Thursday, August 04, 2016

August 7, Proper 14: Prophecy 6: What is Faith?

Go to this link for the video of a hymn-sing.

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20, Psalm 50:1-8, 21-24, Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16, Luke 12:32-40

“Fear not little flock, it is my Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom.” To give you the Kingdom. But so often I hear it said that we are supposed to build the kingdom of God. I heard it at General Synod, as a call for Christian action and church planting and investment and even sacrifice. As if not for our efforts the kingdom of God would not get built.

But according to our Epistle to the Hebrews, it’s already built, and not by us. Its builder and maker is God. It’s waiting for us to get to it and it’s God’s good pleasure to give it to us as we approach it, already now, at least its first-fruits.

That does not mean we should be passive. Rather Jesus gives us all these metaphors for being actively alert, actively ready, dressed for action, your lamps lit. Your activity includes putting down those competing things that distract you, setting aside those desirable things that might hinder you, taking off whatever would slow you down, as active as a second baseman or a shortstop, even before the ball is hit.

It’s not your action that brings it, it’s your action that receives it, it is God who brings it. Your receiving it from God is not by means of your good works, not from your trying to build it by good work, but simply through the medium of your faith. You receive it by your faith.

My topic for today is faith. We use that word a lot. How do you know when you have it? What does it feel like? Wow do you know when you are using it? This topic fits nicely into our sermon series on prophecy, because faith is what prophecy asks for in particular. This might not be true in other religions, but it is true of prophecy in the Biblical sense, prophecy as we’ve seen it in this series of sermons, prophecy as the invitation and witness to the alternate reality, prophecy as that collection of images and icons and windows into that alternate reality—this sort of prophecy exactly appeals to faith. The way that you respond to prophecy, to its invitations and it promises, is by faith.

We use faith all the time in many ways. When you drive down a two-lane highway you have faith in the driver of the truck coming toward you that he will not swerve into your lane. It is a fact of life today that we take enormous risks all the time, and we live with more danger and more complexity than people have ever lived before, so that we have constantly to put our faith in people we do not know and in institutions removed from us. You have to live by your faith in many ways all the time.

Faith is found among certain birds and animals, especially those species that mate for life, like loons, or among domesticated animals towards us who are their masters. “Fido” is a dog’s name because it’s Latin for “faithful.” The faith of animals is rooted in affection. That’s true for human beings too, but our species takes it beyond the level of affection to the level of projection. We put faith in promises, in ideas, in images, of the future, in visions of what might be. “I have a dream!” “The arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice!” Human beings are the species that is able to envision the invisible and imagine the insensible. We project, and so we all have to live by faith.

Everybody lives by faith, even if we’re not religious. The question is what we put your faith in, whether science or humanity or reason, or nature, or luck, some worldview, a vision of the world, or maybe some god. These are not mutually exclusive, and we interweave these objects of our faith and prioritize them. What do you have some faith in, what do you have more faith in, and what do you have most faith in? By your prioritization you make your choices in life. Think of the many things that you have faith in. You can tell this by how often you’ve been disappointed. Think of the people you’ve had faith in, and again, how often you’ve been disappointed, whether from their failings or maybe from your own transference. To guide your prioritization is one main function of religion.

According to the Heidelberg Catechism of the Reformed Church, dating from 1563, faith has three things in it: knowledge, conviction, and assurance (Q21). In that order—knowledge, conviction, and assurance—from objective to subjective, from information to emotion, from your head to your heart to your soul.

Faith needs knowledge; to wit: What exactly are the promises? What is being promised here? What’s the vision, what’s the prophecy, what’s the alternate reality by which we can judge the presenting reality? Does it make sense? Does it help to make better sense of everything else? Is it reasonable? 

Your human reason is not to be denied here, and yet your faith must go beyond your reason, because, by definition, faith is what you engage when you go past proof. Faith is precisely for “things hoped for” and for “things not seen.” As in Hebrews 11:1, famously, “Now faith is the assurance of things hope for, the conviction of things not seen.”  That verse is worth your memorizing it, but it’s notoriously difficult to translate, so it’s worth memorizing in several versions. I learned it this way: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Do you catch it? Faith makes its own evidence, so faith is in itself a kind of knowledge.

Then faith moves from knowledge to conviction, from your head into your heart, where it gets personal. To wit: Am I convicted by this prophecy? Does this promise call out to me? What does it demand of me? Can I commit to it? Do I dare? Because, again, by definition, faith responds not to proof but to an invitation. What if I don’t? What do I lose, what do I gain? Will I let it change me? Can I bet my life on it? Dr. King said that you’ve got nothing worth living for if you’ve got nothing worth dying for. Faith has to go from your head to your heart, from knowledge to conviction.

Then your knowledge passes through conviction to assurance. Faith has to go from your head to your heart to your soul. Your soul is the channel of your emotions. You can feel it in your breathing when you have assurance. But your soul is also your connector with your God. Your soul is how you reach out to God as well as the conduit through which God comes into you.

Both Jews and Christians believe that the Spirit of God enters you, and it’s that Holy Spirit who gives you your assurance. If you draw your assurance from your own internal resources, that will fail you, no matter how good you are. So you depend on the Holy Spirit creating assurance inside you.

What does that feel like? The thing is, you’re not going to have a distinct feeling of the Holy Spirit, distinct from your own feelings. That’s because the Spirit prefers to blend into you, like sugar dissolving into water. The way the Holy Spirit does it is by using your head and reminding you of the promises of God, either privately inside you or through the words of a friend or a hymn or a worship service at church.

Don’t find your assurance in your own certainties but find it in the promises of God. “Fear not, little flock, it is my Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Your faith is the conduit for you to experience God’s faithfulness to you.

So the secret to assurance is not the what of your faith but the who of your faith. Not just what do you believe, but in whom do you believe? Till recently in this church, whenever I called for you to repeat the Apostles Creed, I would ask you, “What do you believe?” But now I ask you, “In whom do you believe?” The first question was good, but the new one is better. Because the what depends upon the Who. The whole purpose of the what is to point to the Who behind the what.

And also because of the gap between the what that is promised and the what that is received. We are incomplete, we are pilgrims looking for a better city, and we will die before we get there. Like Abraham, like Moses, like Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In the words of the Epistle, “All these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. . . . Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, indeed he has prepared a city for them.” You believe in the City of God because you have faith in God. The fullness of the what is still to come, but the fullness of the Who is fully here.

Faith can be rich and powerful and fruitful and world-changing when its knowledge is of many things, of many prophecies and promises. But your faith will save you even if it only knows one thing, the heart of the matter, in whom to trust. A baby does not even know her mother’s name, but she knows her mother as her safety and security. Fear not, little child, it is your mother’s good pleasure to give you her love. I invite you to put your faith in the love of God for you.

Copyright © 2016, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Saturday, July 09, 2016

July 10, Proper 10, Prophecy 5: Amos and Amaziah

Amos 7:1-7 and Colossians 1:1-14

For the next few months our Old Testament lessons will come from the books of the prophets: Amos, Hosea, Joel, Isaiah, and Jeremiah. Prophecy is a big deal in the Bible. So how do we apply it to ourselves today? How are we supposed to be prophetic? Thus, this sermon series on prophecy, and today is number 5. I was asked to review what we’ve learned so far, so here is a quick summary.

The first week we read about Elijah against King Ahab. I said that a prophet speaks against the normal way of things and contests the conventional wisdom. Prophets are thus not welcomed by the powerful and by those who benefit from the normal way of things. I also said that a prophetic church begins with self-examination, judging ourselves before we judge others. This self-examination is liberating because it frees us from our presumptions, pride, and prejudice.

The second week I said that the church is prophetic when it does what no other human institution does, and that is to discern, describe, and celebrate that alternate reality of the world that is the Kingdom of God, and to offer windows and icons for people to see into it. So we should not get distracted by every issue of the day. We witness to the alternate reality of the sovereignty of God behind the scenes, and we speak with joy and wonder of all of its vast claims on ordinary life.

The third week I said that the Holy Spirit within you is who enables you to be prophetic. The Spirit empowers you to see into that alternate reality and to tell out what you see. I also said that when we’re prophetic we have a double relationship with the world. We discredit the powers of the world and we dispute their pretensions and we grieve what they do, but we do not despair, because we live by hope. The alternate reality is for the world, and the Holy Spirit is the Lord and Giver of life to this world, and our hope is nourished by the Holy Spirit pouring God’s love into our hearts.

Last week I said that Biblical prophecy is always an invitation, and not some oracle of fate or destiny. I said that God respects your human freedom, even though God is absolutely sovereign, and God’s message invites your free response. I said that to accept the invitation usually includes some kind of repentance, but repentance is that liberation. I also said that it’s wrong to seek worldly power in order to enforce the sovereignty of God, but you witness to it by your deeds of loving service. I said that prophecy can be communal, a team effort, with each of you playing your parts, and your simple deeds of feeding and shelter are windows and icons into that alternate reality.

And now, today, is Amos. The prophet Amos marks the third stage in the evolution of prophecy in the Bible. The primitive prophets always worked in groups, with song and dance, and probably ecstatically. They spoke for the moment, and we have no record of what they said. Then came the solo prophets, Elijah and Elisha and others too, speaking truth to power and doing miracles. We have the record of their words and deeds in the books of First and Second Kings and Chronicles.

Today we get the third stage in the evolution, the writing prophets. Their sermons, poems, and visions were recorded in the books that bear their names, along with their trials and troubles. It is from these that we will be reading in the coming months. Some of them left a lot of material, and we call them the Major Prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel. The others we call the Minor Prophets because their books are shorter, but not less important. Among the first of these writing prophets was Amos. He was a farmer from the southern Israelite kingdom of Judah.

We just read from the seventh chapter of Amos. He has come up to the northern kingdom of Israel to prophesy against it. Next Sunday, the eighth chapter will tell you why God was against it. I’ll say today that King Jeroboam II presided over military expansion and economic prosperity, but on the backs of the lower classes and the orphans and widows. The rich were getting richer but the poor were getting poorer. That’s the judgment you will hear next week.

In the first six chapters the prophecies were conditional. But they went unheeded, and with this seventh chapter it’s too late, and God has condemned the northern kingdom to destruction by the Empire of Assyria. The royal temple at Bethel will be demolished, and the population will be carried off as exiles into far off lands. So we can say that Amos is reinforcing what we saw with Elijah, that the prophet speaks truth to power, first by invitation, and then by condemnation.

What we also see today is that the prophet speaks his truth to religious power, and especially to establishment religious power. It’s easy enough for the church to criticize politicians, you don’t need the Holy Spirit to do that. It’s both more difficult and more needful to prophesy against religious power.

This is what the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did in his Letter from the Birmingham Jail. He wrote it not to politicians but to religious leaders who were telling him to behave.

This is how our own Reformed Church in America finally responded to apartheid in South Africa. For years we had followed other Americans in opposing apartheid as a political issue, but in 1982 the “Black” Reformed churches in South Africa asked us to speak against apartheid as a gospel issue, and to witness against the white Dutch Reformed Church, which had invented apartheid as church policy, and then afterward had taught it to the government. So the point was to prophesy against the religious and spiritual power of racial injustice which was rooted in the church. The means of this prophecy was a  faith statement called the Belhar Confession, which our own Reformed Church eventually adopted.

Right now our nation is extremely prosperous but the poor are getting poorer, and bitterness, hatred, fear, and violence are rising in our land. It’s awful. Baton Rouge, St. Paul, Minnesota, Dallas. What will it be this week? It’s terrible. What do we say? What do we do?

It seems to me that for the church to be prophetic here we have to discern the spiritual power of the violence and the religious powers behind the politics. I wish I knew what the answers are. I do know this: for the church to be prophetic now, we must witness to the religious and spiritual issues behind the violence, fear, and greed. And coming full circle, that must include our own prophetic self-examination. How are we complicit? What do we fear? What costs are we afraid to pay, especially to our wealth and security?

But our voice is so weak and our witness is so small. Well yes, and no, and that brings me to my second learning today about prophecy, which can give us hope. It is this: prophecy seems extreme and hyperbolic and extravagant, but no less it is true.

I want you to notice the language of St. Paul in the Epistle to the Colossians. First he seems to exaggerate when he writes that the gospel “is bearing fruit and growing in the whole world.” At that time there were maybe a couple thousand believers scattered in what, maybe fifty congregations, and he writes “the whole world.” Extravagant confidence and hyperbolic hope! “Other-worldly hope,” as one of you here has written.

And then St. Paul writes about this little congregation in Colosse as if they were the greatest group of saints ever, and with a future most magnificent! The congregation will have read this letter and thought, “Who, us?” Yes you!

What looks like hyperbole and sounds like extravagance is the natural idiom of prophecy. Your window may be small, but you can see mountains through it. Your icon can be miniature, but it links you to a whole vast world. The prophet sees the great things in the small, in the little girl the future saint, and in the committee meetings of a church you can even see the Kingdom of God.

To be prophetic means to develop your prophetic imagination (Brueggemann), and I mean imagination as a precious gift of God to the human species, as God has imagined us, and we are in God’s image.

And so, beloved congregation of Old First Church, to be a prophetic church you must have a double vision of yourselves, in both self-examination and prophetic imagination: in admitting you have not loved as you should love nor spoken as you should speak, and no less regarding yourselves as St. Paul would, as the greatest group of saints ever, as God regards you in God’s grace.

And that is true for each of you individually. When I look at you all, you know what I see? I wish I had a lovelier metaphor, but I imagine each one of you as a glass vessel, filled with the vapor that is your soul, and your soul is lit up like the vapor in a light bulb, your soul is lit up with the energy of the love of God. That’s what I see when I look at you, I see the energy of the love of God in you.

Copyright © 2016, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

Proper 10, The Bad Samaritan

This is a sermon that I preached twelve years ago. It's my take on the parable of the Samaritan. For my interpretation, I must credit Kenneth E. Bailey's marvelous book on the parables, Through Peasant Eyes.

On the edge of the road is the victim, stripped naked, bloody, dying. A priest comes by. He’s going home. He’s just done his two-week’s service in the temple. He sees the body, and he keeps far away. He’s not a bad guy; he’s just keeping the rules.

According to the Torah, in the book of Leviticus, a priest touching a dead body makes himself unclean, and then he can’t perform his priestly duties. Getting clean again means going back up to Jerusalem for a week of special rituals, and he’d have to buy a heifer to sacrifice, which is not cheap, etc. etc. If God wanted priests to go around helping half-dead people, why would Leviticus have those rules? God wants priests to have good boundaries and keep themselves unspotted.

A Levite comes by. He too has just finished his two week’s service in the temple. He too goes by. The rules for Levites are not as strict as for priests, not in Leviticus. But under the pharisees the rules were getting stricter, and the laws for priests were being applied to everyone. These were the laws that this young lawyer was trained to be an expert in. The opinion was that if God didn’t want priests to touch dead bodies, then it must be bad for Levites too.

But at least the Levite first takes a closer look. The victim is stripped naked, so you can’t tell by his clothing whether he’s Judean or Galilean or Nabatean or something else—where he’s from, and his rank and class. Such categories mean everything, even today in Brooklyn. It’s how you know who is responsible for him.

Because also in Leviticus, there is a verse that says you should love your neighbor as yourself. That means responsibility. And who is your neighbor? The meaning of neighbor-ness, neighbor-hood, was debated, but there was consensus that it was someone close to you, connected to you, of your own group, and of your own religion. You can’t be responsible for everyone. Mutual responsibilities were all worked out.

The Levite is not a bad guy. He’s just doing what we do every day. From what he could see he had no connection to this guy. And because he’s only a Levite instead of a priest, he doesn’t have a horse, so how’s he going to get the guy anywhere? What’s he supposed to do, sit and wait for some other person with a horse to come along, and help them both? There’s nothing he can do.

A Samaritan comes by. By definition, a Bad Samaritan. For Judeans, there was no such thing as a Good Samaritan. They were worse than Gentiles, they were the hated half-breed heretics who occupied some of the Promised Land. There were Jewish prayers that God would destroy the Samaritans. The only good Samaritan is a dead Samaritan. It’s quite a button that the Lord Jesus is pushing here.

He lays it on thick. He has the Samaritan anoint the victim with oil and wine. Specifically priestly and Levitical things to do. The Samaritan offers the ministry that the priest and Levite would not do because of the regulations of their ministry. You sense the judgment of Jesus here. Not against his native religion, per se, but on how his native religion was developing, so that it didn’t do the very thing it was supposed to do. But with the judgment there’s also an invitation.

At the end of the parable Jesus turns the definition of neighbor in Leviticus 180 degrees around. It’s subtle–you almost miss it. The neighbor in question is not the victim, but the Samaritan. Jesus is redefining neighbor-hood. Neighborhood is not a state nor a status, it is an action. Neighborhood is not a matter of your adjacency, but your activity. You are the neighbor of every next person that you meet. Your neighborhood is what you bring with you. You are always in your neighborhood. You demonstrate your neighborhood by loving every next person you encounter.

There is also something deeper here. Notice that in the young lawyer’s summary of the law, the verb “to love” is given only once. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” It is a single act of love. There is no division here between the vertical and the horizontal. It is a single act of love. It’s not like you love God, and you also love your neighbor. Rather, your love of God is exercised in how you love your neighbor. And if you bring your neighborhood with you, that means you must regard every next person you meet as standing for God.

You find it impossible to love every next person that you meet. You find it impossible to love God that much, with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength and all your mind. But the God whom you love incompletely loves you back completely. Absolutely. And this love of God can flow through you. God loves your neighbor through you. You pour on your neighbor the oil and wine. You give your neighbor a place of rest. And God has worked through you.

It’s not your love you love your neighbor with, it is the love of God for you that you love your neighbor with. You love God so that God might love the world through you. You love your neighbors so that they might know the love of God through you, and that by loving you they too might love God back.

Now, what does this have to do with eternal life, which is how the lawyer got the whole discussion going? Let me tell you a story. I have been trying to develop contacts among the Muslims of Brooklyn. I had gotten the name of an Imam who heads a Bangladeshi mosque on McDonald Ave. So last Monday I called him and asked to meet him and maybe have an interview. He has a full time job with the Transit Authority, but he could see me after his sermon on Friday, at 2:30. That’s my day off, but I agreed.

So on Friday, two days ago, my daughter Anni and I did a cycling trip around Manhattan. It was already 1:45 by the time we got back to Brooklyn. I suggested I ride straight to the mosque. Anni had planned to join me, but she said she wanted to shower first and change her clothes. So that’s what we did, and I’m so glad I took her advice.

We got to the mosque ten minutes late, and waiting for us was not just the Imam, but ten of the leaders of the Bangladeshi community of Brooklyn. They welcomed us into their mosque, and then they took us to dinner at a Bangladeshi restaurant, and we ate biryani and talked and drank tea and talked. Some of the people of their community were suffering under the Patriot Act, they are being rounded up and deported, which is what I was interested in, but what these people wanted to talk about was Christianity, and the church, and the Bible. It was a wonderful afternoon, and they were so grateful to us that we had cared to come to them and visit them.

What does this have to do with eternal life? As we sat there among them, I did not feel at all that it was my job to convert them to Christianity. And I did not feel that by not doing so I was letting down the Lordship of Jesus Christ. It was my job, as a servant of the Lord Jesus, to cross the road, and look at them, and love them, and come to them where they were, and sit with them, and eat their food, and share with them the love of God that I feel in me. This is the love that is stronger than death, this is the love that overcomes the world, this is the life of the world to come. This is eternal life, and already we can live in it.

Copyright © 2016, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Saturday, July 02, 2016

July 3, Proper 9, Prophecy 4: Elisha, Naaman, and the Slave Girl

2 Kings 5:1-14, Psalm 30, Gal 6:1-16, Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

Totalitarian regimes like Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia were able to compel the obedience of their people and destroy their freedom and even control their minds. They were like wolves in the midst of lambs. But for all their evident power, they were not able to cure the sick, nor tread on snakes and scorpions, nor did the spirits submit to them.

By contrast, when the Kingdom of God came near, the seventy missionaries were able to cure the sick and tread on snakes and scorpions and the spirits submitted to them and even Satan fell from heaven, yet they did not compel obedience nor cancel human freedom. They did not force themselves. The Kingdom of God, unlike most authorities, unlike even the Internal Revenue Service, both claims full sovereignty and yet gives people the freedom to accept it or reject it.

The gift of freedom to accept it or reject is often misunderstood as the Kingdom of God not claiming full sovereignty over all our lives, as if it’s only a private, personal thing. Rather, the Kingdom of God claims relevance over every single aspect of human life and culture, and yet it is so patient and so confident that it will not enforce its claims. This has to do with Love being at the center of it, and with the cross of Jesus being the emblem of its authority.

It wasn’t new with Jesus. Already in the Torah and the prophets we are faced with this constant contradiction and apparent paradox of the absolute sovereignty of God and the responsible freedom of human beings. Like, with personal salvation, does God predestine, or do you have free will? Both. Do not let the one overrule the other. Reformed theology, for example, makes the impossible claim that your free will is true and real but in no way does it condition the absolute sovereignty of God.

You see this in the story of Naaman in our first lesson. Naaman was a great man, and a big deal. Naaman was a general of the Arameans, also called the Syrians. The Syrians were the enemies of Israel and the Syrians kept defeating Israel while Naaman was their general. According to our story, this was because God was judging Israel and using Naaman to do it, though Naaman did not know it. God’s sovereign use of him did not contradict his being forceful and able to compel his enemies to submission. Naaman knew the ordinary way of power and of gods and goddesses. So it’s no wonder that he expected Elisha to heal him in that way, that Elisha would “come out of his house, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy.”

But Elisha won’t even come out. I guess he’s doing his crossword puzzle. Elisha does nothing to honor the prestige of this great man. He just sends out his message, and Naaman can take it or leave it. It’s up to Naaman now. Naaman has free will here, and his choice is up against the sovereignty of God, only this sovereignty works by invitation rather than compulsion.

There’s something about the nature of prophecy here, Biblical prophecy, compared to the oracles of other ancient cultures. In the other cultures, the gods and goddesses had their own lives and their squabbles and their sexual escapades, and they expected humans to serve them, but they were not ethically committed to humanity. The gods had many powers, but they themselves were subordinate to the greater power of Nature capital N, and Fate capital F, and Destiny capital D. So whenever the future was predicted by their oracles, the prediction was fated to be no matter what you did. Think of Oedipus, whose very attempt to avoid his fate was finally what caused his fate.

But Biblical prophecy is different, because God’s relationship to the world is absolutely different from the other ancient gods. God is not subject to Nature, nor Fate, nor Destiny. God is absolutely free within the world, but also absolutely ethical. God loves the world, and God is committed to humanity. So God while is absolutely sovereign in the world, God also gives us freedom and respects our freedom. And therefore Biblical prophecy is almost always an invitation.

What Biblical prophets say is this: “God has done this, so you should do that.” They say, “God is doing this, so why don’t you join in.” And they say, “Because God has done so and so, if you also do so and so you will get this, but if instead you do such and such you will get that.” When Biblical prophecy talks about the future, it’s not about what is fated to be, but about what God is doing, how God will act in fidelity to God’s nature and to God’s promises and to what God has already done.

And the prophet invites us to join in with God is doing, but our joining in requires our repentance, symbolized by washing. So it’s a typically prophetic thing for Elisha to give his healing message to Naaman: Here’s the offer, Naaman, take or leave it, it’s up to you.

Naaman is enraged. If not for his servants, he would have left unhealed. So actually he was not free, not from the slavery of his own pride and self-regard, nor from subservience to normal religion and its expectations of how a god should work. This is the second time he had his servants to thank, for it was the little slave girl who got the whole thing started at the beginning. She knew there was a prophet in Israel, even if the King of Israel did not. The judgments in this story are all ironic ones.

The relationship of God with us is often ironic. God loves us but is not impressed by us. God esteems us but knows that we are foolish. God gives us freedom but has no illusions on our use of it. So if we are wise to recognize the lavish grace of God within our lives, we can only echo the words of St. Paul in our epistle today, “May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”

This is important because of the other great irony in the story, that this God who claimed such sovereignty was willing to be the national God of a two-bit nation which kept losing battles! And a nation unfaithful and disloyal to God at that. Like why should we even believe in such a God? But God apparently has no pride and self-regard. God ignores the judgment of the world and ignores the world’s respectability. God does not prove Godself to us. God invites.

This story about Naaman is remarkable in that he, this Gentile, is the main character in the story, not Elisha. So the sovereignty of God and the grace of God extend beyond the boundaries of God’s people, in fact, even to an enemy of God’s people, and thus implicitly in judgment on God’s people. The reaction of the King of Israel shows this, who ends up being unable to receive the lavish gifts from the King of Aram because he had so written off the prophet who could have been assisting him. “You reap whatever you sow.” You are free, but not from your consequences! By contrast, the slave girl, even in her captivity, knows better and bears witness to the better Israel, its alternate reality.

Naaman has to get down very low to receive this prophecy. He has to dishonor himself before his retinue by stripping naked in front them. He will have to expose to them his leprosy. He servants will avert their eyes. But they’ll sneak their peeks the fourth, fifth, and sixth times he comes up out of the water to see if anything’s happened yet. When he comes up the seventh time he doesn’t care, they can look all they want at his clean skin. He’s free now, as free as a naked little boy. Freedom means risk and vulnerability. And to receive the invitation requires repentance. Indeed, repentance is a form of freedom! Then I am crucified to all the world, and all the world to me.

Did you notice that the prophecy in this story is a three-point play? It goes from the slave girl to the prophet to the servants. If not for the servants, Naaman would not have heeded Elisha, and if not for the slave girl, he never even would have come. They each had their own things to say. So then prophecy can be a communal thing, with each of us playing our parts according to our station.

This is for us. On the one hand, as I said in my second sermon in this series, the church is prophetic by always pointing to the alternate reality of the Kingdom of God, by always bearing witness to the total sovereignty of God behind the scenes, and by speaking with joy and wonder of all of its vast claims on ordinary life. But on the other hand the church should never desire to enforce those claims or desire the power of that sovereignty, but rather choose the way of the servants in this story, offering actions of service and healing and peace, even for our supposed enemies. God bless the memory of that slave girl, because she was the perfect expression of God’s love.

Copyright © 2016, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

June 26, Proper 8, Prophecy 3: Elisha Sees the Chariots

2 Kings 2:1-2,6-14, Psalm 77, Gal 5:1,13-25, Luke 9:51-62

My buddy Orville likes Yogi Berra quotations. He told me a new one last week. Yogi’s wife asked him, “If you die before I do, where would you like me to have you buried? Here in Jersey, or in New York City, or back in St. Louis?” He said, “Surprise me.”

The Lord Jesus tossed off those three answers to those who would follow him as one-liners, sort of nonsensical non sequiturs. Of course the Son of Man did have places to lay his head, and of course the dead are unable to bury the dead, and if you’re plowing you actually do check your alignment behind you. He throws off these one-liners like he’s pushing away the branches to keep his path clear. He’s not so much talking about the general challenge of discipleship as about his own challenge, about his new determination and resolve, that he has now set his face towards Jerusalem, time’s a-wasting, and things that were normal are now distractions.

So it doesn’t bother him that the Samaritans will not receive him. So what if they hate Jerusalem and Judea and therefore expected any Jewish Messiah to be their enemy. Look, he’s going to frustrate every expectation of how he should be the Messiah anyway, and if the Judeans do receive him they will soon reject him even worse. Rejection is precisely what he has set his face to enter into.

Why is he suddenly so focused and determined? Why has he ended his patient preaching tours of Galilee? The change, according to St. Luke, follows upon his discussion with Moses and Elijah on the mountain of the Transfiguration, just a few verses earlier in this same chapter. They talked about his “exodus,” a word which meant both his exit and his victory through death, and now he wants to get on with it. He knows he will die, and he believes that he will be “taken up,” as it says in verse 51. Both Moses and Elijah had been “taken up.” Moses to the mountaintop, to see the Promised Land, and then he died in the arms of God. Elijah was taken up directly while still alive. Might Jesus be their combination, dying, but then being taken up alive again?

There’s lots of Elijah in the background of Jesus. It was Elijah who had once called down fire from heaven on the Samaritans, which the disciples want to copy. Jesus was criticized for not being more like Elijah. But Jesus was inspired by other prophets too. He was actually more like Elisha, the healer, who was less confrontational. And like Jeremiah, the weeping prophet, who was tortured and imprisoned in Jerusalem, and rejected by the city that he loved. The Samaritans had no idea!

Jesus had a vision, and he had to keep to his vision, the vision that only he could see, and yet once you saw it too, you could then see it all through the scriptures that you thought you knew. But you cannot see it at all without the gift of the Holy Spirit. To be prophetic, you need the Holy Spirit.

That’s my new thing for today. In my first sermon in this series, I said that we are prophetic when we speak the truth about ourselves, when we confess our sin and that we confess our only identity in the sovereign grace of God. As the Catechism says, “Our only comfort, in life and death.” In my second sermon, I said that a church is prophetic when it keeps pointing to the alternate reality of this world, to that more true reality which except for prophecy is unacknowledged by the world, to the Kingdom of God which is hidden and yet is always bearing down on us. And today the scripture is telling us that it’s the Holy Spirit who empowers you to see prophetically and to speak it.

Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken up from you.” Elisha said, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.” Elijah responded, “You have asked a hard thing.” Because it was not Elijah’s to give him. The spirit working prophetically in Elijah was none other than the Holy Spirit of God, and the Holy Spirit inhabits whomever it wills.

But when Elisha was able to see the chariot, that showed that the Holy Spirit had already come upon him, or he could not have seen it. And the Spirit gives him power to tell what he sees, and he cries out, “The chariots of Israel and its horsemen.” He sees more than just one chariot, he can tell the presence of a multitude of the heavenly host. The heavenly host who showed themselves and sang to the shepherd on the hillside near Bethlehem, the heavenly host, the cavalry of angels, the power of God, the Kingdom of God, and Elisha he could tell it was there, the alternate reality always pressing down on us even if we do not know it. The Spirit empowered him to see it and call it.

This same Holy Spirit is given to all of us, according to our lesson from Galatians. You, as a very ordinary Christian, can live by the Spirit. Like we’re up there with Elijah and Elisha. Like we’re up there with Jesus. Who, us? We don’t speak in tongues, we don’t do miracles, we don’t see chariots, we don’t have visions supernatural. But we are prophetic in our behavior when we shape our lives by that alternate reality.

That’s what you are called to do. And because you want to do that is why you came here today. You know that the present reality is not just disappointing but destructive. You know that our current way of life is rich and prosperous at the cost of toxicity, pollution, and violence. You want to live by a vision of the world in which the fruits of the political economy are “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”

In this passage, what St. Paul means by “flesh” is not the human body. Notice that some of the “works of the flesh” are spiritual works. Flesh is a shortcut word for St. Paul. It means the world that tries to live on its own and free from God. Its freedom is for its self-indulgence and consumption. We are “flesh” when we call ourselves “consumers.” We “bite and devour and consume” each other. It is under God that freedom is really found. And to live in such freedom is to be prophetic. We are living in terms of a reality that depends on God, and gets its power from the Holy Spirit of God.

So if we’re prophetic, we have this double relationship with the world. We quietly discredit all the powers of the world and we dispute their pretensions and we grieve their sorry glories no less than their miseries, but we do not despair. Because we live by hope. Because this alternate reality is for the world, and the Holy Spirit is the Creator of this and the Lord and Giver of life to this world, and our hope is based on God. Prophets may be critics by they live by hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit.

We prophets are crazy. We keep hoping against hope. Every week we celebrate Communion, because “as often as we eat that bread and drink that cup, we do show the Lord’s death until he come.” Until he come! We celebrate communion every week in order to nourish and sustain our hope, to keep us alive as prophets.

But we have more than hope. Something real is here already. For just as Holy Communion is a sign of what’s to come, Holy Baptism is a sign of what’s already so. The Holy Spirit allows you to see in little Ella Elisabeth Platt “the chariots of Israel and its horsemen.” Do you know what this little girl represents? Why the eye of God is on her, why all of God’s attention is on her, what God has in mind for her? By the Holy Spirit you can see it in the Baptism and believe it. It’s not just hope, it’s already accomplished, so certainly as you see that water upon her, so certainly has she been crucified with Christ and in him raised again. Not just one more soul snatched from evil, but one more warrior in the heavenly host. Only her weapons will not be violent, but such things so wonderful that we call them the fruits of the spirit. And that has already begun to happen in this little girl.

The baptism of a child is a thoroughly prophetic act. Because her faith is totally from God, and not from her own decision or achievement. Because the Holy Spirit in her is nothing that she’s asked for, but freely given her by God by God’s own sovereignty. And it’s prophetic because already as an infant we see these gifts developing in her.

I’m going to read these backwards: we can tell in Ella already the fruits of self-control and gentleness.

We can tell in Ella already the vision of faithfulness, generosity, and kindness.

We can tell in Ella the realities of patience, peace, and joy.

And we can tell in Ella the fullness of love. She knows full well what love is. This baptism is the prophetic sign of a whole life of her coming to know how much God loves her, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Copyright © 2016, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Friday, June 03, 2016

June 5, Proper 5, Prophecy #2, Elijah Raises the Dead, or, How Is the Church Prophetic?

I Kings 17:8-24, Psalm 146, Galatians 1:11-24, Luke 7:11-17

I love the story of Elijah and the widow. Zarephath was a village to the north of Israel, in the Phoenician realm of Sidon, where the local god was Baal. Sidon is where Queen Jezebel was from. She and her husband King Ahab imported Baal-worship into Israel. Ahab was punished for this by Elijah announcing a terrible drought. Ahab would not repent, and Elijah became a fugitive. God sent him up north to Jezebel’s own country, to be sheltered by her opposite, a poor starving widow.

I love the story’s dry humor. God had not consulted the widow. When Elijah first spots her, gathering sticks, he shouts at her for water. That’s cheek. Wordlessly she goes for it—her life is suffering anyway—and then he dares to shout: “While you’re at it, get me some bread!” Now she responds with an oath. She must have recognized his foreign accent because she swears by the name of his god, not her own. She says, “As The LORD your God lives, I’ve got nothing past lunch, and then we’ll die.” It’s because his God lives, and not hers, that she’s suffering as a collateral casualty.

Elijah makes his promise about her meal and oil not running out. He seems to be able to presume on God like this. And she goes with it. Maybe one part of her says, What have I got to lose, and another part of her has hope; she sacrifices her oil and meal for him. And the promise holds.

I love the picture we get. A hovel, a little table, behind it a little boy, on one side is his mother and on the other a refugee. It’s a meal on God, it’s a Holy Communion, it’s a Lord’s Supper, and these three are God’s people. One a renegade, the other two outside the covenant, not of the seed of Abraham nor of the promise, but “God has visited his people.” By God’s word they are alive. The kingdom of God is here, her house is its palace and its capital is not where Ahab is. Her table is the temple and they eat their bread as a royal priesthood. There you can see the Kingdom of God.

God does not mind this humility, this lowliness, this lack of prestige. God doesn’t mind being believed in more by widows than by kings, by little children more than public intellectuals. God doesn’t mind being more honored by the oppressed of the world than by the successful of the world. We see in this tableau an alternate vision of what in the world is honorable and good.

We see an alternate vision of what is beautiful—the potato-eaters painted by Van Gogh instead of the elegant aristocrats painted by Van Dyck. 

No wonder Van Gogh was unpopular in his lifetime—because he was prophetic. This is what a prophet does, and often in humility: the prophet points to an alternate reality. Prophecy offers not an alternate world, like a Harry Potter world accessible only to wizards, from which the rest of us are excluded, but an alternate reality of this world, for us, but in contrast and tension with the prestigious realities that presume the power now.

This is a how a church is prophetic. We celebrate this alternate reality of the world. We express it in our hymns and address it in our prayers and confess it in our creeds. We touch it and taste it in our sacraments. The Christian worship service is full of icons and hyperlinks to connect us to that alternate reality of the world which is the real truth of the world and where the world is going.

But it hasn’t fully come, and it’s in tension still. And it’s resisted and opposed, and we might well doubt it and lose sight of it. That’s why we need prophecy. When it is “fully come,” as St. Paul says in First Corinthians, then “prophecies will cease.” But not yet, and in the meantime prophecy is both needed and opposed.

The presumptive reality fights back against the liberating prophecy. The prophet gets tested. The boy gets sick and dies. The mother blames Elijah that now her life is worse than before. Elijah prays for the boy. He covers the boy’s body with his own body when he prays, symbolically perhaps, like heaven over the earth, but there is certainly raw emotion in it too. He cries out to the Lord. It’s not easy being a prophet. Then God revives the boy. The two come down and Elijah gives him back to his mother. She responds with a confession, a confession of her faith, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and the word of the Lord in you is truth.”

You can see that the Elijah story is the background of the gospel story. Jesus raises the dead young man and quite deliberately gives him back to his mother. The villagers notice it too, and they responded with their confession too, “A great prophet has risen among us,” and “God has visited his people.” 

The people put Jesus up there with Elijah, and like Elijah, he’s the leader of the true Kingdom of God, and they hoped that Jesus will go against Herod in Galilee and the Romans in Jerusalem just as Elijah had gone against Ahab and Jezebel.

They people had been suffering so long. Heavy taxes and mounting debt, increasing violence. God had been so silent so long, God had been so absent from their lives for so many generations. The mighty acts of God were only a distant memory and the words of God were just a tradition that had lost its potency. The grind of life goes on, the sons of widows die and widows fall into poverty with nothing to live for. What else is new. Now suddenly God has visited his people. What good news. But if God is here again they will have a list of things they want from God.

We can imagine their expectations from our own questions. What about all the other widows in Israel, why only this one? What about all the other young men dying, why only this one? Why even raise him if he’s only going to die again some day? Why not fix the structural and systemic problems of Israel that forced such widows into poverty? The disciples of John the Baptist will ask those very questions of Jesus later on in this very chapter of Luke. Where’s the social justice, Jesus?

There is a humility to prophecy, even an ineffectiveness. Prophets do not build, prophets see. Prophets do not solidify, prophets imagine. Kings build, kings solidify, kings gather power. Prophets scatter power, and open up the systems, and let things loose. Even when a prophet does a concrete action, like raising the dead, that action is to validate the words they speak. Their actions are not ends in themselves, but pointers, hyperlinks, icons through which you see that alternate reality.

This is why the church so often seems irrelevant in the eyes of the world. Yes, we may have the respect of the public, and its esteem when we do our acts of mercy for the hungry and the homeless, but apart from that we are irrelevant. This makes us nervous, and churches try to get relevant by getting involved in the current issues of the day, especially social justice.

Don’t get me wrong, I do believe it’s important for Christian individuals and Christian groups to get involved in social justice issues, especially when Christians work together with groups and individuals that are not necessarily Christian. I think we could do more of this. But it’s a distraction for the church as the church. The church’s agenda should not be set by the issues of the day in order for the church to be prophetic.

The church is prophetic when the church does what no other human organization does, and that is to discern and describe and celebrate that alternate reality of the world that is the Kingdom of God, and offer colorful windows and icons for people to see into it.

We do this holistically, by means of our worship and music and teaching and groups and activities and even our building. We renovate this great big visible symbol with its generous great space and we welcome into it men like Elijah, needing refuge and a place to stay and a little bread while we are at it. That’s the Kingdom of God!

We are pointing to a reality that is not some other world, some so-called spiritual world, but we are celebrating heaven impinging down onto this world, as Elijah covered the boy with his body, breathing into him, onto this world, and everything in it, including its money and oil and meals and music and science. So the alternate reality is always relevant, but only on its own terms. In that it is not humble, but rather patient. That’s the church’s prophetic mission.

That’s why you do church. That’s why you commit to a church. Not just to see the Kingdom of God but to show the Kingdom of God, in many passing ways. That’s why you volunteer, that’s why you serve on a committee or teach Sunday School, that’s why you tithe. You do it all to maintain this living, organic icon that is a congregation. You might be tempted by how down-to-earth it always is, and how so often not much different from so much else in the world. But that’s because God loves this world, and the reason you do church is finally because God so loved the world. 

Copyright © 2016, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

May 29, Proper 4: Prophecy 1: Elijah and the Prophets of Baal

I Kings 18:20-39, Psalm 96, Galatians 1:1-12, Luke 7:1-10

We are now in so-called Ordinary Time. That’s the period in the church’s calendar after Pentecost and up to Advent, about six months. Ordinary Time is all those ordinary weeks outside the two special seasons of Christmas and Easter which celebrate the events in the life of the Lord Jesus. In Ordinary Time we deal with our own ordinary lives, in the ordinary world, but as this ordinary world is also the Kingdom of God.

In Ordinary Time, by ecumenical agreement, each Sunday gets its proper prayers and its proper lessons in the Lectionary. Today is Sunday Proper 4. Why we are not starting with Proper 1 has to do with the changing date of Easter, as I could show you in some charts and tables, but not right now.

Also in Ordinary Time our Old Testament lessons now follow their own sequence and tell their own stories week after week instead of being determined as background for the Gospel lesson, so any harmonics with the Gospel lesson are coincidental. We are in third year of our three-year lectionary cycle, which means our Old Testament lessons are from the latter centuries of Israel’s history, and that means the prophets, like today. So my new sermon series is on Prophecy.

Prophecy occurs in all religions, but it’s especially important to Biblical religion. The religion of Islam takes it to one extreme, and says that while there have been many prophets, including Moses and Jesus, the final prophet is Mohammad, and there is none after. No Muslim today would ever dare call himself a prophet. We Christians are different. On Pentecost, the Apostle Peter proclaimed that the Holy Spirit would make our sons and daughters prophesy. Every Protestant preacher is supposed to be a sort of prophet. And we Christians in general are called to be prophetic people.

So let’s find out how this is true for us. We will see what the scriptures say to us on this over the coming weeks. I don’t know yet where we’ll come out. I’m learning as much as you are. I hope we will all be inspired and challenged and maybe even convicted. “How shall we, as ordinary Christians, be prophetic?” I hope I have some take-homes for you in the coming weeks.

And also, “How shall we, the congregation of Old First, be together a prophetic people?” Being prophetic is not in our mission statement, it’s not been part of our vision. If anything, we think of ourselves as a priestly people, offering sanctuary and hope, and maybe a slightly kingly people in offering hospitality, but never in our history has Old First been very prophetic. Maybe that stems from our having been established by the government in 1654. So we behave, and be nice to everyone. The establishment regards prophets as troublemakers, because prophets speak truth to power.

If we look at the Lord Jesus in the gospel story, I can imagine him responding differently than he did. If the Lord Jesus is a prophet, then shouldn’t he be like Elijah and denounce the centurion and all that he stood for? Should he not clarify that the niceness of the centurion was only lubrication for the oppression of the Roman empire, making tolerable the abomination of temples to Roman gods and goddesses within the Holy Land?

And if Jesus is the Messiah, is it not actually his job to do like David with the Philistines, and battle the centurion and chase him and his slaves and soldiers out of Israel? That Jesus did not do these things is why the patriots who were drawn to him then drew away from him, and one of them finally betrayed him, Judas Iscariot by name.

Look how fiery was the Apostle Paul in our epistle lesson. He called a curse upon his theological opponents. Now that’s prophetic rigor, isn’t it? That’s like Elijah. Is that what it means for us to be prophetic—to brook no toleration, to risk division and even call for it?

The Bible never explains exactly what a prophet is, and it’s hard to pin the job down, because the job shows evolution over time. There were prophets before Elijah, but they always worked in groups, and we have no record of what they did or said. Elijah was the first great solo prophet. We know nothing of his prior life. Nobody ordained him or appointed him, he just shows up out of nowhere, from the desert, to speak his truth against the power of King Ahab.

King Ahab, according to the evidence of archaeology, was regarded internationally as an effective king. He grew the economy, and he made good alliances, especially with the Phoenicians, who dominated the Mediterranean at that time. He married the Phoenician princess Jezebel. He allowed his queen to bring her gods and goddesses with her, which was normal, and he built for them a temple in his capital.

Her gods and goddesses were obviously very powerful—just look at the success of the Phoenicians! It was smart to get her gods and goddesses on the side of her adopted country, so that Israel could have a share in their prosperity. It was smart to offer worship to the most successful of the gods. You could still offer worship to the tribal god too, the Lord God of Abraham. It was the normal thing to do.

The normal thing to do is what a prophet speaks against. The issue for Elijah is that you can’t have the Lord God as just one among the many gods. It’s all or nothing with this God. This God of Israel is the only god in the ancient world who acts like that. This is the only god who refuses to take his place among the other gods and goddesses who all have their fair share of power in the world. This is the only ancient god who isn’t fair to the other gods, the only god who claims to be the one true god.

And what does this jealous God have to show for his presumption? An empire? International success? Like the Phoenician gods with their powerful colonies established along the Mediterranean Sea all the way to Carthage and Spain? No, just twelve tribes quarreling and self-defeating, culturally backward and primitive economically. Some god. So King Ahab will still show some honor to their tribal God of Abraham, but the future is with Baal. Especially when it comes to the economy.

But Elijah will have none of it. He is jealous for the Lord. And fortunately the Lord God backs him up.

So what’s for us today in this marvelous story? Well, first of all, we’re just plain supposed to know this story, as part of the necessary knowledge of the Christian church. And we’re meant to enjoy this story too, with all of its drama and color and comedy, not least the sarcasm of Elijah. You have the frenzy of the prophets of Baal and them drawing their own blood to show their sacrifice, and then you have the deliberate labor of Elijah and then the quiet as he gathers the people and then the focused intensity of his prayer. When you know this story you have an idea what faith feels like.

Second, as much as the story delights us it also judges us. Not that we’re the prophets of Baal; we are the ordinary people. We do try to have it both ways. We do “go limping along with two opinions.” We do compromise our faith in the One True God by our loyalties to other beliefs and ideologies that are normal and apparently successful in the ordinary world. Political systems, economic ideologies. Liberal, conservative, progressive, socialist, capitalist, all of them, we have always to ask ourselves how our participation in them makes us limp in our walk with God.

Whenever we examine ourselves against God’s claims we are being prophetic. Being prophetic means more than that, but that’s enough for today: we are prophetic in our self-examination, collective and individual. We judge ourselves and then we gather close to Elijah and return again unto the Lord.

This prophetic self-examination is actually good news, because it is liberating, as it keeps freeing us from presumption, pride, and prejudice, and from our bondage to power and our seduction by success.

And it’s also healing. It’s healing because standing between Elijah then and us now is the Lord Jesus, greater than Elijah, the one in whom that centurion recognized true power and an authority greater than his own, the one who was willing to go to that centurion’s house despite all of his corrupting connections. So the sharpness of the prophet is for healing and the clarity is for grace. The jealousy of Elijah was for the love of God. The centurion loved his slave, and in the Lord Jesus going to his house we see why Christ came into the world, because God so loves the world.

Copyright © 2016, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.