Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Not A Sermon: Thoughts on National Socialism

Note: This blog is my own. What I post here is my own, and does not represent the opinion or position of the church I serve. I imagine there may be strong disagreement with what I write here. Good. A healthy democracy requires vigorous debate, and questions raised.

The 45th President of the United States has been promising a combination of full employment, restricted markets, and concentrated capitalism, all under the stern direction of the executive power of the national government. The closest historical comparison that I can think of is National Socialism. This, of course, should be troubling. Allow me to review the comparison, and then at the end to touch on the President’s privileging of a nationalistic version of Christianity, which is also troubling.

During his campaign and into his first weeks in office we have watched the 45th President appeal to the fearful middle class by promising to bring back jobs, especially in the industrial sectors. We heard him promise to restrict the freedom of the market by enacting tariffs and protections and by subsidizing corporations that are friendly to the White House (and bullying those that are not). We saw him prove his loyalty to capitalism by populating his economic team with Goldman Sachs executives. We hear him repeat “America First” and “Make America Great Again.” The combination of strong nationalism with centralized capitalism, controlled markets, and full employment was tried before in the National Socialism (Nazism) of Germany. It was advocated elsewhere, as in the Netherlands, which had its own National Socialist party, the NSB.

National Socialism was not typical socialism. Unlike true socialism, the Nazi version allowed the means of production to remain private, in the hands of capitalist corporations. But these were corporations with close ties to the government. The market was free for them but not for everyone. What made the system seem socialist was that workers were promised employment, free enterprise was limited, and the production of the economy was directed by the government towards its centralized goals. And these goals were extremely nationalistic, while true socialism is typically internationalist.

Notice that I am putting aside all those personal comparisons of the 45th President to Adolf Hitler, not to mention racist ideology. I’m also putting aside those perhaps more telling comparisons of the 45th President to Orban of Hungary or Erdogan of Turkey or even Berlusconi of Italy. I’m rather looking at a new political-economic paradigm for the United States. I’m also putting aside the question of whether there are sufficient legal, political, and structural economic constraints on the 45th President’s policies eventually to frustrate his intentions.

I have friends who are correspondents in the US for foreign newspapers. I read some of their reports after the election. What stood out in the German reports was that the 45th President threatens the breakdown of the economic and political structures that had served both Europe and North America so well since the end of the Second World War. I’m thinking of Bretton Woods, the World Bank, the IMF, and NATO. These political and economic structures have been considered essential for the unprecedented prosperity and relative peace of the North Atlantic world.

Of course these structures have evolved, of course these structures maintained and even caused great exploitation, injustice, oppression, and destruction in other parts of the world, and of course these structures were intended to oppose and exclude the Communist nations. When the Soviet Union cast off its Communism, it looked like Russia might participate in the structures along with the other former Warsaw Pact nations. But ultimately Russia has worked against them. Is this the mutual appeal of the 45th President and Vladimir Putin to each other—that they provide each other allies not only against ISIS and China, but also against the post-War order?

In this Putinesque new president’s inaugural speech, he talked about other countries stealing our jobs. This falsehood would be absurd if it were not designed to divert attention from the real culprit. At best it’s like blaming the mistress for the infidelity of the husband, or worse, blaming the victim for being raped. It was the executives of our own corporations who moved their production to other countries for purely free-market reasons. The iron hand is what caused the underemployment and economic malaise that Hillary Clinton seemed deaf to but which the winner exploited to get to the White House. But as National Socialism requires the connivance of big corporations, it’s best to blame a scapegoat.

Capitalists prefer free markets. But free markets are not absolutely necessary to capitalists, not if the sovereign state offers a crony-capitalism of the kind that was practiced by the Nazis. It can work if the government compensates for the loss of free enterprise, for example, by funding an increase in arms production alongside consumer goods, and if the required resources can continually be secured (which is one of the reasons the Germans felt forced to go to war).

Should Christians be loyal to the post-War economic system that is now breaking down? Not necessarily, although the Putinesque alternative might be worse. Is National Socialism worse than Free-Market Capitalism? For that we need some input from voices from the Global South who know about the cruel damage our system has done outside of Europe and North America. I’m assuming that we should be against National Socialism if it requires a great increase in armaments production, but let’s not be hypocritical about the armaments production we’ve been doing all along.

Is National Socialism intrinsically illiberal? Racist? Propagandist? Totalitarian? Or was that only Hitlerian circumstance? Does it automatically co-opt religion? Can it hide behind the American prosperity gospel so favored by the 45th President? It is remarkable how openly the President privileges Christianity as the true American religion, and how eagerly this is welcomed by so many Evangelicals. I am mindful of how the Protestant churches of Germany accepted the Nazi scheme of German Christianity. Will Christians who erect American flags as sacred symbols in their Sunday sanctuaries oppose new laws against free speech and free expression? What all comes along with National Socialism?

A month before the November election my wife and I had a strange experience. We had secured a home equity loan, and a notary came to our apartment to do the closing. His name was Russian and his accent suggested that he was a recent immigrant. He conversed with us during the very long process of signing the staggering pile of documents that are generated by real estate transactions in New York. It naturally came out that my wife and I are both employed as pastors.

When we had finished signing, the notary advised us—as pastors—to vote against Hillary Clinton, because, if she won, she would outlaw religion and leave us unemployed. We tried to answer back, and he was adamant. He said that he knew the reality of socialism and we didn’t. He had lived under it, and he knew first hand. He told us that in just a few years Mrs. Clinton would take away our freedom of religion. As he got more heated in his admonitions we invited him to leave.

Not all socialism is the same. My immigrant grandfather was a Calvinist socialist from Amsterdam who loved Abraham Kuyper but who also joined a labor union in Paterson, New Jersey. There are Christian Socialist parties in Europe. I don’t consider Bernie Sanders a socialist---I think it’s more accurate to call him a social democrat. The Canadian NDP is a social democratic party, and its strongest root is Christian. I suspect that the historic internationalism of classic socialism feels congenial to one kind of Christian, and National Socialism feels more congenial to another. The jury is out. But judging by all that was said at the inauguration about God and God’s special relationship to America, to this kind of Christian, at least, the National Socialism of the 45th President is not very good news.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

February 26, Transfiguration, Righteousness #8: Chabod

Exodus 24:12-18, Psalm 99, 2 Peter 1:16-21, Matthew 17:1-9

The word “Transfiguration” is from the Latin but the original Greek is metamorphosis. It means that the body of the Lord Jesus kept his identity but changed in appearance. Matthew reports it without explaining it. His interest is not the how but the what for; the physical phenomena are for their Biblical fulfillment, to show the recapitulation of ancient details from the times of Moses and Elijah.

Matthew reports with metaphors that Jesus’ face and body generated light, from inside him, through his clothing, thus not reflected. How was that possible, for the living tissues of a mammal to generate light? Fireflies do it, but he didn’t just glow, he shone like the sun, too bright to look at directly. Biologists wonder how electric eels are able to survive their own deadly voltage in the water. How could a human body shine far brighter than a burning bush, and be not consumed?

Matthew was not an eyewitness. Neither were the gospel writers Mark and Luke, though they report it too. The eyewitnesses were Peter, James, and John. Peter and James did not write gospels, they wrote epistles, and it’s the second epistle of Peter that uses the word “glory” for what they saw.

The word “glory,” in the Bible, is a technical term. In Greek it is doxa and in Hebrew it’s chabod. The chabod was unique to God. The chabod was the visible sign of God’s presence. Most of the time God’s presence is invisible and apparent only to our belief, but on a few occasions, God made God’s presence visible to human sight, when God was up to something and had something to say.

Sometimes the chabod was light and sometimes darkness, sometimes like a flame and sometime like a cloud. In our reading from Exodus it was the burning cloud upon Mount Sinai, like a volcano, huge and ominous, while earlier in Exodus it was as small and curious as a burning bush. The Biblical editors did not force consistency on the variations because no single visible phenomenon can capture God’s glory.

According to both Peter and Matthew, the glory was in two places at once at the Transfiguration, in two persons simultaneously. The glory was in the body of Jesus and also in the cloud that over-shadowed the group. You have the Old Testament chabod of God, both revealed and hidden in the cloud, the God whom Jesus called his Father, at the same time as the chabod shining from Jesus, whom God called his Son.

Matthew has offered us our first glimpse of the divinity of Jesus. He takes to a new level that old terminology of “Son of God,” which had been only an honorific for the rightful king of Israel of the House of David. Now it means that and more than that—some special identity on a par with God. This was beyond the disciples’ comprehension at this point.

But that’s where the third eyewitness eventually took it. John. When John wrote his gospel, that of Matthew was available, so John need not report the Transfiguration, but he evokes it right off in his first chapter, in the famous prologue that you hear on Christmas Eve, when “St. John unfolds the great mystery of the Incarnation: ‘In him was life, and the life was the light of humankind. The true light that enlightens every human was coming into the world. And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth, and we beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.’” 

And thus the Nicene Creed: “god from god, light from light, true god from true god.” Whatever else we say about the Transfiguration, it calls us to worship. “Glory be to you, Lord Jesus Christ. Glory, Glory. Glory.”

There’s more. It’s remarkable in Matthew that the Son of God is just three verses later called the Son of Man. For once, both titles for Jesus are in the same story. So the Transfiguration is both a vision of Our Lord’s divinity and a vision of his humanity. He is uniquely divine, and representationally human. He is the new model human, he shows us a humanity with the capacity to hold God’s glory.

He represents you. The story is about both him and you. You are intended by God for this glory, you are made to be enlightened so that God’s light shines through you. Not that you’re all electric eels, but you might well glow in the dark. Your Christian life is to develop your capacity.

In the Old Testament understanding, as I said, the glory is unique to God, and we who are in God’s image reflect that glory, like shining brass. The New Testament innovation is that God’s glory is inside you. In the New Testament, God’s glory is the expression of God’s Holy Spirit, and the glory inside you is the energy of God’s Holy Spirit. I am multiplying images and mixing metaphors, but what is promised us is a mystery and what’s expected of us is beyond precise comprehension.

I have said that you are finally a mystery even to yourself. Your Christian identity is not precisely comprehensible to yourself. It is a modern presumption to think that we can expertly understand ourselves, or even need to. Your best self-knowledge comes from enlightenment, that is, seeing yourself within God’s light and listening to what God says to you, as God said to Jesus, “You are my child, my beloved, with you I am well pleased.” Your self-knowledge comes from what God tells you about God’s relationship to you, and that is the light that illuminates all of your insides.

So here is my main message today, and the summation of this sermon series on righteousness: The active expression of God’s glory in you is your righteousness. As I’ve been saying, your righteousness is God’s righteousness manifest through you. Your glory, your chabod, is an ethical one. The glory of Jesus was both ethical and ontological, and he is unique. Yours is ontological only as derivative, in that you are in Christ, but it is ethical in your own reality. How you live each day by loving God and your neighbor as yourself is the manifestation that God is present in you.

God is up to something in the world in the way that you do righteousness. God is doing something in the world by means of the choices that you make, your judgment calls, your guesses, your getting it close, your just missing it and even botching it, your repairing it and making it back, your making peace, your going a second mile for your enemy, your taking a hit, your apologizing, your reconciling, your bearing burdens, your speaking up, your speaking out, your shouting, your chanting, your song, your prayer, your praise and glory back to God. In the words of Psalm 99, O Lord, “O lover of justice, you have established equity, you have executed justice and righteousness in Jacob.” God executes justice and righteousness in you. That is your sharing in God’s glory.

Of course your light flickers. Of course your glory is stained, and your image of God is dirty. So there’s wisdom that the Transfiguration is the last Sunday before Lent. This week is Ash Wednesday. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” You have to die, and your light go out.

Even Jesus, full of glory, knew he had to die. He ordered the disciples, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” His real glory came after his rising from the dead. His death was not an obstacle, an interruption, but the necessary means, the fuel, the tree that burns but is not consumed. His ethical self-sacrifice is the inexhaustible fuel of his ontological glory.

Just so the glory of your righteousness is not other than you dealing with your sin. Your faults and your flaws are not the opposite of righteousness but the charcoal and kindling of your glory, when you accept the forgiveness of God in your repentance and reconciliation. It is your desire for God’s righteousness by which you receive the Kingdom of Heaven, not your success. And even if your light is flickering, let it shine, you don’t need much light to offer hope within the darkness.

You prayed this in our collect today: “Grant to us that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory.” Changed into his likeness will be Easter, and bearing your cross is Lent. The doorway into Lent is the Transfiguration, which both knocks you down and picks you up. The God who is hidden in the cloud says, “Listen to Jesus,” and the first thing Jesus says to you is, “Rise up, do not be afraid.” I’m with you now before you have arrived. I shine my light in you. You are transparent to my mercy, you are translucent with my love. This is the color of the light that is shining in you, it is the color of God’s love.

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

Friday, February 17, 2017

February 19, Proper 2, Righteousness #7: You Shall Be Holy

Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18, Psalm 119:33-40, 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23, Matthew 5:38-48

Righteousness is doing what is right. I want to do what’s right, I want to get it right, I want to be right. But if I’m right, then you’re wrong. If I want to be right, and you and I differ, then I want you to be wrong. And if I am righteous, then you’re unrighteous. My righteousness is what makes you unrighteous, at least to me. So the first problem with righteousness is that it sets up wrongness.

A second problem comes from our modern mindset. Righteousness is not just my doing right by me, it’s also doing right by you. I want to do what’s right for you. What’s right for you is what we call your “rights”. You have a right to your rights, and I have a right to mine. We take it for granted and we structure society around it. But it’s a recent development in history. Most people who lived on this planet did not think in terms of rights, but obligations. You do right when you fulfill your obligations. This was accepted as normal, and good, and the best for safety and survival.

We moderns minimize our obligations. We value liberty, freedom, and self-determination. And with everybody self-determining, we have to stand on our rights. If we assume so much freedom, we each of us have to defend our rights, and the rights of our groups, however we choose to define our identities, we feel obliged to right the wrongs against us and our grievances, on all sides. The right to bear arms. The right to life. The right to reproductive choice. The right to work. All of these are being contested with righteous indignation. Human self-determination turns righteousness around. It was an angry combination of rights and wrongs and grievances that generated totalitarianism in Europe not too long ago and this combination is also dangerous in America today.

Here’s my point: righteousness is a problem unless it’s anchored in the holiness of God and directed toward you loving your neighbor as yourself.

Righteousness is destructive when it’s driven by human self-determination but it’s constructive when it’s anchored in the holiness of God. But not just any holiness of God. It is the holiness that God has revealed upon the cross that makes righteousness healing and life-giving, a holiness which is a self-giving holiness, holiness that is purity as the purity of love, holiness that is perfection as the perfection of love, self-giving love, a holiness directing righteousness to take the form of loving your enemy as yourself.

“You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” So says Leviticus. “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” So says the Gospel of Matthew. Such holiness and such perfection entail a righteousness exceeding that of the scribes and Pharisees. It exceeds in love, “loving your enemies and praying for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven,” children resembling their father, ordinary people perfect in the way that God is perfect, neighbors holy in the way that God is holy, and this holy God loves God’s enemies.

This is not our typical version of holiness. Typical holiness is also in the Bible,  especially in the Book of Leviticus. It is purity and perfection of protection and preservation, it is rituals to get things clean and keep them uncontaminated, and thus untouchable and unapproachable. Put up screens and curtains, put up walls, keep people out, keep the people out who are not pure, or who have fallen, or are not chosen. Gentiles, and tax collectors who handle Roman money. Roman soldiers.

But if a Roman soldier demands you to carry his pack the statutory mile, Jesus says to carry it a second mile. Your love for him is not conditioned by his deserving it. Or if you’re so deep in debt to Roman taxes that the only thing the tax collector can get off you is your coat, Jesus says to give him your shirt as well, and your nakedness will shame him in your generosity. Of course the people listening to Jesus when he says this will be laughing, and I think he might be laughing too.

Or if somebody strikes you on your cheek, because you’re just a Jew who has no rights, living under occupation, don’t give in, don’t yield, but offer up your other cheek! Dare him to hit you again. Don’t him back—you love him because he is your enemy, but you do take the initiative, you stand up, and the second time he hits you he may crush you, he may kill you.

“O Jesus, I don’t have the courage to offer my other cheek.” I don’t think the Lord Jesus expects you to be suicidal in your self-giving love. He doesn’t say to love your enemy instead of yourself. You have to love yourself as well.

To love someone as yourself is to treat that person with the same understanding and sympathy and indulgence with which you treat yourself. So you are free to reason that it might be suicide to offer up your cheek. This perfection is not mathematical, and this holiness is not fanatical. You get the point: non-violence whenever the choice is yours to make. That is enough.

Do you consider even this unrealistic? If we did what Jesus said and carried burdens the second mile and offered up our shirts and gave to everyone who begs from us, eventually we’ll have two classes of people: the saintly paupers owning nothing, half-naked, doing all the labor, and the wealthy and well-dressed idlers and thieves.

Which was the Roman Empire anyway, with the idlers and thieves making the laws and enforcing them! It is realistic anyway. Countless examples: American Slavery, Jim Crow, Communism, National Socialism, even Free-market Capitalism, at least how it is going, if we are to believe the disenfranchised middle class who voted for this 45th President.

If we think it’s unrealistic, then as St. Paul says, we should become fools so that we may become wise. Take the case of the laws in Leviticus, about “not reaping to the very edges of your field, nor gathering the gleanings of your harvest.” This is not just charity for the poor, though it is that. It’s knowing our limits in what we take from the world, and it’s the reality of sustainable agriculture.

I knew a farmer who cut down all the trees along his fields so that he could easier turn his bigger machines around and get more rows of yield, which resulted in there being no more birds and the bugs increased and he had to use insecticides which burned the soil, which now the wind picked up and blew away, because there were no trees; today that farm sits barren. So I’m inviting you to believe that self-giving love is the true reality of existence, and that the cosmos expresses God’s perfection and creation tells us of God’s holiness. And as you are in the image of God, to do otherwise than this is to be sub-human.

The Lord is not just talking about non-retaliation, but positive engagement. He’s not just talking about charity and generosity, which are voluntary, for this is obligatory. It’s the law: the Lord Jesus quotes this from Leviticus three times in Matthew, that you love your neighbor as yourself, and this first time your neighbor include your enemy. It’s the law: it’s not love as feeling or affection but love as actions and practices, even when they cost you and reduce your profits. Even your enemy.

You will have enemies, if you live by love. People think that Christians should have no enemies. But following Jesus will make you enemies. The world resists the holiness of God. But come on, isn’t this to much for us, how much does God expect of us? We are ordinary people, we don’t do miracles. We have only so much power, and we’re often our own worst enemies. We have a hard time rightly loving ourselves. We admire this high calling of Our Lord, but we feel that we fall short.

Well, first, what he calls you to depends on Christian community, on your having neighbors like yourself who love you back and who look out for you, who join in your cause, and support you in your obedience. This ethic is not an ethic for heroic individuals, but an ethic for a community of love. This is the reason for this community of Jesus in which we try to love each other every week.

Second, as I said last week, we are forced to the mystical root of our ethics. We would give up if not for the mystical belief that the Lord Jesus is doing it in us and through us beyond our own capacity. So just do it without worrying about your performance or consistency.

The task is on you but the burden is off you. You have the responsibility but God takes the guilt. You can say with the Psalm, “In your righteousness, preserve my life.” The righteousness of God has become the main theme of this sermon series, that God loves to work God’s righteousness in the world through us, and God’s righteousness in us saves us, preserves us, perfects us, and makes us holy, just because God loves us.

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

Friday, February 10, 2017

February 12, Proper 2, Righteousness #6: You Shall Choose

Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Psalm 119:1-8, 1 Corinthians 3:1-9, Matthew 5:21-37

Our gospel lesson is the third out of four through Matthew 5, which is the first part of the Sermon on the Mount.

In our lesson today Our Lord exaggerates. He’s extreme. Excessive. Exceeding. Last week he admitted as much, that we exceed the scribes and Pharisees in righteousness. He is certainly provocative. Is he intentionally unreasonable? Does he mean to be disruptive?

It is a risky strategy. The method to the madness of the White House is provocation, disruption of institutions, and chaos by design. The chaos allows the president or chancellor or party secretary, whatever, to gather power and become the savior of the nation. You recognize that the scribes and Pharisees considered the Lord Jesus to be playing this dangerous game.

But Our Lord gave his power away. It wasn’t chaos he was after but liberation and service. What last Sunday Isaiah had called “the lifting of the burden and the freeing of the yoke.” Yet Jesus is certainly being provocative to ethics and disruptive of logic.

Consider the movement of the Sermon on the Mount, how it has swung from one extreme to the other. First, two weeks ago, the Beatitudes: “Blessed are you right now, in your hunger, in your meekness, in your mourning, you have the Kingdom of Heaven just by your simply desiring righteousness,” and then, last week, he moved it towards the middle, “You are the salt, be salty, you are the light, bear light,” and then to the other extreme, “You will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees!” The opposite of the Beatitudes in the span of just ten verses!

Today’s lesson stays in that hard extreme. Our Lord tosses off four examples of excessive righteousness. “You’ve heard the scribes and Pharisees say this, but I’m telling you this!” You’ve heard the scribes and Pharisees teach a doable, respectable, observable, trackable, and manageable kind of righteousness, and each time I’m calling for a radical righteousness that sounds unreasonable.

You call someone a jerk and you’re up on charges? You take a second look at a woman and then cut out your eye? Cut off your hand? Is he suggesting a more stringent legalism even more burdensome than before?

To be fair, I can tell you that in the lesson next Sunday his two further examples of excessive righteousness display a swing back to the first extreme of the Beatitudes, the examples of extreme non-violence and extravagant generosity, but even those non-legalistic examples are so challenging as to seem impossible. We will come back to those next week.

Let me also say that because of our cultural differences we might miss Our Lord’s radical generosity already here, in these examples, to women. It’s a cliche that “Matthew doesn’t do girls” (Prof. Minka Sprague), not compared to Luke and John. But here, in Matthew, the Lord Jesus makes the man responsible for his own lust. In orthodox Judaism and Islam and among some Christians the woman is responsible to hide her body by her clothing. Not with Jesus. It’s the man who has to cut his eye out!

Similar is what he says about divorce. He makes the man responsible for any adultery by his ex-wife. Remember that traditionally a woman had no say in her marriage, she had no rights in the matter. She went from being the property of her father to the property of her husband. So she cannot be guilty of the adultery she falls to.

And even for that, adultery is not some unpardonable sin; in Matthew it’s an action, not a state, and a relationship that begins in adultery need not remain so, if there’s repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation. And reconciliation is the remedy that the Lord Jesus calls for in the first example.  He’s not setting up new legalisms here, but offering examples of righteousness to challenge you, compel you, and boil things down to the heart of the matter.

“Let your Yes be Yes and your No be No.” Inner certainty, maturity, calm self-direction. This new kind of righteousness is inner-directed, from your own orientation, rather than outer-directed, according to the laws. It’s not that you’re always observing, but that you’re always choosing, you’re always expressing, and not by what they want but what you want.

What do you choose? Choose life. Don’t choose death. Choose life by choosing righteousness. The laws of the Lord do have value by guiding your choosing, informing your choosing, but it still comes down to your own choosing, so that the Kingdom of Heaven not just be out there, but that it grow within your heart; the goal of the Kingdom is to restore you personally as the image of God. And to bear the image of God is to share God’s freedom, the freedom to choose the good.

According to Deuteronomy, to choose life is to choose against idolatry. You can’t be neutral. To not choose God is to choose the idolatry that is the inclination of human nature. Idolatry, whether it be ancient or modern, is when we exalt anything natural to such power and promise that we sacrifice for it:

Wealth, beauty, success, security, race, ethnicity, gender, nation, even spirituality. The slogan “America first” begs idolatry. Ideologies are idolatrous, like capitalism, communism, even socialism and patriotism. You want to find a truth to belong to that is larger than yourself, but then you cast God in its graven image.

To be fences against idolatry is the purpose of the commandments in the Bible, but that’s not enough. You still have to make constant judgment calls. You are always having to come back to yourself and what you want, and answer yes, yes or no, no. And as you say yes and as you say no you develop your character, your second nature. That’s the righteousness of choice.

According to First Corinthians, the choice is internal. If the external inclination of human nature is idolatry, the internal inclination is attachment. Of course attachment is a biological necessity, of infants to mothers, and children to families. But human animals go through this strange experience, which I think is the shadow side of our being uniquely in God’s image. At some point in our maturing to adulthood, we discover ourselves, and we experience an existential loneliness. We feel this as a deep woundedness, and we seek relief in attachments. Attachment is overloading relationships to compensate for our existential fear and loneliness.

“I belong to Paul. I belong to Apollos.” I’m this. I’m that. I’m loyal to this group, I’m fighting for that group. There goes your simple yes and no. If I say yes, they may reject me. If I say no, they may revile me. And if they do, you might feel loneliness is better and withdraw behind defenses. You don't belong to anyone, a negative kind of freedom.

Most of you don't go that far, you stay with attachment. You gain your comfort by losing your freedom. The freedom of Christ is challenging because it threatens the loyalties and identities in which you sought comfort. But in the new kind of righteousness, you don’t decide by your attachments. Your answer is simply yes or no without defense or explanation. You are in God’s image, you belong to Christ, and this or that, simply, is what you want!

There is one last wrinkle. The scribes and Pharisees considered observation the means to make your way along the straight-and-narrow of obedience, blessing, and life. But the Lord Jesus does this provocative thing of making everybody guilty.

His examples are so excessive that we all fall short. We’re all liable to judgment, we’re all liable to the council, we’re all on the way to death, we’re all scheduled for that smoldering garbage dump called the Gehenna, the symbol of a shameful death. Or at least a piece of you, your eye, your hand, amputated and discarded to save the rest of you.

I am following Martin Luther here when I say that his provocation is to drive you to his grace, to his cross and resurrection, to his freely given righteousness that you get back from him. His personal excessive righteousness.

This is the mystical anchor of your ethics. This is how you can confidently keep choosing this and that, simply saying yes and no: you put your faith in the promise that it is God who is giving the growth of righteousness in you. You are a mystery, even to yourself, you are a living mystery of God’s love, that in your small attempt to live the Christian life, the righteousness of God is growing in the world. God even chooses what you choose, that is how much God loves you.

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

Sunday, February 05, 2017

February 5, Proper 1, Righteousness #5: The Wisdom of God

Isaiah 58:1-12, Psalm 112:1-10, 1 Corinthians 2:1-16, Matthew 5:13-20

This is the fifth sermon in our series on Righteousness. Our question is always this: What do our lessons tell us today about this important Christian theme? Today in our lessons the word occurs seven times: three times as the adjective “righteous” and four times as the noun “righteousness.”

The seventh occurrence is that alarming last thing we heard the Lord Jesus say: “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven!” How could Jesus say that? Doesn’t that contradict everything else he said?

What a difference from the feel of the Beatitudes that come right before this lesson in the same chapter. Last week we heard that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, it’s among us, we don’t have to build it or advance it, we just receive it, in our poverty of spirit, in our meekness, even in our mourning. Not that we exceed at righteousness but that we desire it, that we hunger and thirst for it. But now he seems to say that we do have to achieve it, we do have to earn our entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven.

I believe that the Lord Jesus is here evoking a larger debate about righteousness within the Bible. The Bible doesn’t offer us one straightforward and consistent teaching about righteousness, but an ongoing conversation about it among its different authors, a conversation that is often a debate, and sometimes a heated one. You see one side of the debate in the Psalm, and another side in Isaiah.

In the Psalm, you get a sense of righteousness as following the commandments. Doing the right thing at the right time according to the laws of God. If you do this legal kind of righteousness, you get blessed, you will be powerful in the land, and beat your enemies, and you even get to be rich! Of course you’re going to be merciful and compassionate, and generous, especially with the poor. You are honored for being righteous. You keep things on the up and up. You keep things up.

This is the familiar kind of righteousness. Upkeeping righteousness, dishes washed, kitchens cleaned, Dutch Reformed righteousness. This is the righteousness of cause and effect: you observe the commandments and God rewards you. Don’t be too hard on the scribes and Pharisees, they got this from the Bible! This is what they looked for when they looked for the Kingdom of Heaven.

The other side of the debate we heard last week from the prophet Micah, and today we hear it in the voice of Isaiah. He castigates the righteousness of cause and effect. Keeping the Sabbath, observing the required rituals, even fasting in sackcloth and ashes, forget it all. God’s not blessing it.

God wants a righteousness not upkeeping but outgoing. A righteousness that gets you nothing back and even costs you. Into your nice clean houses you take the homeless. You go out to find poor people to deliver a share of your food to. You pay your workers a living wage, which of course cuts into your profits, and that’s the point. This kind of righteousness you would call mission. Not just loving your neighbor as yourself, but loving your enemy as your neighbor.

So do we have to choose between this social action of the prophet or the commandments of the law, commandments written by God’s own finger at Mount Sinai? No, it’s a false choice. You do both. But if you do only one, the ritual, liturgical one, and not the social action one, then your very ritual condemns you doing it. Your cultic and liturgical observance condemns you while you’re doing it. Your righteousness is worse than nothing because it lacks integrity. So the point is to have a cultic and liturgical observance of the commandments that is proven by its mission to those in need. An upkeeping for the purpose of outgoing.

Thus the mixing of the metaphors of salt and light. Just one of them will not do, you need them both. You have to both blend in and stand out. A lamp is useless unless it stands out, but if salt stands out it does no good, it has to blend in.

Yet their effect is similar: illumining and seasoning, but neither for themselves. The light is not for itself, but for what it shines on. The salt is not for itself, but for what it seasons. Your righteousness is not for yourself, but for your mission in the world. Sometimes your righteousness must be a standing out, and sometimes a blending in, but always for your mission in the world. An outgoing kind of righteousness.

Jesus is not here talking about mission as converting the nations of the world. At this point he’s still working with the Old Testament sense of the mission of God’s people being examples to the nations, demonstrating by their very culture God’s ideas of morality, justice, generosity, and peace; like a lamp in showing other nations how to live.

This mission the scribes and Pharisees could agree with, but they believed that do it they first had to get their independent kingdom back, kicking out the Romans and all the Gentiles living among them to set up the literal Kingdom of Heaven, and do the mission from a position of wealth and power and prestige. Make Judea great again!

So they hate it when Jesus keeps saying that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, among them, already, wherever the Lord Jesus is. What are you waiting for? Don’t only be a lamp, but also be salt, blend in as well. Do your mission already among the Roman soldiers and the Gentiles who are in your Promised Land.

And not from power, for blessed are the meek.  Not from wealth, for blessed are the poor in spirit. Not even in your success at morality, justice, generosity, and peace, but in your hungering and thirsting after righteousness, especially how you still hunger and thirst for righteousness when they revile you and persecute you. Blessed are you. What are you waiting for?

So we have no truck with those people who are saying it’s getting harder to be a Christian in America. Like it’s a complaint. Like we have to get the government on our side to make it easier. From what the Lord Jesus says, the harder it is the more blessed we are. I’m not saying we should hope for persecution, but if what we stand for is not being opposed by people in power, if they’re not reviling us, then are we doing our mission? The case of Jesus shows us that the opposition and reviling can come from people of our own religion, so we will be opposed by other Christians, especially those who think we should have national power and prestige. Blessed are you.

Weakness and fear and much trembling. That’s how the Apostle Paul first came to the Galatians, as he reminds them. He did it this way as a self-imposed strategy, he had to learn this strategy and make himself one with it, lest he try to get results by being winning and impressive, and thereby get in the way of the wisdom of God. He did not want to be persuasive in argument, or plausible in explanation. As if the wisdom of God is comparable in any way to human wisdom. As if the wisdom of God can be explained to the satisfaction of the critical human intellect or sensibly to the wise.

No, the wisdom of God has no comparables in human wisdom, that you can extrapolate from human wisdom to the wisdom of God, just as the power of God has no comparables in human power, but looks like human weakness. The wisdom of God speaks to the philosopher only if he takes his place with the homeless and the poor. The wisdom of God is a total mystery to the best and highest human thought.

And yet the wisdom of God is for the world, it is God’s creative and loving engagement in the world. The wisdom of God is the mystery that in the salvation of the suffering sinner gets revealed, and in God’s mercy to the penitent it gets explained. The wisdom of God is the righteousness of God embracing you whose only claim to righteousness is that you desire it, that you hunger and thirst for it.

Accept that embrace, and the free and loving and lavish righteousness that embraces you far exceeds the righteousness of any scribe or Pharisee, that is, any religious professional; accept God’s embrace and already you’ve entered the Kingdom of Heaven. I invite you to believe that the righteousness of God flows into you by the power of God’s Spirit, whenever you find yourself desiring God, and desiring most of all the love of God, and desiring to express that love yourself in every difficult relationship that you have.

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