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.

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