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.


Phyllis said...

Powerful words, Daniel. Thanks for reminding that redemption happens in the everyday of life...and even in Dutch families.

Old First said...

At your service, Phyllis.

Anneke said...

love this so much, dad. last paragraph made me cry.

Old First said...

Thanks Anneke. Your great-grandparents.