Saturday, January 14, 2017

January 15, 2 Epiphany, Righteousness #2: Your Gift

Isaiah 49:1-7, Psalm 40:1-7, 1 Corinthians 1:1-9, John 1:29-42

Dearly beloved, the opening words of our liturgy every Sunday morning are called the Votum and the Salutation. The Votum and Salutation have been the opening words of the official Reformed Church liturgy since 1563, and I stick to them for reasons both historical and theological.

The Votum is this: “Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” That’s from Psalm 124. Right off it reminds us who we are and why we’re here, and it means to put us in the proper frame of mind: This is about God, what we’re about to do, it’s about God and our need for God.

The Salutation is this: “Grace to you, and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” You heard it in our second reading, from 1 Corinthians. It’s a greeting from God, and the greeting from God is the first greeting you get in the service, before my welcome. Yes, I’m the one who says the greeting, but I do it as a vehicle, not the source. In technical terms, I “pronounce” the Salutation, just as I pronounce the Benediction, the last word of the service which is the goodbye from God.

I am deliberate and particular about these things, and maybe even rigid. I would do it differently if I were to follow the pattern of one of our sister churches in Manhattan, a dynamic and successful congregation. I would open the service like this: “Hello Old First! You look great! You’re beautiful, Old First!” 

What do you think, shall I do that every week? Would you believe that I’m actually less against it than I used to be? I mean, doesn’t St. Paul say as much to the Corinthians? “In every way you are rich in God, in speech and all kinds of knowledge, and you’re not lacking in any spiritual gift.” You’re great, you Corinthians!

Well, of course, it’s only because of the gifts that God has given them. It’s not that they’re so great themselves as that God’s gifts are great among them. And yet those gifts are real among them, for not every early congregation enjoyed such gifts as the Corinthians did. Now St. Paul does not explicitly say that one of their gifts was righteousness, but he does call them “saints” and then he calls them “blameless,” and those two words together imply, I would say, the gift of righteousness.

Last week I said that righteousness can be real among you ordinary human beings, when you do what is right, as best you can, and upon your doing what is right you receive the wonderful, loving righteousness of God in the world. I said that the Holy Spirit synthesizes God’s righteousness with what you’re doing right to create the gift of real righteousness in you, real enough to be observed and recognized. So maybe I should open our service every week with this: “Hello Old First! You look righteous! You’re saints, Old First!”

This is the second sermon in a series on righteousness. Last week I also said that righteousness is not so much toeing the line on morality, it’s more about how you do right by those with whom you are in relationship, how you creatively invest in them in a way that’s right for them. And today I just said that righteousness is a real gift of God to you, and it can be recognized in you. Now, from our readings for today, is there anything else they can tell us about righteousness?

The word occurs twice in our Psalm: “I proclaimed righteousness in the great congregation; behold, I did not restrain my lips, and that, O Lord, you know. Your righteousness have I not hidden in my heart; I have spoken of your faithfulness and your deliverance; I have not concealed your love and faithfulness from the great congregation.” I proclaimed righteousness, your righteousness I have not hidden. 

Here righteousness, the righteousness of God, is something you want to proclaim among your fellow believers, something you want to celebrate. When you receive a gift, you want to celebrate the gift.

When my son went to university up in the province of Newfoundland, he took room and board at a private home with a few other students. Whenever we called him, he was on the family phone, and you’d hear the household in the background. One evening, when I called him, he told me that the husband had just come back from hunting and had bagged a moose. This was good news, as there would be lots of meat all winter. In fact, for dinner they’d just had spaghetti and moose balls. We laughed, and then I asked him how come it sounded so quiet in the house. He said, “Oh! Yeah, they’re all down at the bar, they’re celebratin’ the moose!”

To celebrate righteousness is not what we think of. We think of righteousness as more of an obligation than a gift. Not that there’s anything wrong with obligations! Indeed, a gift can be an obligation! (De gave is de opgave.) But if the culture around us does not celebrate righteousness, then we must be counter-cultural and celebrate it.

And what we rejoice in are such characteristics of righteousness as are mentioned in the Psalm: faithfulness, deliverance, love, faithfulness again, compassion, love again, and faithfulness one more time. The faithfulness reminds us that righteousness is relational, an investment in the other, and deliverance and compassion remind us that it’s for the good of the other, so this relationship is love and the righteousness is love, and that is something to enjoy and celebrate.

You celebrate it not just because it is so rare, so often frustrated, so often betrayed, so often missing in the lives of lonely people, of isolated people, suffering people, abused people, or selfish people or even very successful, dominating and domineering people, dictators, politicians, users, and abusers. You can have the world on your plate without such righteousness, so when you see it valued and honored and sought for and exhibited you want to celebrate and proclaim it, but even if it were not rare, and if it were the ordinary way of things, you would celebrate it anyway.

From celebration it has to move to mission, that you be conduits and extenders of the righteousness you enjoy, that you work out that righteousness in the world that both needs it and resists it. The gift you are given is the gift you keep giving. The gift is your obligation. I want to come back to the mission side of righteousness in coming weeks. But for today I will stay with receiving the gift, without your having to earn it or even deserve it.

So return with me to the gospel lesson, from John chapter 1. Let me explain that there are two Johns: John the author and John the Baptist. John the author was one of the twelve disciples and the best friend of Jesus. He wrote his gospel after Matthew, Mark, and Luke were all available, and he assumes you know the story from one of them. So he doesn’t report the actual baptism of Jesus, but the commentary on it a day later by John the Baptist. And he brings out a different side of John the Baptist.

In the other gospels he’s a hell-fire and brimstone preacher: Repent! Repent! The Messiah is coming and you’re in for it! How different here: “Behold the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” Those words have been set to music a million times, it’s in the liturgy as the Agnus Dei, I’m going to teach you to sing it this Lent. “O lamb of God that takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us. O lamb of God that takest away the sins of the world, grant us thy peace.”

How much of the sin, how much does he take away? All of it? How totally, how widely, how gradually, how immediately? We feel like in our lives we still have some sin to get rid of, so how can he take away all the sin of the world, past, present, future?

Let me say here that we generally underestimate sin in two ways. On the one hand we underestimate how extensive it is, how thorough, how insidious and powerful and destructive it is. On the other hand we undervalue how totally the Lord Jesus has taken away the sin of the world. The Christian claim is that both are true, even if they sound contradictory, and I invite you to believe them both and also to confess them both.

If they’re taken away that leaves you blameless. There’s nothing to blame you of. That leaves you pristine and pure. That means you’re a saint, you’re a regular Mother Teresa. You’re righteous, you’re beautiful, you look great! And that sets your righteousness free.

Your righteousness does not have to pay for anything, or even be successful. Your righteousness can be creative, imaginative, playful, joyful, experimental. It is liberated to be liberating. It is unleashed to be faithful. It’s an obligation that’s a gift, it’s absolutely free for love. Yes, your righteousness can be as experimental and as creative and as free as the love of God is for the world and for you.

Copyright © 2017, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

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