Friday, October 20, 2017

October 22, Proper 24, Space, Practice, Vision #8: Community of Jesus, Vision of God

Exodus 33:12-23, Psalm 99, 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10, Matthew 22:15-22

They think they’ve caught the Lord Jesus with a gotcha question. If he says Yes to paying taxes to Caesar he’ll offend one constituency and if he says No he’ll offend the other. So they think. But he’s a smart candidate and he turns the question back on them.

The Roman coin called the denarius was hateful to the Jews who had to use it. On it was graven the image of the face of Caesar, so it violated the second commandment, against graven images. Worse, Caesar claimed to be a god, so it made them break the first commandment. On the obverse was engraved Caesar’s mother in the image of the goddess Juno.

The Jews were forced to support idolatry because they were forced to participate in the economy of their Roman oppressors. And yet they will have treasured their denarii because to have them signified some value in their lives. Oppression is brilliant when it both oppresses you and makes you guilty in your oppression.

What does a goddess look like? What does a god look like? The whole of Greek and Roman civilization thought the question was no big deal. Depends on who your god is, take your pick. Against this was the lonely witness of Judaism that you may not picture God. There is no image of God that is not woefully inaccurate, no image that is not misguided and misleading, so just don’t. We don’t have the mental capacity. We are constitutionally unable to see God’s face. And so because you cannot picture God you may not picture God.

But of course we cannot help but imagine God. God did give us our imaginations. And if we are to love God, how can we not imagine God? Take the case of Moses in the Exodus. Moses has been dealing intimately with this newly rediscovered God of Abraham, after 400 years of silence, who kept surprising them and saying such remarkable things, defying every category of godhood assumed by all the ancient civilizations.

“Who are you really? All this time that we’ve been talking, you’ve been hiding in that cloud. Could you let me in? Could I take just one good look at you?”

“No, you can’t, because I would overwhelm you. You know you can’t look at the sun without injury, and to look at me would injure you worse, you wouldn’t survive it, you just don’t have the capacity. The best that I can offer is to let you look at me from behind as I pass by.”

And Moses was able to see God’s back. What this means is that we can see God after the fact, in the ways God moves and the works that God has done. You can see God from behind.

Recently one of you was telling me about a thing that happened in your life, a very difficult thing, and you said that when you were going through it you hated it, but now when you look back, you can see that it was good that you went through it.

Another one of you told me that during the last few years of your life, things turned out other than what you had wanted, and the doors you had wanted to go through had closed on you; but now, as you look back, you can see from behind that it was God. Yes, that’s how we see God, from behind. It’s true. But it’s not the only way.

This past August in Ontario I visited a family from the congregation I served there twenty-eight years ago. I had performed the wedding of the parents, Peter and Janice, to whom we had been rather close, and I had baptized the oldest child, but the three younger children I had never met, and they were now young adults, wonderful young people, about the age of their parents when I was their pastor.

Tragically, ten years ago their mother had been killed by a drunk driver. But on that August morning, when her children were talking to me, it was uncanny how often I would hear in their voices the distinctive voice of their mother. “Oh, you said that just like Janice would!” And how often in their body language, the way they turned their heads, I was seeing again the way that Janice looked and the expressions of her face. After twenty-five years I was watching her and hearing her within her kids.

Janice Wassink Oskam
Child of God, Rest in peace, and rise in glory.

I was seeing their mother after the fact, from behind, but even more, I was seeing her still alive, because these kids of hers had once been part of her own body. Not just their DNA, but the very energy of life, that mysterious energy of life that was animating their bodies had been generated by her life. Her life was living on in them, her kids, as they talked to me.

And so we are to see God not only from behind but also alive in the community of Jesus Christ. That’s the claim. That’s the claim that St. Paul is making in the reading from the First Epistle to the Thessalonians, and he says it so obliquely we might miss how much of a claim it is. He calls them “a church in God the Father and in the Lord Jesus Christ.” That’s odd. What does he mean by “in”?

Well, I think it’s like those young people I was talking to were in their mother Janice. Janice was alive in them and they looked like Janice. So God is alive in us and we look like God. So if you want to know what God is like, God wants you to look at the community of Jesus to see God living there.

When the Russian cosmonaut, fifty years ago, famously went up into outer space and reported back that while he was up in the heavens he did not see God, the answer is, you dummy, you could have seen God in your old grandmother and her elderly friends as they prayed together in church. And you might say, Oh come on, that’s sentimental, and metaphorical at best, and St. Paul would say, Nope, get used to it, that’s exactly real, where God wants to be found and seen and heard.

Recently one of you privately and discretely complained of being let down by Old First, that when you were going through a very hard time, we failed to be a community of Jesus when you needed it. To hear you say this was difficult for me, of course, but I took it as honest and sincere. And I wondered, does this church really want to be a community of Jesus? Or is that just my own imposition on it?

Maybe that’s not what people want, maybe that’s not what people need. That’s not what Marble Collegiate is, that’s not how Fifth Avenue Presbyterian identifies itself. Maybe it has been a very wrong strategy for Old First to hold this up as our mission. Maybe what we should offer is the “Communion of Jesus”—you come, you hear the message, you get your communion, and you go home and get whatever community you need from your ordinary friends in ordinary life. We’re just not equipped to offer some more authentic sort of “community” than ordinary life.

But then I read a passage like First Thessalonians, and I’m convicted that a community of Jesus Christ is indicated, prescribed, expected, because we’re in that community that is God, the eternal and uncreated community of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, God in three persons, blessed Trinity, the original community. Com-unity, combined unity, union of plurality, and in the middle of that community, their glory, is the crucified one, the abandoned one, the disappointed one, the failed one, the let-down one, the betrayed one.

There is a mystery here, I haven’t figured it out, that our disappointments with each other are somehow part of how God is to be seen in our community.

Our new draft mission statement opens with the language of our old mission statement: Old First is community of Jesus Christ. That’s a statement of identity, because our bodies draw our life from God’s life, but also of active mission, because God is exposing God’s self to the world through the body of our community of Jesus. God is saying, Look at me here, and when you look at me, you see that I am love—disappointed love, let-down love, betrayed love, but enduring love.

Copyright © 2017 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

October 15, Proper 23, Space, Practice, Vision #7: Resist, Respect, Rejoice

Exodus 32:1-14, Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23, Philippians 4:1-9, Matthew 22:1-14

This parable is a Monty Python parable—comic, outrageous, exaggerated violence, an army at war while the banquet food is sitting ready on the tables. It’s a Road-Runner and Coyote parable, when that poor guest without a wedding garment gets thrown out like the Coyote to the bottom of the cliff, banged up and gnashing his teeth in bitter frustration. The parable is extreme and absurd.

Whatever is comic, whatever is confusing, whatever is vengeful, whatever is violent, whatever is impulsive, whatever is short-sighted, if there is any unfairness, if there is any impatience, that is this parable. Is this the Kingdom of Heaven that we want our draft mission statement to refer to?

It’s true that life under the Kingdom of Heaven can feel outrageous and extreme, and sometimes comical and sometimes troubling. Not so much that God will act like this, but when the Reign of God is near, if we don’t take the matter seriously, even before the pressure is on, and if we don’t move heaven and hell to receive it and accept it, then it’s going to feel like this. If the Lord is near, that means we’re in a day of decision and a day of judgment and a moment of truth, and though our choices may seem small, the outcomes are extreme.

While the Israelites were living in Egypt for 400 years, they were worshiping who-knows-what. Some combination of the gods of Egypt and Canaan and Abraham. Maybe some golden calves. But now the Lord has liberated them, and there is no return to the status quo ante. Once having accepted God’s invitation, even if hardly comprehending it, you can’t go back. If you accept an invitation to the banquet, don’t go without a garment. Show some respect to the God who brought you out of Egypt.

But the Israelites use their freedom to indulge their fears and appetites. “Make us gods that we’re familiar with. Make us gods who will serve us but not challenge us. Make us gods with no expectations.” God had liberated them for worship and for service, and they said, No Thanks.

You know the long-term story of the Bible is not just the story of God’s love. It’s the double-story of God’s love and our resistance. God’s grace and our ingratitude. God’s invitation and our refusal. God’s Yes and our No Thanks. The Kingdom coming and our resisting it. That’s the double-story of the Bible the whole way through, until the very end, when God says the final No to our No Thanks and all that’s left is Yes, the final Yes to which we witness by our worship and service.

If we compare the parable to our draft new mission statement, it does seem mostly to suggest a welcome that is unconditional. Everyone is welcome to the banquet, everyone both good and bad. Yet it also is conditional for that one guy who got tossed out. What do we make of this, even if the parable is absurd?

Well, the meaning of the parable is not within the parable, but in our response to it, and how we examine our own response to God. So that if I am suddenly invited to the banquet, then I’m going to show respect, and act the part, and get decked out to rejoice in my inclusion, or grab a sheet at least and show my respect for what God has done for me.

The Kingdom of Heaven is welcoming. You find yourself within it. Maybe you started coming to church, and then you began to see the Heavens not just above you but before you and around you. Maybe you grew up knowing you were in it; you always knew “The Lord is near.” However you find yourself within it, you face its challenge and its expectation that you embrace its expectation.

Which might daunt you, except that its expectation is most natural. Not the kind of “natural” that the flesh regards as natural, with our distractions and idolatries, with our typical indulgence of our fears and appetites, but the “natural” of God’s design, the truly human nature that we aspire to.

The Kingdom of Heaven is not some foreign realm, but the true reality that we were meant to live within. The Kingdom of Heaven is always coming near on earth for life within the world. The Kingdom of Heaven is our natural environment when our human nature is restored to be truly human as God intended us, and not in bondage to the idolatries that we run to whenever we indulge our fears and appetites. The Kingdom of Heaven is our true and native land for peace on earth and good will towards humankind. It is good ground for us to live on and healthy air for us to breathe. It is actually less alien to us than the pretense of reality that the empire wants our allegiance to.

That the Kingdom of Heaven is truly natural and not foreign is indicated by that marvelous sing-song list of virtues from Philippians: “Finally beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything praiseworthy, think about these things.” 

These virtues are in a vocabulary is not narrowly Biblical, but drawn from popular Greek philosophy. Any new convert could understand this list right off. You don’t even have to be a believer to see the virtue of these virtues. We can tell that St. Paul offers this list as the truly human virtues, recognized throughout the world, which every culture has aspired to.

What this means is that to live within the Realm of God, to live under the Kingdom of Heaven, is not to live apart for some utopia, but to live within the restoration of humanity and the reclamation of human culture. The Kingdom of Heaven is what the world desires even when it does not know its own desiring. To live it is to join in the Resistance, with a capital R, that is, the true and lawful government in resistance against the false and idolatrous empire that holds itself in power.

But not an armed resistance. Nor hidden, like the French Underground. But open and peaceful, with its gentleness known to everyone. Which is more revolutionary than the revolutionaries. You have to consider that this nice list of virtues and the call to be gentle were written to the Philippians when they were under constant threat of persecution. Their faith was illegal and seditious, and they could be rounded up for their loyalty to a foreign king. Their situation was like undocumented immigrants in America, or the Dreamers of DACA, always nervous of their place and subject to arrest. And yet what they should keep thinking about and doing is all the best of human aspirations.

It’s an amazing vision, and a constant choice. It does not just come. You will be tempted to keep thinking about the evil around you, and how you are misunderstood, and how things are going from bad to worse, and the imperial authorities are unjust, and Caesar is a brutal pig, even a moron, and Syntyche did this to Euodia and Euodia did that to Syntyche. You are tempted to irritation and defensiveness. So you have to keep the vision before you and to keep on choosing for it. The daily choices are often small but the outcome is extreme.

He says it another way. Keep choosing for joy. Rejoice, and again I say rejoice. Practice the resistance of rejoicing. Yes, join the Resistance, but make it a resistance of rejoicing. Dress up, get decked out. “Deck thyself, my soul, with gladness.” The banquet is set, the bridegroom is near! Keep your lamps trimmed and burning! Keep your wedding garment always ready.

The New Testament never gives a punch list for the practice of worship and service. Instead it offers a wide field, with room and space for flexibility, creativity, and improvisation. As an ethic it is  aesthetic and artistic. It looks like “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, any excellence, anything praiseworthy.” In fact this sing-song list is not so much a list as a field, and these virtues are not discrete—they overlap, they weave into each other, they blend into the fabric of the garment to wear to the banquet of the Kingdom of Heaven.

The parable, for all its outrageous absurdity, is about a wedding reception. The wedding reception is one of Our Lord’s favorite images. It’s how he wants you to see your lives within the Reign of God. And what else is a wedding reception but a love-feast. A wedding reception celebrates pledging love and making love. Love is where the joy comes from—joy is the heady froth upon the wine that’s poured into the cup of love.

Yes, it always comes back to love, extreme love, outrageous love, absurdly unconditional love, the love that our reluctance and resistance cannot stop, because it is the overflowing love that rises from the eternal fountain of God’s heart.

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

Thursday, October 05, 2017

October 8, Proper 22, Space, Practice, Vision #6: God Commands Worship and Service

Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20, Psalm 19, Philippians 3:4b-14, Matthew 21:33-46.
The photo above is of the reredos in our sanctuary, with the text of the Ten Commandments written out in full, unnumbered, undivided, across three panels, the only such depiction of the Ten Commandments I have ever seen.

My meditation on the gospel this past week was disturbed by the killings in Las Vegas. I found the violent metaphors of the parable a stumbling block. Lord Jesus, how can you toss off violence like that? And Jesus, why do you evoke such judgment and condemnation on your own people? Are they so much worse than anybody else?

There is judgment and condemnation in the Ten Commandments too. Or there would be if the editors of the lectionary had not removed verses 5 and 6 from our Reading. These verses say that if you take God’s name in vain, the Lord will not hold you guiltless and will punish your children to the fourth generation. Such language offends our modern sensibilities. All this guilt and punishment.

You might remember that some years ago, in Alabama, the infamous Judge Roy Moore installed a monument of the Ten Commandments in his courthouse, which he then was ordered to remove. This same Roy Moore is now a candidate for the Senate. He poses as a defender of the freedom of religion and also the right to bear arms, and at recent a campaign rally he pulled out a handgun and raised it triumphantly. Which suggests that his monument to the Ten Commandments was actually a weaponizing of the Commandments; he was using them as symbolic ammunition in the culture war. Ironically in doing so he was taking the name of the Lord God in vain, but you can see why so many people feel the Ten Commandments as negative and even violent.

In the Reformed tradition as practiced by the Reformed and Presbyterian churches, we honored the Ten Commandments but precisely because we honored them we never imposed them on the state, but kept them for the church. We used them liturgically, not politically. Until the 1960’s, in the Reformed church, you heard them read out every Sunday morning in the liturgy. It’s because I heard my dad read the Law from the pulpit every week that I absorbed it and know it all by heart.

In the Reformed tradition, the Law of God has three purposes. First, to convict us of our sin, to let us know that we are guilty, yes, and inspire us to penitence. Second, to drive us to the bosom Christ, who kept the Commandments, so that we find our righteousness in him and not within ourselves. Third, to give us guidance for a good and wholesome life. It took the apostles to work out that we are free from the Law, and the Commandments are not binding on us, but yet we are free to be guided by them. So we repeat the words of Psalm 19 as our positive feeling for the Law of God.

The Ten Commandments were a good and gracious gift to the Children of Israel. The last three Sundays we’ve seen the gifts of manna, and water, and now the Law. God gave them manna to feed them and water to revive them, and now God feeds their minds and freshens their morality. And yet they were afraid. They feared the fire and the smoke and the sound of God’s voice. But I think the words themselves were fearsome too.

The Ten Commandments describe a revolutionary way of life and a society that was heretofore unthinkable. No gods and goddesses, no hierarchy in heaven and none on earth, no upper class, no lower class, no king, no princes, no generals, no army, no police, no principalities, no powers, no structure of obligations up or down, none of the standard codes of law from any other civilization at the time. Just the God who created you and your neighbor. And that is the sum total of the social structure, that everyone is to you your neighbor. Everyone’s life is equal in value and obligation. Only your parents get extra honor because it was through them that God created you.

This is radical equality before the law. This is the original puritan common-wealth. You have no obligations to anyone above you and you have no control over anyone beneath you, but yet you have a total obligation to your neighbor beside you, who does not control you. This blend of total freedom and total obligation must have been a fearful thing, it is too radical not to be afraid of it.

Another fearful feature was the second commandment’s prohibition of graven images and any ritual of worship, which was the abnegation of religion as they knew it. The graven images served to keep divinity available and manageable, to keep God close but in his place. When they heard this second commandment, they must have been terrified of a god who was so totally transcendent and so free. How shall we deal with such a God? We don’t know how. There was no precedent for this.

If there is no organized religion, then is nothing sacred? Well, yes, in the third commandment the name of God, and in the fourth commandment the Sabbath day, but what about something more tangible, as tangible as a graven image? Okay, if you want an image of God to serve, how about your neighbor. God put God’s image in your neighbor. God identifies with your neighbor, and God takes it personally how you serve your neighbor’s good. Your neighbor’s life, your neighbor’s wife, your neighbor’s property, your neighbor’s reputation, and even your neighbor’s good fortune if he’s got a nicer house or spouse or flock than you have—all that is sacred to you. So the practice of worship and service are just about the same. To worship God is to serve your neighbor. At last we touch upon our draft new mission statement! To offer a practice of worship and service is our mission, just like Israel’s.

Many of you have seen the inscription of the Ten Commandments in our sanctuary, on the reredos above the pulpit, on the other side of that wall. In 1891, when this building was new, the Consistory chose to put the Ten Commandments there. Why? Why did they give them pride of place? What were they saying to themselves and to their public and eventually to us? Why this gift?

The typical iconography is of twin tablets with the commandments enumerated in two columns, like up in the sanctuary of Beth Elohim or on the monument in Alabama. But our inscription is of a single, seamless recitation, without numbers, not divided up, just as it was first spoken to the people by God’s own voice, in the only public speech God ever made in the Bible. Is that what our Consistory wanted to convey in 1891, or was it simply because they were read out weekly in the liturgy? We don’t know, but of the rare things in our sanctuary, it is the rarest—the Ten Commandments in the original spoken version, not as a list of rules, but as a message, a recitation, a chant, a song, a speech that calls into being a new reality, a spell that gives shape to the sovereignty of God.

The words go out into the world to shape a new creation, and we are ever trying to catch up to listen and respond to them. “Thou shalt not kill.” Full stop, but it goes out ahead of us. Don’t lessen it, don’t cheapen it, don’t make it more acceptable by translating “kill” as “murder.” It is total and unconditional, “You shall not kill.” It is never right to kill. You do not have the right to kill.

But how can that be, when elsewhere in the Torah God allows killing and even commands it? Submit to the tension, because the word goes out into time, and we keep moving to catch up to it. Until we get past this evil world some killing is going to happen, but it must be done by public officers, in uniforms, not private persons, certainly not by neighbors of each other. The kingdom of God gives no private person the license to kill or the right to bear arms.

I said to Melody this week that Americans can hardly tell the difference between freedom and chaos. These things feel about the same to Americans. We take freedom as an absolute, the abolition of limits and the absence of control. My rights and my freedom are absolute. This is the same as chaos, disorder, and violence. Politics can’t solve it because it is an inner spiritual compulsion, a bondage disguising itself as freedom because it’s a bondage that we keep choosing. True freedom comes in the word of God to which we submit in freedom from the chaos and the violent dark.

Last week Melody suggested to me that the last part of our new mission statement might better be something like, “a vision of the true and alternate reality.” And the way we give form and shape to this new and alternate reality is by means of our practice of worship and service. The form and shape, according to the Lord Jesus, is love. He said this when he summarized the Ten Commandments. He said that the new and alternate reality will take form and shape when you love God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind, and you love your neighbor as yourself. From these two commandments of love hang all the Law and the Prophets.

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