Saturday, July 09, 2016

July 10, Proper 10, Prophecy 5: Amos and Amaziah

Amos 7:1-7 and Colossians 1:1-14

For the next few months our Old Testament lessons will come from the books of the prophets: Amos, Hosea, Joel, Isaiah, and Jeremiah. Prophecy is a big deal in the Bible. So how do we apply it to ourselves today? How are we supposed to be prophetic? Thus, this sermon series on prophecy, and today is number 5. I was asked to review what we’ve learned so far, so here is a quick summary.

The first week we read about Elijah against King Ahab. I said that a prophet speaks against the normal way of things and contests the conventional wisdom. Prophets are thus not welcomed by the powerful and by those who benefit from the normal way of things. I also said that a prophetic church begins with self-examination, judging ourselves before we judge others. This self-examination is liberating because it frees us from our presumptions, pride, and prejudice.

The second week I said that the church is prophetic when it does what no other human institution does, and that is to discern, describe, and celebrate that alternate reality of the world that is the Kingdom of God, and to offer windows and icons for people to see into it. So we should not get distracted by every issue of the day. We witness to the alternate reality of the sovereignty of God behind the scenes, and we speak with joy and wonder of all of its vast claims on ordinary life.

The third week I said that the Holy Spirit within you is who enables you to be prophetic. The Spirit empowers you to see into that alternate reality and to tell out what you see. I also said that when we’re prophetic we have a double relationship with the world. We discredit the powers of the world and we dispute their pretensions and we grieve what they do, but we do not despair, because we live by hope. The alternate reality is for the world, and the Holy Spirit is the Lord and Giver of life to this world, and our hope is nourished by the Holy Spirit pouring God’s love into our hearts.

Last week I said that Biblical prophecy is always an invitation, and not some oracle of fate or destiny. I said that God respects your human freedom, even though God is absolutely sovereign, and God’s message invites your free response. I said that to accept the invitation usually includes some kind of repentance, but repentance is that liberation. I also said that it’s wrong to seek worldly power in order to enforce the sovereignty of God, but you witness to it by your deeds of loving service. I said that prophecy can be communal, a team effort, with each of you playing your parts, and your simple deeds of feeding and shelter are windows and icons into that alternate reality.

And now, today, is Amos. The prophet Amos marks the third stage in the evolution of prophecy in the Bible. The primitive prophets always worked in groups, with song and dance, and probably ecstatically. They spoke for the moment, and we have no record of what they said. Then came the solo prophets, Elijah and Elisha and others too, speaking truth to power and doing miracles. We have the record of their words and deeds in the books of First and Second Kings and Chronicles.

Today we get the third stage in the evolution, the writing prophets. Their sermons, poems, and visions were recorded in the books that bear their names, along with their trials and troubles. It is from these that we will be reading in the coming months. Some of them left a lot of material, and we call them the Major Prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel. The others we call the Minor Prophets because their books are shorter, but not less important. Among the first of these writing prophets was Amos. He was a farmer from the southern Israelite kingdom of Judah.

We just read from the seventh chapter of Amos. He has come up to the northern kingdom of Israel to prophesy against it. Next Sunday, the eighth chapter will tell you why God was against it. I’ll say today that King Jeroboam II presided over military expansion and economic prosperity, but on the backs of the lower classes and the orphans and widows. The rich were getting richer but the poor were getting poorer. That’s the judgment you will hear next week.

In the first six chapters the prophecies were conditional. But they went unheeded, and with this seventh chapter it’s too late, and God has condemned the northern kingdom to destruction by the Empire of Assyria. The royal temple at Bethel will be demolished, and the population will be carried off as exiles into far off lands. So we can say that Amos is reinforcing what we saw with Elijah, that the prophet speaks truth to power, first by invitation, and then by condemnation.

What we also see today is that the prophet speaks his truth to religious power, and especially to establishment religious power. It’s easy enough for the church to criticize politicians, you don’t need the Holy Spirit to do that. It’s both more difficult and more needful to prophesy against religious power.

This is what the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did in his Letter from the Birmingham Jail. He wrote it not to politicians but to religious leaders who were telling him to behave.

This is how our own Reformed Church in America finally responded to apartheid in South Africa. For years we had followed other Americans in opposing apartheid as a political issue, but in 1982 the “Black” Reformed churches in South Africa asked us to speak against apartheid as a gospel issue, and to witness against the white Dutch Reformed Church, which had invented apartheid as church policy, and then afterward had taught it to the government. So the point was to prophesy against the religious and spiritual power of racial injustice which was rooted in the church. The means of this prophecy was a  faith statement called the Belhar Confession, which our own Reformed Church eventually adopted.

Right now our nation is extremely prosperous but the poor are getting poorer, and bitterness, hatred, fear, and violence are rising in our land. It’s awful. Baton Rouge, St. Paul, Minnesota, Dallas. What will it be this week? It’s terrible. What do we say? What do we do?

It seems to me that for the church to be prophetic here we have to discern the spiritual power of the violence and the religious powers behind the politics. I wish I knew what the answers are. I do know this: for the church to be prophetic now, we must witness to the religious and spiritual issues behind the violence, fear, and greed. And coming full circle, that must include our own prophetic self-examination. How are we complicit? What do we fear? What costs are we afraid to pay, especially to our wealth and security?

But our voice is so weak and our witness is so small. Well yes, and no, and that brings me to my second learning today about prophecy, which can give us hope. It is this: prophecy seems extreme and hyperbolic and extravagant, but no less it is true.

I want you to notice the language of St. Paul in the Epistle to the Colossians. First he seems to exaggerate when he writes that the gospel “is bearing fruit and growing in the whole world.” At that time there were maybe a couple thousand believers scattered in what, maybe fifty congregations, and he writes “the whole world.” Extravagant confidence and hyperbolic hope! “Other-worldly hope,” as one of you here has written.

And then St. Paul writes about this little congregation in Colosse as if they were the greatest group of saints ever, and with a future most magnificent! The congregation will have read this letter and thought, “Who, us?” Yes you!

What looks like hyperbole and sounds like extravagance is the natural idiom of prophecy. Your window may be small, but you can see mountains through it. Your icon can be miniature, but it links you to a whole vast world. The prophet sees the great things in the small, in the little girl the future saint, and in the committee meetings of a church you can even see the Kingdom of God.

To be prophetic means to develop your prophetic imagination (Brueggemann), and I mean imagination as a precious gift of God to the human species, as God has imagined us, and we are in God’s image.

And so, beloved congregation of Old First Church, to be a prophetic church you must have a double vision of yourselves, in both self-examination and prophetic imagination: in admitting you have not loved as you should love nor spoken as you should speak, and no less regarding yourselves as St. Paul would, as the greatest group of saints ever, as God regards you in God’s grace.

And that is true for each of you individually. When I look at you all, you know what I see? I wish I had a lovelier metaphor, but I imagine each one of you as a glass vessel, filled with the vapor that is your soul, and your soul is lit up like the vapor in a light bulb, your soul is lit up with the energy of the love of God. That’s what I see when I look at you, I see the energy of the love of God in you.

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

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

Proper 10, The Bad Samaritan

This is a sermon that I preached twelve years ago. It's my take on the parable of the Samaritan. For my interpretation, I must credit Kenneth E. Bailey's marvelous book on the parables, Through Peasant Eyes.

On the edge of the road is the victim, stripped naked, bloody, dying. A priest comes by. He’s going home. He’s just done his two-week’s service in the temple. He sees the body, and he keeps far away. He’s not a bad guy; he’s just keeping the rules.

According to the Torah, in the book of Leviticus, a priest touching a dead body makes himself unclean, and then he can’t perform his priestly duties. Getting clean again means going back up to Jerusalem for a week of special rituals, and he’d have to buy a heifer to sacrifice, which is not cheap, etc. etc. If God wanted priests to go around helping half-dead people, why would Leviticus have those rules? God wants priests to have good boundaries and keep themselves unspotted.

A Levite comes by. He too has just finished his two week’s service in the temple. He too goes by. The rules for Levites are not as strict as for priests, not in Leviticus. But under the pharisees the rules were getting stricter, and the laws for priests were being applied to everyone. These were the laws that this young lawyer was trained to be an expert in. The opinion was that if God didn’t want priests to touch dead bodies, then it must be bad for Levites too.

But at least the Levite first takes a closer look. The victim is stripped naked, so you can’t tell by his clothing whether he’s Judean or Galilean or Nabatean or something else—where he’s from, and his rank and class. Such categories mean everything, even today in Brooklyn. It’s how you know who is responsible for him.

Because also in Leviticus, there is a verse that says you should love your neighbor as yourself. That means responsibility. And who is your neighbor? The meaning of neighbor-ness, neighbor-hood, was debated, but there was consensus that it was someone close to you, connected to you, of your own group, and of your own religion. You can’t be responsible for everyone. Mutual responsibilities were all worked out.

The Levite is not a bad guy. He’s just doing what we do every day. From what he could see he had no connection to this guy. And because he’s only a Levite instead of a priest, he doesn’t have a horse, so how’s he going to get the guy anywhere? What’s he supposed to do, sit and wait for some other person with a horse to come along, and help them both? There’s nothing he can do.

A Samaritan comes by. By definition, a Bad Samaritan. For Judeans, there was no such thing as a Good Samaritan. They were worse than Gentiles, they were the hated half-breed heretics who occupied some of the Promised Land. There were Jewish prayers that God would destroy the Samaritans. The only good Samaritan is a dead Samaritan. It’s quite a button that the Lord Jesus is pushing here.

He lays it on thick. He has the Samaritan anoint the victim with oil and wine. Specifically priestly and Levitical things to do. The Samaritan offers the ministry that the priest and Levite would not do because of the regulations of their ministry. You sense the judgment of Jesus here. Not against his native religion, per se, but on how his native religion was developing, so that it didn’t do the very thing it was supposed to do. But with the judgment there’s also an invitation.

At the end of the parable Jesus turns the definition of neighbor in Leviticus 180 degrees around. It’s subtle–you almost miss it. The neighbor in question is not the victim, but the Samaritan. Jesus is redefining neighbor-hood. Neighborhood is not a state nor a status, it is an action. Neighborhood is not a matter of your adjacency, but your activity. You are the neighbor of every next person that you meet. Your neighborhood is what you bring with you. You are always in your neighborhood. You demonstrate your neighborhood by loving every next person you encounter.

There is also something deeper here. Notice that in the young lawyer’s summary of the law, the verb “to love” is given only once. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” It is a single act of love. There is no division here between the vertical and the horizontal. It is a single act of love. It’s not like you love God, and you also love your neighbor. Rather, your love of God is exercised in how you love your neighbor. And if you bring your neighborhood with you, that means you must regard every next person you meet as standing for God.

You find it impossible to love every next person that you meet. You find it impossible to love God that much, with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength and all your mind. But the God whom you love incompletely loves you back completely. Absolutely. And this love of God can flow through you. God loves your neighbor through you. You pour on your neighbor the oil and wine. You give your neighbor a place of rest. And God has worked through you.

It’s not your love you love your neighbor with, it is the love of God for you that you love your neighbor with. You love God so that God might love the world through you. You love your neighbors so that they might know the love of God through you, and that by loving you they too might love God back.

Now, what does this have to do with eternal life, which is how the lawyer got the whole discussion going? Let me tell you a story. I have been trying to develop contacts among the Muslims of Brooklyn. I had gotten the name of an Imam who heads a Bangladeshi mosque on McDonald Ave. So last Monday I called him and asked to meet him and maybe have an interview. He has a full time job with the Transit Authority, but he could see me after his sermon on Friday, at 2:30. That’s my day off, but I agreed.

So on Friday, two days ago, my daughter Anni and I did a cycling trip around Manhattan. It was already 1:45 by the time we got back to Brooklyn. I suggested I ride straight to the mosque. Anni had planned to join me, but she said she wanted to shower first and change her clothes. So that’s what we did, and I’m so glad I took her advice.

We got to the mosque ten minutes late, and waiting for us was not just the Imam, but ten of the leaders of the Bangladeshi community of Brooklyn. They welcomed us into their mosque, and then they took us to dinner at a Bangladeshi restaurant, and we ate biryani and talked and drank tea and talked. Some of the people of their community were suffering under the Patriot Act, they are being rounded up and deported, which is what I was interested in, but what these people wanted to talk about was Christianity, and the church, and the Bible. It was a wonderful afternoon, and they were so grateful to us that we had cared to come to them and visit them.

What does this have to do with eternal life? As we sat there among them, I did not feel at all that it was my job to convert them to Christianity. And I did not feel that by not doing so I was letting down the Lordship of Jesus Christ. It was my job, as a servant of the Lord Jesus, to cross the road, and look at them, and love them, and come to them where they were, and sit with them, and eat their food, and share with them the love of God that I feel in me. This is the love that is stronger than death, this is the love that overcomes the world, this is the life of the world to come. This is eternal life, and already we can live in it.

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

Saturday, July 02, 2016

July 3, Proper 9, Prophecy 4: Elisha, Naaman, and the Slave Girl

2 Kings 5:1-14, Psalm 30, Gal 6:1-16, Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

Totalitarian regimes like Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia were able to compel the obedience of their people and destroy their freedom and even control their minds. They were like wolves in the midst of lambs. But for all their evident power, they were not able to cure the sick, nor tread on snakes and scorpions, nor did the spirits submit to them.

By contrast, when the Kingdom of God came near, the seventy missionaries were able to cure the sick and tread on snakes and scorpions and the spirits submitted to them and even Satan fell from heaven, yet they did not compel obedience nor cancel human freedom. They did not force themselves. The Kingdom of God, unlike most authorities, unlike even the Internal Revenue Service, both claims full sovereignty and yet gives people the freedom to accept it or reject it.

The gift of freedom to accept it or reject is often misunderstood as the Kingdom of God not claiming full sovereignty over all our lives, as if it’s only a private, personal thing. Rather, the Kingdom of God claims relevance over every single aspect of human life and culture, and yet it is so patient and so confident that it will not enforce its claims. This has to do with Love being at the center of it, and with the cross of Jesus being the emblem of its authority.

It wasn’t new with Jesus. Already in the Torah and the prophets we are faced with this constant contradiction and apparent paradox of the absolute sovereignty of God and the responsible freedom of human beings. Like, with personal salvation, does God predestine, or do you have free will? Both. Do not let the one overrule the other. Reformed theology, for example, makes the impossible claim that your free will is true and real but in no way does it condition the absolute sovereignty of God.

You see this in the story of Naaman in our first lesson. Naaman was a great man, and a big deal. Naaman was a general of the Arameans, also called the Syrians. The Syrians were the enemies of Israel and the Syrians kept defeating Israel while Naaman was their general. According to our story, this was because God was judging Israel and using Naaman to do it, though Naaman did not know it. God’s sovereign use of him did not contradict his being forceful and able to compel his enemies to submission. Naaman knew the ordinary way of power and of gods and goddesses. So it’s no wonder that he expected Elisha to heal him in that way, that Elisha would “come out of his house, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy.”

But Elisha won’t even come out. I guess he’s doing his crossword puzzle. Elisha does nothing to honor the prestige of this great man. He just sends out his message, and Naaman can take it or leave it. It’s up to Naaman now. Naaman has free will here, and his choice is up against the sovereignty of God, only this sovereignty works by invitation rather than compulsion.

There’s something about the nature of prophecy here, Biblical prophecy, compared to the oracles of other ancient cultures. In the other cultures, the gods and goddesses had their own lives and their squabbles and their sexual escapades, and they expected humans to serve them, but they were not ethically committed to humanity. The gods had many powers, but they themselves were subordinate to the greater power of Nature capital N, and Fate capital F, and Destiny capital D. So whenever the future was predicted by their oracles, the prediction was fated to be no matter what you did. Think of Oedipus, whose very attempt to avoid his fate was finally what caused his fate.

But Biblical prophecy is different, because God’s relationship to the world is absolutely different from the other ancient gods. God is not subject to Nature, nor Fate, nor Destiny. God is absolutely free within the world, but also absolutely ethical. God loves the world, and God is committed to humanity. So God while is absolutely sovereign in the world, God also gives us freedom and respects our freedom. And therefore Biblical prophecy is almost always an invitation.

What Biblical prophets say is this: “God has done this, so you should do that.” They say, “God is doing this, so why don’t you join in.” And they say, “Because God has done so and so, if you also do so and so you will get this, but if instead you do such and such you will get that.” When Biblical prophecy talks about the future, it’s not about what is fated to be, but about what God is doing, how God will act in fidelity to God’s nature and to God’s promises and to what God has already done.

And the prophet invites us to join in with God is doing, but our joining in requires our repentance, symbolized by washing. So it’s a typically prophetic thing for Elisha to give his healing message to Naaman: Here’s the offer, Naaman, take or leave it, it’s up to you.

Naaman is enraged. If not for his servants, he would have left unhealed. So actually he was not free, not from the slavery of his own pride and self-regard, nor from subservience to normal religion and its expectations of how a god should work. This is the second time he had his servants to thank, for it was the little slave girl who got the whole thing started at the beginning. She knew there was a prophet in Israel, even if the King of Israel did not. The judgments in this story are all ironic ones.

The relationship of God with us is often ironic. God loves us but is not impressed by us. God esteems us but knows that we are foolish. God gives us freedom but has no illusions on our use of it. So if we are wise to recognize the lavish grace of God within our lives, we can only echo the words of St. Paul in our epistle today, “May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”

This is important because of the other great irony in the story, that this God who claimed such sovereignty was willing to be the national God of a two-bit nation which kept losing battles! And a nation unfaithful and disloyal to God at that. Like why should we even believe in such a God? But God apparently has no pride and self-regard. God ignores the judgment of the world and ignores the world’s respectability. God does not prove Godself to us. God invites.

This story about Naaman is remarkable in that he, this Gentile, is the main character in the story, not Elisha. So the sovereignty of God and the grace of God extend beyond the boundaries of God’s people, in fact, even to an enemy of God’s people, and thus implicitly in judgment on God’s people. The reaction of the King of Israel shows this, who ends up being unable to receive the lavish gifts from the King of Aram because he had so written off the prophet who could have been assisting him. “You reap whatever you sow.” You are free, but not from your consequences! By contrast, the slave girl, even in her captivity, knows better and bears witness to the better Israel, its alternate reality.

Naaman has to get down very low to receive this prophecy. He has to dishonor himself before his retinue by stripping naked in front them. He will have to expose to them his leprosy. He servants will avert their eyes. But they’ll sneak their peeks the fourth, fifth, and sixth times he comes up out of the water to see if anything’s happened yet. When he comes up the seventh time he doesn’t care, they can look all they want at his clean skin. He’s free now, as free as a naked little boy. Freedom means risk and vulnerability. And to receive the invitation requires repentance. Indeed, repentance is a form of freedom! Then I am crucified to all the world, and all the world to me.

Did you notice that the prophecy in this story is a three-point play? It goes from the slave girl to the prophet to the servants. If not for the servants, Naaman would not have heeded Elisha, and if not for the slave girl, he never even would have come. They each had their own things to say. So then prophecy can be a communal thing, with each of us playing our parts according to our station.

This is for us. On the one hand, as I said in my second sermon in this series, the church is prophetic by always pointing to the alternate reality of the Kingdom of God, by always bearing witness to the total sovereignty of God behind the scenes, and by speaking with joy and wonder of all of its vast claims on ordinary life. But on the other hand the church should never desire to enforce those claims or desire the power of that sovereignty, but rather choose the way of the servants in this story, offering actions of service and healing and peace, even for our supposed enemies. God bless the memory of that slave girl, because she was the perfect expression of God’s love.

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