Friday, October 17, 2014

October 19, Proper 24, Transformations 8: Your Sovereign

Exodus 33:12-23, Psalm 99, 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10, Matthew 22:15-22

When you live in Canada you get used to seeing a portrait of Queen Elizabeth displayed in every public building. Even in local the hockey arenas, even in the Blue Line Club where you go to drink your beer between the periods, there on the wall her face looks out, the image of serenity and sovereignty. It’s not the same in the USA. The face of the president is not the image of sovereignty.

Who has sovereignty over you? Who has dominion over your life? Who holds eminent domain? The answer is not difficult. You can tell by who takes the first cut of your paycheck. Who takes the first part of your income? Have you noticed that the IRS does not have to do pledge-drives and fund-raisers? The government does not do Consecration Sunday. Your taxes come out before your tithes and offerings. Your taxes come out before anything you spend on yourself.

The ideology of America is that you have total freedom, and the ideology is reinforced in the mythology of advertising: if you are free to spend as you please then you must be free in general. Ah.

Just sit down some time and examine your spending, and measure the proportions of how much you spend on this and that, and those proportions will indicate not only what you value but also what has power over you. What happens to your money tells you not only how much freedom you can exercise but also what dominates you and what demands your certain choices.

You can tell in your own life how eminent is the domain of Caesar and how eminent is the domain of God. You highly value God, but comparatively speaking, the effective sovereignty God in your life is rather weak. You have to wonder why God allows it, coming across so weak, like such an underachiever.

The taxes to Caesar were especially hateful to the Jews. Their taxes supported a government they considered illegitimate. Worse, Roman money was sinful, because the coins broke the second commandment by bearing the graven image of Caesar. Worse yet, Caesar was being worshiped as a god, so their taxes supported the violation of the first commandment. So Roman taxation forced the Jews continually to break the first and second commandments.

Well then, if Jesus claims to be the Messiah, that is, the candidate to be the true King of the Jews, the question they ask him is a legitimate matter of public policy which you’d ask any candidate for office. And then Jesus does not answer them directly. Is this a typical politician’s dodge? He does not say if it’s right or wrong. He leaves that up to his listeners. He turns it back on them.

He asks them to produce a coin. Notice they are able to. Right there is the indicator that they participate in the Roman economy. It means they accept the benefits of Roman rule, no matter how much they rail against it. That’s why he calls them hypocrites. He’s saying, “Oh cut it out.” Get real, stop being so self-righteous, like Caesar is really the problem here. He turns it back on them. He calls them to self-examination. That’s the impact of his response. Examine yourselves: How much in your life belongs to God, and how much in your life belongs to Caesar? Then, act accordingly.

What if they overlap? What if they conflict? What if they both claim the same, the whole field — what if they both claim everything? Caesar did claim everything. Caesar had power over them of life and death, he had eminent domain, he could enforce his sovereignty. The Jews were not citizens, they had no civil rights in their own land, and a Roman soldier could punish any Jew with impunity. The Jews had their Temple only because the Romans had found it politically expedient, and a few decades later when the Temple became a problem the Romans destroyed it.

In our own day it’s not so much that Caesar claims everything, it’s that Caesar gets to determine how much God gets. In the separation of church and state, it is the state which gets to set the boundary, and the church has to accept it. Notice that the IRS demands to know how much you give in tithes and offerings, but the church never asks you how much your taxes are.

But God claims everything as well. Psalm 24: The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, the world, and they that dwell therein. That’s a problem for us in America. We have relegated religion to the private spheres of life, and done our best to keep God out of the public square. We have separated church and state, which was a very good idea. But we blended that legal separation with the philosophical bias of the European Enlightenment, which says that religion is tolerable only when it’s compartmentalized as a private thing, and that a modern democratic state requires absolute secularism in the public affairs.

But religion keeps leaking out of its compartment, for better or worse. Religion keeps leaking from the private into the public. And it will do so unless your God is very small. You can’t stop God from going public, you can’t keep a lid on the sovereignty of God. When Jesus tells his fellow Jews to “Give to God what is God’s,” they must know from their own scriptures that “what is God’s” means everything, even what Caesar has claimed.

The kingdom of God is the sovereignty of God and that means eminent domain. The whole of your life belongs to God. You can’t say: This here is God’s and this here is not. If it’s true that even what belongs to Caesar first belongs to God, then what’s called for is not compartmentalization or even separation but dynamic interaction, that you pay what you pay to Caesar because you’re really paying it to God. Even when those taxes are heavy and unfair, you can be cheerful in paying them, because you’re really paying them to God.

That’s the transformation we are dealing with this weak. It’s the transformation of your loyalties, which means a transformation of your worldview, of how you see the world and whom the world belongs to, and how you divvy it up in order to behave in it. The gospel speaks not just to private behavior and private morality, it also speaks to how you view the world, to your worldview.

How much of the world belongs to God? How much of your day today belongs to God? How much of your life belongs to God? Can you see this problem of sovereignty as life-giving and even liberating? It relativizes every other claim on you, it makes every other claim on you just temporary and expedient. It means the benefit that your life is not compartmentalized, it means the wholeness to your life, it means you don’t have different sets of rules for different relationships. You are integrated, you are unified, you are in unity with yourself, no matter what claims the public powers may demand of you, your nation or boss or family or whatever. You belong to God, and you serve them all as serving God.

You may be thinking I’m sounding like a fundamentalist. They’re the ones who keep imposing their religion on the public, who try to make public law out of their private convictions. So let me say that in a very narrow sense, compared to the Enlightenment, some fundamentalists are right.

But let me tell you they are wrong. While the God that Jesus speaks for does claim everything, we see in Jesus that it is not in the defensive or aggressive way of claiming things. This God is a god who does not push his power or defend her dominion or enforce his sovereignty, except through appealing to your heart.

Of course we’d sometimes prefer it if God would act a bit more powerful, especially in helping us out with some convenient miracles or maybe some extra money for our churches, but that is not the way of God. The face on this God’s coinage is the face of Jesus Christ. And that makes all the difference in God’s approach to power.

The face of Jesus represents a God who does claim everything, but who claims it in the way of servanthood and sacrificial love. That’s not very thrilling or heroic or exciting. Not unless you’re thrilled to offer hospitality, and you’re heroic in reconciliation, and you’re excited by such love and understanding that you even sit down with the Romans and pray for Caesar, as awful as he is. That seems to be the way that Jesus establishes his sovereignty, by preparing a table in the presence of his enemies, and inviting them to eat with him. There is no sovereignty of God which is not expressed in love. And that means that your worldview, your viewing of the world, must always be a looking out for the love of God.

Copyright © 2014 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Friday, October 03, 2014

October 5, Proper 22: Transformations 6: I Want to Know Christ

At the Lake in Prospect Park, on a Sunday, my Grandpa Hartog, my mom, my brother and sister, and me.

 Exodus 20:1-4, 7-8, 12-20, Psalm 19, Philippians 3:4-14, Matthew 21:33-46

My text is Philippians 3:10, I want to know Christ, and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death. 

This verse has been my motto for the last twelve years. It’s my challenge, it’s my personal algorithm for transformation. My goal is to be transformed into a good and fully realized human being. I want to know the pattern for becoming a fully realized human being which is given to us by God.

The pattern is described in the Bible but also demonstrated in the person of Jesus — acted out, lived out, in real time, earned, endured, pursued all the way through death, achieved, accomplished, and I want to know that, I want to share in his continuing existence which has a real transformative power in the world.

The second part of the verse is difficult: the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death. That sounds negative and self-defeating. To get it is as much about feeling as logic. So let me tell you a story from my family history in the Dutch Reformed ghetto in Paterson, New Jersey.

My Grandpa on my mother’s side was a carpenter. He was an immigrant from Amsterdam. He was a lover of languages and books and music. But he made a mess of his life. He committed adultery against my Grandma as soon as they got married and for the next forty years. Just before I was born he left my Grandma and moved in with his girlfriend. He was suspended from Holy Communion, and shunned by all the relatives. I don’t blame them.

My Grandma, at the age of 62, left everything — her house and children and her whole extended family and moved to Massachusetts to take a job as a housemaid in a mansion. She was happy there, she was free. No humiliation, no shame. My Grandpa and his girlfriend found that they could not live with each other, and they split up pretty quick. He ended up all alone. He had lost everything. His life was what our epistle calls “rubbish”.

My parents were open-hearted, and let him come visit us in Brooklyn. When I was seven he moved in with us, in Bedford-Stuyvesant. He started driving for my dad. He did carpentry for my dad’s church. And he connected with me. I loved him in the house. We spent time together. It was for him I started learning Dutch. Eventually he moved out, and I saw him less, but over the years he told me the stories of his life. I was the only one of his nine grandsons to learn his language and his music. I learned to sing Dutch psalms with him. When he died I loved him very much.

I loved what was good about him, but can you understand that I also loved his failures and mistakes? Not that I approve of them, but they were part of him, and if not for his sins he would not have moved in with us and we would not have connected and I would have missed that whole rich part of my own life. His sins and his sufferings are part of what I am today — the music that moves me, the languages I speak, and even my love of Brooklyn. I loved him and I loved the whole of him, embracing his sins and miseries no less than his successes.

I also loved my Grandma, very very much, so his mistreatment of her, his humiliating her, and what it did to my mother that she grow up in a house full of anger, are also part of me. I can’t deny it or even reject it. I bear it, I carry it, I suffer it. I share the suffering my Grandpa brought upon himself and upon other people I have loved.

I want to know Christ and the sharing of his sufferings. Not because suffering itself is good, but the sharing of suffering. This kind of knowing is more than awareness, it’s engagement. It’s more than information, it’s an investment. It means an open mind, but more an open heart. It means understanding, yes, but more deeply it means undergoing, undergirding, undertaking. You already know that this is what makes us fully realized human beings. You have chosen to seek in Jesus how to live this way, by being open to his kind of suffering but also drawing on his resurrection power. It is a way to handle the world, it is a pattern to handle all the good and evil in the world, especially as it touches your own life and those you love.

I’m thinking of Christians in Hong Kong right now. I’m thinking of Christians in the Middle East right now. I’m thinking of Christians in Liberia and Sierra Leone right now. I’m thinking of all of you here who read the news each day and are tempted by cynicism and despair right now, and how much of the world can we bear to suffer?

I’m thinking of all of you here right now who are dealing with shadows in your life, from your own parents and grandparents, and also with the suffering you have brought upon yourself by doing stupid things or fearful things or things of desperation.  Don’t deny it or reject it. Bear it, carry it, suffer it. That’s to be real human beings. To be able to do that without despair and with love and grace must be transformative.

People ask me why we can’t just believe in God and leave it at God, why do we have to have this Christ guy in the middle. It’s a fair question, especially as we are so open to Jews and Muslims. For me it’s not that you have to, but I want to. It’s not about proving our religion right and all the others wrong, it’s believing that, in that real live guy named Jesus, God actually entered and engaged and identified with humanity in real time in a real place as a real person, and I want to know this, I want to have a share in the suffering side of it and know the positive power of it. I want to know Christ because I want to know about this real connection God made with us by having a real mother named Mary and a real ethnicity named Jewish.

I want to know about God’s experience of us. I want to know what humanity feels like to God, I want to know what suffering feels like to God, and I can know that in Christ. I want to know what suffering feels like to a man who, unlike my Grandpa, was innocent and righteous. Yes the suffering of my Grandpa and my Grandma that I feel is real but it can tell me only so much. What does suffering feel like to a guy like Jesus, who caused no suffering to anyone else, who asked no sympathy, and who never complained? That’s the pattern of humanity that I want for my life.

It’s not static. The pattern is still ahead of us. It’s for transformation. You are in process. You’re on the way. Humanity is on the way somewhere. Even God is on the way. God’s engagement is dynamic and has a direction. How can you know where you’re going? How can you know the goal?

St. Paul’s claim (which cannot be proven, you have to take it as a claim) is that if you know Christ, that will do it. He is the object of your certainty, both mystically and historically, the only object of your certainty. He claims that everything else you know, you can know without requiring certainty. Everything else you know you can know in passing, as you know a flower that you throw away, or a flavor that passes, or a smell or a tune. You can love it and let go of it. You can even count it as loss if you have to. Like my Grandma did when she moved to Massachusetts at the age of 62. Like what you risk if you are demonstrating in Hong Kong or nursing in Liberia.

This would be all heroism or romanticism if not for the first part of the verse: I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection. As much as you embrace with love and grace what’s in your past, even more you seek the future, the victory of God. It’s still to come, it’s in the future, the power of it is coming from the future backwards towards us, but in history it’s been guaranteed and grounded in the resurrection of that guy Jesus, whose rising propelled him into that new world that is coming and also anchored his new life in real live history.

The news of that great event keeps speaking through time with us as time continues to unfold, the promise of his rising keeps ringing and echoing through the halls and arenas of our human development, and from the future his power pulls us toward his great design.

I saw that power in my parents. They gave my Grandpa sanctuary when everyone else had shunned him. They honored my Grandpa even when he was dishonorable.

No less did they honor my Grandma. We had always loved it when she came from Massachusetts to stay with us. She was so full of stories and she taught us songs and rhymes in Dutch, and she was a wonderful cook and a wonderful seamstress and she always brought us homemade presents. She didn’t believe in divorce but she wanted nothing to do with my Grandpa.

I guess her visits must have stopped when he came to live with us, until he moved out again. And, then, encouraged by my parents, he asked her out for a date. She didn’t like it but she said Okay.

Well, they got back together for ten final years of marriage. They still argued, but not like before. When Grandpa had his stroke and was in the hospital, Grandma rode the bus downtown three times a day to give him homemade food, and then she took him home to take care of him herself.

Copyright © 2014 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.