Wednesday, August 31, 2016

September 4, Proper 18, Prophecy 7: When God Is Unreasonable

Jeremiah 18:1-11, Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17, Philemon 1-21, Luke 14:25-33

These are tough texts, all of them. Not that they don’t all have their logic. In the first reading, from Jeremiah, the metaphor of the potter’s house makes sense enough. The metaphor illustrates the sovereignty of God and the freedom of God, and that God is free to change God’s mind. Not that God is capricious, but that even God’s mind-changes keep steady on God’s own personal standard of righteousness.

Fair enough, but what’s troubling in this is God reserving the right to plan evil against us. That may be reasonable, if God is both sovereign and free, and it does honor human responsibility, but how can such a supposedly loving God plan evil against anyone?

The epistle to Philemon is troubling to people because of what the Apostle Paul does not say. He wrote this letter during one of his times in prison, perhaps in Ephesus. He wrote it to his friend and convert Philemon, a wealthy man, who subsidized the Colossian church and hosted it in his house. Philemon had a slave or two, as was customary then. His slave Onesimus had run away, and ended up with St. Paul, taking care of him in prison. But now St. Paul was sending him back, carrying this letter appealing to Philemon to take his slave back without punishing him, and more, to take him as a brother instead of a slave. St. Paul’s appeal is pushy but reasonable. But his appeal is not on the ground that slavery itself is wrong. That he fails to say that is what has troubled many people.

Then in the Gospel, the Lord Jesus is impossibly unreasonable. He says you have to give up all your possessions. But then won’t you become dependent on someone else who has possessions? Like a Buddhist monk, or even like a slave! The Lord Jesus says you have to hate the members of your family, the very people you’re supposed to love. So you have to abandon your wife and kids  and condemn them to begging and poverty? Does the Lord Jesus mean to scare us off by this?

You want to get close to God, that’s why you’re here, you are drawn to Jesus, you want him to make a difference in your life, but when you get close to him, he turns around and talks like this, that you renounce all your substance and your relationships and all that you hold precious. What you wanted from Jesus was the wisdom to improve your relationships with your family, not to renounce them. What you wanted was the pattern by which to handle your possessions ethically, with good stewardship and generosity, not just throw them away. He doesn’t even allow for you defending your family and property, because if you’re carrying your cross, you can’t take up arms.

The Lord Jesus is very much the prophet here. In Biblical prophecy, the words of a prophet are not meant to be reasonable. The prophet does not offer explanations and does not negotiate. The prophet does not answer your questions, the prophet rather questions everything. No deals are made and no excuses are accepted, no matter how reasonable your particulars may be.

You have noticed that the Bible never explains its claims to the standards of our satisfaction, and that God just does not justify Godself to us. God does not indulge us, and God is not even tolerant. I know it sounds contradictory, that God is both lavishly gracious and yet not tolerant, but God doesn’t care about such contradictions. God never justifies God’s claims, and neither does the prophet.

So the words of the Lord Jesus here show no concern for reasoning with us. There’s no deal to be made, no solution, no synthesis. His words do ripping up and tearing down. He means his words to clear the ground, and he rips out the flowers with the weeds. His words are like the waters of a flood. Water in a lake is lovely and live-giving, but water in a flood carries everything off before it, wrecking everything. So his words push everything aside without regard, indiscriminately. He means his words to trouble us.

So let’s not try to soften these hard sayings of Our Lord. Let’s keep it all hard and challenging, like a big rock right in your pathway that you always have to reckon with. Jesus offers you a constant obstacle, a persistent problem that you cannot solve. This is a problem you have to live with all your life. You have to keep facing it again and again, and examine yourself, even judge yourself. All your good convincing reasons that you need this thing, or that connection, or this arrangement, to all those reasons the Lord Jesus says, Really? Over and over again, ever more drily: Really?

Don’t bother trying to reason it through with God. God is not convinced. God places no value on our affluence. God has no interest in protecting our possessions for us, or of getting us more of them. That’s not what God does for you. God’s opinion about our possessions is right here in Luke 14. We have to keep coming back to that. We have to keep returning to the sober realization that the Christian life requires loss as much as gain.

It will cost you. Especially if you work for justice and righteousness in this world that is biased towards injustice and ungodliness. You might feel like you are losing, not winning. In this world, to accomplish any real change requires you to sacrifice, maybe even your life. That has to be troubling. A commander of an army has to keep fighting the battle even at the cost of casualties and death among his soldiers. There’s no way that’s not troubling.

That’s what Our Lord means by you carrying your cross. Remember that at this point in time the cross was not yet the religious symbol of Christianity. It was a symbol of Roman oppression and vindictiveness. It was a negative symbol of pain and loss. To carry your cross means that even in the midst of pain and loss you still follow Christ, that you stay faithful to God even in the midst of suffering and tragedy (Calvin). The cost of discipleship. Christians are expected to stretch towards devotion and obedience. It’s discipline. It’s medicine—but not a drug! It’s actually power.

Because, ironically, though Jesus died on a cross he never surrendered. He continued to say exactly what he wanted and do exactly as he willed. In that sense they had no power over him. He was free to the end, though he knew it would cost him. That was his power. So this is the gospel question underneath all his troubling words: How much do you want to be free?

I once had a parishioner whose husband treated her badly. She put up with it, and always said, “He is my cross to bear.” You hear Christians say that. But that’s not right. She was bearing her husband’s cross, but she’s supposed to be bearing her own. As long as she was carrying his, he didn’t have to, and she was diverted from her own. The possession she had to give up was her marriage to that man. If she had done that, all her family would have reviled her. Her husband’s family, yes, but her own family too. They would have accused her of disloyalty and selfishness.

That’s what Jesus means when he says you have to hate your father and mother: he doesn’t mean the internal emotion, he means the external reputation, that your family accuses you of not considering them, or of not loving them enough. They act all offended at you, and that can be your cost of discipleship. They may cut you off from their good graces and their sympathy; and that’s when you realize that you have begun to carry your cross.

Also ironically, Jesus did not finish carrying his cross. Simon of Cyrene did that for him. On the other hand, Jesus did die on it. So you don’t have to. Jesus does the dying but not the carrying, you do the carrying but not the dying. His death has virtue for you, to free you from your death. To give you power and freedom. There is a mystery of exchange and substitution here, ransom and replacement.

This mystery has challenged and troubled theologians through the centuries. All explanations falter because it is finally unreasonable. God does not explain it, God only offers it. In the loss is your freedom and your power, and on the cross that power is revealed as love, the great unreasonable love of God for you. “Amazing love, how can it be, that thou my God shouldst die for me.”

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

Thursday, August 04, 2016

August 7, Proper 14: Prophecy 6: What is Faith?

Go to this link for the video of a hymn-sing.

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20, Psalm 50:1-8, 21-24, Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16, Luke 12:32-40

“Fear not little flock, it is my Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom.” To give you the Kingdom. But so often I hear it said that we are supposed to build the kingdom of God. I heard it at General Synod, as a call for Christian action and church planting and investment and even sacrifice. As if not for our efforts the kingdom of God would not get built.

But according to our Epistle to the Hebrews, it’s already built, and not by us. Its builder and maker is God. It’s waiting for us to get to it and it’s God’s good pleasure to give it to us as we approach it, already now, at least its first-fruits.

That does not mean we should be passive. Rather Jesus gives us all these metaphors for being actively alert, actively ready, dressed for action, your lamps lit. Your activity includes putting down those competing things that distract you, setting aside those desirable things that might hinder you, taking off whatever would slow you down, as active as a second baseman or a shortstop, even before the ball is hit.

It’s not your action that brings it, it’s your action that receives it, it is God who brings it. Your receiving it from God is not by means of your good works, not from your trying to build it by good work, but simply through the medium of your faith. You receive it by your faith.

My topic for today is faith. We use that word a lot. How do you know when you have it? What does it feel like? Wow do you know when you are using it? This topic fits nicely into our sermon series on prophecy, because faith is what prophecy asks for in particular. This might not be true in other religions, but it is true of prophecy in the Biblical sense, prophecy as we’ve seen it in this series of sermons, prophecy as the invitation and witness to the alternate reality, prophecy as that collection of images and icons and windows into that alternate reality—this sort of prophecy exactly appeals to faith. The way that you respond to prophecy, to its invitations and it promises, is by faith.

We use faith all the time in many ways. When you drive down a two-lane highway you have faith in the driver of the truck coming toward you that he will not swerve into your lane. It is a fact of life today that we take enormous risks all the time, and we live with more danger and more complexity than people have ever lived before, so that we have constantly to put our faith in people we do not know and in institutions removed from us. You have to live by your faith in many ways all the time.

Faith is found among certain birds and animals, especially those species that mate for life, like loons, or among domesticated animals towards us who are their masters. “Fido” is a dog’s name because it’s Latin for “faithful.” The faith of animals is rooted in affection. That’s true for human beings too, but our species takes it beyond the level of affection to the level of projection. We put faith in promises, in ideas, in images, of the future, in visions of what might be. “I have a dream!” “The arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice!” Human beings are the species that is able to envision the invisible and imagine the insensible. We project, and so we all have to live by faith.

Everybody lives by faith, even if we’re not religious. The question is what we put your faith in, whether science or humanity or reason, or nature, or luck, some worldview, a vision of the world, or maybe some god. These are not mutually exclusive, and we interweave these objects of our faith and prioritize them. What do you have some faith in, what do you have more faith in, and what do you have most faith in? By your prioritization you make your choices in life. Think of the many things that you have faith in. You can tell this by how often you’ve been disappointed. Think of the people you’ve had faith in, and again, how often you’ve been disappointed, whether from their failings or maybe from your own transference. To guide your prioritization is one main function of religion.

According to the Heidelberg Catechism of the Reformed Church, dating from 1563, faith has three things in it: knowledge, conviction, and assurance (Q21). In that order—knowledge, conviction, and assurance—from objective to subjective, from information to emotion, from your head to your heart to your soul.

Faith needs knowledge; to wit: What exactly are the promises? What is being promised here? What’s the vision, what’s the prophecy, what’s the alternate reality by which we can judge the presenting reality? Does it make sense? Does it help to make better sense of everything else? Is it reasonable? 

Your human reason is not to be denied here, and yet your faith must go beyond your reason, because, by definition, faith is what you engage when you go past proof. Faith is precisely for “things hoped for” and for “things not seen.” As in Hebrews 11:1, famously, “Now faith is the assurance of things hope for, the conviction of things not seen.”  That verse is worth your memorizing it, but it’s notoriously difficult to translate, so it’s worth memorizing in several versions. I learned it this way: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Do you catch it? Faith makes its own evidence, so faith is in itself a kind of knowledge.

Then faith moves from knowledge to conviction, from your head into your heart, where it gets personal. To wit: Am I convicted by this prophecy? Does this promise call out to me? What does it demand of me? Can I commit to it? Do I dare? Because, again, by definition, faith responds not to proof but to an invitation. What if I don’t? What do I lose, what do I gain? Will I let it change me? Can I bet my life on it? Dr. King said that you’ve got nothing worth living for if you’ve got nothing worth dying for. Faith has to go from your head to your heart, from knowledge to conviction.

Then your knowledge passes through conviction to assurance. Faith has to go from your head to your heart to your soul. Your soul is the channel of your emotions. You can feel it in your breathing when you have assurance. But your soul is also your connector with your God. Your soul is how you reach out to God as well as the conduit through which God comes into you.

Both Jews and Christians believe that the Spirit of God enters you, and it’s that Holy Spirit who gives you your assurance. If you draw your assurance from your own internal resources, that will fail you, no matter how good you are. So you depend on the Holy Spirit creating assurance inside you.

What does that feel like? The thing is, you’re not going to have a distinct feeling of the Holy Spirit, distinct from your own feelings. That’s because the Spirit prefers to blend into you, like sugar dissolving into water. The way the Holy Spirit does it is by using your head and reminding you of the promises of God, either privately inside you or through the words of a friend or a hymn or a worship service at church.

Don’t find your assurance in your own certainties but find it in the promises of God. “Fear not, little flock, it is my Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Your faith is the conduit for you to experience God’s faithfulness to you.

So the secret to assurance is not the what of your faith but the who of your faith. Not just what do you believe, but in whom do you believe? Till recently in this church, whenever I called for you to repeat the Apostles Creed, I would ask you, “What do you believe?” But now I ask you, “In whom do you believe?” The first question was good, but the new one is better. Because the what depends upon the Who. The whole purpose of the what is to point to the Who behind the what.

And also because of the gap between the what that is promised and the what that is received. We are incomplete, we are pilgrims looking for a better city, and we will die before we get there. Like Abraham, like Moses, like Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In the words of the Epistle, “All these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. . . . Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, indeed he has prepared a city for them.” You believe in the City of God because you have faith in God. The fullness of the what is still to come, but the fullness of the Who is fully here.

Faith can be rich and powerful and fruitful and world-changing when its knowledge is of many things, of many prophecies and promises. But your faith will save you even if it only knows one thing, the heart of the matter, in whom to trust. A baby does not even know her mother’s name, but she knows her mother as her safety and security. Fear not, little child, it is your mother’s good pleasure to give you her love. I invite you to put your faith in the love of God for you.

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