Thursday, September 24, 2015

September 27, Proper 21, You Can Do This #5: Practicing Honor

Heidelberg Catechism 104, Lord's Day 39, Psalm 124, James 5:13-20, Mark 9:38-50

“Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.” 

This morning I’m not going to preach about either the gospel lesson or the epistle, at least not directly. Instead I will pivot off them on the way to the Fifth Commandment. I preached on the gospel lesson three years ago, and interpreted what the Lord Jesus really meant by the word “hell”, which is actually a mistranslation. That sermon is still online at

My first pivot is the first part of the gospel. Here the Lord Jesus refuses to give his community clear boundaries. The disciples want boundaries. A kingdom should have borders, and a sovereign should defend those borders. The Lord Jesus says No. His kingdom has no boundaries.

This has been hard for the Christian church. We’ve often said that there’s no salvation apart from the church, or you can’t be a member unless you agree with us, or you can’t take communion unless you belong to us, and you can’t belong unless you are white, or straight. None of that’s from the Lord Jesus. So his community may not be a closed community. Closeness is to be valued, of course, but our closeness must always be open. The community of Jesus is an open community.

But it’s not an undefined community. It’s not a formless mass, it’s not a blob, it’s not a mob. The community of Jesus has texture, it has patterns of authority and offices: apostles and prophets, elders and deacons. Those patterns poke through in the New Testament, as in our epistle, where the community addressed by St. James already had a group of elders to go to—a group of officers with some authority of prayer and ministration.

But while those offices and patterns keep poking through, the New Testament is remarkably vague on them. It never defines them nor ever gives us a nice, firm structure of church government. Which is one reason we have so many denominations, with each of our differing systems of government appealing to different Biblical suggestions.

This is all a result of the Gospel’s premium on freedom and flexibility. And it’s not just the New Testament. It’s in the Old Testament too. If you compare what the Torah teaches to the other ancient civilizations, the freedom is remarkable. Every Israelite is absolutely equal to every other Israelite.

So who has the power? Who’s in charge? Whose authority should one respect? There is not one hint of hierarchy or nobility or chieftains or chain-of-command or upper class or lower class. Oh yes, there were traditional tribal patterns that poke through in the stories but they were tolerated and not divinely sanctioned. We could wish that women were the equal of men, but even here, unlike in any other ancient culture, women were equally in God’s image, and this was the seed of the future equality of women that St. Paul would advance.

I tell you all this to give you the context for the Fifth Commandment and the practice of honor. The context is freedom. But how do you keep freedom from turning into anarchy, and every man for himself? How do you keep the mass from becoming a mob? How do you convert your freedom from into the freedom for, your freedom from others into your freedom for others?

Freedom is a gift and a problem. You can control it with hierarchies and structures and authorities. You can limit it with rules and regulations. Or you can leaven it with honor, the spiritual practice of honor.

You begin with your parents, your father and your mother, and practicing on your parents gives you the skills and competence to honor others too. In principle. Your parents powerfully represent both God and neighbor. They are your first and closest neighbors, and in your infancy they might as well be God to you.

They were officers of God to you. No matter how good or bad they were, they gave your life to you. Literally. We say in the Nicene Creed that the Holy Spirit is the Lord and giver of life, but that life was passed along to you mostly from your mother and somewhat by your father, and the givenness of your life is the underlying energy of your spiritual practice of honor.

You think of your life as your own, and in many ways it is, and you think you have a right to your life, and in many ways you do, but of course, most deeply, you do not. You don’t have a right to your life, unfortunately, against the infectious diseases in the air. Your life is not your own against the realities of hurricanes or earthquakes or even traffic on the BQE. No matter how much freedom and discretion you might deserve, your life is contingent in so many ways. If you can accept your contingency and even enjoy the absolute givenness of your life, then you are learning wisdom.

Maybe you own your home, maybe you own some land, but speaking both spiritually and ethically, you must regard that too as having been given to you, no matter how smart you are. To “live long” is a gift. To “live long on the land” is a gift. “That your days may be long upon the land which the Lord your God is giving you” is the symbol of the contingency of your freedom, and so the stated benefit of this commandment befits the challenge, and why it is wise for you to honor those two fallible older people especially who gave your life to you, without you having had any say in the matter.

Your spiritual practice of honor. Your stance and habit of honoring as you address the world. Honoring who and what have come before you, even when they are far from perfect. Even in your freedom, that you recognize your limits and your neediness.

When I teach seminarians, I tell them that when they enter their first charges, they will have visions for the future of where they want to lead that church. But they dare not do it without honoring what that church was and as it is right then already. Do not dishonor the preacher there before you. Do not dishonor the maybe faltering attempts those people made to be good and faithful in their way. Not just as the better strategy to accomplish your own vision in the long run, but as your own spiritual discipline of receiving gifts in which you had no say, of gaining that humility which is not servile but joyful and generous and free.

The more freedom you are given, the more honor you must practice, if, like Christ, you want to use your freedom for each other. You exercise your freedom for your neighbor as much as for yourself. It doesn’t matter how you feel about your neighbor. Good feelings toward your neighbor makes loving easier, but the proof of love is when you honor the neighbor you dislike, the bad neighbor.

This does not mean either endorsement or approval, nor does it mean not protecting yourself or your loved ones when necessary, just as the child of an abusive parent is not required by this commandment to keep yourself in danger, and you may need to cut that parent off, but you will not get healed from your abuse, and you might even pass it along, unless you can find the way somehow to honor the office of parenthood, if only inside your own soul with God. You can do it. I have seen it.

All of you can do it, but it’s tough. Like when the Bible enjoins us to honor the government authorities, even when it’s Caesar! Both St. Paul and the catechism say that God has put them there. Really? That’s harder to believe in than the Virgin Birth. Right now the dominant theme in America is distrust of politicians, and everybody trades on this cynicism, which is toxic for democracy. So we have to teach our children the practice of honor as counter-cultural. And you teach your children by practicing it yourselves. You can do it, and you can do it because you believe in God.

The Hebrew word for “honor” is also the word for “glory”. You give your parents a portion of the glory that you give to God, because they’re whom your Creator used to create you. The Source of life has given you your life through them, so you honor them for God’s sake. You honor these fallen and even hurtful people as one way of honoring the world that God has given you as “good” despite it all.

You practice this by living your life as a constant unspoken and even barely conscious prayer. You train yourself. “Okay, here I am in the DMV, and this minor official who has temporary power over me is being a real pain. And God allows this in the world that God has given me. It’s because of you, O God, that I will honor this person as best I can no matter how he treats me.”

People of color have to do this all the time. Women have to do this more than men. Children have to do it. All of you can do it. Now, honoring also means working to change the social structures to make the reality fit the honor. Be activists. Be agents of change. But do it with honor. Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another. Always treat them like God loves them as much as God loves you.

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

Saturday, September 19, 2015

September 20, Proper 20, You Can Do This #4: Practicing Sabbath

Heidelberg Catechism 103, Lord's Day 38, Psalm 1, James 3:13–4:3, 7-8a, Mark 9:30-37

“Remember the Sabbath Day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labor, and do all thy work. But the seventh is a Sabbath to the Lord thy God. In it thou shalt not do any work. . . .” 

Envy and ambition (from James 3).The disciples contested who was the greatest: who would be the prime minister when Jesus would be king. Who would be next, perhaps a chamberlain, controlling which people get received before the throne. They want to establish rank, like any group of guys together for a while. Envy and ambition. Normal.

So they couldn’t understand Jesus, because if you’re the Messiah, if you’re going to have that power and prestige, why would you plan on throwing it all away?

In The Lord of The Rings, the good guys are in possession of the “One Ring to rule them all,” but they decide to throw it away, knowing that the Dark Lord Sauron would never imagine them doing that. And they entrust the ring to the hobbits, the halflings, the little people. The Lord Jesus takes a little person, a child, and tells the disciples to make room in their lives for such a one, make space in your life for a child who cannot assist your ambition. Make that room inside your heart.

Look, some ambition is good. The Lord Jesus himself had to have some measure of ambition. I’m ambitious. But my problem is, I’m also envious. Envy is one of my besetting sins. You folks have no idea. And envy is what corrupts ambition, and unfortunately, the corruption of ambition by envy seems to be universal in our species. You won’t find ambition without some envy in it.

Think of this current Presidential campaign season. It is monstrous and grotesque. It’s a 24/7 national celebration of envy and ambition. This is how we select our most important leader! This is the expression of the best and brightest of our common culture! You can’t be a contender without appealing to the envy and ambition of the public, and without exhibiting it in your person.

It is unrelenting and oppressive. And the politics represents the whole of our culture. Envy and ambition drive our financial institutions and our energy companies, and we accept that it has to be this way. Consider how far down it reaches into your personal lives, explicitly and implicitly, economically and socially, with the schools you send your kids to and even the clothes you wear. And your smartphone is the proof that if it’s not oppressive then it’s addictive and unrelenting and 24/7. I’m not saying anything you haven’t heard already.

So how do you as a Christian address this world? I mean, you’re not going to give it up and go live on a commune in the wilderness. So God commands you to practice Sabbath in your life. You can’t change the whole, so you make a space within the whole. You clear a space of time and attention, for quiet and rest and letting go.

The world of nature knows this and does this, creation builds in rest and quietness for health and restoration. The law-giving God is the creator God, so while the Law of the Sabbath is not binding on Christians in the way that it is on Jews, it is the deeply-rooted gift that challenges the 24/7 chasing after this-and-that as unnatural, unhealthy, and oppressive. The Law of the Sabbath was given as a restoration and a liberation.

It was the first ever Labor Day. This was the first law in history to give workers a regular day off. Women included. Slaves included. Oxen included. Strangers and refugees included. The result is that your Labor is both relativized and sanctified. And so is Time, by making space in it, by making room in it, for now it’s clear that Time belongs to God, and Time is also God’s gift to you.

You have enough Time. You really do, because it is God’s gift. God says, “I give you Time, but it does not belong to you, it is my gift to you, and one day out of seven you must let go of it. And one day out of seven you can be like me, you can be like God. I do not have to work, because I’m God, I don’t have to do anything, and neither do you, one day out of seven.”

So if somebody asks you what you did on your vacation, how would it feel if you said, Nothing. What do you do on your day off? Nothing. Well you can’t. You’ve got to clean house, get groceries, do the laundry, pay the bills, balance the checkbook—all of that on your day off, so doing nothing is a luxury.

And so this is the hardest commandment to keep, I think. It’s not hard to keep some of the others. You successfully do not kill, you do not steal nor commit adultery, but keeping the Sabbath day holy, that’s very tough, and the culture you live in does everything against you doing it.

And yet this is the central commandment of the ten. You can see this in our sanctuary on the reredos, where the commandments are set out not as a list but as a single speech, just as in the Bible, and this commandment is right in the middle. It displays the unity of loving God and loving your neighbor, including your servants and your cattle and any strangers among you. You honor God not only by your not working but also by your not being the cause of anyone else having to work.

So this is a holiday, a holy day, a vision of shalom, an early moment of eternity, a foretaste of the new heaven and new earth. Liberation from the grind, liberation from routine, and liberation from the constant nagging temptation that you haven’t done enough. God says, Stop, rest, relax, count on me, count on my creative goodness to carry you through. As St. James says, “A harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.”

So how can you practice Sabbath in your life? It’s remarkable that this great gift of the Old Testament gets so little addressed by the New Testament. I imagine this was because it was just plain impossible for most early Christians. Many of them were slaves, and others soldiers, and others low class laborers; only a few had the means to take days off. It’s only after the conversion of the Roman Emperor and the development of Christendom that we got the Christian Sunday that everybody recognized.

When I was a kid it was still a reality. We complained about it, because my parents were fairly strict. We couldn’t play ball or ride our bikes or go to the store or do our homework or even change out of our Sunday clothes. And now I miss those days, I miss what we took for granted. But Christendom is over, and now so many things are scheduled for Sunday that were not then, especially for kids. Soccer, little league. And shall you deprive your children because of your belief?

So while it is true that carving one day out of seven remains the most natural and organic way to practice Sabbath, the sheer complexity of life today, which makes it more necessary, also makes it less possible. So you have to attend to other ways to make space and room in your life for the goals of both liberation and holiness. And I wish I had more practical steps to give you.

For myself, I am training myself, that when I walk down the street, and I come to a corner, and the light’s red, I don’t stand out in the street while I wait. I just stay back and wait—and not so that I can quick check my messages! I just welcome the red light as a momentary gift. We have all the time we need.

Nowadays you have to carry your Sabbath inside yourself. You have take your time and give your time. Time for such a one as that little child that Jesus took. Time for someone who is at the bottom. The word that Jesus uses for servant is the word they would have used for a busboy, not the waiter. Not the one who tells you her name and gets your tip, but the nameless one who washes the dishes. For that such a one do you make room in your life and a space in your time.

Not constantly, as if you’re always on call. That’s even bad parenting. To love your neighbor is not to hate yourself. Figure about one-seventh of your working day. One hour out of your day, you make time, you give time. You take the call. You listen to the story. You receive, you wait while he or she talks, you wait on the person. Or you pray. Or sit in silence.

Some combination of all three is best. Not all day, no more than an hour in total every day, and when you’ve hit your sixty minutes, work as hard as you want the rest of the day. No guilt. It’s not meant to be a burden. But what might you gain from that one-hour break each day from the rule of envy and ambition.

God means this law to be humane. The Sabbath is a gift. The Jews call it a bride. They welcome the Sabbath as newlyweds. That must be because they sense the loving in the gift. For when you take the gift of this room within time, waiting for you within the room is your lover, who is God.

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

Saturday, September 12, 2015

September 13, Proper 19, You Can Do This 3: With All Your Voice

Heidelberg Catechism 99 & 101, Lord's Day 36, Psalm 19, James 3:1-12, Mark 8:27-38

“You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.” 

Good for Simon Peter and bad for Simon Peter. Good for him that he named who Jesus was, and bad for him that he named him in vain. He was the spokesman of the disciples and the first to name Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ, “the name above every name” (Philippians 2).

But then he rebuked the Messiah, and so badly so, that Jesus rebuked him back, even naming him Satan, for Peter had echoed the devil’s temptations in the desert. Simon Peter is an example of the problem of the tongue, as set forth in our Epistle of St. James.

I’m sympathetic to Peter, because I have the same problem. With my tongue I bless and with my tongue I curse. With my tongue I pronounce the blessings of the Lord to you each week, and with my tongue I gossip and chatter and say dumb things. Some years ago I was a guest preacher at a big event, and I did well, and then at the reception a seminary professor told me an off-color joke, and then, when two of the parishioners came over to thank me for my sermon, I repeated the joke, and they looked at me dismayed, and then I was ashamed. I felt like Peter after the cock crowed.

Why do we do it? I don’t know about Simon Peter, but I know for myself that I’d never learned how simply to say “thank you” after a compliment, but I was brought up to deflect it. And I know that I like to come off as cool, or daring, or impressive. How often do we use expletives or vulgarity or profanity to make ourselves sound stronger and to puff our personas. Like Richard Nixon.

Because I was a child of Dutch Calvinists I was not allowed to say, “O-my-God.” That was to break the Second Commandment, and to use God’s name in vain. We couldn’t even say “Geez.” My mom said she’d wash our mouths out with soap, although of course she never had to. And because my parents were also American Evangelicals, the Second Commandment was extended to “dirty” words, and you know what they are. But my immigrant grandparents, while pious, were also earthier, and when I repeated a few Dutch rhymes that my grandpa taught me, my mother was embarrassed.

As I got older I did not want to be a puritan. I would rather be crude than a prude. I learned to enjoy the lingual tingle of the expletive and the passing power of vulgarity, masking my insecurities, and impressing other immaturities. Simon Peter, you stand for me. I was the speaker in my family, and an extrovert, and I sin more by commission than by omission, but how about you who are the quiet types, or who sin more by omission, how do you dishonor your Lord? I asked my brother-in-law about this; he is a very quiet man and a self-proclaimed introvert. He said, “You don’t have to say it to think it. I always apply this commandment to my inward thoughts.”

There’s a larger issue here on how we use God’s name. I heard a story on NPR about the Syrian refugees stuck in Hungary, and how private citizens were coming to give them aid, and one of them said, “We do this because we are Christians.” And yet the Prime Minister of Hungary said that they needed to stop all the migrants in order to protect the Christian character of Europe. For an opposite reason he evoked the Christian name. Was that in vain? How about if he really believes it?

I myself believe that our presidential candidates Huckabee and Cruz are using God’s name in vain — for their personal political purposes. But I am not competent to force that judgment because I cannot see inside their hearts — only God can do that, which is why God is the only one who can “hold us guiltless:” no one else can. To use the name of God rightly and to use it wrongly is so close. If you suddenly say, “O my God,” might that not be an honest prayer? When I’m at the stadium and over the loudspeakers comes God Bless America, and I don’t sing along because I think it’s vanity, still I am not competent to judge the guilt or not of the guy behind me who’s singing it loudly.

So the Commandment is calling us always to measure in ourselves is how much we fasten the name of God upon our own interests, no matter how good we may think our interests to be, and no matter how much the world might approve us doing it. We all accept it when our presidents – this one included – end their speeches with, “And may God bless America.” Is that God’s only job? We dare not say, “And may God direct America,” or “And may God judge America.” Those would be God’s jobs too. So when do we rightly use the name of God? Compared to dirty words or swearing or cursing that’s both more difficult to measure and more important. But I think it’s all one package.

Do you know any Native Americans? Or any Native Canadians? Have you noticed they usually talk more slowly than we do? Not because they’re stupid, but because their cultures took their words as sacred and powerful. But in our media culture, words are powerful and cheap. Donald Trump and Ann Coulter are both self-proclaimed Christians, and he gets empowered by calling people “idiots” and she gets rewarded for calling people “retards”.

It’s easy to talk that way. But I got a book by a Mennonite with the title, Never Call Them Jerks. I was convicted. So I stopped. It doesn’t matter how much of a jerk that person might be. It’s not for me to call it. That maybe-jerk is in God’s image.

So you might think it better just not to say anything. But you are in God’s image too. And the God whose image you bear is, from the beginning, in Genesis, a speaker. And also in Genesis, the first thing Adam did in the world was to name things. He did that as God’s image. You must name things. That is to be a human being. Other creatures have voices, other creatures sing songs and call out messages, but only human beings name things. You must name things. You must name them for what they are. You must speak up, and you must testify, and you must whistle-blow.

And you must praise God, and do it not only in privacy, but in public. Every time you mention God’s name, for whatever reason, that is implicitly an act of worship. Just to say, “O God,” or “O Lord,” that is a miniature act of worship, so, if you consider it thus, that every time you say, “O my God,” or “Jesus,” it is a quick act of worship, then this can enrich your life and also enrich the world around you. God has given you a voice, and you can love God with your voice, and with your voice you can love your neighbor as yourself, and with your voice you can also love your enemies.

But naming is not name-calling. And that depends upon your heart. Are you angry? Are you resentful? Or jealous, or bitter, or afraid? If you work on the condition of your heart, that will affect what passes through your mouth. The Lord Jesus talked about this in our gospel lesson two weeks ago. When it comes to dirtiness, it’s not really about what comes in or out of your mouth, or what goes out into the sewer, but what is in your heart. Or as St. James says, the freshness of spring water is what’s in the source. The problem of the voice and of the tongue is located in your heart.

You can do this. You can attend to both: “the words of your mouth and the meditations of your heart.” You can work on your heart and you can work on your voice, and they will harmonize. You will spare your voice from words that are cheap. When you critique, you will not do it to advantage your own interests, but in the interests of the whole. When you name things, you will name them rightly for the honor of the whole, and if you can’t, if you don’t know the whole story, then you can quietly wait for someone else to name them rightly.

And you can work on your heart. You will work on your anger and resentment and your jealousy and bitterness. You will work on your own inner reconciliation. That comes from simple maturity and growing up, and then also from the Christian practice of repentance and forgiveness, and then finally from the incredible power of humility and openness.

What you want is your own peacefulness and quiet confidence inside, so that when you speak, it’s for what-you-have-to-say and not from pressure of ambition or the crowd. You can do this, you can work on your integrity of heart and voice. And you want to do this, I know you do, which is why you are here today.

To name things rightly is an act of love. To name your neighbor with a name of honor is an act of love, as to do so with your enemy. To speak up for your neighbor is an act of love. To speak up when it is costly is an act of love. To use the name of God only and always as an act of worship is to love God with all your voice.

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

Thursday, September 03, 2015

September 6, Proper 18, You Can Do This #2, With All Your Soul and With All Your Mind

The Second Commandment
Heidelberg Catechism Lord's Day 35, Q&A 96-98
James 2:1-17, Mark 7:24-37

“You shall not make for yourself any crafted images, or any likenesses of anything in the world. You shall not bow down to them or serve them.” Okay, we get the part about not bowing down to them or serving them, but not making them at all? No images or likenesses at all? No photos? No pictures of our children? No icons? There go Instagram and Facebook and Windows, we’re taking the internet back to 1980 and you have to type out everything in MSDOS.

It’s human to make images. Imagination is God’s gift to you. You have images inside your head and you want to share those images. You can express your inner images with words, and you can evoke them with poetry, but a picture is worth a thousand words. My granddaughter is only twenty months old and already she loves to make her pictures.

You have an image of God inside your head. You can’t help it, it’s natural. It’s likely that your image of God was influenced by Michelangelo. You can tell this by how God is depicted in Monty Python. And that’s the point. There is no way that the Bible wants you to imagine the Lord God as an old man with a long beard.

Jews and Muslims have been stricter than Christians on this. You will never find anywhere a Jewish or Muslim picture of God. Nor from the first Christians either, until the third century AD, and even then they were controversial. The Christianized Roman Empire had civil wars over the issue of pictures of God. Ultimately the winners said they were okay as long as you did not worship them. That’s still the position of the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches.

Well, where’s the line between worship and devotion? If you kneel down to pray in front of an Icon of the Trinity or a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary, how is that not worship? That was the critique of most of the Protestants, especially the Calvinists. After the Reformation we famously pulled down the beautiful statues and shattered the glorious stained-glass windows and painted white-wash over the wonderful frescoes.  Not unlike ISIS! A Reformed Church sanctuary had great clear windows and lots of light shining in on bare structural surfaces and functional furniture.

Now this was often considered an impoverishment of art. The richest church buildings were not unlike the poorest. But they developed their own serene and clear-eyed beauty, the poor ones like a Zen Buddhist sanctuary, and the grand ones like the great mosques of Islam. Or like the Taj Mahal.

In recent times the Reformed Church has become less stringent. Our own congregation has had five buildings. They all had clear glass windows and spare interiors. The second one had stained-glass medallions in its windows, but of family coats-of-arms. When we built this fifth one we wanted show off our prestige and the advancement of our culture, so we put in our first real stained-glass windows, and even with three depictions of Jesus, but of Jesus as a man, not Jesus in heaven, and still, no picture of God the Father.

Okay, perhaps not sinful, but our Jesus was always a European white man, and what did that mean for black and brown believers? We didn’t care back then.

So maybe when we renovate the sanctuary, we could save money and be more righteous by not restoring the windows but selling them and replacing them with clear glass, and how much lighter and brighter our services will be. Well, if I really thought that was required of us I should not have accepted the call to this church, and it would also be disharmonious with the interior architecture.

Furthermore, St. James says in our epistle that we follow a “law of liberty” and that “mercy triumphs over judgment,” so we can assume God’s merciful toleration of our windows and that we are at liberty to restore them provided this: provided that when a poor person with dirty clothes comes in, as St. James says, that is the person whom we most honor in our renovated sanctuary.

Whatever we spend on our renovation has to include our giving poor people regular and convenient access to it. That’s how we can have God’s image in our church, because on that very person is the spitting image of God.

And now you see the positive purpose of this Second Commandment. You shall not make a crafted image, because God has already supplied you with God’s chosen image, and that is other human beings, as we are taught in Genesis chapter 1. (The Torah is a unity!) You shall not bow down to crafted images and serve them because you shall bow down to poor persons in dirty clothes and serve them. Do you want to spend time and money on religion? Spend it on "the poor in the world whom God has chosen to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom."

And so those poor, bare Calvinistic churches with clear windows and white-washed walls were full of lavish images of God, which were your humble neighbors in the pews. All the colors of their skin. That old couple there, they are your saints. That unmarried mother there, she is your Virgin Mary. Bless her. Honor her.

This Second Commandment is not just for pagan idol-worshipers. It challenges us all. You all have an idea of God in your heads and that’s the God that you will serve. It’s natural, you can’t help it, you have your brain, your mind, and your imagination. So this commandment is a constant feedback loop. No matter how right or advanced or Biblical your image of God may be, you’ve got to open it up again each week. You’ve got to be forgiven of it and healed of it, no matter how good your theology or philosophy.

And because God loves you God helps you with this, and the way that God helps you is not by your sight, but by your hearing. Through your ears, and not your eyes.

God’s preference for your ears is in our gospel for today, in the second miracle, how the Lord Jesus healed the deaf man with the speech impediment. As usual, St. Mark reports it without explaining it. He tells us that Jesus put his fingers in the man’s ears, spat, touched his tongue, looked up to heaven, groaned, and said in the local dialect, “Be opened.” 

Be opened up, be unclogged, uncorked, unstoppered. Be as fully opened as a human being should be. Be open to hear God’s words to you. Be open to speak back to God, to praise, to tell what God has done for you.

The Lord Jesus opened up the stopper on his soul. With his ears opened, the word of God could enter his mind, and go from his mind down into his soul, into his breath inside him, and once in his breath come back up and out of his mouth in speech. Ears, mind, soul, speech. And that made the man able now actively to love the Lord God with all his mind and all his soul.

The goal of this commandment is that you love the Lord your God with all your soul and with all your mind. The temptation is to love the image of God you’ve made in your mind. Yes, you have to use your mind, but you’ve got to keep revising and challenging your image by what you hear every week in the Word of God. That’s how the Lord God has designed it, that it happens more through sound than sight.

Jews and Muslims and most Christians agree on this. And this is why the Reformed churches have always emphasized sound over sight in worship. The message is the medium. The preaching, the hymn-singing, the sound of the community of Jesus, in the ear and on the voice, quite precisely the actual vibrations in the air to get it moving down into your soul. You are doing it now. You can do this.

The message is for your salvation, every week — that you find the Lord God not in richness but in poverty, not the richness of your idea of God, but in the poverty of your own soul where God has come to find you. Not in lofty ideas of God but in God’s grief and lamentation, in your losses and your tears. You eat the crumbs from the table with the other beggars here, and on those beggars is the face of God. And when they look at your own beggar’s face, they see God’s face too.

The message shapes you from the inside, from the inside out. It’s how God carves you out and crafts you into an image of God’s self. The word of God into your mind and your soul is designed to shape you into a shape that is worthy of the God who created you. You cannot ever separate your own self-image from your image of God, and you’re not supposed to. You can do this, on your inside, no matter what you look like on the outside, your own soul can carry the moral likeness of God.

Which is why, on your daily Christian walk, your might take the earbuds out of your ears and  be opened to your living soul. As you address the world, gaze not upon your iPhone and the icons on your screen but on the faces of the people around you. Let them see your face, which has on it (more than you know it, and even in your lines and blemishes) the image of the love of God.

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