Friday, February 17, 2017
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18, Psalm 119:33-40, 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23, Matthew 5:38-48
Righteousness is doing what is right. I want to do what’s right, I want to get it right, I want to be right. But if I’m right, then you’re wrong. If I want to be right, and you and I differ, then I want you to be wrong. And if I am righteous, then you’re unrighteous. My righteousness is what makes you unrighteous, at least to me. So the first problem with righteousness is that it sets up wrongness.
A second problem comes from our modern mindset. Righteousness is not just my doing right by me, it’s also doing right by you. I want to do what’s right for you. What’s right for you is what we call your “rights”. You have a right to your rights, and I have a right to mine. We take it for granted and we structure society around it. But it’s a recent development in history. Most people who lived on this planet did not think in terms of rights, but obligations. You do right when you fulfill your obligations. This was accepted as normal, and good, and the best for safety and survival.
We moderns minimize our obligations. We value liberty, freedom, and self-determination. And with everybody self-determining, we have to stand on our rights. If we assume so much freedom, we each of us have to defend our rights, and the rights of our groups, however we choose to define our identities, we feel obliged to right the wrongs against us and our grievances, on all sides. The right to bear arms. The right to life. The right to reproductive choice. The right to work. All of these are being contested with righteous indignation. Human self-determination turns righteousness around. It was an angry combination of rights and wrongs and grievances that generated totalitarianism in Europe not too long ago and this combination is also dangerous in America today.
Here’s my point: righteousness is a problem unless it’s anchored in the holiness of God and directed toward you loving your neighbor as yourself.
Righteousness is destructive when it’s driven by human self-determination but it’s constructive when it’s anchored in the holiness of God. But not just any holiness of God. It is the holiness that God has revealed upon the cross that makes righteousness healing and life-giving, a holiness which is a self-giving holiness, holiness that is purity as the purity of love, holiness that is perfection as the perfection of love, self-giving love, a holiness directing righteousness to take the form of loving your enemy as yourself.
“You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” So says Leviticus. “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” So says the Gospel of Matthew. Such holiness and such perfection entail a righteousness exceeding that of the scribes and Pharisees. It exceeds in love, “loving your enemies and praying for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven,” children resembling their father, ordinary people perfect in the way that God is perfect, neighbors holy in the way that God is holy, and this holy God loves God’s enemies.
This is not our typical version of holiness. Typical holiness is also in the Bible, especially in the Book of Leviticus. It is purity and perfection of protection and preservation, it is rituals to get things clean and keep them uncontaminated, and thus untouchable and unapproachable. Put up screens and curtains, put up walls, keep people out, keep the people out who are not pure, or who have fallen, or are not chosen. Gentiles, and tax collectors who handle Roman money. Roman soldiers.
But if a Roman soldier demands you to carry his pack the statutory mile, Jesus says to carry it a second mile. Your love for him is not conditioned by his deserving it. Or if you’re so deep in debt to Roman taxes that the only thing the tax collector can get off you is your coat, Jesus says to give him your shirt as well, and your nakedness will shame him in your generosity. Of course the people listening to Jesus when he says this will be laughing, and I think he might be laughing too.
Or if somebody strikes you on your cheek, because you’re just a Jew who has no rights, living under occupation, don’t give in, don’t yield, but offer up your other cheek! Dare him to hit you again. Don’t him back—you love him because he is your enemy, but you do take the initiative, you stand up, and the second time he hits you he may crush you, he may kill you.
“O Jesus, I don’t have the courage to offer my other cheek.” I don’t think the Lord Jesus expects you to be suicidal in your self-giving love. He doesn’t say to love your enemy instead of yourself. You have to love yourself as well.
To love someone as yourself is to treat that person with the same understanding and sympathy and indulgence with which you treat yourself. So you are free to reason that it might be suicide to offer up your cheek. This perfection is not mathematical, and this holiness is not fanatical. You get the point: non-violence whenever the choice is yours to make. That is enough.
Do you consider even this unrealistic? If we did what Jesus said and carried burdens the second mile and offered up our shirts and gave to everyone who begs from us, eventually we’ll have two classes of people: the saintly paupers owning nothing, half-naked, doing all the labor, and the wealthy and well-dressed idlers and thieves.
Which was the Roman Empire anyway, with the idlers and thieves making the laws and enforcing them! It is realistic anyway. Countless examples: American Slavery, Jim Crow, Communism, National Socialism, even Free-market Capitalism, at least how it is going, if we are to believe the disenfranchised middle class who voted for this 45th President.
If we think it’s unrealistic, then as St. Paul says, we should become fools so that we may become wise. Take the case of the laws in Leviticus, about “not reaping to the very edges of your field, nor gathering the gleanings of your harvest.” This is not just charity for the poor, though it is that. It’s knowing our limits in what we take from the world, and it’s the reality of sustainable agriculture.
I knew a farmer who cut down all the trees along his fields so that he could easier turn his bigger machines around and get more rows of yield, which resulted in there being no more birds and the bugs increased and he had to use insecticides which burned the soil, which now the wind picked up and blew away, because there were no trees; today that farm sits barren. So I’m inviting you to believe that self-giving love is the true reality of existence, and that the cosmos expresses God’s perfection and creation tells us of God’s holiness. And as you are in the image of God, to do otherwise than this is to be sub-human.
The Lord is not just talking about non-retaliation, but positive engagement. He’s not just talking about charity and generosity, which are voluntary, for this is obligatory. It’s the law: the Lord Jesus quotes this from Leviticus three times in Matthew, that you love your neighbor as yourself, and this first time your neighbor include your enemy. It’s the law: it’s not love as feeling or affection but love as actions and practices, even when they cost you and reduce your profits. Even your enemy.
You will have enemies, if you live by love. People think that Christians should have no enemies. But following Jesus will make you enemies. The world resists the holiness of God. But come on, isn’t this to much for us, how much does God expect of us? We are ordinary people, we don’t do miracles. We have only so much power, and we’re often our own worst enemies. We have a hard time rightly loving ourselves. We admire this high calling of Our Lord, but we feel that we fall short.
Well, first, what he calls you to depends on Christian community, on your having neighbors like yourself who love you back and who look out for you, who join in your cause, and support you in your obedience. This ethic is not an ethic for heroic individuals, but an ethic for a community of love. This is the reason for this community of Jesus in which we try to love each other every week.
Second, as I said last week, we are forced to the mystical root of our ethics. We would give up if not for the mystical belief that the Lord Jesus is doing it in us and through us beyond our own capacity. So just do it without worrying about your performance or consistency.
The task is on you but the burden is off you. You have the responsibility but God takes the guilt. You can say with the Psalm, “In your righteousness, preserve my life.” The righteousness of God has become the main theme of this sermon series, that God loves to work God’s righteousness in the world through us, and God’s righteousness in us saves us, preserves us, perfects us, and makes us holy, just because God loves us.
Copyright © 2017, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.
Friday, February 10, 2017
Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Psalm 119:1-8, 1 Corinthians 3:1-9, Matthew 5:21-37
Our gospel lesson is the third out of four through Matthew 5, which is the first part of the Sermon on the Mount.
In our lesson today Our Lord exaggerates. He’s extreme. Excessive. Exceeding. Last week he admitted as much, that we exceed the scribes and Pharisees in righteousness. He is certainly provocative. Is he intentionally unreasonable? Does he mean to be disruptive?
It is a risky strategy. The method to the madness of the White House is provocation, disruption of institutions, and chaos by design. The chaos allows the president or chancellor or party secretary, whatever, to gather power and become the savior of the nation. You recognize that the scribes and Pharisees considered the Lord Jesus to be playing this dangerous game.
But Our Lord gave his power away. It wasn’t chaos he was after but liberation and service. What last Sunday Isaiah had called “the lifting of the burden and the freeing of the yoke.” Yet Jesus is certainly being provocative to ethics and disruptive of logic.
Consider the movement of the Sermon on the Mount, how it has swung from one extreme to the other. First, two weeks ago, the Beatitudes: “Blessed are you right now, in your hunger, in your meekness, in your mourning, you have the Kingdom of Heaven just by your simply desiring righteousness,” and then, last week, he moved it towards the middle, “You are the salt, be salty, you are the light, bear light,” and then to the other extreme, “You will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees!” The opposite of the Beatitudes in the span of just ten verses!
Today’s lesson stays in that hard extreme. Our Lord tosses off four examples of excessive righteousness. “You’ve heard the scribes and Pharisees say this, but I’m telling you this!” You’ve heard the scribes and Pharisees teach a doable, respectable, observable, trackable, and manageable kind of righteousness, and each time I’m calling for a radical righteousness that sounds unreasonable.
You call someone a jerk and you’re up on charges? You take a second look at a woman and then cut out your eye? Cut off your hand? Is he suggesting a more stringent legalism even more burdensome than before?
To be fair, I can tell you that in the lesson next Sunday his two further examples of excessive righteousness display a swing back to the first extreme of the Beatitudes, the examples of extreme non-violence and extravagant generosity, but even those non-legalistic examples are so challenging as to seem impossible. We will come back to those next week.
Let me also say that because of our cultural differences we might miss Our Lord’s radical generosity already here, in these examples, to women. It’s a cliche that “Matthew doesn’t do girls” (Prof. Minka Sprague), not compared to Luke and John. But here, in Matthew, the Lord Jesus makes the man responsible for his own lust. In orthodox Judaism and Islam and among some Christians the woman is responsible to hide her body by her clothing. Not with Jesus. It’s the man who has to cut his eye out!
Similar is what he says about divorce. He makes the man responsible for any adultery by his ex-wife. Remember that traditionally a woman had no say in her marriage, she had no rights in the matter. She went from being the property of her father to the property of her husband. So she cannot be guilty of the adultery she falls to.
And even for that, adultery is not some unpardonable sin; in Matthew it’s an action, not a state, and a relationship that begins in adultery need not remain so, if there’s repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation. And reconciliation is the remedy that the Lord Jesus calls for in the first example. He’s not setting up new legalisms here, but offering examples of righteousness to challenge you, compel you, and boil things down to the heart of the matter.
“Let your Yes be Yes and your No be No.” Inner certainty, maturity, calm self-direction. This new kind of righteousness is inner-directed, from your own orientation, rather than outer-directed, according to the laws. It’s not that you’re always observing, but that you’re always choosing, you’re always expressing, and not by what they want but what you want.
What do you choose? Choose life. Don’t choose death. Choose life by choosing righteousness. The laws of the Lord do have value by guiding your choosing, informing your choosing, but it still comes down to your own choosing, so that the Kingdom of Heaven not just be out there, but that it grow within your heart; the goal of the Kingdom is to restore you personally as the image of God. And to bear the image of God is to share God’s freedom, the freedom to choose the good.
According to Deuteronomy, to choose life is to choose against idolatry. You can’t be neutral. To not choose God is to choose the idolatry that is the inclination of human nature. Idolatry, whether it be ancient or modern, is when we exalt anything natural to such power and promise that we sacrifice for it:
Wealth, beauty, success, security, race, ethnicity, gender, nation, even spirituality. The slogan “America first” begs idolatry. Ideologies are idolatrous, like capitalism, communism, even socialism and patriotism. You want to find a truth to belong to that is larger than yourself, but then you cast God in its graven image.
To be fences against idolatry is the purpose of the commandments in the Bible, but that’s not enough. You still have to make constant judgment calls. You are always having to come back to yourself and what you want, and answer yes, yes or no, no. And as you say yes and as you say no you develop your character, your second nature. That’s the righteousness of choice.
According to First Corinthians, the choice is internal. If the external inclination of human nature is idolatry, the internal inclination is attachment. Of course attachment is a biological necessity, of infants to mothers, and children to families. But human animals go through this strange experience, which I think is the shadow side of our being uniquely in God’s image. At some point in our maturing to adulthood, we discover ourselves, and we experience an existential loneliness. We feel this as a deep woundedness, and we seek relief in attachments. Attachment is overloading relationships to compensate for our existential fear and loneliness.
“I belong to Paul. I belong to Apollos.” I’m this. I’m that. I’m loyal to this group, I’m fighting for that group. There goes your simple yes and no. If I say yes, they may reject me. If I say no, they may revile me. And if they do, you might feel loneliness is better and withdraw behind defenses. You don't belong to anyone, a negative kind of freedom.
Most of you don't go that far, you stay with attachment. You gain your comfort by losing your freedom. The freedom of Christ is challenging because it threatens the loyalties and identities in which you sought comfort. But in the new kind of righteousness, you don’t decide by your attachments. Your answer is simply yes or no without defense or explanation. You are in God’s image, you belong to Christ, and this or that, simply, is what you want!
There is one last wrinkle. The scribes and Pharisees considered observation the means to make your way along the straight-and-narrow of obedience, blessing, and life. But the Lord Jesus does this provocative thing of making everybody guilty.
His examples are so excessive that we all fall short. We’re all liable to judgment, we’re all liable to the council, we’re all on the way to death, we’re all scheduled for that smoldering garbage dump called the Gehenna, the symbol of a shameful death. Or at least a piece of you, your eye, your hand, amputated and discarded to save the rest of you.
I am following Martin Luther here when I say that his provocation is to drive you to his grace, to his cross and resurrection, to his freely given righteousness that you get back from him. His personal excessive righteousness.
This is the mystical anchor of your ethics. This is how you can confidently keep choosing this and that, simply saying yes and no: you put your faith in the promise that it is God who is giving the growth of righteousness in you. You are a mystery, even to yourself, you are a living mystery of God’s love, that in your small attempt to live the Christian life, the righteousness of God is growing in the world. God even chooses what you choose, that is how much God loves you.
Copyright © 2017, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.
Sunday, February 05, 2017
Isaiah 58:1-12, Psalm 112:1-10, 1 Corinthians 2:1-16, Matthew 5:13-20
This is the fifth sermon in our series on Righteousness. Our question is always this: What do our lessons tell us today about this important Christian theme? Today in our lessons the word occurs seven times: three times as the adjective “righteous” and four times as the noun “righteousness.”
The seventh occurrence is that alarming last thing we heard the Lord Jesus say: “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven!” How could Jesus say that? Doesn’t that contradict everything else he said?
What a difference from the feel of the Beatitudes that come right before this lesson in the same chapter. Last week we heard that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, it’s among us, we don’t have to build it or advance it, we just receive it, in our poverty of spirit, in our meekness, even in our mourning. Not that we exceed at righteousness but that we desire it, that we hunger and thirst for it. But now he seems to say that we do have to achieve it, we do have to earn our entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven.
I believe that the Lord Jesus is here evoking a larger debate about righteousness within the Bible. The Bible doesn’t offer us one straightforward and consistent teaching about righteousness, but an ongoing conversation about it among its different authors, a conversation that is often a debate, and sometimes a heated one. You see one side of the debate in the Psalm, and another side in Isaiah.
In the Psalm, you get a sense of righteousness as following the commandments. Doing the right thing at the right time according to the laws of God. If you do this legal kind of righteousness, you get blessed, you will be powerful in the land, and beat your enemies, and you even get to be rich! Of course you’re going to be merciful and compassionate, and generous, especially with the poor. You are honored for being righteous. You keep things on the up and up. You keep things up.
This is the familiar kind of righteousness. Upkeeping righteousness, dishes washed, kitchens cleaned, Dutch Reformed righteousness. This is the righteousness of cause and effect: you observe the commandments and God rewards you. Don’t be too hard on the scribes and Pharisees, they got this from the Bible! This is what they looked for when they looked for the Kingdom of Heaven.
The other side of the debate we heard last week from the prophet Micah, and today we hear it in the voice of Isaiah. He castigates the righteousness of cause and effect. Keeping the Sabbath, observing the required rituals, even fasting in sackcloth and ashes, forget it all. God’s not blessing it.
God wants a righteousness not upkeeping but outgoing. A righteousness that gets you nothing back and even costs you. Into your nice clean houses you take the homeless. You go out to find poor people to deliver a share of your food to. You pay your workers a living wage, which of course cuts into your profits, and that’s the point. This kind of righteousness you would call mission. Not just loving your neighbor as yourself, but loving your enemy as your neighbor.
So do we have to choose between this social action of the prophet or the commandments of the law, commandments written by God’s own finger at Mount Sinai? No, it’s a false choice. You do both. But if you do only one, the ritual, liturgical one, and not the social action one, then your very ritual condemns you doing it. Your cultic and liturgical observance condemns you while you’re doing it. Your righteousness is worse than nothing because it lacks integrity. So the point is to have a cultic and liturgical observance of the commandments that is proven by its mission to those in need. An upkeeping for the purpose of outgoing.
Thus the mixing of the metaphors of salt and light. Just one of them will not do, you need them both. You have to both blend in and stand out. A lamp is useless unless it stands out, but if salt stands out it does no good, it has to blend in.
Yet their effect is similar: illumining and seasoning, but neither for themselves. The light is not for itself, but for what it shines on. The salt is not for itself, but for what it seasons. Your righteousness is not for yourself, but for your mission in the world. Sometimes your righteousness must be a standing out, and sometimes a blending in, but always for your mission in the world. An outgoing kind of righteousness.
Jesus is not here talking about mission as converting the nations of the world. At this point he’s still working with the Old Testament sense of the mission of God’s people being examples to the nations, demonstrating by their very culture God’s ideas of morality, justice, generosity, and peace; like a lamp in showing other nations how to live.
This mission the scribes and Pharisees could agree with, but they believed that do it they first had to get their independent kingdom back, kicking out the Romans and all the Gentiles living among them to set up the literal Kingdom of Heaven, and do the mission from a position of wealth and power and prestige. Make Judea great again!
So they hate it when Jesus keeps saying that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, among them, already, wherever the Lord Jesus is. What are you waiting for? Don’t only be a lamp, but also be salt, blend in as well. Do your mission already among the Roman soldiers and the Gentiles who are in your Promised Land.
And not from power, for blessed are the meek. Not from wealth, for blessed are the poor in spirit. Not even in your success at morality, justice, generosity, and peace, but in your hungering and thirsting after righteousness, especially how you still hunger and thirst for righteousness when they revile you and persecute you. Blessed are you. What are you waiting for?
So we have no truck with those people who are saying it’s getting harder to be a Christian in America. Like it’s a complaint. Like we have to get the government on our side to make it easier. From what the Lord Jesus says, the harder it is the more blessed we are. I’m not saying we should hope for persecution, but if what we stand for is not being opposed by people in power, if they’re not reviling us, then are we doing our mission? The case of Jesus shows us that the opposition and reviling can come from people of our own religion, so we will be opposed by other Christians, especially those who think we should have national power and prestige. Blessed are you.
Weakness and fear and much trembling. That’s how the Apostle Paul first came to the Galatians, as he reminds them. He did it this way as a self-imposed strategy, he had to learn this strategy and make himself one with it, lest he try to get results by being winning and impressive, and thereby get in the way of the wisdom of God. He did not want to be persuasive in argument, or plausible in explanation. As if the wisdom of God is comparable in any way to human wisdom. As if the wisdom of God can be explained to the satisfaction of the critical human intellect or sensibly to the wise.
No, the wisdom of God has no comparables in human wisdom, that you can extrapolate from human wisdom to the wisdom of God, just as the power of God has no comparables in human power, but looks like human weakness. The wisdom of God speaks to the philosopher only if he takes his place with the homeless and the poor. The wisdom of God is a total mystery to the best and highest human thought.
And yet the wisdom of God is for the world, it is God’s creative and loving engagement in the world. The wisdom of God is the mystery that in the salvation of the suffering sinner gets revealed, and in God’s mercy to the penitent it gets explained. The wisdom of God is the righteousness of God embracing you whose only claim to righteousness is that you desire it, that you hunger and thirst for it.
Accept that embrace, and the free and loving and lavish righteousness that embraces you far exceeds the righteousness of any scribe or Pharisee, that is, any religious professional; accept God’s embrace and already you’ve entered the Kingdom of Heaven. I invite you to believe that the righteousness of God flows into you by the power of God’s Spirit, whenever you find yourself desiring God, and desiring most of all the love of God, and desiring to express that love yourself in every difficult relationship that you have.
Copyright © 2017, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.
Friday, January 27, 2017
Micah 6:1-8, Psalm 15, 1 Corinthians 1:18-31, Matthew 5:1-12
Righteousness. In our first lesson, it’s only implicit. It’s described, I think, by the prophet Micah, in that great summation of doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with your God.
In our second lesson righteousness is explicit. St. Paul says that Christ became for us the power of God, the wisdom of God, the sanctification, redemption, and the righteousness of God. The terminology is opaque, despite the apostle’s passion in writing it.
But we can say this: if you want to know what the righteousness of God in the world looks like, then you have to observe Jesus, his actions and his character and personality. Whatever he did, and said–from now on that is the righteousness of God in the world. And for us to be righteous, we do like him. He did justice, he loved kindness, and he walked humbly with his God.
Notice: we are to be like Jesus, but we are not to be like God. To be like God was the first temptation, in the Garden of Eden. Not that it’s so wrong to be like God, if God is good and if God is love. But we’re not up to it, to try to be like God is distracting and misleading. We can’t handle it. Look at any person who is given great power in the world. Who are the most powerful people in the world today? Trump, and Putin, and Xi Jinping? Concentrating power, executive orders, officials obey them, officers enforce them, and peoples’ lives are changed by the stroke of one man’s pen.
Last week I saw this posted on Facebook: “As a Christian, my calling is clear. I don’t get to play God, I get to imitate Jesus.” It’s only a slogan, but I think there’s a lot of wisdom in it.
In our gospel lesson righteousness is mentioned twice, in promises. The first promise is this: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they will be filled.” Nice. The hunger and thirst is the desire that we talked about last week. If you deeply desire righteousness, you will receive it. That’s comforting.
But the second promise is ominous: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Uh oh. Persecution. Not just resistance, but hurtful opposition. There will be opposition to your righteousness, and that opposition will punish you.
Well, what did we expect? Righteousness is not just nicely doing what is right when rightness is rewarded. Righteousness is doing right when corruption is in control, when wrong is ruling and greed governs and fear keeps you in line. Or tiredness, exhaustion, or just frustration.
The second promise gets expanded: “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” Not that you take perverse pleasure in being a victim, but rather that your obligation to righteousness in bad situations is an obligation that is a privilege, and has its own rewards. So I’m told.
Now the Lord Jesus saying your reward is in heaven is easily misunderstood as meaning your final escape to heaven. But in Matthew “the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand,” the kingdom of heaven is “coming on earth as it is heaven.” Heaven is the capital of this kingdom and the seat of its authority, but the territory of this kingdom is all the earth, and all that is in the earth.
To receive the reward of the kingdom is to inherit the earth, not to escape to heaven. “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” The goal and purpose of God’s righteousness is not bliss in heaven but peace on earth. And to see that, is your reward. To sense it, trust it, believe it, even amidst opposition, to assume it, and to live already within it is your reward.
These two promises about righteousness are part what we call the Beatitudes. The Beatitudes open up the so-called Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon on the Mount is three whole chapters, the collection and summation of all that Jesus had been teaching in their villages and synagogues. The Lord Jesus was announcing that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, with him, so now the people deserve to know what are its laws and policies and benefits. What’s expected of us? Who will be favored in it? Our Lord now tells them.
The Beatitudes are a cohesive poem, in which the lines all interplay. Each line is in two parts, the first part, Blessed are the x, and the second part, for they will have y. The y-parts describe the policies and benefits of the kingdom, and the x-parts describe the beneficiaries, the poor in spirit, who mourn, the meek, who hunger and thirst for righteousness, who are merciful, who are pure in heart, who make peace, who are persecuted for righteousness.
The phrase for righteousness gets doubled, so this kingdom values righteousness. Righteousness ends line four and it ends line eight. The first four lines get their mirror image in the second four lines. The poor in spirit get served by the merciful, and those who mourn get served by the pure in heart, and the meek require the intervention of the peacemakers, and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will find themselves persecuted. Because this kingdom is not separate from the world, but always in the world and in tension with the world.
The poor in spirit and the mourners and the meek are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, that is, who suffer, and the merciful and pure in heart and peacemakers are those who bring the righteousness, who open themselves to the suffering and engage it, who get land for the meek, which means somehow taking it from the powerful, one reason why they meet resistance, and get opposed, and do their works of mercy and purity and peace at risk to themselves and their safety. Like Dr. King. Like Harriet Tubman. Like Our Lord.
Now I can’t afford to do this if I’m competing hard, or out for number one. But the kingdom is set up to honor you if you live this way, who want to do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.
Please understand that it’s not our being the x-types that win for us the y-benefits. It’s not that your being poor in spirit will earn you the kingdom of heaven, or that being meek makes you more worthy of your property. Our Lord is not saying to be merciful in order to get mercy back. It isn’t cause and effect, he’s not saying what goes around comes around.
No, the benefits of the kingdom are the free gift of God, it’s what God does, God is the king who makes the kingdom come, and it’s for us to receive it. The advantage of the poor and the meek is that you have less of worldly value in the way to keep you from receiving it, and that advantage is everything. When you are these people who are poor in spirit and such, you are right square in the path of what God is doing in the world and are open and ready to see God in the world.
The world regards this whole approach as unrealistic. St. Paul describes this whole approach as the foolishness of God, but also the wisdom of God, and the power of God. It is God that is doing it, and whether God does it does not depend on us. So let me apply this here to what we look for in the power of God.
We appeal to the power of God when we want God to intervene. We pray in one of our collects, "Stir up your power, O Lord, and with your great might come to save us." Not so much that we want God to get involved in our wars to smite our enemies and bring us victory, but we do ask God to deliver us, liberate us, and most often, heal us, intervene in our illnesses. And critics of religion do raise the issue of why God does not use power against injustice and tyranny. Where was God in the holocaust, for example. Or in Rwanda. Or where is God in Syria.
Today we are told that the power of God is the message of the cross. In other words the power of God in the world is focused in Jesus Christ in his life and death, that is, in his life of witness and healing and in his faithfulness even when resisted and opposed by death. That kind of power then finds expression in the benefits in the Beatitudes, such as comfort, and land for the meek, and giving mercy, and people discovering they are children of God. That’s where God puts God’s power in the world. And it’s free for you to receive it.
Last week I said you don’t have to achieve it, you simply receive it. Then one of you commented that this suggests passivity. It seems too effortless. Doesn’t it require some effort on our part? Where do our efforts find a place and have a value?
Let me say that to not have to achieve it but receive it, does not cancel our efforts but changes them. It means that our righteousness doesn’t take the usual form of upstanding moral rectitude, but the form of those interventionist works of mission in the second half the Beatitudes, that you work on mercy, that you work on purity of heart, and that you work on making peace.
Interventionist mercy, working mercy, for example, in the prisons and shelters of New York. Or in the public schools. The purity of heart might mean, for example, doing the hard work of examining with others our prejudices and our privilege, but also devoting yourself to prayer, learning how to pray. And making peace, for example, might also mean working in the public schools, or joining up with the new hate-free zone in nearby Kensington, bringing welcome and reconciliation to Muslims and immigrants who are afraid right now. I’m just suggesting things. The effort really begins when you will be resisted and opposed.
I am challenging myself. I’m afraid of opposition. And worse, I’m supposed to love my enemies who oppose us. So let me add that when the Lord Jesus says “blessed are you,” the “you” is not in the singular but in the plural. Not you alone but you plural.
We do this together, not on your own. We do this together as a community of Jesus, not as individual saints but a communion of saints. You can’t do this unless someone is loving you, unless a group is loving you. And the community of Jesus is expressing the love of God for you.
Copyright © 2017, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.
Friday, January 20, 2017
Isaiah 9:1-4, Psalm 27:1, 5-13, 1 Corinthians 1:10-18, Matthew 4:12-23
Did you know that in Ontario, the Catholic schools are fully funded by taxation and are tuition-free? In Alberta, Protestant schools get public funding too. Yet Canada is more socialist than Elizabeth Warren.
What if Betsy DeVos had gone that far in her confirmation hearings—not just parent vouchers, but direct government funding of Christian schools? Why do Americans consider this a right-wing idea? In The Netherlands, which is even more socialist, parents send their children to publically-funded religious schools of all different persuasions, not just Christian.
The big difference is that Dutch and Canadian religious schools are not private schools but public schools, and they accept all the government regulation and oversight of social democracy. Here in America the school freedom movement hates government oversight and wants a free market without regulation. Also, very many of our private Christian schools were founded after the court-ordered integration of the public schools. Not our Roman Catholic schools, and did you know that our Catholic schools do better than public schools at racial integration and economic diversity?
When Betsy DeVos was nominated, my wife reminded me that I used to agree with her. I wanted the separation of school and state, just like the separation of church and state, and I said it would be as good for the schools as it’s been for the church. There should be no direct funding of public schools, but parents should get vouchers to spend at any school that was accredited and certified, just like colleges are, be they Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, humanist, atheist, whatever.
I learned these ideas at the same Christian college that Betsy DeVos went to, three years behind me. We were not in the same circles but we imbibed the same religious ideology. I’ve moved on, but she still holds it, and has spoken out on it and spent millions of dollars advancing it.
This week she had to be political and tried to hide the religious side of it. But she’s a sincere Christian, and it’s an odd tribute to her Christian sincerity that her truth comes out, and she couldn’t hide that of course she is biased against public schools, nor does she want federal enforcement in schools of civil rights or LGBTQ equality. For a long time she’s been using her enormous wealth to fund the battle for the conservative Christian culture of the USA, and it looks like now she has official power to advance and defend conservative Christian values within our public institutions.
I get the desire for a Christian culture. My wife and I sent our daughter to the same Christian High School that the DeVos kids went to. I learned the richness of my faith in Christian schools and its application for all of life and culture. In Christian school the music was better than at church and we were academically ahead of public schools.
I desire a faith that is more than narrowly how to be good and save my soul, I desire a faith that is rich in poetry and thick in culture and deep in thought, strong for social justice and brilliant in the arts and intellectually powerful. I got that at school. The Kingdom of Heaven is larger than the church.
Look, it’s not a new idea that Christians should use economic power to advance the Kingdom of Heaven on earth and use political power to defend it. It goes back before the Roman Emperor Constantine. Christendom. The Holy Roman Empire. The Crusades. Queen Elizabeth is the Defender of the Faith and she was crowned in a church by a bishop. The churches in Germany are still funded by taxation. Our own congregation was established by the Dutch colonial government and paid for with taxes. The Kremlin in Moscow is a fortress with state-supported cathedrals inside it, and that’s just fine with Vladimir Putin. And Steve Bannon. And the President.
But against this is the Apostle Paul. In our epistle he bears witness to the power of the cross as the power of God. The cross is the Roman symbol of victimization, of disempowerment, of poverty, of powerlessness. The Kingdom of Heaven does not need political power or economic power for cultural power, and it doesn’t need to be defended. It’s a miracle, it’s a gift, it’s a free gift.
The Lord Jesus announced that the Kingdom of Heaven has come near, and we did not advance it nor do we build it—we receive it, in both repentance and joy. If we’re gathering power in the world in order to build the Kingdom and using lots of money to defend the Kingdom, then we’ve got the Kingdom wrong. We’ve got the wrong desire. We’re answering the wrong call. We’re aiming for the wrong kind of righteousness.
The word righteousness does not appear in any of our lessons today. It will next week, in spades, and it will play off the phrase that we did get this week: the power of God. This is the first half of a miniseries on the power of God, within my eight-part series on righteousness. Next week we’ll more explore what the power of God is like. This week we get the call of the disciples in Matthew, and in the Psalm we get desire. Call and desire. In terms of call and desire, let me propose two things:
First, I propose that when God’s call on you meets your desire, what you end up with is righteousness. The conjunction of God’s call on your life and your own desire for your life amounts to righteousness. I’ll say more about that in a minute.
Second, I propose that Jesus does not call us to political and economic power in order to advance and defend the Kingdom of Heaven, so any and all our efforts in that regard, be they legal, moral, and even sacrificial, may be admirable and culturally praiseworthy, but they do not count as righteousness.
Righteousness is not what you achieve but what you receive, and you have to receive it through the cross, the sign of loss and grief, the grief of God and the love of God for us; and the way to receive this grief and love of God for us is through repentance. Repentance is the border crossing of the Kingdom of Heaven, and you cross that border into joy. The Kingdom receives you.
The Lord Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.” And then he said to the fishermen, “Follow me.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. The call of God and their desire. The call of God and your desire, and what else is joy but the convergence of God’s call on you with your desires.
That’s why you want power, some power in your life, to get what you desire, to achieve what you desire; but the secret of the Kingdom of Heaven is that what you most desire you cannot achieve, you can only receive it, and it’s free, if you are willing freely to receive it, in your poverty, in your powerlessness, in what the world regards as weakness and humility.
Does the desire for God imply renunciation of some sort? It would seem so from the Psalm. To dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of your life implies the renunciation of family, home, and marketplace and concert hall. How much did those fishermen put behind them when they left their nets and followed Jesus? How did they continue to support their wives and families?
When you say Yes to the call of God, what must you say No to? Can you still say Yes to what you most deeply desire for your own life? How about even a rich Christian culture, the kind you get in Christian school? I will say Yes, we can, as long as you remember what God’s power is like (and not like), and how to receive it (not achieve it), and thus to share it, and that what you most desire is God’s call.
Last Sunday I saw that Jackson van Voorhees was reading The Hobbit. I think that one book did as much for my Christian faith as all of Christian school. Bilbo Baggins, one day sitting quietly at his door, and all of a sudden up walks Gandalf, and before he knows what’s happened he’s called away from it all to a great adventure, with suffering, and loss, and joy. Caught like a fish. You know, Jesus doesn’t wait for applications, he just calls you. And right there is the power of God, his calling you, his calling into you danger and suffering and freedom and joy.
How do you know that you’ve been called? Simple: do you desire righteousness? Not have you accomplished it but simply do you desire it? Do you desire God, do you want to know what God is like, which is another way of saying, do you seek God’s face? The only reason you are here today is because you’ve been called here. And God has called you here to receive the Kingdom of Heaven. It’s yours. It is God’s free gift of love to you.
Copyright © 2017, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.
Saturday, January 14, 2017
Isaiah 49:1-7, Psalm 40:1-7, 1 Corinthians 1:1-9, John 1:29-42
Dearly beloved, the opening words of our liturgy every Sunday morning are called the Votum and the Salutation. The Votum and Salutation have been the opening words of the official Reformed Church liturgy since 1563, and I stick to them for reasons both historical and theological.
The Votum is this: “Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” That’s from Psalm 124. Right off it reminds us who we are and why we’re here, and it means to put us in the proper frame of mind: This is about God, what we’re about to do, it’s about God and our need for God.
The Salutation is this: “Grace to you, and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” You heard it in our second reading, from 1 Corinthians. It’s a greeting from God, and the greeting from God is the first greeting you get in the service, before my welcome. Yes, I’m the one who says the greeting, but I do it as a vehicle, not the source. In technical terms, I “pronounce” the Salutation, just as I pronounce the Benediction, the last word of the service which is the goodbye from God.
I am deliberate and particular about these things, and maybe even rigid. I would do it differently if I were to follow the pattern of one of our sister churches in Manhattan, a dynamic and successful congregation. I would open the service like this: “Hello Old First! You look great! You’re beautiful, Old First!”
What do you think, shall I do that every week? Would you believe that I’m actually less against it than I used to be? I mean, doesn’t St. Paul say as much to the Corinthians? “In every way you are rich in God, in speech and all kinds of knowledge, and you’re not lacking in any spiritual gift.” You’re great, you Corinthians!
Well, of course, it’s only because of the gifts that God has given them. It’s not that they’re so great themselves as that God’s gifts are great among them. And yet those gifts are real among them, for not every early congregation enjoyed such gifts as the Corinthians did. Now St. Paul does not explicitly say that one of their gifts was righteousness, but he does call them “saints” and then he calls them “blameless,” and those two words together imply, I would say, the gift of righteousness.
Last week I said that righteousness can be real among you ordinary human beings, when you do what is right, as best you can, and upon your doing what is right you receive the wonderful, loving righteousness of God in the world. I said that the Holy Spirit synthesizes God’s righteousness with what you’re doing right to create the gift of real righteousness in you, real enough to be observed and recognized. So maybe I should open our service every week with this: “Hello Old First! You look righteous! You’re saints, Old First!”
This is the second sermon in a series on righteousness. Last week I also said that righteousness is not so much toeing the line on morality, it’s more about how you do right by those with whom you are in relationship, how you creatively invest in them in a way that’s right for them. And today I just said that righteousness is a real gift of God to you, and it can be recognized in you. Now, from our readings for today, is there anything else they can tell us about righteousness?
The word occurs twice in our Psalm: “I proclaimed righteousness in the great congregation; behold, I did not restrain my lips, and that, O Lord, you know. Your righteousness have I not hidden in my heart; I have spoken of your faithfulness and your deliverance; I have not concealed your love and faithfulness from the great congregation.” I proclaimed righteousness, your righteousness I have not hidden.
Here righteousness, the righteousness of God, is something you want to proclaim among your fellow believers, something you want to celebrate. When you receive a gift, you want to celebrate the gift.
When my son went to university up in the province of Newfoundland, he took room and board at a private home with a few other students. Whenever we called him, he was on the family phone, and you’d hear the household in the background. One evening, when I called him, he told me that the husband had just come back from hunting and had bagged a moose. This was good news, as there would be lots of meat all winter. In fact, for dinner they’d just had spaghetti and moose balls. We laughed, and then I asked him how come it sounded so quiet in the house. He said, “Oh! Yeah, they’re all down at the bar, they’re celebratin’ the moose!”
To celebrate righteousness is not what we think of. We think of righteousness as more of an obligation than a gift. Not that there’s anything wrong with obligations! Indeed, a gift can be an obligation! (De gave is de opgave.) But if the culture around us does not celebrate righteousness, then we must be counter-cultural and celebrate it.
And what we rejoice in are such characteristics of righteousness as are mentioned in the Psalm: faithfulness, deliverance, love, faithfulness again, compassion, love again, and faithfulness one more time. The faithfulness reminds us that righteousness is relational, an investment in the other, and deliverance and compassion remind us that it’s for the good of the other, so this relationship is love and the righteousness is love, and that is something to enjoy and celebrate.
You celebrate it not just because it is so rare, so often frustrated, so often betrayed, so often missing in the lives of lonely people, of isolated people, suffering people, abused people, or selfish people or even very successful, dominating and domineering people, dictators, politicians, users, and abusers. You can have the world on your plate without such righteousness, so when you see it valued and honored and sought for and exhibited you want to celebrate and proclaim it, but even if it were not rare, and if it were the ordinary way of things, you would celebrate it anyway.
From celebration it has to move to mission, that you be conduits and extenders of the righteousness you enjoy, that you work out that righteousness in the world that both needs it and resists it. The gift you are given is the gift you keep giving. The gift is your obligation. I want to come back to the mission side of righteousness in coming weeks. But for today I will stay with receiving the gift, without your having to earn it or even deserve it.
So return with me to the gospel lesson, from John chapter 1. Let me explain that there are two Johns: John the author and John the Baptist. John the author was one of the twelve disciples and the best friend of Jesus. He wrote his gospel after Matthew, Mark, and Luke were all available, and he assumes you know the story from one of them. So he doesn’t report the actual baptism of Jesus, but the commentary on it a day later by John the Baptist. And he brings out a different side of John the Baptist.
In the other gospels he’s a hell-fire and brimstone preacher: Repent! Repent! The Messiah is coming and you’re in for it! How different here: “Behold the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” Those words have been set to music a million times, it’s in the liturgy as the Agnus Dei, I’m going to teach you to sing it this Lent. “O lamb of God that takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us. O lamb of God that takest away the sins of the world, grant us thy peace.”
How much of the sin, how much does he take away? All of it? How totally, how widely, how gradually, how immediately? We feel like in our lives we still have some sin to get rid of, so how can he take away all the sin of the world, past, present, future?
Let me say here that we generally underestimate sin in two ways. On the one hand we underestimate how extensive it is, how thorough, how insidious and powerful and destructive it is. On the other hand we undervalue how totally the Lord Jesus has taken away the sin of the world. The Christian claim is that both are true, even if they sound contradictory, and I invite you to believe them both and also to confess them both.
If they’re taken away that leaves you blameless. There’s nothing to blame you of. That leaves you pristine and pure. That means you’re a saint, you’re a regular Mother Teresa. You’re righteous, you’re beautiful, you look great! And that sets your righteousness free.
Your righteousness does not have to pay for anything, or even be successful. Your righteousness can be creative, imaginative, playful, joyful, experimental. It is liberated to be liberating. It is unleashed to be faithful. It’s an obligation that’s a gift, it’s absolutely free for love. Yes, your righteousness can be as experimental and as creative and as free as the love of God is for the world and for you.
Copyright © 2017, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.
Friday, January 06, 2017
Isaiah 42:1-9, Psalm 29, Acts 10:34-43, Matthew 3:13-17
This past Friday was Epiphany, the Twelfth Day of Christmas, the day that marks the Visit of the Magi. The word Epiphany means “manifestation,” that is, an appearance, an exposure to the public. The Sundays after Epiphany mark the successive exposures of the Lord Jesus, of which the most important was his baptism. We don’t know whether the Lord Jesus had any expectation of the dove or the voice from heaven, but they confirmed his identity and mission both for himself and for the public. His baptism was his coming out, his debut, his commissioning. Time to get to work.
This may be the sixteenth time I’ve preached to you on the Baptism of Jesus, and the sixth time I’ve preached on Matthew’s version on it. This time around I want to look at what the Lord Jesus said to John the Baptist in their brief exchange, to wit: “John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper in this way to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then he consented.” What does that mean, “to fulfill all righteousness?”
To answer that question is going to take eight weeks. This is the first sermon in an eight-part series on Righteousness. The Hebrew word is tzedek. It’s a very frequent word in the Torah and the Prophets, and it’s important to the Lord Jesus as well, especially in the Gospel of Matthew. In Matthew’s version of the Christmas story we read that Joseph was a righteous man, which was the best thing you could say about a man. The Lord Jesus speaks often of righteousness in his teaching.
As important as it was to them, it’s hardly a priority for us. We rarely use the word in daily life. You did not use “righteousness” to evaluate our presidential candidates. You don’t use the word to describe your friends, and I doubt that righteousness is something you even unconsciously aspire to. But the Lord Jesus did, as indicated by his words to John.
I’m going to preach on it not only because it’s a key word in the Bible, but also because the word assumes the union of things that we generally separate, like church and state, or spiritual and civil. We’ve been put off recently by how some Christian groups are trying to combine these again, claiming that America is a Christian nation, and wanting Christian personal morality to be enforced by law. We should not let the misuse of the gospel cancel the holistic Biblical vision that is implied by the word tzedek.
The word righteousness unifies personal goodness and social justice, and harmonizes doing right with human rights. This unity and harmony in human righteousness is a reflection and extension of the unity and harmony of God, for God is righteous most of all, and you are righteous for the sake of God. So, is this righteousness for you? Do you want to be righteous? Are you interested in God’s righteousness in the world, do you want to share in it?
I believe that the righteousness of God in the world is what the Lord Jesus was speaking of with John the Baptist. The whole historical stream of the righteousness of God from Genesis to Malachi—he was putting himself in front of that. In other words, he wasn’t just going to do his own thing, he was claiming the history of God’s work behind him, driving him and even pushing him. He was saying he wanted to capture that in what he’d do—he’d ride it, flow with it, channel it, express it.
But also, and more than it, expand it, because what he said to John can be translated differently, “For it is proper in this way to fill up all righteousness,” or even “fill out all righteousness.” So he saw himself as the one who would expand the righteousness of God within the world. He dared to see himself as in control of God’s righteousness. I suspect he already had an inkling of how costly it would be for him to do this, but only as Matthew unfolds the story will we see all that this righteousness entails.
We do know that the Lord Jesus was guided by the prophecies of Isaiah, especially by the so-called Servant Songs in the second half of the book. One of these Servant Songs provides our first reading, the call of God upon the Servant. God says, “I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness.” God calls, and the tone of voice God uses sounds like righteousness.
Righteousness is relational, it’s the tone of the relationship between God and the servant whom God is calling. Righteousness is not so much an abstract and objective standard out there but a personal investment, and there’s freedom in it. God is freely entering into a binding relationship with the Servant, and in this relationship each party has rights, and the goodness of the relationship requires the rightness of their mutual behaviors. Righteousness is a freely chosen behavior within a relationship. That means righteousness is creative, and active, and an investment in someone.
Like when Joseph took the pregnant Mary to be his wife. He could have chosen for the familiar kind of righteousness, regarding appearances, keeping the rules, standing on his right, but he dared to choose the more risky kind of righteousness in relationship, freely choosing Mary, investing in her in the midst of her predicament and serving her in her special mission and sharing it with her.
A righteousness not defensive but generative, not wall-building but life-sharing. A bruised reed he will not break, a dimly burning wick he will not quench, he will bring forth justice in the earth. He will not stand upon his rights, he will bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness. This is a righteousness of liberation and a justice of restoration. This is a creative, investing kind of righteousness. Is this the kind of righteousness for you? Do you want it, to receive it and to have it and to do it? What do you need in order to practice it?
Most people want to do the right thing. Yes, I know there’s lots of scary and conniving people out there, especially the ones who get elected around the world, but even they probably think they are doing what is right. And the Bible can sometimes sound very tolerant of this. In our second reading, for example, St. Peter says “that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” Is that the same as righteousness, doing what is right?
But what is right in one nation is often wrong in another. And then not doing what is wrong is not necessarily the same as doing what is right. Doing what is right often goes farther than not doing what is wrong. It is not righteousness to just not do what is wrong. But then you can do what is right without it being righteousness. I’m sure that in general you want to do what is always the right thing to do, but it would seem that righteousness aspires to more than that.
Righteousness means aspiration. Righteousness means character. Righteousness means commitment, and hard choices, and sacrifice. Righteousness means investment and relationship. And when it means investment in relationships it looks like love. Maybe that’s why it had to wait for the Lord Jesus to come into the world for it to be filled out, for it had to be a righteousness full of love, brimming with radical love, pouring out sacrificial love.
John the Baptist wanted to prevent Jesus from being baptized because he saw baptism first and foremost as the sign of a person’s repentance, and he could not imagine that the Messiah should have anything to repent of. John the Baptist expected that the Messiah should be righteous already. But the righteousness of this Messiah will be an outgoing righteousness, embracing, investing, God with us, getting baptized along with sinners, eating with prostitutes as well as Pharisees, drinking with tax-collectors as well as scribes, touching the untouchable.
We have seven weeks more for this, but already I can say that what it means for you is this: you, for your part, you do what is right, as best you can. And God, for God’s part, works God’s own righteousness in the world, through God’s Word and Spirit and love. And the righteousness of God takes up your doing right into a synthesis which is your own righteousness.
It’s a process, it takes a life time. Your righteousness is not your accomplishment but the gift that you receive upon what you do that is right. You aspire for the righteousness of God, and God meets your aspiration with love, and righteousness is worked into your character by the power of the love of God. I know that this is what you want, the righteousness of the love of God.
Copyright © 2017, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.