Monday, May 13, 2019
Sister Rosa Parks, a seamstress like Dorcas, also called Tabitha.
Acts 9:36-43, Psalm 23, Revelation 7:9-17, John 10:22-30
The gospel lesson takes place in the Temple during the Festival of the Dedication, which we now call Hanukkah. Hanukkah commemorates the military victory of the Maccabees 150 years before Christ. The Maccabees led the Jewish war of liberation from the empire of the Greeks, and then they set up an independent Jewish state, which lasted for a couple generations, until the Romans came and conquered them. But their lost independence was remembered with this holiday, their Independence Day, their Fourth of July, only sacred, and they hoped for independence again, with the coming of the Messiah, who would make it permanent, and even eternal, and the thousands of Jews who died as martyrs would be resurrected back to life.
So the people want to know if Jesus claims to be this Messiah. Because if he is they will have to make their preparations—get ready for a war, divorce that Gentile wife, hide some gold somewhere. There will be casualties again, like with the Maccabees, so it’s only fair that he declare himself.
Jesus answers with Shepherd language, which was political language, royal language, going back to King David, the shepherd boy who became the Shepherd of his people. So Jesus is suggesting, on this Independence Day, in the Temple, that yes, he is the Messiah they were looking for.
So you can understand why after his resurrection the majority of Jews would not believe in him. Even if he did rise from the dead, he was irrelevant. What difference did he make? He did not deliver as their Messiah. He did not take power in his resurrection. Where was his Kingdom?
Why hadn’t he shown himself to the high priest and revealed himself to Pontius Pilate? Why was he not taking his throne as the royal Shepherd of Judea? The Romans were still in charge, their puppet Caiaphas was still high priest, the Judean poor were still poor, the Galilean sharecroppers were still in debt, and nothing had changed. Alive or dead, he was no Messiah.
And yet the minority who did believe in him kept believing. At first it wasn’t hard to, right after Pentecost, with those months of signs and wonders in Jerusalem. But the golden days were over. With the stoning of Stephen the persecution started and things got tough and they had to flee Jerusalem. Which is why, in our first lesson, Peter was living in exile in Lydda. And yet the believers kept believing. They must have had a powerful experience of a new kind of life, even in persecution. What special hope and joy was simmering under the surface of their ordinary lives?
The woman Dorcas was one of those who expressed the hope and contributed to the joy. Her name means “gazelle,” so you think graceful and light-footed, and that she was called by both the Hebrew and Greek versions of her name tells us that she crossed the ethnic and religious boundaries in her relationships. She made her living as a seamstress, and she made extra clothes for the widows, who by definition tended toward poverty, and could hardly pay her. Most people had only one set of clothes, and the poor did not have cash. She dressed them in clothing they delighted in. They valued Dorcas so much that when she died they asked the Apostle Peter to come and do the service and honor her in death as she deserved. They show him the clothes she made that gave them joy.
So Peter prays, alone, and in prayer he’s moved to ask God to do the impossible, and resurrect her. This would be the first resurrection after Jesus’ resurrection. Why her? Why Dorcas? Why not Stephen the martyr, the fiery preacher, whose resurrection would have been such a vindication? To me it looks like Peter was making an apostolic decision about the values of the Kingdom and the priorities of the church. Those were not political victories in Jerusalem or vindication before the high priests but the honor of widows in poverty. Is that where to find the power of the resurrection?
It’s not just that Dorcas made clothes, but custom clothing for the poor. That Dorcas will have taken each widow seriously, as an individual, measured her body, chose the fabric, selected the color, cut the cloth, stitched it, and dignified and honored this widow with a tunic to be proud of and rejoice in—such are the trophies of this kingdom and the proofs of the Messiah. Loveliness for elderly women.
Such is the triumph of his power. Peter could see it, he was inspired. “Oh yes, this is what we are about. These are the victories we’re after: Not just welfare, though at least that, but more—dignity and beauty for the poor and honor for the weak.”
The resurrection of Stephen would have been a vindication against their opponents and a proof against the unbelievers, but God has a different strategy intended for us and for how we believers are to get by during this long time between “Christ is risen” and “Christ will come again.” We believers don’t get the privilege of vindication. We don’t get to win.
Not that we lose. I have spoken to you of this before. The point is that we believers are not so much winners of the world or leaders of the world or even teachers of the world as we are witnesses in the great court room of the world, and we are witnesses who give our testimony in a trial where what we say is strongly contested. The verdict and the vindication will be given only at the end. No one has the privilege of resorting to some kind of conclusive “proof” right now, no one from one side or the other, belief or unbelief. So instead of raising Stephen from the dead to prove the Lord Jesus to unbelievers, Dorcas is raised to encourage believers, especially widows, and also to encourage those of us who care for them.
Which is not impressive to the powers of the world. What we look for in power is not going to be the power of the resurrection. Nor is it the kind of revolution that was expected of the Messiah. The world doesn’t look any different. Unless we see the world with different eyes. How those widows looked to the world is very different from how they looked to heaven, and if the significance of what Dorcas did looks small in the measure of what we take as real appearances, it is magnified in the measure of the greater reality behind the world of our appearances, by which I mean this world as it looks from the viewpoint of heaven.
Which brings us to the reading from the Revelation. The Book of the Revelation is so often misunderstood. The vision in this reading is not of the future, but of right now, as viewed from a heavenly perspective. So, from an earthly point of view, we look to ourselves like a ragtag little bunch of half-believing Protestants in a daunting building who are not sure about whether we can pull this off, and worried about too much cost and too many sacrifices. But how you look to heaven right now is a multitude of saints and martyrs who have done great things and are all decked out in shining robes so lovely I can hardly look at them, and when you sing you sound like a hundred philharmonic choruses. That’s what God can hear in your voices. That’s how you look to God right now, from heaven’s perspective.
You are wearing a beautiful robe that the Lord Jesus has made for you, because he is your Dorcas. He has dressed you in a beautiful tunic that you cannot even see upon yourself. Whatever your doubts may be, whatever your shame, whatever your struggles—your rational struggles with believing this stuff or your emotional struggles in trying to love as you want to, or even your struggle to survive, the most critical knowledge about yourself does not belong to you, the truth about yourself belongs to God—you do not dress yourself, and the Lord Jesus is Dorcas who dresses you.
The Lord Jesus is also the Shepherd of your future and your faith. Your own belief does not belong to you, your belief belongs to God, who keeps you believing, no matter how weak and doubting your faith may be and no matter how little difference your believing makes in other people’s judgments and your own.
You are not your own, you belong to the Shepherd whom you cannot see but who will let nothing snatch you from his hand. That’s what he says in the gospel, that nothing will snatch you from his hand.
That’s the promise, and I invite you to believe it. I invite you to believe it once again this week. I have no proof for your belief, but only the analogy of what you have learned of love, and what love wants and what love does. The love that dresses up someone else with lovely clothes. The love that holds on to another and never lets go. So that in even your faulty knowledge of love you can read the analogy of God, who won’t let go of you. “You are not your own, but you belong, body and soul, in life and in death, to your faithful Savior Jesus Christ.”
Copyright © 2019, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.
Thursday, May 02, 2019
Acts 9::1-20, Psalm 30, Revelation 5:11-14, John 21:1-19
Heidelberg Q&A 88: What is true repentance or conversion? Two things, the dying-away of the old self, and the coming-to-life of the new.
Two conversion stories. The conversion of Saul to Paul, and the conversion of Simon as Peter. The one conversion stops Saul in his tracks and turns his life so hard around as to change his name. The other conversion raises Peter right within the dying of Simon, his two natures always together, which is the conversion that most of us do every day.
“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” The Lord Jesus is rough on both of them. Saul loved God so much that he hated Jesus, and Simon loved Jesus so much that he ended up denying him. Both of them are tested in their love.
Saul was not some Galilean bumpkin. He was born a Roman citizen and was educated. But he used his education and his Roman privilege against the ideals of Rome to support the most rigorous form of Judaism. He had the freedom of the Empire and was exempt from Jewish law yet he joined up with the strictest group of Pharisees. He was zealous for the Temple and jealous for Jerusalem. But these Jesus-people were messing things up, not keeping kosher, eating with Samaritans and even filthy Roman soldiers, and claiming that their unclean cursed Jesus was the Lord now seated on the throne of God. This blasphemous infection must be purged for the holiness of God.
Saul loved God so much that he was willing to hurt people. He loved God in the image that he had of God. Christians have done the same, loving our image of God and persecuting other people for it. All religions do it. You love God according to your image of God. And as it’s a spiritual law that you become like what you worship, your image of God works out in how you treat your neighbor and yourself. Saul loved his image of God so passionately that he persecuted Jesus.
Simon Peter had loved Jesus from the start, and saw himself as Jesus’ right hand man and bodyguard. It was Peter who drew the sword to fight for Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. It was only Peter who did not flee, but followed behind, and got into the courtyard of the high priest, with the charcoal fire, like a secret agent man.
His tactic was to deny his identity as a Jesus follower, and the second time they didn’t believe him, and his cover was blown, and the third time he was vehement, now to save his skin, and the cock crowed, and he was devastated. But he would not have denied his Jesus if he had not been there to begin with, the only one, because he loved him so much. Love can be so wrong. So Jesus converts him in his love, which is why the charcoal fire on the beach.
It’s fourteen days after the resurrection, while Jesus is still bodily on the earth, breathing its air and eating its food and accepting its gravity, but unbounded and unpredictable. Twice now they have seen him. But now what? What will be the power of the resurrection?
Will Jesus be a new King David, but invulnerable, trouncing the Roman Eagle and liberating Israel, or even a Jewish version of Alexander the Great, leading the armies of God across the world, as the companions of Mohammed would do six centuries later? Saul of Tarsus could have imagined that, and many Christians still do want to fight for the power and protection of Christian civilization in the world. But that is not the power of the resurrection that Jesus shows them during these quiet weeks.
Early morning, he walks onto the beach and sees the men in their boats. He gathers wood, builds a fire, and when it’s burning down to coals he goes into the water and catches some fish (we are not told how), and cleans them and guts them (I love it, God cleaning fish), and puts them on the coals. Then he calls out to the men, and as he gets them finally fishing right, he bends down to tend his fish. He so loves the world. He loves his friends, even that poor Simon Peter. “We’re going to have to have our talk.” Can you imagine a God who looks like this? Can this be your image of God instead of Michelangelo’s? Can you love and serve a God who has this image?
When Simon recognizes Jesus, he acts all guilty and confused. He covers his nakedness, he jumps into the water with his clothes on, and then he hauls the fish in by himself, over-compensating. Simon! Stop trying so hard! The breakfast will have been lovely for six of the men, but hard on Simon. The charcoal fire, that smell from the courtyard seventeen days ago, when he could not help Jesus, when he denied him, the last time out of fear, and then the rooster judged him.
Why is Jesus hard on Simon? Why make him smell the charcoal fire? Why not discuss his denial rationally, why go through his nose and under his brain? Has not Jesus already forgiven him, that he is not guilty in God’s eyes? But Jesus rubs his nose in it. It’s not about forgiveness, it’s for reconstruction, for reconciliation, for rebuilding him.
And for that to happen you have to face your failure and die and rise again. “Do you love me, more than these (who fled when you did not)? Do you love me? Do you love me?” Jesus drives it in until it hurts. Just because Jesus loves you doesn’t mean he will not hurt your feelings! “Yes, you know I love you. Yes, you know I love you. Yes, you know everything, you know my shame, my guilt, my denial, and now in my hurt you know I love you!”
The Lord Jesus is doing Simon a painful favor, like surgery, he’s opening up his capacity for love, a capacity he did not know he had. You too have this capacity, but you cannot expand your Simon-love into the capacity of your Peter-love except by entering it through your suffering and your misery. Where Jesus is. That’s the Christian approach to love as opposed to humanistic love.
Then Jesus adds insult to injury by telling Peter how he will grow old and weak, and die. What a strange ending for the Gospel of John, with the prediction of a death. Jesus predicts that this strong disciple will end his life in weakness, and this born leader will be led around like an animal on a leash. Simon Peter is looking at nothing left, not even his pride.
It’s not only Peter’s shame that has to die, it’s also his pride. Which is worse, which is harder to deal with? They’re two sides of the same coin, and for Peter to be free of his shame he has to be free of his pride. Jesus is hard on him, and Simon begins to die already here, his daily death. You have to accept it for reconstruction, and take it for reconciliation. Why is reconciliation so rare? Because we don’t like the necessary deconstruction first, of ourselves and our self-esteem.
As Peter enters his failure, Jesus already brings him out of it. “I entrust you with my sheep. I give you charge of my lambs. I put my flock in your care. I trust you. You will take over for me when I go. I reconstruct you, I have reconciled you, follow me. You followed me in secret seventeen days ago. Now you have nothing left to lose, so follow me openly. And don’t try so hard. You don’t have to prove anything, you can’t, you don’t have to defend me, you don’t have to conquer, you don’t have to win the world for Christ. I have already won the world. Just live in your love to feed my sheep.” Just as Saul will share in the suffering of Jesus and only in that way conquer Rome.
Simon was an impulsive man, so Jesus did it through his nose. Saul was an intellectual, so Jesus blinded him and turned him inward to his soul. How does the Lord Jesus work on you, to convert you daily and open your capacity for love? Your capacity is distinct and individual, as will be the way that you express God’s love, so let me encourage you, this promise is more trustworthy than your internal whisperings. You are called not just to love but to convert your love.
Everybody wants to love, but your love must have scars and holes and a wound in it, a love that opens up your misery and suffering with the charcoal smell of your shame and your guilt. God will hurt your feelings. But through your daily dying rises up in you the power of God’s love.
Here’s the take-home: To be a Christian is not just to love, but to convert your love. You convert your love by means of your belief. You convert your love not by your attention to your love itself but your attention to your image of God, the picture of the resurrected crucified, of the lamb on the throne, that kind of love, the victim for love’s sake raised in power, so that the power of the resurrection in you is the power of God’s love for you. Your mission is to yield to that love of God and even to submit to it so that it can convert you daily, and to share God’s love, for the reconciliation and reconstruction of the world that God so loves.
Copyright © 2019, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.
Friday, April 19, 2019
Isaiah 65:17-25, Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24, 1 Corinthians 15:19-26, Luke 24:1-12
Look at the painting above me. We can enjoy it again after seven years of missing it. Other churches have their video screens, but this sanctuary has that wonder. It’s entitled The Empty Tomb, and it’s by Vergilio Tojetti, who was a not very famous salon painter. It’s dirty, I’m sorry—we will clean it in Phase 2 of our restoration. How really good it is I cannot tell, but it’s a wonder that it’s here at all—there’s nothing like it in any other church in our tradition. It is inexplicable to me that the sober Calvinistic businessmen who planned this building in 1889 should have envisioned such an extravagance.
We are told that the painter based his depiction on the results of a careful study of the gospel accounts by our pastor, Dr. Farrar. Careful study, maybe, with some juggling. The gospel accounts diverge in their details, though all of them report the empty tomb, and that it was women first, and always including Mary Magdalene or her alone, and one or two angels or mysterious shining men. Only St. Matthew has the angel seated outside on that stone that was rolled away, but with two women, like in that window over there. The three women are in St. Mark and St. Luke, but they have no angel outside the door. So the best we can say is that one side of the painting is from St. Matthew and the other side is from St. Luke!
Your eye goes first to the angel. Vivid, brilliant, generating light. Androgynous, neither male nor female, or both. Her hand is raised in power and command. Behind her is the slab of the door that had fallen when the stone that held it tight was rolled aside. It’s a nice touch—the slab that was a barrier is now a pavement and a threshold, making the space above it the center of the painting.
Across that space your eye moves from the angel to the women, their clothing colored but less bright. Their headscarves are aflutter, as if caught in turbulence. They are stopped in their turning toward the tomb, and held there, suspended, cyclonic, as if in an inadvertent dance. Their hands are up to their chests in their surprise and bewilderment, and the one in back has her hand up on her head in her distress. They are caught and turned and held and suspended.
St. Luke reports their names: Mary Magdalene and Joanna and another Mary. Mary Magdalene is the one behind, depicted, as always, with loose long hair, and holding her jar of ointment and spices. Those are to counter the stench of his dead body. The women knew that he would stink by now, from putrefaction. They had come expecting quiet, the silence of the dead. But they are met by a sudden voice they did know and they are held within its power.
That space between them: you sense it not as empty but as connective space—that the space is energized, and energized by the angel, and energized with tension and power to hold the women in suspension. That space connects the angel’s power to their uncertainty, the angel’s light to their confusion. The unknown embraces their intentions and the inexplicable turns the sad plans of their grieving. The connectivity in that space is the announcement by the angel, her announcement before the understanding, her greeting before the arrival, and her challenge before the comprehension. You can sense the power in her upraised hand and in her words.
What the angel said is varied in the gospels. More or less, “He is not here. He is risen. Why do you seek the living among the dead?” To which the answer is obvious, “Because he is dead! This is where his corpse is.” And if they had some cheek, “You wouldn’t be sitting here if you didn’t know why we came here!” But angels in the Bible are unsympathetic to human emotions, and the angel is impatient. “He is not here, he’s ahead of you, so go on, get moving to meet him.” She holds them in her message and she turns them. After this moment they race back with the message, but the men do not believe them, so Peter goes to check it out and come back and mansplain to them all.
That message and that suspended moment is now offered to you by this painting. And the space above that threshold reaches out into this great space of the sanctuary to hold you in its greeting. The message of the angel suspends you in your ordinary time, and the power of the resurrection offers to turn you in its great dance of repentance and reconciliation and renewal even where you are. Welcome to this space, this opening space, this widening space of welcome and offer and invitation. What else were you seeking when you came here today?
Let me ask you, “Whom do you seek?” In Latin, Quem queritis? That’s what the angel asks the women in the medieval mystery plays, though it’s not in the gospels. One of our members is an historian of theater, and he was part of the volunteer crew last month that raised the chandelier after having been down for a year. As it went up, he got a good look at the painting, and he spontaneously said, “Quem queritis.” Then he explained that in the medieval mystery plays the angel always opens with with “Quem queritis, whom do you seek?” I thanked him right there for giving me my sermon!
Whom did they seek? A dead man, a corpse, no one alive, not anymore, so for them it was more like “what did they seek,” an object, a stiff, unmoving, already decomposing back into the elements. As certain as death. To them familiar, predictable, and they had their means in hand to mitigate its worst unpleasantries. What we do.
What were you seeking when you came here today? Something more positive, because you know the story, some hope, some joy, some inspiration? You can find that here today, but I think the medieval mystery plays were right, that for us who by the centuries are separated from this moment, the angel’s question is rather “Whom do you seek, Quem queritis?”
But he isn’t there! He is risen from the dead, and he is not there. He may be somewhere else, on his way to Galilee in St. Matthew, or on the road to Emmaus in St. Luke, or off-stage in St. John, but he is not in the picture. Unless he’s in the space, and therefore within the angel’s words and within the suspending energy that connects the angel and the women. That is not empty space, it’s not a vacuum, that space is the medium of light, like the outer space that is the universe, in which the celestial bodies are lit and suspended in their turning, the galaxies and planets like the women. In this great space that embraces you, whom do you seek? Quem queritis?
We offer this space to you. In a city where space is at a premium, and guarded, and defensive, the volunteers of our congregation have worked very hard for the last four years to restore this space to you, free space, open space, beautiful space, transcendent space, space without judgment, a space of unconditional welcome, no matter who you are or what you believe or don’t believe, room for your practice of worship and service, and a vault for your vision of the kingdom of heaven.
But not impersonal space. Whom do you seek here? That same one whom the women sought, only now not dead but raised alive again, according to the witness of those women. He is risen from the dead to make his open space within the confinements of time and human history, he rises to extend the expanse of his resurrected life to all of you fast-bound in bondage or discouragement, he rises to open up the great room of his love to all of you who are burdened with your rejection or exclusion, he rises to spread the shelter of his peace to all of you sick of war and longing for relief.
Whom do you seek? Begging the pardon of my colleagues beside me—the one who claimed to be the Messiah and to embody the words of Psalm 118 and to keep alive the promise of Isaiah’s prophecy for all the world, and to be such kind of Messiah that my colleagues and I should share our space and pray as one to this One God, to whom he will hand back his kingdom in the end, according to St. Paul, when the One God will be all in all.
Whom do you seek? The one whose word comes out to embrace you and turn you and hold you in the intentions of your disappointment and the preparations of your grief. You do not turn alone, there are women in this dance, so follow their lead and listen to their witness and believe them.
Quem queritis? The Lord Jesus Christ, I finally pronounce his name, the Lord Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever, the firstborn from the dead, the embodiment of God’s eternal life, and the vital exhibition in human flesh of God’s self-sharing love. Whom you do seek? You seek God. And you seek your true self. I invite you to find both of them in the love of God that is revealed in Jesus Christ, that love that is stronger than death. The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!
Copyright © 2019, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.
Saturday, March 30, 2019
Joshua 5:9-12, Psalm 32, 2 Corinthians 5:16-21, Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
I think the Lord Jesus must have used this parable frequently in his preaching, as it is so rich in its suggestions and applications. I’m sure that Our Lord embellished it depending on the audience, adding color and description—here for humor and there for poignancy.
The version of the parable that we have today is from the combination of a great author and a great editor. St. Luke was the editor, who shaped it to fit his own narrative, and placed the parable in a specific context and pared it down to concision, with not a wasted word. Even then it invites several applications.
Of course it depicts repentance—the repentance of the younger son, his turning and returning, from where he was to what he had despised before, his suing for mercy. It also depicts the hope behind repentance, that if you do it, you will be taken back with mercy and love, and unconditionally.
What’s easy to miss is the subtlety of how faulty his repentance is. His fault is not that he begins his repentance with self-interest, that he repents because he’s in a very bad spot and he’s got little choice. I doubt that there’s any repentance without some measure of self-interest in it. You don’t have to be so pious that the motive of your repentance is selfless and pure.
The fault is in his careful planning of his repentance—that he wants to control the outcome, and preserve his independence, and not have to endure the radical grace of full and undeserved restoration. He will have his father as a boss and not a father, for the food and the security, and not for the fellowship.
His solution will shame his father no less than his departure did. He had shamed his father by asking for his inheritance ahead of time, which meant, “You are dead to me.” Then he sold if off quick, without bargaining or investing, so that his father had to watch half of his ancestral land being taken by someone else who got it on the cheap. But now for his son to come back as no better than a servant in the fields? The other servants and the neighbors will shake their heads at the father with a son like this, so shameful even in his return. Is it true repentance to further shame his father?
There is something here about how we deal with our guilt, and how we handle the temptations of guilt. The first temptation of guilt is alienation. Alienation is a presumption in the story. The son must have been alienated from his father to begin with, and then he alienates himself totally, living in an alien country. Then his plan for repentance continues the alienation, but right up close.
You can see this in the case of Adam and Eve. Before they ate the fruit, they had easy fellowship with God every evening, when God took his walks in his garden. But when they ate the forbidden fruit they felt naked and ashamed and they hid from God in the trees of the garden. That’s the guilt, when you want to hide. The alienation. The separation from God, and then also from each other, as Adam blamed Eve, and from the world, as Eve blamed the serpent.
I think that the serpent represents the seductive desire of Nature, but if there is a tempter, he is not interested in your actual sin. Human sin is boring to the tempter. His interest is the guilt that results from your sin. We learn from the Book of Job that the interest of Satan is your alienation from God, your alienation from your rightful status as the image of God in the world. Your guilt corrupts you, cripples you, makes you unhealthy, consumes you and slowly kills you, and it corrupts your relationships. The destructiveness of guilt is the topic of half the operas in the opera-house.
And then we try all different strategies to relieve the guilt. Oedipus, Hamlet, Macbeth, Otello, Il Trovatore, Boris Godunov. To relieve the guilt while keeping control. To relieve the guilt without humiliation. And that’s the second temptation of guilt—the manipulation that we do to deal with it. Deception, secrecy, our devices on top of our desires. The careful planning of the prodigal son.
The third temptation of guilt is judgment of others. You see that in the older son. He judges his brother. But look how he is guilty too! He shames his father too! He compares his working for his father all those years to slavery, corrupting their relationship. He accuses his brother of spending his money on prostitutes, but how does he know? Is that what he would do? He will shame his father by not sitting next to him at the party. He judges his brother and he judges his father and he alienates himself from both in his self-righteousness.
It’s the third temptation that is the religious one. You know that old joke that basically all religions are the same—it’s just guilt with different holidays! Whenever I see somebody particularly loud in judgment of others, I wonder what his secret is.
The fourth temptation of guilt is also in the older brother, and that is to refuse the radical grace of God who simply cancels the guilt. Our refusing to accept it goes with keeping up the alienation and trying to maintain the manipulation. To accept the grace is to surrender the control. But that’s hard. Your guilt tempts you to believe that there can’t really be a grace that is so free.
Well, you have experience to back you up. Haven’t you had it that you when you did come clean you still had to pay for it? That your full exposure got you in even more trouble? So you find it safer just to deny your guilt, that it was not your fault, that you had no choice, or you didn’t know any better. But the strategy of God is different. The strategy of God is despite it all, unconditionally, to accept you and embrace you, so that in your state of safety and security you can admit your guilt, as much to yourself as to anyone else. God reconciles you first, so that you reconcile yourself.
There is gospel for you here. Your own repentance will always be imperfect, impure, and like the prodigal son always at least a little selfish and self-interested. God knows it, God is no fool, and your forgiveness never depended on your deserving it anyway but on the prodigality of God.
That’s a relief for us miserable offenders, who have no health in us! We can laugh in repentance—the joke’s on us. And that’s in operas too, in the comedies like Falstaff, and Cosi Fan Tutte, and The Magic Flute. It’s a wonderful little stage-play St. Luke has given us—no wonder he’s the patron saint of artists.
There is a deeper layer to this parable. Jesus tells it autobiographically. It’s about himself. The parable depicts these strange words from Second Corinthians, that in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting our trespasses against us, and that for our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin.
St. Paul understood the deeper parable, that the younger son is a picture of Jesus Christ himself, when he left his Father in heaven for the distant country of human flesh, and squandered the wealth of his divinity. He ate with sinners and prostitutes, the comfort women of Roman soldiers and the mothers who sold themselves to get the cash to feed their hungry children. He ate their unclean food and got unclean himself.
And he brought this back to his Father in his unclean sacrifice upon the cross. Here is Rembrandt’s version of the Prodigal Son. Here is Jesus, the prodigal son of God, with nothing to show for himself but his part in our misery. He who knew no sin became sin for us, in order to bring us back to God.
Notice the father and the son. Look at the complexity of God, God in God, the soles of God’s feet, the knees of God, the arms of God, the bosom of God, God in God and this is also you in God. The Father holds the shape of the cross, the Father absorbs all the guilt and despises all the shame on him.
This prodigal God doesn’t care. Let them think what they think and say what they say. But “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, without regard for your deserving it, I will love whom I love, I am who I am, I will be as I will be, I am the Lord, and my nature and my name is Love.”
Copyright © 2019, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.
Thursday, March 21, 2019
Exodus 3:1-15, Psalm 63:1-8, 1 Corinthians 10:1-13, Luke 13:1-9
In Charleston, South Carolina, at the Mother Emanuel AME church, nine people were killed.
In Cairo, Egypt, at the St. Peter Church, twenty-nine people were killed.
In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, at the Tree of Life Synagogue, eleven people were killed at prayer.
In Christchurch, New Zealand, at the Al Noor Mosque and the Linwood Islamic Centre, fifty people were killed at prayer.
In Jerusalem, in the Temple, how many Galileans were killed by Pontius Pilate while they were praying? Sacrificed to Rome while they sacrificed to God. So what if it was legal?
All of the victims were peacefully at prayer, in sanctuaries, spaces of safety and innocence. But they were guilty, in the judgment of their murderers, guilty of being black, guilty of being Christian, of being Jewish, of being Muslim, or of being Galilean patriots. Or revolutionaries. What are you guilty of being? Just guilty of being alive within a violent world? Is no one allowed to be innocent?
In the Gospel story they are saying this to Jesus in order to warn him off. They assume he wants to lead a revolution against the Romans, and they expect Pontius Pilate to slaughter him just like he slaughtered the last ones who tried it.
As usual, Jesus does not answer them directly, but he turns it back on them by bringing up another disaster, the collapse of that tower on eighteen victims. “God did not prevent it. God does not stop the world from being the world. Towers fall, on people. And Romans kill patriots, that’s what they do, and they’ll do it to you if you act like that (which will happen thirty years later). But all of that won’t turn me ’round from doing what I am doing!”
The threat of violence is a temptation. The threat of suffering is a temptation. Suffering itself is a temptation. If you think you might suffer you back off from what you ought to do, or you might do what you ought not do. And then when you suffer anyway you are tempted in a different way, you are tempted to want a reason for it, some cause and effect, some karma—is this payback, did I do something to deserve this?
Suffering is a teacher, but not always a good one, and you can learn the wrong lessons from your suffering and fail the test of your temptation. You get defensive and closed off. You limit your suffering by desiring less, hoping less, believing less, loving less. You figure the world is a hateful and dangerous place—so keep your guard up and get what you can. Defend your school with guns, lock your sanctuary door. That is one kind of humanity, the humanity that ran the Roman Empire in St. Luke’s day. It’s the humanity we are used to, and assumed by governments and nation-states. But the new humanity, of which Jesus is the firstborn, learns a different lesson from suffering.
You will hear Christians say that God does not let you suffer more than you can bear. But this is not true. I have pastored Christians whose suffering was too much for them and it broke them, and it was not their fault. I pastored someone who stays alive against his profound and lifelong inner suffering only because he believes that suicide is an even worse defeat. God certainly allows us to suffer more than we can bear. God does not stop the world from being the world.
But doesn’t St. Paul say that in our Epistle to the Corinthians? He writes that “God is faithful, and God will not let you be tested beyond your strength.” But to interpret this as God not letting us suffer more than we can bear assumes that God sends us our suffering. But God does not send us our suffering. Suffering happens. God lets the world be the world. When you get sick, that is not God testing you. That is your having a physical body and sharing a world with viruses, or even sharing a world with people who have guns and use them. You can be a saint and have troubles, social and emotional, and likewise you can be a creep with a very nice charmed life.
God does test us, not by manipulating our circumstances, but simply by means of God’s Word. Here’s the Gospel, now respond to it—that’s your test. In seventy-odd years you will have to put your pencil down. It is a life-long test. God tests us by God’s Word, which is how God judges us.
God judges us exactly how God communicates with us, in God’s Word—God judges us simply by how we judge ourselves in responding to God’s Word, and God tests us simply by offering us the promises of God’s Word. How you do on the test is how you respond to God’s Word. There is no other testing that God gives you. And God always tells you exactly what is on the test.
Here’s the next point, that the testing is the same as “the way out” of our testing. If the test is the promises of God, those same promises are also the way out so that you may be able to endure it. Even if you fail to act upon God’s promises, God’s deepest promise is for those who fail. In fact, it’s not till you hit bottom that you finally realize all the promises. The test is the way out of the test.
God’s promises test us in our suffering no less than they test us in our prosperity and perceived success. “So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall.” Prosperity and success can be a worse temptation than suffering. Just ask King Solomon, just ask King David, just ask Adam and Eve who were in paradise. But when we believe God’s Word and acknowledge our failure we are also comforted by God’s Word, and restored and revived and given hope to endure.
That does not mean passivity, which is a real temptation of suffering. That’s the problem of the fig tree in the parable. It holds itself in, it doesn’t produce, it’s passive. From suffering it’s natural to hold back and protect yourself. You hold your life in, preserve your energy, spare yourself the trials of love, and protect what’s yours. But finally it doesn’t help. You can’t prevent the accident, the tyrant will get you anyway, and you only make it worse by the implicit hostility of your self-defense.
You are not called to passivity, and in the case of violence you are called to more than thoughts and prayers. You can even be angry. The slaughter of Muslims and Jews and Christians at prayer is a genuine cause for anger. But not revenge, because anger is another faulty teacher, and it’s never the solution, only an indicator for purpose, and for action as a kind of witnessing. Your anger and your purpose must be always tested by the Gospel, and always end in acts of love.
Another temptation in suffering is doubt. Doubt has its place. It is natural. Reasonable doubt is the foundation of the scientific method and also of our justice system. So it is natural to doubt the promises of God, whether from prosperity or poverty, success or suffering. And that doubt can come from your own self-awareness. You see that in our first lesson, when Moses doubts that he can do what God has called him to. Moses says, “Who am I that I should go and do this?” He doubted.
God answers him and says, “I will be with you, and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you, that when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship me on this mountain.” That is remarkable, because it’s circular, because he will get his confirmation to do it only after he does it. So, your doubt will be answered only after you have acted against your doubt! If you don’t do it, you won’t know that you could do it! Sort of like our sanctuary restoration, we couldn’t know that God was with us until we did it and found out that God was with us. I think it must be true of everything God calls us to. The Gospel is always a test, both to try us and to get us through the trial.
That means the testing is an invitation. God’s promises, God’s Word, God’s information is an offering. The judgments of God are not punishments but challenges, and open-ended. Listen to the gardener in the parable: “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it.” We could translate “manure” more accurately with a certain four-letter word. Let’s just say, “Manure happens.” God will not spare you from the manure that happens, God lets the world be the world. But the gardener digs around you and gives you space. For another year.
And in the strange and gracious calendar of the Bible, it’s always one more year, God always gives you one more year no matter how many years you have wasted, it’s always Today. God is always gracious. The invitation never fails no matter how often you refuse it. God is the lover who will not be spurned. God is not just a teacher but a lover. And not a lover who is always testing you, rather the steady promiser against whom you test yourself, and in the testing to learn how great this Love might be.
Copyright © 2019, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.
Saturday, March 09, 2019
Deuteronomy 26:1-11, Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16, Romans 10:8b-13, Luke 4:1-13
This is my twelfth time preaching through the Gospel of Luke, and I’m finally realizing something basic about it, something hidden in plain sight, but suddenly obvious once you notice it.
Last week I said that the Gospel of Luke is the most humane of the four Gospels that we have, with the most human interest, and that’s because one of St. Luke’s distinctive themes is the new humanity that we get in Jesus Christ. Yes, the Lord Jesus is God, and partly so in order to be a human being, the firstborn and founder and leader of a new model of humanity, a new way of being human in the world.
By the time St. Luke wrote his gospel, at least two other gospels were already available. St. Matthew had invented the gospel as a literary form in order to serve the specific message that he wanted to convey. Then St. Mark used that literary form to tell the same story but with his own emphases. St. Luke did the same thing, with different emphases. Who was this St. Luke, and why did he do it?
We don’t know much. We think he was a Gentile convert, not a Jew, the only Gentile author in the Bible. He probably never met Jesus. He was an associate of St. Paul, a doctor, and well-educated in Greek and Roman terms. Before he came to believe that Jesus was Lord he will have believed other things, such as the ideals of Hellenistic culture—the dominant ideas of the good, the true, and the beautiful, what makes a person good, what is a human being. He will have learned those ideals from the philosophers and also from the epics of Homer and maybe of Virgil. He probably interpreted the mythological gods and goddesses to be the personifications of the principalities and powers of the world and the ideals of humanity. And then—we don’t know how—he converted!
So he spends a few years assisting St. Paul, organizing and teaching, making use of the gospels as they become available, interpreting them for his own context, and we can imagine him develop his own emphasis—a new way of being human in the world, with new ideals, a kind of humanity that the philosophers had not imagined, a new model human being that Homer and Virgil would not have praised, a new model citizen that the Roman Empire did not desire—the new kind of human being that we see in Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
And of course, a new kind of God. A kind of God who would dare to become this kind of human being. Yes, many of the Greek gods took temporary form as human beings, but none of them so thoroughly as to suffer and to die as such. You can imagine Jesus being tempted not to do that either. Who wants to be a god to be a loser, who wants to be a god if it means suffering and death? Well, who wants to be a human being to be loser? The choices that the Lord Jesus made would not have been made by any right-thinking human or any right-thinking god in the Greek and Roman world that St. Luke was addressing.
This helps to understand the devil in this story. He’s not the devil of our cartoons, he’s more like the Satan of the Book of Job, and he hangs out with gods and goddesses like Jupiter and Aphrodite and Apollo. He doesn’t think of himself as evil. He’s a realist, he knows how the world works. He believes what he says. He doesn’t tell any lies here. He even quotes scripture. Everything he tempts Jesus with is a good, on its face. But Jesus says No to these three goods, both as human and as God.
When I preached on this passage six years ago I emphasized how Jesus was being tempted as God. Satan tempts Jesus with three things that we typically ask of God, in all religions. First, feed us, “Give us this day our daily bread.” Second, give us success, give us power. Third, save us, rescue us. If God would just do these things more often more visibly in the world, more people might believe. “Just prove yourself, God, just do your job—why do you keep depending on us stumbling Christians to convince the world?”
But this time around I want to focus on how Jesus is being tested as a human being, as the prototype and test model of the new kind of human being. The proving-ground is the desert, and Jesus is like a new product being tested to the breaking point.
The United States Marines claim to take their recruits apart and rebuild them to be a different kind of human being. To become a ballet dancer you have to change the way you run and the way you jump and even the way you stand, painfully, until it’s second nature. So understand temptation as the training for your second nature.
You are tested and proven and you endure the temptation for the new humanity you are called to become. And you can’t endure if you avoid the suffering. So you can use the season of Lent a little bit of a desert, a self-imposed boot-camp or ballet lessons. So my sermon series for Lent is called Temptation, and this week, the Temptation of the Good.
For the first temptation I think about Park Slope life. Good bread, good food, good taste, good books, good music, good conversation, the good life. Such things we can accept as good gifts in our lives, as we thank God for our daily bread, so when we say “No thanks” to them we really do mean the “thanks,” our No is to confess they cannot fully satisfy, and if we are fully satisfied by them, then we cannot be the human beings that the Gospel calls us to become. We say No to them only when we say Yes to the Word of God. We believe that more, the promises of God, the judgments of God, we hold off from the goodies set before us for the hope and the vision ahead of us.
For the second temptation I think about American life. For example, I have always been challenged by the argument that if not for the military might of America the bad guys would have their way. I am sure it’s true. It’s realistic. And does it not yield the good life that I enjoy? It’s just because it’s so true and realistic, and because it yields me so much good that it’s a temptation, to which there is no argument other than “Worship the Lord your God and serve only God.” Does that mean God first and country second? I think it means God first and nothing second. This is a tough one, and a cause of constant testing, especially from good people who are the good kind of patriots.
Both of these temptations can train us to be less defensive of the goods that we enjoy and the goods to which we have allegiance, and they train us in freedom. But we will be resisted by those whose interests are those goods, from simple lack of sympathy to mockery to discrimination to persecution. The temptation is a testing. You have to keep believing with your heart and confessing with your mouth in order to endure it, to be kept safe in it, and confessing mostly to yourself, “Yes, I want to believe this, I want to believe this.” Even the Lord Jesus had to say it out loud.
For the third temptation I think about the Christian life. That we live the good life in Christ and we expect it to yield more good. I mean if we believe in a good God who rules the world and who loves us, if we walk with God, then we should expect some benefits along the way. You know, God bless us when things are good, and God save us when things are bad. “Save us from the time of trial and deliver us from evil.”
But you can do this without putting God to the test. You can do this when your prayers are not answered as you asked them. You pray to God wholeheartedly without putting God to the test, though you are tempted to give up. You will be tried beyond the breaking point. There is no proof. You save it for yourself when you keep believing with your heart and confessing with your mouth, if only to that one friend who tells you it’s not worth it, give it up. You are that new model of human being who stands up in front of God and who gives God back all the mysterious and sometimes frustrating freedom that God claims, and still believe in God.
This kind of courage is called faith, this decision is belief. St. Paul says to believe with your heart. He doesn’t say your head, because belief is not mostly thinking, although it must engage your thinking. “Believe with your heart.” Belief is in your heart because belief is mostly love. Think about it—belief is faithfulness, belief is fidelity, belief is wanting the other to be other for the sake of the other, which is love, belief is wanting God to be God for God’s sake, wanting the world to be God’s world for God’s sake, and loving your self for God’s sake, because God loved you first.
Copyright © 2019 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.
Thursday, February 28, 2019
Exodus 34:29-35, Psalm 99, 2 Corinthians 3:12–4:2, Luke 9:28-43a
Do you believe this story? Do you believe that his clothes lit up? Not just glowing, not phosphorescent, but dazzling, like lightning. Did his body become electric? Is it possible? Of course it was impossible, which is the point! It’s an anomaly, a singularity. St. Luke reports it as a mystery.
The transfiguration is reported by two other gospels, and though they agree on the core of the story, their reports have subtle differences. In order to make sense of St. Luke’s details we look in literary terms at his Gospel as a whole, with his distinctive themes. His Gospel is the most humane, with the most human interest, and one of his themes is the new humanity that Jesus is the founder of, a new generation of human beings of which Jesus is the firstborn, the people of the resurrection.
In terms of the literary structure of St. Luke, the transfiguration looks both forward and backward—it anticipates Jesus’ resurrection and is the confirmation of his baptism. When Our Lord was baptized, down there in the Jordan valley, below sea level, the lowest point in the land-mass of Asia, he heard God’s voice directly, for the first time, “You are my son, my beloved, in you I am well-pleased.” And now up here, for only the second time, on the highest point in Palestine he hears that voice again, “This is my son, my elected, listen to him.” The only two times that he hears God’s voice in the Gospel of St. Luke. So this is the confirmation of his baptism.
And it’s the anticipation of his resurrection. Fifteen chapters later, on Easter morning, there are two men standing at the empty tomb. St. Luke describes their robes as “dazzling” white, with the same word for Jesus’ dazzling clothing up on the mountain. St. Luke specifically calls them “men,” not angels as in the other gospels. They are people like us, but on the other side of death, like the white-robed martyrs in the Book of Revelations. They wear baptismal robes, the ordinary garments of the resurrected citizens of the Kingdom of God. They dazzle because they live already in the future, full of light, the future visible in Jesus on the mountain, the firstborn of the new humanity. St. Luke does not call this a transfiguration, as the other gospels do, but a change, a transformation.
St. Luke is the only one to tell us what Moses and Elijah were talking about. They were speaking of his departure. The Greek word is “exodus.” Of which Moses was the expert! Our translators missed the obvious, which even Peter did not, for all his confusion, as the booths he suggested were from the Feast of Booths, when Jews remember the Exodus and their years of wandering in the desert. Peter would have made them from the branches and foliage around them. But then the cloud overshadowed them like the cloud of Glory on Mount Sinai, and the disciples were terrified.
Moses was the prophet of the beginning, and Elijah was the prophet of the end. I’m guessing that Moses spoke of how to get there, and Elijah spoke of what would be there when he got there. I’m guessing that Elijah spoke from experience of how Jesus would feel alone, even while among his people, and Moses spoke from experience of how Jesus must end alone, just him and God.
Which the second half of our lesson confirms. He comes down the mountain and he walks into this tableau of a suffering son and a suffering father, and his disciples all standing around with their mouth full of teeth, looking silly and feeling worse. “We couldn’t do anything.” Our Lord can see in this tableau an image of his own impending experience. Himself the son, the son of God, seized and abused by the demonic hands of death, and his Father watching on and suffering with him, just him and God, just him alone. The dark side of the glory that he had just experienced.
Of course he was upset. It was a burden for the Son of Man to be the Son of God. That’s another of St. Luke’s themes—the interplay of the two titles of Jesus: Son of God and Son of Man. Both of these titles are lit up in the Transfiguration. But in Luke’s account the emphasis is more on the Son of Man. What Jesus is for us, as he is one of us, the firstborn of our new humanity.
My message for you today is that this vision on the mountain is an image of your own illumination and your own transformation. You too will be changed. Not a different face, but a different look on your face. Not to become divine, not an angel, but a human being who can fully bear God’s image, able to reflect the light of God upon your face without diminution, and to generate the light of God without distortion. You are a member of the new humanity, a new mind, a new obedience.
St. Paul encourages us in our epistle, in verse 18: And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of our Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another, for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit. The Holy Spirit is working your transformation. We do not finish it ourselves. God finishes it in our death and resurrection. But already in this life it begins for us. The Lordship of Jesus provides the algorithm, and the Spirit is the catalyst. And you have seen examples of it happening, including persons in this congregation.
Do you consider this transformation desirable? Or that it’s even possible? Do you believe that people can change? Or do they basically stay the same? Are we compelled to go through life being driven by our histories? We know that cultures change. We know that nations can be transformed. Indeed, the Bible considers it the will of God that the ethics of the Torah and the Gospel should gradually transform the nations. But what about individuals? What about you?
I believe that I am being transformed. Slowly and with fits and starts. I look back with some embarrassment at my life and I shake my head at my history, and though my remorse is not a proof of real transformation it is a sign of it. There’s always repentance in transformation, and often a plea for help. Transformation requires something from the outside, a catalyst, an algorithm, a power and an influence that is external to yourself. Neither internal evolution nor spontaneous generation make for transformation. You cannot do it on your own. That’s a judgment, but it is also liberating.
You must first pass through your own exodus. The God of Moses did not bring the children of Israel straight into the Promised Land. They had first to be transformed from a rabble of resistant slaves into a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, which took the desert, the diet of manna, and the fiery serpents. First they had to go through suffering, the suffering of pain, humility, and repentance.
God does not send the suffering, it’s just part of creaturely life. Nor does God get you out of your suffering—God gets you through your suffering. God goes with you through your suffering, just as God went along with Israel during those forty years in the desert. And God was transformed too, not by any change in God, but by the transformation of their capacity to know God and experience God, and to learn God’s love. You transform your image of God in order to transform yourself.
You have some healing, but not complete. You have more joy, but also deeper grief. You fear people less because you fear God more, and you learn the fear of God that comes with love. You are more loving, more ethical, and therefore more humble and more vulnerable, but also spiritually more powerful. The algorithm is the Lordship of Jesus and the catalyst is the Holy Spirit.
You cannot undo your history, you cannot remake your body and you cannot avoid your grief. You will contend with your history and your body and your grief until you are released in death, and transformation takes maintenance. You need the prayers and the hymns and the sacraments.
Your transformation will always be something of a mystery to yourself. Yes, it is a fact, as certain as your baptism, but you will never fully comprehend it. You give up some part of it to others, to those who love you and confirm you, to God and the community. They had to tell Moses his face was shining, he didn’t know it. You get your inner light from sources outside you. But at the same time, you are already transformed in the way that you handle your history and your body and your grief, your weekly converting your tragedy into comedy. The laughter is the laughter of humility and love.
Copyright © 2019, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.