Friday, October 17, 2014
Exodus 33:12-23, Psalm 99, 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10, Matthew 22:15-22
When you live in Canada you get used to seeing a portrait of Queen Elizabeth displayed in every public building. Even in local the hockey arenas, even in the Blue Line Club where you go to drink your beer between the periods, there on the wall her face looks out, the image of serenity and sovereignty. It’s not the same in the USA. The face of the president is not the image of sovereignty.
Who has sovereignty over you? Who has dominion over your life? Who holds eminent domain? The answer is not difficult. You can tell by who takes the first cut of your paycheck. Who takes the first part of your income? Have you noticed that the IRS does not have to do pledge-drives and fund-raisers? The government does not do Consecration Sunday. Your taxes come out before your tithes and offerings. Your taxes come out before anything you spend on yourself.
The ideology of America is that you have total freedom, and the ideology is reinforced in the mythology of advertising: if you are free to spend as you please then you must be free in general. Ah.
Just sit down some time and examine your spending, and measure the proportions of how much you spend on this and that, and those proportions will indicate not only what you value but also what has power over you. What happens to your money tells you not only how much freedom you can exercise but also what dominates you and what demands your certain choices.
You can tell in your own life how eminent is the domain of Caesar and how eminent is the domain of God. You highly value God, but comparatively speaking, the effective sovereignty God in your life is rather weak. You have to wonder why God allows it, coming across so weak, like such an underachiever.
The taxes to Caesar were especially hateful to the Jews. Their taxes supported a government they considered illegitimate. Worse, Roman money was sinful, because the coins broke the second commandment by bearing the graven image of Caesar. Worse yet, Caesar was being worshiped as a god, so their taxes supported the violation of the first commandment. So Roman taxation forced the Jews continually to break the first and second commandments.
Well then, if Jesus claims to be the Messiah, that is, the candidate to be the true King of the Jews, the question they ask him is a legitimate matter of public policy which you’d ask any candidate for office. And then Jesus does not answer them directly. Is this a typical politician’s dodge? He does not say if it’s right or wrong. He leaves that up to his listeners. He turns it back on them.
He asks them to produce a coin. Notice they are able to. Right there is the indicator that they participate in the Roman economy. It means they accept the benefits of Roman rule, no matter how much they rail against it. That’s why he calls them hypocrites. He’s saying, “Oh cut it out.” Get real, stop being so self-righteous, like Caesar is really the problem here. He turns it back on them. He calls them to self-examination. That’s the impact of his response. Examine yourselves: How much in your life belongs to God, and how much in your life belongs to Caesar? Then, act accordingly.
What if they overlap? What if they conflict? What if they both claim the same, the whole field — what if they both claim everything? Caesar did claim everything. Caesar had power over them of life and death, he had eminent domain, he could enforce his sovereignty. The Jews were not citizens, they had no civil rights in their own land, and a Roman soldier could punish any Jew with impunity. The Jews had their Temple only because the Romans had found it politically expedient, and a few decades later when the Temple became a problem the Romans destroyed it.
In our own day it’s not so much that Caesar claims everything, it’s that Caesar gets to determine how much God gets. In the separation of church and state, it is the state which gets to set the boundary, and the church has to accept it. Notice that the IRS demands to know how much you give in tithes and offerings, but the church never asks you how much your taxes are.
But God claims everything as well. Psalm 24: The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, the world, and they that dwell therein. That’s a problem for us in America. We have relegated religion to the private spheres of life, and done our best to keep God out of the public square. We have separated church and state, which was a very good idea. But we blended that legal separation with the philosophical bias of the European Enlightenment, which says that religion is tolerable only when it’s compartmentalized as a private thing, and that a modern democratic state requires absolute secularism in the public affairs.
But religion keeps leaking out of its compartment, for better or worse. Religion keeps leaking from the private into the public. And it will do so unless your God is very small. You can’t stop God from going public, you can’t keep a lid on the sovereignty of God. When Jesus tells his fellow Jews to “Give to God what is God’s,” they must know from their own scriptures that “what is God’s” means everything, even what Caesar has claimed.
The kingdom of God is the sovereignty of God and that means eminent domain. The whole of your life belongs to God. You can’t say: This here is God’s and this here is not. If it’s true that even what belongs to Caesar first belongs to God, then what’s called for is not compartmentalization or even separation but dynamic interaction, that you pay what you pay to Caesar because you’re really paying it to God. Even when those taxes are heavy and unfair, you can be cheerful in paying them, because you’re really paying them to God.
That’s the transformation we are dealing with this weak. It’s the transformation of your loyalties, which means a transformation of your worldview, of how you see the world and whom the world belongs to, and how you divvy it up in order to behave in it. The gospel speaks not just to private behavior and private morality, it also speaks to how you view the world, to your worldview.
How much of the world belongs to God? How much of your day today belongs to God? How much of your life belongs to God? Can you see this problem of sovereignty as life-giving and even liberating? It relativizes every other claim on you, it makes every other claim on you just temporary and expedient. It means the benefit that your life is not compartmentalized, it means the wholeness to your life, it means you don’t have different sets of rules for different relationships. You are integrated, you are unified, you are in unity with yourself, no matter what claims the public powers may demand of you, your nation or boss or family or whatever. You belong to God, and you serve them all as serving God.
You may be thinking I’m sounding like a fundamentalist. They’re the ones who keep imposing their religion on the public, who try to make public law out of their private convictions. So let me say that in a very narrow sense, compared to the Enlightenment, some fundamentalists are right.
But let me tell you they are wrong. While the God that Jesus speaks for does claim everything, we see in Jesus that it is not in the defensive or aggressive way of claiming things. This God is a god who does not push his power or defend her dominion or enforce his sovereignty, except through appealing to your heart.
Of course we’d sometimes prefer it if God would act a bit more powerful, especially in helping us out with some convenient miracles or maybe some extra money for our churches, but that is not the way of God. The face on this God’s coinage is the face of Jesus Christ. And that makes all the difference in God’s approach to power.
The face of Jesus represents a God who does claim everything, but who claims it in the way of servanthood and sacrificial love. That’s not very thrilling or heroic or exciting. Not unless you’re thrilled to offer hospitality, and you’re heroic in reconciliation, and you’re excited by such love and understanding that you even sit down with the Romans and pray for Caesar, as awful as he is. That seems to be the way that Jesus establishes his sovereignty, by preparing a table in the presence of his enemies, and inviting them to eat with him. There is no sovereignty of God which is not expressed in love. And that means that your worldview, your viewing of the world, must always be a looking out for the love of God.
Copyright © 2014 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.
Friday, October 03, 2014
At the Lake in Prospect Park, on a Sunday, my Grandpa Hartog, my mom, my brother and sister, and me.
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-8, 12-20, Psalm 19, Philippians 3:4-14, Matthew 21:33-46
My text is Philippians 3:10, I want to know Christ, and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death.
This verse has been my motto for the last twelve years. It’s my challenge, it’s my personal algorithm for transformation. My goal is to be transformed into a good and fully realized human being. I want to know the pattern for becoming a fully realized human being which is given to us by God.
The pattern is described in the Bible but also demonstrated in the person of Jesus — acted out, lived out, in real time, earned, endured, pursued all the way through death, achieved, accomplished, and I want to know that, I want to share in his continuing existence which has a real transformative power in the world.
The second part of the verse is difficult: the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death. That sounds negative and self-defeating. To get it is as much about feeling as logic. So let me tell you a story from my family history in the Dutch Reformed ghetto in Paterson, New Jersey.
My Grandpa on my mother’s side was a carpenter. He was an immigrant from Amsterdam. He was a lover of languages and books and music. But he made a mess of his life. He committed adultery against my Grandma as soon as they got married and for the next forty years. Just before I was born he left my Grandma and moved in with his girlfriend. He was suspended from Holy Communion, and shunned by all the relatives. I don’t blame them.
My Grandma, at the age of 62, left everything — her house and children and her whole extended family and moved to Massachusetts to take a job as a housemaid in a mansion. She was happy there, she was free. No humiliation, no shame. My Grandpa and his girlfriend found that they could not live with each other, and they split up pretty quick. He ended up all alone. He had lost everything. His life was what our epistle calls “rubbish”.
My parents were open-hearted, and let him come visit us in Brooklyn. When I was seven he moved in with us, in Bedford-Stuyvesant. He started driving for my dad. He did carpentry for my dad’s church. And he connected with me. I loved him in the house. We spent time together. It was for him I started learning Dutch. Eventually he moved out, and I saw him less, but over the years he told me the stories of his life. I was the only one of his nine grandsons to learn his language and his music. I learned to sing Dutch psalms with him. When he died I loved him very much.
I loved what was good about him, but can you understand that I also loved his failures and mistakes? Not that I approve of them, but they were part of him, and if not for his sins he would not have moved in with us and we would not have connected and I would have missed that whole rich part of my own life. His sins and his sufferings are part of what I am today — the music that moves me, the languages I speak, and even my love of Brooklyn. I loved him and I loved the whole of him, embracing his sins and miseries no less than his successes.
I also loved my Grandma, very very much, so his mistreatment of her, his humiliating her, and what it did to my mother that she grow up in a house full of anger, are also part of me. I can’t deny it or even reject it. I bear it, I carry it, I suffer it. I share the suffering my Grandpa brought upon himself and upon other people I have loved.
I want to know Christ and the sharing of his sufferings. Not because suffering itself is good, but the sharing of suffering. This kind of knowing is more than awareness, it’s engagement. It’s more than information, it’s an investment. It means an open mind, but more an open heart. It means understanding, yes, but more deeply it means undergoing, undergirding, undertaking. You already know that this is what makes us fully realized human beings. You have chosen to seek in Jesus how to live this way, by being open to his kind of suffering but also drawing on his resurrection power. It is a way to handle the world, it is a pattern to handle all the good and evil in the world, especially as it touches your own life and those you love.
I’m thinking of Christians in Hong Kong right now. I’m thinking of Christians in the Middle East right now. I’m thinking of Christians in Liberia and Sierra Leone right now. I’m thinking of all of you here who read the news each day and are tempted by cynicism and despair right now, and how much of the world can we bear to suffer?
I’m thinking of all of you here right now who are dealing with shadows in your life, from your own parents and grandparents, and also with the suffering you have brought upon yourself by doing stupid things or fearful things or things of desperation. Don’t deny it or reject it. Bear it, carry it, suffer it. That’s to be real human beings. To be able to do that without despair and with love and grace must be transformative.
People ask me why we can’t just believe in God and leave it at God, why do we have to have this Christ guy in the middle. It’s a fair question, especially as we are so open to Jews and Muslims. For me it’s not that you have to, but I want to. It’s not about proving our religion right and all the others wrong, it’s believing that, in that real live guy named Jesus, God actually entered and engaged and identified with humanity in real time in a real place as a real person, and I want to know this, I want to have a share in the suffering side of it and know the positive power of it. I want to know Christ because I want to know about this real connection God made with us by having a real mother named Mary and a real ethnicity named Jewish.
I want to know about God’s experience of us. I want to know what humanity feels like to God, I want to know what suffering feels like to God, and I can know that in Christ. I want to know what suffering feels like to a man who, unlike my Grandpa, was innocent and righteous. Yes the suffering of my Grandpa and my Grandma that I feel is real but it can tell me only so much. What does suffering feel like to a guy like Jesus, who caused no suffering to anyone else, who asked no sympathy, and who never complained? That’s the pattern of humanity that I want for my life.
It’s not static. The pattern is still ahead of us. It’s for transformation. You are in process. You’re on the way. Humanity is on the way somewhere. Even God is on the way. God’s engagement is dynamic and has a direction. How can you know where you’re going? How can you know the goal?
St. Paul’s claim (which cannot be proven, you have to take it as a claim) is that if you know Christ, that will do it. He is the object of your certainty, both mystically and historically, the only object of your certainty. He claims that everything else you know, you can know without requiring certainty. Everything else you know you can know in passing, as you know a flower that you throw away, or a flavor that passes, or a smell or a tune. You can love it and let go of it. You can even count it as loss if you have to. Like my Grandma did when she moved to Massachusetts at the age of 62. Like what you risk if you are demonstrating in Hong Kong or nursing in Liberia.
This would be all heroism or romanticism if not for the first part of the verse: I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection. As much as you embrace with love and grace what’s in your past, even more you seek the future, the victory of God. It’s still to come, it’s in the future, the power of it is coming from the future backwards towards us, but in history it’s been guaranteed and grounded in the resurrection of that guy Jesus, whose rising propelled him into that new world that is coming and also anchored his new life in real live history.
The news of that great event keeps speaking through time with us as time continues to unfold, the promise of his rising keeps ringing and echoing through the halls and arenas of our human development, and from the future his power pulls us toward his great design.
I saw that power in my parents. They gave my Grandpa sanctuary when everyone else had shunned him. They honored my Grandpa even when he was dishonorable.
No less did they honor my Grandma. We had always loved it when she came from Massachusetts to stay with us. She was so full of stories and she taught us songs and rhymes in Dutch, and she was a wonderful cook and a wonderful seamstress and she always brought us homemade presents. She didn’t believe in divorce but she wanted nothing to do with my Grandpa.
I guess her visits must have stopped when he came to live with us, until he moved out again. And, then, encouraged by my parents, he asked her out for a date. She didn’t like it but she said Okay.
Well, they got back together for ten final years of marriage. They still argued, but not like before. When Grandpa had his stroke and was in the hospital, Grandma rode the bus downtown three times a day to give him homemade food, and then she took him home to take care of him herself.
Copyright © 2014 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.
Friday, September 26, 2014
Exodus 17:1-17, Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16, Philippians 2:1-13, Matthew 21:23-32
I’m doing this sermon series on Transformations, inspired by the epistle lesson of some weeks ago, Romans 12, which called us to be not conformed to the world but transformed by the renewal of our minds. So are the scripture lessons telling us this week?
We see the Children of Israel quarreling. Last week we saw them complaining. It’s not pretty, but it got results—food last week and water this week. I said that not all complaining is bad, some is allowed, and it depends. I said that the opposite of complaining is not complimenting but silence—not shutting up but the inner composure that you develop in worship and adoration.
Is quarreling always bad? Is it never allowed? Sometimes, when you are suffering, you vent your pain against the guy in charge. Sometimes you offer an opinion and or advance an argument and you end up in a quarrel. It was happening in the church in Philippi. The congregation was taking sides in a quarrel between two good women, Euodia and Syntyche. There are quarrels in our churches in the Classis. In the church I served in Ontario we had a quarrel that I did not handle well.
St. Paul calls the Philippians to be of full accord and of one mind. That is, get past defending your own position. See things from the other’s point of view, and honor their interests as legitimate. Find common ground and reach an understanding broad enough to include you both. No, that’s not what he says. That’s good, but that’s still being conformed to the world. That’s not a transformation.
The transformation is that your common ground is a new reality which is a challenge to you both. The transformation is that the one mind you share is not each other’s common mind but another mind beyond you both. The transformation is when you both renew your minds to share the mind of Christ. That takes regular renewal. You keep renewing it through worship, mostly, and also in private prayer, and in deeds of service to others, the practice of putting others’ needs before your own. You do these things imagining by faith the mind of Christ.
Your imagination of the mind of Christ is not just anything you want but is informed by his story in the gospel. So, let’s see for this week. The Lectionary has jumped forward in Matthew’s narrative to the last week of Jesus’ life. This was the day after Palm Sunday. Jesus had paraded into Jerusalem like he was taking it and then he cleansed the Temple like he owned the place.
So on this Monday morning the authorities of the city and the Temple come to intervene. “Hey, who said you could do all this?” Is it an honest question, like they’re open-minded, or is it a challenge? Do they think they have the right and the power to demand an answer? When a customs officer asks you questions, you’d better answer them, and don’t ask any questions back.
But Jesus is not in their power. He has no need to defend himself. Yes, he knows they are able to get him killed, and he’s not looking forward to the suffering, but he’s not in their power. He is self-determining, and free, and unattached from them, so that he freely can engage them.
Let’s be fair to the chief priests and elders. If somebody showed up at Old First and asked to preach but had no credentials, I wouldn’t let him. If have a preacher friend with a global reputation but for a number of reasons he belongs to no denomination and is an independent agent so I would never let him preach her. It’s a matter of accountability, which on the face of it the chief priests and the scribes are not wrong to expect. Who said you could do this? Who sent you?
But with his question back at them Jesus exposes them. They themselves will not be accountable They will not tell the truth of what they really think. They dissemble. Because of the popularity of John the Baptist they are afraid to say that they really think that John’s baptism did not come from heaven. Jesus knows they aren’t dealing in honest answers to begin with.
Jesus could advance a case for his authority, but he doesn’t advance it. His response is not argumentation but invitation. You see that in his parable. He offers them one last chance. “Many folks have been saying Yes to me, but they’ll soon desert me. You’ve been saying No to me all along, but you still come in. You’d come in behind the publicans and prostitutes, but you’d still come in. But you don’t want to, do you, because you’d have to let go of your position.” Defending your position is the root of quarreling—in other words, refusing transformation.
How Jesus deals with them is how he deals with us. Don’t you find it so, that the questions you ask of Jesus he answers with a question back, and a challenging one at that? He proves himself to you only by means of your own self-examination. You ask, “Is it true?” And he answers, “Do you want this to be true?” You ask, “Is he the Lord?” He answers, “What sort of Lord do you want?”
Jesus never defends himself. Neither does God, for that matter. What Jesus shows us is that God’s interest is not in your conclusion, but in your transformation. He’s renewing your mind. You cannot pay him any mind unless you renew your mind, and to renew your mind is to mind him well.
Religions speak of mindfulness. Usually it’s your own mindfulness, even when it’s reaching out into the world. Christian mindfulness is different. It’s more like a mind-meld, sharing the mind of another. The community of Jesus shares together the mind of Christ.
Now really, this is very strange talk. Your mind is your own. It’s the most private thing about you. It’s virtually impossible to enter someone else’s mind. My wife and I were having an argument (yes, we do quarrel the odd time), and she said to me, “You can’t see into my mind. I don’t care how long we’ve been married, my mind is private from you.” Of course she’s right.
But that’s our metaphor, as strange as it is. I think it means you have to use your God-given imagination to imagine the mind of Christ. Of course the gospel stories help by giving you reliable material. We know what Jesus wouldn’t do. As much as we consider what Jesus did we must consider what he, as a person in his position, did not do. Unlike the chief priests and elders, for example, he did not dissemble in order to protect his position, and he did not calculate what he said in order to preserve his status as the rightful King of the Jews and the legitimate Messiah.
He didn’t do that from the beginning, in his Incarnation, when he emptied himself of the rights and privilege of his divinity. He emptied himself and took the form and status of a slave. Don’t take this wrong. This does not mean he was powerless. Slavery was different then, slaves were often given power and discretion. But the benefit of their power and discretion was never in their own interest. The point about slavery is the absence of self-interest. That’s the mind of Christ. Power without self-interest.
Is this the transformation? Can you imagine it, your own empowerment under the sign of the cross? Can you imagine it, to be a slave and still be free? To be humble without humiliation? Can you imagine being a servant without servility? My basic instinct is to advance my interests and my causes and defend my point of view. Is this really what God wants for us?
You are unable to imagine it being a good thing unless you have your mind renewed. So you have to keep renewing it, and you keep renewing it by means of worship, devotions, seasons of repentance, and deeds of service. These are transformative when your purpose in them is to seek the mind of Christ.
We believe that God does not leave it up to us, but actually shares with us the mind of Christ by giving you the Holy Spirit. God is in you, God is among you. That makes a difference. That should have made a difference to the Children of Israel when they said, “Is the Lord among us or not?” You know how when your mother is standing right there it’s harder to quarrel with your brother? Just out of respect. You know you’re going to be put in your place. And that’s a lesson for all of us to remember when we’re pushing for our position, to respect the Lord who is present among us.
But there is grace in it as well. Renew your mind to receive the Lord among us, and you can leave it to God to empower you and establish your position and to advance your interests, and even, in God’s time and for God’s purposes, to exalt you. The whole issue of quarreling falls away. The transformation you’re after is to share with Jesus his constant God-awareness, the constant presence of God within his mind. A vindicating God. A providing God. A restoring God. A resurrecting God. A God will exalt you because God so loves you.
Copyright © 2014, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.
Wednesday, September 24, 2014
Coming to God: First Days
Lord, what shall I do that I
can’t quiet myself?
Here is the bread, and
here is the cup, and
I can’t quiet myself.
To enter the language of transformation!
To learn the importance of stillness,
with one’s hands folded!
When will my eyes of rejoicing turn peaceful?
When will my joyful feet grow still?
When will my heart stop its prancing
as over the summer grass?
Lord, I would run for you, loving the miles for your sake.
I would climb the highest tree
to be that much closer.
Lord, I will learn also to kneel down
into the world of the invisible,
the inscrutable and everlasting.
Then I will move no more than the leaves of a tree
on a day of no wind,
bathed in light,
like the wanderer who has come home at last
and kneels in peace, done with all unnecessary things;
every motion; even words.
Mary Oliver, from Thirst
Thank you, Melody, for sending me this.
Thursday, September 18, 2014
One of the great Otto Heinigke windows in the Old First sanctuary. "Go ye also into the vineyard."
Exodus 16:2-15, Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45, Philippians 1:21-30, Matthew 20:1-16
I’m a grumbler, like those vineyard workers. I’m a complainer, like the Children of Israel. I’m a person who files complaints. Just this week I filed a complaint against the workers in Prospect Park who start the leaf-blower going at 6:45 am, right outside my window, even though the city ordinance says not before 8:00 am. I’m the kind of guy who calls up 311.
I mean grumbling is essential to democracy. Finding fault with your officials is a necessary preparation for elections. Democracy is not as much about voting somebody in as being able to throw the incumbent out.
Complaining varies by culture. I’m a dual citizen, and I spend about sixty days a year in Canada, and I can tell you that grumbling and complaining are not only more tolerated in Canada but even endorsed. It comes through on CBC, where the tone of the news is constant indignation, especially against the government, when it doesn’t deliver on what you are entitled to.
In the States, the government doesn’t owe you anything, you’re on your own, including your self-defense. Americans are violent. Canadians complain. That’s why I like it there—I’m a grumbler. When my wife and I are at events together she very often has to shut me up. My very cheerful and loving reputation is an effective cover, don’t you think? Just don’t complain about me.
Complaining comes from feeling that something is not right which could be right, and that this is the fault of whoever is in charge, and that it touches you, so you have to say something. (My two problems are that I think everything touches me, and I feel like I should always speak up.)
Not all complaining is bad. In another parable Jesus compliments a widow who complains. I guess the question is whether you really do have something to complain about.
In this parable, the vineyard workers had nothing to complain about. You understand that a vineyard was much smaller than they are today, and the practice was to harvest it all in one day, so that the grapes could be pressed all at once. As the day wore on, and if the crew was running late, you had to quick enlist more workers. So Jesus has this landowner being more generous with the later workers than he has to be.
He could have kept this under wraps by paying the earlier workers first, but by reversing the order of payment he’s rubbing their noses in his generosity. Or testing them. Well, it’s a parable. It’s about how you experience the generosity of God. When God is good to you but even more good to someone else, you feel it as unfair. And yet you’ve got nothing to complain about. Well, if I can’t complain, then what else am I going to talk about?
The Children of Israel did have something to complain about. They’ve been traumatized. And they have been conditioned by years of slavery not to trust the goodness of the guys in charge. They’re not asking for much— just plain, “What are we gonna eat.” When I was a pastor in Hoboken, I told my congregation I was being called to a church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. When I was at the front door shaking hands one of the members said, “Reverend, whatta you gonna eat?” And of course, for the next four years in Michigan I did complain about the food. That was the sin, I think, the fault, my failure—it was in my resentment.
With the Israelites it’s when they start saying nasty resentful things, like: “If only we had died in Egypt.” Excuse me. “When we sat by our fleshpots and ate our fill of bread.” That’s selective memory. Now they’re unfair. You might have something to complain about, but what’s the energy in your complaining? For me it’s jealousy of other people getting preferments which I did not get, and it’s resentment that I have to pay for my mistakes when other people seem to get away with theirs. Well, that’s the extent of my suffering. My life is so lacking in real suffering that I actually don’t have anything to complain about.
If you’re truly suffering, it’s as natural to complain as it is natural for babies to cry when they are hungry. But in the epistle, St. Paul tells the Philippians that it is their privilege to suffer for Christ. If it’s a privilege does that mean you have nothing to complain about? We can guess what their suffering was. In Philippi you could get beaten up just for being Jewish, and Christians were still regarded as renegade Jews who were even worse for their recruitment of Gentiles. Philippi was a Roman military colonia, in which their Christian faith will have been treasonous and their worship illegal.
We don’t know of any active persecution at this time, but the threat, the fear, and the tension were ever present. They had to be so careful, and trust the good will of their neighbors. To complain about their predicament would have been self-defeating. There’s something in that for us in general. Complaining comes easily and naturally, but how often is it not self-defeating. What you want to do is to discipline your complaining.
I’m not saying to stop complaining. There’s lots of productive complaining in the Bible. I mean, God heard the complaining of the Israelites and answered it with manna. Was that God’s intention all along? Then why did God hold off, and rub their noses in their need for God’s providence? Just testing! So that they’d learn to say, “Give us this day our daily bread, and lead us not into temptation?” Do we have to learn that the hard way? Does God have to train us to say that? Is that the transformation? Is that the opposite of complaining? “Give us this day our daily bread, and lead us not into temptation.”
I would say that the opposite of complaining is not complimenting, nor is cheering the opposite of grumbling. Yes, maybe on yelp.com, and maybe according to Park Slope parenting, but not morally, not spiritually. When we come to the heart, when we come to your soul, the opposite of complaining is quietness, and the opposite of grumbling is silence. Not the silence of being shut up, but of your own self-directed repose and your own self-referential inner quietness, your being free and unattached to what the guy in charge does wrong. And if there’s some justice required or some repair to do, you’re more able to address it when you’re not complaining about it.
I don’t mean cynical silence, and I don’t mean stoic resignation. I mean the quietness of worship and the silence of adoration. I mean that the more you develop your attitude of worship the less complaining you will do, and your grumbling will decrease the more you kneel in humble adoration.
Notice how Moses and Aaron called the people to worship the glory of God. They said, “In the evening you shall know it was the Lord who brought you out of the Land of Egypt, and in the morning you shall see the glory of the Lord.” It is in worship that you renew your mind and you realize your right place in the world, and in worship that you rehearse your rights and your privilege as not your own, but as God’s beloved.
Worship is the expression of your feelings, yes, but it’s more the transforming of your feelings, and it has something objective and substantial against you in order to renew you and transform you. You want this; that’s why you’re here today. You have come here to have your mind renewed again. Just being here you are transformed, and for this time together you have no time for complaining, and you have no spare breath for grumbling.
There were many good people who complained about Jesus. It’s not because he was not loving and gracious with them. It’s that he was no less as loving and gracious to bad people. He is generous to everyone, not as you deserve it, but as you need it. Jesus does not give out points for good behavior. That means there is no point to be good, except just to be good. Being good has to be its own reward. And being good will not exempt you from suffering and sorrow. That’s the other side of the coin of grace.
In the same way, there is no point to loving, except to love. And the love of Jesus did not exempt him from suffering and sorrow. But he loved because he, though absolutely free, could not help but love, because God was so fully in him, and God is love. Yes, even though God is absolutely free, God is love. Within this love right now you are transformed and the vision of this love renews your mind. You came here today to lift up your heart to the glory of the love of God.
Copyright © 2014, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.
Thursday, September 11, 2014
We begin with the Parable of the Unforgiving Slave. This parable is spring-loaded. It has contradictions within it. At first, the king is extravagantly merciful to the slave, and at the end, he has the slave tortured because of the slave insulting his mercy.
Okay, but is Jesus really saying that God the Father is like that with us, both extravagantly merciful and also extremely vengeful and exacting? The church has taught just that. You know, “Jesus loves you more than you can ever know, and if you don’t believe that, he will roast you forever in hell.” That doesn’t add up. It doesn’t hold. That’s what I mean by the parable being spring-loaded.
As I wrestled with the parable, Melody advised me that it was comic, and I should read it as if the king were Tony Soprano. One of his capos comes to him and says, “Tony, I’m in trouble, I gotta deal.” Tony says, “I get it, these things happen. I can be very generous. You show me respect, and we can deal.” Then Tony hears that this capo shakes down a junior underling for not a lot, and Tony is furious and sends his guys to torture him. It’s not just generosity, it’s honor, it’s what’s in your heart. “So you better show respect, or you might find my heavenly Father like Tony Soprano, know what I’m sayin’?” So the last line of the parable is not a doctrine, it’s a punch-line, it’s a wake-up call.
What’s in your heart? You can always count offenses against you. Forgiving another person is not about keeping count. It’s about respect, it’s about respect for God and the mercy of God. You have to have a heart for mercy, that you know in your heart the mercy of God to you, how God is merciful to you beyond your reckoning or measure. Your practice of forgiving another person has to take place within your heart. Because you’ve got to forgive some fellow Christians who don’t even want your forgiveness.
You have to forgive in your heart because you might have to stay away from that person for the sake of your own safety. Because it’s not just every new sin you have to forgive, but the same sin, and it caused you such damage that every time you deal with the damage you have to forgive him all over again, in your heart, countless times. You have to renew your forgiveness like you renew your Metrocard. Renewing your forgiveness is part of the renewal of your mind which is the transformation we address today, the transformation of a broken heart into a heart for mercy.
How do you achieve this transformation of your heart? By exercise? By practice? By self-improvement and self-discipline, by the discipline of forgiving others? By mindfulness of others? All these, but not chiefly these. The most important mindfulness is not what you achieve but of what you have received, that you have received mercy. By believing that you have received more mercy than you can account for. That you have been surprised by God, jostled by God, pushed by God. You have been rescued, you have spared, you have been protected, you have been saved.
Do you think the Children of Israel would ever have entered that Red Sea if there were not chariots behind them? Do you think they’d ever have fled Egypt unless they’d had to? Like it or not sometimes, you have to receive salvation. You don’t achieve it, you receive it, it’s mercy, it’s rescue. Christian transformation is believing how fearfully you are rescued.
These poor Hebrew peons had never been to the beach. They’d never seen the sea before. They knew the ancient geography, that this Red Sea was an invasive arm of the great encircling sea that was at the rim of the world, the cold, dark boundary of life on earth. Here before them, jutting into the world of life, was an arm of that great and deadly deep. This sea was death to them. They will have been terrified. What about their children? How did they even drag their animals into it? Just so, your own salvation is more fearful rescue than it is self-improvement.
As for the Egyptians, they were both thrilled and frustrated. The Israelites were trapped. But chariots can’t fight when they’re in a column. They have to race around the flank of the army on foot to attack from the side. And the Israelites were protected by the walls of water. But the Egyptians are blood-thirsty, they want revenge, and into the trap they go.
As I said last week, I’m not concerned how historical you take this story. But you can take it as one of the great informing stories of the world, the defining image of salvation for Jews, and for Jesus, and for the renewal of your own minds and how you see yourselves and what is the ground of your transformation. The salvation is how you pass through death into this life, this life right now, your life right now.
You live your lives right now as rescued, protected, and spared. Your transformation is knowing yourselves as saved. Not for judging others as unsaved, but that you know yourself as the subject of great mercy, behind you and beside and before you.
Just so, the parable invites you to believe that the deep truth about yourself is that you are a debtor who is pardoned, a trespasser justified, a criminal rehabilitated, a slave redeemed, that you live and die as the constant beneficiary of an expansive and undeserved mercy which is the love of God.
You like to be self-reliant and competent. But you can believe that you’ve been granted salvation, that you’ve been made right with God, not from your competency but out of sheer grace. Your belief tells you how to see yourself and also other people, especially those who are in your debt. You express your belief in your behavior which is also grace. Which makes for a community who express our transformation, a community with a heart for mercy and for love.
In the gospel lesson it’s expressed in forgiveness. In the epistle it’s expressed as hospitality and welcome. You welcome the person whose religious practice violates your own. You welcome the person whose very identity contradicts your own. The conservative welcomes the liberal and the liberal welcomes the conservative. You are showing respect, respect for the welcome of Jesus who has welcomed you. You find yourself within this little community of diversity not on your own for you are not your own, you belong to the Lord, who has claimed you by rescuing and sparing and saving you. So you show respect. So you open your heart.
You and your children are assaulted daily but the true facts of a world today, the clash of civilizations and the posturing of politic, the burden of indebtedness and the compounding of interest and the exacting of fees, the fear of the future of the planet, a world of aggression and ideologies. Strange that the strategy of God to counter this, the strategy going back to Jesus and St. Paul, is for small communities of transformation. But that’s how you serve God in the transformation of this world. That’s our mission.
And part of our mission is to teach these children who have registered for Sunday School this week. To pull these children with us into the Red Sea before they know any different, that they get comfortable walking between the walls of water, to get used to knowing themselves as saved and rescued and protected, that they know the prayers and the rituals which confirm the mercy in which they find themselves, so that in all the pollution of the hatred and violence in the world they can practice breathing into their bodies the Spirit of God. You might not think of this what we do here today as world-changing. But apparently God does. So respect it, honor it, bless it, support it.
Your transformation is immediate, it is always now, it exists out of time, because it is the work of God in you. The mercy of God is the compulsion and the freedom of God’s own nature, which is love. The mercy in which you exist is God’s extravagant love for you.
Copyright © 2014 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.
Friday, September 05, 2014
Exodus 12:1-14, Psalm 149, Romans 13:8-14, Matthew 18:15-20
For the next few Sundays we will be reading from Exodus. These stories are important for two reasons. First, they are the foundation stories of Judaism, especially the Passover and its annual commemoration. Second, these stories shaped the mind of the Lord Jesus, and he found in them the pattern of his Passion, especially in the Passover. If you want to know Jesus, you need to know the Exodus.
The Exodus stories are wonderful and sometimes horrible. Today the wonderful liberation of the Children of Israel comes with the horrible slaughter of the children of Egypt. Such a story raises two problems: their history, and their morality.
First, their history. These stories tell you what happened, but can you take them as historical? Their details are improbable, unless God really did those terrible miracles. It begs the question to argue that because the miracles are impossible the stories could not have happened. There is no independent evidence from other ancient documents to either contradict or support what Exodus reports. I would say that you can believe that something really did happen back there, something otherwise impossible, but also that the report of it was written down centuries afterward, and that the Exodus stories were carefully crafted not for objective facts but for theological and dramatic purposes, something like Shakespeare with his Histories or the canvasses of Velazquez.
We want to steer between fundamentalism and liberalism. We don’t care to try to prove these stories as factual but neither do we presume to think that we know better than the stories do. The great Jewish scholar Umberto Cassuto wrote that the Book of Exodus is so artfully and subtly constructed that it’s impossible to pull it apart and get behind it, so that if you want to get anything out of it you have to take it as it is with all of its improbable details. We shall let the story speak in all of its literary power so that through it God may speak to us to us today.
Second, their morality. We are rightfully horrified that God could have slaughtered all those Egyptian children, no matter how many Hebrew children the Egyptians had killed beforehand. Not even for God, do two wrongs make a right. Of course, no nation has ever let its slaves go free without bloodshed. Think of our own Civil War. And in ancient times, people just accepted that gods could act like this. But how shall this be good news for us today?
Well, we have to remember that the Exodus stories are not about morality. They’re not about justifying the good and condemning the bad. They’re about God’s election and God’s judgment — God’s election of a humble people, in this case Israel, and God’s judgment on a people of pride and prejudice, in this case Egypt.
Of course we are troubled by questions about God’s jealousy and wrath, but these will be answered for us only in the long-term, as we follow the story of God’s self-revelation through the unfolding history of Israel to its drastic climax in Jesus. Here in the Exodus stories, election and judgment are displayed in naked conflict with the world, which conflict is only resolved for us in Christ, when God enters the world and takes on our flesh and so tragically and wonderfully accepts the judgment on himself. (O’Donovan, Resurrection and the Moral Order, p. 158).
So the Passover story leaves you up in the air with morality unresolved, and you can only come down to land with the morality of Jesus. To read this wonderful and horrible story you have to be like an angel who passes over the violence, because on the doorposts of history you have haltingly spread the blood of Christ, the Passover lamb of the Christian people. Agnus dei, qui tolles peccata mundi, miserere nobis. “O Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.”
The positive and wonderful affect of the Passover for the Children of Israel was their transformation. That night, when they all did one thing together, in fearful obedience to God, that night the tribes became a communion, the rabble became a congregation, the slaves became a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.
It was a traumatic transformation, as we will see in the coming weeks. They had not planned for it nor asked for it. They had not asked to leave their homes in Egypt. This God of Moses — they don’t know this God from Adam. After centuries of absence he suddenly remembers them, and says he’s on their side, and by powerful signs and wonders he gives them what they had not asked for.
They had not asked for freedom, just for some relief. They had not asked to be transformed. They did not know where they were going. Moses did not hand out any road-maps. And if God did this to the Egyptians today, who knew what God might do to them next week?
Even to escape the slaughter of the firstborn must have been traumatic. If not for believing the strange instructions they all would have suffered the same as the Egyptians. You see how it works: To survive the judgment you must believe in the judgment. If you trust the Word of this God, the judgment of this God frees you instead of punishing you. For them it was freedom from slavery in Egypt. In your case it’s freedom from the guilt of your sin. Without even waiting for you to confess your sins, God unexpectedly and gratuitously just passed over them. You are free.
So that’s the gospel here. In the oven of oppression and in the face of destruction, these poor slaves and their children find themselves transformed by the grace of God in such an unexpected way. And so you too, you who are the beloved child of God, you find God’s transformation in your own life in unexpected ways, especially where you are most fearful and oppressed. For years your God may have been silent in your life, but now God calls you to receive the transformation God is giving you. To believe it is to receive it, it is God’s gift to you.
What this transformation consists of we will be exploring over the coming Sundays. I’m not sure where we’ll come out. We will not make it a self-improvement plan or a burden of works-righteousness. Today your transformation is simple and immediate: it is simply that you switch environments. You step from the environment of slavery into the environment of freedom, into the Kingdom of God, into the realm of freedom from the power of sin.
In the one environment, sin compels you and it compels your response to the sins of others. In the new environment, sin is there, sins exist, but they have no power any more, they are forgiven, they are like tigers in a zoo or like black-and-white snapshots. In this new environment of freedom, sins are no longer occasions for compulsion but opportunities for the exercise of grace.
Switching between these environment means switching also between the two cultures which have adapted to these environments. Switching environments is immediate, and switching cultures is gradual. You switch gradually from the culture of fear and greed and anger to the culture of grace and hope and love. So therefore this is what your transformation consists of: learning to see yourself as living within the Kingdom of God’s grace and thereby accepting and learning the culture of that Kingdom, which is the culture of God’s love and reconciliation.
You can see that culture in our gospel lesson, in the method which Our Lord requires for dealing with an offense against you by someone also in the church. In the old culture, you rightly take offense, and you complain to other people and you line up your allies against the offender. We do this all the time. It’s being bound to the offense. In the new culture, you loosen the grip of the offense on you. You go to the offender first, and you follow the steps to work it through.
In the end you might not achieve your hoped-for reconciliation, but already you’ve invested in the other person, and so you have implicitly begun the process of forgiveness already in yourself, and that means you are acting in your freedom. The method has its limitations for use outside the church. But even within the church it can be challenging, so you learn to just mostly not get offended. You keep raising the threshold of offense. You just pass over their offenses against you. And then you’re really free.
So the culture of a community of love is by no means that we never offend each other. It’s how we deal with our offenses, being bound to them or loosened from them, in the environment of bondage or the environment of freedom. This is what you want. This is why you are here today. You have entered this environment of the love of God to learn the culture of God’s love within the world. God loved you first, and God will love you all the way.