Thursday, November 21, 2013

November 24, Reign of Christ: Contradictions 12: Executions in Paradise

Jeremiah 23:1-6, Psalm 46, Colossians 1:11-20, Luke 23:33-43

What did Jesus mean by “the paradise”? Why did he use this specific word, for the only time in the gospels? Why didn’t he just say ‘heaven”? Because he didn’t mean “heaven”. When he said “paradise,” the term was more specific than it is today. A paradise was a royal park, a palace garden and menagerie, like the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, like the Garden of Eden, a private park for an emperor’s enjoyment, where he might take his special guests to walk and talk with him, and where to be invited was a privilege of honor.

Which means (if we respect the metaphor) that Jesus was giving this criminal more than he had asked for. He only dared ask to be remembered in the kingdom, but Jesus brings him into the royal garden. The criminal had asked for some carnations on his grave, but Jesus puts a rose in his tuxedo.

What a strange exchange these two have upon their crosses. What things to be saying when you are dying in defeat. Has their pain made them delirious? “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.” What possible kingdom? The Kingdom of Judea? What does the inscription say above his head? “This Guy is the King of the Judeans”? But that is meant for mockery. What it really meant was, “This is what we Romans do to Jewish royalty!” To prevent his kingdom is precisely why he was being killed.

Does this criminal believe that Jesus could die his death and still get his kingdom in the future, that God will bring him back alive for some new liberation beyond the miracles of the Maccabees? If so, then what he’s asking is this: “When that time comes, pardon me; I was with you; don't forget me; don’t let my name be blotted out.”

The answer is unexpected: “Today.” Not in the future, but today. That is, “I am remembering you now, I am already acting as the king. The inscription above me is right. I am the king, today, and when I say, “Amen, today,” this is my royal proclamation. I am doing what kings do in giving you a pardon. But even more I invite you to my royal garden for you to be with me. You are in my kingdom now.”

Jesus has done him better. The criminal believed that Jesus’ kingdom would come after the crucifixion, but Jesus believed that his kingdom was established by the crucifixion; that when the soldiers put him on the cross, they put him on his throne; that in crucifying him, his enemies were giving him his kingdom; and that Pontius Pilate, in mocking him with that inscription, was actually nominating him, which was his official duty anyway. The prophecy of Jeremiah has come true. The Son of David has begun to reign upon the cross, and the pardoning of this criminal is the first act of the new administration.

So Jesus’ kingship doesn’t wait till after his ascension into heaven. He is already executing justice and righteousness. He’s already gathering the lost sheep of Israel, as Jeremiah had prophesied. And the criminal, in the words of Colossians, has been “rescued from the power of darkness and transferred into the kingdom of the beloved Son, in whom he has redemption, the forgiveness of his sins.”

All the other characters are in his kingdom too, all the other watchers and mockers, but they don’t know it. They are bound within the guilt and fear and hostility which are normal in the world. Jesus has asked his Father to pardon them as well. But it’s only this one thief who has welcomed it. Not only by putting his trust in Jesus, but also by acknowledging the truth about his guilt and his predicament. He is the only one in this whole scene who has a good sense of himself, who is open about himself, and therefore open to the Lord.

Unlike Adam hiding in the Garden, unlike Eve hiding in the trees. So yes, this is a paradise, a second Garden of Eden, the beginning of the new creation, and Jesus is the firstborn of the new humanity, and the criminal is with him.

The gospel writer Luke is remarkably silent on Jesus’ suffering and agony. What Luke has given us is another painting, a moment made eternal extending into time and space, let’s say in the style of Breugel or Velazquez. In the foreground are ranged the watchers and the witnesses. On the right, the leaders of the people. They represent religion. They taunt Jesus for his inability to see his reformation through; he is unconvincing and uncompelling and he cannot save a thing. On the left, the soldiers represent the world. They mock him for his folly and his failure and for his being a Jew. Up on that one cross is the criminal who represents our guilt. He is deriding Jesus for the hopelessness of grace. All of these are trapped in bondage to the powers of the world.

Only Jesus and the second criminal are free. Jesus is free from anger and reprisal and from his burden of the past three years. The criminal is freed from his past and freed from his guilt and free to offer honor and respect and hospitality. He has the freedom of the Kingdom of God.

This painting is God’s message to you today. It is your invitation; you are invited to this freedom. He died like a slave so that you might be free from the guilt of your sins and free from bondage to the jealous powers of the world. God wants you to be free. Again: free from your guilt, and free from the compulsions of the world. It is God’s gift to you. Freedom to construct your life. Freedom to develop your character. Freedom to be open to others and free to love. Freedom to be creative and experiment and make mistakes and fall and fail, but without the burden of your guilt. The freedom of the Kingdom of God. But we know that freedom is a problem, too.

Last Sunday I said that the grand strategy of God’s sovereignty was to go through communities of Jesus. Okay. But it’s from the constrictions of communities that we so often feel the need to free ourselves. You had to leave home in order to be free, you had to leave your home town or your family. The contradiction of freedom and community finds a constant reconciliation in a church. Our mission is to practice the constant pardoning of each other’s trespasses against us, and also to practice hospitality to each other’s strengths and weaknesses and warts and goiters and gifts and talents. The hospitality follows on the pardoning, just as Jesus gave both to the criminal.

A second contradiction is between your freedom and the sovereignty of God. If God is in control, if God chooses and predestines, then how can you be free? God has a plan, God has a goal in mind and an end in sight, so what choice do you have? Well, the sovereignty of God is not a pushy one. God does not push God’s plan from the start and forward into time. It’s rather that God is already at the end and gathering us all home. God is gathering all our freely chosen creativities and God is making good out of all of our mistakes and converting our failures and carrying our sufferings and shaping salvation out of it all of it. Let your life flow as you want it, and God gathers the stream of your life into God’s great river. Or as Jeremiah says, God is the shepherd who gathers your wandering on the mountains so wonderfully that you arrive at home.

Amen, Today, says Jesus from the cross. It’s not just a man talking, it is God talking, for as Colossians says, “in him all the fullness of God is pleased to dwell, and through him God is pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether in heaven and on earth, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” So here is reconciliation of all our contradictions. It is the fullness of this holy and eternal love which is exposed upon the cross. The reconciliation of God’s righteousness and God’s mercy. The reconciliation of our judgment and our peace. The reconciliation of God’s power and your freedom, the reconciliation of God’s sovereignty and your freedom, all of this is gathered into that great hospitality of God’s love. God is doing the gathering. It is for you to let God gather you and for you to love God back.

Copyright © 2013 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Monday, November 18, 2013

November 17 revised, Proper 28; Contradiction 11: The Worst of Times and the Best of Times

Malachi 4:1-2a,
Psalm 98,
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13,
Luke 21:5-19

Live recording of the sermon

The Lord Jesus says this during the last week of his life, a few days after Palm Sunday. He’s teaching in the Temple in Jerusalem. The Temple is busy with pilgrims arriving to celebrate the Passover.

The Temple is a grand complex of buildings and courtyards; it’s a combination cathedral, White House, and Capitol Building. The Temple has been under construction for fifty years, since 19 BC, in a long-term project of expansion and lavish aggrandizement, with the general backing of the Roman government, and it’s being paid for by taxes and donations. It won’t be finished for another thirty years, in AD 64, and then only six years after that, in AD 70, the whole thing will be burned and demolished by the Roman army of Titus Caesar.

The Lord Jesus was predicting it. He was not speaking here about the end of the world, despite how many Christians keep on reading it this way. He was speaking to his own context. He was predicting the impending catastrophe of Israel. The demolition of the temple. The destruction of Jerusalem. The expulsion of the Jewish population from their own capital city. The exile once again. All of this at the hands of the Romans.

The Lord Jesus could see it coming. He wasn’t the only one. The Jewish leaders feared this too — they who had to manage the Roman occupiers from the underside and keep the lid on their own turbulent people and their aspirations for independence. Over six decades, Jesus was just one of some fifteen patriotic agitators claiming to be “messiah”. Most of them were open to using violence (just as we did in 1776). In the name of God their followers ambushed Roman soldiers and terrorized Samaritans and murdered each other, and finally the Romans had enough, destroying the Temple just forty years after Our Lord’s prediction.

I leave it to your own judgment whether Jesus predicted this out of clear-headed political insight or from some miraculous vision, or both. Biblical prophecy is always both literal and metaphorical, always both political and spiritual, local and global, historical and eternal. In that sense it was the end of the world. Jesus was speaking of a catastrophic adjustment in the religion of the Bible.

He was non-violent, but he was a revolutionary, and he caused a global change: from a religion that was centered geographically and focused politically and defined by ethnicity to a world-embracing and supra-political movement claiming universality, addressing every nation and the life on earth of every human being. It was a whole new way of serving the God of the Bible, and a whole new way of living in this world.

What I do not leave to your own judgment is whether this trouble for Jerusalem was the result of God’s manipulation of historical events or the predictable result of human politics — that is, the cause and effect of what happens when subject peoples act in certain ways against their brutal overlords. It was the latter.

The only manipulation of historical events was God’s incarnation in the Son of Mary and Joseph, and his teaching, and his crucifixion and his bodily resurrection. That was enough for God to do.

That one great singularity has been quite enough for God to insert into the ordinary course of human events in order to catalyze the long-term judgment of the world. So that the nations judge themselves. The principalities and powers expose themselves. The living Word of the Lord Jesus is the once-for-all and perfectly sufficient catalyst by which the truth keeps coming out about the world, and about the pretensions of our empires and our self-destructions and our devices and desires, and about our simple daily hopes and fears.

In this judgment of the world we are given a critical part to play, and that is by means of a very strange strategy: little communities of Jesus scattered through the empire. Little congregations, fragile, powerless, like in Thessalonika. What a contradictory strategy for the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, by which to exercise his Lordship and dominion over all the earth. I mean the Thessalonian Board of Deacons needs instruction on whom they can give free food to and whom not, and the Thessalonian Board of Elders needs advice on what do with those freeloaders and busybodies that every church attracts, and is this the strategy of God for overcoming the world?

Yes, our little communities of Jesus are the squadrons and battalions in the army of the Lord of Hosts. But our only weapon is our witness, our only strategy is our testimony to the Word of God. We’re like United Nations peacekeepers, we’re like the Canadian army, we have to have the same instinct for world domination as Canadians do. Hah!

This strategy of witness is not based on the testimony of individuals, despite the emphasis of evangelicalism, but on the testimony of congregations, even little congregations; and that not by their public statements or pronouncements, but by their life together — how their mutual behavior with each other gives form and shape and character to the Words of God which they rehearse. We are the witnesses. That’s all. We are not the judges, nor the juries, nor prosecutors nor public defenders, we are just the witnesses. That’s enough. And because it’s from our life together more than from what we say, that’s a lot. 

I know for myself that often I just want to go to church and worship God and then go home. No coffee hour, thank you, no gossip, no nervous conversations, no membership, no committee work, all the stuff that comes with congregations, pledging, tithing, obligations, weeknight meetings, it’s like one more co-op to go with the food co-op and the building I live in.

That’s why I always go to church when I’m on vacation, because that’s when I can just walk in and worship God and walk right out again. I don’t have to do all this other stuff. Do you wish for that when you come here? You’re allowed to. We give you room for that, as long as you need it. We will not judge you, because we are not your judges.

But you know you can’t love God if you don’t love your neighbor, and being forgiven of your trespasses means you forgive those who trespass against you, especially church members, and the worship of God requires ethics, so you practice your ethics on your fellow worshipers. And thus a group of worshipers who practice their ethics on their fellow worshipers is what you would call a community of Jesus.

That’s why we do this, Old First, this community of Jesus within the community of Brooklyn: contradictory but not antagonistic, contradictory but not fearful, contradictory but not angry, not defensive, not different, not even distinctive, but fully engaged in the same life of the world with everybody else, in the same schools and the same soccer leagues and the same restaurants — but then also by our life together as a fragile congregation bearing witness to the foolishness of the Cross and the impossibility of the Sovereignty of God.

It is the best of times and the worst of the times. We live with the great contradiction of the absolute sovereignty of God on the one hand, and on the other, the freedom and success of pride and prejudice and vengeance and violence and hatred and destruction in the world. The obvious temptation is for us to live defensively in anger and in fear, as if our Christian duty in our culture is to defend a better past, or preserve a Christian nation or Christian civilization, or protect our Christian values. Many Christians feel the need to do that in America, but that is like fighting to defend the temple in Jerusalem. As Jesus says, “Do not go after them.”

Of course America is under judgment, but not by us. We are not the judges nor the jury, for every nation must now judge itself against the standards of the gospel, exposing to itself its violence, exposing to itself its greed, exposing to itself its disregarding of the poor. Of the contradictory patterns of healing and generosity and love we are witnesses. Even in our weakness, especially in our weakness, for then it is Jesus who is exposed in us and in our common life.

The whole point of this sermon is to encourage you, congregation of Old First, so that you “not be weary in doing what is right.” You are tempted by our weakness and by your experience of suffering which contradict the promises of God. And even the promises can be contradictory. Jesus says, “Some of you they will put to death, but not a hair of your head will perish.” So, you’ll die but with a full head of hair? Of course, prophetic language is never not both literal and metaphorical. How about this: “Old First, you will be betrayed by your colleagues and even hated because of the name of Jesus, but not a rib from your sanctuary ceiling will ever fall.”

But of course it’s how we deal with the falling of our ceiling that is our chance to witness. We bear witness by the priorities that we set for our community in such a trying situation, where we put our energy and love. Because as our preacher (Rev. Dr. Steve Pierce) said to us last week, Old First, you are not your building. You are not your pastor, you are not your history, you are not your program. You are your community of Jesus within the community of Brooklyn welcoming persons of every race, ethnicity, and orientation to worship, serve, and love God and to love your neighbors as yourselves. You just do this, and you let God take care of judging the world and saving it. It is God who loves it, after all, and more than you do!

Copyright © 2013 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Friday, November 01, 2013

November 3, Proper 26: Contradictions 10: Zacchaeus

Isaiah 1:10-18, Psalm 32:1-8, 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12, Luke 19:1-10

One of our elders was in the Midwest at one of our Christian colleges, and a professor there who is an acquaintance of mine introduced herself to him. He told me that she said that she wanted to meet him because Daniel was always boasting about Old First. She meant it well, but when I heard this I thought to myself, “Oh dear, I do go on, I must be such a bore.” So I was comforted by the epistle for this week, 2nd Thessalonians 1:4, where St. Paul writes: “Therefore we ourselves boast of you among the churches of God.”

I do boast of you. I know there is significant self-interest in my doing so, it makes me look good, so please forgive me, but I celebrate the possibility of a real and vital Christian congregation. You exhibit what St. Paul writes: “Your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of everyone of you for one another is increasing.” Yet, while it’s true that Old First is facing some daunting challenges, we cannot really say that our church has to endure persecutions and afflictions, not compared to what churches endure in Syria and Egypt and Indonesia. Still, as individuals many of you are enduring great afflictions and even some persecutions, and yet you remain steadfast and faithful. And yes, we could always do better, and yes, we must always be praying that God will make us worthy of his call, but you can believe that God will continue to fulfill by his power every good resolve that you make, and every work of faith that you attempt, that the name of Jesus may be glorified in you, Old First. Oh yes, I boast of you.

You as a congregation are evidence that the Christian faith is not just an ideal, and it’s more solid than a mystery up in the air. It’s a real live thing for real life in the real world, and you give it shape and space within the structures and systems of the world.

True enough, our churchly structures and systems are always compromised, and always at least a bit complicit in the corrupted systems of the world, and we always fall short of the glory of God. As I said last week, the gospel both calls you to religion and also tells you that your religion never measures up. That ongoing contradiction we heard again this morning in Isaiah’s condemnation of the very sacramental practices which the Law of God ordained.

Of course the problem was that the sacramental practices were not accompanied by the more costly practices of seeking justice and rescuing the oppressed and caring for the poor. But then immediately the prophet offers cleansing and absolution if they confess the truth about themselves. That confession and absolution is what I’m going to call today a “feedback-loop”.

We can say that even though our practice of the Christian faith is never pure and that it never reaches its own ideal, it has built within it a number of effective feedback-loops for repentance and reconciliation and revival, which make the whole thing very doable in real time. It is doable and you are doing it. Yes, there are contradictions built into the Christian faith, as we have seen for ten weeks now, but those contradictions are not discrediting—they are rather honest to God and to our experience, and they are not deadening but generative and creative, and we can work them out in real terms in real life. It’s doable.

Which brings me to our gospel lesson, the story of Zacchaeus. I will offer an interpretation that contradicts the common one, including all my previous sermons on this passage. Until today I have always followed Calvin and other interpreters in assuming that Zacchaeus was converted here, that his encounter with the Lord had turned him from being a bad guy tax-collector to a penitential tax-collector. This common interpretation is what you would expect from our English translation (NRSV) of verse 8: “Look, half of my possessions I will give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anything to anyone I will give it back fourfold.” Notice the verbs in the future tense, “I will give to the poor, I will give it back fourfold.”

But this past week I noticed that the Greek verbs are in the present tense. The Greek original reads thus: “Look, half of my income I give to the poor, and from whomever I have wrongfully exacted anything, I give it back fourfold.” He’s already doing it. Do you believe that such is possible of a government official? I don’t think the crowd does. I don’t think the Pharisee would from the parable last week.

But he’s rich! Jesus just accepting him would contradict what Jesus said in Luke chapter 6, “Woe to you who are rich now,” and what Jesus said in chapter 18, that “it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” But at the same time, how about if the rich man has built in a feedback loop, by giving the half of his income to the poor? Remember from last month the parable of the Crooked Steward, when Jesus said, “Make friends for yourselves with unrighteous mammon, so that when it runs out, you will be welcomed into the eternal habitations.” Isn’t that what Zacchaeus is doing?

Okay, he’s not perfect, indeed, he is complicit in a corrupting system, but who of you are not? (This is the true meaning of the doctrine of Total Depravity---we're all corrupted.) Look, the Romans would demand those taxes be collected anyway, so why not do it in such a way to benefit the poor? And if it also makes him rich, is there anything good that anyone of you does without some small measure of self-interest? Like when I boast of you?

You will ask why he wrongfully exacted anything from anyone to begin with. Well, that will have been inevitable, the way the system worked. As I said last week, the Roman system of taxation required some level of legalized extortion. But Zacchaeus, to his credit, had a feedback-loop, and the fourfold repayment was generous compensation for the trouble the system had caused. And so in complicated and complicit circumstances, Zacchaeus manages to find a way to demonstrate the economic values of the kingdom of God. I think this must have encouraged Jesus the week before he died.

So then why are the people grumbling? Are they’re jealous that he’s rich? Or that, even for all the good he does, he’s still complicit with the Romans, and he’s unkosher from handling unclean money? It’s really Jesus they are grumbling at, because he contradicts their expectations of whom the Lord accepts. They grumble at the sovereignty and freedom of the grace of God.

But the free and sovereign grace of God is very great comfort when you face the truth that everything that you do in your Christian life has some fault or flaw within it and always some complicity. Nothing you do is pure. Even every good thing that you do has some small measure in it of self-interest. And so you have to repent and be reconciled, and build into your life some realistic feedback-loops, some actions of selflessness and sacrifice. Not because God needs your sacrifice, but because you do. Not just to keep you humble, but to keep you tuned in to the grace of God. You have to build some contradictions into your own life in order to keep yourself on the homing signal of God’s free and sovereign love.

Tithing is one such thing. Because to be a Christian in the real world, in real time, with real things, must include your money. Tithing is a feedback-loop. It’s how you contradict the constant whispering of your evident self-interest, and how you set real limits on yourself. It’s a combination spiritual and economic exercise you need to do to keep in tune.

What we mean by tithing is that you give back to God the top percentage of your income. The Biblical goal is the top ten percent, but you can start with one percent if it is new to you, as long as it’s the top one percent of your budget, before you budget for anything else. And then every year you try to raise yourself by one percent again, till you reach ten. And yes, there is self-interest in your tithing, because of the services the church gives back to you. You get community, you get the Word of God in real terms, you get the means of repenting of your sins and reconciling yourself to God. You get music and education Look, you get back from what you give.

It goes without saying that teaching you to tithe is in the obvious self-interest of the church. Like, “you should tithe, and give it to us.” Which is why we build in many feedback-loops in the systems of Old First. But at the same time, it’s a realistic part of your participation in the Kingdom of God, because it’s in the form of congregations, like the Thessalonians, like the Park Slopians, like the Israelites, like the Brooklynites, it’s in the form of churches that the Christian faith takes real form in the real world. Old First is a "salvation-reality."

A church is not an end in itself, it must always look beyond itself and find its meaning in the larger scope and larger purposes of the Kingdom of God, and yet the Lord has made the church the necessary witness and first-fruit of the Kingdom of God. Your congregation makes the Christian faith something more solid than a mystery up in the air. Your congregation makes the Christian faith a real live thing for real life in the real world, and you give it shape and space within the structures and patterns of the world.

This shape and space deserve your participation. Every Sunday the Lord Jesus says to you, “You come down, because I’m going to your house today. And you are happy to welcome him. Today salvation has come into this house.”

Copyright © 2013 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.