Thursday, September 27, 2012

September 30, Proper 21: Melons, Maggots, Garlic, and Hell

Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29, Psalm 19:7-14, James 5:13-20, Mark 9:38-50

Dina was a member of my second congregation, in Ontario. She was in her 70s and she had immigrated from the Netherlands, from the island of Overflakkee, and she had that Flakkee personality: cool, dry, and laconic. She had gotten sick, and then her leg got gangrene, and they had to amputate. She told me that the next day she was lying in her hospital bed, and she could see out the window the hospital’s smokestack, and suddenly she saw it release a puff of smoke, and she said out loud, "Dere goes my lek."

Our lesson from the Gospel of Mark is a string of seeming non sequiturs and a cacophony of metaphors. Amputation, maggots, fire, and salt. The string is cleansing versus corruption, purification versus putrefaction. You sacrifice your limb to save your life. Salt stings, salt smarts, but it seasons and preserves. Fire is painful and deadly, fire consumes, but it refines and purifies.

The very first garbage dump I ever saw was up in the Catskills, in the woods, when I was a child. My dad was the chaplain at a summer camp, and at the end of a trail behind our cabin was the dump. It had that rotten smell, and bugs on it, and vapor rising from the decomposition. It wasn’t big, and it had no smoldering fire in it, but I was a city kid and it fascinated me.

The garbage dump of Jerusalem was a valley called Gehenna. It had fires that smoldered endlessly. Gehenna was symbolic for the prophets, who wrote that after the battle to liberate Jerusalem, the bodies of their enemies would be cast into Gehenna, instead of buried, which meant great shame, and so would the bodies of the unrighteous Jews. They would not be buried in good kosher graveyards, their bones would ever be unkosher and unclean, and that would exclude them from the final resurrection of the Jewish nation, and exclude them from Kingdom of God and from the life of the world to come. Their exclusion would be their non-existence.

But not an eternity in hell. It’s unfortunate our Bibles routinely use the word "hell" to translate the word "Gehenna". The fires of Gehenna were not for unending torture but for burning up, for consumption, for destruction unto non-existence. As I argue in my recent book, the conventional view of hell today is a blend of mythology and post-Biblical theology which gets read back into the Bible. But it’s certainly not what Jesus is talking about here.

Let me restate the string of metaphors prosaically. The kingdom of God includes the justice of God. Right. The justice of God requires the judgment of God. Right. The judgments of God are good, but if we are guilty, those judgments smart and sting like salt. Alright. The judgments of God also season society to improve it, and they preserve society from our tendency towards corruption and going bad. God’s judgments are strong and salty, so they do smart and sting.

And you should be salty in yourselves. You can cheerfully internalize the judgments of God, you can learn to judge yourself, and practice self-awareness and cultivate a lively conscience, not in a morbid condemnation of yourself, but in a healthy and joyful humility, with the attitude of exercise and self-discipline, practicing self-examination as a habit and a way of life. You can be salty in yourself, not waiting for others to force it or for God to have to do it. Your motivation is that you are the salt of the earth, you are salty for the greater good of the world.

The metaphor suggests that what’s unclean in us might have been good to begin with. When you say you "have to wash the dirty dishes," what you’re calling "dirt" was just a few minutes earlier healthy gourmet food. So what’s bad in your soul is the corruption of what was good. Did you hang on to it too long, did you desire it too much, has it begun to foul and fester? Keep salt then in yourselves. Be disciplined in your self-cleansing.

But if you do not maintain your own self-cleansing, if God has to do it for you, you’re in for a purging more drastic. Like amputation. Like burning up a leg. If God has to do it on you, it will feel more like fire than like salt. It won’t just sting, it will burn. And it won’t preserve you, it will rather refine you, which means burning away what is unclean. It might expose you as it cleanses you. You might lose your reputation. Some people might not forgive you and you will lose their love and that will be a penalty. You can get through it, but as through fire. Such can be the fiery judgment of our God, but you can comprehend that purest of Loves might be like this.

Notice that we are to be salty in ourselves but not fiery in ourselves. The fire is reserved for God. We are the salt of the earth but not the fire of the earth. The strongest of the judgments are not ours to exercise. It is not for us to judge the deeds of those who are not with us. Yes, we will have enemies, but we are not competent to judge them or condemn them. We are to love them, and give them water when they thirst, and be at peace with one another.

One of the reasons you love your enemies is because of what they offer you. It’s they who often do the most for you. Their opposing you can help you learn about yourself. Your enemies are the scouring pads of your soul, the ammonia, the sandpaper. In moral terms, you can learn more from your enemies than from your friends. Consider what your enemy has against you, and confess that too, which can be liberating from defensive self-righteousness. Use the opposition of your enemy to relax yourself before the judgments of God.

The alternative is delusion. Not neutral ignorance, but actual self-delusion. The example is in our first lesson, from the Book of Numbers, where the Children of Israel, in their discontent with God, began to delude themselves about their prior condition as slaves in Egypt. "The melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic." (I can understand the garlic.) Well, what about the cruelty, the misery, the beatings and the whippings. We delude ourselves with the pleasures of our bondage as against the responsibilities of our freedom. The escape from delusion is in the searching word of the judgments of God within our lives.

The judgments of God are challenging but not impossible. They are not cloaked in mysteries or communicated by disasters; they are publically set out in the scriptures for all of us to see, and the community of Jesus is given the capacity to read, mark, learn and understand them. In the community is how we understand them. We can satisfy the desire of Moses that we all of us are prophets, when together in community we understand what God desires and what God wants. The kind of community conversations that get us to that understanding are described in our epistle, the kind of talk that is clean and the interactions that are redemptive. When we are suffering — not blaming or complaining, but praying together. When we’re cheerful, we make music together. When we’re sick, we minister to each other and touch each other with oil and balm. We confess our sins to one another, in ways which are safe and healthy and not manipulative; we forgive each other, we pray for one another, we heal each other. We counsel each other and bring each other back. This sort of conversation is cleansing, this kind of interaction is healing. It takes discipline, it takes self-correction, but it demonstrates the loving judgments of the Lord.

God be in our eyes, and in our hands, and in our feet, lest we pluck them out or cut them off. God direct our seeing and our handling and our walking. God direct our looking and desiring and what we think about. God direct our touching and our doing and our contribution to the world. God direct our going out and our coming in, God direct our lifelong journey and our pilgrimage, some of us leaping but most of us limping, God bring us safe into the life of the world to come, into that last full measure of your love for us.

Copyright © 2012, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

September 16, Proper 19, The Brand of the Cross, for the baptism of Gretta

(by Sir Stanley Spencer)

Isaiah 50:4-9a, Psalm 116:1-8, James 3:1-12, Mark 8:27-38

So Peter had come to understand that Jesus was the Messiah. Not just a prophet, like Elijah, but also royalty, of the line of David, and thus the long-expected King of the Jews who would achieve the final golden age. And Peter expected this Messiah to be a great success. With all his power and authority — if he could cast out demons, casting out the Romans should be easy. God was on his side and heaven was behind him. There was no reason for defeat, nor for suffering or death.

That would be the Muslim view as well. Muslims honor Jesus highly as a prophet. They believe in his Virgin Birth, and that he will come again, but they won’t believe that Jesus died nor that he could suffer the shame of death on a cross. Such shame is not the lot of the righteous one. If you are righteous, you should not surrender to the unrighteous ones. You must not take up a cross. If God is with you, it’s your enemies who should lose their lives for the sake of the truth. That’s the understanding of Simon Peter and Islam, and of American civil religion, both liberal and Religious Right, not to mention of Benjamin Netanyahu and of al-Qaeda and Hezbollah.

Simon Peter represents common sense, of course, but more than that, he represents religion, normal religion, civilized religion, which is so normal and so natural it must have strongly tempted Jesus, which is why he addresses Peter as a “satan”, that is, the tempting voice of reason, the voice of political science and natural morality.

So Jesus has to get that behind him to clear the way in front of him, but he graciously invites the tempter to get behind him too, to keep up with him and go down with him and on that night to fully experience and confront his denial of his dear Messiah, and in grief and shame and loss of himself to be converted, and be saved.

One of my attractions to Islam is the elegant simplicity of its rituals. It has no sacraments. You can think of Islam as essentially the sanctification of secular life. So if you convert to Islam, the ritual is simply to stand before your fellow worshipers in the mosque at the Friday prayers and repeat in your own voice the simple Muslim creed, “La ilaha illa I-Lah, Muhammadur rasulu I-Lah.” That’s it. That’s all. You are not joining a congregation or a communion or a chosen people, you are just acknowledging the banner of proper humanity within the world.

So they don’t have anything like baptism. But it is lovely what they do for infants. As soon as possible after the child is born, whether at home or in the hospital, the imam comes to whisper in the baby’s ear. He whispers verses from the Holy Koran, so that the words of the prophet are the first words that the baby listens to. Now you listen again to the prophet Isaiah: “God wakens my ear to listen. . . . The Lord God has opened my ear.”

Christians believe that too, that God speaks to little children, we believe that God uses the verses and stories of the Bible to talk directly to our children. This conviction is the foundation of our Children in Worship program that we are starting up again today.

But Christians take it long step further (thanks to the wonderful mystery of the Holy Trinity). We believe that God enters the little children, shamelessly so, in the person of the Holy Spirit. We baptize children to claim that the Holy Spirit enters their souls already in their infancy, to quicken and inspire them. We believe that God establishes an intimate and personal relationship with children before they are aware of it and long before they have the words for it.

Already God has fellowship with them, already they can worship God. That is why we have the Young Children in Worship upstairs right now. That’s why we bless your children at Holy Communion. It’s not so much what we do as what God does, to which we’re only giving our words and our expression. We make visible the invisible mystery of God-with-them already.

We claim these convictions as promises whenever we celebrate a baptism. And we will claim that again today for Gretta Adams. This is the positive significance of baptism, the warmth and loveliness of it. But we also have to face the negative significance in it, the sign of the cross we put upon her, the suggestion of her suffering and the designation of her death. The water we put on Gretta signifies the Flood from the story of Noah’s ark, which was a deadly flood, and it signifies the Red Sea, which drowned the Pharaoh of Egypt and his cavalry. And yes, the negative is purgative, it cleanses and it purifies, but it is still a negative.

The mystery in this negative is that the negative sign is put upon the innocent, just as Jesus himself was innocent. It was the innocent who bore the penalty for the guilty, the righteous one of the unrighteous one. Which means that the cross is for you to take upon yourself, and not for you to hang your enemy upon. The judgment is not revenge because your enemy is you.

And this is not what Simon Peter wanted, nor what King David had done, nor what was taught by the prophet Mohammed, nor is it the expectation of civil religion and political science, nor the strategy of the Religious Right, nor even of common sense, but the baptism today will remind you that you do believe it, you recognize that it is true, which is why you are, you believe that this impossible is possible, that to lose your life is actually to gain your life, to lose your self-control, your self-defense, your self-determination, your dignity, your destiny, to surrender all this actually to gain the world.

You recognize it as the gospel, as good news, but it’s news you need to hear again each week to clear away the louder voices that fill the air. You have confessed this news last week, but it is so counter-valent that you need remind yourself again. And you are here because the Holy Spirit moved you here. The Holy Spirit within you has inspired you to believe this negative as a positive and show you the joy in the sign of the cross and the life revealed in Jesus’ death and the hope revealed in Jesus’ suffering. The Holy Spirit gives you this hope and life and joy.

Today we visibly will signify what the Holy Spirit does invisibly in Gretta. We will claim the business that God does with her on God’s own without our aid. It does not depend upon our faith, but yet we have a part to play. It’s for this congregation to represent a community who believe that this impossible news is true, and thereby to encourage her. It’s for this congregation to teach her the stories of scripture which show her how it works, which is why our Sunday School teachers all deserve your support and gratitude. It’s for Wayne and Beth to be the church for her within her infant life, to whisper in her ears the words which the Holy Spirit uses to develop faith in her. It’s for Jeff and Tristan to show her they believe this too, that this cross of Jesus is the way of life for individuals and the path of peace for the nations and the hope of healing for the planet. It’s for us, by our words and example and encouragement, to give her all the categories she will need to be able to say, with Peter, that Jesus is the Messiah, and further, the categories she will need to be able to get behind this Jesus and follow him through life and death to life.

But the greater part in this is for God, whose Spirit resides in her and applies to her the benefit of Jesus’ death and resurrection. When she can lose her life with him, it’s because God is already raising her new life in her. The positive precedes the negative. God is in, with, and behind her, and God wants her to live, because God loves her. She belongs to God, she is branded with the mark of God. The promise is for you as well. Let the truth of your own baptism remind you that you belong to God, and claim that promise that God wants you to live, because God loves you.

Copyright © 2012, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

September 9, Proper 18: The Woman's Daughter and the Man Who Could Not Hear or Speak

Isaiah 35:4-7a, Psalm 146, James 2:1-17, Mark 7:24-37
They were Gentiles, and they were living outside the Promised Land, this deaf and dumb man and the woman and her daughter. They were not to be counted among God’s people, nor reckoned among the citizens of the Kingdom of God, which the Messiah was supposed to bring. They were not part of the Messiah’s mission plan. Yes, in the long range plan the Gentiles had a place, but only after all the Jews were in, only after the restoration of Israel and its elevation to the primacy among the nations. That restoration of Israel was the mission of the Messiah, not the healing of Gentiles here and there.

Mark has juxtaposed their stories in the commonality of their being Gentiles, but also for the dramatic difference in the manner of their healings. This is the sharp adjacency of contrast which is typical of Mark and of the Hebrew mind. The man is silent, the woman is a talker. The man can’t hear what Jesus says, the woman hears him and debates him. The man’s healing is described in graphic detail, while the daughter is off-stage and never do we glimpse her. Her healing is distant, abstract, and the narrative is theological. It’s all about the conversation. His healing is tactile, physical, and emotional, and it’s all about the bodily contact. The one is a process in the mind of Jesus, and the other is a process in his gut. They are juxtaposed for us, and I think it’s to show us a process in Jesus’ own experience.

Jesus has taken a vacation. The opposition against him has been mounting, the resistance against him has been hardening, and Mark has shown us that Jesus could get disheartened and exhausted. To get away from his own people he heads up north to a bed-and-breakfast in the Gentile region of Tyre. To protect himself he puts a boundary around himself, and his first response to the woman is to protect his boundary. He tells her it’s not her place, it’s not her time. He is following a plan, a stated plan of God. He’s like a hyper-Calvinist. Your people have not been chosen, you are not part of the elect.

She does not disagree, she accepts his terms, but on his terms comes back at him. "I will take your insult and you can keep to your plan but you can help me anyway." Well. I think she triggers a little bit of a conversion in Our Lord. She teaches him a thing or two. That he learns from her does not detract from our belief in his divinity. We must rather convert our notion of his divinity. It’s a divinity we could not conceive of, with attributes that look illogical.

One the one hand, God is sovereign with a sovereign plan. God has chosen a certain pattern and elected a certain people, God prepares us and predestines us, God has purposes and God has freedom to pursue God’s purposes in spite of us. At the same time, God responds to us and our immediate requests. God says, Okay, if that’s what you are asking for. God listens to your prayers and responds to your initiatives and God is moved by you.

This sovereign God is moved by you. That this is true may seem illogical and paradoxical. But we may not use our patterns of intelligence and logic to set a boundary around the sovereignty of God and the freedom of God. There is a benefit to us in this. There is a take-home here for you. You can pray to God from your immediate experience, you can call on God from the needs of your impending circumstance, you can assume your own free will, and God listens and responds to you. Because your own free will and your initiative is part of God’s own plan and purposes, your own individual experience is one of the goals of God’s election and effective sovereignty. Your freedom is part of God’s plan. You can expect God to be moved by you, and you can depend on God to be constant and faithful and sovereign in the universe.

There is a theme of freedom here. The woman is very free with Jesus, and then her daughter gets liberated from the demon, which Jesus does freely without touching her or even seeing her. Jesus takes her freedom into his own mission plan, so he goes home through the Decapolis, outside the boundary of God’s people, which opens him to still more Gentile persons.

He uses his freedom for even closer engagement, as we see with the deaf and dumb man. He doesn’t just touch him, he connects with him. He puts his fingers in his ears and channels the groaning of his lifelong misery. The translation in our text is weak. He didn’t just "sigh", he groaned, a groan too deep for words. All the groaning of the Gentile peoples, the groaning of all the pagans outside the blessings of the Torah and the covenants, the misery of the nations to whom the God of Moses had been silent, the millions of humans outside the boundary of God’s people, Jesus channels the timeless groaning of their souls and raises it to God.

"Be opened," Jesus says in Aramaic, which is the same as Syriac, not Hebrew. Give voice, let your sound come out and your experience, your misery, your rebellion, your idolatries, your sins, your bondages, your warfare, your violence, your self-defeat, your cutting yourself, your burning of your children, your fears, your dreams, your hopes, your best, your worst, your need for the living God, be opened, be healed, begin to hear, begin to speak, begin to hear the voice of God, begin to learn the love of God, begin to speak the praise of God. Jesus channeling us and God.

Scholars are not sure why Jesus spits. Even in his humanity he is something of a mystery. Who is this Jesus whom we had thought we knew? So physical, so emotional, so biological, so wrapped up bodily experience. Why did we ever think that the purpose of his salvation was to get our souls up to heaven? How did we miss that his purpose is the salvation of this world, the healing of the earth, the resurrection of our bodies, the reconciliation of real-live human history, and the redemption of real-live human experience?

Look at Jesus, and in his physical humanity see the fullness of God’s divinity. God’s fingers in your ears, God’s spit upon your forehead, God groaning for the groaning of all humanity. What can it sound like, the groaning of God? It sounds like us. When you talk to God, God does more than hear it, God repeats it. When you cry to God, God echoes it and cries along.

Yes, this sovereign God, this majestic God, this holy God. God does it not only for God’s people, but for everyone who ever lived, no matter when they lived or where or under into what religion they were born, all the groaning of all the nations of the world are heard by God and voiced by God through the physical body of this Lord Jesus.

Yes, God had a sovereign plan through Israel, God is faithful to the church and calls us to the church, but do not assume thereby that God is not busy and loving and faithful and gracious with all the millions and billions of the nations who are outside the church. God does not tell us how because it is beyond our boundary. The sovereignty of God is not bounded by our expectations and our obligations. And that’s fine, we have lots of our own business to attend to. The theme is freedom here. The freedom of God, which is freedom for us and for our mission.

There is one more take-home. From the Epistle of James. The little congregations he wrote to were suffering discrimination and exclusion, as I said last week. So whenever a Roman bigwig was kind enough to come by and show them some respect, they would naturally respond with gratitude and seat the Borough President right up front. And show him their homeless people sitting in the back, to prove how positively civic-minded we all are. That’s what I would do. Our little congregation needs all the legitimacy we can get. But we can be free of all that. We need only trust the sovereignty of God, that we are in God’s plan, that God protects us and preserves us, and that our church is loved by God with the love God has for every one of you.

Copyright © 2012, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.