Friday, January 20, 2017
January 22, Epiphany 3: Righteousness #3: Your Desire
Isaiah 9:1-4, Psalm 27:1, 5-13, 1 Corinthians 1:10-18, Matthew 4:12-23
Did you know that in Ontario, the Catholic schools are fully funded by taxation and are tuition-free? In Alberta, Protestant schools get public funding too. Yet Canada is more socialist than Elizabeth Warren.
What if Betsy DeVos had gone that far in her confirmation hearings—not just parent vouchers, but direct government funding of Christian schools? Why do Americans consider this a right-wing idea? In The Netherlands, which is even more socialist, parents send their children to publically-funded religious schools of all different persuasions, not just Christian.
The big difference is that Dutch and Canadian religious schools are not private schools but public schools, and they accept all the government regulation and oversight of social democracy. Here in America the school freedom movement hates government oversight and wants a free market without regulation. Also, very many of our private Christian schools were founded after the court-ordered integration of the public schools. Not our Roman Catholic schools, and did you know that our Catholic schools do better than public schools at racial integration and economic diversity?
When Betsy DeVos was nominated, my wife reminded me that I used to agree with her. I wanted the separation of school and state, just like the separation of church and state, and I said it would be as good for the schools as it’s been for the church. There should be no direct funding of public schools, but parents should get vouchers to spend at any school that was accredited and certified, just like colleges are, be they Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, humanist, atheist, whatever.
I learned these ideas at the same Christian college that Betsy DeVos went to, three years behind me. We were not in the same circles but we imbibed the same religious ideology. I’ve moved on, but she still holds it, and has spoken out on it and spent millions of dollars advancing it.
This week she had to be political and tried to hide the religious side of it. But she’s a sincere Christian, and it’s an odd tribute to her Christian sincerity that her truth comes out, and she couldn’t hide that of course she is biased against public schools, nor does she want federal enforcement in schools of civil rights or LGBTQ equality. For a long time she’s been using her enormous wealth to fund the battle for the conservative Christian culture of the USA, and it looks like now she has official power to advance and defend conservative Christian values within our public institutions.
I get the desire for a Christian culture. My wife and I sent our daughter to the same Christian High School that the DeVos kids went to. I learned the richness of my faith in Christian schools and its application for all of life and culture. In Christian school the music was better than at church and we were academically ahead of public schools.
I desire a faith that is more than narrowly how to be good and save my soul, I desire a faith that is rich in poetry and thick in culture and deep in thought, strong for social justice and brilliant in the arts and intellectually powerful. I got that at school. The Kingdom of Heaven is larger than the church.
Look, it’s not a new idea that Christians should use economic power to advance the Kingdom of Heaven on earth and use political power to defend it. It goes back before the Roman Emperor Constantine. Christendom. The Holy Roman Empire. The Crusades. Queen Elizabeth is the Defender of the Faith and she was crowned in a church by a bishop. The churches in Germany are still funded by taxation. Our own congregation was established by the Dutch colonial government and paid for with taxes. The Kremlin in Moscow is a fortress with state-supported cathedrals inside it, and that’s just fine with Vladimir Putin. And Steve Bannon. And the President.
But against this is the Apostle Paul. In our epistle he bears witness to the power of the cross as the power of God. The cross is the Roman symbol of victimization, of disempowerment, of poverty, of powerlessness. The Kingdom of Heaven does not need political power or economic power for cultural power, and it doesn’t need to be defended. It’s a miracle, it’s a gift, it’s a free gift.
The Lord Jesus announced that the Kingdom of Heaven has come near, and we did not advance it nor do we build it—we receive it, in both repentance and joy. If we’re gathering power in the world in order to build the Kingdom and using lots of money to defend the Kingdom, then we’ve got the Kingdom wrong. We’ve got the wrong desire. We’re answering the wrong call. We’re aiming for the wrong kind of righteousness.
The word righteousness does not appear in any of our lessons today. It will next week, in spades, and it will play off the phrase that we did get this week: the power of God. This is the first half of a miniseries on the power of God, within my eight-part series on righteousness. Next week we’ll more explore what the power of God is like. This week we get the call of the disciples in Matthew, and in the Psalm we get desire. Call and desire. In terms of call and desire, let me propose two things:
First, I propose that when God’s call on you meets your desire, what you end up with is righteousness. The conjunction of God’s call on your life and your own desire for your life amounts to righteousness. I’ll say more about that in a minute.
Second, I propose that Jesus does not call us to political and economic power in order to advance and defend the Kingdom of Heaven, so any and all our efforts in that regard, be they legal, moral, and even sacrificial, may be admirable and culturally praiseworthy, but they do not count as righteousness.
Righteousness is not what you achieve but what you receive, and you have to receive it through the cross, the sign of loss and grief, the grief of God and the love of God for us; and the way to receive this grief and love of God for us is through repentance. Repentance is the border crossing of the Kingdom of Heaven, and you cross that border into joy. The Kingdom receives you.
The Lord Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.” And then he said to the fishermen, “Follow me.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. The call of God and their desire. The call of God and your desire, and what else is joy but the convergence of God’s call on you with your desires.
That’s why you want power, some power in your life, to get what you desire, to achieve what you desire; but the secret of the Kingdom of Heaven is that what you most desire you cannot achieve, you can only receive it, and it’s free, if you are willing freely to receive it, in your poverty, in your powerlessness, in what the world regards as weakness and humility.
Does the desire for God imply renunciation of some sort? It would seem so from the Psalm. To dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of your life implies the renunciation of family, home, and marketplace and concert hall. How much did those fishermen put behind them when they left their nets and followed Jesus? How did they continue to support their wives and families?
When you say Yes to the call of God, what must you say No to? Can you still say Yes to what you most deeply desire for your own life? How about even a rich Christian culture, the kind you get in Christian school? I will say Yes, we can, as long as you remember what God’s power is like (and not like), and how to receive it (not achieve it), and thus to share it, and that what you most desire is God’s call.
Last Sunday I saw that Jackson van Voorhees was reading The Hobbit. I think that one book did as much for my Christian faith as all of Christian school. Bilbo Baggins, one day sitting quietly at his door, and all of a sudden up walks Gandalf, and before he knows what’s happened he’s called away from it all to a great adventure, with suffering, and loss, and joy. Caught like a fish. You know, Jesus doesn’t wait for applications, he just calls you. And right there is the power of God, his calling you, his calling into you danger and suffering and freedom and joy.
How do you know that you’ve been called? Simple: do you desire righteousness? Not have you accomplished it but simply do you desire it? Do you desire God, do you want to know what God is like, which is another way of saying, do you seek God’s face? The only reason you are here today is because you’ve been called here. And God has called you here to receive the Kingdom of Heaven. It’s yours. It is God’s free gift of love to you.
Copyright © 2017, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.