Saturday, July 07, 2007

Summer Vacation

I will be taking a break from posting to this blog through the end of July. I will be on vacation in Canada (or as we say it there, "on holidays in Canada"). Thank you, Old First, for this time off (with my wife) to rest and recuperate.

We had another full week at Old First, hosting young people from Drayton and Cambridge, Ontario, as part of our Project Samuel program. They came to live in our church for a week, and volunteer at CHIPS and at Neighbors Together in Bedford-Stuyvesant (two blocks from where I grew up). They said they had a great week. They learned a lot, such as how to use Metrocards on subways and buses, how to get anywhere in New York, and how to express their Christian faith in service to the poor.

Catch you in August, eh.

Sermon for July 8: Lambs Among Wolves

Proper 09, 2 Kings 5:1-14, Psalm 30, Galatians 6:1-16, Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

Naaman has leprosy, which makes him untouchable, and shame will keep him in hiding at all the banquets and parades. But his nameless slave girl has compassion. The powerful are supposed to have compassion on the weak, but here the weak has compassion on the powerful. Isn’t it true that the people on the bottom are able to love the ones on top, and not the other way around? I call it "trickle up."

Now Naaman is so important to the king of Aram that the king asks for help from his enemy, the King of Israel, and he sends along lavish gifts of gratitude.

There’s a joke in the story. They are assuming that if there is a powerful prophet in Israel, then of course the king of Israel will honor and support him. But the king of Israel hates the prophet and has cut himself off from the prophet and from the power of God. So when he reads the letter he is terrified. He makes himself unable to accept the lavish gifts. The joke is on him, the king of Israel is the loser here. The humble slave girl knew better than the proud king.

But just as the slave girl had compassion for Naaman, the prophet Elisha has compassion for the king of Israel. He sends a message, "Let him come to me, that he may learn there is a prophet in Israel." Another joke. Even if our own king refuses to honor the prophet, as least the pagan will see it. There is an underlay of irony and humor in this story, and much of the Old Testament.

The mighty foreign general pulls up in front of Elisha’s house, horses and chariots, a retinue of servants, wagons loaded with 700 pounds of silver ingots, 130 pounds of gold, and twenty royal robes. This guy is somebody.

Elisha, however, is doing a crossword puzzle. He never comes to the door. He sends out his servant with instructions: "Go, wash seven times in the Jordan, your flesh shall be restored, you shall be clean."

Naaman is twice insulted here. That Elisha never came out to show him honor, and that he should have to wash in a dirty river with everybody watching him. That was very shameful. You never showed your nakedness. And Naaman is angry because this is no decent kind of miracle. Miracles are supposed to be about power, like his own military power.

Well, two things. First, the power to heal is not Elisha’s, the power is God’s, and healing happens by obedience to God’s word. Indeed, healing is obedience to God’s word. To obey God’s word is to be healed. If you can obey God’s word, you are perfectly healthy enough. Second, you can’t have God’s healing without an experience of God, and that experience must also be a conversion, a repentance, a dying away of your old self and the coming to life of the new. (Heidelberg Catechism 88.) You strip off your armor and your robes, exposing your condition, and entering the water as naked and helpless as a baby.

Nobody wants to repent, nobody wants to be converted, nobody likes to die to one’s self. In one sense it’s very easy, washing in the river, on the other hand it’s almost impossible. Undressing ourselves, becoming so vulnerable, so exposed, and to be seen as powerless.

When our circumstances are difficult, then we ask God to change our circumstances. But what if we have to change ourselves as well?

Once again, it the servants who are compassionate and wise. They’re used to being near the bottom. "Look, Father, just swallow your pride and do it." How hard it was for him. To be a great man, and to show his skin to other people who don’t have leprosy, people way beneath him who pity him, he doesn’t want their pity.

They help him take his clothes off and they see the shame of his disease. And up on the banks the locals are watching, curious onlookers, whispering what’s going on, turning their heads whenever he looks up. In he goes, and bathes, and comes back out. What a process this is. Will he go through with it? This gives him lots of time to think.

Six more times. Everything he stands for counts for nothing. now

Five more times. "Then I am crucified to all the world and all the world is crucified to me."

Four more times. He can imagine what his servants are thinking. What an insult to his office and his station, what an ordeal this simple washing is.

Three more times. Maybe he got angry.

Two more times. Maybe he got scared.

One more time. Maybe this might not work.

The last time is the hardest, but he comes out clean.

More than that, he is converted, he is a believer. He has passed through the Jordan, like Israel in the days of Joshua. He is one of God’s people, not by virtue of his birth, not by circumcision, but by his faith, by believing in the promise of God’s word. He has joined the people of the slave girl in his house. This was Naaman’s baptism. He was born again into the people of God.

What is faith? Faith is investing your life in the promises of God. (Heidelberg Catechism 22.) Faith is when you risk your life with God’s promises. Faith is not your own religious courage, or your own religious power, it is rather trusting in the power of God, God’s will, God's judgment, God’s time, God’s patience.

In this story the humble servants all live by their faith. The King of Israel does not, and that leaves him living in fear. Naaman has to learn to live by faith; he almost blows it by giving in to his pride. So when he conquers his pride and surrenders to the promise and enters the waters, that was his act of faith. Of course he doubted, but he invested his life in the promise of God.

I preached on this story three years ago, and much of what I have just said I told you then. But this year I see something new, and that is thanks to the Gospel reading we have also read. I want to say more about that little girl.

You know when I was a kid in Sunday School, we were always told that the point of this story was for us kids to be like that slave girl, and witness to our faith in every situation. They were always trying to get us to be young evangelists, junior Billy Grahams.

Well, this time round I have a new appreciation for that nameless girl. She is an example of what Jesus was talking about in the gospel, she was a lamb among wolves. She was an agent of peace in the house of war. She was an agent of peace in the house where she had been put against her will. She had no power except her word. And her little word is what got it going, and just her word is what brought this pagan general into the sovereignty of the Kingdom of God.

We are sent into the world like the seventy in the Gospel, freely choosing where we want to go. And we are sent into the world like the little girl, captured, against our will, bought and sold, compelled. Either way, we are to speak a word of peace. We have no power but our word of peace, the peace that comes from God. The powers of this world need conversion, yes, the powers of this world need to be unmasked, and the suffering of this world needs healing, and we have so little actual power to accomplish this except our word of peace.

At the end of every service, I speak the Benediction, which is a word of peace. I speak it as an instrument of God’s own speech, because I believe that God’s word of peace is more than information, that when God speaks peace it brings peace. And in every service we exchange the peace. We do this not just to say hello. When we say, "The peace of God be with you," it’s more than a wish, it’s more than information, it’s a gift, it’s the beginning of an energy and movement that you can keep in motion through the week, whenever you repeat the words, whether in places where you choose to be, like the seventy sent by Jesus, or in places you are compelled to be, like the little girl.

Jesus gives us fair warning. If you represent Jesus in speaking peace, you will live like a lamb among wolves. Peace is dangerous for those who speak it. Peace means you will not be on top. Peace is risky, peace is counterintuitive, peace is impossible. You can’t do peace in your own strength. You have to risk it, you have to risk peace as a promise of God. But we invite you to believe it and speak of it. And where and when you speak of it, that word begins to be.

Copyright © 2007 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Sermon for July 1: Chariot of Fire

Proper 8 C, 2 Kings 2:1-14, Galatians 5:1, 13-25, Luke 9:51-62

Wednesday is July 4, and today is Canada Day (and we have fifteen Canadians visiting today, from the Drayton Reformed Church in Ontario), so I want to talk about freedom today. "O Freedom, O Freedom, O freedom over me."

I want to talk about freedom that is spiritual and freedom that is moral and freedom that is political. My text is from Galatians, "For freedom Christ has set us free." I want to address some issues of Christian citizenship. This sermon will start out as a history lesson. And we will have a little fun.

Freedom is precious in America, even more than in Canada, because of slavery and how long in America so many people did not have it, even though the Bible told them it was what God wanted for them, and the Bible gave them hope, and you can hear it in Negro Spirituals, which came out of the slavery experience. "Go down Moses, way down in Egypt’s land, tell old Pharaoh, to let my people go."

Listen to these words which introduce the Ten Commandments. "I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage." The house of bondage. God had given the people of Israel political freedom from Pharaoh, and spiritual freedom from the gods of Egypt, in order to practice moral freedom from their own inner bondage to sin, and for the purpose of practicing that freedom God gave them the Ten Commandments.

In the Bible, the Law is not the opposite of freedom, it is for freedom, it tells us how to live in freedom, the freedom God has won for us. The Law of God was given to Israel to help them do their job as a "Kingdom of Priests and Holy Nation," both during exodus and in the promised land.

The Ten Commandments and the other laws and statutes that expanded them were the law-code of a brand new nation, the Kingdom of God. And this nation was unique. It was all former slaves. It had no royalty, no nobility, no hierarchy, no army, no police, no landowners, no masters, no slaves, everyone was equal, so who was going to tell you what to do? The Law of God. In order to practice freedom, you have to have law.

You see how Israel was the world’s first "constitutional" nation? Abraham Lincoln could have been talking about Israel in his Gettysburg Address (and in certain ways I think he was) when he talked about "a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."

Let me say in passing that we were taught in public school that we got democracy from the Greeks. Maybe. In part. But I think if you ask the descendants of the slaves in America where we got democracy, they would know better and more accurately, that we got it from Exodus.

A little more history. The Book of Judges tells us how Israel, once in the Promised Land, kept going after other gods and goddesses, and in doing so they surrendered spiritual freedom, and, in St. Paul’s words, they "submitted to a yoke of slavery." Inevitably they fell off on their moral freedom, and they kept losing their political freedom to the Amorites and Moabites and Midianites and Philistines. God would keep sending judges to set his people free. Finally God sent them David, to set his people free.

Our Old Testament lesson today comes from after Davids’ time, the time of Elijah and Elisha, when Israel kept putting itself under the yoke of slavery to Baal. Elijah’s mission was to set his people free.

In Jesus’ day, the Children of Israel had lost their political freedom to the Roman Empire and to the Jewish puppets in power by Rome. The people were hoping for the Messiah who would come, like the judges, like the prophets, like David, to set his people free.

So you need to read our text from Galatians in Jewish terms: "For freedom the Messiah has set his people free. Do not submit again to a yoke of slavery."

But where Jesus himself and St. Paul take it is a different direction than the political direction the people were expecting. The freedom Jesus won for them was not from the bondage of the Romans, but the power of sin, and their own "flesh." He won that liberation not on the field of battle, but on the cross.

He won the spiritual freedom for the practice of moral freedom, and that moral freedom was the distinctive mark of the early church, even when they had no political power at all, especially so. Indeed, they refused political power, at least through the first three centuries, till Constantine.

More history. The spiritual freedom from the Gospel, and the moral freedom which expressed it, gradually, over the centuries, worked its way through the nations of the world, in fits and starts, though highs and lows, but it is always there, like leaven in a loaf, like seeds in the ground.

I could take just two examples, the liberation of the Netherlands from Spain, which led to the founding of our own congregation, and Great Britain, the first great Protestant empire. Our second hymn was that famous one, And Did Those Feet In Ancient Time, with words by William Blake. It’s been a patriotic hymn in England, and it makes use of that image of the Chariot of Fire from our first lesson. (And it’s where that movie got its name.) That hymn actually challenges England to live up to its Christian pretensions.

Canada, like Great Britain, was legally a Christian nation. They do not have the separation of church and state. The United States, by contract, in legal terms, was never a Christian nation. But historically it certainly was. The idea that human beings have an "inalienable right to liberty" is a Biblical idea. And yet our slavery showed how much repentance we had to do.

There is no question that the USA is a special nation in the world. We are special because of our ideals. It’s why so many immigrants are trying to get here. But political freedom cannot endure without moral freedom, which is a problem for America. And moral freedom requires spiritual freedom, which is our part in the whole equation. Because freedom requires discipline, and humility and repentance.

Our President said that America is God’s divinely chosen instrument to bring freedom to the world. He’s hardly the first person to make that claim. But he’s wrong. I mean if he’s speaking as a Christian he’s wrong. It’s not America, it’s the church. The church is God’s divinely chosen instrument to bring freedom to the world. Through the preaching of the Word and practice of Christian discipline. I don’t mean the organized church, but the church as the community of people who have been set free by Christ for freedom.

I’m not saying it’s only Christians who offer freedom to the world. Can other religions develop freedom too? Why not. But now I’m speaking to you who are under the Lordship of Jesus. You are called to be citizens of your own nation, and to contribute to it, to sustain its ideals by your speech and your community and discipline.

Now look at Luke’s gospel. He shows us how not to do it, and he shows us the temptation that is attracting to so many in the religious right, to be oppositional, to call for judgment on those who disagree with us. Jesus tells his disciples it’s hard enough yourselves to follow him, don’t judge other people. Look to yourselves, challenge yourselves and your own commitment. Challenge yourselves to exhibit the Fruits of the Spirit. They’re listed in Galatians.

And so it’s for the sake of our nation that we be a community of love. It’s for the sake of the USA that we exhibit joy. Our nation needs us to model peace. It’s for America that we practice patience. The world is desperate for models of kindness, and for demonstrations of generosity and exhibitions of faithfulness, democracy requires gentleness and citizenship requires self-control. There is no law against such things. For freedom Christ has set us free.

Copyright © 2007 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.