Saturday, February 27, 2016

February 28, Lent 3, Will the Real Jesus Stand Up #2: Not Blaming

 Exodus 3:1-15, Psalm 63:1-8, 1 Corinthians 10:1-13, Luke 13:1-9

The gospel and epistle lessons are not well known, because they’re not well liked, because they’re judgmental. Of course, it’s Lent, and judgment is indicated. But the lesson from Exodus is a high point of the Torah. For the first time in human hearing, God reveals God’s personal name.

It’s a strange name, almost a riddle. It’s four Hebrew consonants, “y-h v-h,” two forms of the verb “to be,” both forms having multiple mutations, so that no one knows which way to pronounce it, a play on words, “I be as I am, I am as I be,” a play on Being, a problem of symbolic logic, an equation, remarkably not unlike E=MC2 [sic], “my energy is my identity in dynamic constancy.”

A name impossible to capture, as free as light, as fast as the speed-of-light-squared, and yet as constant as light, constancy-squared, faithfulness multiplied by faithfulness, the freely living energy behind the universe now bending down to the cry of the suffering slaves in Egypt. Will the real God please stand up–and deliver us! How can this not be one of our favorites lessons in the Bible?

Of course the passage raises problems. Why did God wait so long during their suffering? What about all the other suffering slaves in other empires on the planet? What about the Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites already inhabiting the land where God will resettle the Israelites? Are the other nations all just nothing to God? These problems are among those the New Testament attempts to solve. So for now let’s hold those problems off in order to discern the gospel that is in this story.

This God is a responder. This God hears the cry of the suffering and is moved by it. This God is not the unaffected deity of philosophy, not the unmoved mover of so much Christian theology, not the blissful transcendent Unknowing of New Age religion. This God is emotional, this God is moved, like a mother who is moved by the crying of her child. It’s remarkable that God is not the initiator here. It’s the suffering slaves who are the initiators. It’s their crying that gets it all going, and God responds. That this raises philosophical problems with the concept of a transcendental and universal God is not a concern of the Torah.

This God who is moved becomes a mover of events. This God becomes a character in the story. This God is not the still and blissful ground of being, nor the absolute absence of desire. This God gets angry and even violent. This God takes sides. This God is on the side of the Israelites and not on the side of the Egyptians. This God is on the side of the suffering and the poor, and not on the side of the healthy, wealthy, and wise.

You might have heard of Liberation Theology. It arose in Latin America, when some Roman Catholic theologians said that the Gospel requires not just mercy for the poor but liberation, and justice, and that justice meant judgment on those in power. The Liberation Theologians were condemned by Rome as Communists, but they appealed to the story of the Exodus, wherein God took the side of the poor against the government oppressing them. The liberation of some means the judgment of others, because if God is for, then God is also against, and against not just individual sin.

I may tell you that it’s now part of the official doctrine of the Reformed Church in America that God is "in a special way the God of the poor and the oppressed," and that the church is called to bear witness against any system of political economy that keeps people poor and or even unintentionally oppresses them. This became part of our official doctrine recently when we adopted the Belhar Confession from South Africa, a Confession against the political and economic system of Apartheid.

The Belhar Confession does not say that the church should advocate for any one system of political economy, but that to every system of political economy the church bears witness to the judgments of God, including the church’s own complicity with such systems. We accept the judgment on ourselves. The point is not to blame, but to bear witness to what God says and what God wants.

Now let’s move to our gospel lesson. I believe the story opens with a misunderstanding. Some people are warning Jesus because they assume he wants to lead a revolution of liberation from the Romans, and the last time any Galileans tried that, they were gruesomely punished by Pontius Pilate, and God did not protect them. So God must have been against them—they must have been sinners.

Jesus does not speak to their concern about his supposed revolution. They don’t get him. But they don’t get God either, and that’s what Jesus speaks to. Don’t blame God for what happened to those patriots. This is just what the Romans do, and they’ll do it to you too if you act like that. Don’t blame God for that tower falling down upon those pilgrims. Towers poorly constructed fall down.

God does not stop the world from being the world. The Romans are a problem, but if you think the Romans are the real problem, if you think that God’s whole purpose in the world is your political independence, then you’re going to be disappointed when God does not support your war of independence and you end up losing everything, even the Temple, and even Jerusalem itself. As it turns out they did two generations later.

Yes, there is a judgment here, a judgment from the Lord Jesus. Only it’s not against them whom we regard as enemies, but against us who are God’s people. Well, it’s Lent, and God’s judgment on us is indicated. This is the season of self-examination. Don’t get distracted by blaming others for your troubles, it’s time to look at yourself. The love of God is not the indulgence of God. God is your lover but not your accomplice. So this is necessary information—the judgment in our lessons for today. Lent is the season when we welcome unwelcome information.

This information is what St. Paul in our epistle means by “testing.” The testing that God sends us is not by means of God sending us troubles and suffering. If God did that in the Old Testament, that’s come to an end in Jesus Christ. So if you get sick, that is not God testing you. That is simply your having a physical body and sharing a world with bacteria and viruses, or sharing a country with people who have guns and use them. You can be a very good person and get sick, or have troubles social and emotional, and likewise you can be an unbeliever with a very nice charmed life.

These are not rewards from God or punishments, and you are not told why things happen to you the way they do, even though some Christians are always trying to identify such and such as God’s will. My father never did. Your troubles are not God testing you. The testing that God sends you is quite simply the information in God’s word: This is what God expects, this is what God prefers, this is what God intends for you, and how do you stand up? You are to live in peace. You are to love your neighbor as yourself. How do you respond?

For in the very testing is the invitation. That’s what St. Paul means by “the way out” that God always provides. That’s why God offers you the information. It is an offering. The judgments of God are not punishments but challenges, and they are open-ended. Listen to the gardener in the parable: “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it.” And you know what manure is. I will not say it here. The word in Greek means a four-letter word in English, and I don’t mean “poop.” It’s the word as in, “blank happens.”

God will not spare you from the blank that happens, God allows it. But the gardener digs around you and gives you space. For another year. And in the strange and gracious calendar of the Bible, it’s always one more year, God always gives you one more year no matter how many years you have wasted, it’s always Today. God is always gracious. The invitation never fails no matter how often you refuse it.

I don’t have a take-home for you today except to encourage you to your Lenten repentance. And you can repent in full security. Because while God does judge what God never does is blame you. God doesn’t need to. We resort to blame when things go bad, we blame to try to get excused. God never resorts to blame when things go bad, God never needs to be excused, what God does is enter into the badness and accept it on God’s self. Why would you blame if you’re a fountain of constant and overflowing love?

You can repent in full safety and security because God is on your side, God is never against you even in the judgment. This is the God who is totally free but always faithful, the God who can never be captured but is never capricious, the God who can’t be confined by even the most exalted philosophy of religion but who is captured by the crying of the slaves, the Son of Man whom you will find among the prisoners, and the Son of God who takes his place among the poor.

This God is as free as light and as constant as light. This God is fully free of you but always faithful to you, and the combination of such absolute freedom and absolute fidelity is what we mean by Love. Freedom and fidelity together equal love. The reason that you repent in Lent is to open yourself fully to God’s love.

Copyright © 2016, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

February 14, Lent 1: Will The Real Jesus Stand Up #1: Saying Yes and No

Deuteronomy 26:1-11, Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16, Romans 10:8b-13, Luke 4:1-13

“When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.” That opportune time was three years later, in Jerusalem, just before Jesus died, when Satan entered into Judas Iscariot, and got him to betray Jesus to his death. Of course this was a pyrrhic victory for Satan, who won the battle but lost the war, and Jesus ended up with better versions of the second and third things that Satan had tempted him with, and without Satan’s fingerprints on them.

I doubt that Satan ever understood Jesus. I doubt he ever understood God. We can’t know, because the Bible assumes the devil but never explains him. We do know that the devil of the Bible is not the familiar devil of the movies (except for Jesus of Montreal). He’s not the source of evil in the world, and he thinks he’s not a bad guy, but just very realistic.

He’s the Satan of the Book of Job, not from hell but in the air, an angelic power out of whack, like one of the pagan gods and goddesses. He stands for the kinds of salvation offered by the gods and goddesses, the salvations we humans project onto the gods we imagine. The rub is that these false salvations have powerful, hidden interests defending them, which is why Satan opposes Jesus, just as the Judean and Roman powers opposed him in Jerusalem.

Jesus has to choose among these typical salvations. He’s got to sort out how to be the Son of God, and chart his course. Satan’s temptations are real live options. The Lord Jesus must have considered them and even been drawn to them. Every one of them could be good, and Satan can give proof texts from the Bible.

The third temptation is a Biblical promise. The second temptation has Biblical precedent, when the prophet told the king of Judah to stop trying to be independent and just bow down before the emperor of Babylon. As for the first temptation, did not Jesus, soon after this, feed 5000 people with miraculous bread? Such tempting options are stronger in times of need and desperation, like during forty days of fasting in the desert. This is boot camp for Jesus, and the drill sergeant is Satan.

Three times Our Lord says no. Not that, not that, not that. Well, he doesn’t say it that way, No, he says it rather in terms of what he believes. He says out loud what he believes in his heart. Like it says in our epistle: “Believe with your heart and confess with your mouth and you will be saved.” 

This being-saved is not about knowing the password to get you into heaven. This is about keeping safe, making it through, getting through it, staying on course—and often you have to talk to yourself out loud to do it. Even Our Lord had to say it out loud. You have to say out loud what’s in your heart.

I want to introduce here one of the Christian disciplines, the Christian practice of saying Yes and saying No. Learning to say Yes and No is practicing your Christian faith. Yes to this, and No to that. You can say No when you need to by saying Yes to what you believe, as the Lord Jesus did to Satan, and the reason you say No is to be able to say Yes when you need to, as the Lord Jesus did with his life. Saying No is not an end in itself—the goal is saying Yes, but in order to say Yes, you have to say No along the way. This is my take home for today, you must practice saying Yes and No.

This is why you give up things for Lent. You practice saying No. You practice by saying No to something innocent and good, in order to be able to say No to something mixed of bad and good. It’s not hard to say No to things that are clearly bad, but how about things that are partly good, or seem realistic, or when the perfect seems the enemy of the good. Like what Our Lord was tempted with. You practice it by saying No to things that are innocent. Like fasting or giving up things for Lent.

The danger in this is treating your abstinence as an act of righteousness. The danger of legalism. Do you know why you never take one Baptist fishing, but always two? If you take one, he’ll smoke all your cigarettes and drink all your beer, but if you take two, neither will touch the stuff.

Some years ago I was a delegate to our General Synod in Pella, Iowa, which is like a Salt Lake City for the Dutch Reformed. The sessions were tedious, and one of our New York delegates said, “Let’s take a break, I have a pack of smokes.” But the campus is smoke-free, and surrounded by pristine houses with perfect yards, so we walked downtown. We passed through a line of churches in a row: First Christian Reformed, First Reformed, Second Reformed, Second Christian Reformed, honest. We got to the town square, with its benches, and flowers, and a tall, blond girl cutting the grass. We asked her if it was legal to smoke there. She looked surprised. She said, “I don’t know if it’s legal, but somebody might see you!”

The risk of saying No is works-righteousness and judgmentalism. Legal codes of what is right and wrong, and then a righteousness of not making any mistakes, or not in public. But the point of saying No is only in order to say a more important Yes. That’s always what Our Lord Jesus did.

I don’t know how this sermon series for Lent is going to evolve. It may turn towards Christian practices, though I had planned it differently. I was aiming at the current uses of the name of Jesus. Like in politics. America is proving unable to keep religion out of politics, and maybe it’s impossible.

Whether it’s the fear of Muslims or just some of them, or why to support the State of Israel, or whether the USA is a Christian nation or not, or which presidential candidate represents Christian values, would the real Jesus Christ please stand up? How shall we represent him to the world?

We say No to tying him to any political movement, because we believe he judges all of them.

We say No to claiming him for any nation, because we believe he is sovereign over all of them.

We say No to claiming him for any economic system, because he calls all of them to repentance.

We say No to claiming him for our theology, because he’s always forgiving the sin of the church.

We say No to claiming him for my judging you, because we believe that we live by grace alone.

We say No to claiming his power for our own health and prosperity, because we believe in our hearts and confess with our mouths that is in dying that we are born into eternal life.

We’d often rather not say Yes or No. It is safer to say Maybe, or I don’t know, or I’ll get back to you. It’s costly and risky to say Yes or No. You get pigeonholed, you get tracked down and you get caught in it. You have to put your money down, or your cards down, or your foot down, and that can make you vulnerable.

And you make mistakes. You say No to what it is actually okay and you say Yes to what you shouldn’t. So, you confess your sins and keep moving on. And if someone else condemns you, just say No to their condemnation. Because you believe in your heart that Yes that your Lord Jesus says to you. As the epistle says, “No one that believes in him will be to shame.”

You speak out loud to remind yourself. You recite the psalms and prayers and canticles in order to renew yourself. You confess with your mouth in order to strengthen the belief in your heart. You are given your mouth, this very same mouth that other mammals have, you are given your mouth connected to your special human mind in order to do this uniquely human thing of forming words in your minds and speaking those words out through your mouths. You speak out your praise and thanks to God and you thank your neighbors and encourage them; you raise your voices in the congregation to sing to God and to sing of the wonder of the world and of its grief and lamentation; and you speak out loud to encourage yourself. You say, “No, no, no,” and “Yes, yes, yes,” as much for yourself as for anyone else, if only to reinforce your heart in your belief.

Notice it doesn’t say that you believe with your mind. Yes, you engage your mind in your belief, but your mind is not the seat of your belief. Your mind interprets and measures your belief, but the seat of your belief is deeper than your mind, it’s in your heart, where your mind and your emotions come together. Belief is seated in your heart because that’s where love is.

Do you believe in the love of God? Do you trust the love of God? The three temptations of the Lord Jesus were testing how far could he trust the love for him of God his Father. God’s love is the target and the source of your belief. The Love of God is the most important guide for when you say Yes and when you say No. And God’s love to you is always Yes.

Copyright © 2016 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Sunday, February 07, 2016

February 7, Transfiguration, Worldview #5, What Christ is For

Exodus 34:29-35, Psalm 99, 2 Corinthians 3:12–4:2, Luke 9:28-43a

It is opportune that we baptize Sophia Tynes Chandler on this Sunday of the Transfiguration, and that’s because of the connection between the baptism of Jesus and his transfiguration. In the Gospel of Luke, the transfiguration is in part a confirmation of Jesus’ baptism.

In Luke, there are two times that Jesus hears God’s voice out loud. The first was down at the Jordan River, deep down in the Jordan valley, way below sea level, the lowest point in the land mass of Asia, when God said, “You are my son, my beloved, in you I am well-pleased,” and the second is way up here on the highest mountain in Palestine, when God says, “This is my son, my chosen, listen to him.”

Luke describes the transfiguration with details that differ from those in both Matthew and Mark. We should expect some differences for something which is both mystery and history. As a mystery it calls to us from beyond our full and final comprehension. As history the event has real details that are rich and textured and suggestive in their meanings, and these many meanings are brought out in the various details offered by the three gospel writers, which is what historians do.

Only Luke says that the clothes of Jesus became “dazzling white.” The word “dazzling” derives from the word for lightning, and Luke uses the same word fifteen chapters later at the resurrection, for the dazzling apparel of the two men in the empty tomb. Luke calls them men, not angels. Their apparel is the clothing of the people of the resurrection, the inhabitants of the world to come, folks like us, but already on the other side of death.

They are baptismal robes, the garb of the citizens of the new Jerusalem, and the Lord Jesus is the first to wear one as the firstborn of the new creation. So Luke changes the word “transfiguration,” as in Matthew and Mark, to “transformation,” because what happened to him is for you as well, it’s a glimpse and promise of your own transformation too.

Luke is the only one to tell us what Moses and Elijah spoke to Jesus about. They were speaking of his “departure”. Literally, in the Greek, his exodus. What else would Moses talk about? Elijah could tell Jesus how lonely his pilgrimage would be, even while he was among his people, and Moses could tell Jesus that he must end alone, just him and God.

Which the second half of our lesson confirms. When he came down the mountain he walked into this scene of a suffering son and a suffering father, and his disciples all standing around with their hands in their pockets, looking silly and feeling worse. “We couldn’t do anything.” As Casey Stengel said about the Mets: “Can’t anybody here play this game?”

What Jesus can see in this tableau is an image of his own impending experience: himself a son, the son of God, seized and abused by the demonic hands of death, and his Father watching on and suffering with him. His glory would be through his death. And he’d have to see it through alone, abandoned by his friends.

You understand why Jesus never married. His mission would be unfair to any wife or children. Moses married, but not Elijah. The disciples married, but not John the Baptist. We have to take care when we hold up Biblical characters as models for our Christian lives. It will not do to say, as many do, that you should be like Jesus. There are things he did that you should not do, because he was something you are not. And yet he is for us, the firstborn of a new human race, the pioneer of a sudden evolution of our species, a transformation, a species into which we baptize Sophia today.

He embodied something new for us. I spoke to you last week of the three kinds of loves in the Bible. The first two, eros and philia, are erotic love for spouses and familial love for everything else: parents and children and siblings and your home and native land. These two loves are natural and based on feelings, and we share them even with animals in their own way. The third love, agape, is the love that comes from God, and it’s not based on feelings but on words and commitments, on promises and prophecies, and on God’s standing invitation in God’s Holy Word.

I said that human beings are the animals that evolved the unique capacities of mind and speech in order to be able to receive this invitation from God and answer back, “I will”—the species that evolved to recognize this third kind of love and practice it. This love is not known from nature, even though the first two loves anticipate it and are often used as metaphors for it. To get this third kind of love, you have to take it on God’s word.

What I did not mention last week is what you know, that these loves sometimes contradict and even conflict. You love your neighbor as yourself and you hurt the feelings of your family. You love your enemy and you hurt the feelings of your tribe and nation. You know: if the enemy of my enemy is my friend, so any friend of my enemy becomes my enemy. The expectations and temptations of natural love often make it difficult and even impossible fully to practice God’s love.

This is what Christ is for. Here is a real live human being who embodies both loves without contradiction, who practices both loves fully and simultaneously. He is fully God, so that he fully bears the love of God, and he is fully man, so that he fully feels the love of family, friends, and nation. And yet he does them both.

He is the new model of humanity, the firstborn of our species with a new capacity of humanity, the ability to practice the love of God within the real relationships of humankind. We watch him in the gospels and see that he did it. It can be done. That’s the vision, that’s our hope.  Love will be like this in the life of the world to come, when the third kind of love will have fully transformed and reconciled all our other loves.

You cannot bear it yet. You have not yet been resurrected. You don’t yet have the capacity for it—that dazzling light would burn you up. But even in your life now, before your resurrection, you can reflect the light and live within the light. You can already work on transforming all your other natural and human loves by this love from God, even if your efforts are passing and partial. You can already practice at the new humanity, and try again and try again, and model it for others that you know. This the new humanity already on the way into which we are baptizing Sophia today.

Of course you will falter. You will disappoint yourself. Your successes will be compromised. Do not be discouraged. This also is what Christ is for. He is not only the model of what you should be but the savior of what you are, the redeemer of what you have lost. He is the leader up front who also walks behind you to pick you up, and nurse your wounds, and carry you on his back. He bears your wounds upon his body, he bears your scars upon his flesh. He is the image of God and the image of the love of God, he displays in his person that God’s overwhelming attitude is hospitality, generosity, giving you space, having no need of his own, no interest of his own, no pressure of his own, he is the glorious one who builds a dwelling place for you.

Today we baptize the little girl Sophia. Something will happen today that is both mystery and history. A real and visible event will happen today in time and space, and as certainly as you see that, so certainly is there an invisible reality in eternity. Her baptism will hold her in her relationship with God until her final resurrection, her full and final transformation.

In the meantime she can learn to love the wisdom of God. That’s what her name Sophia means, wisdom, as in hagia sophia, holy wisdom, the wisdom of God, specifically, the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit. We baptize the Holy Spirit onto her just as we baptize her into Christ. We baptize her into the object and image of God’s love, and we baptize onto her the energy and presence of God’s love. And here is what God says today in love: “This Sophia is my daughter, my chosen one, you listen to her.”

Copyright © 2016, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.