Sunday, December 25, 2016
Good evening, and welcome to the 362nd Christmas of our congregation. Whoever you are, wherever you come from, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or something else, no matter what your belief or unbelief, whether you worship Christ or admire him, we are glad that you came here tonight.
Let me acknowledge the musicians and singers and readers for tonight. I welcome my colleague Cantor Josh Breitzer from Congregation Beth Elohim who will read the second lesson and sing the Akeda. It is a precious gift. Michael Daves, I thank you, and your guest singers with you. I thank especially our music director Aleeza Meir, our kapellmeisterin, who makes this service happen. You may not applaud them during the service, but you may applaud them now.
The candles are all alight. Later in the service it will get dark. I’m instructing you not to turn on your cell-phone lights. Please just enjoy the candlelight. If you can’t make out all the lyrics in the bulletin, then just sing what you can from memory. Most of the words will come to you. So would you kindly turn off all your mobile devices right now and keep them off?
I love the traditions and the hymns of the holidays, but if they provide you your only knowledge of Christian doctrine, then it might surprise you that the New Testament never appeals to the Virgin Birth of Jesus to establish his divinity; it rather derives his divinity from his Resurrection. The mystery of the Virgin Birth is certainly told by the Gospels, but its immediate import, if anything, is a negative comment about men, and the sexual rights of men, of which I will not say more right now!
So what this feast of the Incarnation celebrates is the opposite of the exaltation of a man to godhood. Rather, we marvel at God’s voluntary humiliation, the great made small, the high made low, the glorious made humble, the almighty choosing to be powerless. You know, “What if God was one of us, just a stranger on the bus.” The omnipotent creator of the universe now fully at the mercy of the MTA. It’s as if God had to surrender all of God’s divine right and privilege, and be absolutely weak and poor and small, just to earn the right to be God again at Easter.
That God should behave like this is not new with Christians. We got it from Israel. It’s already in the Torah. When God first identified with Abram, who was Abram? Nobody. Not a prince nor a priest, not a doctor, not a lawyer, a nobody. When God identified with the twelve tribes of Jacob, who were they? A rabble of slaves descended from a despicable band of brothers who were boorish brigands among the civilized Canaanites. When God identified with Israel and Judah, what were they but two scrabbling minor principalities, critiqued by their own prophets, both of them ending in total failure. God said, “I’m with them! Here I am!” And the other gods and goddesses said, “What kind of a self-loathing, self-hating god are you?”
Why does God behave this way? For love, for love’s sake, God is mad with love, as mad as Don Quixote. This lavish love of God is taught by the Torah and the Prophets. And then we Christians take it a further step, that God identifies with us so far as literally to become one of us, and one of us in poverty, weakness, and dishonor. Again for love, but for something else as well. For peace.
By doing this God demonstrates that God is for peace, full stop. The angels said so to the shepherds. For in such a humble and vulnerable status, what other recourse do you have? So it’s not just that God stands for peace, but God lies down for peace.
We have been troubled by the rise in violence around us. The congregation heard me preach on violence the last four weeks. Yesterday we heard of a new arms race of nuclear weapons. We’ve felt the increase in aggression as the necessary means to make us great again. This is just another version of one historic vision for humanity, the vision shared by empire after empire since ancient times, the brutal vision of how to be strong and great and powerful. It makes some sense; Plato and Aristotle agreed with it, and it goes with nature: kill or be killed, if you’re not on top you’re on the bottom. And if we have gods we contrive our gods to back this up. Christians too often do this too.
Tonight the story reminds us that the God of the gospels does not back this up, that this God as a baby is on the bottom, and as a young man gets killed, for in the life of Jesus, God lies down for peace. This presents the other vision of humanity, which is so unnatural that it takes a miracle. The Incarnation should remind us every year what the God of the Prophets and the Gospels really is for, that God is for peace, full stop.
This is the reason behind the communion of the saints, that God does not build walls. This is the reason for the forgiveness of sins, that God does not stand upon his rights. This is the reason for the resurrection of the body, that God wants healing over judgment, and this is the reason for the life everlasting, the God offers unconditioned hospitality. This is why God’s light shines in the darkness that we weave around ourselves, to find us in our fear and misery of our own making.
The lessons that follow tonight will tell you where to look for God and what kind of God to look for. They tell you what God stands for. You will hear Cantor Breitzer chant the blessing of Abraham, whose hand was stayed from violence. You will hear the vision of Isaiah, of the Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.
That’s why you came here tonight, for the light that shines in the darkness, to see the other vision once again, to be reminded of the hope, to be quickened by the music, and to confirm it when you sing. This is the kind of thing you want to believe, the challenge you accept, this is the kind of life you want to live, that’s why you are here. You did right to come here tonight. God bless you one and all.
Copyright © 2016 by Daniel Meeter, All Rights Reserved.
Saturday, December 17, 2016
Isaiah 7:10-18, Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18, Romans 1:1-7, Matthew 1:18-25
Let me repeat what the angel said to Joseph in his dream: “Joseph, son of David, fear not to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” So that’s what Jesus is supposed to do–save us from our sins. Is one of those sins violence? Can Jesus save us from the sin of violence?
The general witness of the Bible is that the problem of violence will not finally be solved by us. In some things we may make real progress, but the evolution of humanity is also the evolution of destruction, devastation, deprivation, and depravity. The creation of deserts, the multiplications of Mordors on the landscape for the fossil fuels–violence on the earth.
Now this doesn’t matter, if you believe, as many Christians do, that Jesus saves our souls to free us from this sorry world and send us to eternity in heaven, and we will abandon the earth forever. If this world is just a testing ground for ultimate heaven or hell, then violence is a condition to be escaped and not a problem to be solved, and there is no point in being anti-violent.
But if you believe that “God sent not his son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved,” if you believe that the Lord Jesus was born into the world to save us in the world, and that he saves us for what he told us to pray for: “thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven,” then the problem of violence must eventually be solved. Which takes more faith than believing that we just escape to heaven, because the solution seems no closer than it ever was. Faith wears out.
No wonder faith is regarded by St. Paul as a kind of obedience. He speaks in our Epistle of “the obedience of faith.” This means that faith is not so much what we favor God with upon our evaluating God to be worthy of our faith, it’s rather that faith is an obligation that we owe to God just by our being human beings, when we recognize our place in the world and acknowledge our condition.
You have faith in God to save you from your sins. You trust God to answer your prayer that God will purify your conscience by God’s daily visitation. You trust that God frees you from the guilt of your sin and liberates you from the power of your sin. This is the offer of the gospel that bears repeating and explaining, but today let me assume it, with regard to the specific sin of violence.
In the first sermon I said that violence is natural and of necessity, and that all nations are violent, even the best of them. I said that following Jesus means choosing against violence. We can choose against what’s natural and of necessity because Jesus calls us to freedom. Not yet in this life freedom from violence, but freedom within it. Freedom from the guilt of our inevitable complicity, and freedom to witness against the violence that includes us. Jesus saves you from your sin of violence by freeing you from the guilt of your participation in it, and liberating you from its dominion so that you can bear witness against it in the great courtroom trial that is the history of the world.
In the second sermon I said that we witness against it in two ways: unmasking and advocating. We unmask the pretensions of violence, that it does not make us great, and as a solution it’s a delusion because if it solves one problem it only makes for more, even if in extremity we have no recourse but to participate in it. Our second witnessing is to advocate for the meek of the earth, using our reputations as good citizens to speak up for the unacknowledged victims of violence, especially when that violence is subtle and institutional and tolerated as a cost of business by otherwise good governments and respectable corporations. We do this despite being regarded as quixotic and naive.
In the third sermon I said that being the witness is not to be jury or the judge, and we have no control of the verdict, which we have to leave to God. But then if the bad guys keep getting away with it, or even the mostly good guys who do not see their complicity in violence keep denying it, we will be tempted by our grievances to bitterness. I said that in order to practice anti-violence we have to cultivate the disciplines of penitence and joy.
All this is what I mean by Jesus saving you from the sin of violence. Not sparing you from its existence but saving you from your guilt in it and liberating you for witness within it. But now I have to say something more. I want to speak to the emotional side of it. I want to speak to the ominous feeling of the violence that threatens us even if we want to live by faith. What about the fear of it?
For this I want to step back and take a look at Joseph in our gospel story, and the choices that he had to make. His choices were not easy. Should he act upon his dream? Should he even believe his dream? If he ignores his dream and keeps to his plan to dismiss Mary quietly, he will save his righteous reputation.
But if he believes his dream and takes her as his wife he takes on her disgrace. He’ll be assumed to have slept with her ahead of time and thus regarded not only as unrighteous but a hypocrite. Or, worse, maybe his fiancé has slept with someone else, and then he’s a cuckold and a fool, or at best, he’ll be regarded as quixotic and naive, just as I said you will be if you choose anti-violence.
It will cost a lot for Joseph to act upon his dream, and he’ll to practice the obedience of faith, for him a new kind of righteousness. I have heard it said by atheists that faith is a refuge for weaklings. Not for Joseph in this case, and not for practitioners of anti-violence.
The obedience of faith calls us into that which we fear. In the dream the angel said, “Joseph, fear not to take Mary as your wife.” The angel has to say it because Joseph will certainly fear.
You know how shaken you feel when you wake up from a powerful dream, even when it’s not a nightmare. I can imagine the poor guy sitting on his bed in the dark before the dawn, the dream all in his head, and he is facing all these new unknowns, so much in his life outside of his control, that he must take and name and raise a child who belongs to God, with a destiny beyond him for which he was now responsible. “Joseph, son of David, fear not!” Oh my God. Every Advent I regain my admiration for this quiet man.
I have been preaching this series on violence in part because I am afraid. I can feel it in my body. I am not the only one. We fear for our nation. We fear the top-down celebration of violence and its increased cultivation. We fear the anger of our longtime victims, and their bitterness. We fear the other nations posturing for war. We fear our violence against our planet and the weather responding in kind. If courage is not the absence of fear but making the awful choice between your fears, then what should you fear most? The violent environment in which you live or the call of the gospel upon your conscience? If we do the right thing, can Jesus save us from our fear? Not completely, the bad guys will always be out there, without consciences or scruples, and gaining power.
I can’t solve the problem, apart from the obedience of faith. I don’t have an antidote to fear, except for this: There’s something in the way our souls are made that we can be quickened by a sign, even in the midst of fearful chaos and disorder. The sign for Joseph was the vision of a mother pregnant with her child. The same sign was offered by Isaiah to King Ahaz when Jerusalem was under siege, surrounded by armies ready to kill them. The sign is the mother with the infant child, even in the midst of all the violence.
This shall be a sign to you. Such vulnerability. Such weakness in military terms, but in biological terms such power, more real power in the body of the mother than in the pretensions of the guys in charge. The virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and you shall call his name, God with us. God saves the world from the soft inside and not from the top, and you must receive God in God’s chosen vulnerability.
I cannot solve the problem of violence but I offer you the sign, and that you read in the sign that God does not abandon you, and that God’s presence with you is small and soft and fragile but with the power of life. I cannot prove it for you, I can only invite you to believe it, and even more I invite you to love it, because love is stronger than death, and your love will be stronger than your fear.
Copyright © 2016 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.
Thursday, December 08, 2016
Isaiah 35:1-10, Magnificat, James 5:7-10, Matthew 11:2-11
When I was a kid my parents did not allow us to have toy guns. So we just used the best sticks we could find. For my tenth birthday I was given some money and I bought myself a toy machine gun. It had a crank that when you turned it, it went rata-tata-tata. My parents gave in and let me keep it.
Violence, as I’ve been saying for the last three weeks, is natural, and today I’m adding that violence is attractive and alluring, even to children. Cartoons and comics and video games are full of it. And judging by so much of adult television and cinema I’m going to say that violence is seductive and even beautiful.
If beauty be defined as “that which draws your eye to look at, again and again, with desire,” then, judging by what we watch on screen, you’d have to say that we find violence to be beautiful. And judging by what we watch on screen, you could say that what we find most beautiful of all is vengeance.
If vengeance can be beautiful then it’s not contradictory for this lovely prophecy from Isaiah about blossoms and the crocus and the majesty of the mountains also to have vengeance right there in it. “Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.” Terrible recompense does seem necessary for there to be real justice, that is, for salvation to be more than an escape. For salvation to be righteous, then the bad guys have to be defeated plus punished.
So of course John the Baptist, in our gospel lesson, who by this time was in Guantanamo, had been doubting his cousin Jesus as the long-expected Messiah. And all those miracles of healing that he did are beside the point. Not just the symptoms but the system! Social work is nice, but a salvation worth giving your life for requires a revolution. "Listen, Jesus, didn’t your mother Mary ever teach you that revolutionary song she sang when you were still inside her womb?"
Vengeance is a second step in violence. I mean the violence of necessity, non-malicious violence. The first step in violence is defensive, when the aggression of another forces you to be violent back, or when the government wields the sword to keep the peace, protecting the innocent and punishing the guilty.
But from punishment it’s a short next step to vengeance. Vengeance is aggression that claims its rightness, vengeance claims justice, vengeance assumes real grievance, blood crying out, a debt unpaid, somebody getting away with something, an upset in the moral equilibrium requiring further violence to get the balance back.
Last Monday I was in my bodega getting a coffee and a neighbor was looking at The Daily News with its report on the death of that three-year old boy who had been tortured by his father. She said, “That father should be tortured and killed, he deserves it.” She said, “You know I used to work at Rikers, and if he goes there, they’ll know what to do with him, they’ll torture him and kill him like he deserves. You know they have an ethic there.” Vengeance is violence that claims an ethic.
Well, I can tell you that the ethic of the Bible, in both Testaments, for all of the Bible’s violence, is that vengeance is absolutely reserved for God. The Torah does prescribe regulations to put limits on vengeance, thus admitting it, but the right to vengeance is fundamentally denied to humans, and the Book of Judges tells of the general misery for everyone when vengeance is allowed.
So I have to say that the current alliance between the Christian-right and the NRA is not only unbiblical but also would have been unthinkable to the conservative Protestant Republicans of my childhood, like my parents. It’s the historic ethic of the Christian church that private persons are not allowed to initiate any violence, no matter how bad the other guy, and if blood cries out, that is up to the government.
But how about if they keep getting away with it? What was remarkable in this latest presidential campaign is that both sides complained that the candidate of the other kept getting away with doing wrong. And the big banks keep getting away with it, hedgefund traders, multinationals, ExxonMobil, tobacco companies. How could God allow Hitler and Stalin and Mao and whoever else to get away with all their murderous evil for so long? That’s the complaint against God that I hear most often from people who reject belief, and the most telling complaint, I think. Evil gets away with it.
At the more personal level we grumble, we grumble from a sense of grievance. This is what is addressed by our epistle. That spiritual root of bitterness which can grow into the choking vine of vengeance. And what the epistle calls for is patience. Not patience as passivity, but specifically active patience, “heart-strengthened” patience, robust patience, a kind of activity and busy-ness that leaves the outcome open to God. Doing Christian action but trusting God with the outcome.
Witnessing, for example, as I said last week. Witnesses in the forms of unmasking and advocating. First, unmasking the full extent of violence in all of its subtlety and toleration, unmasking the reality of its misery even when the use of it cannot be avoided. Second, advocating for the silent victims of violence, especially when that violence is done by otherwise respectable governments and institutions—advocating for the meek of the earth.
In both unmasking and advocating being witnesses, even when our witness is unpopular. But then, and here’s the hardest part, not being the jury or the judge, that is, leaving the verdict up to God, and still being hopeful, and still being loving, which takes an awful lot of patience, and an awful lot of trust in God.
To respond to evil not with vengeance but with witnessing is what I mean by active patience, and active patience is what I’m calling anti-violence. But to maintain this active patience requires some Christian disciplines. And the two Christian disciplines that I’m going to recommend to you today are penitence and joy.
Penitence is the opposite of grievance. Your grievances are real, so your penitence has to be just as real. Penitence is when you stop judging others and you judge yourself. Penitence is when you take yourself off the throne of your Cartesian autocracy, with all your rights and privilege pertaining thereto, and you take your place among the petitioners, among the humble, even among the guilty, and “there but for the grace of God go I.”
Lenten penitence is mortification, preparing to die. Advent penitence is about surrendering your place, giving up your nice room at the inn to bed down in the stable. Advent penitence is surrendering your right to your grievances. Anti-violence.
The opposite of bitterness is joy. Because the real endurance of real grievances give real cause for bitterness, you have to cultivate joy. As a discipline. You know the Bible is remarkable in that it commands you to love, when love is usually considered a feeling; a feeling is raised into an ethic. Just so the Bible commands joy, and another feeling is raised into an ethic. Not that you can force the feeling of joy. But you cultivate the attitudes of joy, the patterns of joy, the language of joy, even the habits of joy.
The pattern of joy is signified by the command “re-joice,” which in Latin is gaudete, and Gaudete is the traditional name of the Third Sunday of Advent and the reason for the candle’s color being rose. Today you are commanded to rejoice, and so today you have to ask yourself what right do you have not to be joyful? Your cultivation of joy is your active antidote to bitterness, and your penitence reminds you that you have no enduring right to bitterness. Occasions for bitterness will certainly come, as your anti-violence will be met by unfair opposition, so you’ll need to practice joy in order to keep on going in your anti-violence.
Penitence and joy are the means. The end is love. I invite you to the anti-vengeance that is love, that love of God that is so humble that it surrenders every right and privilege and takes on flesh in the stable among the poor and the beasts. Find yourself in this great mystery of God’s love for you.
Copyright © 2016 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.
Friday, December 02, 2016
Isaiah 11:1-10, Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19, Romans 15:4-13, Matthew 3:1-12
Let me list the animals, vegetables, and minerals in our lessons today. We get a wolf, a leopard, a bear, and twice a lion. We get a lamb, a kid, a calf, a veal-calf, a cow, and an ox. We get three poisonous snakes: an asp, an adder, and vipers. We get locusts, we get camel’s hair, we get honey, wheat, the husk, and straw. We get a tree stump, a shoot, a branch, and thrice a root. We get an ax on the roots and trees chopped down and burned. We get fire twice, and water, and wind. We get the sea, rain, showers, mown fields, little hills, and mountains twice. We get stones, the children of stones, and children of Abraham. We get a little child, a nursing child, and a weaned child.
Quote: “And a little child shall lead them.” It’s a children’s parade. That was the sermon preached on these lessons six years ago by our seminary intern Rachel Daley. That sermon was so wonderful that we made a picture book of it and gave it to Rachel as a present. A little child shall lead them. And that little child must be Jesus, we Christians cannot help but think.
It is a principle of Jewish and Christian theology that a prophecy can mean more than the prophet intended, so I can doubt that Isaiah foresaw the child as the Messiah, but as a beneficiary of the Messiah and of the peace that the Messiah would bring. Isaiah was predicting the return of the king, the revival of the cut-off dynasty of David, of the chopped-down House of Jesse. The king would bring justice back with him (the first part of the prophecy), and his justice would result in peace (the second part of the prophecy). But here’s the thing: to bring that justice would require some violence.
This is the second sermon in my Advent series on violence. Why this topic? Because violence is on the increase in our nation and the world, and being accepted as making us great again, so if the baby in the manger is the Prince of Peace, then we must understand from what he’s saving us.
Last week I made the claim that violence is natural and of necessity. We should not be surprised at it, nor sentimental nor even idealistic in our facing it. But just because violence is natural and necessary does not mean Christians should choose for it. Do we not choose against the natural necessities of illness, and scarcity, and death? Why not then also violence? But we can only do this as believers. Governments themselves cannot. All governments are violent, no matter how they justify their violence, as they must do. So how do we Christians make our way in this?
The Bible holds together two realities about government: First, government is ordained by God for our good, and it wields the sword to chastise the wicked and protect the good. You get this in our Psalm for today, and also in the writings of St. Paul.
Second, government is the Beast from the great abyss, or idolatrous Babylon, the constant source of persecution and injustice. You get this in the prophets, the Book of Revelation, and the predictions of the Lord Jesus.
Both realities more or less take form in every government, the USA included, and both realities, whether for justice or oppression, resort to the same power of the sword. Both realities use violence.
We just heard John the Baptist predicting a violent Messiah, leading a holy war, chopping, slashing, and burning. His images are violent, but violence for good, as every revolution justifies itself against the oppressor. He was right about the Messiah, but wrong about the Messiah’s plans.
What the Lord Jesus would have to show by his teaching and example, and by his life and his death would have to explore for the first time ever, was his radical freedom from nature and necessity, such that he could accomplish justice and rightness in a way that was absolutely anti-violent.
That was not a given. As I said last week, the Bible is full of violence, not only by its heroes but even by God. So it’s wonderful that Jesus, while he was still living at home in Nazareth in those quiet years before he was announced by John the Baptist, when he meditated on those prophecies that saw the Messiah as a warrior, leading a revolution of the saints, wielding the sword of justice to vindicate the poor, defending the meek by smashing heads, that he chose instead a very different course, as yet untried by anyone, and one that he could tell he’d have to pay for with his life.
How did he choose against the natural necessity of violence? Because he did not judge by what his eyes saw, which we cannot help but do, nor did he decide by what his ears heard, which we have no choice but do. Because we are natural people we live by the laws of necessity and the sad wisdom of our experience—that if the wolf lies down with the lamb, that’s it for the lamb, and a child who puts her hand over a snake-pit gets dead. We have good reason to doubt the choice for anti-violence when we judge by our own knowledge and experience.
But honest experience also confronts us with the laws of violence no weaker than the laws of nature. It’s the law of violence that once you resort to violence, even in the name of good, you cannot stop it. Once you resort to violence, your adversary will as well. Once you give yourself the right to violence, you cannot refuse your adversary that same right. The law of violence is that violence begets more violence, to use it is never to control it, and even if you gain your objective it’s always a net loss down the road. The misery of violence is recognized by realism no less than its necessity. The Lord Jesus was realistic, not idealistic, and he chose for anti-violence.
The prophecy says he was able to do this because the spirit of the Lord rested on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. The fear of the Lord should be greater than your fear of anything else. That gives you a certain freedom. Not freedom from the emotion of fear, which is a healthy thing, but freedom from the tyranny and the control of fear, which is what violence depends on. As I said last week, we are offered not freedom from violence but freedom within violence.
We can exercise our Christian freedom in two ways, and both ways are forms of witness. Both ways of witness I have learned from the writing of Jacques Ellul, a Christian sociologist who served in the French Underground in World War II, and knew first hand what he was talking about.
First, we witness to the awful truth of violence whenever we find ourselves in the necessity of participating in it, say for the defense of a loved one or even of the civil state. Not that we act with reluctance or sad faces, but that we bear witness to Jesus Christ and his kingdom from within it as best that we know how. For how else shall we love our enemies. It is the law of violence that its users, be they oppressors or freedom fighters, always justify its use as good, and it is the job of Christians to unmask the long-range evil of it all, despite the claims and glories of the victors.
Second, we witness to the experience of the victims of violence who are silent or ignored. We Christians must use our good reputation with those who are in power to advocate to them on behalf of those victims whose victimization is unremarked and tolerated. In the words of Isaiah, the poor and the meek of the earth, no matter how depressed or despicable those victims might be. Even good governments are violent, even in subtle and painless ways, even just by negligence. Even good governments have their silent victims, and we who are good Christian citizens have the thankless and even ridiculous task of witnessing to the powerful on their behalf. We do this not for our own success, but the love of Jesus for such folks constrains us.
If we do these things we will be misunderstood. We will have to contend with other Christians and people of good will. And for some of these things, only the Rosa Parkses among us should we designate to do it, and the rest of us support it. I mean, the base line, according to St. Paul elsewhere (First Thessalonians), is that we should all live our lives in quiet, minding our own affairs. We do this in part to earn the respect and gain the ear of those who are in power and have the advantage of the violence around us, so that we can witness on behalf of those whom they do not so respect.
You desire justice and order in the world. And you desire God, and you seek the vision of God. This vision gives you unfinished business. Advent is all about feeling unfinished. Be open to it, and wait for the coming of the Lord. “Isaiah says, ‘The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the nations; in him the nations shall hope.’ May the God of hope fill you with all joy and hope in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”
Copyright © 2016 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.
Saturday, November 26, 2016
Isaiah 2:1-5, Psalm 122, Romans 13:11-14, Matthew 24:36-44
This is the first in a sermon series on violence. We’re asking the scripture lessons every week to tell us about violence. Now this is not a jolly theme for the happy holidays. But Advent is a penitential season, and repentance means facing hard realities, and the hard reality is that America is a violent country, the most violent of the great democracies.
It’s true that violence is natural. “Nature is red in tooth and claw.” Adolf Hitler once said, “I cannot see why man should not be just as cruel as nature.” But nature seems to be getting more violent of late, at least the weather is, thanks to our messing things up. And civic violence has found new expression and encouragement by the President-elect, despite the real distress and real concerns of so many people who did vote for him. The worst of it was the Access-Hollywood tape when he boasted of assaulting women and rejoiced in talk of raping them.
To “make America great again” should we threaten war to enforce our interests around the world? To “make America great again” should we resume our assault upon the landscape, the biosphere, the atmosphere, the water, the carbon in the ground, not to mention the poor of the earth whom we need to exploit for the cheapness of the products we consume? Forty years ago President Jimmy Carter called us to repentance on such things and we hated it. “We have nothing to repent of! We are great, and now we shall be great again in those things in which a violent nation can be great.” That’s what we’re looking at. And Advent is a season of repentance.
Repentance requires realism. We shan’t be idealistic. The gospel is anything but idealistic. The Bible is realistic about violence. People are put off by the violence in the Bible, but its violence is realistic. The Judges were violent, Joshua was violent, the Children of Israel were violent, David was violent, prophets called for violence, and God did not just tolerate violence, God committed it.
On the other hand, the Creation account in the Bible is distinctly non-violent when compared to the ancient mythologies. In the mythologies, violence was regarded as essential to existence, and the world was formed as a product of the wars between the gods. But the God of the Bible spoke the world into being, absolutely peacefully. God said, Let there be light, and that light made space in the universal darkness. God said, Let there be a firmament, to hold back the natural chaos and disorder and make a great safe space for the freedom of birds and fish, and then God spoke to push the water back to make dry land, for plants and animals and humankind to flourish in. And it was good.
But humankind rebelled and brought the violence back in. Cain killed Abel, and then down to the days of Noah violence increased upon the earth, and normalized, as normal as eating and drinking, as marrying and giving in marriage, warfare increased until God released the waters back and washed it away. Yes, with natural violence God dealt with human violence. But then, with the rainbow, God said, I won’t do that again. God is in process with violence, step by step repudiating it.
You can make the Bible justify violence, as you can make the Bible justify anything. The Bible is not a systematic book of good ideas, well-thought out and organized. It’s a collection of stories, the story of God within the stories of real people in the real world, of fallen people in a fallen world. We have to read these individual stories in terms of the single, over-arching story, and the story of the love of God in Jesus Christ trumps every other story. The anti-violence of the Lord Jesus is the story that puts the other violent stories in their place.
We read the stories of the violence of the Judges as the stories that long for the Messiah of God, and the stories of the wars of Israel are put to rest in the Prince of Peace. The prophecies that the Messiah would lead a holy war and smash the heads of his enemies were laid to rest with the Jesus in the tomb. We read the stories of violence in the Bible to remind us to repent of our own works of darkness in general and of our own knack for violence in particular, our toleration of it, our excusing it, our taking of our ease and wealth from it. In Advent we repent.
We will not be idealistic. Violence is natural and even of necessity. All nations are violent. Civilization is not the absence of violence but the organization of it. The civil authority has a monopoly on violence to make for safety and order. Except in America, where we refuse the government its monopoly on violence because the private handgun is a sacred fetish of our civil religion. We claim a civil right to kill another person at our own discretion, so it’s only natural that our police departments defend themselves with military weaponry. We descend to the state of nature with its necessity of war, even low-level war domestically. Like in the days of Noah, and the sea-level is rising.
It’s because violence is natural that the prophecy of the Lord Jesus in today’s Gospel is always true and will always be relevant until he comes again. Within the darkness keep awake! Be yourself a space of light within the darkness, make a space in the chaos of nature for freedom and safety and peace. To keep awake in the dark is to exercise your freedom from the necessity of nature. The gift of salvation is freedom, freedom from the power of sin, freedom from payback, freedom from the law of club and fang, freedom from the fear of death, freedom from the iron claims of violence.
Freedom from some things means freedom within other things, the other things we don’t escape until the Lord Jesus comes again. You are not free from the world but free within the world. You are not free from nature but free within nature. You are not free from necessity but free within necessity. You are not free from violence but free within violence. You are not free from war but you are free within war.
What does this mean? I don’t know fully yet, and what I have to say today is tentative, but I ask you to be open to where this conversation may lead us in the coming weeks. Here’s my report for today:
There will be war, and we can’t escape it, we can’t pretend it won’t be necessary. We will not be idealistic, and humanistic efforts at appeasement may well make things worse. But the realism of Christians says that wars do not solve problems, they only postpone them and recast them. There is no good war, no just war, even when it’s necessary, and every war makes another war. Making war is not what makes a nation great. If we have to submit to violence to defend our families or the Jews among us or the Muslims or whomever, then at the same time we must grieve it, and mourn it, and not pretend we’ve made the world a safer place by having done it. And we may never, never equate our national interests with the advancement of the Kingdom of God.
In Manhattan, at the United Nations, you can see a monumental inscription of the wonderful words from Isaiah about “beating our swords into plowshares and learning war no more.” But actually in Isaiah it’s not the nations who are able to make peace among themselves, it’s rather God who makes peace among the nations by God judging them, by God deciding between them, God arbitrates between them with a binding arbitration.
The sober reality of the Christian gospel is that the peace among the nations is not an achievement of the nations themselves, for nations are naturally violent, but wherever peace occurs it’s only ever from the judgment of God upon the nations. Peace is never a matter of human progress but of God’s judgment pushing back against us, pushing back against our works of darkness. And the way that we receive God’s judgment by way of repentance.
Repentance is a liberation. When you recognize the darkness, you can look for light. The good news here is that the nations of the world, for all our darkness, really do long for the light. So says Isaiah. This good news is the mission that God has given us in all of this. For out of Zion shall go forth instruction and the word of the Lord. We are entrusted with the word of the Lord, and many peoples shall come and say, “Come let us go up to the house of the Lord, come let us walk in the light of the Lord!”
Copyright © 2016 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.
Thursday, November 17, 2016
Jeremiah 23:1-6, Benedictus, Colossians 1:11-20, Luke 23:33-43
“Today,” says Jesus. What did Jesus mean by “today” when he said it to the criminal? “Today you will go with me to heaven?” But the Lord Jesus did not go to heaven that day. He descended to the dead that day, and he stayed dead for two more days. So what Jesus was promising this criminal must have been something other than his going to heaven when he died.
Let me translate what Jesus said more literally: “Amen, I’m telling you, today you’ll be with me in the paradise.” What is “the paradise,” why that specific word, the only time in all the gospels?
The word back then was not a synonym for “heaven.” It had specific worldly meaning. A paradise was a royal park, a palace garden, like the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, like the Garden of Eden, a private park for an emperor’s enjoyment, where he might take his special guests to walk and talk with him, and where to be invited was a privilege of honor. Like the White House Rose Garden.
If we respect the metaphor, this means that Jesus was giving this criminal more than he’d asked for. He’d only dared ask to be remembered in the Kingdom, but Jesus brings him into the royal garden. He’d only asked for some carnations on his grave, but Jesus puts a rose in his tuxedo.
What a strange exchange between these two upon their crosses. What things to be saying when you are dying in defeat. Has their pain made them delirious? “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.” What possible kingdom? It was precisely to prevent his Kingdom that Jesus was being killed. There’s an inscription above the head of Jesus which reads, “The King of the Judeans is this guy,” but that is meant for mockery. It means, “This is what we Romans do to Jewish kings!”
But this criminal somehow believes that Jesus could die his death and still get his kingdom in the end, that God will bring him back alive for some miraculous liberation. “So Jesus, when that day comes, grant me a pardon; I was with you; don’t forget me; don’t let my name be blotted out.”
The answer is unexpected: “Amen, today.” That is a royal proclamation. Jesus is already acting the king, right now. He does what kings do in granting him a royal pardon, and he invites him to his royal garden. Jesus has made a Garden of Eden upon this ugly hill they called The Skull, Golgotha.
The criminal assumed that Jesus’ kingdom would come after the crucifixion, but Jesus believed that his kingdom was established by the crucifixion; that when the soldiers put him on the cross, they put him on his throne; that in killing him, his enemies were giving him his kingdom; and that Pontius Pilate, in mocking him with that inscription, was doing his official duty of proclaiming him.
The prophecy of Jeremiah has come true. The Son of David has begun to reign, but upon the cross, and the pardoning and welcoming of this criminal is the first act of the new administration. This criminal is made the opposite of Adam and Eve. From his sin he’s welcomed back into the Garden. A lost sheep of Israel has been gathered by this shepherd, as Jeremiah prophesied. And in the words of Colossians, the criminal has been “rescued from the power of darkness and transferred into the kingdom of the beloved Son, in whom he has redemption, the forgiveness of his sins.”
A crack is broken in the surface of the earth. A great crack is broken in the hard shell of human history. From the foot of the cross the crack runs back through time, breaking open all the misery and loss of Israel, back through the woeful dynasty of David, all the way back to Genesis, all the way back through the gate of the Garden of Eden, the crack runs to the dead tree in the middle, and the dead tree comes to life again, and the green spreads out across the ground.
From the same foot of the cross the crack runs forward too, into the future, under us and off beyond our sight, breaking open the hard shell of humanity, fracturing our monuments of mastery, crumbling our achievements into rubble and dust, and the soft green shoots rise up there as well. In the words of Leonard Cohen, “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”
I’m trying to imagine this strange wonder of how the cross of Jesus Christ has power across the span of human history, that the death of Jesus has some virtue beyond that single day. I’m trying to imagine how the Kingdom of God is with us and also yet beyond us, I’m offering an image of how the Kingdom of God is both powerless and powerful. This dying man, a paradigm of the powerless, is also the pinnacle of power and an emperor of peace.
I propose to you that for us to see the Kingdom of God we have always to see it with two eyes, two contrasting visions, both envisioned by the Lord Jesus, both true, but neither true just on its own. (The following adapted from Jacques Ellul’s Violence, pp. 44-45.)
First, the Kingdom of God is out there, majestic, cosmic, impending, over-arching, all-inclusive, the life of the world to come, the future always pressing down on us, judging everything, keeping us always discontent. In the light of this Kingdom we must examine everything and question everything. The cross judges everything. We may never be content with any human system. Every advance in church and society must be analyzed and criticized. The Kingdom demands nothing less than radical change. The Kingdom is a revolutionary magnitude that cannot be measured by our measuring sticks, and being immeasurable, it reveals the vanity of all we do. This is the source of the revolutionary vigor of our faith.
But also, the Kingdom is already present in the world—the seed in the ground, the leaven in the dough, the treasure in the field, the mustard seed, the faith of children, working in the world and changing it mysteriously. For the signs of that working we Christians are on the lookout, seeing the signs no matter how fragile, and being ourselves the signs of hidden life. So you can be open, you can be patient, you can be humble, you can even be submissive in your joy, you can be confident that God is working in the world right now, in fragile ways, and doing it through you.
When you keep these two visions together you get a double witness, and so we Christians do our actions in the world with reference both to the future, which we cannot achieve but only receive, as it is given us by God, and to the hidden present, where God keeps revealing God’s self in your own human acts of love and mercy and welcome, so that even the hill of The Skull may be a Paradise.
But it’s not a rose garden without the blood shed. And I don’t mean the blood of your enemy but your own. Thus the gory words of Colossians: “making peace by the blood of his cross.” Why blood? Why this gruesome reference to barbaric sacrifice to please the gods?
Here’s the point. Making peace is not the same as making nice. Making peace is not the same as all of us getting along. Not if peace includes justice. Your Christian actions of making peace are going to be hard work, risky, and costly, putting you in danger, you will have enemies, and it may cost you your life. You will be tempted like Jesus to save yourself. Your actions may not look like unity. Reconciliation is not the forgetting of our differences the repentance of our sins and the costly work of forgiveness.
If you want to work for peace and justice, keep the double vision in front of you, the vision of the kingdom of God at the end, already established up ahead, pressing down and judging everything, and the kingdom of God already today, in tiny shoots of tenderness growing through the cracks in the concrete. You do your little actions, and you pray them into the greatness of the future. You do your work and you let God gather your work into the larger whole. God is gathering in all things.
This is Ingathering Sunday, the final Sunday of the church year, when we have this vision of what God has been doing in the world since Jesus died and until he comes again. I invite you to believe that you are in the midst of it, and to rededicate yourself to action and to prayer. You are in the midst of it. When Jesus says, “Amen, Today,” it’s not just a man talking, it is God talking from the cross, for, as Colossians says, “in him all the fullness of God is pleased to dwell, and through him God is pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether in heaven and on earth, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”
Copyright © 2016 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.
Monday, November 14, 2016
(We had a guest preacher on Sunday, Rev. Amy Nyland, but before her sermon I gave a pastoral word, and then we read out sections of the Belhar Confession. My people have asked me to post it all:)
Dearly beloved, this is not a sermon, this is a pastoral word. As you know, during our prayers of intercession we often pray for the President and others in authority. We will continue to do so on the first Sunday after the inauguration of Donald Trump. We will pray for him with charity and integrity. The church does not take sides on candidates nor on political parties. Those of us who voted Republican have the right to the outcome, and those of us who voted otherwise must not wallow in anger or resentment.
And yet something special must recognized. The fear and grief that came over so many of us last Tuesday night is real and justified, and not from being sore losers. The reasons are complex, and beyond my expertise, but the spiritual issue is the violence that was cultivated by the winner and exploited by his supporters. Violence — violence against immigrants, violence against black people, violence against brown people, violence against LGBTs, violations of women, violations of truthfulness, violence against the planet — we still have reason to fear it.
This violence is not new, it is apple-pie American. Violence is deep in our culture and our history no matter who is in power. But its current cultivation and celebration is what alarms us, and it tells us that this is a spiritual and ethical danger we Christians must bear witness to.
Two things, then: My next sermon series will be on violence, and how the Bible can help us. Second, the mission of the church is even more critical now: to be a community of the Lord Jesus Christ, that offers a great, safe space of absolute welcome, the practice of worship and service, and the vision of the Kingdom of Heaven. As today’s Gospel instructs us, “Do not be terrified. By your endurance you will gain your souls.”
We Believe that God, in a world full of injustice and enmity, is in a special way the God of the destitute, the poor and the wronged;
We Believe that God supports the downtrodden, protects the stranger, helps orphans and widows and blocks the path of the ungodly;
We Believe that we must therefore stand by people in any form of suffering and need, which implies, among other things, that the church must witness against and strive against any form of injustice, so that justice may roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream;
We Believe that we must stand against injustice and with the wronged;
We Believe that in following Christ the church must witness against all the powerful and privileged who selfishly seek their own interests and thus control and harm others.
Therefore, we reject any ideology which would legitimate forms of injustice and any doctrine which is unwilling to resist such an ideology in the name of the gospel.
From The Belhar Confession
Saturday, November 05, 2016
Haggai 1:15b–2:9, Psalm 98, 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17, Luke 20:27-38
This is the backstory to the prophet Haggai: The Babylonian Empire under Nebudchadnezzar destroyed the Kingdom of Judah and carted the people off to Babylon, with all the gold and silver from Solomon’s Temple, and they burned the Temple and leveled Jerusalem. The Jews began 70 years in exile.
Eventually Babylonia was conquered by the Persians, and the Persians allowed a group of Jewish colonists to return, and rebuild Jerusalem, and the Temple too. But the colony was poor, and the Second Temple was only a poor memory of the first one, and it stood unfinished.
The prophet Haggai comes along and he calls the people to finish the work, and he promises that God will shake the treasure out of the nations to restore the splendor of the temple, for, as he says, “The silver is mine and the gold is mine, and the latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former, and in this place I will give prosperity, says the Lord of hosts.”
So then, Old First, I want you all to come back next week with every piece of gold or silver that you have, jewelry, tableware, whatever, and hand it over for the renovation of the sanctuary, to make it more splendid than before. And I want you to shake it out of your neighbors too. Just tell them that God says, “The silver is mine and the gold is mine!” Do this and I promise you prosperity!
I wish I could promise you prosperity as a by-product of your tithing to the church. I mean if what tithing means is that since all of your substance belongs to God to begin with, and thus you give back to God the first tenth of it—just that forces you to manage your money and be thrifty, which will tend toward your prosperity.
Well, as I said last week, there’s always at least some slight self-interest in every good thing that you do. No gift to God is pure, it can’t be helped, no tithe is pure, whether two percent or five percent or ten, there is in it some self-interest, and the financial interest of the church that teaches it. And yet the whole ideal of tithing is that you let the money go, you give it to God in order to surrender your control of it, and you want no recognition for doing it.
This problem of self-interest is also in our gospel for today. The Sadducees were the political party that was in power in Jerusalem. Their opponents were the Pharisees. The Pharisees taught the doctrine of the resurrection of all good Israelites in the coming Messianic age. But the Sadducees disagreed, because there’s no mention of resurrection in the Torah nor any eternal life. To believe such doctrines is to be contaminated by other religions. This is the only life we have, we are to serve God in the here and now, and whatever we have now is what God promised us. This is the best we’re going to get, so will you people please behave.
To teach this was in their interest, as they were the ones in power, and believing it, they kept the power, and controlled the money, and had nice lives. Their incentive for possession and control comes through in the test case that they offer Jesus: If, as required by the Torah, the woman marries seven times, and each one dies, then in the resurrection whose wife will she be?
Of course, it never occurs to them to ask the woman to make the choice. Even as late as 1968, the Reformed Church marriage liturgy included the question, “Who gives this woman to be married to this man?” The bride went from the custody of her father to the custody of her husband. Custody means control and it goes with property. So the test question of the Sadducees reveals an underlying interest in property and control.
It is typical of religion, even of the best churches, that our doctrines and disciplines are always contaminated by the interests of property and control. It can’t be helped, but it must be confessed. Just as we can never piously insulate our teaching of tithing from the financial interest of the church. We confess it, and we count on your maturity to value the message despite the messenger.
Jesus does not condemn the Sadducees. He even plays their game to argue from the Torah. Yet he moves the conversation to a higher level, from the What of the future to the Who of the future. The Why of the resurrection is not What you’re going to get from the resurrection, but for Whom you will be resurrected. You will not be resurrected for yourself, nor for your husband, nor for your wife, nor for your tribe nor for your nation. You will be resurrected for your God. You will belong to God and God alone, you will be free of every other social and obligation and sexual interest so that you may be free for God. (This, I think, is where God is drawing human social evolution.)
We are meant to be single, apparently, in the resurrection, single but not alone, single but not lonely, single but not incomplete, as the Lord Jesus himself was single and complete. Of course this raises questions. If we shall be resurrected bodily, and thus still gendered and with our sexualities, but forever single, will our genders and sexualities be eternally irrelevant? We are not told. No wonder it’s been easier to suppose that eternal life is only for the soul, and not for the body. But the Lord Jesus was resurrected in his body, and he proclaims it without explaining it.
So we accept the resurrection, not for ourselves, but for God. We accept the resurrection not in our own interest but in God’s interest. Not because eternity belongs to us but because we belong to God. Not as the reward we deserve but as the obedience we owe, not as the prize we earn but the praise that we render.
And if giving praise and thanks to God eternally sounds boring, as I think it must, and if you’d rather do something that has more interest, I guess we have to trust that what God has in mind for us will be more deeply satisfying than what we have known so far. And there will be music, that we know. And eating too, apparently. And wine. How it all works I do not know. But let me say it again, the message of Jesus is not the What of eternal life but the Whom of eternal life, the God for whom you will be resurrected.
What I dislike about the prophet Haggai is that he sounds like he’s wearing a white cap on which is written Make Judah Great Again. “You have no idea how rich you’ll be, and how splendid your temple will be, and we will make the other nations pay for it.” But at least he does say this: “My spirit abides among you, do not fear.” And that’s a real advance. God is fully present with God’s people already without the temple; before the temple is ready, God is fully among them anyway. Even in their circumstance, God is alive to them, and all of them are alive to God.
That’s what the Lord Jesus says: “Now God is the God of the living, not the dead, for all of them are alive to God.” When the Sadducees envision possessing and controlling, the Lord Jesus envisions living, really living, but living beyond possessing and controlling. Living alive to God, living open to God, and thereby open to others, and even more open to the world. It’s to enrich your life today, in this world, that you are promised the resurrection.
It means that your life today will not be wasted or rejected, nor the world, or the planet, and not even superseded, but revived, restored, renovated, and expanded and accelerated. So you can consider everything good thing and every good action that you do in the world today an investment in the life of the world to come, a seed you plant, for even though you yourself will pass away your life remains alive to God.
The vision of the Lord Jesus goes way beyond the Sadducees and the Pharisees because he sees the vastness of the love of God, the love of God beyond control and beyond the vindication of our rightful interests and beyond the boundaries of life and death. It’s all one. To enjoy eternal life is to give in and to surrender to this love that knows no bounds, this love whose name is God.
Copyright © 2016 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.
Friday, October 28, 2016
The story of Zacchaeus is meant to be a little comic, I think. It’s the comedy before the tragedy, because this is the day before Palm Sunday, and six days later the Lord Jesus will be dead upon a cross. Tragedy then, comedy now. Zacchaeus was a wee little man and a wee little man was he, he climbed up in a sycamore tree for the Lord he wanted to see, and as the savior passed that way he looked up in the tree, and he said, “Zacchaeus, you come down, for I’m going to your house today, for I’m going to your house today.”
Why did Zacchaeus want to see Jesus so badly? Luke doesn’t tell us. Maybe it’s not important why, or maybe to Luke’s original readers it would have been obvious. It could be that with Zacchaeus being the chief financial officer of the local government it will be to his interest to identify this Messiah who might soon be setting up his new government in place of the Romans by whom Zacchaeus had gotten rich. Was Zacchaeus nervous about his future, having heard that Jesus had said that it’s harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom than for a camel to get through the eye of a needle? Or was he just plain curious?
Now as I’ve done before I’m going to disagree with our translation. Our translation reflects the standard interpretation that Zacchaeus made his vow to give the money back after he met the Lord Jesus. The verbs of his supposed vow are translated in the future tense: “I will give to the poor, I will pay back.”
But the verbs in the Greek are in the present tense, and are naturally translated as, “I am giving to the poor, and I am paying back.” In other words, he’s already doing it. He has been doing it. If he’s already been doing it, then we have to look at Zacchaeus differently.
Then why do the people grumble? Notice they grumble not against Zacchaeus but against the Lord Jesus, that he’s going to a sinner’s house. Zacchaeus is a sinner no matter how generous he is, he has guilt by association with the Romans. His generosity may soften the system but it doesn’t change the system. To change the system they believe the Messiah has to get the Romans out, not cozy up to their lackeys.
Yes, the Romans did kill Jesus six days later. But they did it in concert with the Jewish leaders and with the support of this same public who turned on Jesus. All governments practice violence, the Romans, the Jews, our Founding Fathers, and everybody else, all governments are corrupt, all governments defraud their people, all governments exploit the poor.
That’s the tragedy of which the government-sanctioned killing of the innocent Jesus is the great example. And the tragicomedy is when the people grumble against Jesus. As they will do, they objectify Zacchaeus as the sinner. They’ve got to have a sinner to be angry at, just as they will really, really grumble against Jesus six days hence.
But the comedy in this is what Jesus represents, and recognizes in Zacchaeus, that, yes, even though all governments are compromised, and it’s silly to think they’re not, yet your government can still use the money from taxes directly to assist the poor, and even though all governments defraud their people, and it’s silly to think they don’t, yet your government can still have practices to control its natural corruption and make its reparations and give some justice to those it typically defrauds.
Today salvation has come to this house. What’s salvation here? Much more than economic policies and practices, or why would Jesus have to die. For Zacchaeus what salvation means is the person and presence of Jesus Christ himself, seeking him. For this sinner, this compromised person, salvation is the actual presence of the Lord Jesus in his life, sitting and eating with him, his disciples too no doubt, the community of Jesus.
Salvation is not so much Zacchaeus accepting Jesus as Jesus accepting Zacchaeus. So stop your grumbling, crowd, stop objectifying people as sinners. The problem that most people have with the Kingdom of God is not who is out but who’s let in! Jesus keeps letting the wrong people in. It’s a comedy.
The Lord Jesus does not ask him to quit his job. There are lessons for us in that. I believe there is a message here for what we should expect of government, that governments should use some of their taxes directly to assist the poor. Not just the middle class, and not just to stimulate the economy yielding better jobs, but directly to the poor. What Zacchaeus did.
Also that governments are responsible to correct and make reparations for the inevitable unfairness that economic power generates. What Zacchaeus did. It doesn’t matter which system of government is at work, whether Roman, Jewish, socialist, capitalist, it’s all the same. These are the values of Our Lord’s economy.
Here’s what it means for all of us spiritually. The Lord Jesus does not call you out of from the world, or from all the corruption of the world. The Lord Jesus keeps you in all of your situations of ethical ambiguity and compromise, and even in social and economic tragedy. And you could act all bitter, or sarcastic, or cynical, and be tragicomical, like the crowd.
But the greater tragedy of the cross of Jesus Christ rises up again into the comedy of hope, and you shall be joyful. The world is worse than we think, but you shall be joyful in it anyway.
The comedy of the Lord Jesus is a comfort when you face the truth that everything that you do in your Christian life has some fault or flaw within it and always some complicity. Nothing you do is pure. Every good thing that you do has some measure in it of self-interest. And so you repent and you laugh at yourself, and you build into your life some realistic feedback-loops, some intentional actions of selflessness, especially of economic justice. You build into your life some sacrifice, not because God needs your sacrifice, but because you do. Not just to keep you humble, but to keep you tuned in to the grace of God.
The comedy of God is not a farce. The laughter of God is not a mocking laugh. It’s the laughter of lovers, it’s a romantic comedy. It’s a love story. You do this whole religion thing in order to keep tuning in to the love of God for you.
Copyright © 2016 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.
Saturday, October 22, 2016
Joel 2:23-32, Psalm 65, 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18, Luke 18:9-14
The Pharisee and the tax collector, the tax collector also called the publican. The one is a patriot and the other a traitor.
The Pharisee desires the Kingdom of God, quite literally, politically, and to keep himself clean and pure and qualified for the Kingdom of God when it comes is the purpose of his rules and his disciplines.
But the publican is against the Kingdom of God. He collaborates with the Romans, he’s a traitor and a dirty thief. We are prejudiced against the Pharisees, but the publican would not have been your friend.
Jesus puts this in the temple in Jerusalem. Here the prayers of Israel were offered every day. The prayers were centered on the daily sacrifices, a lamb sacrificed every dawn and another every afternoon, to atone for the sins of Israel. When the sins of Israel were covered by the blood of the lamb, then they could make their prayers to God. The Levites lit the incense, and as the fragrant smoke rose up, the prayers rose up, the Levites at the altar interceding for the nation, and the individuals in attendance praying their personal supplications and intercessions.
Also praying is this Pharisee. He’s not interceding or supplicating, he’s lifting his hands in thanksgiving. He’s off to the side so he won’t get touched by anyone unclean, but he’s not a bad guy. He knows he is righteous. He fasts twice as often as he needs to and tithes more than he has too. We’d like him as a member of Old First, even if we’re irritated by his self-confidence.
Also praying is that Publican, but off in the back, and unwelcome here. He’s a bad man. Maybe he’s the guy who was ripping off the poor widow in the parable last week! He knows he’s bad. He’s praying with his head down, and beating his breast. And his prayer, if I translate it literally, is this: “O God, let the atonement be to me, the sinner.” He knows he’s guilty, and that he has no right to talk to God apart from that bloody sacrifice which is offered to cover his sins.
Well, that sacrifice is for him. That poor Pharisee, he got no benefit from that sacrifice, he assumed he didn’t need it. He might as well have stayed home, or praised God out in Nature, apart from any nasty people!
So then, which of these two went home qualified to be in the Kingdom of God? The publican, not because of himself, but because of the Kingdom of God. It’s not that the publican perversely earned his justification by his humility, it’s not about the publican at all, it’s about what God is like and what God makes God’s kingdom like, already now, already now for the publican. The Kingdom of God is not what you keep yourself clean for, it’s the Kingdom of God that declares the unclean clean, the Kingdom of God is God’s power in the world to make the unrighteous righteous, out of sheer grace, especially those who religion says don’t deserve it.
That’s why the Lord Jesus does not tell us that the publican went home and changed his life. We’d like it if he did, and he should, but that would confuse the point. That would suggest again that the Kingdom of God has to be proven by us, by our making it worthwhile. But the Kingdom of God is proven only by our need of it. If you don’t think you need it, you don’t get it. If you don’t think you need it, then all you get from it is judgement. It always is the great surprise.
Let me now turn to the epistle, the second letter to Timothy. St. Paul is boasting like a Pharisee! “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race,” I’m not a loser, I’m a winner (hint hint), “I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day.” Well, St. Paul, good for you.
Of course he’s got prison chains on him while he writes this, so he’s allowed to sound like this. And he does not exalt himself by degrading others. He does admit that other people did him wrong, that they did not support him, that they deserted him, but he asks that it not be counted against them. He wants grace for them too. He forgives them. He has to keep on forgiving them in his own mind, no doubt, because in his prison cell he’s reminded of their desertion every day again.
Look, he has to practice forgiveness every day, and he has to do that in order to practice thanksgiving every day. There’s a direct relationship between how thankful you can be and how much you have practiced forgiveness, both extending it and accepting it.
That’s a take home for today. You have a direct relationship in your life between your practice of forgiveness, both given and received, and your practice of thanksgiving. Grace makes for gratitude and gratitude makes for grace.
I want to go now to the Psalm. It’s one of my favorites, Psalm 65. (I wish you knew the marvelous tune for it.) The Psalm imagines a great song of thanksgiving that rises from the depths, and not just from the depths of human experience, but also from the world of nature, from the earth itself, the landscape, the soil and the pastures and the hills. (I heard the meadows singing, each to each.) Thanksgiving is not only what people do, but what all nature does, even in the roaring of the seas and in the clamor of the peoples, the whole creation rejoices in the gift of its very existence, giving thanks to God.
So the thanksgiving that we are talking about is not an instant messaging, as in mentioning what you feel good about today. We’re talking about long, slow, patient, persistent thanksgiving, night and day, year after year. Like what comes up from nature, the slow thanksgiving that rises from the soil, when the farmer comes through with a plow and opens up the furrows to the air and the sun and softened with showers and bearing life and giving growth.
The Psalm envisions the tracks of God’s wagon-wheels cutting through the surface of the earth, and in the cuts of the wagon tracks the richness rises up. These wagon tracks and the furrows of the farmers plow are the images of the prayers of repentance in verse 3 of the Psalm. The images of the Psalm suggest that it’s the cutting and plowing of repentance and forgiveness that allows for the new life of thanksgiving rising up. Or better, the plowing is the repentance, and the harvest is the thanksgiving, and in between we daily open up our lives in prayer and actions every day.
I want to say here that when we talk about good works and Christian action, it’s sometimes in our special witness to social change, but it’s mostly how you act within your daily jobs, both at work and at home, how you deal with your boss, and with those who report to you, how you address your work, with constantly ambiguous ethical decisions. That’s where you practice justice and your social action, from 9 to 5 and on the train and at home, that you let the Kingdom of God into your life, working from the forgiveness of sins always beneath you towards the world’s thanksgiving always around you.
When the Lord Jesus says that all who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted, this is both a judgment and a comfort. It means that your prayers and your actions are both humbled and exalted. Your prayers may be humble in how you say them, but they are exalted in the ears of God. Your good works and your actions for mercy and justice in the world may be humble in ordinary estimation and even hidden from the praise of other Christians, but they are magnified in the sight of God and exalted in the love of God.
Copyright © 2016 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.