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.
Sunday, October 16, 2016
Jeremiah 31:27-34, Psalm 119:97-104, 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5, Luke 18:1-8
Now here’s a puzzle, and here’s an example of the difficulty of spelling the English language. Take the two words “resistance” and “persistence.” We spell “resistance” with an “a” and “persistence” with an “e”. Who knows why. In French they’re both spelled with an “a”, they both come from the same Latin root, they are obviously related, and to do one is to imply the other. The difference in spelling resists reason, yet the difference persists. Well, both words are suggested by all three of our lessons today. And both words are important for prayer and also for action.
In the parable, the widow is persistent. And to be persistent she has to be resistant. The parable is meant to be comic. The judge will be a small-town judge, and the scene is not a modern courtroom carefully controlled, but an open session with people pushing and crowding and competing for attention. A combination of Judge Judy and The Price is Right. The injustice against the widow will be economic—say she’s been refused the benefit of her deceased husband’s property, deprived by her brothers-in-law or even by her own sons, like that, an injustice all too ordinary.
The ordinary strategy was to offer the judge a bribe, which the judge was waiting for. But this widow won’t do that, and every time he takes his seat, here she comes shouting at him, in front of all the other people, who find her no less bothersome than the judge does. The joke in the parable is that it’s because the widow is so irritating that she gets her justice. Judge Judy, of course, would have shut her up and tossed her out of court.
The resistance in her persistence is her resistance to the bribe, and to the ordinary way of things, and to the interests of the crowd. Resistance is an irritant, persistence can lose you sympathy. Non-violent resistance is a case in point, the persistence of a sit-in at a lunch counter. You will get resistance back, quicker and stronger, even violent, aiming to break your non-violent persistence.
The attraction of violence is the attraction of a definitive solution. Kill him, take him out, bomb them, smash them. Mission accomplished. Of course violence breeds more violence, and what you end up with is worse than before. But at least you’ve looked decisive. But Christian action is so slow and unimpressive. Precisely because Christian action is non-violent is why it requires persistence and resistance. It takes faith and courage. Resisting violence is dangerous. It killed Jesus. We have our reasons of safety and survival that we don’t resist, we don’t persist, we give in, we get along.
The theme of “persistence” came to me from the second lesson. In this epistle St. Paul tells his squeamish protégé Rev. Timothy to be persistent in good times and bad. Timothy has to persist in preaching the right message of sound doctrine, even when it’s not the message people like to hear. He has to resist the desires of itchy ears. He has to resist the success of other preachers who give the people what they want. He has to resist his own internal doubts and fears, and the temptations of his weakness and his shame.
Let me just mention here that you could call this epistle the Second Letter of Paul to Daniel. In order to keep persisting we have to keep resisting the resistance against us from the outside and the resistance against us from our own insides.
Timothy, be persistent in prayer and action. St. Paul says you can be persistent in action because you’re proficient in good work, and you are sufficiently proficient in good work because you have the scripture, you have the instructions, you have the guidebook for training.
That’s why Timothy has to persist in teaching the right stuff, even if it’s unpopular, because it’s only the right stuff that will train you for doing good work when the good work gets hard, when your good work encounters the world’s resistance, when your good work brings back on you some suffering. Not that the pastor is a drill sergeant, forcing you through your training. The pastor only patiently persists in reminding you, encouraging you against the resistance of your distraction, your indifference, or your doubt.
Because God has already placed the instruction in your hearts. That’s the promise of Jeremiah’s prophecy. The covenant is written in your hearts. In that sense your knowledge of God is already more than I can teach you. I mean the necessary knowledge, the personal knowledge, the personal experience, the experience of forgiveness. That personal knowledge of forgiveness liberates you and empowers you. And one of the reasons you come to church every week is to rehearse that forgiveness once again. "Oh, yes, I remember, we are forgiven, I am forgiven, we live within God’s grace. "
And being forgiven you can rise to the vision, the vision ahead of you, like the visions you get in Jeremiah. That’s another reason you come to church, to be reminded of the vision. So every week you claim the forgiveness and you claim the vision, and living and breathing between these two you can get to work, praying your failures behind you and guiding your good work by the vision.
Now let me return to the parable. The parables in Luke’s gospel are designed to resist us. They always spin off a quick and easy meaning, but then they suggest the opposite when you mull them over. This one spins off the quick and easy meaning of persisting in prayer like the widow. And that’s not false. But it’s also not false that we pray and pray and God apparently does nothing about our request. And it’s also true that God can seem like an unjust judge, for how can a just and loving God allow such injustice and suffering in the earth. The parable is sadly true. Its comedy is dark.
But what is most resistant in this lesson to my own belief is those three interpretation lines of Jesus at the end. Two rhetorical questions and an answer.
First, “Will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?” I hope so, maybe in the long run.
Second, “Will he delay long in helping them?” Well, actually yes, sorry to say it, God does delay, God long delays.
And then, “I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them!” Quickly? I don’t think so. I wish it were true, Lord Jesus, but honestly I can’t see it and I can’t preach it. "O Lord, no wonder your very last line here is to wonder whether you will find any faith left on earth. Can you blame us!"
When you persist with what the Lord Jesus says he pushes back at you and then you have to consider whether the truth is in the resistance, whether the lesson is in your reaction. You come to Jesus for a nice hug and you find him wrestling you. Wrestle back.
So this is the best I can come up with this week, in terms of prayer and action. First let me say it in the negative and then I will say it in the positive.
You will not experience God as just unless you persist in your own acts of justice in the world, long past the resistance frustration and the criticism of others.
You will not experience God as a just God unless you do actions of social justice in the world long past the resistance of seeming uselessness and naivete.
You will not experience God as answering prayer unless you persist in prayer long past the resistance of God’s silences. I could wish it otherwise, but I think it’s true, and I think it’s the truth that the parable wants to wrestle free in us.
Now let me state it positively.
You can keep doing Christian actions past the rational term for results, especially actions of social justice, because when you do, you will discover that God loves justice. You will discover this not by the approbation of the world nor by the validation of quantity but by the authenticity of gratitude and the return of love.
You can work for social and economic justice and environmental justice past the resistance of frustration because it’s only by persistence that you determine how much God loves the world.
You can keep praying long past the resistance of God’s silence, and discover that God most certainly does hear your prayer, because what God does not reveal to you is the product you prayed for but God’s self. When you pray past the silence, God answers your prayer with God’s self and—here’s the surprise—at the same time with yourself. You become more you when you persist in prayer.
I believe that God’s resistance is designed to empower you. Because it is you that God loves. Yes, you are commanded to love God. But God’s own interest in your love is not God’s self. The interest of God is you. God empowers you. You’re able to love God because God loves you.
Copyright © 2016 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.
Saturday, October 08, 2016
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7, Psalm 66:1-11, 2 Timothy 2:8-15, Luke 17:11-19
This is the fourth sermon in my series on Prayer and Action. And our lesson from Jeremiah could not be more relevant: “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”
Seek the welfare of New York City and pray to the Lord on its behalf; or seek the welfare of Brooklyn and pray to the Lord on behalf of Brooklyn, for in the welfare of Brooklyn you will find your welfare. What if we changed our mission statement? Our mission is to share in God’s redemption of the city. Old First is a community of Jesus who work for the welfare of Brooklyn and pray for it. Well, that’s good, but it’s a little narrow I think.
But how is that specifically Christian, to seek the welfare of our city? Isn’t that what everybody wants, that their city prosper? So maybe the issue is the difference between welfare and prosperity, that we Christians have a particular responsibility for welfare, for being the agents and advocates of welfare. Both political parties vilify welfare, both political parties keep appealing to the issues and interests of the middle class. But the lower class, the underclass, is that the group whose issues and interests we Christians must appeal to, for in seeking their welfare we will find our own?
Jeremiah wrote this letter to the Jews in exile in Babylon because they were being told by other prophets that their exile would be short, maybe a couple years, and God would miraculously defeat the Babylonians and liberate Jerusalem and they’d all return in triumph. Jeremiah says, Nope.
Not gonna happen. Settle down. Build houses there, plant gardens, raise families, be at home there, be at home among the Babylonians who till now were your enemies. Effectively don’t have enemies.
Of course it’s when we are prospering that we start having enemies. When we prosper is when we go to war to protect our interests, our way of life, our markets, the oil we need, the resources we need. Poor nations don’t start wars. On a planet of limited resources, is it possible to seek the welfare of your city without having enemies?
So maybe we should be a little like exiles, resident exiles in our cities—to seek the welfare of our cities without being patriotic. We are not fully loyal to the city we seek the welfare of. We pray for it, we are active in its common life, we don’t keep ourselves separate, we fully integrate, we advocate, we are at home where we live, but we have a prior loyalty.
Our loyalty to the Kingdom of God is what compels us both to seek the welfare of our city but also not to identify ourselves by it. It’s a fine line. We might not be trusted. We might be made to suffer for it. Even in democracies you can go to jail for not acting loyal enough, especially in time of war.
The Apostle Paul could have stayed out of prison if he’d wanted to. If he’d just learned to get along. He kept on saying things that made people think he was their enemy. Even though he wasn’t. He was just not loyal to the reigning loyalties. There’s a message here for us about Christian action: your Christian action may well result in your being misunderstood, your motivations doubted, and you may be opposed, ironically, precisely because you will have no enemies!
St. Paul wrote this letter from prison to his protégé, the young Pastor Timothy. He was having a tough time of it. Not from prison or persecution but from his own self-doubt and his recurring weaknesses and how his little churches struggled, unlike the booming church in Corinth and the mega-church in Antioch. Timothy felt ashamed.
How to encourage him? Don’t be ashamed, how many times can you repeat it, don’t be ashamed, how many ways can you say it! Do stop measuring your work all the time. The outcome is not in your hands! Lift up your head, raise your eyes, remember the vision, remember the promises. Come on Timothy!
“Get up, get going, your faith has saved you.” What Jesus says to the Samaritan leper. Don’t misunderstand the gospel lesson. All ten of the lepers had been saved by their faith. All ten of them dared to act on Jesus’ instruction to go get certified as clean by a priests, as required by the law of Moses, and in their going they were cleansed.
Don’t condemn the nine who kept on going. They were following their instructions! And they were eager to get back to their lives, to their houses, their gardens, their wives and sons and daughters from which they had been cut off for so long.
But one does turn around. And when the Lord Jesus asks the question, “Where then are the other nine,” I don’t take his question as rhetorical and critical, but that he really means the question. He is wondering here, observing something, what happens to us when we get sudden goodness in our lives. How is it that only one turned back? And the one who was not a Jew? They were all together in their misery. There was no division among them, Jew or Samaritan, when they were outcasts, and now that they are cleansed, their differences come out. Why is that? What’s going on here?
I wonder if Jesus was wondering about his own results. How much he caused division. How often he was rejected. How often his followers abandoned him, how alone he often must have felt. He’s on his way to Jerusalem. He knows he’s going to die. He understands why, he even has a vision of the victory, but that won’t prevent his questioning: Why the division? Where are the other nine?
If you do Christian action, you will face both discouragement and opposition. Our Lord did, St. Paul did, self-doubt, like Timothy, self-criticism. You have to be reminded to get up and keep going, because your faith has already saved you. And the most important way we do this reminder is Sunday morning worship. Why go to church? To sustain you for Christian action during the week. I have noticed how often St. Luke structures his episodes like little worship services. You can see it in other places, like the Annunciation to the Virgin Mary or the Walk to Emmaus. It’s here too.
It begins with the prayer for mercy, literally here the Greek word eleison. Then comes a message, the instruction, the tiny one-sentence sermon, in this case, “Go show yourself.” Then you get songs of praise, and then you get thanksgiving, literally here the Greek word eucharist, and then a benediction. I believe this literary structure is by design. This rhythm of prayer is what sustains your Christian action: Mercy, praise, thanks, go.
Mercy, praise, thanks, go.
Mercy, praise, thanks, go.
After the Donald Trump tape on Friday I found myself weeping. Grief and discouragement. I don’t have to list the reasons. You wonder what real difference does your Christian witness make? Are we too soft, too complacent? Why aren’t we in jail, like Christians in other times and places?
So you have to come here again this week to be reminded that your faith saves you. Saves your soul, saves your mind, saves your peace of mind, saves your self-respect, saves your voice, saves your music, and saves your spirit in order to get up again. You come to be reminded that you are not ashamed. You came here today to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed.
One last thing. The middle part of our Timothy lesson is a quotation from a hymn or a liturgy, it’s obviously a poem, and scholars think it’s from an early baptismal liturgy.
If we’ve died with him we’ll live with him.
If we endure we’ll reign with him.
If we deny him he’ll deny us.
If we’re faithless he’s still faithful,
For he can’t deny himself.
We like that, that he keeps faithful even when we’re not, but then what does that mean that he might deny us? I’m going to take it that he’ll deny our denial, that he will overturn our mistakes and he will counteract our failures. This is the great promise of our baptisms, and this is why even we adults have to come to God like little children, even adults have to be baptized like children.
Because the power and the virtue of the baptism is in him and not in us. It’s a gift, a gift that we receive in our dependency and weakness. If we’re faithless he’s still faithful, for he can’t deny himself. That’s a promise you can just rest in, relax in, sleep in like a baby. He can’t deny himself because his name is Love.
Copyright © 2016 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.