Saturday, June 21, 2014

June 22, Proper 7: Hagar and Abraham, Choose Between Your Fears

Genesis 21:8-21, Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17, Romans 6:1-11, Matthew 10:24-39

Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 88-90.

Our story from Genesis doesn’t make Abraham look so good. Abraham was in a fix, but the story is on Hagar’s side. In a prior story, God had promised Abraham that he would be the father of nations, and that his descendants would posses the promised land. Such promises depend on your having children, of course, but Abraham had none. So finally his wife Sarah proposed that Abraham sleep with her lovely young slave-girl Hagar, and if Hagar had a son, Sarah could take him as her own, for him to inherit their riches and the promises. This plan Abraham did not protest!

When slavery was legal in America, Black girls were taken all the time by their White masters. According to the ordinary ethics of ancient times, Abraham did nothing wrong. Hagar had no rights. But according to the standards of the Torah this was adultery. More subtly, Abraham insulted God, because he took God’s promises into his own hands. Abraham feared for his future, so he took the ordinary ethic of his day and the standard sexual privilege of powerful men.

Hagar had no rights. Abraham had the power of life-and-death among his household. He had the right to sex with his slave-girl, and Sarah had the right to give her to him, and also to take the slave-girl’s child as her own, even though Hagar would nurse him and do all the work of raising him. Abraham had the right to disinherit the boy whenever he was inconvenient. He also had the right to free his slaves. As he did with Hagar.

But even in freedom Hagar had no rights. Her freedom was no benefit to her. In those days, every woman had to be under the protection of a man, lest any other man might have his way with her. Every town or village would be dangerous for Hagar and her boy, and so she took her chances on the desert. Of all that Abraham did to Hagar, setting her free was the worst.

By the standards of the day he does nothing wrong, but the story depicts it as dishonorable. He does it in the dark, before the dawn, by himself, surreptitiously, and he packs her provisions, which is a servant’s job, and he does it on the cheap, with just some bread and water. He who had hosted a lavish feast to honor little Isaac. He puts the skin of water on her shoulder, touching her body, which once he had loved. She submits to him again. This is how he treats the mother of his son, his firstborn son, for some years his only son: dishonorably and shamefully.

We are troubled by God’s complicity. God tells Abraham to do what Sarah said to do. True enough, God was not complicit in the use and abuse of Hagar in the first place, and it was from Abraham doubting God that this shameful outcome resulted. True, God promises Abraham that Hagar and Ishmael will survive and someday flourish, but imagine him trying to tell her that as he casts her out in the dark. She’d need to have even greater faith than Abraham exhibited.

God rescues her, but it’s not pretty. Why does God allow her to suffer first? And why is it the crying of her boy that God responds to? Does she count for nothing? God watches her suffering from heaven, and only saves her at the last resort. Okay, so God prefers to wait till other hopes are gone. Or do we say that God is always just in time? And that we have to learn the hard way that the right time is not our time? You can’t get around the mysteries of faith.

I do not think that the opposite of faith is doubt. Not most deeply, most existentially. I think the opposite of faith is fear. It’s fear that drives your doubt. You fear that God will not come through. You fear that God will be unfair, or that God will not deliver on God’s promises. You fear that even if God is real, and good, and true, and loving, still God is an ideal, whose promises are ideal, and not to be banked on, so you just have to make do with the darkness of things.

Sarah was operating out of fear for her little boy Isaac, and so to protect him from what she feared she let Hagar and Ishmael suffer. Abraham was also operating out of fear. It specifically says he was distressed. He was afraid of Sarah’s anger, and afraid of dissension in his house, and maybe afraid of his slave-girl and their son, which is why he treated them so shamefully.

Not all fear is bad. Fear has its place. There is such a thing as healthy fear, and the Bible is firm on fearing God. When you plan your future, you have to build in healthy fear of certain things. And you have to choose among your fears. Which do you fear more? Global warming or a weakened economy? Terrorism or state security? Freedom from fear is one of the famous Four Freedoms, but that’s impossible. Freedom means only that you get to choose among your fears.

So often God’s promises run counter to the world’s expectations, so how are you supposed to apply them to the secular world where these promises have no self-evidence nor privilege? It’s natural for you to fear that God will not deliver on God’s promises, and so you yield to the conventional standards of the world.

This fear is addressed by Jesus in our Gospel: Jesus tells his disciples not to be afraid, precisely because following him will bring you new things to be afraid of, and because God’s promises so raise your expectations of the world that you will have more opportunities for doubt than those who do not know God’s promises. Jesus calls you, not to have no fear, but to face your fears and choose between them.

The standard dynamic is that your fear turns back your faith, but I am inviting you to let your faith prioritize your fears and help you choose among your fears: That fearing God you do not fear death. That you fear love, and that you fear love so much that you do not do anything that is not love. That you fear justice, so much that you do not do injustice, even to preserve yourself. That you fear truth and hope, even if your family is against you. That you learn to fear with love and to love what you fear. The great goal of following Jesus is to fear only that which you must love. Fear what you love above fearing anything else.

The Lord Jesus says he came to bring a sword. That sword is not for you to use against someone else, but on yourself, your own worst enemy. St. Paul says it differently in our Epistle. He tells you that you are two of you, simultaneously, the old self always dying, and the new self always rising. As certainly as you are baptized, your old you has been crucified with Christ and your new you has been born again in you. You both live on in you, your you who is enslaved to sin and death and your you who can already breathe the freedom that Jesus had. Your conversion is a daily thing, converting your old you to your new you, and every day you convert yourself again. And when you die, at last you will be only one of you. Your old you will be dead for good, and only your new you will have a future, when you attain your resurrection from the dead.

Slavery and freedom. Which Hagar was better off, the Hagar who was hated by her mistress but who enjoyed the warm security of slavery, or the Hagar who was free, and therefore in danger and at great risk? That’s a tough call. Hagar had figured out how not be afraid of Sarah, but now she has to be afraid of what she does not know and can’t control. Which is more fearful: slavery or freedom? Both of them have much to fear; we see nation after nation backing away from the chance for democracy and choosing the slavery of security.

The freedom of Christ means new things to be afraid of. The light of his love exposes you and you want to hide. His stubborn, quixotic honoring of you makes you feel ashamed. He even loves your old and sinful self, and you should too, but when you want to defend it and explain it he just forgives it and wants it peacefully to die, so that only you live on. You will fear until you die. But perfect love will cast out all your fear. Fear only this, the absolute love of God for you.

Copyright © 2014 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved. 

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

June 8, Pentecost: Community of Jesus #6: Wind, Fire, Earth, Water, and Wine

Acts 2:1-21, Psalm 104:25-35, 37, 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13, John 7:37-39, 20:19-23

All the Jewish pilgrims were gathered in Jerusalem because Pentecost is a major Jewish feast — one of the three great feasts of the Torah, the feast of Shavuoth, the feast of sevens, the feast of weeks, seven weeks, seven times seven, 49 days plus 1 after the Passover.

It is a double feast: it’s the feast of the first-fruits from the gardens and the fields, plus the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, where the congregation of Israel stood as one beneath the mountain where God came down in wind and fire and spoke to them, 50 days after the first Passover.

After the last Passover of Jesus, 49 days plus 1 after his first Easter, the signs and wonders at Mount Sinai are recapitulated in the wind and fire. The God that spoke to Israel at Mount Sinai now speaks to the pilgrim who represent, like delegates, the Jews of all the world. But this is new: from now on God will speak in human voices and in every language, whatever it takes for all of you to get the message. The Holy Spirit loves diversity and multiplicity. In Jesus you get the unique and once-for-all, the only-begotten, and in the Spirit you get ever-unfolding variety and experiment.

It’s the feast of the first-fruits. If Israel is the first-fruits of humanity, and if the first-fruits are now brought in, then it’s time to start working the fuller crops, and for all the other nations and ethnicities and orientations of humanity to be spoken to, and become God’s people too, and receive the Holy Spirit, and bring their gifts to God, the fruits of their own languages and music and traditions and cultures and histories.

This is what the Holy Spirit has been up to ever since that Pentecost. It’s not just your souls that are of interest. It’s not just your souls that belong to the Kingdom of God. It’s also your bodies and your voices and your accents and your dances and your fiddles and your pencils and your poems and your fishing poles.

This outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon all flesh is the greatest benefit and application of the Ascension that we marked last week. The Lord Jesus, in his human flesh, is not among us, he is not in the world in the ordinary way, because he is somehow, in some unexplained way, representing us before the face of God. But in his divinity he is with us in a greater way than before: he pours out on us a double portion of his Spirit. The Holy Spirit is a power and energy, for sure, but more than that, the Holy Spirit is another person of the Trinity, the person of the three who is the soul of God, the peculiar self of God, the who-ness of God. And that God comes among us and inside us.

Jesus had told his disciples that it would be better for us if he left us than if he remained with us, because while he was with us in the flesh, God was dwelling among us in only one particular person, taking up one small space, and all eyes were on him. But he has left, and sent his Spirit, and now God is spread out among you all, in all of your locations and your persons, and all eyes are on us.

With Jesus it’s the One, and with the Spirit it’s you the many; the result of Pentecost is that the story of Jesus is succeeded by the story of you. What Jesus has accomplished by his once-for-all death and resurrection is that God is in you, delighting in all your various particulars and personalities, God enjoying and employing all your various aptitudes and gifts. Jesus couldn’t speak English; you can.

From our lessons today we get four images: wind, fire, earth, water, and wine. The first four are the four elements of ancient times. We will take them in that order: air, fire, earth, water, and wine.

The first one, wind, is also breath. The Holy Spirit is the wind of God and the breath of God. The breath of God is the soul of God, God’s inner self, which God breathes into us. Not the animal soul that you’re born with, but the uncreated and transcendent soul, the soul more powerful than death and sin and guilt, the soul who never tires nor fatigues, who never is exhausted or expired, a soul who is pure love and faithfulness even inside your unlovely infidelities, this breath who forgives your sins and inspires you to forgive each other too.

You can’t see the wind, but you can see what’s moved by it, and you can feel it only indirectly, by pressure on your skin. Don’t be dismayed that you don’t feel the Holy Spirit inside you. What you feel in yourself is the pressure and movement of the Spirit against the rougher surfaces of your personality. The Holy Spirit makes you grieve until your grief is done, it rubs against the guilt in you until your guilt is cleaned away, and it erodes your selfishness until your self is made smooth. Slowly you begin to feel yourself softening and flexing and expanding in capacity and love, as the Spirit inflates you and inspires you until it so perfectly fills your inner spaces that you won’t feel it at all.

Not just in you but also in the world. The Holy Spirit is the wind of God that is loose in the world. We name a wind by whence it comes but where it will go we can only guess. God is in the world to inspire the world and quicken it, and God is opening new ways in the world.

The second element is fire, and the fire is the presence of God. The burning bush, the flame upon Mount Sinai, the pillar of fire by night, and the tongues of fire on their heads. The fire is another sign of God’s own self. The Holy Spirit is both God’s energy and God’s own personality. God’s person is dangerous. God burns you in judgment. But the fire of God will also comfort you and warm you up and keep you safe against the cold and dark malicious dangers of the world.

The third element is the earth, and that’s for you and your embodiment. God made you from the dust of the earth and God loves the earth. You see that in Psalm 104: "God’s Spirit renews the face of the earth." Don’t be misled by the notion that to be spiritual is to be unearthly. God rejoices in the earth and all of its creatures. God’s Spirit hardens the rocks, and spices the air, and browns the earth, and salts the sea, and freshens the rivers. God makes you a garden, that you produce the fruits of the new creation in your life. God enjoys the flowers of your personality and God takes pleasure in your work. The Holy Spirit is in you to come out of you for the unfolding of the world. The Holy Spirit is given to the church to come out of the church for the healing of the nations.

And fourth, water; the Holy Spirt is the living water who satisfies your thirst and brings life to your dry dust. The Spirit is the river that rises in you and flows out of you. The image that Jesus offers in the gospel comes from Genesis 2 verse 10. God planted a garden in the East called Eden, and out of the Garden four rives flowed to water all the earth. Just so your own spirit rises out of you into the life you make, into what you do and into your relationships. And the Holy Spirit mixes God’s water with yours to overcome your pollution and keep your river running fresh.

The Holy Spirit is pure water. But of course there is no such thing as pure wine. Every wine is a different mixture, from its particular variety of grape, and its particular soil, and its vintage and its pressing and barreling and bottling and aging. Our Lord turns water into wine. Our Lord turns the water of the Holy Spirit into the particular varietal of your peculiar life. The gospel wonderfully transforms the purity of the Spirit into the manifold diversity of all your lives. The Holy Spirit loves diversity, even while in the One Lord Jesus we find our unity. The Lord Jesus is perfect and unique, and the works of the Spirit are passing and provisional and mixed and broken, but even for that they are no less the realities of God’s salvation in the world. The water of Jesus is the wine of the Spirit.

And that is you, Old First. You are one of God’s realities of salvation in the world, and you must believe in yourself as the work of God. You can believe in yourself, Old First, despite how mixed and broken and provisional ou are, because, as you repeat in the Creed says, you believe in the Holy Spirit, and thus you believe in the Holy Catholic Church.

I take great pleasure in the diversity of this congregation, even in small compass, your variety of ethnicity, race, and orientation, which variety we celebrate today with the recognition of Timothy and ZoĆ« as new members, two new crew-members on this old boat that sails before the wind. We know where the wind came from but where it’s going we can’t see until we get there. Our course has slightly changed again because they are now on board, with their peculiar histories and gifts. But you rejoice in these adjustments because you want to love them, and you want to love them because they are loved so much by Our Lord.

Copyright © 2014 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.