Saturday, March 29, 2008

What Spirituality Means to Me

What follows is a short testimony by Pat Caldwell, a member of our congregation. I asked her to consider doing some writing, and this is the first thing she's submitted. I think you will see more to come.

I was recently challenged to think about what spirituality means to me. This is not something I’ve spent much time contemplating – I’ve pretty much taken it for granted.

Once I started thinking about it, though, I realized that its meaning for me has gone through many variations over the years; in the past year or so, I have finally begun to develop a sense of spirituality that seems right to me.

At its core is a strong connection to God. The space within me that has cried out for this connection is fed by being in church, and participating in the reassuring, comforting rituals there. I know I can depend on their being there to form a foundation for me. It is also fed by hearing other people talk about God, by learning more about Him, and about Jesus’ life and ministry.

As I become more aware of God’s presence all around me, that empty space is fed more and more by everything around me. Walking in the park becomes a spiritual experience when I am conscious that it is filled with God’s creations.

Connecting with other people is spiritual for me, when I remember that they too are children of God, and when I can try to love them as I know God loves me. Music, art, literature, mathematics, science – if God is everywhere, then surely He is in these things. For me, to fully experience His world is to experience spirituality.

Sermon for March 30, Easter 2

Acts 2:14, 22-32, Psalm 16, 1 Peter 1:3-9, John 20:91-31

Thomas Takes a Leap

We read that the doors were locked. They must have been afraid. Afraid of the authorities, who might round them up as well.

And I think afraid of Jesus too, because if the first report of the resurrection was true, they had no idea of what was going on, and in their guilt and shame of having deserted him they would have been afraid of him.

We read that Jesus passed through the doors. Don’t assume that he was insubstantial like a ghost. I think the opposite, that his resurrected body is of an even more substantial nature than anything else, that compared to him, the doors were soft as clouds, that his new creation makes the old one ghostly and vapid by comparison.

Our mental categories do not suffice to comprehend his resurrected body, but this we surmise: he is physical, and yet unlimited by his physicality; unbounded, so that he now enjoys a perfect unity of intention and action, of desire and result. Jesus is able to pass through the doors of their resistance, because he wants to. He is able.

We read that twice he said to them, "Peace be with you." One time for their outer fear of the authorities, and a second time for their inner fear from guilt and shame. He breathes on them to heal them inside and also to inspire them to face the uncertainties outside.

We read that on Easter evening Thomas was not there, and that during the week he did not believe what the others reported. We read that the next Sunday evening, Easter 2, the Thomas who was behind jumps out ahead by calling Jesus "my Lord and my God."

This is a wonder. No one had expected this, least of all Thomas. He was only looking for his rabbi returned, his leader brought back like Lazarus, and suddenly he finds himself leaping into something new, and jumping to a conclusion that no one had been looking for.

This is the first time anyone has come this far, recognizing Jesus as "Lord and God." He’s using the technical terms for God from the Torah. Thomas has just joined the ranks of Moses and Isaiah and Ezekiel, that he looks on God. Thomas is the first to land on the defining doctrine of Christianity, that this man Jesus, who suffered, died, and rose again, is also God.

This was Thomas – not a member of the inner circle, like Peter, James, and John. He was the skeptic of the twelve, the guy who always said, "yeah right." During the week he had said, "Maybe, guys, but seeing is believing." So then, what did this skeptic see in Jesus suddenly to make the leap to call him Lord and God?

If you saw God, how would you know it was God? By what signs would you recognize God? A burning bush, a pillar of fire, the cloud of glory on Mount Sinai, the burning wheels and four living creatures of Ezekiel, signs deserving of divinity. But Thomas looks on the signs deserving of degradation.

The open wounds in Jesus’ hands and side. They are obviously the proof that this is that same body that was killed, they are the proof that this is that same guy, but how are they the indicators of divinity? Signs of torture and abuse. Badges of suffering, of pain, of loss and grief. Emblems of sacrifice.

Well, I guess what Thomas intuits are that the wounds of love are the new signs of God’s glory. Can this be a wounded God? If this is God, what kind of God is this? For Thomas it’s not just a new vision of his rabbi, for Thomas it’s also a whole new vision of what God is like. And that will take some working out. The whole New Testament has to work that out. The little communities of Jesus’ followers have to work that out.

And look how kindly and patient this God is with us. Look how Jesus deals with Thomas. Jesus offers him the proofs he demanded. Jesus invites him, but he also challenges him. The invitations of Jesus are always challenges. He calls him to jump past his conditions. "Come on Thomas, don’t be unbelieving but believing." This is as much about you as it is about me.

So which is true, that seeing is believing, or that believing is seeing? That if you start from the open and vulnerable attitude of belief, you can see much more than you expect? Thomas sees more deeply into God than anyone had before, including Moses and Ezekiel. Here is a first class example of imagination achieving reality. Any scientist will tell you that is how it has to be.

This story is the climax of the gospel of John, and it specifically mentions us, who have not seen Jesus but who yet believe. This story ends by blessing us. We have to go one step further than Thomas did, we have to make an even further leap. We have to believe without seeing at all. We only get to see the text upon the page, and the only voice of Jesus that we hear is when he’s quoted by others in the church. Are you able to make the leap?

It is a weekly leap, a daily leap. It’s hardly automatic. But the goal of it is that once you land in this new spot, and you look around, everything else looks different too. You see the whole world from a new angle. This is the Christian version of enlightenment. It requires the energy of love.

Touching is good, seeing is better, believing is best.* Because we are animals we need to touch. Because we are primates, and up there with the chimpanzees and the parrots and dolphins and killer whales and whatever is the latest brilliant animal, we need to see. Because we are spiritual animals we need to believe.

It is in believing that we see the new creation that is begun in Jesus Christ, it is in believing that we can see other people in terms of forgiveness and peace, and we can touch the world with our hands to make new signs of reconciliation, the handicraft of healing and comforting and encouragement. It is in believing that we can bear the wounds in our hands and our bodies that we will get from working for reconciliation and for peace.

Touching is good, seeing is better, believing is best. What you touch you can see in terms of what you have heard about Jesus, and what you see you can imagine in terms of what you believe. By your belief you are transcendent, and you are blessed.

Copyright © 2008 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

*This line is from N T Wright.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Easter 2008: Resurrection Fact, Metaphor, and Mystery

Acts 10:34-43, Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24, Colossians 3:1-4, John 20:1-18

Colossians 3:3, For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.

Welcome to Easter. I’m glad that you are here. Church members, visitors, walk-ins, whether you are Christian or not or something else, with your questions and doubts and beliefs, whatever, we are glad that you are here.

Easter is for everyone, Easter is not church property, we don’t own this story, it’s been given to humanity. It’s a great gift, it’s a story beyond our full comprehension. Old First is an open church. Our people have different responses to this story, different understandings, but we agree that this is the story that deserves our celebration and our contemplation.

This morning I want to contemplate the resurrection as fact. and as metaphor, and as mystery.

I believe the resurrection is a fact. I mean that I believe it really happened in real time. If you find that you doubt it, I don’t blame you, and I suspect it’s the hardest thing of all to believe. It’s not the kind of fact that you can prove, and I don’t intend to try. I want only to propose what kind of fact it is, what kind of fact the writers of scripture regarded it to be.

It is not a scientific fact. It cannot be verified according to the scientific method of controlled repetition. Of course not, by definition, because the resurrection was a singularity. It’s sort of like the Big Bang, which strictly speaking is not scientifically verifiable. It can only be inferred.

The Nobel Prize in physics was awarded to Arno Penzias who first detected what we call "cosmic microwave background radiation," the constant extra hum of the universe, which he proposed to be the leftover noise of the Big Bang. We cannot prove the Big Bang, but inferring it helps us make sense of many other phenomena. Christians regard the resurrection of Jesus to be like that.

The resurrection is not an historical fact, not in the way that the crucifixion is. The crucifixion was not a singularity and it fits with ordinary Roman practices. It has literary witnesses which are relatively objective and even unsympathetic, the sort of witnesses that we require for the standards of history.

With the resurrection, the gospel writers report only what the apostles said they saw, and it only helps a little to note that at first the apostles were not sympathetic witnesses. They didn’t expect the resurrection, they hadn’t wanted it, and at first they did not believe it. They had to come around to it. But then afterwards they didn’t try to prove it objectively, because they couldn’t.

Consider the resurrection as something like a newspaper kind of fact. That fits with how the apostles presented it, they always called it "news," like the daily news, or when you tell someone you have good news.
Consider that news is most newsworthy when it’s least expected and most exceptional and singular.
Consider that news is the kind of story that we want to know because it makes a difference in what we do from then on and how we see the world.
Consider it the kind of fact that depends on the credibility of the reporter. You believe it not because you see the evidence but because you trust the judgment of the network that you listen to.

My second church was among Dutch immigrants in rural Ontario, and one summer evening a group of us were standing on the shore of Lake Erie and gazing at the full moon. I remarked, "Just think, human beings have walked on it." An elderly woman named Cornelia Vander Knyff said she didn’t think they really had. Now I respected her, and she had been in the middle of Nazi gunfire in World War II. So I said, "Well, we watched it on TV!" And she looked at me with some pity, and asked me if I really believed in what I saw on TV.

How much can you trust the writers of the gospel? If we judge them as reporters by their subsequent behavior, by what they did with what they said, by their judgments on other matters, I think we may find them very credible. And so we have reporters who are credible telling a story quite incredible. And that’s the best we can do with the resurrection as a fact.

That the resurrection is a metaphor there is no question. It has become fashionable to call it a metaphor as a dodge around its being true, especially among many popular scholars. With the way they use "metaphor" I don’t know how they got through English Composition 101. A metaphor is when you apply something concrete to something other either abstract or unfamiliar.

If you say metaphorically that "your love is like the ocean," then your love is the abstract and the ocean is the concrete, and so the ocean is a metaphor for love. If we say the resurrection is a metaphor then we must also say for what.

Our reading from the Epistle to the Colossians says for what. The resurrection of Jesus is a metaphor for the new life of the rest of us. The new life is bound to be unfamiliar and abstract, but St. Paul regards the resurrection of Jesus as concrete. And so he writes, "If you have been raised with Jesus, seek the things which are above." He makes the resurrection of Jesus the generating metaphor for the whole new life of the world. I can recommend this metaphor to all of you today, even if you find it difficult to believe the resurrection as concretely as the apostles did.

The resurrection’s power as a metaphor confirmed the followers of Jesus in their belief that it was concrete. It empowered ordinary people to do extraordinary things. They were very ordinary people except for one thing which distinguished them—that the fear of death had no power over them.

Not like the heroes of the sagas and the epics, because they were not heroes, they wore no helmets and they carried no swords; they were only private soldiers in the ranks, they were slaves, they were mothers and seamstresses. But they were a new kind of human being, because they considered themselves to have already died, and risen again, the sting of death was behind them.

They could be beaten, but they could not be broken. When they were bound in chains they acted as if they were free. When they were condemned they acted as if they were justified. They didn’t keep score, because they had already won. They refused to regard their enemies as enemies. They began to experience a whole new way of living as human beings in the world, they began to live a whole new kind of life.

When you speak of love, do you say that your love is like a precious jewel or like an ocean? The metaphor makes a difference. The resurrection is the generating metaphor that opens up so much. It means your body is meant to be the spouse of your soul for eternity, and that your body has a spiritual potential beyond that which you now experience. It means the physical world itself is good, it means God cares about our daily lives, and it must mean that God takes suffering seriously. It means that the gospel addresses poverty and ecology and slavery and femininity and sexuality. The implications of this generating metaphor require the whole New Testament to work out, indeed, it’s taken two thousand years of history, and there is more to come.

But when I watch the driver of the B69 bus lower the ramp for a person in a wheel chair, and when the driver patiently and cheerfully does all he has to do to strap that wheelchair in, and when we other passengers remind ourselves how good it is for him to take our time to do this, I’m telling you that this is the long term effect of the resurrection as God’s great metaphor for our lives on this planet. And we may consider such effects as something like "cosmic microwave background radiation," from which we can infer a singularity, which if it’s true can help us make sense of many other phenomena.

And the resurrection is a mystery. Not a narrow and finite mystery, but a mystery inexhaustible and infinite, like the mysteries of astrophysics and the universe.
It’s a mystery because it opens new uncertainties even while it makes sense of many phenomena, and these uncertainties require us to live by faith, not sight.
It’s a mystery because it is an act of God that is so full of the nature and character of God that it requires the mind of God fully to understand it. And yet this is a mystery which is for us and for our benefit, a mystery like the mysteries of music and of love.

It helps us with the mysteries of grief and joy, with the mysteries of our own lives, and the difficulty of these two natures that are both inside us, the old nature that is dying away and the new nature that is coming to life. We live in the framework of a daily mystery, that our old and dying nature is not the summary of us, but the earth in which the Holy Spirit plants a new nature, which we can detect in ourselves, which we have seen in Jesus Christ, which has a power beyond the force of death, a power that only comes from God.

We can be relieved to learn from St. Paul that our lives are hidden with Christ in God, and that means even hidden safe from our own selves and from the predations of our self-awareness and our guilt. Our lives extend beyond the boundaries of our present references and comprehension. The greater part of our own lives do not belong to us, but to God, and even in this present darkness we are in God’s light and sight and care and love.

This mystery compels the metaphors and comprehends the facts. This mystery we must always hear again as news, and rise again to greet as true. This great mystery we can prove only with the conduct of our daily lives in the world, this great and wonderful mystery we can only solve in the prayer and praise of worship. You were right to come here today, whoever you are, whatever you call yourself, whatever you think about these things, you were right to come here today for glory, and to celebrate this great story of God in Jesus Christ.

Copyright © 2008 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Good Friday, 2008

John 18:15-40
For the Ecumenical Service at Greenwood Baptist,
with Park Slope Presbyterian.

Ninety-eight score and fifteen years ago our spiritual forefathers played out in Jerusalem an old story, conceived in bondage, and dedicated to the presumption that all men must protect their interests. Today we are met in a sanctuary which is dedicated to that story. We have come to remember that story, and to see what meaning it has for us.

The world will little note nor long remember what we do here, just as, if not for the resurrection three days later, it would not have noted nor remembered what happened that Friday in Jerusalem. It was all too common and unremarkable. That a governor sacrifices justice for political expediency. That the leadership sacrifices the life of the innocent for the sake of national security. That a man denies the one he loves.

Jesus is the only one in bondage here, but he’s the only one who’s free. Do you notice how the others are all compelled by fear? Pontius Pilate by fear for his imperial career should there be trouble in his province. Annas and Caiaphas by fear of Roman reprisals if they cannot keep control. Peter by fear for his own skin. He is in such bondage, he cannot do what he wants to do.

It is Jesus who is free. He is impervious to intimidation and will not be baited by the questions they ask him. Every time he speaks he keeps to his own agenda. He is like the rock against which all the other characters break like waves, and expose themselves.

I tried to figure out how many hours he was in chains. It depends on how long they sat for dinner and how long he prayed in the Garden. Let’s they arrested him at 2 AM. Even with the interrogations, a good part of that night he must have been standing around waiting. That’s as usual with the government.

Waiting. Waiting silently, being watched, being measured by their eyes, being scrutinized in wonder and in fear. Waiting on God, his suddenly silent Father, beginning to turn his face away. Abandoning him to injustice, letting the unfair wrath of sinful humanity begin to have its way with him, these high priests who had their office on God’s authority, this Roman governor whose power had been given from above. God lets him go.

Jesus is keeping vigil here. I’m sure that already here he is meditating on his scripture verses to keep him strong, and singing his favorite Psalms for comfort and encouragement.

It struck me that there are very few stories in the Bible that take place over night. The original Passover, of course, ever after to be commemorated with an all night vigil. Daniel in the Lion’s Den. Both of these stories are recapitulated in our story tonight. But also Jacob wrestling with the angel, or was it God that he was wrestling with? Here Jesus himself is grappling with his Father and his God, who does not speak, who injures him, but who does not show his face.

Jesus himself is radically the face of God. He shows us here what God is like for us. When the suffering of the world and the success of rebellion and the power of evil make us raise our voices to heaven and say, "Where are you God, why don’t you do something, why don’t you act, why don’t you defend the cause of right and righteousness?" then God keeps to God’s own agenda. God has a sovereign plan, and on the way to it, God suffers along with us.

And we may also see something new in his humanity. His humanity is not as unique as you think. He is showing us what can be true for us as well. He is able to be so free, so purposeful, and so righteous because he is already living in the power of the resurrection. He is not yet immortal here, he still must die, but he is living in the power of his resurrection.

As will his followers after him, when they too are put in chains, and flogged, and mocked, and unfairly accused, and condemned to death, and who under pressure speak their own agenda, and sing, and love their enemies and refuse the power of fear and look to the interests of others.

This is what we want tonight. Philippians 3:10-11. We want to know Christ, and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that if possible we may attain the resurrection from the dead.

Copyright © 2008 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Homily for Maundy Thursday

Note: Maundy Thursday is named for "The Maundy," which is what medieval English monks called the Footwashing they did on Thursday of Holy Week. The word "maundy" derives from the Latin word mandatum, for "commandment," as they repeated in Latin the text from John's Gospel, "a new commandment (mandatum novum) give I unto you, that ye love one another."
This week’s edition of the New Yorker has a column by Hendrik Herzberg on sex and politics and Eliot Spitzer, which disappointed me. Herzberg repeats the charge that America, compared to Europe, is overly concerned with the private sex lives of our politicians. He describes Bill Clinton’s dalliance with Monica Lewinski as "trivial." He quotes the distinguished Professor Martha Nussbaum, that to accuse Spitzer of betraying the public trust is "laughable."

Well, I agree that Clinton should not have been impeached, but I do wish he had resigned. We would expect the same of any preacher who did that with an intern. And it was right for Spitzer to resign. The underlying issue in both cases, I think, is not the sex, or the sex and the money, in Spitzer’s case. Sex and money are both expressions of the real issue, which is power.
We gave those people power. We put them in power when we elect them. We entrust them with more power than the rest of us, we want them to have power for our common good. We do the same thing with our generals and admirals, with our police chiefs and our building inspectors, we give them power over us. Power is not evil in itself, it’s only partly true that power corrupts, to leave it that power corrupts is to excuse the human heart, it is the human heart in its sinfulness that makes power corrupt. Jesus had power, he had lots of power, and he is not corrupt.
Classical literature tell us that power is drawn to hubris and to arrogance. In Latin terms, the terms of virtue, we can point to Spitzer’s arrogance. In Greek terms, the terms of drama, we can point to his hubris. For Spitzer it was a tragedy because it brought him down. For Clinton, the buffoonery of the congress made it not so much a comedy as a farce, and we the people got the worst of it. The whole nation has been besmirched. Can we turn to the literature of the gospels?
If we see virtue and comedy and tragedy more comprehensively in terms of love, the love of God for us and for the world, can we see a kind of power that is both holy and righteous?

Yes, on the cross, which we bring closer to ourselves in the Supper. There is also a secondary way, in the footwashing, which is why we are trying it tonight.
Not only because it’s in the Bible, and it’s a symbol that is rich and physical and not a little discomforting, not only because it’s regularly practiced by monastics and Mennonites and those Amish people who stunned us by how they responded to the death of their daughters in that school, but also because our vision of power needs to be refreshed. Jesus does that by framing power within servanthood and humility.
To wash the feet is servant’s work. Jesus shows us that he will give us power for our servanthood. But this America, we don’t have servants here. This is a democracy, with liberty and equality. This servanthood is not about status, it’s about self-giving. And you cannot voluntarily wash someone else’s feet unless you are quite free.
And to receive the footwashing is even more humbling than to do it. "Don’t look so closely at my feet. My nails, my crooked toes. And to have you touch my feet, that gets a little close." That vulnerability, that potential for humiliation, to go through with it means some freedom from your self-consciousness and fear, and that takes power. Tonight we celebrate the kind of power that Jesus demonstrates within the frame of servanthood and humility. In him we see that this is not powerlessness, but rather the power of selflessness, which overcomes the world.
Copyright © 2008 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Despise the Shame

Watching the all the video clips of Eliot Spitzer's public statements, we couldn't help but watch his wife, Silda Wall Spitzer. (Jim Lehrer's Newshour had a piece on her last night.)

First you think, "What was he thinking?"

Then you remember why you're a Calvinist. Total depravity, etc. And why that's good news. And why we pray, "And there is no health in us. But thou O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders." If we can't get down to saying that, we can't live free.

And then, you think about the obvious courage, class, and dignity of Silda Wall Spitzer. She reminded me of that phrase in the old translation of Hebrews 2:12, "despising the shame and enduring the cross." What power and strength that takes.

How classy Jesus must have been. "Looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him, endured the cross, and despised the shame."

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

"I Want A Sober Mind"

Last Sunday we sang two relatively unfamiliar hymns. We sang The Royal Banners Forward Go and I'll Praise My Maker While I've Breath. The first is a grand Anglican processional hymn based on a late Latin poem. The second is a Watts / Wesley metrical version of Psalm 146.

I had lunch with some regular worshippers and I asked them which of the two they liked better. They both preferred the latter. I was intrigued, because the lyrics of the second are stiffer and more, well, Protestant. At the same they are more direct, more personal, and more intense. The whole hymn is an "I" statement, after all.

I think that's the appeal of lot of the best gospel songs, and of those older hymns of Wesley, Watts, Doddridge, and all. How they speak for the "I" of the singer and of our close experience. Their poetry is often less exalted then some other more lofty hymns, but as Erik Routley used to say, the poetry of hymns should not be overdone, and is often best understated. That doesn't mean the poetry shouldn't be excellent. It's very difficult to make poetry that's both good and understated.

I heard a really good example this the other week when the Dessoff Choirs were singing at Old First. They sang one of my favorite Sacred Harp numbers. The music is great to begin with. With it's fuguing chorus it's slow -fast, like a Hungarian csardas. But the lyrics are what really struck me. Note how forceful and direct they are:

I want a sober mind,
An all sustaining eye,
To see my God above,
And to the heavens fly.

I'd soar away above the sky,
I'd fly, and fly,
To see my God above,
I'd fly to see my God above.

I want a Godly fear,
A quick discerning eye,
That looks to Thee, my God
And sees the tempter fly.



The grackles are back in the Park. They're not as popular as robins, of course, nor as tuneful. They're blackbirds, after all, from which we stand off a bit.

I remember, from my childhood, listening to the radio at the breakfast table on weekday mornings, how John Gambling and Peter Roberts used to joke about grackles. John Gambling was the host of Rambling with Gambling on WOR. (My mother never missed.) Peter Roberts was his newcaster on the half-hour, and they had this thing called the "John Gambling Research Foundation." Gambling was the straight man, and Roberts the cut-up.

Why they got such a kick out of grackles, I don't know, and just what they said about them, I can't remember. But what I think they must have noticed is that grackles (being blackbirds) are smart and audacious, and they have attitude.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Spiritual Formation 7: Community

Sermon for Lent 5
Ezekiel 37:1-14, Psalm 130, Romans 8:6-11, John 11:1-45

Heidelberg Catechism 88-90
Q88: What is involved in genuine repentance or conversion?
A: Two things: the dying-away of the old self, and the coming-to-life of the new.

Q89: What is the dying-away of the old self?
A: It is to be genuinely sorry for sin, to hate it more and more, and to run away from it.

Q90: What is the coming-to-life of the new self?
A: It is wholehearted joy in God through Christ, and a delight to do every kind of good as God wants us to.

This story marks a decisive change and innovation in the doctrine of the resurrection. As you might know, the Jews in Jesus’ day did not believe in immortality like the Greeks did or like most modern people do. They believed that when you died, you died, and your soul went down to Sheol as a shadow that would soon evaporate to nothing but a memory.

The afterlife was not big in Israel, and it’s hardly noticed in the whole Old Testament, which is remarkable against the background of Egypt from which they came, for Egypt was obsessed with the afterlife. The Hebrew Bible is all about the value of true religion for this life. It is all about the Promised Land; not heaven, but land.

But then there was a problem. The Babylonians had removed the Jews from their own land and carried them off to exile in Babylon. So much for the value of true religion in this life. How discouraged they all were.

So Ezekiel gives them a prophecy. The vision of dry bones. This was not meant to be literal, it was to suggest the renovation and return of Israel to the Promised Land.

And then in later years they started to take it literally. The Jews began to believe that all the Jews who ever lived would be brought to life again some day, and they all would have the happy life they should have had upon the Promised Land.

This was the doctrine of the resurrection that Mary and Martha were hoping for, the final resurrection at the end of time, when God would fully keep his promises to Israel, to all the Israelites who ever lived, the promised life in the promised land.

The decisive change in the doctrine of the resurrection is with Jesus saying that the resurrection is not distant but right up close. To Martha he says, it is right now, with me, where I am, he calls himself the resurrection and the life. (She’s thinking, "Jesus, I love you, but what are you talking about!") He’s saying that the new life he offers is not a reward at the end but a new kind of life for now, right now, whenever you live in obedience to my word, to my word of life.

Well, just how powerful is Jesus’ word? What he demonstrates with Lazarus is that his word is stronger than death. But how can that be? For death is the final great surrender. A dead man by definition is unable to respond to anything. Unless it’s the word of Jesus.

Here Jesus is able to get a dead man to obey his word, and just in that obedience is life, the new life. His word is powerful, and loving, and life-giving, converting death to life. And the message of the gospel is that’s also true for you, his word has power to convert your old nature into your new nature. If any of you here are interested in converting your old nature into your new nature, his word has to power to do it.

When I was eight years old, I was sitting in my father’s desk in his study upstairs in the parsonage on Herkimer Street, just a couple miles from here. I was reading one of his heavy books. I remember as if it was yesterday that my dad came in and said to me, "Danny, some day you’ll be a theologian." Did he know the effect that that would have on me? How powerful his word to me would be? What he said was way ahead of me, but I believed him, and what he said to me became more true of me gradually every day. That word was good news.

When I was about ten years old, a doctor told me that with my shoulders and my hips my body was more like a girl’s. That was bad news. When I was eleven my mother told me that I was supposed to have been a girl. Did either of them know the effect that those words would have? Especially when I compared myself to my strong and athletic older brother?

Words are very powerful, even when they’re only memories. As when a person said to you, "I know you can do it." Or when a person said "You stink." Or when a person said, "I love you."

When Jesus ascended into heaven he left his powerful words behind him, as well as a community of people who believe his words, and keep responding to them in obedience. The gospel writer recorded these words for the generations like us who will never hear Jesus directly. And yet his words have continued to be so powerful. It’s important for us to know them.

The words of Plato and Shakespeare are also powerful, but they are dead. Jesus said of himself, "I am the resurrection and the life." He means that his words are more than powerful memories. If he is the life, capital L, then he is alive. Before the face of God, somehow, and also among us, in the form of his Holy Spirit, still saying those same words.

He is at work within his words, he moves them around, applying them to us to work in us, and moving us around as well. His word converts us, putting some part of ourselves to death, and bring some new part of us to life.

His word converts us as a group, a group of people, which is why we gather every week. We gather to listen to the Bible, and not merely for information, or new ideas, or the defense of certain doctrines, but in order to have a meeting with God where God does work on us, converting us a little more each week. Our worship service is meant to be a process that converts us from just a collection of individuals into a congregation, a community, and it converts individually as well.

The dying-away of the old self and the coming-to-life of the new—I want to do it, how do I do it? Should I try this, should I try that? It’s as simple as listening. As listening to the life-giving word of God. And if you’re having trouble listening, just be still. Being still is a kind of repentance, because you are not speaking to justify yourself. And if you have trouble being still, then first just breathe. Like the bones in the vision of Ezekiel. Just breathe, and when you are slowly breathing you can start to listen.

And you can hear Jesus say this: "Lazarus, come out. Joe, come out. Jane, come out."

His word is bad news for your old self, and you can let it slowly die, though you are also allowed to weep and grieve for it, for didn’t Jesus weep? His word is good news for your new self, creating life out of your death, describing your new nature as the way that you might be. His word is always ahead of you, directing you, and every day it becomes more true of you.

Technically, though, we are unable to hear him and listen, because we’re dead. But he doesn’t let that prevent your listening. Just by speaking to you, he makes you able to hear. You are voice-activated.

He does this because he cares about your name. Remember, the resurrection is not a reward at the end, but the result of his love for us now. He does this for you because he wants community with you. He starts the community with you already. He started before you were alive, while you were still dead. He started to speak to you, and just his speaking brought you back to new life, a life you help to create when you talk back to him.

As I look at this passage, it strikes me that Jesus did this miracle not so much for Lazarus as for Mary and Martha. I mean, what did Lazarus care? The gift that he gave them was a restoration of their community, those two sisters with their brother. He restored them to community. That’s a great part of the resurrection and the life.

And that’s the last thing I want to say to you about our spiritual formation groups. I’ll that I’ve said in the last six sermons about conversion and formation holds true, but the main reason for these groups is very simple: just community. The simple community of Mary and Martha and Lazarus and Jesus, the original small group, who just like to be with each other face to face. That will be the main goal of our small groups. Because that is a great part of God’s intention for your resurrection and your life.

Copyright © 2008 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Spiritual Formation 6: Seeing and Believing

Lent 4
1 Samuel 16:1-13, Psalm 23, Ephesians 5:8-14, John 9

Heidelberg Catechism 88-90
Q88: What is involved in genuine repentance or conversion?
A: Two things: the dying-away of the old self, and the coming-to-life of the new.
Q89: What is the dying-away of the old self?
A: It is to be genuinely sorry for sin, to hate it more and more, and to run away from it.
Q90: What is the coming-to-life of the new self?
A: It is wholehearted joy in God through Christ, and a delight to do every kind of good as God wants us to.

Lest you think that conversion is always the same, look how different this story is from last week. With the woman at the well, Jesus was very present, you can imagine her looking him over and as she does it he looks into her eyes. But the blind man never sees Jesus till the end.

Jesus spends most of the story out of sight off stage, and the poor guy’s conversations are with everybody else and the coming-to-life of his new self is against opposition, and he ends up on the street corner having to wonder if it was worth it. Who ever said that the coming-to-life of the new self was going to be all peaches and cream? No wonder people tend to stay with the miserable old nature that they know.

Of course this story is about both sight and insight. The poor guy is seeing things for the first time, and he’s having immediately to see beneath the surfaces in ways he never had to. He’s got to stand on his own two feet now, now he’s got to look out for himself, and he’s got to start making judgments now and sizing people up. It’s one thing to see, it’s another to read what you see. He can see people now, but he’s got look inside them too!

In the story from 1 Samuel, God tells the prophet to look not on appearances but on the heart. I can just hear Samuel say, "I know that, I’m a prophet!" I love the down-to-earth and almost comic interaction between God and Samuel, like God is right there next to Samuel, standing invisibly at his shoulder.

(Well, the gift and burden of prophecy is to hear the words of God we are deaf to but that are all around us anyway, to see what we in our blindness thought was invisible but is right here anyway. The community of Jesus is meant to be prophetic, we are to see and hear what the world finds hard to believe, and to be witnesses of that.)

This story is comic in that after it tells us to look on the heart and not appearances it also tells us how handsome David was. I wonder is the Bible playin’. I can tell you that if you read the rest of First and Second Samuel, you’ll see that the Bible is critical of David, showing his underside, always suggesting the self-regard beneath his heroic generosity, but at the same time the Bible always loves him. Like how you might feel about FDR. What a stinker. How we loved him. Like how God must feel about each one of you.

Look, we have to make judgments about each other. We’re primates, after all, like chimpanzees and baboons, and unlike orangutans we are primates of a social sort, so we always have to be judging each other and explaining ourselves to each other. And do we not spend an awful lot of time explaining ourselves to each other? And don’t we expend a lot of energy calculating our behavior in advance of the judgments of each other?

But if this is natural and organic then why do we find it problem? I think it’s because among th primates our species is especially spiritual, and we live by ethics, not by ordinary nature. We are the animals that distinguish between the "is" and the "ought." We are the animals that have to see behind the surfaces, because we are so spiritual.

In our spiritual conversations, we need to listen behind the words. When we face each other in our small groups, we need to look beyond appearances into each other’s hearts. That is the speciality of religion, to put what seems apparent into parentheses, and to judge each other and the world not by what is now but by what we hope for, and what we believe will be.

That sets up a problem. To do this can be to go too quick to deeper judgement, and to not credit what the other person is telling you. We think we know better. Especially if someone is suffering, because of our religious practices we think we know better. The Pharisees were doing their religious job by judging the guy that Jesus healed, they were getting past the appearances. How could they believe him when they knew better, that the Messiah would scrupulously keep the law of the Sabbath. But what they needed to do was believe him. At face value.

So there is another dialectic here. Like I’ve said in prior weeks, spiritual formation means you have to keep in balance two things which might seem opposite. Here too. In spiritual conversation you have to listen behind the surfaces, but at the same time, you have to believe what the other person is telling you about herself, himself.

Yes, you will have your own take on what the person says, you question that person’s interpretation, you naturally use your judgement as a social primate, but you also have to believe what the person tells you. You have to say, "I believe you." In our small groups there’ll have to be a lot of this: "I believe you."

We have been conditioned by psychotherapy to think that healing happens when you finally tell the truth about yourself. Not so. Healing starts to happen when somebody else believes you, no matter how troubling or subversive or impossible. Not someone you are paying to believe you, but someone whose life is not made any easier by the truth of what you are saying. When that kind of person believes you, well, then the healing can begin. When my believing you costs me.

You might have figured out that I prefer to see myself as a conservative. Some of you are aware that at one time I was conservative on the matter of homosexuality in the church. I used to follow the debates about what caused homosexuality, whether it came from childhood sexual abuse or whether it was the fault of one the other of the parents, which, of course, is exactly that response of the disciples to the blind man when they said, "Who sinned that he is blind." Jesus has no time for this. For Jesus it’s always: How shall I to respond to you now?

I had to be converted. Not by my speaking or confessing, but by my listening and believing. In my third parish, a man in our congregation came out to me. He was the son of a Southern Baptist preacher. He told me he had always loved God. But he had hated himself because he loved other men. He kept repenting and begging God to change him and heal him. He told me that at last he came to know that God loved him as gay, and he accepted that. Would I?

When he told me this I felt convicted. Should I believe him? What about my own theological categories, that I should interpret his experience better than he himself? I felt what the blind man’s parents felt, for if I believed him I could be in trouble with my denomination. (And it is true that I lost the confidence of my closest Reformed Church colleagues at the time, except for my wife, who was ahead of me.)

I decided to believe him. I decided to believe him what he told me about himself, and that he knew his own heart, and that he knew his own experience, and so that instead of my trying to change him, maybe I had better change myself. And I am grateful to him since, especially since I have come to experience the generous love of many gay and lesbian believers.

It could be some other example. A truly spiritual conversation can further your conversion, just in your listening and believing will be another step in your spiritual formation. For isn’t it to love your neighbor as yourself? And doesn’t God listen to you and believe you? Because God loves you.

Copyright © 2008 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.