Monday, July 05, 2010

Thanks for the Time Off

Dear Friends:

1. My previous sermon I had posted on July 2, but I considerably revised it in the preaching, and that version is now posted in its place.

2. On Thursday, Melody and I will leave for a couple weeks' vacation at Bobs Lake, Ontario. After Melody comes back to Brooklyn to work, I will stay at Bobs Lake for a week of reading (Kiergekaard, among others) and then two weeks of writing. Thank you, Old First, for your wonderful support.

3. One of our young church members, Derek Keire, said a wonderful thing to me yesterday morning. He's only six, but this is what he said: "Pastor Meeter, I still get thrilled every time I get to go to church."

Do you see how I have the best job in the world?

Love, Daniel

Thursday, July 01, 2010

July 4, Proper 9, The Kingdom of God Is Near (revised July 5)

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

The kingdom of God, the kingdom of God, the kingdom of God. It’s the key to understanding Jesus in the gospels, what he said and what he did. It’s also the key to understanding the Pharisees, who were trying to earn their version Kingdom of God, and the Sadducees too, who were trying to hang on to their version of the Kingdom of God. They had a three-way debate about the Kingdom of God.

What does it mean, the Kingdom of God? The reign of God, the dominion of God, the sovereignty of God, the Lordship of God, the government of God, the policies of God, the laws of God, the economy of God, the Gross Domestic Product of God, the commonwealth of God, the realm of God, the nation of God, the population of God. A kingdom is political, but it is also more personal than a republic, because a kingdom has a single person at its center, who is the object of your loyalty.

In our gospel story Jesus is acting like he’s the king of the kingdom of God. In a double way. First, he’s acting like his ancestor David in his approach to the city of Jerusalem. While in previous years he had come to Jerusalem as a rabbi, this year his approach is a campaign. Second, his appointment of the Seventy is a recapitulation of what God had told Moses, in Numbers 11, as the campaign of the Israelites approached to occupy the Promised Land, liberating it from the demons who were worshiped by the Canaanites. At that time the only King of Israel was the Lord God, so here in Luke, Jesus is not only acting like David and but even acting like God. It was a daring thing for a man like Jesus to act like the God of Israel—who does he think he is. Well, the Lord!

The Kingdom of God, the Lordship of Jesus is approaching, and to every town and village his seventy reps are announcing he is coming. The people will be nervous. What does it mean he’s coming, with his kingdom? Will it mean judgment? Yes. But it also means peace, and healing, and liberation from the demonic powers of the world. You might call it counter-insurgency, you might compare it to NATO moving through the villages of Afghanistan to liberate the people from the power of the Taliban, or you might avoid that comparison, because the strategy of Jesus is the epitome of peace. The only weapon of Jesus is the power of his Word—the good news of his Lordship and that all that he taught and did these last three years are true.

Now let me make this personal. What does it mean for you to be a Christian? In functional terms, for most of us, it means we go to church. Which is good, and necessary. Now I suppose you don’t absolutely have to go to church to be a Christian, but that’s like saying you don’t have to eat vegetables to be a human being. Going to church is the vegetables of being a Christian. But the church is not the goal of being a Christian. The church is the means, the necessary means, a means ordained by God and even expected of us by God, but it’s still a means and not an end.

So, while in functional terms, to go to church is what it means to be a Christian, in Biblical terms it means to live within the kingdom of God. To live within the realm of God and the sovereignty of God, in the economy of God and among the population of God. We do church in order to be gathered into this kingdom and protected within this kingdom and to learn and to practice this kingdom’s policies and economy and ecology—the policies of peace and the economy of reconciliation and the ecology of love.

The kingdom of God is the favorite theme of Jesus in the gospels. In Matthew, Jesus calls it "the kingdom of heaven", because heaven is its capital, and because the kingdom arches over everything. In John, Jesus calls it "life" and "abundant life" and "eternal life." St. Paul’s phrase for the kingdom of God is "the power of the resurrection." When the Book of Acts talks about "salvation," it means being rescued from the power of sin and empire of death and preserved for the life of the Lordship of Christ. Salvation is not just a private and personal thing, it’s a whole campaign, it’s a movement, a movement of history, in the principalities and powers of the world. It must be as large as a new creation, considering who the Lord is at the center of this sovereignty.

But it is personal. It is for you. The kingdom of God is for you in your particular personality and circumstance. You can see it in this wonderful story in our first lesson, from the book of Second Kings. I love this story for its charm and irony and gentle humor.

Look, why didn’t God just heal Naaman from his leprosy right there in Damascus, directly, without any prophetic intervention? God could have done so, which we know because God had given Naaman his victories in battle with the Kingdom of Israel, directly, without any prophetic intervention. But that’s not what God did, because this story is about the Kingdom of God and its affect on Naaman, and how he entered it.

At that time the Kingdom of of God had a particular manifestation in the Kingdom of Israel, with its capital in Samaria. And because of its idolatry and its disobedience to the Torah, God was judging it, and using Naaman’s victories to do so, though without Naaman’s recognition. Naaman must have regarded the God of Israel a very weak god indeed, unable to defend his people from their enemies. But the Sovereignty of God is never limited to its particular manifestations.
Indeed, in Israel, the Kingdom of God was not bound to the pretenders in the capital, but represented by the loyal opposition, the community of the prophet Elisha; humble, and without an army, and comparatively powerless, but loyal to the name of God.

Naaman has to come here to be healed, to the hidden realm of God within the Kingdom of Israel. And once he gets here, yes, the prophet could have come out and waved his hand and ordered the leprosy to go away, but there’s a reason that he’s commanded to wash in the Jordan River. He has to pass through the waters. The Children of Israel had to pass through the Red Sea on their way out of Egypt, out of the empire of their bondage, and they had to pass through the Jordan River on their entrance into the promised land, the realm of God. The water is a boundary, a kingdom boundary. You have to enter the kingdom to be healed. Even Naaman has to enter the kingdom to be healed. And his entering the kingdom is the same thing as his healing.

The story tells us he was tempted by his pride. Just the thought of standing naked on the river bank before his retinue—in Middle Eastern culture it is a shameful thing to show your nakedness. And even more shameful they all would see his leprous skin. But I guess he was a brave man to begin with, and I guess that "for the sake of the hope that was set before him he could despise the shame."

And I am guess that he was tempted by his fear. For what if it didn’t work, and all this self-exposure was for nothing? Suddenly I love this man, this Naaman, not only for taking the advice of his little slave girl, but also for taking the admonitions of his servants, how truly brave was that (the greatest bravery is to be humble and to admit your mistake), and so desperate to be clean.

Sympathize with him, going in once, and coming back out still leprous. Going back in and coming back out, still leprous. A and all his retinue are watching, and hiding their eyes, and counting, four, five, six, seven, and then the relief, and the joy, and the vindication of the name of God, that this God of Israel really does have power to save, and that the power of God’s judgment, if you just accept God’s promises, is very much the power to save. You, yes, you in your particular personality and circumstance.

You can be saved from yourself, from your pride and from your fear. You can have power to despise your shame, though that requires going through some salutary humiliation. You have to let yourself be washed, and that requires some exposure, and humility, for it’s like the elderly in nursing homes. But your retinue is on your side. We are your retinue, this congregation.

So is the reason to be a Christian. This what it means for the kingdom of God to come near you. That a sovereign God does this with you, personally, but not narrowly, as if it’s for yourself, but for your full participation in the people of God and policies and plans of God. You don’t have to rise to it, it has come near you, just keep coming every week and believe the words you hear and accept the forgiveness of your sins and eat with everyone else the food that is set out before you.

Every Sunday, when you confess your sins and accept the absolution—this is not just a merely personal thing, a self-help thing. This is a kingdom thing, this is your renewal of your citizenship, you reclaim your loyalty to your sovereign and your freedom from other bondages. And when you pass the peace, that’s not just a "nice hello," it’s a kingdom thing, because this is the peaceable kingdom. You are doing what the Seventy did in every town and village.

Some last words about the playfulness in this story, and the irony. The prophet Elisha doesn’t want to leave his crossword puzzle just to see Naaman, so he sends his servant out, which Naaman takes as an insult. You know, the gospel is that matter of fact, it’s nothing magical, it’s almost too simple for us to believe. And then the servants of Naaman are wiser than he is, as the little exiled slave girl was smarter and more confident than the king of Israel.

I think the irony expresses our real experience of the Kingdom of God in this world, how often weak it seems, and powerless, and how silly the church can be, and how halting our efforts at righteousness, and often other religions are ahead of us on some good things and other charities outperform us on healing the world. Take some comfort in the irony, and get used to it as good and Biblical. The irony is a judgment on us and on all our personal pretensions, but the playfulness is a sign of how good and gracious and peaceful is the result, and the laughter we hear from heaven is not mockery but the joyful laughter of recognition and love.

Copyright © 2010, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.