Friday, June 03, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 26, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, May 21, 2016

May 22, Feast of the Holy Trinity: God Is Too Much for One

Romans 5:1-5, John 16:12-15

At the risk of sounding disrespectful, or as my grandmother would say “spotten,” let me say this: From Easter through Pentecost we took God apart and now on Trinity Sunday we put God back together.

On Easter, when Jesus rose from the dead, his disciples finally recognized him as their Lord and God, no less God than the Father is God, and yet a separate person than the Father. So on Easter all of a sudden we had two persons in One God.

Then on Pentecost God opened up again as the Holy Spirit, coming down upon God’s people. This Spirit was not just an energy, but also a person. So by Pentecost we now had three persons. Yes, the Easter Season tells the story of God opening up God’s self as three persons. In the Easter we acknowledge the glory of this Trinity, today, the first Sunday afterward, we worship the Unity.

Christians love this doctrine of the Trinity. For us it’s the foundation of saying that "God is love." The love of God is not some impersonal force, but something very personal, it’s the love of God the Father for God the Son, and the love of God the Son for God the Father, and the love of both of them for the Spirit, and the love of the Spirt for the both of them, and that love circles and rises up and overflows into the world and even onto us. That’s what we mean by God is love.

And God is joy. These three persons eternally enjoy each other. This inner joy of God was described by ancient theologians as the dance of God, perichoresis is the word—that these three persons dance with each other eternally and joyfully, moving between each other in and out, and they share their mutual joy with us, and with the birds and trees and galaxies.

Well, all of that is lovely, but, really, how can this be? The contradiction is obvious. How can you claim three persons and still have One God? How could Jesus talk as he did in our gospel lesson, of three different persons, the person of the Father and the person of the Spirit along with his own person, and yet still have confessed that most ancient creed in the Bible, “Sh’ma Yisroel, Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad,” Hear O Israel, the Lord our God the Lord is One? How could his disciples and apostles continue to worship the same God as Abraham and Moses, and yet speak of three persons?

We call it a mystery. Is that a dodge? Or can a mystery be also a reality, like the mysteries of modern physics, which we recognize as real, and yet beyond the capacity of our logic to unravel their apparent contradictions.

Our confession of the Trinity has had its costs. The worst cost is the tragic division between the Christians and the Jews, between the adopted children of Abraham and the natural children of Abraham who are the very relatives of God the Son. We Christians have made this division so horrible that if Jesus had lived later on in Europe, he would have been killed in a pogrom or the holocaust, and baptized Christians would have killed him. To be anti-Semitic is to be anti-Christ.

We Jews and Christians have been bound together by God. We both love the very same Adonai Eloheinu, and yet we tell conflicting stories of this one God we both love. You know, my brother and I tell conflicting stories about my dad. Family fights are the worst fights, but we are family. We are the family of Abraham, Jews by birth and Christians by adoption. Baptism is always an adoption, it’s being born again. When we are baptized we are adopted into that one great family that walked through the Red Sea with dry feet.

The family of God is not what you’d call a traditional family—we have two religions within it and we’re in it both by birth and by adoption. Every baptism proclaims a godly unity that witnesses against the conflicts and contradictions. Every baptism demands us to hold these things by faith, and not divide what God has brought together. And that’s what we’re doing here today.

Now I should say that the doctrine of the Trinity is not absolutely illogical. It is not nonsensical. Here is how: we all agree that God is not confined to time and space. God is free from the laws of time and space, and God can be anywhere God wants at any time, and in more than one place at the same time. God is free within the laws of time and space because God created time and space and has authority over them. The same is true of logic and mathematics. God created logic and mathematics, and God has authority over logic and mathematics and also freedom within them.

So the mathematical number “one” is not more powerful than God, as if while being true of God it can confine God. God can be One and yet also be something that does not seem like One to our smaller minds. God can be One and seemingly not One at the same time. God has given logic to us as a gift for our understanding, but logic cannot limit God, or it would be God’s prison. The one-ness of God is not controlled by the one-ness of other things in mathematics or logic.

Now this is not a proof of the Trinity, it cannot be proven, but it is to say that it is not nonsensical or even completely illogical. The point of it is that God is always free to be what only God can be, and yet God is always faithful to what God has been. God is the One, and God is the One you can count on. God is free and God is faithful. The Lord our God, the Lord is One!

This freedom and faithfulness of God with us is what we claim in Christian baptism, and we will claim it again today when we baptize two little children, Eitan and Nadav. We will pronounce their names and then pronounce the names of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The names denote the actors involved, because baptism is something we do and we can see, but it is even more something God does, invisibly, free from our sense perception. God is free and able within time and space to be faithful and gracious to these two little boys throughout their lives.

“We are baptized in the name of the Father because God the Father witnesses and seals to us that God makes an eternal covenant of grace with us, and adopts us for his children and heirs, and therefore will provide us with every good thing, and avert all evil or turn it to our profit.” (Gereformeerde Doopformulier.) Here is God as the God of Abraham, making covenant, saying secretly to the souls of these boys, “I will be your God, and you will be my children.”

“We are baptized in the name of the Son because God the Son witnesses and seals to us that he washes us in his blood from all our sins, incorporating us into the fellowship of his death and resurrection, so that we are freed from all our sins and accounted as righteous before God.” Here the Lord Jesus becomes for us the high priest of Israel, making today a Yom Kippur, a Day of Atonement, in which we are freed from all our sins by his own loving sacrifice.

“We are baptized in the name of the Holy Spirit because the Holy Spirit assures us, by means of this holy Sacrament, that God will dwell in us, and sanctify us to be members of Christ, applying to us all that we have in the Messiah, the washing away of all our sins and the daily renewing of our lives, till we shall finally be presented without spot or wrinkle among the assembly of God’s chosen people in life eternal.” Here the Holy Spirit is the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night who leads us through the Red Sea with dry feet and who faithfully journeys with us through the wilderness until we reach the Promised Land.

Such great promises, and such a simple, little sacrament! How can we hold it all in? Just as we have One God, with a Oneness too great for our ideas, a God who is so rich and so complex with inner life—small enough to come inside these baby boys and great enough to surround the universe and hold it like a mother in her bosom. One God, but not compact like a pebble, or a diamond, or a perfect stone, but like a heart, a beating heart, with space inside, and movement inside, and tender enough for suffering.

So we boast in God’s suffering, because God’s suffering proves God’s endurance, and God’s endurance proves God’s character, and God’s character give us hope, and that "hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured from God’s heart into your hearts through the Holy Spirit" who gives God’s self to you.

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

Saturday, May 14, 2016

May 15, Pentecost: We Will Be Satisfied

Acts 2:1-21, Psalm 104, Romans 8:14-17,  John 14:8-17, 25-27

Philip said to Jesus, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” What did he mean? Why did he say that? Satisfied with you, Jesus? Satisfied with your work, satisfied with religion, satisfied with life? How big a question is it, for us too—that if Jesus can just show us God the Father, that will suffice? For how long? For all of your life? Through thick and thin, that this one vision will sustain you?

Are you satisfied with your life? More or less? I know that I am not fully satisfied. Not that I lack anything, not that I’m not incredibly privileged and blessed. Not that it troubles me anymore, like it used to. My lack of satisfaction is more positive than negative, it’s more like hope, or longing, it is kind of wistful. This lack of satisfaction does not detract from my life, it adds to it.

You are not meant to be satisfied. At least not with the here and now. You are designed for something more, you are meant for transcendence, and you are bound, as long as you live, to feel your incompletion.

Our besetting sin is to get satisfaction from substitutes. They can occupy you but not satisfy you. This leads to all kinds of evil, and we corrupt good things by wanting too much from them. Yes, “Love calls us to the things of this world,” but they cannot fully satisfy.

A few of you remember Gladys Rodriguez, an elegant elderly member here who passed away some years ago. She gave me this quotation from a Spanish mystic she was reading, St. John of the Cross: “Quien a Dios tiene nada le falta, sólo Dios basta.” “Whoever holds to God lacks nothing, only God satisfies.” Is that what Philip is asking for? The final satisfaction, the ultimate satisfaction, that having it, makes everything else satisfactory? “Lord, show us the Father, and we shall be satisfied.”

Earlier in John’s Gospel, Philip is presented as a critic. Not so much a doubter as a skeptic. His Greek name suggests he came from a liberal family. He’s a bit the outsider, even after Pentecost. Not that liberal Jews were not devout believers, we need not doubt his real devotion, but like many devout believers he seems to want more. Do you want more?

Not that you doubt God, not that you don’t love God, but you want to be closer. Maybe you want that special, electric, intimate contact with God that shakes you so you can’t forget it. If you could just see God once, just once would be enough. Would this help you among your friends who are skeptical of religion or agnostic or atheist? You could say, “Yes, I have seen God, quite satisfactorily, so you could too!”

If God would just do that for us it would make it easier to be a Christian nowadays. Why doesn’t God just show Godself, and convince the skeptics and the atheists? And while we’re at it, why doesn’t God let the whole world see God as the Father—the Father of Jesus, which implies the Trinity, and that would certainly simplify the whole world religions thing and the Jewish-Christian-Muslim thing, not to mention a lot of Middle-eastern politics.

But no, let’s just say we agree with St. John of the Cross, and we accept that we are meant to be unsatisfied except for God. Fine, but then, please, can we see a little more of God the Father? Well, apparently according to Jesus, that’s not God’s way. According to Jesus the way to see the Father is by contemplating Jesus. You see Jesus, you see the Father.

But isn’t that like seeing a picture of the Grand Canyon instead of the Grand Canyon itself? Or maybe it’s like: Who is the true Beethoven, the one you could meet on the street or the one you can hear in his symphonies? So contemplating Jesus is the satisfactory way, in this life, of seeing God.

But there’s still a problem. Jesus can be just as far away as his Father is. He left us so long ago when he ascended into heaven. So that’s where the Holy Spirit comes in, who came in Jesus’ place, and there is a promise in the belief that the Holy Spirit is just as much God in its own right as the Father and Son are in theirs. We can see God in the Holy Spirit. Right here and now. We can see God in the Holy Spirit, when we learn to look at the world through the eyes of Jesus.

But the way it happens, since Pentecost, is that God no longer stands distinct from us but enters into us. God no longer speaks apart from us but speaks through our own voices. As at Pentecost. We see God in the community of God. In our various looks and colors and skins and sexualities and dialects and voices and our stories. In our suffering with God, and in our sense of glory.

One of the questions I’m asked most often is why God doesn’t talk to us today like God talked to people back in Bible times. Well, even in Bible times God didn’t say very much; if you add it all up you get just a few hours of talk, over four thousand years, which is about six seconds a year. You can’t say much in six seconds. Actually, God is much more talkative today, but in the mode of the Holy Spirit. Which means God talks through us, like how Beethoven talks through an orchestra. You cannot separate the sound of God from the sound of our voices, but together it is there.

Some things God has to say just once for all, that are lasting and stand firm, those words are in the Bible, the history of Israel and the story of Jesus and his apostles. But those same things God wants to pronounce in new ways and in new tones with new insights and applications and adaptations for different cultures and continents and languages, and that’s how God talks today, through us, through the community which is the church. That’s the point of the miracle of Pentecost. God is still speaking. God’s here after all.

Does that satisfy? Is that enough? Is that intimate enough? Is that direct enough? I think it is, but not when you stand there on your own, in all your pride and strength, as a critic in the fortress of your mind. From that standpoint you just can’t see God. But when you come in need of mercy, and in gratitude for mercy, and in gratitude for mercy every day, not only from the world—mercy from the trees and the birds and the ground you walk on, mercy from people who love you, your children, your spouse, your friends, but also mercy from God, when you look for mercy you can see God.

And then when you see God, you will want to praise God. Last Monday, at our elders meeting, we had our usual closing prayers, and we asked for God to bless our work, and bless our congregation, as usual, and then, unusually, one of our elders prayed this: “Because we want to praise you, God, and we praise you.” And I thought, Oh yes! that is our ultimate motivation, for doing church, for being Christians, for practicing mercy, in order to praise God.

That’s why you came here today, not only to be encouraged, inspired, and comforted, but to put yourself within the praise of God.

You know, that has to be our ultimate and most important motivation for the renovation of our sanctuary. No matter what else it offers in terms of mission and hospitality, we finally have to do it for the praise of God. Why are you doing all this work on the building? To praise God. Teaching Sunday School? To praise God. Why are you doing all this work for the Respite Shelter? To praise God. Praising God is recognizing God, and praising God is seeing God for who God is. When put yourself in the middle of praise, you get two things back, you get God, and you get yourself, and in that moment you are satisfied.

The story of Pentecost is a double one. There’s the big story, the global story, the story of God coming down into world history, the Holy Spirit recreating the world, of which the first-fruit is the church. The Holy Spirit is the Creator, the Lord and Giver of Life. There’s also the personal story, a more private story, of the Holy Spirit entering into your own heart. The Holy Spirit is the Advocate, the Paraclete, the Comforter. God’s love in your heart connects you to God’s love in the world, this love divine, all loves excelling.

So you respond in praise, as in Psalm 104: I will sing to the Lord as long as I live; I will praise my God while I have my being. May these words of mine please God; I will rejoice in the Lord. Bless the Lord, O my soul, Hallelujah.

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

Saturday, May 07, 2016

May 8, Easter 7: "What Must I Do to Be Saved?"

(The Tin Man is Silas, the Scarecrow Paul, the Lion is the Jailer, and Dorothy is Jesus.)

Acts 16:16-34, Psalm 97, Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-26, John 17:20-26

“What must I do to be saved?” That is the question. That’s a more pressing question than whether to be or not to be. Hillary Clinton be thinking, “What must I do to be saved from Bernie Sanders?” Are you thinking, “What must I do to be saved from Hillary Clinton?” or are you thinking, “What must I do to be saved from Donald Trump?” You know the answers: “Believe in Donald Trump, believe in Hillary Clinton.”

Most often the answer is not belief but some action plan. The residents of Fort MacMurray, Alberta have to do specific things to get saved from the terrible wildfires burning around them. Some Americans believe that in order to be safe they have to carry their own guns. That means they no longer believe in the police to be safe. They no longer believe that most basic principle of civilization, that the government should have a monopoly on violence. That principle is why there was a Pax Romana, to the advantage of the mission of the apostles.

In our story, when the Philippian jailer asked the question, he wasn’t asking about the saving of his soul but about the saving of his neck, and about the safety of his household from the potential retribution of the magistrates. That they were vengeful and violent is apparent in their treatment of Paul and Silas on minimal accusation.

This was a city of the Roman army, and what is an army but the organization of violence for power. An army uses violence for the safety of its citizens and for the imposition of its will upon the unwilling. But violence can never be fully organized, it always pushes out, it breaks out, and expands like fire, and feeds on itself, violence producing violence.

When the jailer asked the question, I think what he wanted was an action plan, to anticipate the magistrates and take some steps to defend his household against the worst. And so the answer that Paul gives is a strange one. “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, and your household.” What?

Do you mean I should run to the shrine of some foreign deity and quick make a sacrifice? But there are no such shrines allowed in Philippi, only the temples to Mars and Jupiter and to the deified Caesars. Or do you mean that some Jewish general will intervene on my behalf tomorrow morning? Do you mean that some Jewish aristocrat will strike a deal with the magistrates? Do you mean I should not do anything, but depend on somebody I do not know to act on my behalf? What could you mean by what you are saying?

This invitation by St. Paul to “believe” was extravagant. It offered no action plan but to believe in Jesus as the Lord who could save him from the very power of Rome that he had been serving up till now. And for Rome, it was Caesar who was entitled the Lord and Savior, especially among the army. The Caesars had saved the Roman Empire from self-destruction, at the Battle of Actium just  down the road, and it was on their having saved the empire that they claimed their lordship. Well, the empire maybe, but this jailer was expendable. He had to save himself, but he couldn’t see how.

So he asks, “What can I do to be saved?” The extravagant answer is that there is nothing to do but trust this Lord Jesus to save you. We have no proof, only the evidence of the earthquake, and the doors opened, and our chains unfastened—by the way, all signs and metaphors of the resurrection—and we did already save you from your suicide.

Has he got a choice? What a predicament. How unlike with Lydia, in last week’s story, also in Philippi. Her choice for Jesus was free and peaceful, her life was fine. The jailer’s choice is life and death and in the midst of  violence. And the result is just as wonderfully dramatic. If Lydia’s big house became the church in Philippi, tonight so does this jailer’s humble apartment, tonight like the stable in Bethlehem, the light of Jesus shining in the dark.

And what happened there describes a worship service: First they spoke the word of the Lord to everyone in the house—that’s the sermon. Then the jailer washes their wounds, which is baptismal, and a kind of absolution, plus the actual baptism, and then you get Communion when he serves the meal and they all rejoice. When they were in chains they had been singing hymns, and now they are singing Gospel songs!

So what’s the salvation here? Well, the jailer goes through a transfer of sovereignty, he gets moved in place. He doesn’t cross a border but the border crosses over him, and in his baptism he gets naturalized, from the sovereignty of the Lord Caesar to the sovereignty of the Lord Jesus. He may or may not have been a Roman citizen, but tonight he’s made a citizen of the City of God.

Lordship and salvation. The one goes with the other. The Caesars were lords of  Rome as long they were saving Rome. And if the Lord Jesus cannot save you, why have him as your Lord? What salvation does he offer you, that you can believe he will deliver for you? There are many salvation stories in the Bible, and many aspects to salvation, like the salvation of your souls at death, and salvation from the fear of death, et cetera. But what’s the aspect of salvation offered in this story?

Salvation is freedom, and first it’s freedom from your circumstances and then it’s freedom within your circumstances. The circumstance of the slave girl was the exploitation of her spiritual gift, and the circumstance of the jailer was the dominance of violence and the power of death, which would have caused his suicide.

We are not told what happened to the slave girl after her liberation, nor do we know whether the jailer kept his job or if the magistrates left him alone. But that’s the message here. The jailer was saved from the bondage of death for the freedom of the resurrection. He entered a freedom from the compulsions of circumstance, that same freedom that Paul and Silas evidenced even in their shackles as they sang and prayed.

So that no matter what the magistrates might do to him, the jailer was be free from the bondage of fear. That’s a most precious benefit of salvation, the freedom of your mind and of your soul within your circumstances. And what that freedom results in is joy. The story ends with their rejoicing. Freedom from your circumstance is joy. So the first aspect of salvation here is joy.

The second aspect is service. Not servitude, not subservience, but service freely chosen. Look, the guy who had shackled them now washed their wounds and fed them. Their guard become their nurse, their keeper became their host. He exercised his freedom directly within his circumstance. He remained their keeper, they did not run away, but the circumstance of hostility became the circumstance of hospitality. Salvation is freedom for service precisely within and for your circumstance.

That’s important for Old First. It’s a circumstance of our congregation that we have inherited this building. No other Protestant congregation around here has been handed such a heavy gift. We do not run away from it. A variety of missions is available to congregations, and we choose our mission within and for our circumstance.

Our particular community of Jesus is freely choosing to serve God in paint and plaster and ceiling ribs. We do this for lavish hospitality, a house of healing, a sanctuary of reconciliation, and a shelter of peace. In a few moments Cynthia Ponce is going to speak to you about our Respite Shelter, and for you to serve in this Respite Shelter is an incarnation of salvation. The homeless men will tell you how they enjoy finding rest within the glory.

I like to end my sermons on love, the love of God. I think I can again today. Listen, you can believe that when you freely chose for joy and the service of hospitality, you are yielding to a power that is greater than your own, which is the power and glory of the love of God. So I end with the words of the gospel: “The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, . . . so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you loved me.”

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

Thursday, April 28, 2016

May 1, Easter 6: Faithful to the Lord

Acts 16:9-15, Psalm 67, Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5, John 14:23-29

Our three lessons this morning differ so much in tone and style and literary effect.

The first lesson, from Acts, reads like journalism, like some travel writing in a magazine.

The second lesson, from the Revelation, is a fantastic vision, in a graphic and cosmic genre that no one writes in today except artificially.

And then the gospel lesson is intensely conversational, but with John's unique tone that is simultaneously intimate and distant, at once appealing and evasive, both comforting and confusing. "How can we find ourselves in what you are telling us? Is there any room in what you say for me?"

One of the things I love about the Bible is the variety of voices within the various genres of its literature. Compared to other scriptures of the world, the Bible feels complex and messy and even contradictory.

The Holy Qur‘an is an extended unitary recitation in a single voice. This generates an  Islam that is unitary and efficient, even in its schisms. This expresses its vision of a unitary God, singular, absolutely absolute, the exaltation of oneness. And in that unitary singleness is their peace.

But the Bible generates a religion which is messy and complex, not unitary but a field, a room, and it plays across the boundaries of logic and essence. This expresses our vision of God, who is a unity but also an eternal interplay of persons in relationship, and in that interplay is love. That love makes space, and God moves into that space that God's love creates, and in that space is our peace.

The Bible claims that God loves to come and dwell in us, not merely in the world, but inside us, inside us human creatures. That is something no Muslim would ever want to say. God would never dwell in such a mess. In their view, God does not play like that. God does not play at being God.

We Christians treasure this interplay. And this morning we have the interplay of these three divergent lessons. When you try to bind them together they don't compact, they push against each other, they make a space between them, a room, and in that space you find the flowing of faith and love, two energies also in interplay. What I feel in these three lessons is the dynamic relationship of faith and love, both of which you want, and what you want to be able to do well. That's one reason you came here today, to practice your faith and your love, and to find yourself within this room.

In the Gospel lesson, Jesus says that if you love him, himself, Jesus, then God comes into you and dwells in you, and not just part of God, but, strangely, the whole of God, as Father and Son and Holy Spirit. We thought God was supposed to dwell in heaven, but Jesus says that God's dwelling is inside human beings, any human being, and in many human beings at once.

How much is this metaphor? How much is this real? Or is it both reality and metaphor? This all could say so much as to end up meaningless, which is why the Christian church developed the careful doctrine of the Holy Trinity, in order to not say foolish things. So we would say that God still does dwell in heaven, but yet also in you, by means of God's Spirit. And what our Gospel lesson says is that how God moves into you is through the hallway of your love for Jesus.

The lesson from the Revelation says it differently. The angel shows John the city of God coming down into the world, so that the dwelling of God will be among the peoples of the earth. Not inside us but among us, at the center, uniting the nations all together. So the terms are different.

The vision speaks to the landscape of the earth, of streets and a river and a tree, and of the glory and honor of the nations, which means our cultures and societies, our musics and arts and histories and languages and economies. Of course the vision is a metaphor, but how else shall you speak of a new reality? The vision expands into all the world. The earth will be full of the glory of God.

But, again, the gospel's conversation is about the inner space of the human soul. That's personal and smaller. But just how small? Rather, how vast is the inner landscape of your human soul. Your human brain (Marilynne Robinson) is the most complex organism that we know of in the universe. Your complex brain supports your expansive inner life. There is plenty of room inside you for God.

As God dwells in you, God inhabits your musings and your memories and the tunes you hum and all your remembered conversations with your friends and relatives. To love Jesus is to welcome God in, and you love Jesus somewhat with your feelings, yes, but I think mostly in your mind.

And now, from the Acts, again the terms are different. God is moving in to dwell in the house of Lydia. We read that God opened her heart to listen eagerly to the message of Paul, and then she opened her home, which was also her place of business, to be the house of God within the city of Philippi.

That was a big deal, because Philippi was a colonia, a Roman military city, specially dedicated to the Roman gods of Mars and Julius Caesar, and therefore intolerant of any other gods within the walls. That's why the women had to pray to the God of Israel outside of town.

That's why it wasn't a given that Paul could absolutely trust in Lydia to be faithful. Her business was selling purple garments to the upper class men of Philippi, who wore the purple as a sign of their power and prestige. But when she got baptized into the sovereignty of Jesus she put herself in tension with the loyalties of her clients to the sovereignty of Caesar.

Could she keep faithful? Did Paul believe that she knew what she was doing when she got baptized? Could he trust her? Could he have faith in her? She believed that she could be faithful to herself. Blessed Lydia, who was faithful to herself and called on Paul to honor that. And so his faith in her-faith-in-Jesus was the hallway through which the reign of God was entering into her household and God was dwelling in Philippi.

Faith. Faithful. Trust. Trustworthy. Fidelity. These words all relate to love. The feeling of love, yes, but more the practice of love. As Jesus says in the gospel, "Those who love me will keep my words." He's talking about your fidelity as the expression of your love.

Your love and your faith are how you cross the gaps between us as individuals, your love and your faith are how you maintain your relationships across the spaces between us, your love and your faith are how we hold together across the differences that would force us apart. Your faith in me allows me to love you back. Your love to me calls me to be faithful to you. I believe in you, and you believe in me.

That's how we keep crossing the space between us. We want some room between us, we don't want to collapse into each other, we don't want to become unitary, we value the wonderful dancing of our differences, and so our unity is of community, just as the One God is a Trinity. There is room in here for you.

Jesus said these things, on the night before he died, to his friends whom he knew would desert him. How could he say to them, "Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you." How could he be at peace? If not in his feelings, at least in his mind—that he had to trust in the long-term faithfulness of God his Father, that God would keep those resurrection promises, and he had to believe that God would love him to the end, and through the end and past the end to the new beginning.

I am inviting you today into this same peace, which you can believe in, and which will get you through your nights of trial and suffering. I am inviting you to love Jesus with your mind, to believe in him as the faithful medium of God's promises, for precisely in and through your believing God makes a spacious home in you, and you become a dwelling place of the love of God for all the world.

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

Saturday, April 23, 2016

April 24, Easter 5: Welcoming and Affirming

Acts 11:1-18
Psalm 148
Revelation 21:1-6
John 13:31-35

Our Gospel lesson takes place the night before Jesus died, in the Upper Room. When Judas Iscariot scuttles off-stage, the spotlight is on this intimate conversation between Jesus and the eleven disciples. This is the calm and quiet scene before the drama gets all tragic and ugly.

Jesus says this little speech that is contradictory—that in his death he will be glorified, and then it is circular—that in his being glorified he will glorify God, and God will glorify Godself in him, and God will glorify him. And then he calls them into love. This language is too rich for them, and they cannot understand it, not yet, not till after the resurrection, and after the coming of the Holy Spirit, and even then it will take a few years, at least, for the Apostles to work it out.

The Apostle Peter is a case in point. Here is a man who has to learn the love of God, who has to convert his love. Earlier in the gospels you can see how much Peter loved Jesus, and how he swore to lay down his life for him, and when Jesus was arrested it was his love for his Lord that led him into that dark place that he could not handle when he ended up denying him. After the resurrection, at that breakfast on the beach, the Lord challenged him to keep on loving, but to convert his love.

In our lesson from Acts, Peter gives an account of what you could call a conversion of his love. He is having to defend himself before a special council of the Apostles and the brethren. He had done a controversial thing without their prior consent. He had welcomed and affirmed some Roman soldiers. Who were not circumcised. Without requiring them to get circumcised. He just quick baptized them and broke the bread with them—which means Holy Communion. He had welcomed them into the full communion of the church, against the rules.

What rules? The rules in the Bible, the only Bible the early church had as yet, the same Bible as the synagogue, the Torah and the prophets. And the Torah was very clear, that no one could share the sacred meal who was not circumcised. So if the soldiers were uncircumcised they were unclean, they were unkosher, just as unkosher as all the Gentile food they ate. Pork. Reptiles. Shellfish. Calamari. Disgusting, enough to make one wretch. And with unwashed hands. Did Jesus die for this?

Peter defends himself by saying that hadn’t been his own idea, that it was God’s idea, and God set it up, and there was no getting around it. The Holy Spirit had come down upon these Roman soldiers just as it had come down on them. This was the doing of the Lord Jesus. Whom the Lord Jesus considers clean, we should not call unclean. Whomever the Lord Jesus has welcomed and affirmed, we should welcome and affirm.

Welcome is one thing, but affirm is another. When I say affirm, I’m saying that Peter did not ask those soldiers to change. He not only did not ask them to get circumcised, he did not ask them to stop being Roman soldiers, and to stop participating in the heavy occupation of the Jewish homeland. These weren’t just any Gentiles, they were the oppressors of his people. They were the ones who took at will their produce and fish, who made them carry their baggage, who could flog them and beat them as needed, and who could take their daughters for their pleasure with impunity. Even if these soldiers were all good guys, it can’t have been easy to have baptized them.

So it’s not only these soldiers who are converted—Simon Peter had to be converted in his love. And no doubt in his feelings and his very body. Consider his vision of unkosher food. If you’ve been conditioned your whole life against certain foods, you find those foods literally “dis-gusting”. Emotionally, physically, even when it’s other people you see eating them.

Consider what it was like for Simon Peter, in his body, being surrounded in a room by Roman soldiers. Not where any Galilean Jew would ever like to be. A place of physical risk and vulnerability. And then, to baptize them, he’s got to touch them, and I’ll bet he’d never dared touch a Roman soldier before. And then he had to sit among them, and after blessing and breaking the bread he will be offered food he’s been conditioned his whole life to avoid. Oysters! “Uh, no thanks, I’ll pass.”

I’m talking about the conversion of your love. Love begins in your childhood as a feeling, that’s natural, and even the most exalted and selfless love, I think, must have has some feeling in it. But while the love of Christ embraces human feeling, it is not grounded in your feelings and can even be counter to your feelings. Especially your feelings of dislike, and often your feelings of disgust, and most of all your feelings of fear.

You cannot do this with a natural human love that just tries harder, you have to convert your natural love into resurrection love, that love that comes from God, the love that God has within God’s self, among the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and now pours out into you in power of the Spirit. If God so loved those Roman soldiers as to inhabit them, how can Simon Peter refuse to love them too? And so Peter has to convert his feelings into the love of God.

So does the church. At that special council the other Apostles and brethren had to get converted too. And it takes a long time for the church to convert. Consider the implications of what Peter had done. If you do away with circumcision, then there is no longer any sacramental distinction between men and women. I don’t know if anyone in that special council could foresee it, but what Peter had done implicitly gave women equal status in the church to men. It has taken two thousand years for the church to begin to work this out, and much of the church still resists it.

And if you do away with circumcision, you are removing the sign and seal of sacred genealogy, you are removing the symbol that fathering children is your sacred mission. If you work that out, it’s a threat to traditional marriage, because traditional marriage has always been an agreement between two men in order to keep legitimate the offspring of their sons. If anyone in that special council could have foreseen it, they would have opposed Peter with a “Defense of Marriage Act.”

Do you find my interpretations tendentious? Do you think I’m leading the witness? When the lesson from the Revelation says, “See, I am making all things new,” how inclusive is “all things”? How much is up, how much is open, how much is free? How deep into the world does the Holy City come, and how far into the fullness of human experience? We are not done yet, we are still working out the implications, we are still exploring the wideness and the power of the love of God.

These lessons today are both for challenge and for encouragement. We are challenged to love because it’s only within the dynamic of uncomfortable relationships that your love gets converted. And let me encourage you in your love, because God is ahead of us, the Holy Spirit is ahead of us.

If God is calling you to cross the boundary of discomfort, you can trust the Holy Spirit to be there ahead of you. If God is calling you to relationships beyond your boundary of fear, you can trust the Holy Spirit to be in that relationship already. You may be comforted that the love that the Lord is commanding you to love with, is the love of God that is already there, and what you are doing is stepping into the spotlight of the love of God.

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