one from Lamentations—again. While the writer admits that their sufferings are justified by the multitude of their transgressions, that does not prevent his grief.
In Psalm 137 you get anger on top of the grief, and when grief and anger come together you get depression, and you see the depression in that they refused to sing.
What does this all say about prayer and action? That sometimes you just can’t pray and you just can’t act because you find yourself so angry at the world and angry at yourself and angry at God. You have to acknowledge it and sit in it before you can get out of it.
The gospel lesson is difficult as well. Listen again: “We are worthless slaves, we have done only what we ought to have done.” I doubt if that was as off-putting back then as it is now. Back then self-esteem and personal fulfillment were not your obligations to yourself, and slavery was not regarded as categorically wrong. But it’s certainly off-putting now, and yet there may be some hard truth it.
The hard truth is that the reason for us to have faith in God is that we are obliged to. It’s what we’re made for. Just as a tree is obliged to the sun, and a horse is obliged to run, and just as a seed is obliged to lose itself in the earth and break open and sprout, so you are designed to live by your faith and you therefore are obliged to it. Faith in God is the obligation of your existence.
That’s a counter-cultural truth. The prevailing view is to think of religion as a purely voluntary choice that you can make, like choosing whether or not to join a softball team. It’s like belonging to the food coop. They have the best food in Brooklyn, at the best prices, but they expect obligations. You can choose for that, or you can choose for the lesser produce at Key Food, which wants nothing from you except your money. It’s your choice.
We think of religion as something freely added on to life or not. But then you come to church, and you hear Jesus saying that you owe your life to God. And he compares you to a slave who is obliged to serve with no reward for your service except another job to do when you’re done with this one.
You open yourself to this hard truth. You give it room within yourself. You let yourself get used to it. So even though, because of your enculturation, you can’t help but approach your religion as a consumer, and then the Lord Jesus pushes you off for being a consumer, you come right back at him. “I’m with you Jesus, I’m hanging on to you Jesus, I just need a little more faith to handle some of the things you say.” Especially when you find yourself a little angry or aggrieved.
You only asked him to increase your faith. And it’s like he made fun of you by saying you should have faith the size of a mustard seed. That’s confusing. Does he mean your faith is so infinitesimal to begin with that just to get it merely tiny would make you a regular superhero, or does he mean the opposite, to get your faith small, so that asking for more is a wrong request?
Then he suggests a miracle which is silly, because why would you command a tree to uproot itself and plant itself in the sea, which would kill the tree by drowning? It feels like the Lord Jesus is more than teasing here, it feels a little like he’s mocking. Not the Jesus we’re used to.
How different is the tone of the Apostle Paul to Timothy. Encouraging, supportive, approving, very loving. He’s trying to instill some confidence in Timothy, his student and successor, who was overly self-critical and often doubtful of himself. The kind of guy who well might say, Increase my faith!
St. Paul is so different from the Lord Jesus in his style of communication. He’s never as funny, and rarely paradoxical or contradictory. He doesn’t write parables or engage in comedy. He’s more straightforward, occasionally prosaic, often passionate, and sometimes hot. Here he is confessional and exhortatory, which makes his literary style feel more Greek than Jewish.
He makes this wonderful statement that sounds like Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “But I am not ashamed, for I know the one in whom I have put my trust, and I am sure that he is able to guard until that day what I have entrusted to him.” I grew up singing that, in the old translation, my parents sang it at the dinner table, “But I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I’ve committed unto him against that day.” I know all the parts, soprano, alto, tenor, bass, because I sang them all in turn as my voice changed through the years. He is able to keep that which I commit to him.
The value and strength of my commitment comes from him whom I’ve committed to, not from me who commits. Like I’m a mediocre short-stop and he’s a fabulous first-baseman, who catches my throw no matter how badly I throw it. Like what the Lord Jesus said about the mustard seed, that it doesn’t matter how large or small your faith is, but that your faith is planted.
What does this all mean for prayer and action? It removes the pressure of effectiveness, of how much difference your prayers and actions make. That’s not up to you. You’re the servant, not the master. It doesn’t matter how well you pray. It doesn’t matter how good your actions are. And it doesn’t matter if what Our Lord expects of you looks to you to come up short.
I’m preaching to myself. I spent Sunday and Monday with Salam Qumsiyeh, our speaker for last week, and then on Tuesday and Wednesday I found myself depressed. I think it was my grief and anger at her experience as a Palestinian under occupation in her own land, and this mixed together with my love of Judaism and my support for the Jewish homeland. Nations have the right to defend themselves, both Israel and Palestine. The situation seems intractable and hopeless. I do pray, but what is prayer without action? She said simply, “Come visit us.” Come visit us. And that will make a difference? But that’s not up to me. Is that an action I must contemplate? Is that one for me?
You have your own actions to consider. What do you find yourself praying for a lot? What part of the world has God given you some power to be God’s servant in? What issues of need or illness or poverty or justice or someone’s loneliness are you able to address? Where are you able to sustain the cost that will come with action?
Not everyone can equally bear the costs. If you are vulnerable, let the group do it for you. Our congregation has already taken great steps in ethical investment of our church’s endowment. I myself would like to see us go further with fossil-fuel divestment. Will that cost us? Maybe, maybe not. If it does, would I be willing to take a pay cut? Do I have faith as small as a mustard seed to plant it in my Lord?
Our little prayers, our little actions, they seem so cost-ineffective. You’re tempted to doubt your usefulness. And the record of the church often leaves you ashamed. I’m sure that the Apostle Paul was also tempted by that shame, or else why would he confess, “But I am not ashamed.” When all your efforts seem quixotic and naive, that’s precisely when you need the faith of a mustard seed. To commit what you do to God, to entrust it to God, to let God hold on to what you do until the day of reckoning.
There is here no contradiction between faith and works. You need the faith to do the works. Not your great faith, but your little bit of faith, the one thing that you know.
Nine days from now I will be attending the Yom Kippur service at Beth Elohim. I have not missed for fifteen years, I have perfect attendance. The congregation knows I will be there. I know the liturgy well enough to sing along. You might regard my prayer with them as an action, an act of solidarity. Let that be my witness to the world. But that’s not why I do it. I don’t even do it for the very warm welcome that I get there. I do it for love. I love to sing and pray in Hebrew, I love the ancient yearnings of the Jewish people, I love to pray for Israel with Israel, I do it for love.
I’m ending with this because I think that love is the little secret hidden in the off-putting parable of the Lord Jesus here—because when you love someone, you will do more for them than any slave would do, and for less thanks. I think the off-putting parable is to clear away all motivation for prayer and action other than sheer love, the love that comes from God.
Copyright © 2016 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.
Thursday, September 22, 2016
This is Salam Qumsiyeh, from Bethlehem in Palestine. She will be speaking in our service on Sunday, and her experience has inspired my sermon.
Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15,
Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16,
1 Timothy 6:6-19,
This is the second in my sermon series on Prayer and Action. Let me start with prayer, with that most basic of prayers, the prayer for help.
The prayer for help is common to all religions. You ask the gods and goddesses for help; you buy their help with costly sacrifice; in Homer’s Iliad the Greek king Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia to buy good weather from the gods.
Do you pray to God for help? I think you can. I do! The Bible is full of it. We just read Psalm 91: Protect me, deliver me, rescue me, save me. How many ways can you say it: Help me O God.
I know that some people get very specific with their prayers for help, asking for this and asking for that. I tend to keep my prayer for help more general. I think of how the Lord Jesus answered that second temptation of the devil, “You shall not test the Lord your God.” Now you might say that’s just an excuse, that the real reason I keep it general is because of the monstrous gap between the help we ask for and the help we get. Maybe. But I think it’s like training for the Olympics. That your chances of winning a medal are very slim does not you from investing your life in that slim chance. And life is more like soccer than American football, in terms of how often you score for how long you play. It’s like that with prayer.
Instead of asking for help on this and help on that, my habit is rather to live like we’re told to in the Epistle of First Timothy, to work on my godliness and contentment, to live squarely in the present, to work on my present righteousness, my present faith and love, my endurance, my gentleness. But to live in the present is not the same as living for the present. I live for the future squarely in the present.
I regard my living in the present as an investment in the future. And I regard my prayers for help that way. Not as controlling the future but as investing in the future. I know I will have my losses, and much I must sacrifice, and that I cannot gain my life unless I lose it, so my prayers are like my actions, not my attempts to claim the future but my investments in the future that belongs to God.
You see it with Jeremiah. Jerusalem was besieged by the Babylonian army. The land of Judah was under occupation. I am sure that in the Temple the priests were praying night and day for God help them with deliverance. I’m sure they were quoting Psalm 91. They were not wrong to do so, even if God had firmly decided the opposite, and they’ll all be carried off.
Yet at the same time Jeremiah was commanded to buy a piece of land—property under occupation, a parcel he could not even get to, much less take possession of. And today that very piece of land today is somewhere in the West Bank. And there the Palestinians are reliving Jeremiah, their ancestral lands occupied by Israeli settlers, their houses bulldozed and their vineyards uprooted, and all this protected by the weapons of the IDF. And will God help them when they pray?
They should pray and they should act. Because our prayers and our actions are both investments that we make without our controlling the results. God says, I will help you in my time and in my way. That’s hard. To count on things not turning out as we intend, things not going to plan, on loss. But we still invest in actions of justice and mercy and social change, and we still invest in prayer, because it’s the Kingdom of God we’re investing in. The future belongs to God, not us, and, as I’ve said, we don’t build the Kingdom of God, it is given to us. Your Christian actions are meant for illustrations of what you pray, “Thy kingdom come . . . on earth as it is in heaven.”
Now let me turn to the parable. I’m going to step over much of its meaning and magic to glean it for Prayer and Action. Right off we notice that the Lord Jesus gives the poor man a name, the only time he does that in all his parables, so it’s important. And Lazarus means “God helps.” Much in the parable turns on this.
The rich man was thinking that God should help the poor man, so he didn’t have to, or, that God helps those who help themselves. The result is the same. If you’re poor or suffering, somewhere it’s your fault, or your parents’ fault, your karma, whatever, just not mine, so I don’t owe you anything. I can let you on my stoop, and eat the crumbs that trickle down when my servant sweeps the floor. This parable is a cartoon of trickle-down economics.
But then when it’s the rich man’s turn to suffer, he wants Abraham to send Lazarus down to soothe him. Which he had not done for Lazarus. Then he wants Abraham to help his brothers by sending Lazarus back to warn them. Which God had already done for him just by having Lazarus lie there at his door, and did he take the warning? With this opportunity to care for the poor man and stop being so selfish God had been helping the rich man, but he would take the help.
Even in his punishment he remains impenitent. He never once addresses Lazarus himself. He still regards Lazarus as beneath him. Just as when he had stepped over him on his stoop whenever he went out feasting with his brothers. Today we call this dehumanization. We did it in America to our black slaves. We used their labor but treated them like cattle. Even now African-Americans have daily experiences that tell them their lives don’t matter the same. Last week I read the transcript of a horrible sermon preached in a Reformed church in Hungary that compared the refugees in Europe to ants and rodents. And I have had Israelis tell me without shame that Palestinians are a lower race, with fewer rights. Dehumanization. And this parable is an accurate cartoon of dehumanization.
So then, how do we respond? Close by in action and at a distance in prayer.
Close by, our Christian action is to invest in relationships that humanize. Crossing boundaries of race and class, nervously crossing the monstrous gap of fear. This is what you volunteers did in our summer Respite Shelter. This is what some of you want to do in our new project on racial justice with Congregation Beth Elohim. This is what you can do at our forum with Salam right after church today.
Because the world says what Abraham said, “Between you and us, a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no once can cross from there to us.” But Christ has risen from the dead, and jumped across that chasm, and offers his body as a bridge. A bridge to risky relationships, outside of our control. To build relationships that others call impossible is a Christian act of investing in the Kingdom of God.
And then at a distance, is your intercessory prayer. We only have so many close relationships, but you can make relationships spanning space and time in intercessory prayer. Christian prayer is the ancient internet, and intercessions the original social media.
It’s true that intercessory prayer has many tangible benefits, both to yourself and to those whom you pray for, but I don’t want you to do it for these outcomes. That would miss the point. You pray your intercessions leaving the outcome up to God. Your prayers are investments in the Kingdom.
Martin Luther was asked what he would do if he knew that the Lord Jesus would return again tomorrow. He said that he would plant a tree. There has to be good humor in our actions and our prayers. Like the comedy in the parable. You know what a comedy is. The joke is on the hero and the powerful lose control and the nobles lose the game but love wins out. Plant that tree. Buy that piece of ground. Pray without ceasing. Because Love wins.
Copyright © 2016 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.
Saturday, September 17, 2016
I’m starting a new sermon series today. Last Sunday I finished a series on prophecy. That series was broken up over the summer, but you can get the whole of it on-line. I have a method for these series, which is to ask the same question of the scripture lessons every week.
And this is how I come up with a series: first I sit down with all the lessons for a few months ahead, and I look for themes and threads. I consider what questions those lessons might have answers to. I settle on a question that is honest to the lessons but also speaks to Old First. I use this method in the belief that God still speaks to us today out of this careful conversation with the Bible.
So this new series is called Prayer and Action. I’m asking the weekly lessons how our prayer and our ethical action enhance each other. Our attention to God, and the difference we can make in the world. I chose this question because I think Old First could be a little more activist than we are, and because prayer is a theme in the Gospel of Luke, and we’re in Luke through November. But this morning what we heard in Luke is about action, not prayer. For prayer we go to the other lessons.
The prayers in Jeremiah and Psalm 79 are lamentations. Grief and despair. All joy is gone. The city of God is a wreckage and ruin and the promises of God are contradicted by the facts. So you could just be done with God, or, in lamentation, you hold the awful contradiction up to God. As Dostoevsky shows us in The Brothers Karamazov, you could become an atheist or you could squarely face the terrible facts and yet make that dangerous leap to still believe in God.
The Old Testament is not afraid to complain to God and to complain to God about God. The Jewish tradition of kvetching goes way back in the Bible, while we Christians tend to talk nice. Last week Melody said to me that without the Old Testament, it’s just Jesus and TED talks!
Lamentation is spiritually necessary. If you want to pray realistically, you also have to pray the bad stuff, and pray it without receiving an explanation or a mitigation. You say, “It is bad, it is very, very bad, and where are you, O God?” And what does God say? “I know, I know.”
But if God’s not going to do anything to fix it, then what’s the use of us trying to make any difference in the world? This will be one of our working problems for this sermon series. If God’s not going to fix it, why even try to make a difference in the world, and if God’s not going to fix it, why even pray our supplications and intercessions, as St. Paul urges us to in First Timothy? Prayers of thanksgiving—okay, you’re not asking God to change anything. But supplications and intercessions ask God to act within the world and maybe even intervene. And when do you ever see it?
When you scratch the surface of what St. Paul says, it gets puzzling. St. Paul tells us to pray “for everyone,” but especially “for kings and all who are in high places, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.” Well, that is the kind of life we’d like our kings and officials to provide for us, but how often don’t they give us wars and tumult and taxes and corruption and oppression, and that was true no less back then. So are we supposed to pray for bad kings too, and corrupt officials? How about if they persecute us? Do we pray for their good health or for their defeat? Or do we just pray their names and let God sort it out?
I was taught in Christian school that the Roman Empire was providentially ordained by God for the first expansion of the church, with its excellent roads and a single common language and its freedom and safety of travel. We were not taught about the underside of the Empire’s vicious cruelty and rapacious exploitation. Just so in my own life I can say that I have benefited greatly from the freedom, prosperity, and security of America. So has this church, through the centuries, for which we give thanks, and we intercede for our government officials. But what about the underside?
I have sobering words from a Methodist bishop from South Africa: “American [churches] have a task more difficult, perhaps, than those faced by us under South Africa’s apartheid, or Christians under Communism. We had obvious evils to engage: you have to . . . expose, and confront, the greatest disconnection between the kindness, compassion, and caring of most American people, and the ruthless way American power is experienced, directly and indirectly, by the poor of the earth. You have to help good people see how they have let their institutions do their sinning for them. This is not easy among people who really believe that their country does nothing but good, but it is necessary, not only for their future, but for us all.”
I mean to be provocative. Because if we can get down off our chairs, and sit on the filthy ground of lamentation, if we just accept it is that bad, then what kind of Christian action is required of us? If we stop trying to justify our record and defend our honor, can we better make a difference in the world? And here St. Luke can help us. In the comic parable of the dishonest manager, the Lord Jesus offers us a way of liberation from the defensive posture of self-justification.
This is how it works. When the master discovers the manager’s mismanagement, and calls him to account for it, the manager wastes no breath in trying to defend or justify himself, nor does he grovel in guilt. He takes the opening generously handed him when the master, instead of throwing him in jail, orders him to produce his accounts. The sharecroppers do not know yet that he’s been fired, so when he tells them to rewrite their contracts they happily do so.
You see, he is calculating on the consistent generosity of his master. The master will not stain his noble reputation by making the sharecroppers pay up after the manager’s trick. What’s the moral? Don’t bother to justify yourself or the rightness of your wealth, accept God’s judgment, but count instead on the grace of God.
And then the Lord Jesus strangely says, “Make friends for yourselves with your unrighteous wealth.” His word for “wealth” is not the great wealth of the wealthy, but ordinary middle class wealth. He won’t let us be all moralistic and self-righteous about the wealth that we have, that we earned it and it’s good and we deserve to keep it. Nope. It’s crooked, every dime you have is connected to corruption and every shirt you wear has exploitation woven into it. The more you defend it or attend to it, the less you’ll have of the Kingdom of God. The more you service it, the less you can serve God. But the freer that you are with it, the more you can celebrate the kingdom of God.
I think of the famous quip of Rev. James Forbes, “Nobody gets into heaven without a letter of reference from the poor.” You help the needy not because they need it but because you need to! You need to take your place with the sharecroppers and the tenants and the lower class and accept their generosity. The way that you can get in close with them is by sharing what you have with them as if they have their own rights to what you have. You don’t give money to the poor because you’re so generous, or from a place of power and direction, that you can expect to improve them, but because of how much you need to share with them. To understand that is the shrewdness.
Which means, we do our Christian action in humility, we do our Christian action accepting our limits, the limits of what we can control, the limits of our possible outcomes, the limits of how much difference we actually can make within the world, just like when we pray. So you do your Christian action as a form of prayer. Your Christian action is an enacted intercession, a lived-out supplication, and you offer it up to God precisely to put it beyond your own control. So that Christian action can even include lamentation. Your lamentation can be a prayer of solidarity with those who suffer.
We do our Christian actions calculating on God’s character. Whether God will intervene here or do some special action there is beyond the limits of our knowledge and control, and God does not explain the where and when nor justify the here or there. Which goes with the reality of how much difference you really can effect in other people’s lives, no matter how great an activist you are.
But here’s the benefit. The risk of action is frustration. But when you give up the burden of control and the necessity of your outcomes, you end up with gratitude. When you do your Christian actions as enacted prayers, your intercessions and supplications generate thanksgivings. And you learn, along with that dishonest manager, to calculate on the possibility of God’s love.
Copyright © 2016 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.
Friday, September 09, 2016
Jeremiah 4:11-12, Psalm 14, 1 Timothy 1:12-17, Luke 16:1-13
Today is 9/11, fifteen years later to the day, and I ask you, is it providential or coincidental that our scripture lessons today should be these ones? I mean both the prophecy of Jeremiah and the gospel of Luke.
I mean the uncanny description in Jeremiah of the hot wind and the bare heights and my poor people and the waste and the void on earth and no light in the heavens and the birds had fled and the city was laid in ruins and the desolation and the earth in mourning and the heavens black.
I mean the uncanny metaphors in Luke of the woman searching for her coin and the shepherd for his sheep, that describe the first responders almost fanatically searching the rubble for every last person, alive or dead.
I ask you, was it providential or coincidental that five days after the disaster, on 9/16, a Sunday, these were the lessons, when I preached my trial sermon for the Old First pastoral search committee, preaching it in the neutral pulpit of the Flatbush Church? The first sermon any of you heard from me was on these texts, and that Sunday afternoon, the leaders of the search committee met with me and Melody to talk terms, and that Monday night the committee approved the call.
I ask you, was it providential or coincidental that on that 9/11, you had no pastor? Your interim, Dr. Wilbur Washington, lived way out in Jersey, so there was no one to depend on but you yourselves for your own first response, and it was you, not any pastor, on that very day who opened the front doors of the church and offered the sanctuary to the public as a safe and sacred space, and as the debris came falling from the awful cloud you were making quiet music in that space, and you hung long sheets of newsprint for people to write their prayers and messages on.
And it was you, not any pastor, who changed the reputation of this church, over night, from a mighty fortress with closed doors to a welcoming open space of hospitality and sanctuary for anyone seeking refuge and hope. You turned your sanctuary into mission, just like that.
And coincidentally, and providentially, on that Friday, Melody and I arrived here from Michigan, and drove by, and saw the open doors, and the people on the floor and in the pews, and the candles all over, and the long sheets of newsprint, and we felt called by God to serve this church.
Now I am not saying that the prophet Jeremiah foresaw 9/11 when he wrote these words. I am saying that the words of the prophets keep coming true, no matter when they were written and for which city, because they direct us to that alternate reality, that always presses down on us.
And I’m saying that you were being a prophetic congregation just by opening up your sanctuary to everyone. In those days there were some TV preachers who were trying to be prophetic by what they said about the disaster, that God had allowed it because these sins of America or those sins of New York. There always are false prophets out there. But the true prophecy of those days was grief and lamentation. Lamentation. You gave sanctuary to the lamentation.
The prophet Jeremiah was known as the Weeping Prophet, because he sat and wept in the ruins of Jerusalem, and he moaned and groaned in the burned down wreckage of the temple. We don’t often think of prophecy as lamentation, it’s too passive, it offers no solutions, it suggests no hope, but the last word in Biblical prophecy is lamentation: We’re done, it’s over, there’s nothing left. All our hopes for Israel, all the promises to David, the kingdom of God, every last expression of the kingdom is wrecked and ruined. We’ve got nothing left to show from God.
So you sit. Keeping vigil. Keeping open to the pain and grief. Offering no explanation, suggesting no mitigation, it’s just that bad. That takes prophecy. Because what practical religion tries to do is make some sense of it, with explanations and solutions and strategies to mask the pain and make it easier to still believe in God. And that’s why I’m saying it was prophetic for you to open up your sanctuary to whomever would come in, and you did not try to tell them what to think or say or do.
All you’ve got left from all your religion is God. Just God and nothing else. No temple, no Bible, no hymns, no prayers, no hopes, no visions, you have lost everything. And in your lostness is when God comes to find you. Like the woman for her coin. Like the shepherd for his sheep. You are lost in the wreckage, and you can’t move. You can hardly breathe. All is dark. And you don’t know it, but here comes God for you, digging down, digging through the wreckage and the rubble. That’s what the Lord Jesus is asking us to believe. Can you believe it works like this, that God does this?
St. Paul believed it was like that. You can see that in the Epistle. He calls himself the worst of sinners, a blasphemer, a persecutor, a man of violence. The enemy of God, the rightful object of God’s wrath. God knocked him down. Cast him into darkness, and he could not move, he could not see. And into his world entered Jesus Christ, like a first responder on the wreckage, to rescue him, to save him, in great mercy.
Has it ever been like that with you? It was once so with me. I was a wreck. And in my wreckage he came down to find me. In the back room of the ground floor apartment at 857 President Street. Has it ever been like that with you? It may yet be like that. At your death it will.
God is the one that has to do it. The church doesn’t do it, the church’s job is to make the space for it. The church’s job is to keep that space open for the vision and presence of that alternate reality. To be prophetic in that way, even if it’s by means of sanctuary and silent, patient hospitality.
Now I did not anticipate that my sermon series might come around to this, but I think it’s right, that for this particular church to be prophetic you can open up that sanctuary again, not for yourselves but for your mission to the city God has put you in. A great safe space for grief and lamentation as much as joy and exaltation. If it’s a beautiful space, so much the better, but its greatest beauty is its overarching hospitality. A sacred space which makes room in our lives for the kingdom of God.
I said a few sermons ago that prophecy speaks in extremes and in exaggerated terms. That’s how we hear it until we learn to how accurate it really is, and how the scale of our terms should not be so normative as we thought. It’s our experience that needs expansion. And in our lessons today we get extremities of wrath and joy. Extreme judgment and extreme rejoicing.
Let’s notice the rejoicing: When the shepherd gets home, he calls together his friends and neighbors to rejoice with him. The woman calls together her friends and neighbors to rejoice with her.
When my son Nicholas went to university in the island of Newfoundland in Canada, he took room and board in a private home. One evening I called him, and when I asked him what he was eating he told me it was spaghetti with moose-meat balls. What? Yeah, he said, the dad shot a moose and now they’ve got meat for the winter. Then I said it sounded quiet in the house for dinner time. Oh, he said, I’m the only one home. They’re all down at the bar, celebrating the moose.
Jesus poses his two parables as questions. “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep,” and “What woman, having ten silver coins.” To the first, the answer is obvious: “No one would.” No one would stupidly risk the ninety-nine for the sake of the one. What’s a one percent loss, when standard depreciation is ten percent? To the second, the answer is the opposite: “Every woman would.” The answers are opposite, and the second parable serves to turn you back to the first to reconsider it. “Could he mean that a shepherd actually should?” Or does he mean he would?
He’s saying the Messiah would. The Messiah would because God does. To God, every lost person is of inestimable worth, no matter what the risk, the most despicable, the least acceptable, the most unfit, no matter.
That was also the attitude of the first responders on 9/11, climbing the impossible staircases of the towers, at the cost of their own lives. Which one of you would do the same? That’s what Jesus did, and in Jesus, it was God who was doing it. That’s the plus in this disaster. In the grief we discover courage and honor. We mark the courage and honor of so many on that awful day. And then too love gets uncovered. Sacrificial love. Within the grief. Unreasonable love, extreme love, nothing other than the love that pours out of God for you and for the world.
Copyright © 2016, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.
Wednesday, August 31, 2016
Jeremiah 18:1-11, Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17, Philemon 1-21, Luke 14:25-33
These are tough texts, all of them. Not that they don’t all have their logic. In the first reading, from Jeremiah, the metaphor of the potter’s house makes sense enough. The metaphor illustrates the sovereignty of God and the freedom of God, and that God is free to change God’s mind. Not that God is capricious, but that even God’s mind-changes keep steady on God’s own personal standard of righteousness.
Fair enough, but what’s troubling in this is God reserving the right to plan evil against us. That may be reasonable, if God is both sovereign and free, and it does honor human responsibility, but how can such a supposedly loving God plan evil against anyone?
The epistle to Philemon is troubling to people because of what the Apostle Paul does not say. He wrote this letter during one of his times in prison, perhaps in Ephesus. He wrote it to his friend and convert Philemon, a wealthy man, who subsidized the Colossian church and hosted it in his house. Philemon had a slave or two, as was customary then. His slave Onesimus had run away, and ended up with St. Paul, taking care of him in prison. But now St. Paul was sending him back, carrying this letter appealing to Philemon to take his slave back without punishing him, and more, to take him as a brother instead of a slave. St. Paul’s appeal is pushy but reasonable. But his appeal is not on the ground that slavery itself is wrong. That he fails to say that is what has troubled many people.
Then in the Gospel, the Lord Jesus is impossibly unreasonable. He says you have to give up all your possessions. But then won’t you become dependent on someone else who has possessions? Like a Buddhist monk, or even like a slave! The Lord Jesus says you have to hate the members of your family, the very people you’re supposed to love. So you have to abandon your wife and kids and condemn them to begging and poverty? Does the Lord Jesus mean to scare us off by this?
You want to get close to God, that’s why you’re here, you are drawn to Jesus, you want him to make a difference in your life, but when you get close to him, he turns around and talks like this, that you renounce all your substance and your relationships and all that you hold precious. What you wanted from Jesus was the wisdom to improve your relationships with your family, not to renounce them. What you wanted was the pattern by which to handle your possessions ethically, with good stewardship and generosity, not just throw them away. He doesn’t even allow for you defending your family and property, because if you’re carrying your cross, you can’t take up arms.
The Lord Jesus is very much the prophet here. In Biblical prophecy, the words of a prophet are not meant to be reasonable. The prophet does not offer explanations and does not negotiate. The prophet does not answer your questions, the prophet rather questions everything. No deals are made and no excuses are accepted, no matter how reasonable your particulars may be.
You have noticed that the Bible never explains its claims to the standards of our satisfaction, and that God just does not justify Godself to us. God does not indulge us, and God is not even tolerant. I know it sounds contradictory, that God is both lavishly gracious and yet not tolerant, but God doesn’t care about such contradictions. God never justifies God’s claims, and neither does the prophet.
So the words of the Lord Jesus here show no concern for reasoning with us. There’s no deal to be made, no solution, no synthesis. His words do ripping up and tearing down. He means his words to clear the ground, and he rips out the flowers with the weeds. His words are like the waters of a flood. Water in a lake is lovely and live-giving, but water in a flood carries everything off before it, wrecking everything. So his words push everything aside without regard, indiscriminately. He means his words to trouble us.
So let’s not try to soften these hard sayings of Our Lord. Let’s keep it all hard and challenging, like a big rock right in your pathway that you always have to reckon with. Jesus offers you a constant obstacle, a persistent problem that you cannot solve. This is a problem you have to live with all your life. You have to keep facing it again and again, and examine yourself, even judge yourself. All your good convincing reasons that you need this thing, or that connection, or this arrangement, to all those reasons the Lord Jesus says, Really? Over and over again, ever more drily: Really?
Don’t bother trying to reason it through with God. God is not convinced. God places no value on our affluence. God has no interest in protecting our possessions for us, or of getting us more of them. That’s not what God does for you. God’s opinion about our possessions is right here in Luke 14. We have to keep coming back to that. We have to keep returning to the sober realization that the Christian life requires loss as much as gain.
It will cost you. Especially if you work for justice and righteousness in this world that is biased towards injustice and ungodliness. You might feel like you are losing, not winning. In this world, to accomplish any real change requires you to sacrifice, maybe even your life. That has to be troubling. A commander of an army has to keep fighting the battle even at the cost of casualties and death among his soldiers. There’s no way that’s not troubling.
That’s what Our Lord means by you carrying your cross. Remember that at this point in time the cross was not yet the religious symbol of Christianity. It was a symbol of Roman oppression and vindictiveness. It was a negative symbol of pain and loss. To carry your cross means that even in the midst of pain and loss you still follow Christ, that you stay faithful to God even in the midst of suffering and tragedy (Calvin). The cost of discipleship. Christians are expected to stretch towards devotion and obedience. It’s discipline. It’s medicine—but not a drug! It’s actually power.
Because, ironically, though Jesus died on a cross he never surrendered. He continued to say exactly what he wanted and do exactly as he willed. In that sense they had no power over him. He was free to the end, though he knew it would cost him. That was his power. So this is the gospel question underneath all his troubling words: How much do you want to be free?
I once had a parishioner whose husband treated her badly. She put up with it, and always said, “He is my cross to bear.” You hear Christians say that. But that’s not right. She was bearing her husband’s cross, but she’s supposed to be bearing her own. As long as she was carrying his, he didn’t have to, and she was diverted from her own. The possession she had to give up was her marriage to that man. If she had done that, all her family would have reviled her. Her husband’s family, yes, but her own family too. They would have accused her of disloyalty and selfishness.
That’s what Jesus means when he says you have to hate your father and mother: he doesn’t mean the internal emotion, he means the external reputation, that your family accuses you of not considering them, or of not loving them enough. They act all offended at you, and that can be your cost of discipleship. They may cut you off from their good graces and their sympathy; and that’s when you realize that you have begun to carry your cross.
Also ironically, Jesus did not finish carrying his cross. Simon of Cyrene did that for him. On the other hand, Jesus did die on it. So you don’t have to. Jesus does the dying but not the carrying, you do the carrying but not the dying. His death has virtue for you, to free you from your death. To give you power and freedom. There is a mystery of exchange and substitution here, ransom and replacement.
This mystery has challenged and troubled theologians through the centuries. All explanations falter because it is finally unreasonable. God does not explain it, God only offers it. In the loss is your freedom and your power, and on the cross that power is revealed as love, the great unreasonable love of God for you. “Amazing love, how can it be, that thou my God shouldst die for me.”
Copyright © 2016, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.
Thursday, August 04, 2016
Go to this link for the video of a hymn-sing.
Isaiah 1:1, 10-20, Psalm 50:1-8, 21-24, Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16, Luke 12:32-40
“Fear not little flock, it is my Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom.” To give you the Kingdom. But so often I hear it said that we are supposed to build the kingdom of God. I heard it at General Synod, as a call for Christian action and church planting and investment and even sacrifice. As if not for our efforts the kingdom of God would not get built.
But according to our Epistle to the Hebrews, it’s already built, and not by us. Its builder and maker is God. It’s waiting for us to get to it and it’s God’s good pleasure to give it to us as we approach it, already now, at least its first-fruits.
That does not mean we should be passive. Rather Jesus gives us all these metaphors for being actively alert, actively ready, dressed for action, your lamps lit. Your activity includes putting down those competing things that distract you, setting aside those desirable things that might hinder you, taking off whatever would slow you down, as active as a second baseman or a shortstop, even before the ball is hit.
It’s not your action that brings it, it’s your action that receives it, it is God who brings it. Your receiving it from God is not by means of your good works, not from your trying to build it by good work, but simply through the medium of your faith. You receive it by your faith.
My topic for today is faith. We use that word a lot. How do you know when you have it? What does it feel like? Wow do you know when you are using it? This topic fits nicely into our sermon series on prophecy, because faith is what prophecy asks for in particular. This might not be true in other religions, but it is true of prophecy in the Biblical sense, prophecy as we’ve seen it in this series of sermons, prophecy as the invitation and witness to the alternate reality, prophecy as that collection of images and icons and windows into that alternate reality—this sort of prophecy exactly appeals to faith. The way that you respond to prophecy, to its invitations and it promises, is by faith.
We use faith all the time in many ways. When you drive down a two-lane highway you have faith in the driver of the truck coming toward you that he will not swerve into your lane. It is a fact of life today that we take enormous risks all the time, and we live with more danger and more complexity than people have ever lived before, so that we have constantly to put our faith in people we do not know and in institutions removed from us. You have to live by your faith in many ways all the time.
Faith is found among certain birds and animals, especially those species that mate for life, like loons, or among domesticated animals towards us who are their masters. “Fido” is a dog’s name because it’s Latin for “faithful.” The faith of animals is rooted in affection. That’s true for human beings too, but our species takes it beyond the level of affection to the level of projection. We put faith in promises, in ideas, in images, of the future, in visions of what might be. “I have a dream!” “The arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice!” Human beings are the species that is able to envision the invisible and imagine the insensible. We project, and so we all have to live by faith.
Everybody lives by faith, even if we’re not religious. The question is what we put your faith in, whether science or humanity or reason, or nature, or luck, some worldview, a vision of the world, or maybe some god. These are not mutually exclusive, and we interweave these objects of our faith and prioritize them. What do you have some faith in, what do you have more faith in, and what do you have most faith in? By your prioritization you make your choices in life. Think of the many things that you have faith in. You can tell this by how often you’ve been disappointed. Think of the people you’ve had faith in, and again, how often you’ve been disappointed, whether from their failings or maybe from your own transference. To guide your prioritization is one main function of religion.
According to the Heidelberg Catechism of the Reformed Church, dating from 1563, faith has three things in it: knowledge, conviction, and assurance (Q21). In that order—knowledge, conviction, and assurance—from objective to subjective, from information to emotion, from your head to your heart to your soul.
Faith needs knowledge; to wit: What exactly are the promises? What is being promised here? What’s the vision, what’s the prophecy, what’s the alternate reality by which we can judge the presenting reality? Does it make sense? Does it help to make better sense of everything else? Is it reasonable?
Your human reason is not to be denied here, and yet your faith must go beyond your reason, because, by definition, faith is what you engage when you go past proof. Faith is precisely for “things hoped for” and for “things not seen.” As in Hebrews 11:1, famously, “Now faith is the assurance of things hope for, the conviction of things not seen.” That verse is worth your memorizing it, but it’s notoriously difficult to translate, so it’s worth memorizing in several versions. I learned it this way: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Do you catch it? Faith makes its own evidence, so faith is in itself a kind of knowledge.
Then faith moves from knowledge to conviction, from your head into your heart, where it gets personal. To wit: Am I convicted by this prophecy? Does this promise call out to me? What does it demand of me? Can I commit to it? Do I dare? Because, again, by definition, faith responds not to proof but to an invitation. What if I don’t? What do I lose, what do I gain? Will I let it change me? Can I bet my life on it? Dr. King said that you’ve got nothing worth living for if you’ve got nothing worth dying for. Faith has to go from your head to your heart, from knowledge to conviction.
Then your knowledge passes through conviction to assurance. Faith has to go from your head to your heart to your soul. Your soul is the channel of your emotions. You can feel it in your breathing when you have assurance. But your soul is also your connector with your God. Your soul is how you reach out to God as well as the conduit through which God comes into you.
Both Jews and Christians believe that the Spirit of God enters you, and it’s that Holy Spirit who gives you your assurance. If you draw your assurance from your own internal resources, that will fail you, no matter how good you are. So you depend on the Holy Spirit creating assurance inside you.
What does that feel like? The thing is, you’re not going to have a distinct feeling of the Holy Spirit, distinct from your own feelings. That’s because the Spirit prefers to blend into you, like sugar dissolving into water. The way the Holy Spirit does it is by using your head and reminding you of the promises of God, either privately inside you or through the words of a friend or a hymn or a worship service at church.
Don’t find your assurance in your own certainties but find it in the promises of God. “Fear not, little flock, it is my Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Your faith is the conduit for you to experience God’s faithfulness to you.
So the secret to assurance is not the what of your faith but the who of your faith. Not just what do you believe, but in whom do you believe? Till recently in this church, whenever I called for you to repeat the Apostles Creed, I would ask you, “What do you believe?” But now I ask you, “In whom do you believe?” The first question was good, but the new one is better. Because the what depends upon the Who. The whole purpose of the what is to point to the Who behind the what.
And also because of the gap between the what that is promised and the what that is received. We are incomplete, we are pilgrims looking for a better city, and we will die before we get there. Like Abraham, like Moses, like Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In the words of the Epistle, “All these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. . . . Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, indeed he has prepared a city for them.” You believe in the City of God because you have faith in God. The fullness of the what is still to come, but the fullness of the Who is fully here.
Faith can be rich and powerful and fruitful and world-changing when its knowledge is of many things, of many prophecies and promises. But your faith will save you even if it only knows one thing, the heart of the matter, in whom to trust. A baby does not even know her mother’s name, but she knows her mother as her safety and security. Fear not, little child, it is your mother’s good pleasure to give you her love. I invite you to put your faith in the love of God for you.
Copyright © 2016, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.
Saturday, July 09, 2016
Amos 7:1-7 and Colossians 1:1-14
For the next few months our Old Testament lessons will come from the books of the prophets: Amos, Hosea, Joel, Isaiah, and Jeremiah. Prophecy is a big deal in the Bible. So how do we apply it to ourselves today? How are we supposed to be prophetic? Thus, this sermon series on prophecy, and today is number 5. I was asked to review what we’ve learned so far, so here is a quick summary.
The first week we read about Elijah against King Ahab. I said that a prophet speaks against the normal way of things and contests the conventional wisdom. Prophets are thus not welcomed by the powerful and by those who benefit from the normal way of things. I also said that a prophetic church begins with self-examination, judging ourselves before we judge others. This self-examination is liberating because it frees us from our presumptions, pride, and prejudice.
The second week I said that the church is prophetic when it does what no other human institution does, and that is to discern, describe, and celebrate that alternate reality of the world that is the Kingdom of God, and to offer windows and icons for people to see into it. So we should not get distracted by every issue of the day. We witness to the alternate reality of the sovereignty of God behind the scenes, and we speak with joy and wonder of all of its vast claims on ordinary life.
The third week I said that the Holy Spirit within you is who enables you to be prophetic. The Spirit empowers you to see into that alternate reality and to tell out what you see. I also said that when we’re prophetic we have a double relationship with the world. We discredit the powers of the world and we dispute their pretensions and we grieve what they do, but we do not despair, because we live by hope. The alternate reality is for the world, and the Holy Spirit is the Lord and Giver of life to this world, and our hope is nourished by the Holy Spirit pouring God’s love into our hearts.
Last week I said that Biblical prophecy is always an invitation, and not some oracle of fate or destiny. I said that God respects your human freedom, even though God is absolutely sovereign, and God’s message invites your free response. I said that to accept the invitation usually includes some kind of repentance, but repentance is that liberation. I also said that it’s wrong to seek worldly power in order to enforce the sovereignty of God, but you witness to it by your deeds of loving service. I said that prophecy can be communal, a team effort, with each of you playing your parts, and your simple deeds of feeding and shelter are windows and icons into that alternate reality.
And now, today, is Amos. The prophet Amos marks the third stage in the evolution of prophecy in the Bible. The primitive prophets always worked in groups, with song and dance, and probably ecstatically. They spoke for the moment, and we have no record of what they said. Then came the solo prophets, Elijah and Elisha and others too, speaking truth to power and doing miracles. We have the record of their words and deeds in the books of First and Second Kings and Chronicles.
Today we get the third stage in the evolution, the writing prophets. Their sermons, poems, and visions were recorded in the books that bear their names, along with their trials and troubles. It is from these that we will be reading in the coming months. Some of them left a lot of material, and we call them the Major Prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel. The others we call the Minor Prophets because their books are shorter, but not less important. Among the first of these writing prophets was Amos. He was a farmer from the southern Israelite kingdom of Judah.
We just read from the seventh chapter of Amos. He has come up to the northern kingdom of Israel to prophesy against it. Next Sunday, the eighth chapter will tell you why God was against it. I’ll say today that King Jeroboam II presided over military expansion and economic prosperity, but on the backs of the lower classes and the orphans and widows. The rich were getting richer but the poor were getting poorer. That’s the judgment you will hear next week.
In the first six chapters the prophecies were conditional. But they went unheeded, and with this seventh chapter it’s too late, and God has condemned the northern kingdom to destruction by the Empire of Assyria. The royal temple at Bethel will be demolished, and the population will be carried off as exiles into far off lands. So we can say that Amos is reinforcing what we saw with Elijah, that the prophet speaks truth to power, first by invitation, and then by condemnation.
What we also see today is that the prophet speaks his truth to religious power, and especially to establishment religious power. It’s easy enough for the church to criticize politicians, you don’t need the Holy Spirit to do that. It’s both more difficult and more needful to prophesy against religious power.
This is what the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did in his Letter from the Birmingham Jail. He wrote it not to politicians but to religious leaders who were telling him to behave.
This is how our own Reformed Church in America finally responded to apartheid in South Africa. For years we had followed other Americans in opposing apartheid as a political issue, but in 1982 the “Black” Reformed churches in South Africa asked us to speak against apartheid as a gospel issue, and to witness against the white Dutch Reformed Church, which had invented apartheid as church policy, and then afterward had taught it to the government. So the point was to prophesy against the religious and spiritual power of racial injustice which was rooted in the church. The means of this prophecy was a faith statement called the Belhar Confession, which our own Reformed Church eventually adopted.
Right now our nation is extremely prosperous but the poor are getting poorer, and bitterness, hatred, fear, and violence are rising in our land. It’s awful. Baton Rouge, St. Paul, Minnesota, Dallas. What will it be this week? It’s terrible. What do we say? What do we do?
It seems to me that for the church to be prophetic here we have to discern the spiritual power of the violence and the religious powers behind the politics. I wish I knew what the answers are. I do know this: for the church to be prophetic now, we must witness to the religious and spiritual issues behind the violence, fear, and greed. And coming full circle, that must include our own prophetic self-examination. How are we complicit? What do we fear? What costs are we afraid to pay, especially to our wealth and security?
But our voice is so weak and our witness is so small. Well yes, and no, and that brings me to my second learning today about prophecy, which can give us hope. It is this: prophecy seems extreme and hyperbolic and extravagant, but no less it is true.
I want you to notice the language of St. Paul in the Epistle to the Colossians. First he seems to exaggerate when he writes that the gospel “is bearing fruit and growing in the whole world.” At that time there were maybe a couple thousand believers scattered in what, maybe fifty congregations, and he writes “the whole world.” Extravagant confidence and hyperbolic hope! “Other-worldly hope,” as one of you here has written.
And then St. Paul writes about this little congregation in Colosse as if they were the greatest group of saints ever, and with a future most magnificent! The congregation will have read this letter and thought, “Who, us?” Yes you!
What looks like hyperbole and sounds like extravagance is the natural idiom of prophecy. Your window may be small, but you can see mountains through it. Your icon can be miniature, but it links you to a whole vast world. The prophet sees the great things in the small, in the little girl the future saint, and in the committee meetings of a church you can even see the Kingdom of God.
To be prophetic means to develop your prophetic imagination (Brueggemann), and I mean imagination as a precious gift of God to the human species, as God has imagined us, and we are in God’s image.
And so, beloved congregation of Old First Church, to be a prophetic church you must have a double vision of yourselves, in both self-examination and prophetic imagination: in admitting you have not loved as you should love nor spoken as you should speak, and no less regarding yourselves as St. Paul would, as the greatest group of saints ever, as God regards you in God’s grace.
And that is true for each of you individually. When I look at you all, you know what I see? I wish I had a lovelier metaphor, but I imagine each one of you as a glass vessel, filled with the vapor that is your soul, and your soul is lit up like the vapor in a light bulb, your soul is lit up with the energy of the love of God. That’s what I see when I look at you, I see the energy of the love of God in you.
Copyright © 2016, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.