Friday, June 19, 2015

June 21, Proper 7, This is the Life #7: Fearing For Your Life


1 Sam 17:1a, 4-11, 19-23, 32-49, Psalm 9:9-20, 2 Cor 6:1-13, Mark 4:35-41

I can vouch for Jesus sleeping in the boat. I worked on a boat for four summers on the Great South Bay of Long Island. It was an old fishing boat (a "pound boat"), with low decks and the cabin in the back and a big hold in the front. It took us an hour every morning to Fire Island and an hour back at night.

One morning we had a bad storm and it was so wet on deck that I climbed down into the hold and lay on the ropes and canvasses. The boat was rolling and pitching and the hull was getting pounded. Then all of a sudden I woke up. I had fallen asleep. In that storm. I guess that’s how much I trusted the skill of my boss, Joe MacMillan, and also how much I loved being out in the wind and the waves.

Don’t get the gospel story wrong. The disciples woke up Jesus not with a request but with a reprimand. What they expected was not a miracle but that he show some interest. And after the miracle they were even more afraid! They went from the ordinary fear of the dangerous chaos of nature to their terror at the power of Jesus’ word. In contrast is the calm—the sudden calming of the sea, and the calm of Jesus all throughout.

Jesus has done what only a god can do. Psalm 148: “Sea monsters and all deeps, stormy wind fulfilling God’s command.” The pagan gods and goddesses did such things, and also routinely took on human form, and if they were pagans the disciples would have been glad and grateful and offered up sacrifices. But they were Jews.

For them there was one God, and this One God never, ever took on human form, and so nothing here computes. They can’t make sense of it. That’s the great root of their fear, the vast disparity between what they’ve just witnessed and what they’d always believed. Jesus be calm, but he stands in their boat like a hole in their universe.

And yet he remains a human being. For all his impossible extra identity, he’s still a man who is living by his faith. So if God got Noah through the flood, Moses through the Red Sea, Jesus then could trust that the God who had given him a mission would protect him enough to see it through.

So does that mean that we are supposed to be fearless if we follow Jesus? Fearless like David against Goliath? Was St. Paul fearless in his endurance of afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, and hunger? Are we supposed to be like that? If you get afraid, does that mean your faith is weak?

You might think that from what Jesus says to them, at least according to our translation: “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” We hear that as a reprimand. But maybe Jesus is asking an honest question—he’s honestly curious why they’re afraid. No, I think that’s pushing it. And yet this is not a good translation. He doesn’t actually ask them why they’re afraid. He actually says this: “Why are you timid, do you not yet have faith?” You can make the Greek word even stronger: “Why are you cowardly, why are you craven, do you not yet have faith?” It’s not about fear but the effect of fear.

And it’s more a challenge than a reprimand, because the force of the Greek is “not yet have you faith?” This “not yet” carries through the Gospel of Mark: when the disciples see him walk on water they are terrified, when all three times that Jesus predicts his death and resurrection they are afraid of it, when he gets transfigured on the mountain they are terrified, and finally on Easter morning the women see the empty tomb and get the message from the angel and they depart in fear. Still not yet?

Well, right, isn’t that the journey of your life? Learning to manage your fear, so that your fear informs you but does not control you? That you not fear your fear, that you not cower?

How do you accomplish this? Well, as you grow up you develop those inner resources that help you control your fear, and you also control it by your loyalty to a greater cause. That’s where faith starts. If you’re a Christian, you factor in your faith in the promises of God, because of your faith in the character of God. You trust God because you believe that God is trustworthy. And so what God is like and what God promises has to affect the schedule and the ranking of your fears.

Fear is natural even though it does not exist in most of the universe. Stars feel no fear, rocks feel no fear, they have no need of it, because inorganic things exist always and exactly in unity with their conditions. But once a thing is alive, that thing maintains itself in creative tension with its conditions. The essence of life is the drive to survive, so that which resists its survival must be overcome, and that which opposes its survival is a threat. When creatures evolve enough complexity to have emotions, they develop fear against what might injure them or kill them. Our particular species fears more: we also fear what might constrain us or restrict us or ruin our purpose and meaning.

This Sunday again, in the Eucharistic Prayer, I will pray this: “You have given us life, and being, and you preserve us by your providence.” So we are grateful to God that we even exist, and that we have biological lives, and that God providentially preserves our lives to us, even if we know enough not to bind God to our life-plans as we see them.

But we mean more than our sheer biological lives, we also mean living, daily life, and all the activities of life. How do faith and fear relate to this? Because your ordinary life is most of your mission. To do your job and to raise your kids and love your people is most of your mission. We’re not in the boat now, we’re back on land. We’re out of the drama and into the daily round. It’s not Goliath we’re facing, it’s mortgages and traffic and unemployment and infections, where your fears are not so frantic but they fester.

Last Sunday morning I heard Krista Tippett interview Sister Simone Campbell, one of the “nuns on the bus.” She said that she finds it remarkable how Americans are fixated on security—in our national policies, in how we eat and travel, in how we raise our children. We build so many barriers against the world’s uncertainties. We keep telling ourselves we’re the free-est people who ever lived. But people from prior centuries would pity how confined and constrained we are. There is so much beyond our power to control that we keep tight control on what little we can.

It is a problem when your felt need for safety keeps you from following Jesus in obedience. It is a problem when your fear keeps you from the freedom to love. And then we are shocked when a child dies or a good work fails or a saint dies young whom we thought was indispensable. But God does not reveal to you the ends of your lives nor the outcomes of your missions, and it is not to certainty that God calls you to but to faith and trust and to let God be God and you be in a creature in God’s care.

In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is a teacher. And this teacher of his disciples is also the commander of the sea of Galilee. Who is also the commander of the deep, dark waters of creation in Genesis. Who is speaking to us now. I invite you to believe that whatever Jesus tells his disciples is in harmony with the deepest structures of the universe. Whatever Jesus calls you to today makes sense of the world the way it really is, despite the current public certainties.

I invite you to believe that this voice of this teacher is the voice of the creator, and therefore I invite you to cultivate calmness. Calmness as a spiritual discipline. Calmness as an exercise, calmness as an attitude. Calmness within, not from what you attain but from what you receive. The calmness you can have when you feel at home in the world, in even the wind and waves. The calmness you can have when someone else is in charge. The calmness when it does not depend on you. The calmness of a child being loved.

The most important obedience for Christians is not in what you do but what you trust God for. What drove St. Paul to go through hell and high water was his passion to share this truth of such a loving and gracious God. And this same truth is what allowed the Lord Jesus to sleep in the boat. The opposite of fear isn’t courage, it’s love. So you know that deep fear in your life? You know what it’s for? It is to keep you climbing ever inward and down into God’s great love for you.

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

Saturday, June 13, 2015

June 14, Proper 6, This is the Life #6, Your Life Is Not Your Own




1 Samuel 15:34-16:13, Psalm 20, 2 Corinthians 5:6-17, Mark 4:26-34

What do you think—does life exist only upon the planet Earth, or is life also out there in some other galaxies somewhere? We have not found it yet, not as far as we can tell. You know there is no purely scientific reason to assume the existence of life elsewhere. Just because it’s here does not require that it be elsewhere.

So then, when we confess in the Nicene Creed that God created “all that is, seen and unseen,” and then also that the Holy Spirit is “the Lord and Giver of life,” are we saying that God made the whole vast universe but maybe chose only to put life in one small planet in the orbit of a minor star at one end of a third-rate galaxy? Really? Of course that’s not unlike God having chosen David from all the more likely sons of Jesse, indeed from all the other persons living in the world that day. But even if it makes sense Biblically that doesn’t make it easier to believe.

It is strange that life should be so rare, because the necessary elements of life are widespread in the universe. All you need is for the five elements of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, and sulfur to start forming compound molecules, provided that some of the oxygen and hydrogen are already formed into water, H2O, and the water is not ice or vapor but liquid, which admittedly does narrow the planetary options. All it takes is for those five elements start forming into their compounds.

But that’s the trick, because to do that, those elements have to go against the Second Law of Thermodynamics and have to counter the natural resistance of entropy. So life would be that force, that drive, that inexplicable drive that seems to want to form those compound molecules, and keeps forming them into ever more complex structures until you get to ant colonies and blue whales and the human brain. That’s life, so extremely simple, and yet so rare.

We don’t know how this drive arose within the universe. The laws and theories of astrophysics do not predict it nor account for it. We can make our guesses only when it comes to our own planet. Scientists suggest that this drive must have spontaneously self-generated a couple billion years ago in earth’s primordial soup. Okay. But if that happened once why doesn’t it ever happen any more? Right now absolutely everything alive has inherited its life from a parent or progenitor. So then to get life going did some spark come from the outside? We have not been able to replicate such an event in our laboratories. Life is all around us and we still can’t explain it.

Life distinguishes the planet Earth. You could argue that life is that system which distinguishes our planet from the other planets. Life is very much more than just those five elements forming compounds; it’s all the profusion of protein-building and DNA-constructing and organic creativity and evolutionary invention and then bacteria and then eye spots and then orchids and spider webs and hummingbirds and camouflaging octopuses, not to mention singing and dancing and wine-making and love-making. All that is life; only with life do we get all that. And only on this planet?

Science tells us that for all this to exist it took exquisite fine-tuning of the energies and elements. One tiny difference since the Big Bang here or there, and none of this exists. Is that fine-tuning just coincidental? Was it God’s guiding hand? Was it the Holy Spirit who touched the spark of life into those five elements to give the inner drive to form new compounds? Whatever it was, apparently that first spark is all it took, because once it gets going, life asserts itself. Well, it has to, because it must assert itself against entropy—life is that which swims upstream against the press of entropy.

You can see how strong this opposition is by how quick and irreversible is death. You take your last breath, and in no time all your cells go out. Once they go out that’s it, they’re dead, and no force in the world can ever turn them on again. Your wonderful body becomes that awful thing we call dead meat, and all your once-living proteins are now only food for other living things. And yet—and yet a seed, a little dry mustard seed, can hold its life in suspension for many years. Such a mystery.

Life can be cut-throat and unforgiving. Life is as fragile as it is powerful. Life has to assert itself to stay alive. Life gambles, life experiments, life invents, life evolves, life adds variations, life adds order in opposition to entropy. Life is driven to grow and develop and expand. Like a seed within the ground. The farmer scatters it and then sleeps and rises and counts on it to have its way.

So the parable of the Lord Jesus is not coincidental. The life that he talks about in his parable is not just a homey example. It’s not that organic life is just neutral and you can add spirituality onto it. In the Bible, even ordinary biological life belongs to the Kingdom of God and is in the providence of God and under the sovereignty of God. You don’t have to be a six-day-creationist to believe that life on earth is in God’s purpose, and you can accept the whole theory of evolution and still believe that God ordains it and desires it, and you can fully go along with modern science and believe that God is the source of life and the Lord of life, and that what life serves in all of its mystery and majesty is what God wants it to serve. You can believe, not unreasonably, that the drive that’s in life is the drive that God has given it, and that drive is part of the parable. Ordinary biological life on earth belongs to the kingdom of God.

But if life asserts itself there is a problem. The inner drive is a problem in the case of our species, which is unique among all the species because of our strange self-awareness. We assert too far, and we come to think of our lives as our own. We decide that the main purpose of our lives is self-realization and our operative stance is self-validation. These things have their place, but as every sin is the perversion of a virtue, so these natural assertive drives in us become rebellious and idolatrous and demonic. We want freedom from everything but ourselves. Selves get selfish. And destructive.

But if we think of the planet as God’s garden, that it belongs not to us but to God, and that God has put us in it as stewards to serve God’s purposes and not our own, then we find that confining, like we’re the zookeepers of God’s vast zoo or the servants on some planetary Downtown Abbey. We don’t want to be servants, thank you very much, and we assert ourselves against the rule of God, or if we’re religious we say that we are loyal and yet we keep side-stepping the rules of God. And the cost of our invention and creativity is dwindling biodiversity and accelerating desertification, not to mention our constant violence and inhumanity to each other, and what war shall we start this week?

The assertiveness of life within our species is a terrible force unless it’s countered by the fear of God. Fearing God. Modern people hear that as a negative. Well, that’s as it should be. There should be some negative in your relationship to God. There is part of you of which God is your enemy and rightly so. God is your death as well as life. Your fear of God is the sensation of the vast disparity between yourself and God, who finally does say that you must die. Your life force which is so precious to you must go out. And yet it’s in love that God says that, that God spares you from the awful possession of a life of your own that will go on forever and ever in infinite assertion. It is a loving who God takes back the gift of life from you, even when you struggle to hang on to it.

You are choosing to not live for yourself. You are choosing the offer in the Epistle by St. Paul, who says that "Jesus died so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them." You’re handing your life back to God, all your assertion and your right to life, and yes, from the outside this looks likes servanthood, but this service is not servility. In fact, it gives St. Paul a new kind of assertion, and twice he says that he has confidence. You can feel his drive and energy. You can be just as assertive and creative, but in the project of your own conversion. That’s the Christian offer that I remind you of again this week. There is no proof. But try it.

Because you don’t have to maintain your own Christian life. If you’re in Christ, boom, "there is a new creation" anyway. You don’t have to force it any more than the farmer can force the seed within the ground. God has planted mustard seeds within you that will grow up and branch out within you to give space and shelter within you to all the various birds of your peculiar personality. Because your life belongs to the kingdom of God. God is taking that force of life in you, which was given to you at your birth, God is carrying your life into the new life of the world to come. If that new life will have even greater mysteries, it will still enjoy the familiar certainty of God’s love for you.

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

Saturday, June 06, 2015

June 7, Proper 5, This Is the Life #5: Life in the Balance


The late Christopher Hitchens

1 Samuel 8:4-20, 11:14-15, Psalm 130, 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1, Mark 3:20-35

Our first lesson is an example of the Biblical principle of “accommodation.” God accommodates to us. This principle is a tool to handle God’s apparent doubleness: God is eternal and omnipotent, yet God also comes down into our history and yields to us and works with us in creative tension with our resistance. The Israelites should have no king but God, but they demand one anyway, so God works in tension with their opposition for the solution that will be the house and lineage of David.

There is tension in our gospel lesson too. Jesus says, “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” That’s a nice thing for him to say to the people around him who admire him, but outside the house, when Jesus’ mother hears of it, she will be embarrassed and dishonored. His siblings can retort that to do the will of God is to follow the Torah and honor your mother! They are thinking their big brother is over the edge, and should be stopped for his own good.

Already in chapter 3 of Mark’s Gospel begins the opposition to Jesus, from both his family and the people in charge. You can understand the motives of the leaders. The Middle East has always been a powder keg. Everyday life was always in the balance. Of course the leaders felt they had to keep control. And Jesus was threatening the balance. He made them nervous. They didn’t get what he was up to and they couldn’t foresee what he’d do next.

A committee of legal experts has come up from Jerusalem to investigate and issue an opinion. They decide he is a sorcerer, that he has real power, but it’s the unclean power of the enemy. Of this opinion Jesus is unforgiving. “You can slander me,” he says, “and I can forgive you. But you cannot slander the Holy God and get away with it. It’s one thing to deny that I’m with God, but it’s another to have equated God and Satan, to have disreputed the Spirit of God. I’m over with you guys.”

And yet his parable is playful: You guys say I am doing my healings by the power of Satan; then the house of Satan must be divided against itself, and it therefore cannot stand, so then I am Satan’s self-destruction, and that makes me good news for you even in your opposition! Even when you oppose me I am working in your favor, and from your opposition I will create a greater good.

When I was in the hospital this past week, recuperating from my little stroke, Rabbi Bachman came to visit me, and lent me a book by the late Christopher Hitchens. It’s called Mortality, and it’s a brief and brilliant atheistic meditation on dying from cancer. Listen:

“The absorbing fact about being mortally sick is that you spend a great deal of time preparing yourself to die with some modicum of stoicism (and provision for loved ones), while being simultaneously and highly interested in the business of survival. This is a distinctly bizarre way of ‘living’—lawyers in the morning and doctors in the afternoon—and means that one has to exist even more than usual in a double frame of mind.”

And then he adds, “The same is true, it seems, of those who pray for me.”

Precisely. This doubleness that is bizarre for Hitchens is familiar to believers. If you believe in God then your way of living in the world is always simultaneously preparing to die and being busy at survival. It’s what St. Paul describes in the epistle. “So we do not lose heart even though our outer humanity is wasting away, our inner humanity is being renewed day by day.” We are always balancing death and life within our lives, not just at the end, and if it’s true in theology it’s no less true in biology.

Living things have to eat, and they eat by killing and consuming other living things. Well, not always. Some plants survive on purely inorganic matter, but most plants require large amounts of organic matter in the soil—matter that was living once. Animals eat tissue that is still alive and we kill it to eat it. This is obvious with carnivores. Herbivores often don’t kill the whole plant, but they do kill the parts of the plants they eat. And to eat a seed or a fruit is to kill off a future life. Biological life depends on dealing death; biological life assumes the constant tension and balance between what Christopher Hitchens calls preparing for death and being highly busy with survival.

For this sermon series on Life I have been reading up on biology. Did you know that there are no reptiles in Iceland? Because they’re cold-blooded they can’t survive the climate. Birds and mammals have evolved warm-bloodedness as a strategy for global expansion.

A polar bear brings her own heat with her; but then to burn enough calories to keep her body warm she has to eat much more than any reptile does. She has to balance consumption with exertion, with the balance always tipped just enough past the median to stay alive.

And you too, Brooklynite, just to stay alive you have to eat things that were killed by someone else for you or are cooked or chewed to death by you, even if you’re a vegan. You practice both death and life just to stay alive.

It is no wonder that so much of religion hopes for an immortality that will be purely spiritual and disembodied and unbothered up in heaven. We won’t have to eat. That’s how many Christians interpret St. Paul, that he is telling us that we long for an immortality that is disconnected from this created world.

That’s actually not what St. Paul hoped for. He was trained as Jew, and he looked for the repair and restoration of this created world, and a disconnected heavenly immortality would be for him an unbearable lightness of being. And yet we so easily misunderstood him as offering us escape. Well, bodily life as we know it is always a struggle to survive, and if it’s a creative tension when it’s good, when it’s bad it’s the hypertension that put me in the hospital last week.

This past year I watched my granddaughter learn to walk. Nobody taught her. She was driven to discover it, to rise up on her feet against the force of gravity. To balance herself she had to master the complex interplay of many muscles in tension and expansion. And then to walk she learned to push and pull against her gravity. Propulsion uses gravity. If you have no weight, you cannot walk!

I say this is to help us with St. Paul’s terminology, that you are being prepared for an eternal weight of glory. Weight of glory—what does that mean? The terminology is Jewish. In Hebrew, the word for glory derives from the word for heavy, kabod. Glory has weight. If something’s glorious it’s heavy. You might think of the sun, one of our favorite images of glory, which is light and bright and weighs millions of millions of millions of millions of millions of kilograms. Heavy is good. It’s not a burden.

The Bible is not offering the lightness of the disembodied glory of Olympian immortality. St. Paul encourages you to hope for a real world more solidly enduring than we can imagine, of such gravity to make light of all our current afflictions, and a city of God so massively majestic that by comparison all our current achievements are as flimsy as tents in the wind.

And until then you have these tensions in your life. You have your hopes and then there are your outcomes. You have what you pray for and then there’s what you get. You see the vision of righteousness, and then you feel the sad reality. You want to live by your convictions but you have to manage your disappointments. You sing of glory and you suffer your afflictions. You pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done,” and then you wonder, “How long, O Lord?” We Jews and Christians design our beliefs around the promises of God, and when there’s no delivery we can hear the people say, “Where is your God?” And you ask that question of yourself. I do. Can it be really true that what cannot be seen is more solid and lasting than what we can see? Or is it just bizarre?

I invite you to believe it, though there will be no proof for it before how it all turns out. It’s not just believers that have these tensions, everybody has them, every creature has them, and the difference is how you interpret them. Stoically or creatively. I want you to read the constant doubleness of your life as a sign of the continuing creativity of the active goodness and investment of God within your life and in the world, of God who even submits to you and accommodates to you in your own situation and your needs and hopes and dreams.

Whatever tensions you feel in your life, whatever you have to balance just to keep on going, I invite you to interpret it all within the massive love of God, and from within that love to act on it. That God should wait and submit to your real experience in the world is the measure of how much God loves you.

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