Thursday, March 24, 2011

March27, Lent 3, The Keys of the Kingdom: Opening Your Heart

Note: This is from the Tiffany window at Old First. Photo by Jane Barber.

Exodus 17:1-7, Psalm 95, Romans 5:1-11, John 4:5-42

I spent my childhood here in Brooklyn, but I was born in Paterson, New Jersey. All my relatives lived in the Paterson suburbs. My uncle Bert lived in Prospect Park, which was Protestant and Republican, and where you got a ticket if you washed your car on Sunday. My aunt Jo lived in Midland Park — also Protestant and Republican. My aunt Betty lived in Haledon — Catholic and Democrat. The joke was that Prospect Park was Judea, Midland Park was Galilee, and Haledon was Samaria.

It was sort of fitting that my aunt Betty lived in Haledon, because she was the sister who was more or less the wild one. She was pretty, and I get the impression she was “hot”. She always had boyfriends, and not from church. My mom remembers she dated a rich guy with a convertible. And then she went and married a Catholic. She was even active as a Democrat.

And she had a key. She had a key to the Haledon spring, on Tilt Street. The boro of Haledon had a natural spring of running water, what the ancients called “living water.” This was good, because the Paterson tap water was so bad. The boro had enclosed it so that you couldn’t get at it without the special key. I don’t know who got those keys, maybe only to Democrats, but my aunt Betty had one. So my relatives would bring her their empty bottles and she’d go and fill them up, but not too often to get in trouble.

It was to the benefit of the Samaritan woman’s neighbors that a fountain started welling up in her, and Jesus had the key that opened up her heart. The fountain flows out of her when she tells the villagers to “Come and meet a man who told me everything I ever did.” But he had only said one thing about her life, just that embarrassing comment about her five ex-husbands and her current boyfriend. She had quickly diverted the conversation away from herself, and they talked theology, and about his mission, and his being the Messiah.

But that’s what seems to have opened her up. And like a geyser the whole truth of her life rose up inside her, into her own mind and soul, at least. He did not have to tell her much to tell her everything. He just used his key. Her life rose up in her, and poured out to her neighbors.

We are not told her name. But she’s one of the five women in the Gospel of John who are a big part of the story. She, and Martha, and three Mary’s: Mary his mother, at the wedding in Cana and then at the cross; Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha, and also of Lazarus, who was raised from the dead; and Mary Magdalene, who on Easter Day met Jesus in the Garden, whom the later tradition suggests had been a prostitute, although the Bible itself never says that.

This Woman-at-the-Well seems more like Mary Magdalene than Jesus’ mother. But she is like the Virgin Mary in her giving birth to a new life that has been conceived in her by the Holy Spirit. She is a model for all of you. For you to be a Christian is for you to give birth to the new you whom the Holy Spirit has conceived in you. Yes, you are you, but you also are another you, the new you in the old you, your new nature conceived in the womb of your old nature by the Holy Spirit and being born again. Each one of you is a Virgin Mary, even if the world regards you as a Mary Magdalene or a Samaritan.

Jesus does not require that you deny your past nor does he help you to escape it. Your old nature lives on in you. But he frees you from the guilt and power of your past and from the grip of your old nature, and the Holy Spirit makes your old nature the virgin mother of your new nature. All your sin and your pain and your frustration and mistakes and loneliness and suffering are give birth to your character and your hope and your love. Not the stagnant kinds of love you thought you had to accept, but God’s love, poured into your heart and overflowing out.

She had tried to love, too much, and in her frustration she had given up, and her current man was a lover only physically. The sign of her frustration is her coming to the well alone, at noon, not sociably in the morning with the other women. She was not respectable.

This is the well of Jacob — Jacob who came as a stranger to a well and asked a woman for a drink and then it got romantic. She knows that story. And here is this strange Jewish guy who is crossing all the social boundaries, who wants to put his lips upon her jug, and she thinks, “the story of my life.” She doesn’t serve him silently, she engages him. Not done. They engage in what the social rules regarded as flirtation, and the disciples are embarrassed by. But her flagrant openness allows her to run back to her village and shamelessly tell her neighbors to “come and meet a man who told me everything I ever did.” “But we already have a good idea of everything you ever did!” How close to the old self is the new self.

Your two natures always come together and they are both in everything. They are as distinct as life and death but they also are as inseparable as life and death. Don’t look at yourself and say, “that good thing I did there was my new nature, and that bad thing there was my old nature.” There are both of you in everything, no matter which of the two is at the moment in control. So you have to believe in the new one. I said last week you have to believe both in Jesus as the Messiah and in your own new life, because the old one has the evidence. Believe in it and go with it. The villagers believed in her and went with her, they could sense new water rising up in her.

What’s the key? Is it the truth, the truth that Jesus tells about himself, as the Messiah, and the truth about herself? She only gave him a half-truth when he told her to go get her husband, but he responded with the whole truth. That’s when she diverted the conversation to theology. Jesus patiently goes with her, respecting her but still engaging her. He does not judge her to condemn her, but as he talks about his mission she can sense the judgment in his words. He talks about "spirit and truth." Energy and solidity. Vitality and fidelity. Movement and commitment. Novelty and faithfulness. These are her issues. She understands herself. She thinks, “the story of my life,” but now in hope instead of resignation. His talk about himself is what unlocks her.

I think the truth is only the teeth on the key, I think the key itself is love. He loves her. Not like other men have loved her, for her attractiveness, because she was hot, because she was loose, because they could take from her. He loves her only to give to her. He loves her only to give her back to herself. He loves her “in spirit”, with his energy, and he treats her with honor and fidelity, he loves her “in truth”. The deepest truth of all is that he loves her. People tell the truth in love, but the deepest truth is the love, the deepest truth about the world is the love of God for the world and for everyone of you within it, no matter how Jesus finds you at the well. That’s a take home: the deepest truth about yourself is the love God has for you. Whatever else you say about yourself when you talk about yourself, the deepest truth about you is the love of God for you.

So back to my aunt Betty. When I was a teenager my brother and I lived in her house for a while. We needed a place to stay, and she took us in. I came to learn her generosity, her sense of humor, her candor and her openness, how direct she was and without pretense, and how unlike everyone else in our family she was not always judging everybody all the time. I learned the other side of her. I came to love her. Later on she became of member of the very conservative church in which she had grown up, which meant she had to forgive them of all their years of judging her. She had to believe in her own life. I am so proud of her. She’s an example of what St. Paul says, that suffering produces endurance, and endurance character, and character hope, and hope does not disappoint us, for God’s love has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit.

Copyright © 2011, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

March 20, Lent 2; The Keys of the Kingdom: Opening the Border

Genesis 12:1-4a, Psalm 121, Romans 4:1-5, 13-17, John 3:1-17

I want you to use your imagination. Imagine that on a clear day, you’re high up in the air, and you’re looking out over a great wide landscape, of farms and roads and villages and a city or two. But there you see a round valley, maybe a couple miles across, not very deep, a shallow depression in the landscape. The valley has its own towns and farms and such. Then notice there’s the circle of a wall around it, just below the rim of the valley, and the wall is just high enough to block the sight from inside of the land outside.

You zoom in closer. You notice that the wall is painted with scenery, lifelike, like a movie set, so that it doesn’t look like a wall, but like you’re looking out into the wider world. Imagine now that you were born in this valley and that you live in it. It’s all you know. You can’t see the world outside. In the wall there is a single gate. And in the gate there is an iron door. The door is locked. You cannot open it. You do not have a key. You are locked inside this valley, this depression, although you are so used to it you think it’s all the world. You have never seen the great outside, you cannot even imagine it.

The world outside is the Kingdom of God. Jesus says, “You cannot enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and the spirit.” What does that mean, “born of water and the spirit?” Jesus says, “You cannot even see the Kingdom of God without being born from above?” What does that mean, “born from above”? Or does Jesus mean “born again”? His Greek words are ambiguous, they could mean “born from above,” or “born again.” Either way, what does he mean? He speaks in puzzling metaphors.

Nicodemus cannot track what Jesus means. After his third question he falls silent, like he can’t stay in the conversation. What could Jesus mean? Even for us, it takes the whole remainder of the gospel of John to track what Jesus says, because Jesus will work on these metaphors all the way through chapter 21.

I can tell you this. The Kingdom of God is right here, it’s not a far off country, which you have to journey far to go to, like Abram had to do. The Kingdom of God is not distant up in heaven or far off in the future, that you have to die first to get there. The Kingdom of God is right here, all around us, only you can’t see it from the perspective of the world, which is all closed in on itself. You can’t see it unless you are already out in it You have to enter it to see it, and you have to be born again to enter it.

Nicodemus was looking for it but he couldn’t see it. He spend his whole life working for it but he could not enter it. Nicodemus was a scholar and a politician, and a member of the council of Judea. His political party was the Pharisees, which, like most Middle Eastern political parties, was both political and theological. The Pharisees were looking for the political restoration of the Kingdom of God in Judea, and the removal of the Romans. The Pharisees believed that the Romans were in power because God was angry at the Judeans and therefore had abandoned them. The Pharisees believed that the way to get God to forgive them and come back was for every last Judean to be scrupulously righteous, which perfect righteousness would win them God’s forgiveness, and bring God back, and the Messiah would come and kick the Romans out like David did to Philistines, and take the throne David, and the Glory would come back to the Temple and the Kingdom of God would be reality.

But the political party in power was the Sadducees, and they were in the way. The Sadducees were the limousine liberals. They controlled the temple and had worked it out with the Romans. The Pharisees hated the Sadducees. So when Nicodemus saw Jesus cleanse the Temple, which is in the previous chapter of John, which was an insult to the Sadducees, Nicodemus thinks it’s time to go under cover of the night and make an alliance with this new guy.

He’s diplomatic in his opening, and Jesus comes back at him like this. “You want the Kingdom of God? You don’t even know what you’re looking at. You couldn’t even enter it, you of all people who assume you have the right to it, just by virtue of your birth. Nope, you’d have to be born all over again.” Jesus is saying that the issue is not the Sadducees or the Romans, the issue is yourself, Nicodemus. The Kingdom of God is already here, indeed, it’s sitting right across from you, only you can’t see it, the Kingdom of God is already here, only you can’t enter it, unless you deal with the issue of yourself.

So what’s the key, and what’s the gate, and what’s the wall? The wall is inside you. The border of the Kingdom of God is inside you. It’s not out there. The Kingdom of God reaches into you, but you have a wall against it, a wall that’s built of fear, like all encircling walls. So what are you afraid of? You do have much to be afraid of. If you look at the scenery on your wall, you can see what you’re afraid of. What people might do to you, based on your real experience. The dangers out there you are painfully aware of. Or how you might end up if things go on like this. The mistakes you’ve made that you might repeat, the mistakes that you are paying for.

The gate is guilt, a bastion of great strength, which we have talked about at other times. And the iron door is unbelief. And the key, the key is belief, according to John 3:15&16. But unbelief is closer and tighter and safer and easier. But your belief will open the iron door into the world, the whole world, which is your proper inheritance, according to Romans 4:13, the whole world as the territory of the Kingdom of God.

So what’s belief? What is it to believe? Well, you can believe in Jesus as the Messiah, and the kind of life he offers. Start there. And you can believe in the promises of God he offers, the promises we summarize in the Apostles Creed. We often say that we believe the Apostles Creed, but actually the Creed is a shortcut. It’s the promises of God we believe in, of which the Creed is the summary. Here’s a take home. If someone asks you, what do Christian believe in? You can say, we believe in the promises of God which Jesus has offered us. What Christians believe in is the promises of God that Jesus offers us. If you ask me what I believe, I can say that it’s not in ideas about God but promises from God which Jesus has conveyed to us. The key is belief, and the lock is the promises, and when the door swings open it lets you out to find your place in the world.

You can also believe in something about yourself. You can believe there is another you. There’s the you that lives on one side of the wall and the you that lives on the other. When you are baptized you become a dual citizen, it’s like being born again in another country, so that you are a citizen there as well. And you have to grow up into it, and it takes time. It’s not like you immigrated into it as an adult, but that you came into it like a newborn baby, and you have to learn it from the ground up like a child.

You know the old you, you know it so well, and, for all the grief you cause yourself, you love yourself. You don’t know the new you near as well, but you can believe in it, you can believe the promise that the Holy Spirit has given birth to it in you. You can live into your new self, even as your old self is still with you. And you can even love that old self, that old troubling self. You regard your old and sinful self not in hatred but in love. Because the kind of people who live out there in the Kingdom of God are people who have learned to love even the unlovely, as God so loved the world.

Copyright © 2011, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Lent 1, March 13: The Keys of the Kingdom: Unlocking Satan's Riddles

Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 83.
Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7, Psalm 32, Romans 5:12-19, Matthew 4:1-11

The serpent in the garden is not evil by nature. The serpent is innocent until we give it power, until we believe it. The serpent gives voice to the attraction of the world, to the allure of nature, to the mystique of our desires and the seduction of our potentials. Our appetites distract us from the special devotion of our species to God, our flesh diverts us from the obedience to God which comes with the special station of Homo sapiens on the earth. The voice confuses good and evil. The voice makes a riddle of our meaning in the world and of our relationship to God.

The Genesis story is always true. It’s a paradigm story, we repeat it all the time. In the Garden the voice was a serpent, today it is the good life, or economic growth, or the best for our children, whatever. It is attractive and reasonable. It never actually lies; it just never tells the whole truth. It speaks for the wisdom of the world, and for the certainties of experience, and for social science in the expertise of its small capacity. You can never answer this voice from within the world. The Genesis story is always true: from our life within the world we keep failing to solve the riddles of our existence and the riddle of good and evil. The only way to solve these riddles is from a perspective from outside the world but which still includes it, the perspective of the Kingdom of Heaven. The keys of the Kingdom unlock the riddles of good and evil in the world.

Our gospel lesson takes place just after Jesus’ baptism, just after he heard the voice from heaven call him the Son of God. That title confirmed him as the Messiah, the heir of David, the rightful King of the Jews in whose reign the Living God would come again and dwell with them. Okay, so now what? Do it like David? Like Alexander the Great? Solomon began his reign by going on retreat to a lovely place to seek the will of God. Jesus went into the desert to fast and pray. More like Moses and Elijah.

His temptations are not three easy choices. The hardest temptations are not the ones to do what’s clearly evil, but to choose the wrong good, which might be good by other rules. The devil dares him, “If you’re the Son of God, then act like it. Shouldn’t you be doing miracles? Back in the Exodus, didn’t your Father make bread in the wilderness? If you saw 5000 hungry people and you had on hand only five loaves and two fishes, wouldn’t you do a miracle?” Your followers will pray to you for help when they are suffering. Wouldn’t you use your power to help them?

Jesus is determining the policies of his Kingdom. Yes, he will do miracles but not to save himself or win his people’s loyalty. He will prove himself in the world not by breaking the laws of nature but by simple obedience, by faithfulness to the Word of God, even at great cost. Jesus’ perfection is a moral perfection—not in being a superman or invulnerable, but in his faithfulness to the Word of God. He believes that the Word of God is the moral diet of ordinary human beings. That’s the first key of his kingdom, the key that is the word of God, which opens many riddles in the world, by which we know what’s good and evil in the world, which opens the mysteries of our own lives and our experience.

But opening this riddle leads right to another. Satan says, “Oh, ‘every’ word of God? Well, how about this one: it is written, ‘He will give his angels charge of you.’ Live by that word, Jesus, abandon yourself to God’s incredible promises, I dare you. Why aren’t you jumping? Do you doubt the promise of your Father to rescue you?” Where is your God? Where is your faith?

The riddle uses scripture, but it’s a trick. This is not a true-to-life example of how we have to put our trust in God. It’s not for getting rescued whenever we’re in a scrape or for having a nice and easy life. To use our tie with God to play with God for a comfort of our own is “tempting God,” as Jesus calls it here. The special care of God for us is for the purpose of enhancing our mission. God’s special care for us is our incentive to risk a life of love and service, which love and service will probably lead to what, from the perspective of the world, might look like an increase in our suffering. The purpose of God’s special care for us is to get us through the suffering that comes with our mission, not to keep us comfortable.

Jesus does not accept this dare, this artificial test. But three years later, in the Garden of Gethsemane, he will pass an even harder test in this same subject. He will take the test upon the cross, he will have to enter the cold, dark door of death as if it’s his Father’s warm and loving care. He will trust in a silent and distant God without resorting to the supernatural. He will submit to all that we endure, and he will ask no miracle of God to free him from the burden of ordinary human existence. Because he has a key—the key that God’s will for us contains God’s care for us, and that God’s care for us does not exempt us from the realities of our humanity, but gets us through the realities of our humanity for the sake of our mission and to do God’s will.

Unlocking the second riddle leads you to the third. “Okay, so you’re not going to resort to any special power, you’re going to accept your limitations and be righteous within them. That means you’re going to lose. Our side has the power, we are in control. We will beat you, we will bury you. So be realistic and make your peace with the powers of the world. I’ll even make you Number Two, I’ll let you run the whole thing. You can save your people just like Joseph did in Egypt when he was Number Two. It’s Biblical. I’ll be Pharaoh, you be Joseph.”

The voice that every single politician listens to. The voice of the powers and principalities that tell you they control the world. In the Bible, the devil is not a voice from hell, he doesn’t even live in hell (that will be the place of his punishment). The devil dwells on the surface of the ground, like the serpent in the Garden, but the original innocence of the serpent has been corrupted by all the human evil since Adam.

The voice now has the pride of its misery, it has sophisticated doubt and well-developed deconstruction, it has angry ingenuity and bitter independence. It seems more real, while obedience is less glamourous, less heroic, less cool. It feels that way to me. I don’t want to be out of it with the world. I want to fit in. I want to enjoy it, I want to be included.

The third key is to worship God. To honor God and pledge to God your absolute loyalty, to confess your other loyalties and be released from them. The worship of God is not just praise, but also the of confession and absolution. This key unlocks so much. Because you have riddles in your life that Adam did not have, the riddle of your guilt, the problem we hold up high in Lent. Look, we have just read the Sermon on the Mount, and heard the teachings of Jesus, and we’ve had described the way of life that we must live inside the Kingdom of Heaven, and we recognize that we fall short, and we confess our guilt. And even by the standards of the ordinary world you feel your guilt. Your guilt and frustration can drive you to even greater doubt and unbelief than if you’d never heard of God. The voice of the serpent is most powerful when it reminds you of the truth of your guilt, as the problem you cannot solve. But it’s not the whole truth.

The whole truth is only known from the news that comes beyond the world, the good news that Jesus not only taught us but also suffered for our redemption and forgiveness. The weekly promise of the gospel is the theme of our worship, the key that unlocks this riddle to open the mystery of grace in our own lives, the mystery of Christ in our place, the mystery of lavish love, the mystery of the world that finds its meaning and its truth in the love of God which overcomes the world.

Copyright © 2011, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.