Wednesday, March 04, 2015

March 8, Lent 3, Walk to the Cross #3: Investment

Exodus 20:1-17, Psalm 19, 1 Corinthians 1:18-25, John 2:13-22

In St. John’s version of the Cleansing of the Temple, Jesus did this early in his campaign, right after he turned the water into wine at the wedding. Both times his actions are symbolic, but how opposite his actions are. Water and wine, and then wrath and a whip. Extravagant generosity and extreme judgment.

It’s no coincidence that he does this at Passover, the holiday when three years later Jesus will be killed. Already knows he’s in for it. He knows his words will be misunderstood and his actions opposed, he knows that to do what he has to do and say what he has to say, they’ll do away with him. He’s walking into a three-year Lent. To do the right thing, you have to sacrifice. To commit to the right thing, you have to pay for it. And so he’s obviously angry and aggrieved. Just because it’s the right thing doesn’t mean you don’t get angry and aggrieved!

Because sacrifice and suffering are not good things in themselves. You are not called to seek out martyrdom. You are not called to get up on the cross but to walk on under it, to be realistic, to face the real cost of leading lives of ethical love.

You know this from experience. If you have loved, you have suffered: the death or misfortune of a loved one, or from having lost out when you did what was right. If you don’t want to sacrifice, don’t love. Loving your neighbor as yourself is more than being nice and neighborly. It means that you might make substantial sacrifices on your neighbor’s behalf. If your relationship to your neighbor hasn’t cost you anything, then it isn’t love yet. All of us need a few relationships that cost us something, to practice this kind of love. One good way is to go to church, where you have to love other people just as unlovely as you are.

Love costs even God. It’s suffering and sacrifice even for God when God commits to us. That’s the sign of the cross upon God’s heart. In the story of Noah we saw the grief of God for the results of the Flood, and we saw the bow and arrow in the clouds as the symbol of God’s sacrifice. For God to commit to a special relationship with Abraham and his seed was a sacrifice for God, for now God must suffer the relentlessly bad behavior of Abraham’s children.

So it’s in God’s interest to move the relationship along and do something about that behavior. God wants God’s partners to be ethical. And so God gives to the Children of Abraham the Ten Commandments.

This was a new thing in the world. The gods and goddesses had never had much interest in ethical behavior, whether of their immortal selves or of mortal human beings. But the Lord God is on a mission to develop an ethical humanity for the healing of the world, and the Ten Commandments are part of God’s business plan to do that, as well as them being for our own good.

You can think of the Ten Commandments as a mission statement. Because God includes us in God’s mission God invests in our behavior, and our behavior represents the character of God. God’s wants God’s people to be examples, exemplars, living symbols, so that from looking at our behavior the rest of the world can reckon what God is like and what God wants.

What the world would prefer is that God show himself and prove himself by means of supernatural interventions and convenient miracles and fixing things and stopping things. God does not do it that way, and maybe God is foolish not to. Maybe God is so foolish as rather to be known by the behavior of those who believe in God.

God’s reputation is in our hands and our lives. We are entrusted with God’s image in the world. Our behavior is a house for God. Our thoughts and actions and our bodies are God’s temple. The Commandments are a blueprint for the temple of God that is our behavior. God offers this pattern of behavior as something so designed that our performing it converts us into a people whose culture and character brings the righteousness of God into the world.

You can examine these Commandments one by one, but they are best in their unity, as an entity, as say a solid with ten sides, like a decahedron, a great large jewel, that God is casting into the world.

Or you can think of them as the ten links in a chain, suspended from the first link and the tenth link, hanging between the love of God and the love of neighbor, with the eight links in between about the love of both, for if you look closely you realize that each of the eight commandments between is about both God and neighbor.

All the commandments interplay. So you can also think of them as a house, in which each commandment is a structural member holding up the whole. As I said, God inhabits the house of our behavior.

For Christians they are wisdom instead of obligation. For us, the Torah is not obligatory, as St. Paul said last week, but we are obligated to learn God’s wisdom that we can find in them. And we must be willing to pay the price that they demand of us. Like the sacrifice of your freedom of speech that comes with not bearing false witness. Like your sacrifice of sexual freedom that comes with not committing adultery. Like the surrender that comes with not coveting your neighbor’s lovely brownstone, especially if you rent. To love your neighbor as yourself is often a sacrifice. As I said, if loving your neighbor hasn’t cost you, it isn’t love yet, it’s only being nice.

During Lent you confess that in your ethical behavior you have failed to be good representatives of God. But here’s the deeper level of God’s investment: God will be recognized even in your confession of your bad behavior. God will be recognized not as the God who is known by loving the good and successful, but the God who is known by loving the weak and the fallen—not as the God who loves the righteous, but as the God who loves the sinner.

How foolish God looks against the wisdom of the world. The most important ethical behavior that you can do and by which God wants to be known is your telling the truth about yourselves. You do that with extravagance and extremity, like Jesus in the temple, when you confess “there is no health in us, miserable offenders.” Uncomfortable words? If confession doesn’t cost you your comfort, you haven’t confessed yet. 

“If loving your neighbor hasn’t cost you yet, it’s only being nice.” It’s true for God as well. You are God’s neighbor, God gives you space and room to life your life as you develop it, God treats you with respect, and then because God loves you, it costs God too.

God abides you the way you are, God abides you in your weakness and suffers you in your failures. It costs God every day to keep on loving you as God’s self. But that’s what love does, that’s what love loves to do. So I am telling you again that this pilgrimage of Lent is not about us, it’s about the exploration of God.

Copyright © 2015, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

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