Wednesday, March 25, 2015

March 22, Lent 5, Walk to the Cross 5: The Sign of Jesus

Jeremiah 31:31-34, Psalm 51:1-13, Hebrews 5:5-10, John 12:20-33

These Greeks who want to see Jesus — whether they are tourists or converts or something between we are not told. Nor are we told if Jesus even connects with them. What they seem to represent to the Lord Jesus is the wider world outside of Israel, the world that God so loved. They are the sign of the world coming to God, to the God who is coming to the world, and where God meets the world and the world meets God is in this guy Jesus, who is both the Son of God and the Son of Man.

Why did they want to see Jesus? What they indicate is how people come to God, with all kinds of different motivations, a whole great range of motivation, all the way from curiosity like tourists to desperation like the dying, and with all sorts of desires in between. You yourselves are in this range and you move about this range at different seasons in your life. Some seasons in your life you desire God from curiosity, and other seasons in your life you desire God from desperation, from hurt, and fear, and pain. Your sin is ever before you (Psalm 51). Sometimes you are moved by love, and sometimes you are moved by guilt, and guilt and love are so close together. You want to see Jesus, and you’re not sure why, but you suspect that seeing him might get you some answers for the world, or some relief, or some hope and reconciliation.

I doubt that the Greeks wanted to see Jesus because they thought he was going to die. In all the range of what people wanted to see Jesus for, I doubt that anyone wanted to see him because he was going to die. No one who desired him desired that. And yet, when Jesus was told that they wanted to see him, he knew it was time for him to die. How did he arrive at this? What was he thinking? Why did he choose this? Did he choose it freely or were those his “orders”? Did he choose it for God? Was God letting him choose it for the both of them?

I asked a number of people why Jesus had to die. One person gave me a simple answer: “Because it was that bad.” That’s a good answer, but it’s intuitive; it’s artistic and dramatic. Implicit in this answer is that it’s us that are that bad, the totality of us. But let me ask you, isn’t the infinity of God’s goodness sufficient to surpass how bad we are and how bad it is? Couldn’t God still say “Ally-ally-in-free?”

Another person answered that sin costs. That makes sense. The universal human intuition that sin costs is the basis of our various systems of criminal justice. All humanity agrees that when a crime is done, then somebody, somewhere, has to pay something, somehow. But just because it’s a universal human intuition doesn’t necessarily make it proper to the gospel. Conventional wisdom often gets God wrong. Do we get this from God or do we impose this on God, that sin costs?

If you were to ask the official catechism of the Reformed Church, the Heidelberg Catechism, why Jesus had to die, the answer is that “God’s law demands it.” This answer is a decent summary of the Biblical stories and the Biblical laws. But that only alters the question. You could simply ask the question in different terms: “Why did God set up the law this way, that Jesus had to die?”

We could point to the universal necessity of sacrifice. Jesus did that himself in this lesson. A seed has to die in the soil in order to bear new fruit. A tree has to die and fall to the ground in order to renew the soil for new life. When salmon run up their rivers to spawn, they die, and their dead flesh brings the nutrients of the ocean into the upstream environment for the good of all the other species. We could multiply examples of the law of nature that some measure of sacrifice is necessary to the renewal of life. And from this can we say that the law of nature is actually a law from God. But is God confined to the laws of nature? And again, the question remains, why did God set nature up this way?

Parents make sacrifices for their children, lovers for their lovers, and friends for their friends. It’s the expression of real commitment. “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” We do it for love. So the necessity of sacrifice in the law of nature is a sign which points us to the love which is at the center of the universe. We say that God is love. Not just a nice and easy love, but a sacrificial love, a costly love. This love of God which runs the universe is displayed to us in the life and death of Jesus and proven to us by his sacrifice upon the cross.

If this is true, it makes some sense of that promise from the prophecy of Jeremiah about the new and everlasting covenant. The Lord Jesus was obviously attracted by that prophecy and he believed he could make it work. Jesus seem to have seen his death as the final covenant, which can never be broken, because it is guaranteed upon the sacrifice of God’s own self, and doubly so: God’s self, and God’s only child, who is dearer than God’s self.

So Jesus is mounted up on the cross as the target of that arrow of God, the arrow in that archery bow that God had set within the clouds at the time of Noah, with the arrow pointed up at God and at God’s heart, when God had said to Noah, “Cross my heart and hope to die.” Jesus put himself up as the target and the arrow is let loose and it flies at the target who is God’s son upon the post and it hits the heart of God. Jesus died in the place of God. People say that Jesus died in our place, as our substitute, which is true, but it was also in God’s place that Jesus died, as a substitute for God.

Why did Jesus have to die? So that God could die in him. You know it is philosophically impossible for the God of the Bible to die, but God was able to die in the death of Jesus. God was able to take the blame for the world, which is that bad. God was able to say, I will accept responsibility, even though it’s not my fault. I am doing it for love. God was able to make that ultimate sacrifice of love. God wants to show us what God is like, and wants to show us the direction of the world, and how we sustain each other, and how we give each other life.

Why did Jesus have to die? Because the secret of life is love. Love is what generates life. And the love of God is so passionate and powerful that it can die and not be stopped by death, because the love of God is not a what but a who. The love of God and the love who is God is what carries you through death and meets you on the other side of death.

The road of Lent that you are on and the road that God is on are converging at the cross, the narrow gate that leads to the resurrection. You are on the road towards your own death and God will meet you there, and then God will carry you on that single dark and narrow pathway of the dead, to the other side, to the resurrection, where God puts you on your feet again.

You are not told very much of what it will be like there. But I can tell you this: you will be living in that same love, and you will at last be able to give that love back fully, with no flaws, with no half-heartedness, you yourself that boundless love which is the love of God. You want to see Jesus because you want to see that living love which is the deepest desire of your own life. You’re on the right track, you’re on the right road. The Lord Jesus welcomes you to invest your life in that same God that he did.

Copyright © 2015 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

March 15, Lent 4, The Walk to the Cross: The Awful Trophy

Numbers 21:4-9, Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22, Ephesians 2:1-10, John 3:14-21

Our gospel lesson is the second part of the conversation of Jesus and Nicodemus. That conversation comes early in the Gospel of John, at the beginning of Our Lord’s three-year campaign. And we can infer that the Lord Jesus can already see the cross in the distance, because already, this early, he talks about the serpent in the wilderness as a figure of himself. According to St. John, the Lord Jesus saw his whole campaign as a long walk to the cross, a three-year Lent.

I’d say that already before his baptism Our Lord had contemplated that story, before his coming out. And I wonder: in those eighteen years of his silence between his bar mitzvah (anachronism warning!) and his baptism, how did that awful story challenge him, and what guidance did it give him, and how did he come to regard that story as prophetic of himself?

When we read the story today, we are put off by the petty vengefulness of God to send those snakes. But when the story was first recorded it was assumed that any god had the right and the privilege to do such things whether humans liked it or not.

This is the kind of story that people raise in objection to the Bible and its God. They don’t want that kind of a god. If they want a god at all, they prefer the loving God of Jesus, the God who “so loved the world.” And yet the Lord Jesus himself was able to hold together his belief in the God of the serpents and a loving God the Father, and he speaks of the two things together in one speech.

Indeed, he sees his own future in that brazen serpent. Does he expect to be a trophy on a pole? The brazen serpent was a trophy, of an ancient sort. It was not a modern trophy, like the Stanley Cup. If hockey teams got ancient trophies, the winners would skate around the rink lifting up on their sticks the skates and sweaters and helmets of the losers, and, depending on the franchise, even the face-mask of the goalie with his head still in it.

You get it that the body of Jesus lifted up on a cross was a trophy for the Roman soldiers, when that body was identified as of the "King of the Jews". He’s not just been killed, like the thieves on either side of him, he’s been defeated. And does Jesus think that this is what God wants? What sort of a God is this that Jesus believes in?

On the face of it, your Lenten pilgrimage is about your repentance of your sins, but as I have said, your repentance is not really about your sins but about your discovery of God, this God whom Jesus believed in. This God is not the nice progressive God of Brownstone Brooklyn. This God is both more wonderful and more terrible than that.

So like when you read the news today, and you get indignant and upset, I would say that when God reads the news God doesn’t get just indignant and upset, God has “wrath”, as St. Paul says. Does God have the right to God’s wrath, even if we don’t like it that God should have sent the snakes? What is God’s wrath directed at, and at whom, and for what reason?

Isn’t more at stake for God than for us? How complex and inclusive is God’s love? When God so loves the world, how many species does God love, how many landscapes, how many glaciers does God love, and how many young black men and how many coral reefs, how many aboriginals and even young terrorists does God love, not to mention yourself, and your history, and your conscience, and your very body? Consider how much does God’s love include and to what extent, and then let’s talk about God’s wrath.

What Jesus did is remarkable. When he said to himself, I will be that brazen serpent, he faced the wrath of God and he took God to the cross with him. He said to himself, I will be the Son of Man, interceding in heaven for my people. But he also said to himself, I will be God, the God up in heaven who judges the world, but also the God up on a cross; I’m the God who requires it and the God who endures it, the God who lives and the God who is dead on the trophy of humanity. 

The Lord Jesus embraced that all, and gave himself to it. And why? He saw the deal that God had offered the Israelites in the desert, and made that same deal universal for humanity. The deal is expressed in all three of our lessons in their own ways: If you look upon him, if you believe in him, if you believe the deal that is being offered you in terms of him, and the relationship behind that offer, then you will be saved, you will not die, you will live. Not because of anything you can boast of, not because of your own victory, but because you have been defeated by his love.

Last week I reminded you that during Lent we pray the confession that “there is no health in us.” It takes some complex reasoning to repeat those words with honesty and understanding, and it takes faith to repeat those words with hope and joy. So your walk to the cross during Lent is when you rehearse the steps of that complex faith and reasoning which Our Lord worked out ahead of us, that bundled into the judgment of God is the sign of grace and the promise of love. God does not take away the snakes. God does not take away the darkness. But the light shines in the darkness. You can see the signs of light. The energy of that light is the energy of the love of God.

What do you want from your Christian faith? Do you want to add God to the world as it is, to make the world better? Okay. Do you want to add God to your life as it is? Okay. Do you want better health? Good. But if Jesus is the serpent, it’s beyond better health, it’s about healing from poison. To add God to your life means yielding your life, arresting it for God to start it up again. To add God to the world means accepting the judgment of God upon the world, which means your dying to the world and the dying of the world to you. Not that God condemns the world. No, God loves the world. God condemns the poison in the world which is the power of the world, to which we’ve built up tolerance and tell ourselves we are immune to.

What do you want from your Christian faith? If you want success, God offers you rescue.
If you want sympathy, God offers you challenges.
If you want respect, God offers you forgiveness.
If you want fairness, God offers you reconciliation.
If you want honor, God offers you mercy.
If you want spirituality, then Jesus points you to the serpent on the pole, so that you desire the God who is up there on it too.
If you want answers to the problem of God in the world, the answer that God gives you is love, a very deep and ancient and complex love.
Your pilgrimage of Lent is your exploration of this God, who is rich in mercy, who out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ, and raised us up with him, and seated us with him, to show us the immeasurable riches of God’s grace.

Copyright © 2015 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

March 8, Lent 3, Walk to the Cross #3: Investment

Exodus 20:1-17, Psalm 19, 1 Corinthians 1:18-25, John 2:13-22

In St. John’s version of the Cleansing of the Temple, Jesus did this early in his campaign, right after he turned the water into wine at the wedding. Both times his actions are symbolic, but how opposite his actions are. Water and wine, and then wrath and a whip. Extravagant generosity and extreme judgment.

It’s no coincidence that he does this at Passover, the holiday when three years later Jesus will be killed. Already knows he’s in for it. He knows his words will be misunderstood and his actions opposed, he knows that to do what he has to do and say what he has to say, they’ll do away with him. He’s walking into a three-year Lent. To do the right thing, you have to sacrifice. To commit to the right thing, you have to pay for it. And so he’s obviously angry and aggrieved. Just because it’s the right thing doesn’t mean you don’t get angry and aggrieved!

Because sacrifice and suffering are not good things in themselves. You are not called to seek out martyrdom. You are not called to get up on the cross but to walk on under it, to be realistic, to face the real cost of leading lives of ethical love.

You know this from experience. If you have loved, you have suffered: the death or misfortune of a loved one, or from having lost out when you did what was right. If you don’t want to sacrifice, don’t love. Loving your neighbor as yourself is more than being nice and neighborly. It means that you might make substantial sacrifices on your neighbor’s behalf. If your relationship to your neighbor hasn’t cost you anything, then it isn’t love yet. All of us need a few relationships that cost us something, to practice this kind of love. One good way is to go to church, where you have to love other people just as unlovely as you are.

Love costs even God. It’s suffering and sacrifice even for God when God commits to us. That’s the sign of the cross upon God’s heart. In the story of Noah we saw the grief of God for the results of the Flood, and we saw the bow and arrow in the clouds as the symbol of God’s sacrifice. For God to commit to a special relationship with Abraham and his seed was a sacrifice for God, for now God must suffer the relentlessly bad behavior of Abraham’s children.

So it’s in God’s interest to move the relationship along and do something about that behavior. God wants God’s partners to be ethical. And so God gives to the Children of Abraham the Ten Commandments.

This was a new thing in the world. The gods and goddesses had never had much interest in ethical behavior, whether of their immortal selves or of mortal human beings. But the Lord God is on a mission to develop an ethical humanity for the healing of the world, and the Ten Commandments are part of God’s business plan to do that, as well as them being for our own good.

You can think of the Ten Commandments as a mission statement. Because God includes us in God’s mission God invests in our behavior, and our behavior represents the character of God. God’s wants God’s people to be examples, exemplars, living symbols, so that from looking at our behavior the rest of the world can reckon what God is like and what God wants.

What the world would prefer is that God show himself and prove himself by means of supernatural interventions and convenient miracles and fixing things and stopping things. God does not do it that way, and maybe God is foolish not to. Maybe God is so foolish as rather to be known by the behavior of those who believe in God.

God’s reputation is in our hands and our lives. We are entrusted with God’s image in the world. Our behavior is a house for God. Our thoughts and actions and our bodies are God’s temple. The Commandments are a blueprint for the temple of God that is our behavior. God offers this pattern of behavior as something so designed that our performing it converts us into a people whose culture and character brings the righteousness of God into the world.

You can examine these Commandments one by one, but they are best in their unity, as an entity, as say a solid with ten sides, like a decahedron, a great large jewel, that God is casting into the world.

Or you can think of them as the ten links in a chain, suspended from the first link and the tenth link, hanging between the love of God and the love of neighbor, with the eight links in between about the love of both, for if you look closely you realize that each of the eight commandments between is about both God and neighbor.

All the commandments interplay. So you can also think of them as a house, in which each commandment is a structural member holding up the whole. As I said, God inhabits the house of our behavior.

For Christians they are wisdom instead of obligation. For us, the Torah is not obligatory, as St. Paul said last week, but we are obligated to learn God’s wisdom that we can find in them. And we must be willing to pay the price that they demand of us. Like the sacrifice of your freedom of speech that comes with not bearing false witness. Like your sacrifice of sexual freedom that comes with not committing adultery. Like the surrender that comes with not coveting your neighbor’s lovely brownstone, especially if you rent. To love your neighbor as yourself is often a sacrifice. As I said, if loving your neighbor hasn’t cost you, it isn’t love yet, it’s only being nice.

During Lent you confess that in your ethical behavior you have failed to be good representatives of God. But here’s the deeper level of God’s investment: God will be recognized even in your confession of your bad behavior. God will be recognized not as the God who is known by loving the good and successful, but the God who is known by loving the weak and the fallen—not as the God who loves the righteous, but as the God who loves the sinner.

How foolish God looks against the wisdom of the world. The most important ethical behavior that you can do and by which God wants to be known is your telling the truth about yourselves. You do that with extravagance and extremity, like Jesus in the temple, when you confess “there is no health in us, miserable offenders.” Uncomfortable words? If confession doesn’t cost you your comfort, you haven’t confessed yet. 

“If loving your neighbor hasn’t cost you yet, it’s only being nice.” It’s true for God as well. You are God’s neighbor, God gives you space and room to life your life as you develop it, God treats you with respect, and then because God loves you, it costs God too.

God abides you the way you are, God abides you in your weakness and suffers you in your failures. It costs God every day to keep on loving you as God’s self. But that’s what love does, that’s what love loves to do. So I am telling you again that this pilgrimage of Lent is not about us, it’s about the exploration of God.

Copyright © 2015, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

March 1, Lent 2, The Walk to the Cross # 2, The Chicken and the Pig

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16, Psalm 22:22-30, Romans 4:13-25, Mark 8:31-38

This morning we get the very first prediction by Jesus in the Gospel of Mark that he’s going to be killed. But he doesn’t say how. He doesn’t specifically say he’s going to be crucified. It’s only after his argument with Peter that he turns to the crowd and issues his challenge that anyone who would follow him must take up his own cross. But he does not actually say that he’s going to die on one. It’s because we know how the story ends that we make the connection between these two statements, but his disciples did not know it yet. We can’t assume they would have made the connection.

The obvious thing to expect was that the Lord Jesus would be stoned to death, because it was the Jewish leaders who opposed him, not the Romans. The Romans would certainly despise him, but they did not consider him a criminal, not even at the end.

Maybe Our Lord had worked it out for himself that the Jewish leaders, in the manner of oppressed people working from the underside, would try to manipulate the Roman government to kill him, and if the Romans were to kill him that would be on a cross. But if Jesus had already worked that out, he doesn’t actually say so here.

I think it’s important to keep the two things clear at this point. Because when Jesus mentions that if you want to follow him you must take up your cross, he means exactly that, that you take it up and carry it, and there the metaphor stops, and he doesn’t say that you must die on it. That he might die on it does not mean you should. You just carry it.

Jesus doesn’t want his disciples to die with him. He doesn’t want them dead, not yet. He doesn’t want them to be crucified with him. That would be a waste, because if they died, they would stay dead. They would not rise again, not yet, as that was for Jesus alone. The resurrection which the Jews believed in had completely to be refashioned by the rising of Jesus ahead of everybody else. It would be only him, and he would want his disciples still alive after his death so that he could empower them with his Holy Spirit. And even then, they would still be carrying their crosses. To carry your cross is a kind of living, not dying.

"But Pastor, if a cross is a sign of anything, it’s a sign of death." Yes, but what Jesus says is that you carry it — you bear it, you hold up, you keep on going under it, you keep on living but with a sign of death on you. You live under the cross, not on it. It’s a subtle difference but significant.

Do you know that joke about the chicken and the pig? When it comes to a breakfast of eggs and bacon, the pig and the chicken feel quite differently. The chicken’s a donor, but the pig’s committed. Or as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “If you haven’t found something worth dying for, you aren’t fit to be living.”

Did you see the movie Selma? The movie wonderfully depicts the earnest and heated arguments among the Civil Rights leaders over strategy and outcomes, and opposition and threats and dangers, and the constant, looming potential for death. Right from the start of the movie Orville and I were crying for those little Sunday School girls who were murdered in church. And we know how the story ends for Dr. King himself, although the characters in the movie don’t know it yet.

So Peter and the Lord Jesus are having themselves an argument. They rebuke each other. Just as the Lord Jesus had rebuked the evil spirits and rebuked the storm upon the sea, so now he rebukes Peter. But Peter had rebuked him first. “Jesus, we didn’t sign up for you to lose. And even if you do rise from the dead for a second time around, what good will that do? Nothing will have changed, and they’ll just kill you again! And we all go back home in shame, like Viet Nam vets.”

“Don’t you talk to me like that. You satan. I was already tempted by your words when I was in the wilderness for forty days. You think I haven’t thought this through? Shame on you. This is not about me, Peter, this is about you. You don’t want me to die because you want me to fix all this for you. You don’t want me to die because you want me to make the change and carry you along.  You want to be a chicken and contribute. Well, if you’re not ready to be a pig, don’t follow me.”

To take up your cross means that you live your life as if it is worth dying for. You totally invest yourself, but you have no control of the result. You bet your life on what you believe in, although you don’t control the ending. You can’t protect the results of what you do. You can’t preserve what you’ve put into it. You can’t save it, and you can’t save your life. But you live it anyway, and hard.

I don’t know how much uncertainty the Lord Jesus lived with in his own mind. I know what he believed, but belief is always ahead of certainty. (I have a mental image of Our Lord reciting the Apostles Creed to himself when he was down. I know, I know.) We know from the lesson that he believed in his resurrection, and we know that he believed in his ascension into heaven, which he mentions at the end of our lesson, his coming “into the glory of the Father with the holy angels.”

And then he says that he will be ashamed of us when he is there, whenever we are ashamed of him and his words. He’ll be ashamed of the very people he’s pleading for, like a very good lawyer with a very good conscience. When he intercedes for us his face might be red. Because he loves us and yet he is ashamed of us. Don’t misread this that he will then reject us or abandon us. He doesn’t say that. He did not abandon Peter when he was ashamed of him.

How often has the Lord Jesus been ashamed of the church that he loves. Our racism. Our greed. Our classism. Our corruption. Our child abuse. Our divisions. Our subservience to reputation and money and wealth and the blessings of the government. Our self-absorption. Our fear. Our lack of faith.

He suffers that. From love. That’s part of the suffering he brings with him into heaven. Yes, his suffering has a final victory, but it’s suffering nonetheless.

In him God suffers too. God suffers the shame of how the world which God created has turned out, the shame of God for putting this world under the stewardship of our stupid species, the shame of God for the relentless disobedience of the children of Abraham, and the shame of God for the relentless scandal of the Christian church.

But God has borne the shame. God does not reject the species God breathed into. God does not abandon the children of Abraham or discard the sinful church. God stays with us. God continues to invest in us. That’s what love does, and God would not be ashamed of us if God did not love us so.

God’s committed. God is not a chicken. Dare I say that God’s a pig? Yes, in my second parish, my farmer’s church in rural Ontario, I had three families who raised pigs, and for all those beautiful and very intelligent little piglets and for their very loving mothers, let me say that God’s the pig, God is totally committed. And in God’s honor you can bear your cross. Because God has done the miracle of turning this sign of death, this instrument of execution, this symbol of hatred, God has turned this cross into a badge of love.

Copyright © 2015 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Friday, February 20, 2015

February 22, Lent 1, The Walk to the Cross #1, Invitation

Genesis 9:8-17, Psalm 25:1-10, 1 Peter 3:18-22, Mark 1:9-15

The church’s tradition drives you into the wilderness of Lent for forty days. You are on a mental pilgrimage, a six weeks’ journey to the cross. Along the way the scriptures will show you signs of the cross and hints and shadows of the cross — the shameful cross, the form of execution that the Romans designed to humiliate you with a shameful death. Why does Jesus walk into it so consciously, so open-eyed? Why would God want such a thing?

It was God’s idea that Jesus be tempted in the wilderness. It was at the motion of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit came down upon him as a dove and then became a driving force in him. Listen again to verses 12 and 13 [my translation]: And straightway the Spirit drove him out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness for forty days, being tested by the satan, and he was among the wild animals, and the angels served him.

The temptation story is first reported by St. Matthew, but when St. Mark takes his turn to tell it he offers different details. Both of them say that it happened right after his baptism, both say it was forty days, both say that angels ministered to him, and both say it was the satan who tempted him. For both of them, this satan is not a demon from hell but the satan of the Book of Job, that is, a spirit of this world who is in your face with the hard and cold cruelty of existence, and your weakness, and God’s indifference. But while St. Matthew reports the conversation between them with the famous three temptations, in Mark the testing is more general, and without words, and thus more emotional, which would be typical of Mark.

St. Mark doesn’t say specifically that Jesus fasted. He says the angels served him. All throughout? Like God served the children of Israel with manna, the “bread of angels,” during their forty years in the desert? Like Elijah, who got fed by ravens when God had driven him into that same wilderness area, and then by an angel before his pilgrimage of forty days? It’s St. Mark who adds the detail that Jesus was among the wild animals. How much among them? Scared? Not scared? Like Daniel in the lion’s den? Like Noah in the ark, huddling with the animals for forty days and forty nights of rain, and dark, and fear? How lonely did he feel? How miserable?

What were the voices in his head? “What am I in for? How can I be certain what to do? Who will advise me? What if I slip? What if I make an innocent mistake? A rookie mistake? An error? When does an error become a sin? What if I sin? What if I’m not perfect? What if I become one more disappointment in the history of Israel? What if I lose my strength? What if I lose my way? What if my way’s not clear? Must I be alone or can I find allies? Who will support me? Should I get a part-time job? Can I have friends? What if I meet a woman and desire her? What if I meet a guy and I desire him? Do I really have to be so different from everybody else? What if I don’t have the stuff? What if it doesn’t work? What if my anger goes beyond righteous anger? What if I fail?”

I am sure he felt his anger. “How much am I supposed to accept the guilt of everybody else? Why do I have to take on the shame and grief of everybody else?” He had to have felt for himself the world’s frustration. He had to feel our doubt. “Why does God allow these things? Why does God allow us all to suffer? Maybe God will not remember me. Maybe God will not rescue me. What if God forsakes me? Maybe God is not so good. Maybe God is not so great. Maybe the satan is right. My vision is not realistic. I just have to accept that the world is hard and cruel, and we flutter if we can until we die. All we are is dust in the wind. I need to protect myself. Get a real job, find a lover, get a life!” I hope the angels held him up when he was down.

Can you identify with him? That’s what you’re supposed to do these forty days. Feel your self in him and all your doubt and pain and shame and guilt and fear. You get tried and tested and tempted by the world, and the Holy Spirit does not spare you from it. You will find that the more you try to live by your faith, the more the world will test you, and the further you follow Jesus, the more you will be tried. Why does God allow it so? Didn’t Jesus specifically tell us to pray that Our Father not lead us into temptation? He doesn’t have to. Your conscience tempts you enough.

Because, why are you suffering? You know that some of your suffering is just plain going to happen in a world where nature is indifferent to your feelings. You know that some of your suffering comes from doing what is right in a world that prefers what’s wrong. And you know that some of your suffering comes from the wrong that you have done. And how do you know which is which? Your conscience accuses you. That’s your trial, that’s your testing and temptation. Your self-awareness. When you’re alone with yourself, are you an angel or a beast? Or both? And how can you put your soul at rest?

Look up at the rainbow. That’s the first sign of the cross. It’s not about the colors. It’s about the shape. It’s archery. It’s a weapon, and it’s pointed back at God. When God sets the longbow in the clouds, that means its arrow is pointed back at God. It’s the expression of God’s own conscience, and the symbol of God’s suffering in the death and destruction in the flood of all those moms and dads and kids. It’s the sign of God’s own grief and sorrow and regret. It’s the sign of God’s aloneness and God’s trial, of God’s own wilderness, and no angel dared to pick God up.

The sign of the longbow in the clouds tells us that God thinks this: “I will not do that again. I will not destroy this human race again. When I get tempted by my righteous anger once again to free my lovely world from this one violent species, that shape in the clouds will remind me that I would rather kill myself. I would rather not be God than ever do that again. Better that God is dead than God do that again. Better I let the atheists be right. ‘Cross my heart and hope to die.’”

I have a close friend who says he can no longer believe in a God who would do those things. And God says, “Me neither.” God says, “I can imagine that I should not exist.” That’s partly why God never attempts to prove God’s own existence beyond a reasonable doubt. God never bothers to prove God’s goodness even with a preponderance of the evidence. Proving things is not God’s mojo. Not even about God’s self. God works by invitation. God invites you into the darkness where God is going. “Follow me into the darkness and the silence. I am going to die now.”

God dies. On the cross. God shoots the arrow at God’s self. The whole bad conscience thing is put to rest. That’s the strange design. The logic is difficult, the transaction is uneven. It seems to be based on God so totally having identified with us that in God’s self-sacrifice your guilt is all absorbed, like asteroids getting sucked into the Black Hole of God’s death. The cross of Christ is the paradoxical combination of the righteous anger of God with the regret and pain of God, the sorrow of God, the humiliation of God.

God’s identification is an invitation. God invites you in to God’s own self. The signs of the cross do their work upon your conscience to draw you in to explore God’s inner self. It is God’s spirit pushing you into that great wilderness who is God, drawing you into to the depths of God. “Probe me. Try me. Test me. I’m opening up my chest that you can probe your fingers in, and feel my heart. Put your hand into the wound within my side. Explore me, journey into me.”

That’s what Lent is really about. It’s about God and what God is like It’s not really about your sins, those are just the tickets in. You surrender your tickets to enter into God. And I am telling you, ahead of time, that at the end of your pilgrimage what you will find is Wondrous Love.

Copyright © 2015, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Melody's Sermon from February 8, Epiphany 5, at Old Dutch Church, Kingston NY

And She Began to Serve Them

Mark 1:29-39;  1 Corinthians 9:16-23

Corrie Ten Boom was active in the Dutch underground in WWII. She’s one of our few Dutch Reformed saints. She and her father and sister sheltered Jews and other refugees in their home in Harlem. Eventually the three of them were arrested and sent to Dutch prison camps. Ten Boom tells, in one of her writings, how someone in her barracks had managed to smuggle in a tiny Bible.  They carefully tore out the pages and secretly passed them around to each other, day after day, month after month.  It was their only reading material.  Ten Boom says the Bible had never been so alive for her; the snippets of text were like current events, the latest news---that relevant, that riveting. More necessary than food.

(I do wonder if she felt quite that enthusiastic when she drew Leviticus.) But I envy her that experience of scripture being so alive.  Do you have to go to prison to make the Word of God alive?  When I looked at the Mark text, I felt resistance, like the stories were behind closed doors and would not let me in. When I looked at the 1 Corinthians text, I felt annoyed.  Here’s Paul, what, boasting about how humble he is?  Here’s Paul, pushing me away with his paradoxes: “I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all.” I wonder if the Bible ever feels this way to you?  Does the Bible sometimes push you away?

Take this mother-in-law in Mark, Simon’s mother-in-law, being healed of a fever.  Why doesn’t she get a name?  Why did Jesus call these four fishermen? Why were all the disciples men? Why is it that the first person healed in the gospel of Mark seems to get healed so she can make the disciples lunch?  And behind that there are questions I get asked all the time, as a chaplain: Do you think Jesus still heals people?  Are miracles only for Bible times?  Will God heal me? Why so much suffering?

I read all of Mark, chapter 1 again. And again.  And I prayed. The gospel of Mark, of course, starts off with a bang.  There’s urgency.  Immediately this and immediately that. It’s also spare, few details.  In Chapter 1 there is no birth story, no coming of age story, and no mention that John the Baptist is Jesus’ cousin.  It’s John the Baptist preaching repentance, it’s Jesus’ baptism, his time in the desert, no specific temptations mentioned. Then there is John’s arrest.  It is John’s arrest, in Mark, that is the catalyst that catapults Jesus into ministry.

Why did John get arrested? He was telling people to repent. That sounds like harmless church talk to us, so used to freedom of speech, so accustomed to the separation of church and state. In John’s context, however, politics and religion was one thing, inseparable.  For that matter, it’s probably true for most countries today. So “repent and be baptized” was a political/religious statement in the context of the Roman Empire, where there was no freedom of speech.

“Repent and be baptized” is in your face.  It questions the order of things, including the carefully worked out political deals between Herod, the Jewish puppet king, and the Romans. John’s message felt like, maybe, the demonstrators chanting, “we can’t breathe.”  Or like that blogger in Saudi Arabia who was writing positive things about democracy---you know, the one who will be flogged publicly every Friday for the next six weeks. When Jesus hears that John has been arrested he knows that John will be tortured, surely. Killed, probably.  Jesus, in taking up John’s message, is running toward danger.  It’s like he’s heading straight for Selma.

Repent, for the kingdom of God is near. Jesus feels in his bones that the time is ripe for him to act. Jesus feels in his bones that the Spirit of God is with him and in him and through him.  He surrenders control, he surrenders to his baptism, as Pastor Renee’ preached about a couple of weeks ago.

He thought he was going to be a preacher, like his cousin John.  But the Spirit had other plans. I don’t imagine that Jesus knew every morning when he got up what was going to happen that day.  He didn’t have s script. (That’s what the incarnation means; he lived inside time, like us, yet was free, by God’s Spirit, from the fear of the future and the fear of death.) So I imagine when Jesus enters the house of Simon, he doesn’t know what’s going to happen; all he knows is that he is empty of everything but love. In the Spirit’s love he touches her. He’s not supposed to do this of course.  If he were really culturally competent he, as a man, would not touch a woman who is not his wife.  He touches her and pure love heals the fever, tssssss, like water putting out a fire.

Jesus’ mission is one:  he is healer and teacher, he is prophet and priest. His disciples, when they began to follow him, were aware of the prophetic agenda; they can feel, in this Jesus, that God is very near.  But they didn’t know he could heal people.  Once the Spirit’s physical healing power is released, they forget all about the first mission. When the sun goes down, after the Sabbath, the “whole city,” as Mark puts it, is at Simon’s door. The love pours out of Jesus, he can’t control it. It’s a healing frenzy.  And the disciples want nothing more than that it continue.  But healing people is not Jesus’s whole mission and he knows it. He finally goes to bed, but I don’t think he slept much that night.

As soon as it is light he goes out to a deserted place to pray.  He needs to get away from people. He needs to be with the Spirit in prayer. He was beginning to feel enslaved.   Tell me again, dear Spirit, help me discern. I get the part about setting the captives free and telling people to turn from their evil ways, but there’s no end to these sick people. Healing. As a culture utterly obsessed with physical health, we can understand. People want this even more than other freedoms, even more than freedom of speech or freedom from fear, or a lot of other freedoms you could name. But Jesus recovers himself in prayer; Jesus recovers himself in fellowship with the Spirit. Healing is a sign of the kingdom of God that points us toward the healing of the world, but it’s not the whole thing. He says, surely disappointing his starry-eyed disciples, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came to do.”

Once I was visiting a man in the hospital who was recovering from heart surgery.  He had nearly died so you can imagine that he was very grateful to be alive. In the course of our conversation I asked him what he hopes were now that he had been given this second chance.  He thought for a moment and he said, "Well, I really like to watch TV."  At least he was honest.  I don’t know what I said, probably just nodded and gave him a blessing. But my inside voice was yelling---you’ve been healed to watch TV? Are you kidding me?

Simon’s mother-in-law gets the connection between grace and gratitude, between word and sacrament, between healing and service. Her healing is like a baptism. She gets up to serve them because she has been filled with another kind of fire, the pure energy of the Spirit. She chooses to serve them.  Simon Peter doesn’t order her to serve them, she chooses it. She has felt in her own body that the kingdom of God has come very near.  She knew that service was the only option she could freely choose. She knew what Paul knew: For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them.

I spent the past few days on retreat at Holy Cross Monastery, just south of here on the Hudson. It was a healing and nourishing experience. I observed the monks and how they share the tasks of hospitality. They take turns doing dishes. Cleaning up.  There’s somebody vacuuming.  There’s somebody sorting the clean silverware, making the coffee. They offered us worship five times a day-- scripture, chanting, sacrament.

I stood before the icons--I mean that specific tradition of religious paintings, not statues---which are everywhere at Holy Cross. In particular, I was struck by a small icon just outside the chapel, above the little bowl of holy water. It depicts an angel, a human looking angel with skinny brown legs, whose arms are holding the head of John the Baptist. Beheading.  Is there any death more abhorrent to us? Yet, both  John and the angel are looking right at you,  making eye contact. They look both fierce and peaceful, as icons do, as if to say the kingdom of God is very near, as if to say all things shall be well, as if to say even death shall not separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus.

Corrie Ten Boom’s father and her sister Bessie died in prison camp.  Before Bessie died, of tuberculosis, she said to her sister Corrie, “There is no pit so deep that God is not deeper still.”  This is what Jesus knew, this is what Simon’s mother-in-law learned, in being healed by Jesus, this is what the Spirit knows and wants us to know.  Another way to say it?  The kingdom of God is very near. I imagine Corrie and her dying sister as icons, looking at us, inviting us to see that kingdom.

Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them. See her as an icon; she’s looking straight at you.  She says, my story is not meant to teach you that women were born to serve men.  This is not about men or women, slave or free. Look again, look deeply and you can see Christ in her, you can see Jesus kneeling to wash his disciples’ feet.

Look again.  Can you see yourself in her?  Can you see in her that you are healed and forgiven, freed to love and freed to serve?  Why is there so much suffering?  Why is the kingdom of God so hard to see? I guess we’ll be asking these questions until we die.  I suspect that some of you are suffering right now as much as Corrie Ten Boom and her sister suffered.  I suspect this because I have been a chaplain for 20 years.  This means that I have been privileged to see the face of Christ in people who are suffering, day in and day out. I have seen joy and felt love and peace.  I have felt the kingdom of God come very near.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

February 15, Transfiguration, The Mission #11, You Can See It

This is the Transfiguration Window at Durham Cathedral in England.

2 Kings 2:1-12, Psalm 50:1-6, 2 Corinthians 4:3-6, Mark 9:2-9

Our gospel lesson starts at chapter 9 verse 2. I don’t know why the editors of the lectionary left out verse 1. It looks to me like verse 1 tells us what the Transfiguration was about, at least in part.

Here’s verse 1: “And Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Kingdom of God having come in power.’ And after six days, Jesus took Peter and James and John and led them up into a high mountain by themselves.” 

And there they saw what Jesus said they would see, they saw it in his body all lit up, they saw the Kingdom of God having come in power. You know the connection between power and light. When the lights come on is how you know the power is on.

Now let’s call Peter “Pete”. Do you remember what Pete Redell said last Sunday? Where you here for it? He told us he could see the Kingdom of God! He said that the reason he does all this volunteering in church is because when he does it he can see the Kingdom of God.

Had Pete been reading our lessons ahead of time? Or was Pete channeling Peter? Or (and now I am serious) was Pete bearing witness that Jesus has done some work on him, that Jesus has done this in his life, that the Lord Jesus has given him eyes to see the Kingdom of God revealed in ordinary places?

Pete said something else last week. He listed four things that make a church go. The first was belief in God, the second was the mission, the third was money, and the fourth was volunteers. Now you might make a different list, but when Pete talked about mission, and you all responded, then I thought, great. You’re making mission a high priority, so I can bring this sermon series to a close. Mission accomplished! So I will be starting a new series for Lent, next Sunday, and calling it The Walk to the Cross. But one last sermon on The Mission.

The mission of God is the kingdom of God. What Pete Redell hath joined together, let no man put asunder. The kingdom of God is the Bible’s most important image for the mission that God is on, and that’s in both Testaments. Jesus kept proclaiming it because the Jewish people wanted it, and they wanted it because the Torah and the Prophets told them to.

The kingdom of God doesn’t show up so much in the epistles of St. Paul, but his equivalent is the phrase, “the power of the resurrection.” Notice that word “power” again. That’s the same power that lights up Our Lord in the Transfiguration, and the power which, in our Epistle reading, gives the light to the glory of Christ. This glory is not a static glory, but dynamic, like sunlight, pouring out energy and giving life, the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, which Peter, James, and John could see there on the mountaintop, they could see the Kingdom of God having come in power.

The Kingdom of God, the Reign of God, the Realm of God, the Dominion of God, the Commonwealth of God, the Sovereignty of God, call it what you want, this is the summation of God’s active mission in the world. God’s sovereignty is a saving sovereignty. God is on a mission to save the world, and heal it and cleanse it from the sin and death that we brought into it. The coming of the kingdom is how the mission is accomplished. And that’s why Our Lord taught us to pray, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” We pray, "Accomplish your mission, O God."

God’s kingdom comes not just by God sending it. God brings it, it comes with God, God comes. God came, in that man Jesus of Nazareth, God incarnate, the Incarnation was God’s mission trip into the world to save the world. And as we’ve been seeing in this sermon series, God saves the world not in the gross conglomerate, but as communities of individuals.

God saves you. God makes you a citizen of his kingdom already before his kingdom has fully come. You are not just the object of God’s mission but also a subject in God’s mission, for Christ has made you kings and priests, the power is to empower you. You have freedom in this kingdom, and discretion, and you get some say in it. You get lit up yourself!

I’m guessing that the burning power of God’s kingdom that was in Elijah and Moses in their own day is why they were there on the mountain, but St. Mark doesn’t explain it. Neither does he describe how the Lord Jesus was transfigured, only to offer the metaphor of his clothes getting dazzling white, whiter than any detergent could make them, meaning there was no natural way available to make his clothes so bright. Does this mean that his clothes were lit up from the inside?

The art of glass-making was not yet developed enough for St. Mark to have used glass as his metaphor. But let’s imagine a stained-glass window. The bright-white robe of Jesus is illuminated by the light shining through the window. That’s the light of the glory of God and it lights him up as it shines through him. And his shining illuminates the rooms and the spaces of your lives. Everything is illuminated. You can see the kingdom of God in your life. His light gives you enlightenment. That is the Christian version of enlightenment, to receive in yourself the light that shines through him.

This stained-glass window is meant to be looked at, but more, to be looked through. It’s less an illustration than an icon. The window is way up there, and you look through the window into heaven. You gaze at the figures of Elijah and Moses in the window in order for to see the two of them in heaven. The window is solid, but it’s not a wall. It’s a portal, it’s a star-gate.

So now imagine the Lord Jesus as a door of glass, a door that swings both ways, and God comes through him this way in among us, and you go through him that way to enter his kingdom as it comes.

It’s scary. Simon Peter was afraid to go there. I think he was like me. The more he’s afraid, the more he talks, and he talks when he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. He says it was great to be there, but why don’t we take a break now. Why don’t we just gather some branches and leaves and make some sukkoth booths for you three saints and we’ll just hang out with you for a while. Peter was suggesting hospitality because he felt like he needed a safe place, he needed some sanctuary.

I sometimes wonder if our very positive missions of sanctuary and hospitality can be a similar temptation for us at Old First. That we like to hang out in our safe place and stay back from daring missions that might be more challenging. We can be fearful. Which is why it’s great that our 2nd Mission Team is moving ahead on adult education events that deal with issues controversial. Race, justice, sexuality, climate change — these issues are scary and they may raise tensions among us. But let's go there.

While it’s true that the mission of God is certainly for our own healing and peace and comfort, it’s also true that the mission of God goes out into the world to engage the troubling issues of the world. And this is true in your personal life, when the kingdom of God engages your own privacy. The mission of God is scary because Jesus warns us that you may die from it if you give yourself to it. And yet you won’t let it go, because you know it leads to life, and it keeps on calling you.

My friend Josh is the pastor of the Reformed Church in Woodstock, NY, and he said to me this week that the Transfiguration shows us that there is something very personal about the Kingdom of God; it’s not a theory, it’s not an ideology, it’s not a utopia, it’s rather all wrapped up in this person of Jesus.

And that’s the first mission of our church, our mission which takes priority among our other very valid missions, and this is to keep holding up to your view this person of Jesus Christ, this very human being in whom God has come to us, and to listen to him who is God’s Beloved Son.

So we will focus on that for the next few weeks of Lent. We will follow him on his specific mission, his personal version of the mission of God, on his walk to the cross. He has to go through the gory to get to the glory. He has to suffer the crucifixion to win the resurrection. And why will he do this? What is his motivation? He is the Beloved. That’s what God calls him. He is the capital B Beloved. He embodies love. Even the light in him is love.

He shows us the motivation for God’s mission in the world, for God so loves the world. Conglomerate and person, global and one-by-one. And when you see the kingdom of God, you will see that all the power in it is the power of Love, capital L Love. It is the Love of the God who calls you and says, “Come in with me.”

Copyright © 2015 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.