Thursday, November 01, 2018

November 4, Proper 26, Law and Gospel #8, The Law of Love is Gospel

Ruth 1:1-18, Psalm 146, Hebrews 9:11-14, Mark 12:28-34

In the Gospel of Mark we have jumped two chapters to the other side of Palm Sunday. We have left the villages of Galilee, and finished the road to Jerusalem, and entered the Temple.

The Temple, where the rabbis taught and the schools debated, where the priests killed the animals and burned the flesh and offered the blood to sanctify the defilement of the people to permit them to worship the living God, and the focus of all the hopes and beliefs of Jesus and his disciples and his opponents, the very center of the Kingdom of God.

So it’s a riddling compliment for the Lord Jesus to tell the scribe that he was “not far from the Kingdom of God.” Could you get any closer? Well, soon, at the cross!

In the Temple, morning and evening, the Levites began the liturgy by singing out the Sh’ma, from Deuteronomy 6: Sh’ma yisro‘el adonai eloheinu adonai echad. “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” 

So it’s no wonder that the Lord Jesus answered the scribe’s question by quoting what they heard, and what they themselves recited in private every morning. If Jesus had been a Protestant, he might have answered with one of the Ten Commandments, but for Jews, there are not just ten commandments, but 613 mitzvoth, all through the Torah, so neither was it odd that for his second great commandment, the Lord Jesus took one of the mitzvoth from Leviticus instead of one of the Ten.

Love is the heart and focus of the Law. Love is law because love is your duty to God. But love is also gospel because it’s good news about the nature of God. It is only a god who loves you who would want your love back, and only a god in whom love is supreme would expect your love as your supreme duty. 

God expects of you what is consonant with God’s own being. And because God’s being is one and undivided, there is nothing in God that is not also loving, so that God requires your undivided love, from all your heart and all your soul and all your strength and mind.

How much is your “all,” how big is your “all”? How much love have you got in you to share? Is your love scarce or bountiful? You can’t be thrifty with love. Yes, love is a risk, and a costly investment, and it takes intention and you have to be wise, but if you are thrifty with your love then you will love only those people and things that are close to you and you get back from, which is really only loving yourself.

You could assume the scarcity of love, but you are called instead to believe in the bounty of love, and in your own capacity for abundance in love, that your own love can overflow, because you believe in the gospel of God, who is overflowing love beyond all measure.

Let me point you to our first lesson and the risky bounty of love in the young woman Ruth. Her mother-in-law Naomi represents scarcity, famine, and loss. Scarcity is a law for her. It tells her how to act. It was the scarcity of the famine that made her and her husband move to Moab. And now when she returns she expects a scarcity of available husbands for Orpah and Ruth, so she tells them to stay back in Moab.

Orpah gives in, but love abounded in Ruth, expressed in her famous speech that I had to memorize as a child: “Entreat me not to depart from thee, or to return from following after thee. For whither thou goest I will go, and whither thou lodgest I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God.”

Ruth was loving her mother-in-law as herself. She offers to bitter Naomi the whole of herself, all of her, totally risking, totally investing, making bounty out of scarcity.

You could say that it’s a matter of seeing the glass half-empty or the glass half-full. Except that Naomi was draining the glass and Ruth was pouring into it. If you read the rest of the Book of Ruth you will see the young woman keep on doing this, until by the end she manages to fill the emptying glass of Naomi right up to the brim.

The Book of Ruth is a short-story, with several themes, but its primary theme is loving your neighbor as yourself despite the odds in real-life ways. Loving your neighbor as yourself as law, as obligation, not based on prosperity or good feelings, and also as gospel, how it can lead to human flourishing even in time of trial.

On this first Sunday of November it is my obligation to preach to you on tithing, and my take-home today is that tithing is an act of love. You think of charity as love, you might think of charity as gospel and tithing as law. Charity is the generous response to human need when you encounter it, and charity is your Christian obligation, but tithing is different.

Tithing expresses your inner desire and commitment. Tithing is not a response but an investment, which is like love, and tithing is challenging, like love, and risky and intentional, like the kind of love which God commands of you. But tithing is also gospel, because to do it makes you a fully-realized Christian, and you are a fully-realized Christian in order to be a fully-realized human being.

Tithing is when you make a challenging commitment ahead of time. Ahead of time, you commit a certain percentage of your money before you spend it on anything else. The ideal is ten percent, which is costly, but if you have to you start out less and then every year you challenge yourself another percent. Tithing is costly, just like love, but it’s a good work that converts scarcity to bounty.

I said that Ruth poured her love into Naomi’s emptying glass. She invested her love in Naomi, not that Naomi needed anything from her. So tithing is not a response to the need of the church but an investment in this community of Jesus and in its mission and in its vision. When you tithe you are saying that you want to strengthen this community of Jesus and support the mission and extend the vision to the heavens.

You do it because you want a practical way to love your neighbor as yourself and to love God every week by means of worship. You can do it, you can tithe, and do it to free yourself from the temptation of scarcity for the reality of abundance.

The conviction of the Bible is that by loving your neighbor as yourself and by loving God with all of yourself you become a full human being. Love defines your human nature just at love defines God’s nature, because you bear the image of God. And because the law of love makes you a full human being is also gospel. You can love like this, and your love will increase as you love.

We come back to the Lord Jesus conversing in the Temple. St. Mark’s gospel is the only one to put this conversation in that venue and at that time, just days before his crucifixion. In his answer to the scribe he was reporting what challenged him, the law of love that drove him to accept his death.

Across the temple courts he could hear the bleating of the animals as they were being killed for sacrifice, as he himself would soon be crying out. He would be doing it not because of any guilt that he had to pay but freely from the bounty of his love. He threw his whole self in for the universe of humanity, just as Ruth threw her whole self in for Naomi. Such abundance, so absolute, and because God was totally in him, therefore eternal and ever valid and once for all, the absolute expression of God’s love, the nature of God fully and finally exposed. "His nature and his name is Love."

Copyright © 2018, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

October 21, Proper 24, Law and Gospel #7: The Law of the Last

Job 38:1-7, 34-41, Psalm 104:1-9, 25, 37b, Hebrews 5:1-10, Mark 10:35-45

I think the take-home message from this Gospel lesson is fairly straight-forward: if you want to be great in the Kingdom of God, be a servant; if you want to be first, be a slave. How far can we take this, beyond our individual persons?

Can we say that if we want to make America great again, America should be the servant of other nations? If we say “America first,” then we should be the voluntary slaves of other peoples? Or if we want Old First church to be a great church, then must we be a servant church? If we want Old First to be truly first, should we be Old Slave church? No one’s going to argue with Jesus, but how far do we take it? How general is what he says, how total?

The point about servanthood and slavery is not groveling, nor is it even humility. It’s rather to substitute the interests of whomever you are serving against your own self-interest. You give up your freedom, and you say, “Your wish is my command.” An effective servant has some power and authority and discretion and strength, but never for the servant’s own purposes, only for whatever suits the master. As for yourself, you put yourself last in line for anything. So dare I say, “America Last?”

How is what the Lord Jesus says here law and how is it gospel? It is law because it’s more than just good advice, it’s a ruling, it’s policy. And yet Our Lord was not in the business of issuing a new set of laws and requirements. His only laws are the long-standing laws of love, of loving God above all and your neighbor as yourself. And to love your neighbors that way is effectively to make yourself their servant, and not for the sake of any possible payback but in order to love God thereby.

It is gospel because, paradoxically, it means all kinds of freedom. The freedom from the need to be first. The freedom from competition, from jockeying for position, from scheming, from fighting to keep your place, freedom from offense and defense, freedom from politicking, and even freedom from needing to defend your honor. Not to be dishonorable, but always actively honorable, so it means candor for yourself, and it means you believing other people. It can be scary to follow the Lord Jesus here, precisely because it’s freedom. The gospel is more challenging than the law!

It is gospel because it also means you don’t have to fight for God or defend the cause of God. That’s a challenge if you have sacrificed your time and money to the church or to Christian institutions, or if you recognize the evident benefits of Christian civilization. You want to protect them and preserve them! But that is not for us to do. We are called instead to put our churches and Christian institutions and even our Christian civilization completely into the role of servanthood, and counting as last in line all that we have worked for and achieved. Last in line.

It also means the freedom for radical hospitality, to offer a space of unconditional welcome. And that is our part in the resistance. Beyond what you do as individuals, our church’s proper contribution to the resistance is this, to maintain the message and practice of this voluntary servitude and vulnerable hospitality. This is joyful resistance against the corruption of the Christian message by so many of its false prophets today, and the co-option of it by the politicians, who have been doing this since the Roman Emperor Constantine, and which the church must ever resist.

This doesn’t mean that God is not first, or great, or that God is weak. We may think so when God does not protect our Christian institutions or defend Godself. So I want you to notice our first lesson, from Job, in which Job finally gets the audience with God that Job had been contending for. Job, in his suffering, had been calling on God to answer and defend Godself, and now finally God answers, but not to defend Godself. For example, God doesn’t pin the suffering of Job on Satan, nor does God explain the wager with Satan, or bother to say, “And see, I was right to bet on you, you held up after all.” No, God does not defend Godself for any of what happened to Job.

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” In this speech God puts Godself on the far side of the boundary of our knowable world. We humans are bounded within the observable universe and inside the limits of the knowable creation, we are servants of the laws of nature and slaves to cause and effect, whereas God is outside of all of that and free of all of that, so how can we judge God? On what grounds can we hold God accountable? By which of our rules can we bind God? The God of the Bible never defends Godself, and never seeks to prove God’s own existence.

Now let me move you abruptly, for here is the heart of the gospel, that God has crossed that boundary into the bondage of our limitations and our weakness in the person of Jesus Christ. In a real human being God submitted to the laws of nature and the suffering of Job. In Jesus the Jew, who was as innocent as Job, God became a slave to the laws of Rome. The Epistle to the Hebrews says, “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears.” Loud groans and weeping. He drank deeply from our cup of misery, he was overwhelmed by the flood of of human sorrow. That was the cup he drank, that was the baptism he was baptized with.

In the gospel lesson, James and John didn’t know what they were asking when they asked to share his glory on his right hand and his left. When they answered his question by saying they could drink from his cup and take their baths with him, they were thinking of the customs of the Romans with their famous bathhouses. It was a big deal to be invited to bathe with a high-ranking noble and then to share a cup of wine with him.

Of course this metaphor has layers. The Lord Jesus meant it for his disciples to share the cup of his doom and to share his submersion into death. The gospel writer means it also for drinking the holy communion and for being baptized into his death, that is, for us to identify with his suffering as our way to peace and to share in his death as our way to life.

And then it is also our mission as the people of the church not to be spared from the suffering of the world but to wade right into the dangerous waters of the grinding life of the world, just as God did wade right in, and to drink from the same bitter cup that other people have to drink just as Jesus drank the vinegar on the cross.

Our mission is not to defend God nor to excuse God from their suffering but to bring God into it by our own entry into it. Not that you need to suffer, though neither should you avoid it, but you be present to their suffering, to wait on people in their trials, and that is the meaning of the servanthood that Jesus calls you to—to be great in the Kingdom of God is to be willing to drink from the same cup as the most miserable person you next encounter.

In my third congregation, when I unsuccessfully advocated restoring the practice of drinking from the common cup at Holy Communion, I remember telling an elder that Jesus told us to drink from the same cup with him, and he answered, “Pastor, I would drink from the same cup with Jesus but not with you!” Are my cooties that bad? Look, I know there are limits to our best intentions, and we do not serve God as we ought, and we do not serve the least of our neighbors as we’d wish to. The summons of the Lord Jesus to risky and vulnerable servanthood is meant as gospel for us, not as a new law to condemn us. He means it not to add to our guilt but to set us free.

So every week you come back confessing your faith and then your falling short, and then you are once again absolved by God and offered the peace of Christ, and then you who have betrayed him are once again invited to share his cup and break the bread. You remember and celebrate that no matter how often you fall short in your servanthood, the servanthood of your Master even to the death is sufficient for the resurrection of the world. You taste in your body the sign and wonder of the overwhelming love of God for people like you.

Copyright © 2018, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Friday, October 12, 2018

October 14, Proper 23, Law and Gospel #6: Us Against God

Job 23:1-9, 16-17, Psalm 22:1-15, Hebrews 4:12-16, Mark 10:17-31

How shall we interpret what the Lord Jesus says in this Gospel lesson? Some Christians have regarded his charge to the rich young man as counting for all of us, so that we all should sell off what we own and give the proceeds to the poor. Of course, upon our doing this we too shall be poor, and must depend upon the proceeds of others selling their possessions too, and on and on.

But the apostles who gave us the gospels did not require their converts to do this. Yes, they called their congregations to generosity and sharing, but not to sell their property to live in mutual poverty. Many of their converts were poor already, many of them were slaves and wives who did not even have the right to property. The apostles apparently regarded what the Lord Jesus said to the young man as either parabolic or particular to him. The Lord Jesus was not making it a new law to enter the Kingdom of God that you must sell off all you own and give the proceeds to the poor.

The Lord Jesus said to him, “You lack one thing.” What was that one thing that he lacked? He said that from his youth he’d kept all the commandments that Jesus listed for him. But Jesus listed only the last six, not the first four. The last six address your social obligations and possessions. The first four address the devotion of your soul to God. I’m thinking that’s the one thing that he lacked.

Was his devotion to the bourgeois morality of his wealth and prosperity? Was he the kind of guy who kept saying, “Look how blessed I am! God is good.” And also thinking, “I must be good!” What if God took that all away, like with Job? Would he still be good? What if he gave it all away himself, and just had one thing, the one thing, the treasure in heaven, the pearl of great price, your love of God, that singular love that determines all your other loves, like your love of the world and your possessions of the world. So that, like the disciples, you can give them up, even if God gives them back to you and they come with persecution. That’s the one thing: to love God.

How do you love God? None of our ordinary tools of love apply to God. God is so far away, so totally other, untouchable and unaffectionate. And yet it’s the first commandment in the Torah, your prime directive. It’s not the prime directive in other religions. It’s not what a Muslim is required to do. Certainly not a Buddhist or a Hindu. Not that they hate god, but love is not the fabric of their respective relationships to their gods as they understand them. Maybe that’s because the other religions are more humanistic and intentionally more achievable.

To love God is a problem because God is a problem. God is both the greatest idea that humans can imagine and also the greatest disappointment. God doesn’t bless whenever we want God to. God doesn’t heal whenever we ask God to. God allows evil to have its way. God allows the wicked to prosper and the innocent to suffer. We are tested in our belief in God, and many have concluded that they can’t believe in God. One of my friends believes it’s all a sham, a pious delusion, and not just innocuous but causing more harm than good, and he used to be a pastor!

You could argue from the absence of God that there is no God. Or you could say instead that there is a God but God is absent. You could argue from the silence of God that there is no God, or you could say that there is a God but God is silent. You could argue from the inaction of God that is no God, or you could say that there is a God who does not intervene. The experience of God can be a bitter one.

How can I love this God, this God who does not answer? How can I love this God who has not defended me? “O God, I can’t convince myself to not believe in you, and I might even fear you, but how can I love you?” This is the testing of those who believe in God but who are tested in their love of God, because they feel abandoned by God, avoided, forsaken, despairing of God.

This kind of testing is the testing of Job. “Today my complaint is bitter; his hand is heavy despite my groaning. If I go forward, he is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him; on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him; I turn to the right, but I cannot see him. God has made my heart faint; the Almighty has terrified me.”

The power of the Book of Job is that it dares to contend with God. The Job who is tested wants to put God to the test! His speech gives us words for when it’s us against God.

Is it wrong for lovers to test each other? Is it wrong for lovers to prove each other, to probe each other, to try each other, to contend with each other? Is mutual testing a necessary part of love? The gospel lesson says that Jesus looked at the rich young man, and loved him, and challenged him. Is the love between us and God a challenging love, a trying love?

God certainly reserves the right to challenge us. Not only because we’re sinful. But also because we are proud and like to be self-sufficient. Listen to the Epistle to the Hebrews: “The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.” Fearful words. Naked, laid bare.

Naked like victims or naked like lovers? There’s not much difference in the risky vulnerability of making love. Is this the vulnerable depth of intimacy that is the love of God? Isn’t it easier to find our comfort in our possessions and in the consolations of bourgeois morality?

Jesus himself was both the lover of God and the victim of God, the victim naked on the cross. It’s on the cross that we observe the mutual testing of love between God the Father and God the Son. What Jesus suffered most was not the physical pain, nor the betrayal by his one disciple, nor his abandonment by the eleven, nor the perversion of justice, but forsakenness by God.

The abandonment and absence of his Father. The testing in extreme of the original love within the Holy Trinity. One person of God enduring the silence and absence of the other person of God. God testing Godself upon the cross. God naked and bleeding and exposed before the lookers-on who mocked the pious hope in God. “He trusted in God that God would deliver him, let God deliver him if he delight in him.” They were mocking his crying out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

From this the Epistle to the Hebrews advises that “we have a high priest who in every respect has been tested as we are. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” The Christian formula is if you believe in the Jesus who as both lover and victim exposed the broken heart of God upon the cross, then you can find the way to love God. This is the kind of God that you can love.

You will be tested if you are a Christian, not just by the world, or by your own failures, but by the word of God, and by the silence of God. You will find yourself angry at God and even raising your fist at God. You will find yourself against the God you believe in and tested in your love for God. But I believe that you can love the God who is exposed upon the cross.

It’s by believing in the Lord Jesus that you find the way to love God. I notice that the Bible doesn’t command us to believe in God. It commands us to love God. And that’s my take-home—that to love God you believe in Jesus. I invite you to it once again. And just as Jesus looked at that young man and loved him, so God looks at you and loves you.

Copyright © 2018, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Saturday, October 06, 2018

October 7, Proper 22, Law and Gospel #5: The Flaw in the Law

Job 1:1, 2:1-10, Psalm 26, Hebrews 1:1-4,2:5-12, Mark 10:2-16

For my last two years of college I had a work-study job as a campus security guard. Half of my job was writing parking tickets on the campus roadways. I was diligent. I was strict. I was merciless. I was righteous. If you parked wrong I would get you. The wife of one famous professor would constantly park illegally, and I was indignant. “How can they do this!”

I loved feeling offended, and being able to write that ticket. I loved feeling angry, and being able to act on my anger. This is all true. Eighteen years ago I did not reveal this to the search committee.

The director of campus security was a retired Grand Rapids cop named Harry Faber. I liked him a lot. I knew that Mr Faber forgave some of my tickets, but I admired him and I accepted that as his weakness. One week we had some big festival coming up, with lots of visitors expected, and Mr Faber said to me, “Write some tickets, Dan, we’ve got to keep the roads cleared.” I was stunned. It hit me that Mr Faber had a functional view of parking rules. They were a means to an end. It wasn’t about morality. It wasn’t about right and wrong. That was a big moment in my education.

You can regard the laws of a nation as the regulations designed to achieve a positive society. Or you could regard the laws of a nation as the rules of a game that are enforced by those in power to their own benefit. Then you might be an anarchist. Or you could regard the laws of a nation as moral applications derived from the laws of nature or the laws of God, and you’d be a classic conservative. I suppose it’s some combination of all three within a capitalist democracy.

As a preacher in the Reformed Church I do not regard myself as either competent or authorized to address the specific laws and policies of the government. But I am supposed to speak to the morality of our laws whenever the scripture lessons are relevant. In this morning’s gospel lesson, once again the Lord Jesus takes in his hands the little children, and that’s relevant to the treatment of refugees and aliens on our borders.

Many have regarded the forceful separation of young children from their parents and confining them in cages as the very debasement of American society and the indictment against our American mythology of moral superiority among the nations. Was this not a symptom of a general contamination of our whole American system, even of things that we allow as morally defensible depending on your political philosophy? If this is the fruit, then what is the root?

Our government defended this policy on functional grounds—that it was designed to discourage refugees: if they didn’t want to lose their children they shouldn’t have come here in the first place. But then both the Attorney General and the Press Secretary appealed to the Bible to defend defending the law. But they did not appeal to any of the laws in the Torah that actually address the moral treatment of aliens and strangers in the land.

The Bible does have a positive respect for law. The Bible is founded on the law of Moses, the Torah. The Psalms are full of praises of the law and of those who keep the law. God is a law-giver, so it is not just all functional. Or perhaps we should say that it is functional in the prerogative of God, that God has designed the laws of nature in order to achieve a good creation and the laws of morality to achieve a positive society. And then we should say that we are responsible to make our laws in honor of God’s designs. So then what are God’s designs? What does God want?

The Bible is full of conventional religious morality, and that is good. If you obey God’s laws, you will live a good life. If you honor your father and your mother, you will live long in the land God gave you. If you keep the covenant the land will yield its increase; and you will prosper if you walk in the precepts of the Lord. The opposite is true as well: the wicked will pay in the end.

It all makes sense, it does work out, it’s almost cause and effect, and the word of God is behind it. Except that the Bible is a conversation, and there is another voice, a voice in contention, saying maybe not; it’s not so simple as cause and effect. The righteous suffer too!

That, of course, it the message of the Book of Job. Our first lessons will be from Job the next few weeks. Unfortunately we will not get to hear the speeches of Job’s three friends. They all tell Job that he must have done something wrong to earn his suffering. If he would repent of his sin, then God would restore him.

But Job steadfastly affirms his innocence, and he has nothing to repent of. The Book of Job is the Bible’s witness against its own conventional morality. There is no simple cause and effect between obedience and success or righteousness and reward.

We have no record of the Lord Jesus ever discussing the Book of Job. But he certainly lived it, he embodied it, he too suffered even though he was innocent. Indeed, it was precisely because he was so uniquely righteous that he suffered and was killed. The Epistle to the Hebrews runs with this idea. It says that the Lord Jesus was made perfect in his sufferings. This should be surprising.

Our conventional theology is that Jesus was morally perfect from his sinlessness in daily life, that he was thoroughly obedient to the law. This is on good Biblical grounds. But the Epistle to the Hebrews dares to teach that his perfection was not perfected until his suffering, his suffering precisely because he was obedient, which reverses the cause and effect of conventional religious morality.

It further teaches that having made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, and became the pioneer of our salvation. By salvation I don’t mean just at the end of your life. I mean salvation from your present disappointment, from your present discouragement, and from your present failure.

In my first parish there was a woman named Esther whom everybody loved. She was nominated for deacon, but she told me that she couldn’t serve, because she was divorced. She felt she was guilty of what the Lord Jesus was teaching in our Gospel today. I told her that Jesus was calling adultery only remarriage after divorce, and even then, what he meant by adultery was not a life-time state of continuing in sin, but a one-time act that was forgivable. Esther was not convinced.

Worse, Esther considered herself a failure in her marriage. Well, yes, but the guy she had married was a selfish creep. Her failure had been to marry him. For which she now was being penalized. And that is the flaw in the law. The grinding consequence of past mistakes. The shackles of cause and effect. Salvation is to free you from this burden every day, and that salvation is what the Lord Jesus accomplished when he was perfected by his suffering and took his seat at the right hand of God.

I notice that after the Lord Jesus said these challenging things about marriage and divorce, the disciples were trying to be righteous and keep the parents of the children from having Jesus touch them like some dispenser of magic. We have standards here! I think the Lord Jesus surprised them by his indignation, especially after having said these challenging things about divorce. They thought that Jesus would approve of their strictness.

But his greater challenge is that to receive the Kingdom of God is not to receive it as a righteous man or a virtuous woman. It’s not to receive it because you are law-abiding or obedient. “Truly I tell you, who does not receive the Kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” What?

As a little child. All need. No power. No rights. All need. You bring nothing to this but your need for it. You offer me nothing but your need for me. How’s this for a comparison: “Whoever does not receive the United States of America as a little child will never enter it.” An immigration policy based not on what you can bring to this country but precisely on what you need from this country. That’s the immigration policy of the Kingdom of God.

You are never turned back at the border unless you take it as your right to enter it. You rather enter from your need to enter it. You enter it for safety, not reward. You enter as a loser, a failure, an adulterer, a wanderer, a refugee, a victim of the sin of others and a victim of your own sin. Because the indignation of Jesus is from unconditional love, and the deepest righteousness of God is love, the love for you that is embodied in Jesus Christ.

Copyright © 2018, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Friday, September 28, 2018

September 30, Proper 21, Law and Gospel #4: Cause and Effect

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22, Psalm 124, James 5:13-20, Mark 9:38-50

Jesus! This Gospel lesson is a tough one. Mutilation, amputation, pull your eye out. A millstone on your neck and mafia-style be cast into the sea. Where’s the gospel in these sayings of Our Lord? It’s rather all law, all judgment, all condemnation, and hellfire. So much for the nice Jesus.

The translation doesn’t help. I wish it were literal. Our Lord did not actually say “hell,” he said “gehenna,” and by “gehenna” he did not mean “hell.” Gehenna was the garbage dump in the gully behind Jerusalem. In garbage dumps the fires never stop smoldering and maggots flourish. Gehenna was a disgusting place, and if the corpse of any deceased was tossed there instead of decently buried it was an end of ultimate shame. Gehenna became a metaphor, though not for eternal torture, but for exclusion, shameful  destruction, annihilation, and unmourned oblivion. Such a deceased would have no part in the resurrection of Israel or the life of the world to come.

That only helps a little, and what the Lord Jesus says is still very hard. If you stumble by what you do–cut it off, if you stumble by where you go–cut it off, if you stumble by what you see–cut it out. Better maimed or crippled or half-blind than to miss out on the resurrection. His metaphors are gruesome and extreme. One strike and you’re out! But you’ve only got two hands, two feet, two eyes. You don’t want to have to do this twice! Is that why the warning is extreme? There is a cost to your discipleship.

Actions have consequences that you can’t escape, no matter how far back your actions were. An immature immorality from high school will find you out. You may well be forgiven of your sin, and by the atonement of Christ be freed from your guilt, but that does not exempt you from the long-term consequences of your sin upon the lives of others, or even of the effects of its shadow on your personal development while you were denying it. Full repentance means to reckon with the consequences of what you’ve done, and it’s better to not to stand upon your rights. Maybe that Supreme Court seat for which you are most qualified is what you must give up. To enter the Kingdom of God is the better deal.

That actions have consequences is the moral law. The natural law is that causes have effects. The difference between nature and morality is that human beings are given freedom, and your freedom includes the freedom to disobey the law—but not to escape the consequences! How much freedom? Freedom from the constraints of nature? Freedom to choose our own morality? Free to continually redefine ourselves?

This freedom is what we are testing these days in our post-modern civilization. How free should the President be from the immoral things he said on tape? How free from the sins of his youth can be a candidate for the Supreme Court? How free may a woman be with her reproduction? How free may we be with our respective sexualities? The answers on these differ, but the testing is similar. How free are we to have an economy that depends for its growth on expanding consumption before the effects of our consumption make the climate rise up in revenge? Why should we expect the environment to be merciful or even fair? The longer the sin is hidden or the actions undealt with, the more extreme and the less fair are the consequences.

“For freedom Christ has set us free”—that’s the Gospel, and yet so much in our lives is not our choice and beyond our control, and we have to live with it. How vulnerable we are, how fragile our security. I sense this vulnerability as an underlying theme among our lessons this morning.

In the Book of Esther, the whole population of the Jews, being subject to the Persian Empire, were defenseless against the slaughter of the pogrom being instigated by Haman, if not for the rescue achieved by Queen Esther, whom no one but her uncle knew to be a Jew.

Our Psalm this morning, 124, is also about the people of God being rescued just at the point of annihilation.

The Epistle of James assumes a cultural context of opposition and struggle behind its exhortations to sing and pray and confess your sins to one another. He exhorts the early congregations, in their difficult and challenging context, against passivity, against bitterness, against resentment. He exhorts forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing, anointing with oil and prayer for the sick, and yet without descending to the primitive belief in a cause and effect of prayer and results. The practice of prayer exposes us to the mystery of unanswered prayer, and prayers for healing expose us to the inevitability of death.

We live in the world of nature, so we have to live with the effects of the causes beyond our control. We live in the world of human power, so we have to live with the consequences of the actions and choices of others not ourselves. To follow the Lord Jesus makes you even more vulnerable and exposed to the resistance of the world. Shall we therefore be defensive, and circle our wagons, and see other people as enemies real and potential, or shall we keep ourselves open? Shall we not accept even the most minimal gift of a cup of water as offering of love and hospitality?

I think the Lord Jesus goes even deeper in the gospel. I think he’s saying that our most difficult and challenging context is the one inside ourselves, that your worst opponent is yourself. Yes, you have opponents in the world who cause you to stumble, but don’t you cause yourself to stumble? Do you not have a history in your own life from which, despite your freedom, you can’t be free—mistakes you have made, offenses committed, bad calls, momentary lapses, with consequences that endure, to which you are vulnerable, so that your greatest danger and insecurity is inside you.

And yet there is power in forgiveness, great power in reconciliation, the reversal of cause and effect, the lifting of ultimate consequences. Not ultimate power, for even when the elders anoint the sick with oil, that person still may die. But power for affirming life and affirming goodness and community even in the midst of painful memories and present losses.

When James says that reconciling a sinner has power to cover a multitude of sins, he doesn’t mean hiding those sins, he’s using the technical language of “propitiation”, of sprinkling blood upon the sacrifice, exposing the sins and treating them with both grief and active reconciliation. The Lord Jesus uses the metaphors of fire and salt, by which the ancient sacrifice for sin was purified. He tells us to have salt in ourselves, and judge ourselves, in awareness of our own stumbling, and not judge others, and be at peace with one another. That is the real power that you have.

Who shall be our judges? Who shall give judgment in the Supreme Court of our land? The issues are moral but the decision is political. Right now America is trying to work out its morality politically. I imagine it is both necessary and impossible, and we are finding it impossible.

So it is more necessary now then ever for you as Christians to witness to your vision of the Kingdom of God, received by us though not achieved by us, and to live your vision by your example.

Let me remind you of our draft new mission statement: Old First Reformed Church is a community of Jesus Christ for Brooklyn, offering a space of unconditional welcome, a practice of worship and service, and a vision of the Kingdom of Heaven. We haven’t settled on the exact wording, but our mission is clear that we offer the vision and we witness to it by our words and our actions.

This vision offers the hope of the gospel against the judgments of the law.

The vision of space for welcome, for healing, for reconciliation, forgiveness, restitution, rehabilitation, space for grace and even for human flourishing.

The practice of worship and service, to pray and to sing and to anoint with oil, and that to worship God is also to receive a cup of water from the least of these, to unify worship and service by our prayers for all the world and for each other, to share our cooking and our food and our Holy Communion.

To see the Kingdom of Heaven in the economy of love, the love of God for those who stumble, for all of us half-blind, the love of God for all who are lost and wandering.

It’s precisely in being embraced when we have stumbled that we know this love. And it is your mission in the world to share this love of God.

Copyright © 2018, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

September 25, Proper 20, Law and Gospel #3: Unconventional Wisdom

Proverbs 31:10-31, Psalm 1, James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a, Mark 9:30-37

Let me say just a few words about our lesson from Proverbs, about the ideal wife. Yes, of course, it’s very traditional in its sex-roles, and the wife does all the work and the husband can just sit at the city gates. At the same time this wife has power and authority and initiative. She handles her own money and owns her property and runs her business. She does not fear her husband; she fears God—in the positive sense of fearing God, of knowing her place with God. She has wisdom and by her words and her actions she displays her wisdom.

The Greek view of wisdom is philosophical, abstract, and esoteric. You achieve it by putting yourself apart from ordinary life. The Biblical view of wisdom is down-to-earth—good choices and positive conduct in the daily round of life, how you speak to people and your deeds and actions in the world. This is important for the rest of our readings today. The wisdom of this wife from the Proverbs would have served the disciples well instead of their squabbling about who was greatest.

The Lord Jesus had been teaching the disciples and empowering them for a couple years now. They’ve congealed as a group, which was good, and developed some group identity, which is natural, and they’re arguing behind his back, which is usual. They want to divvy up the power when he becomes the king. Who will be number 2? Who will have authority, who will speak for him? Simon Peter might have claimed it, except that in last week’s Gospel lesson the Lord Jesus rebuked him and took him down a peg or ten, so it’s open. And now that Jesus is predicting crazy self-destructive things, they’re arguing who might take charge instead of him! No wonder they all clam up when the Lord Jesus asks them what they were talking about. But he knows.

He takes a child into his arms. Why the child? Not that we should be childish. You would call the disciples childish for their squabbling who was number 1. Boys will be boys. Nor is it that we should be childlike and innocent. I am not sure of the anthropological status of children in ancient societies, but they weren’t the precious jewels of sentimental Protestantism or indulged and protected like the children of Park Slope. I think it’s because the child had no rights, no privilege, no power, and no authority. So then, you must devote yourself to serving the powerless if you would be great.

It isn’t natural. What soldier would give his life for his country if his country was weak and powerless? Why pour yourself into your job if the company that you work for has no power to achieve its goals? Imagine if we decided that for some big special event we invited a famous preacher to come to Old First. We put extra money in the budget, organized a luncheon, advertised, publicized. And then when that preacher arrived we sent that preacher upstairs to the Nursery, and we said, Would you please take child-care today! Child-care workers are among the lowest paid in our economy. And that’s why Jesus embraced the child in his arms in front of the disciples.

He presents her as a symbol of himself, that even as the Messiah he will take no rights, no privilege, no power, and no authority. And he goes further to offer her as a symbol of God, that God takes no rights, nor privilege, nor power, nor authority.

But how could God not be God? God is omnipotent. Well, his point is how you have to accept God. You have to accept God not for any rights or privilege. You embrace the Lord Jesus not for the power and authority you get from Jesus. 

Embracing Jesus and receiving the God who sent Jesus will you get no power, privilege, rights, nor authority. This is off-putting. It makes no sense from the outside. You have to enter it to get it. You have to accept it first to understand it. It is worse than unconventional. It is the foolishness of God.

But didn’t Jesus tell the disciples that the Holy Spirit would give them power? And didn’t Jesus give his disciples authority to cast out evil spirits? And wasn’t it a privilege for the disciple to receive the Kingdom of God? And aren’t Christians committed to human rights? So why do I say that you have to receive God without expecting God to give you power, authority, or privilege, or rights?

I could say that the power that God gives you contradicts the power that the world esteems. The world does not recognize the authority that God gives you. The world does not value the rights and privilege that God offers you. So you can’t want any of these things for their sake, because then you will assume your estimation of them. You have rather to want God for nothing else than God, and Jesus for nothing else than Jesus, just as you embrace a child for nothing else than the child.

I am intentionally extreme. We live our lives in a fuzzy middle, our choices are rarely simple and usually complex. There is no pure right and no pure wrong, no pure evil and no pure good. There are no orcs nor elves, just us mushy human beings. But behind every mushy moment and complex experience is that single radical choice, an either/or, whether you want God or the world, whether you take God in terms of the world or God in terms of God, who then gives you to the world.

The Epistle of James is just as extreme. The Apostle goes so far as totally to deny all the wisdom of the world. Whether it’s conventional or philosophical, the Apostle unmasks all of worldly wisdom as earthly, unnatural, demoniacal, typified by envy and selfish ambition. He may be thinking of the upper classes of the Roman Empire and their degradation, but how about Washington or Albany or Wall Street or even NYU. He says that it brings disorder and wickedness of every kind. Yes, that extreme!

By contrast the wisdom that comes from God is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. Well, we all want this. How to get it! The Apostle is saying that there’s no way to get it if you start from the values of the world. The choice is stark. The only way to get it is to submit to God. Just as when you embrace a child you are submitting yourself to the agenda of the child. That’s the only way to this wisdom. The way is unconventional but the benefit is great: A harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.

The choice is stark, the options are extreme, but, as I said, we live our lives in the muddle. The choice never comes to us so clear and simple, but always complicated and mushy. How shall we not be discouraged? Who can live at such extremes? 

We cannot free ourselves from the world nor the obligations of the world. No matter what we think of Washington and Albany, they make the laws, and we have to obey the laws. And throughout the New Testament the apostolic writers advised the early Christians to obey the laws whenever they could, no matter how degraded the lawgivers were. We do our best. We try to carry deep within our souls the awareness of the extremity of the choice, and between these two poles we mushy humans make our flimsy choices in the daily muddle. But how can we ever be righteous in all this? We’re always tainted, we’re always compromised.

Well, all that I’ve been saying so far is the Law. But the deeper wisdom is the Gospel, and we go back to the child embraced in the arms of the Lord Jesus. He said, take that child for me. Take that child for God. And what a child does not do is judge you. The Lord God, in the person of Jesus, comes to you not as your judge but only as the object of your love.

But of course God is a judge. Psalm 1 says that the wicked shall not stand in the day of judgment. If God loves justice then God must judge. If God gives order to creation and laws to nature then God is a judge. And that’s the necessary wisdom of the Law. But the unconventional wisdom of the Gospel is that God offers Godself to you as a powerless, non-judging child, just the object of your love.

And that is how you navigate the mushiness of life and the daunting complexity of your choices, not in worry about your failure or your fear of collaboration or your guilt about your collusion but directed by love and the practice of love. That means the practice of acceptance and embrace. It means patience, and suffering in the sense of holding up. Making peace. Full of mercy. The wisdom is the deeper wisdom of the gospel. God offers Godself to you as a little child.

The way to love God is to accept the love of God. Be that child yourself. Of course you want to be as deservedly lovable as that wife in Proverbs, but already you are lovable to God, as incompetent and foolish as you judge yourself to be. I am telling you that you can navigate all the mushiness of the world because you are so unconditionally loved by God.

Copyright © 2018, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

September 16, Proper 19, Law and Gospel #2: Wisdom

Proverbs 1:20-3, Psalm 19, James 3:1-12, Mark 8:27-38

What is wisdom? Can we define it or do you know it when you see it? Good judgment, counsel, insight, discernment, far-sightedness, deep empathy.

Wisdom can be a gift—some people just have it, but it’s also a discipline—you can get wisdom, you can gain in wisdom. If you listen more than you speak, if you control your tongue, if you have self-control in general, you can be wise. If you learn your limits and your shortcomings, and if you fear the Lord, you can be wise.

Is wisdom always good? Can wisdom be evil? We know that discernment and insight and even self-discipline be used for wrong instead of right. Conventional wisdom can be all wrong. In the gospel lesson the disciple Peter demonstrated insight and understanding, but the Lord Jesus had to rebuke him anyway.

Just so the Epistle of James gives a general warning to all of us who are teachers and talkers by profession. I’m thinking of all the talking heads and experts on radio and cable. All this babbling that passes for insight. I’m thinking of myself as well—I do have things to say, but my speech is my most frequent fault, and I think to myself, what a fool I am, and I pray for wisdom.

From Proverbs we learn that wisdom is not just inside ourselves, it’s out there, larger than ourselves. It’s not just a personal gift or a discipline to gain, it’s a force in itself, a spirit from God. In the Bible it’s always feminine. She gets personified as an elegant woman who calls out to us in the public square, but who also laments our foolishness and mocks our pretensions. She teaches us and judges us. We are drawn to her and we feel ashamed before her.

In Psalm 19, wisdom is not personified but is presented as the yield and substance of the Law of God. By Law we mean not just the Commandments nor just the Torah but also the laws of nature that are the speech of God, the gift of God for ordering the universe. The wisdom that directs the universe is the constant repetition of the words of God by every element and energy.

Scientists remark on the fine-tuning of the universe. The Bible teaches the underlying harmony and integrity of nature. It’s not that everything is predictable, but that the God who made it and sustains it is a faithful God. Yes, creation has terrors, yes, the laws of nature can be deadly in their effect, and even science encounters unending surprises and insoluble mysteries, but not from the world being capricious. There are causes and effects. Laws have consequences. This is the foundation of science, and science, aware of it or not, depends upon the faithfulness of God.

Speaking biblically, the wisdom that we seek does not run counter to the grain of the universe. Biblical wisdom offers integration with the world around us. We can even gain wisdom from dogs and elephants! The Christian faith is not against learning, not against study, not against science, and it was in the Christian universities that modern science began to flourish, however much the clergy typically feared it. It’s no wonder that the first public schools and the first public hospitals in most of the world were founded by Christian missionaries. 

I am calling this the wisdom of the Law, the wisdom we gain by patient discipline, the wisdom of the good life.

There is another kind of wisdom, though, the wisdom of the Gospel, that contradicts the wisdom of the Law. This is the wisdom that you cannot gain upon your own, no matter how firm your discipline or how profound your humility. This is the wisdom that comes from the message you could not have known unless it were revealed to you in the good news of Jesus Christ. This is the wisdom that contradicts the laws of cause and effect. This is the wisdom that defies the consequences of the Law. This is the wisdom of pure grace.

The wisdom of the Gospel is the deeper faithfulness of God that science and philosophy cannot discover. This is the wisdom of the cross and resurrection. This is the wisdom that God loved us while we were yet sinners. This is the wisdom that God still loves you even in your foolishness and fallenness. It is the foolishness of God, that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected, and be killed, and after three days rise again

The wisdom of the gospel is foolishness to the world. It is foolish to deny yourself. It is foolish to take up your cross and be a loser. It is foolish to lose your life in order to save it. It may be foolish but it’s the wisdom of the gospel. It is good news because by the wisdom of the law we all fall short. Nature itself condemns us as the only species that destroys the world.. It is unnatural for God to save us, but the cross of Jesus reveals to us the deepest nature of God.

I plan to say more about this unconventional wisdom next week. But let me summarize today by saying that the Wisdom of the Law is good and moral and edifying and you need it for good works, and for good work in your job and decent life at home and living well in general. The wisdom of the law is why the Christian faith is interested in education and medicine and schools and hospitals and labor law and witnessing to politics.

But the wisdom of the Gospel is the hope for the fallen world, for fallen humanity, the wisdom of sheer grace, undeserved, the wisdom of forgiveness and mercy and reconciliation, the wisdom of welcoming back the prodigal son and setting free the prisoners, not just some of them but all of them, the passionate faithfulness of God. And this is why we always come back to the gospel foolishness of Jesus Christ, the scandal of Jesus, even in Park Slope.

Today we start again our Sunday School. The thing about children is that they see no contradiction between these two kinds of wisdom. That’s why I like teaching Sunday School, to get back into that space, the mind of children, who take it as a whole. Their hearts and minds are still so flexible and open, and they don’t make the same divisions between foolishness and wisdom. We can learn from them. Sunday School is not just for the benefit of the kids, but for the benefit of the whole church.

So let me close with this poem by the Pulitzer Prize winning poet Stephen Dunn, it’s called At the Smithville Methodist Church. It’s about secular parents letting their young daughter go to the local Vacation Bible School:

It was supposed to be Arts & Crafts for a week, 
but when she came home 
with the “Jesus Saves” button, we knew what art 
was up, what ancient craft.

She liked her little friends. She liked the songs 
they sang when they weren’t 
twisting and folding paper into dolls. 
What could be so bad?

Jesus had been a good man, and putting faith 
in good men was what 
we had to do to stay this side of cynicism, 
that other sadness.

OK, we said, One week. But when she came home 
singing “Jesus loves me, 
the Bible tells me so,” it was time to talk. 
Could we say Jesus

doesn’t love you? Could I tell her the Bible 
is a great book certain people use 
to make you feel bad? We sent her back 
without a word.

It had been so long since we believed, so long 
since we needed Jesus 
as our nemesis and friend, that we thought he was 
sufficiently dead,

that our children would think of him like Lincoln 
or Thomas Jefferson. 
Soon it became clear to us:
                                          you can’t teach disbelief 
to a child,

only wonderful stories, and we hadn’t a story 
nearly as good. 
On parents’ night there were the Arts & Crafts 
all spread out

like appetizers. Then we took our seats 
in the church 
and the children sang a song about the Ark, 
and Hallelujah

and one in which they had to jump up and down 
for Jesus. 
I can’t remember ever feeling so uncertain 
about what’s comic, what’s serious.

Evolution is magical but devoid of heroes. 
You can’t say to your child 
“Evolution loves you.” The story stinks 
of extinction and nothing

exciting happens for centuries. I didn’t have 
a wonderful story for my child 
and she was beaming. All the way home in the car 
she sang the songs,

occasionally standing up for Jesus. 
There was nothing to do 
but drive, ride it out, sing along 
in silence.

Copyright © 2018, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.