Tuesday, October 22, 2013

October 27, Proper 25: Contradictions 9: The Gospel Contradicts Religion

Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22, Psalm 84:1-6, 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18, Luke 18:9-14

The Pharisee and the tax collector. The patriot and the collaborator. The Pharisee wants the Kingdom of God, literally and politically, and the tax collector works for the Empire of the Romans.

The Pharisee keeps himself clean and pure to be qualified for the Kingdom of God when it comes. The tax collector’s employment makes him unclean, handling unclean Roman coins, stamped with that idolatrous image of Caesar, which makes him a traitor to his own nation, and which makes of him a constant thief, in the eyes the people, as he earns his living by his surcharge on the tax, a sort of legalized extortion.

The older translations of the Bible styled the tax collector a “Publican,” so this is called the Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican, and despite our dislike of the Pharisees, this Publican would not have been your friend.

We miss the force of this parable if we read as if their prayers were Protestant private prayers. So let me give you its original context. There was only one temple in Israel, the one in Jerusalem. There were many synagogues, in all the towns. You could pray in synagogues, every week, on the Sabbath, as still is done, of course. But in the temple the prayers were offered every day, and not led by rabbis but by Levites and priests. Plus, the prayers in the temple were centered on the daily sacrifices, sacrifices of animals, of lambs — one at dawn and one at the ninth hour, say 3:00 pm, the sacrifices which made atonement for the sins of Israel. Once their sins were covered by the blood of the lamb,  they were permitted to make their prayers to God. The Levites ignited the incense, and as the smoke of the incense rose, the prayers rose up, from the Levites around the altar of the sacrifice, making supplication for the whole of Israel, from the people in attendance, making their own supplications and intercessions.

Also praying is this Pharisee. He’s not interceding or supplicating, he is lifting up his hands in thanksgiving. He’s off to the side so that he won’t get touched by anyone who might contaminate his purity. He is strict and more than strict, fasting more often than the Torah mandated, and tithing more completely than the Torah required. So we would love this guy to be a member of Old First, even if we’re irritated by his self-righteousness in thanking God that he’s such a righteous guy.

Also praying is that Publican, far off in the back, and quite unwelcome. He’s a bad man. Maybe he’s the guy who was giving all the trouble to that poor widow from the parable last week! He knows he’s bad. So he’s praying with his head down, and he’s beating his breast, like we did last month in the synagogue on the night of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. He prays, not just “God be merciful to me, a sinner,” but more literally and specifically, “God, let the Atonement be for me, the sinner.” He’s guilty, and he knows he has no right to talk to God apart from the bloody sacrifice which is offered to cover his sins.

And that’s why he’s the one who’s justified. That’s why he is rectified and qualified to enter the Kingdom of God. That’s the contradiction, that the righteous guy is reckoned as unqualified, and the unrighteous guy is reckoned as qualified. This is the gospel’s contradiction to religion, this is the paradox preached by Martin Luther, this is the antithesis instituted by John Calvin, this is the quite contrary doctrine of the Reformation, and because it is contrary we need reminding of it every week, we need to hear it every Sunday as the morning news.

It’s not that God prefers the Publican to the Pharisee. God would just as soon justify the good guy as the bad guy. But the Pharisee has not offered up himself. The Publican did. It was his bad self that he offered, but it was his true self. My wife put it this way: the Publican knows his life is a dirty business. The Pharisee doesn’t know that being human is a dirty business. The Pharisee doesn’t admit, not even to himself, that he’s just as needy of God’s grace as the Publican. It’s that tragedy of unawareness that I spoke about three weeks ago.

The Publican is aware of himself. And all the Publican has to offer to God is his own sinful self. The only gift he has to give to God is his need of God, and his need of God giving freely and indiscriminately back to him, without regard for his deserving it. The Lord Jesus does not say that the Publican went home to make amends, or try to be better to show how sorry he truly was. We’d like him to do that, we’d like him to stop extorting money from the people, but that would miss the point of the parable, that the grace of God is not conditioned by our proving it in our behavior.

Both of them are in us all the time. Don’t say, “Oh, I’m like the one and not the other.” You are always both. You have both in you. You have the contradiction running in you all the time. You compare yourself to others, and you justify yourself. You also know your guilt and you bow your head in shame. The gospel both judges you and comforts you. It resurrects you to new life but first it lays you dead. The gospel calls you to religion and it tells you your religion cannot measure up. The contradiction between religion and the gospel is one you recapitulate each week.

So what do you do? Take a clue from the epistle, from what St. Paul wrote to Timothy. He sounds a little like the Pharisee, almost like he’s boasting. “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race,” I’m not a loser, I’m a winner, “I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day.” Well, St. Paul, aren’t you special.

Of course, considering the fact that he’s got prison chains on him while he writes this, he’s sort of got the right to speak like this. And he does not exalt himself by degrading other people. He does admit that other people did him wrong, that they did not support him, that they deserted him, but he asks that it not be counted against them. He wants grace for them too. He forgives them. He has to keep on forgiving them in his own mind, no doubt, because in his prison cell he’s reminded of their desertion every day again. His reason to forgive them is not in them, and not in himself, but in God, and the love and the grace of God, which is what he wants to be true to. 

So yes, take this clue from the epistle. Thank God for where you are, and what God has done for you, and then also love your enemies, and pray God’s grace and favor on those persons who have done you wrong. Be thankful to God, and reckon yourself among the Publicans who know their need of God. What God loves to see in you is your desire for God.

Today we will baptize Ronald, who has acted upon the desire of his life for God. We heard his testimony here last Spring, and he told us that from his childhood he believed in God, but that when in his youth he requested baptism, he was refused. He was not welcome in the Temple, so to speak, he was not welcome at the sacrifice or in the prayers. But like St. Paul, he kept his faith. That’s the remarkable gift of grace that Our Lord Jesus was working in him through the years, that Ronald did not reject his faith because of his rejection by the church. As St. Paul wrote, “no one came to my defense, but all deserted me.” But then, “May it not be counted against them,” which he has demonstrated today by seeking out the church again. He fought the good fight, he is finishing the race, he is keeping the faith, and the water and oil we will put upon his head will be his crown of righteousness.

His baptism is a gift of God for him but also for the rest of you. You are to see in the sacrament today a story of requited love. Not unrequited love, but requited love. It is the love of God that touches the contradictions in our lives to comfort them. This is the love of God which converts the tragedy of your unawareness to the comedy of your acknowledgment and the feast of your recognition. Look up, you belong here. Look up, there is love coming here. Look up, receive the little gift, behind the little gift is the boundless and inexhaustible love of God for you.

Copyright © 2013 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Friday, October 18, 2013

October 20, Proper 24: Contradictions 8: The Unjust Judge

Genesis 32:22-31, Psalm 121, 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5, Luke 18:1-8

We have two contradictions today. The first one is forthright: that God is compared to a judge who is unjust. Jesus compares that spiritual being who is most righteous to a human official who is not. Such a comparison is offensive in Islam, but the parables of Jesus force us to get used to Our Lord doing this, using contrary characters. Not just to make his point, but to shake us up, to open us up.

Of course we often do find God to be unjust, both philosophically and personally. Philosophically, if God is responsible for the world as we know it, and if God is all-powerful and omnipotent, then the fact of so much unrelenting injustice in the world must finally be God’s fault, and it therefore follows that God must be unjust. 

Speaking personally, how much of my own experience as a Christian, as a pastor, has felt unfair, and even if I do confess the faults of my own, and my own responsibility for most of my losses and my suffering, still there is a surplus of unfairness in the lives of those I care about. And God just lets it go unanswered. I can testify that there were many years of my life when I felt God was being unfair to me.

Wisdom would say, Buck up and bear it. Get over it, get on with it. When I was a kid I used to get lots of trouble from my older brother. I would go to my dad, and he would say, “Fight your own battles.” Which meant, implicitly, don’t be like the widow in the parable.

None of you wants to be like her either. We’d call her shrewish. Not shrewd, but shrewish. A nag. A cry-baby. Who wants to keep crying to God day and night? Who wants to be so tiresome? Get real. Accept the realities of life. If you expect justice all the time you’re asking for constant frustration and you’re no fun to be with.

In America our justice is relatively good. In much of the world a bribe is just assumed. When Jesus told his parable, the obvious solution was for the widow to pay the judge the money he was waiting for. Which, in other terms, is the basis of so much religion. You want something from God, so you offer something in exchange. “Dear God, give me this, and I promise I’ll be a better person, or I’ll do this or that, whatever.”

But in the parable the widow offers nothing to the judge beside her pure demand. So when you pray to God for something, it doesn’t help if you offer something back. That would be a bribe. You should just ask for it and ask for it and ask for it, for no reason other than that you think it’s right for you to receive it. But even that gets tiresome. Who wants to keep on praying like that?

Now let me ask you this. Why do you come here on Sundays? Do you come here because you’re looking for justice? Likely not. In other times and places that is what congregations were praying for. Like in Montgomery, Alabama, in the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. Or like in Syria right now, in the Syrian Orthodox Church, that most ancient of Christian churches, whose members are in danger of their lives from either side. For thirteen centuries these people have been crying to God for justice day and night.

Do we ask enough of God? Do we demand enough of God? Do we expect enough of God? Do we keep our expectations minimal, limited, and well-controlled? If we don’t ask much, we won’t be disappointed. We are modern people after all, we are not superstitious, nor fundamentalist, we don’t go round saying “God did this for us” and “God did that for us.” We know what life requires and what life offers and we deal with it. So we do not ask enough of God, we let God off the hook. We want to be respectable, we don’t want to come off like that widow.

So you need this balance: You should allow yourself to make every request of God that seems right to you. You should not filter your requests to God. If it seems right, ask it. But, at the same time, commit yourself to long-term learning of what it is that God desires to offer you. For example, if you want to be wealthy, ask for it. Be true to yourself and be honest in your relationship with God. If you want justice, ask for it. And if you are doing the long-term learning of what God desires to offer and expect, then you learn that God is a lot more interested in giving you justice than wealth. Your goal is that by long-term spiritual training your deepest requests begin to conform to what God offers and expects. Your honest and candid prayers are balanced by humble and costly learning.

Which brings us to the epistle, Second Timothy. It is recalling us to scripture, to the trustworthiness of scripture, the necessity of scripture, and the discipline of scripture, for our proficiency and our equipment in the world. The epistle reminds us that there is sound doctrine and bad doctrine, and the bad doctrine is often more attractive and appealing than the sound doctrine. And a great deal of bad doctrine purports to tell you want God offers and what God expects, and what you should pray for and what you might as well forget about. You need to learn what’s right in this and what is wrong, and the way to learn it is through the mature and patient study of the public documents of scripture. Pray for what you want, and study to learn what God wants.

The gospel lesson tells you to pray exactly what’s on your mind, and do not filter it. But we’re not talking about a couple of prayers, or what you are asking for this week, we’re talking about long-term prayer, we’re talking about months and months of prayer, years and years, we’re talking about prayers that wear God out, like the Civil Rights Movement, and like the churches in Syria, who have been praying for justice for 1300 years. If that’s what you’re willing to do, and stay at it, then go ahead, tell God exactly what’s on your mind.

So then, is it possible that the prayers you offer have an influence on God? That’s certainly what Jesus seems to say. Your prayers do have an influence on God. Not based on how long you pray or how often you pray — it’s a parable, it’s comic, you can get past that overly literal conclusion — but based on the character of the teller of the parable, the nature of the God who became incarnate, the God who allowed his person to be taught by a mother and trained by a father and surprised by a leper and moved by Mary and Martha. In Jesus we see that God is taken by your prayer. Not by how often you pray it or how long, but by who you are and what you ask. You have an influence on God.

And that’s the second contradiction. How can that be so if God knows everything already and has chosen already and predestined already and elected already? This contradiction is one that Our Lord himself will not resolve. Not logically, and certainly not philosophically, to the frustration of theologians over the centuries who have wrestled with the problem of God’s sovereignty and our freedom, God’s predestination and our free will, God’s omnipotence and our responsibility.

What I like about Reformed Church doctrine is that we don’t let the obvious reality of our freedom and our free will and the evident necessity of our responsibility diminish the less obvious promise of God’s predestination and the less evident truth of God’s omnipotence and sovereignty. These two truths have a difficult marriage, but “What the Lord hath joined together, let not man put asunder.”

The resolution has to be in prayer. The wrestling you do with God in prayer. The back and forth you have with God in prayer. The resolution of the contradiction is not in the logic on the page but in the wrestling of your heart. Like Jacob in our first lesson. You have to grapple the contradiction in the dark night of your soul and in your darkest passages of grief and loss. God will surely bless you, but it will surely cost you, and you’ll be limping in the morning, but don’t let go of God.

God wants you in partnership. You have to consider your influence on God. But even more, you have to accept God’s influence on you. Keep at it; your long-term praying works back on you to shape you and transform you, so that your mind begins to merge with God’s mind, and also that you yourself become part of God’s answer. The answer to your prayer begins to flow back through you into the world. You will discover that what you get from this is hope. Hope. Real living hope. You will feel that the God who is gripping you in your struggle is the God who is embracing you in love.

Copyright © 2013 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

October 13, Proper 23, Contradictions 7: Dirty Water, Faithful Denial

2 Kings 5:1-3; 7-15c, Psalm 111, 2 Timothy 2:8-15, Luke 17:11-19

We have four contradictions today. The first one is in the gospel lesson, when the Lord Jesus speaks contrarily. First, he tells the ten lepers to go to a priest to get certified as healed, which they do. On the way, they realize they are healed, but they keep following the Lord’s instructions, except that one of them turns around and comes back to him. The Lord gives him credit for this, which is fine — but the problem is that he questions the other nine for doing what he had told them to do.

Unless his questions are not rhetorical but real. That is, the Samaritan leper had surprised him. There was a surplus in the Samaritan’s response, a surplus which surprised Our Lord, and then, having seen it, Jesus says, “Hey, I wonder why this one is the only one who did this?” We can allow the Lord Jesus to have his surprise and wonder too.

The second contradiction is the standing one we saw again last week, the contradiction between God’s promises and our experience. If it was his faith that made him well, then why am I still sick? I have faith, I've prayed, and I’m still sick. The answer of conventional religion is that there must be a  problem with my faith, that it isn't great enough. But Jesus contradicted that last week: he said your faith should be the size of a mustard seed, so the greatness or smallness of your faith is immaterial.

I have to tell you that our English translation of what Jesus said doesn't help. He doesn't say, “Your faith has made you well.” He actually says, “Your faith has saved you,” which is more than a little different. Think about the story: all ten of them were made well, all ten of them were healed, and not by their faith, but by the free and invisible action of Jesus as they walked away from him. It’s only the tenth one who was both healed and saved. And getting saved — what it means to get “saved,” in the Gospel of Luke, is to accept and enjoy the Lordship of Jesus, to get saved is to enter the Realm of God, right then and there, to get saved is to receive the Kingdom of God. Which is what only the tenth one did when he turned around and returned to Jesus.

So from Luke’s point of view, you are saved. You here. You came here today to say, Lord, have mercy on us, and then also to offer up your thanks to God, so you are within the Kingdom of God right now. You are saved, you are safe, even in whatever you are suffering. You are within God’s sovereignty, and God will keep you safe.

In the case of our first lesson, the prophet Elisha did more than make General Naaman well, he also saved him — he made him receive the Kingdom of God. That’s why Elisha told him to bathe himself in the dirty waters of the Jordan. To Naaman it sounded contradictory — our third today — and at first he wouldn’t do it. You wouldn’t either. Go wash in the Gowanus, and you’ll be healed.

The story is intentionally comic. It’s a joke on the king of Israel, who thinks it’s a set up. It’s a joke on Naaman, when he shows up at Elisha’s door with his horses and chariots and all his retinue, and the prophet doesn’t even get up from his crossword puzzle, but sends out his servant with the message. Then, at the edge of the river Naaman has to endure the shame of getting undressed and exposing his nakedness, not to mention his awful skin, before the eyes of his lessers.

It’s comic that he has to go seven times into the water. Once, still leprous. Twice, still leprous. Three times, everyone is looking to see if there is any change. Four times, Naaman is humiliated by the show, but he can’t stop now. Five times, any hope? Six times, what if this doesn’t work, what a fool he’s been, but he goes in the seventh time, and then, the laughter of relief, and maybe tears as well.

The reason for this whole show, and why Elisha did not just heal him while he stood outside his door, is that Naaman had to get baptized. The water was symbolic. Just as the Israelites had to cross the Jordan to enter the Promised Land, so did this foreigner, this enemy of Israel. He had to brave the boundary waters, seven times to test his faith, like marching seven times around the walls of Jericho. He had to enter the Kingdom of God and receive the Kingdom of God. He’s been saved. So he doesn’t go straight home. Like the Samaritan he returns to the man of God to confess his faith.

Naaman confessed his faith, and the Samaritan offered thanksgiving. To practice gratitude is to practice your faith. That’s a take home for today. If you want to live by your faith, then practice thanksgiving. Thanksgiving to God is the best way to express your faith and the best way to rehearse your faith and the best way to maintain your faith. To practice gratitude is to practice your faith. For does it not take faith to do it — to be grateful to God even when you are suffering, even when you keep on waiting to be made well. That you still return to God, that you still worship God, that you still give thanks to God, that you still keep wanting to live within the Kingdom of God—that’s what faith does and what it takes faith to do.

It is challenging. You need encouragement. Your faith runs thin. You have your doubts, and you know you have your weaknesses. The Bible is full of positive characters who stumbled in their faith, or failed in faith, or even lost their faith. From our Second Lesson it looks like Reverend Timothy was facing that and he needed encouragement. His church was small and struggling. His mentor was in jail, and the whole Christian movement looked very weak indeed.

St. Paul reminds him of one of their early Christian hymns. It's a poem with four lines. The first two lines are fine: “If we’ve died with him we’ll also live with him, if we endure with him we’ll also reign with him.” So far so good. Not just for the future. Living right now, reigning somehow right now. Often it doesn’t feel like it, but see your life that way, like Malala Yousafzai, for example.

The third line is the hard part: “If we deny him he’ll also deny us.” Uh oh. Does that mean eternally? Does that mean that even though God says Yes to you, your No to God can overturn that Yes? That contradicts the Reformed Church doctrine of the Perseverance of the Saints, that doctrine of comfort and consolation, that if God has called you to salvation, nothing weak or sinful that you do or say can overturn God’s call on you, so that God, who began a good work in you, will see it through to completion, no matter how you stumble or fail from the sin which still lives on in you.

Could we make sense of this third line by saying that there’s a denial that comes from strength, when you just plain say No to God, and God will let you have your way, and there’s also a denial that comes from weakness, or fear, or shame, or guilt, and God will not let your No be the last word? Think about St. Peter and his denial of Jesus three times before the cock crowed on Good Friday, and yet Jesus did not deny him back. Do I dare say that what Jesus denies is your denial?

And is the fourth line not contrary to the third? "If we are faithless, he remains faithful — for he cannot deny himself.” Even when you break faith, he will not break faith. Well, there’s the promise, and that’s the promise you have to hold on to. Not that I can make these four lines add up nice and neat, but no matter what the third line says it’s not the last line.

Your faithless denial never gets to be the last word. The last word is always God’s. And God’s last word is always Yes. To you. I know you doubt God, you look away from God, you strike out at God, you rage at God, you even say No to God, but God gets the last word, and God’s last word to you is always Yes. Because God’s love is as eternal and unfathomable and unending as God’s own self.

It’s hard to believe. And so you have to rehearse the thanksgiving. Which is why our liturgy is set up the way it is, it’s designed to help you rehearse each week the process of believing. We go from the promise in the sermon, to the “Okay, I believe it” of the Creed, which then leads you to the “Lord have mercy,” which then leads you to the intercessory prayers for all the suffering — for all the people who still need in one way or another to experience that Yes — which then leads you to the Great Thanksgiving.

We do that Great Thanksgiving every week in order for you to keep your faith alive, because how you practice having faith in God is to rehearse your Thanksgiving to God. And what God gives back to you is more than just faithfulness — what God gives back to you is love. For God cannot deny God’s self, and God is love.

Copyright © 2013, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Saturday, October 05, 2013

October 6, Proper 22, Contradictions 6: Free Grace and Obligation

Habakkuk 1::1-4; 2:1-4, Psalm 37:1-10, 2 Timothy 1:1-14, Heidelberg Catechism Q1, Luke 17:5-10

Note: We mark today our 359th Anniversary.

We have three contradictions today. The first is the contradiction of obligation and free grace. Your obligation is the message of our gospel lesson. Your faith is an obligation that you have. You think of your faith as something you freely chose, your choice to add meaning and fulfillment to your life, but the gospel says that it was your duty anyway, your faith is obligatory, you owe it to God, you are accountable for it. What you have freely chosen is only not to be delinquent, not to have defaulted on your obligations, and what credit is that to you? You are only doing what you’re supposed to do.

For most of history, people lived their lives in terms of obligations. You behaved yourself according to the expectations of a whole thick web of obligations. But the evolution of modernity in Western civilization has changed all that. We put a premium on freedom. We believe in self-fulfillment. Your truest obligation is to yourself. The ideal of our education is our self-discovery. So everybody gets rewarded, everybody gets applauded, everybody gets a prize just for showing up. Every Park Slope toddler who manages to get his foot somewhere near that soccer ball gets a great cheer from his parents looking on. We've changed the meaning of “praiseworthy” from the object to the subject. We teach our children to perform expecting praise. I get that. I’m a performer, and I love approval and applause. But the gospel says this to me: “Okay, you preached a good sermon; you were supposed to, what do you want, a medal? You want recognition? Go visit some prisoners in jail.”

My uncle in the Netherlands was recognized as a “Righteous Gentile” by the Government of Israel for the Jews he protected during World War II. He did not care to be recognized. He did not think of himself as a hero. He felt he had no choice but to do what he did. He knew that doing the right thing might mean his own suffering, and of course he always tried to minimize the suffering, but he also believed that the potential for suffering did not negate his obligation.

Your religion is your obligation. You are supposed to worship God. It’s what you’re made for. You’re supposed to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind, and you’re supposed to love your neighbor as yourself. You’re supposed to keep the Ten Commandments. So if you do these things, you should not expect any extra consideration back from God. You should not expect any less suffering or any more success than anybody else. What the gospel is saying.

But what about free grace? What about the passionate love of God for us, the God who comes to find us and pays the cost for us with God’s own blood? Doesn’t God keep promising to bless us?

The contradiction is the open secret of the gospel. Your life is not your own, you owe it to God, and you’ve defaulted. Your life is not your own, and you belong to your faithful savior Jesus Christ, who has fully paid for your default. The resolution of this contradiction is not so much logical as personal, in the person of the Lord Jesus, whose death upon the cross is the guarantee of grace and the incentive of your obligation. “Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.”

The resolution of the contradiction of obligation and free grace is the person of the Lord Jesus. We maintain the contradiction in order to witness to the necessity of his Lordship. Maintaining the contradiction and pointing to the solution in his Lordship is a particular characteristic of Reformed Church doctrine. As in the Heidelberg Catechism.

Let me say a word about the Heidelberg Catechism, because it is part of the Constitution of the Reformed Church, and I am required to teach it from time to time. It was written in 1563, so this year is its 450th anniversary. It remains the most widely used catechism ever, in the most translations, around the world. Only 91 years after it was written, we began to use it here in Brooklyn. Do the math. Our church was established in October of 1654 by order of Governor Pieter Stuyvesant.

This morning we are marking our 359th Anniversary. Next year is 360. We should have a celebration. We should give out hard-hats and hold it in the sanctuary. I guess we’ll need a committee. We have a lot of choices about the how and when, because there is much about our early history which is lost to us. Most of our early records have been lost. We have no reliable picture of our first building. But we do have these precious heirlooms from 1684, these Communion Beakers.

Just think of how many hundreds of our mothers and fathers have drunk from these cups, our grandmothers Lois and our mothers Eunice. How small the beakers are, compared to our building, but how much they carry. If people think of Old First Reformed Church, they think of this great big Gothic building, but these little beakers carry much more sacred power.

Over these many years our congregation has been through thick and thin, and it has been thick and thin, and twice we almost closed. Our faith has been no bigger than a mustard seed. But that’s big enough, and small enough, because the size of our faith is immaterial. That’s the second contradiction: the smaller your faith, the better. The power of the mustard seed unleashes only when it’s planted in the ground. The strength of your faith is not in your faith itself but in what you plant your faith and in whom you put your faith. You can have a very weak faith and still live by your faith. Good news for every one of you. Good news for this congregation.

The third contradiction is the standing one which we have spoken of before, that contradiction between the promises of God and our experience. As the prophet Habakkuk wrote, “How long, O Lord, shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you, ‘Violence!’ and you will not save?” We repeat those lovely affirmations in Psalm 37, and we think, “Yeah, right.” We read about Timothy, that young pastor, whose preaching of the power of the Lord Jesus was contradicted by the suffering of his little congregation and by the imprisonment of Paul, its greatest herald and apostle. So that he was tempted to be ashamed of that gospel and ashamed of Paul. And he kept at it only out of obligation. We today are tempted to be shy and hesitant about our message and ashamed of the Reformed Church which has entrusted it to us.

How long, O Lord, how long must we keep this up? 360 years, 390 years, 490 years? As long as the message is still required. As Habakkuk continues, “Write the vision, make it plain on tablets so that a runner may read it. For there is still a vision for the appointed time: it speaks of the end, and it does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.” Are you ashamed? “Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous shall live by their faith.”

Your faith is not the solution to that third contradiction, because that contradiction will keep standing as long as human history endures. Your faith is how you get beyond that contradiction to the vision, the vision of God that our human experience desperately needs but cannot imagine on its own. Your faith is where you live in order to survive your experience, in order even in the midst of suffering to survive and thrive. This is the life-giving vision which God has given to our church, and to keep on presenting this vision is the enduring obligation of this gift to us. The gospel lesson tells us that the long survival of Old First is no great credit to us, it’s only what we’re supposed to do. Not so much keep the congregation going, but keep the vision alive, and gather around it. And whenever we are suffering, whenever we come to the end of our own resources, then God’s power works in us to reveal to the world the same free grace which came to find us to save us.

So don’t be ashamed of yourself or your performance or your experience. Your life is beyond your own capacity to manage its future, but “you know whom you believe in, so be persuaded that he is able to keep that which you’ve committed unto him against that day.” Commit your future to God for God to hold on to till that final day. All your obligations, which are many, and you have defaulted on, all the service that you owe, all the love that you have shorted on, commit that all to God for God to make good on till that final day. Not because your faith is so great, but simply because of who God is. Considering your obligations, your only choice is to surrender to the love of God.

Copyright © 2013, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.