Friday, December 14, 2018

December 16, Advent 3: Living Between the Times: Joy.

Zephaniah 3:14-20, First Song of Isaiah, Philippians 4:4-7, Luke 3:7-18

In my final year in my third congregation, in Hoboken, my wife Melody developed a Christmas pageant that I was very proud of. It was based on a medieval mystery play and had all these cool parts for the children, from Adam and Eve to Joseph and Mary. (I should credit Gretchen Wolf Pritchard.)

So when I went to my fourth charge, in Grand Rapids, a big church, I was excited to introduce this kind of pageant, especially with the assistance of this big staff under me and lots of resources for music and costumes. But one of the education staff had designed his own Christmas pageant a couple years before I arrived. And the first time I saw it I disliked it very much. It contradicted everything I valued in a pageant.

So over the following months I shared my vision of what a Christmas pageant should be, but my education person was not buying it and neither did the children’s committee. I did not like this resistance. I was the senior pastor, and I was supposed to be the visionary leader. Eventually I realized I was going to have to yield, and I was not happy. And I guess my unhappiness got out.

Because on that next Advent Sunday when I came to church and I stepped inside the door a senior elder came up to me. He had been a pastor once himself. He took my hand and he looked me in the eye and he said, “You will enjoy this pageant and you will show it.” He was right, I knew it right away. He was commanding me to rejoice, and let your gentleness be known to all, just like St. Paul did.

Rejoice. The Latin word is gaudete, the second-person-plural present-active-imperative, which is why the third Sunday of Advent is called Gaudete Sunday. You-all–rejoice! It’s a command, do it! But how can joy be commanded? Shouldn’t it be spontaneous, a feeling that rises inside you? How can you command a feeling?

Well, in Christian terms the feeling of joy is only one result of the practice of joy, and the practice of joy may have all different kinds of feelings not typically recognized as joyful, such as very quiet contemplation or even “weeping with them that weep.” In all these feelings you have to choose for joy, but if you pursue it directly it will evade you, you have to get it roundabout.

You can pursue happiness. The pursuit of happiness is your inalienable right. I’m not against happiness, even though I am a Calvinist. But happiness is not the same as joy. Happiness is based on your circumstances, your happenstance. “Life is good, these are the best of times, I wish this could go on forever.” Happiness prefers the status quo, and it is not for living between the times. So happiness can get in the way of joy. Your pursuit of happiness can be an obstacle to your joy. Because what joy looks for is news, news of something coming, news of a change, news of hope. Joy responds to what is outside of your control. Joy gives in.

Which is why the prophets like John the Baptist come along to disrupt your happiness. How disruptive are his words: “You brood of vipers!” Yet the people come out to him anyway, they are drawn to him, even tax collectors and soldiers, who sense the disruption coming, that they are living in between the times. They hear his harsh words as good news. It was good for them because when you repent you disrupt your own happiness in order to give room for joy to come in. You give room and you give in. Like I did on that Advent Sunday in Grand Rapids when that elder admonished me.

Joy is your obligation as a Christian, so when you are commanded to rejoice, how shall you obey the command? The mistake is to try to generate your own joy within yourself. To force yourself to be joyful does not work, and it misses the meaning of joy. When you are commanded to rejoice, the best way to respond is by your belief. Belief is how you obey to the command to rejoice.

You believe it’s true, you believe that there is something outside yourself, you believe that there is something beyond your circumstance and happenstance, beyond your happiness that even judges your pursuit of happiness. When you believe, you open a window, and when the window is open the joy comes in. When you repent you open a crack in yourself, and through the crack the light comes in. Repentance and belief are the roundabout to joy. 

This is precisely why that, while sorrow may be the opposite of happiness, it is not the opposite of joy. You can have joy in the midst of loss and sorrow. You can have joy within your grief and pain—because of what you believe, despite your happenstance. The literature of religion has many testimonies of people knowing joy in the midst of their sorrow, and not just only Christian testimonies. You can be in a dark room, but the window can be open. That’s how you know the difference between happiness and joy, because joy is a gift against your circumstances.

In the Christian view, joy is not some general quality or aether or independent energy. Joy comes from God. God is joyful and the source of joy. In our Christmas hymn we sing that Joy is to the world because the Lord is come. Can I say that joy is God’s aroma, the body odor of God, and not a stench but a fragrance? The window is open and it smells like the Holy Spirit in here.

According to the prophet Zephaniah you can have your joy because the Lord God rejoices over you. Can I say that God enjoys you? And the joy of God comes into you inspiring you to your own joy, which you would not have on your own.

I love the picture that Zephaniah gives us of God singing. When I think of all the familiar depictions of God, from Michelangelo to Monty Python, I can’t think any picture of God singing. Or of Jesus either. What if God only sings, what if whenever God speaks it’s always to music? Whatever, by your belief you open your window to the singing of God and the joy of God, who gives that joy to you. Joy is always a gift, and it is God’s gift to you to help you live between the times.

As Christians we say that we are living between the times of his coming once at Bethlehem and his coming again in glory to judge the living and the dead. But as ordinary citizens we feel that we are living between the time of recent prosperity and the time of looming crisis and disaster from global climate change. The end of our world as we have known it, and not because of God, but because of our mismanagement and greed. It’s not the judgement of God that we fear but the judgment of Nature.

In my sixty-five years I can’t remember such general cultural pessimism. You call up someone on the phone, “How you doing?” “Not bad, considering everything going on.” Of course the people in many parts of the world would say that we are only finally feeling the loss of our privilege and domination, which they have been suffering under for so long. And so we are tempted to be both aggressive and defensive in our pursuit of our happiness. This is America right now.

In the midst of this pessimism some Christians feel that we are called to judgment. Maybe. But if the Lord is near, I say leave the judgment to him. What you are called to is joy. Not to pretend that the pessimism is unreasonable, not to falsify the awful truth of how bad things are, but by your belief to keep that window open to the presence of God, the judgment of God, the grace of God, and the joy of God.

As you walk down this long corridor of time, between the time behind and the time ahead, as you walk you keep on opening the windows. It’s not a tunnel, it’s a cloister walk under the sky, it’s a passage under the stars, a gallery of windows, and you keep opening them to the presence of God till you arrive at the great hall of the feast. You are commanded to rejoice as an invitation to believe, to believe that the Lord is at hand—so close at hand that nature sings, and the fields and the floods repeat the sounding joy.

The joy can be raucous and foot-stomping, or it can be contradictory, like when you hold the precious body of a loved one dying, or it can be quiet and peaceful, like when you hold a newborn baby in your arms. That Christmas memory tells us that the aroma of joy is the fragrance arising from the substance of love, the Spirit of love, and that God is joyful because God is love.

Copyright © 2018, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Thursday, December 06, 2018

December 9, Advent 2, Living Between the Times: Transformation

Malachi 3:1-4, Song of Zechariah, Philippians 1:3-11, Luke 3:1-6

Are you a prophet? Do you know anyone who is? What makes a prophet a prophet? Someone who foretells the future? That’s too narrow a definition. It’s not just foresight, but also insight. A prophet is a truth-teller about the present—with future implications. And Christian prophecy never treats the future as inevitable, it always leaves room for human choice to change the future for the better. The prophet puts you in a crisis, the prophet says to mind your ways and mend your ways, please do!

Prophets aren’t always welcome. The full truth about the present can be uncomfortable. And inconvenient! Prophets are unpopular. They are people who don’t get along, and difficult. It’s no fun to be a prophet. People in power do not like prophets. People in positions of prestige and prosperity do not like them. It’s the poor and oppressed who generally have no problem with them.

A prophet says, Stop! A prophet says, Wake up! A prophet says, “You’re a miserable offender,” and you say, “I’m not that bad.” A prophet says, “There is no health in you,” and you protest your health. You want to justify yourself and preserve your self-regard. But can you let go, surrender your self-regard, and what’s even harder, risk your investments in the future as you have bet on it so far? If your pension fund is invested in ExxonMobil, and if the prophet is warning you of global climate change, then you might resist the prophet to protect the comfort of your retirement!

Do you have a vision for the future of your life? Are you a visionary? The late president George H. W. Bush was famously hobbled by what he called “the vision thing.” I have been as well. When I came to my fourth charge, in Grand Rapids, I was repeatedly asked what was my vision for that church. I had no answer. I had never been asked that in my three former charges. “What do you mean? You called me to come and be your pastor. I came!”

“But a church like ours needs a vision for our future!” So I brought in advisers and I went on retreats, and finally I presented to the Consistory a vision plan—which they voted down 23 to 3! “We like you as our pastor but that’s not where we want to go!” Two years later, after I had been in Brooklyn for a while, I was talking to a friend back in Grand Rapids about where Old First was headed and he said, “Dan, your vision was right all along. You just had it for the wrong church!”

Well, nice, but did my vision come from God? Was it a prophetic vision? Not every visionary is a prophet. And many truth-tellers are simply pundits. The difference is your truth comes from God, your vision comes from God, when these are not available to human deduction apart from the gift of God. A prophet is a messenger, an instrument, even an oracle. The Christian prophet’s personality is never to be separated from her message, but her source is ultimately not herself. That’s why I never preach to you except from out of the Bible, because I’m supposed to be your prophet.

Does that mean that God still speaks? That God still talks today? Yes, but my speaking is not equal to God speaking, nor is even the Bible equal to God speaking. Where God speaks is in our making sense of the Bible together. In the interaction of this ancient text with our common life is God still speaking, so that God makes us a prophetic people, God makes us a visionary people.

But not as we just are. As it transforms us. If we prefer the status quo, if we don’t desire our transformation, then we cannot be prophetic. We have to participate in the transformation that we call for. And our transformation is guided by our vision, a vision that we seek from God, from our common interaction with the Word of God as it’s been given to us within the Holy Bible.

We say that we “offer a vision of the kingdom of heaven.” For the past few years we have been preoccupied with our sanctuary as the expression of that vision. The day is coming when we can enter back in it.  And then we will have to do the further work of making that sanctuary “a space of unconditional welcome.” What does that mean? What about security? What about safety? What about good behavior? Is the kingdom of heaven ever in tension with the unconditional welcome?

Not all behaviors are welcome in the kingdom of heaven. Not if we believe in transformation. To sort out which behaviors are welcome is our task as a prophetic people, and we assign this task to the Board of Elders (which please remember as we are choosing new consistory members). The task isn’t always easy, and it can’t be just our preferences—we must be interpreting and applying the gospel of God that directs us. It must come out of our sense of mission given us by God.

Our consistory is accountable to a wider assembly called the Classis of Brooklyn, and just last Sunday we had a meeting with its officers. The Classis of Brooklyn cannot support our mission of full acceptance and affirmation of LGBTQ people, our visions differ on the kingdom of heaven, and so we explained our request to be transferred to a different classis.

We testified that we dissent from the traditional expectation that LGBTQ people should behave straight somehow. No, and we believe that the vision of the kingdom of heaven is calling us to ever new realities of unconditional welcome. God is not finished speaking yet, and is always addressing new developments. The vision is of the future, not the past. The golden age is still to come, and it’s waiting for us with God.

Of course all of us require transformation, in whatever ways that are appropriate to our several conditions and orientations. Also needing further transformation is our unconditional welcome. We can never say that we’ve arrived. Are we fully welcoming to trans-gendered people? Are we fully welcoming to the poor and dispossessed? If we look at our building we must admit that our space is only very conditionally welcoming to disabled and differently-abled people. How with our building can we yet make the crooked straight and the rough places plain? How more open can we yet be?

Why are we on these topics in December instead of talking more about Christmas? Well, mostly because that’s where our scripture lessons are—they’re not yet about the fulfillment, but the longing, the pregnancy, the time of expecting and not yet the time of delivery, and we are living between the times, this space within the time of  prophecy and transformation, the season of Advent.

Advent is a penitential season, because transformation has to begin with repentance. But the repentance of Advent is different from that of Lent. It is not mortification and self-examination but openness and expectation. You open up your soul like Mary’s womb. You open your heart like Mary’s uterus. You open your mind to the prophecy that sounds too strong, too critical, extreme, and you say, Well, maybe!

You don’t answer back, you listen. I think the greater part of repentance is just listening to the prophecy. To entertain the prophets in all of their difficulty is repentance in itself. Of course the prophet doesn’t have the last word, but is for preparation between the times.

The last word belongs to the savior himself, for whom the prophet prepares the way. And the savior comes in the way that we need but not how we expect him. The savior surprises even the prophets. The prophet Malachi expected him to come like fire, which burns, or like bleach, which stings, and not like an infant who needs to be kept warm. The prophet John the Baptist expected him to come like a warrior-king, building his military highways in the deserts like the Roman soldiers did, and not like a baby needing to be held and touched and comforted. A wonderful surprise.

So the preparation you need to work in this Advent season is conditioned by the character of the savior who comes at the end of it wrapped in swaddling clothes, which means a preparation of receiving, embracing, holding in your arms, holding on your chest. You need to open up your love. If you are resisting the stringent purging of the prophet, you are also restricting your love. If you resist the overly critical urging of the prophecy you are closing off yourself from the overflow of love. You are trying to keep control, you are trying to be the boss, you are in the way of God in you.

The marvelous thing is that he doesn’t wait for us to be ready. Ready or not he comes. His coming does not depend on what we do even though we are called to do it. For I am confident that the one who began a good work in you will bring it to completion in the day of Jesus Christ. Why would God wait for you to get ready first when God has such great love for you?

Copyright © 2018, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Friday, November 30, 2018

December 2, Advent 1: Living Between the Times: Righteousness

Jeremiah 33:14-16, Psalm 25:1-10, I Thessalonians 3:9-13, Luke 21:25-36

We want the world to make sense. We want existence to add up. Einstein said that what’s most incomprehensible about the universe is that it’s comprehensible. But some thinkers have turned that around: What’s comprehensible about the universe is that it’s incomprehensible. It doesn’t make sense, it doesn’t add up. And it certainly isn’t fair. The world is just not fair.

Some people get the breaks and others don’t. Some people have it good and others have to struggle. Isn’t that just evolution, the survival of the fittest? The second-born baby eagle gets kicked out of the nest. Isn’t the wage disparity in America just the cost of business and the consequence of liberty? As for any morality, isn’t it just karma, cause and effect, what goes around comes around?

You can deal with the unfairness of the world in kind. Give up on fairness, work on fitness, become the fittest for your own survival and success. Or even exploit the unfairness, especially if you have grievances. It’s payback time. This is now American policy under our current President.

But what if you believe in a God of justice and love? Then the world’s unfairness is a problem, and maybe the biggest obstacle to belief in God. That God should allow such unfairness is a theme in Dostoevsky’s great novel The Brothers Karamazov

Coming to terms with this problem is one of the chief steps in spiritual maturity, but even the greatest saints lose heart. That sinking feeling is what Psalm 25 is getting at. “Let me not be humiliated, nor let my enemies triumph over me” who say there is no God, who mock us for waiting in vain. Let me not be humiliated by the absence of my God.

We say that we are waiting for Christ to come again, and that we are in between the times, and the days are surely coming when he will judge the world and establish justice and vindicate fairness and set everything to rights. This coming of the Lord we celebrate in the season of Advent—that he shall come again as the Lord as certainly as he came once as a child. Advent is the season of expecting something more, some one-more great definitive day of God within the world.

Until then, between the times, we are offered a kind of justice that differs from the expectation. It is a kind of justice that is not defined as balance and fairness, but justice defined as righteousness. We learn this from Jeremiah, who combines them as “justice and righteousness.” 

The world can be unfair and existence cruel, but if there is a persistence of righteousness available for people to witness, the world can still make sense between the times. Even in overwhelming injustice, the evidence of righteousness is enough to justify the world, and give sufficient credibility to the God who claims to be in charge of the world. That’s at least the offer. Can you believe it? Does that work for you?

I had an uncle in the Netherlands named Wim. He was a Reformed Church pastor. Not an easy guy, polite but stiff. But during the War he hid Jews in the church building, and it cost him. Years later the Israeli government named him a “righteous Gentile.” He did it because he felt he had no choice. I think that’s what righteousness feels like, that you don’t know what else to do. His righteousness had a double benefit. He saved Jewish lives. But he also saved the world from the triumph of nihilism. The world still makes enough sense that we can keep going. Your little acts of righteousness today are pointers and hints and witnesses to the final justice that God will bring.

You can be righteous. You are righteous when you do the right thing even when it feels unfair that you have to do it and others don’t. You are righteous when you do the right thing even though a wrong was done to you, when you do not respond to unfairness in kind, when you break the cycle of cause and effect. You are righteous when you are kindly to someone who is unfair to you. You are righteous when you stop living by excuses and stop pleading your extenuating circumstances. You are righteous when you stop blaming others for your predicament, or for the choices that you make. You are righteous when you use your own privilege in the cause of others who experience injustice and oppression, when you resist or protest at no benefit to yourself or even at cost to yourself.

You are righteous when you recognize that you have had the benefit of much unfairness too. I have known unfairness in my life, but I also receive a lot of credit I don’t deserve. The unfairness of the world has generally been on my behalf. Therefore who am I to excuse myself from the costly righteousness of loving the world?

God does not ignore the world. That’s what we celebrate at Christmas. God enters the world, God walks among us in the world, God eats with us and sleeps with us and nurses at his mother’s breast. The whole thing is a great big “yes” to the world, to the material world, so everybody wants to celebrate, and it’s no wonder that most of our celebration of the holidays is more about the world than it is about God. We sing about the baby, but we are very busy with materialism and worldliness.

Advent is the discomforting conscience of the Christmas season. Amidst our holiday busyness the Church holds forth the Advent message that “he shall come again to judge the quick and the dead.” We are people of the future no less than the past. There is more to come, and we live with expectation. We are to be alert. We are the designated drivers of the world.

We are not to lose ourselves in that most common strategy for dealing with the difficulty of the world, by drowning ourselves in it, through dissipation and drunkenness, as Jesus says, nor through the respectable temptation of materialism, which is no less an indulgence. Designated drivers resist temptations to indulge, you determine your behavior now by what you’re expecting in the future. Keep sharp, keep lively. Jesus says to keep alert and raise your heads.

He says to be on guard. Not against your enemy, but against the fear of your enemy. Be on guard, not against the turmoil of the world, but against the temptation to respond to the turmoil by fear instead of love and peace. When trouble comes, lift high your head. When unfairness and injustice come, it is your opportunity to witness to the righteousness of God.

You want to be righteous; that’s why you are here. I have good news. The Lord is your righteousness. Your righteousness is not your own success at being virtuous. Righteousness is not your own performance of saintliness. Righteousness is your orientation towards God, your commitment to God, your exploration of God, keeping your eye on God and on what God might be doing.

The Lord is your righteousness. Be wholly interested in God and the righteousness will come. Open yourself to the voice of God, to the judgement of God, as searching as it may be, and your righteousness will come. Give yourself to the comfort of God, and not your own devices, open yourself to the love of God and not your own desires, and the righteousness will come.

If I were God I would run the world differently. I would have come back already. I would not allow the misery to go on. I would have ended all the unfairness. Why God makes us wait between the times I don’t fully understand. I could say that the Lord Jesus holds off in order to give room in time for Holy Spirit to do her always surprising work. I could say that God is giving you time to live your life, that God gives you room, and that God delights in your small creative acts of righteousness, but is that delight of God worth all the other suffering? I will come back to this next week.

I am not sure of the reasons, and neither was St. Paul, I think. But the promise in the meantime is that God has not abandoned us. In the meantime, says St. Paul, God strengthens your hearts in holiness. By holiness we mean that orientation to God that counts as righteousness. And in the meantime the Lord makes you abound in love for one another and for all. Everything that God does for you is designed to make your love abound the more. Maybe a reason that Jesus waits is to give time and space for you to abound in love. That would go with Dostoevsky’s vision in The Brothers Karamazov.

And a reason that Jesus waits is to make a great long space within time for God’s unconditional welcome. That unconditional welcome is not just empty space but great embrace, not just avoidance or indifference, but unconditional love, welcoming love, hospitable love, serving love, investing love, a love which God demonstrated within that space by being born as a baby, a baby to be loved by his mommy and his daddy.

Copyright © 2018 by Daniel Meeter, All Rights Reserved.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

November 25, Ingathering Sunday: A Vision of the Kingdom

2 Samuel 23:1-7, Psalm 132:1-12, Revelation 1:4-8, John 18:33-37

Today I’m going to talk about the king and then I’ll talk about the kingdom.

Pontius Pilate says to Jesus, “So you are a king!” Pilate would not be impressed that Jesus was a king. Petty local kings were the bother of Roman governors all the time, to be used for imperial advantage—manipulating them, subsidizing them, even executing them. He just thinks, “Oh bother, so the Jews have a king now!”

It’s peculiar that the chief priests who should be supporting this king are accusing him instead. The governor has to figure this out, make a play at justice, and keep the advantage. So it’s at least for information that he has to question Jesus. The interrogation of Jesus by Pontius Pilate is one of the remarkable parts of the Gospel of John, and it extends beyond our lesson this morning.

Pilate finds him puzzling. The Lord Jesus is calm and self-possessed, he’s respectful but not obsequious. When Pilate asks him a question, he answers, but he seems always to change the subject. Just as he did before in the Gospel of John, in his interview with Nicodemus, and in his conversation with the woman at the well. Whatever the question may be, he answers as he wants to!

So when Pilate asks him, “What have you done?” Jesus replies obliquely, “My kingdom is not from this world.” That answer was no use to Pilate, but it’s accurate, because ultimately that’s why Jesus is in trouble—from the kind of kingdom that he introduced. His answer also means that whatever he might have done is not accountable to human judges nor comprehensible to imperial analysis. He means that Pontius Pilate is not competent to judge him, despite his being in charge that day.

When he says that his kingdom is not from this world, don’t misunderstand him. His kingdom is over this world and very much in this world. But its source and its power is outside the confines of the world, and its perspective is larger than the here and now. It is not subject to the rules and judgments of the world. So how can Pontius Pilate judge him rightly, or even ask the right questions?

If Pontius Pilate can recognize him as a king, it’s only as a troublesome king to be disposed of in the end, and not a king that he should serve. This peculiar king is unable to marshal any effective power to fight back, or to prevent his execution. Jesus admits as much, he says that if his kingdom were from this world his followers would fight for him

And Jesus seems content at this point that Pilate admits that he’s a king. That is a truth that Pilate recognizes here, as far as he can even understand it, so Jesus has had this success at least, that he has testified effectively to the truth about himself. And to testify to the truth is why he was born, and why he came into the world.

His kingdom is the kingdom of truth. The truth about the world is not from within the world. The meaning of humanity cannot be discerned from inside humanity. The purpose of existence is learned only from outside of existence. To gain the truth about the world you must listen to the voice of the one who came into the world from outside of the world, the one who loves the world.

He tells Pilate that everyone who belongs to the truth listens to his voice. Pilate could try that—he could listen to his voice and ask him questions of curiosity instead of expediency. Questions from his heart, questions that open instead of close, to open what Jesus has to offer instead of questions designed to dispose of him. But Pilate does not listen for the voice of Jesus, because he doesn’t belong to the truth, he belongs to power. And power wants truth only when the truth gives it advantages.

For all the power of Pontius Pilate, his hands are tied. He’s got to worry about his bosses above him and he’s being manipulated from below. He might like to set Jesus free but for political reasons he cannot. He has power only as the servant of power and the slave of it. He has no power over himself. Jesus does. Jesus is free. He has the power of truth, and the truth is always free.

In America we are watching a President who has power but who hates the truth. In our city we have a mayor who for all of his vaunted progressivism does not like the truth and acts afraid of it. We have a governor who makes his deals behind closed doors and is all about advantage. We do not find them trustworthy or faithful because they don’t belong to the truth.

Faithfulness is the moral aspect of truth. You use your power in trust. You use your freedom for fidelity. This is why Jesus is respected in the world, even by those for whom he is no king. He never acted other than in truth.

If he’s a king, then what is his kingdom? And how much are these words, king and kingdom, metaphorical? Are there metaphors less masculine and military? David was king because he was a military hero. It’s indicative that even modern kings wear military uniforms when they get married.

This came up when we were drafting our new mission statement. We want to offer “a vision of the Kingdom of Heaven.” What can we substitute for “kingdom”? Maybe realm, or dominion? Calvinists like the word “sovereignty.” Compared to these, the virtue of the word “kingdom” is that it has the person of the king built into it, which is the point. The problem has no solution, only choices.

The kingdom extends from the king. And that’s why it’s a realm of truth. That’s why it’s the dominion of grace and peace. And as the character of the king extends to the kingdom, so it also extends to you who are part of it. You too are witnesses to the truth. You witness against the false kings and the rival powers of the world. You witness by your protests and resistance. You witness by your service, especially by your service to the poor and the powerless in whom the world sees no advantage. You witness by your lives of faithfulness and your habit of trustworthiness.

Because the kingdom extends from the king, this kingdom is not military. You are not its soldiers but its priests. In the words of the Revelation, he has made us a kingdom of priests. This kingdom has no need for soldiers. It does not need to be defended. Of course it has many opponents and attackers. We are tempted to want to defend it and to fight for it. This has always been a great temptation for Christians; you know: “Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war, with the cross of Jesus going on before.” Well, no. We are priests who are too busy serving God, his Father.

And how do you serve God? What do priests do? Explain, advise, counsel, set an example. Pray for others and help others pray. Give out forgiveness, make places of safety and maintain places of sanctuary. Help non-priests to make their sacrifices and do their acts of service and good deeds. If we are priests it’s our job to make places and occasions for other people to do their service.

Take the example of our Hurricane Sandy Relief Kitchen. It was not a bad thing that most of the people volunteering were not from our church. Because our congregation was being priestly in offering the space and possibility for all of the volunteers, no matter what they believed, to do their sacrificial service. That was the kingdom of heaven.

And it is not a bad thing that 600-odd people who use this building all week are not from our congregation. You make the space for them to do their good work. The kingdom of heaven is over them. And when our sanctuary is reopened as a kingdom of priests you will offer that sacred space of unconditional welcome, and even the sight of that beautiful space is one vision of the kingdom of heaven.

The very strange thing about this kingdom of heaven is its lack of interest in advantage. Which is what make no sense to the powers of the world. Why have power for no advantage? Why else America first? I see Christians expecting their loyalty to the kingdom to give them advantages. With God on our side, a more Christian country, a Supreme Court on our side, advantages for private schools, or even just personal blessings or personal healings. Yes, Jesus has told you to pray for healings and blessings as you desire them, and God desires that you do so. But the point of the metaphor of the kingdom of heaven is not for our successes as Christians or even our convenience.

Then what is its advantage? Why is it worth it? Because its policy is the truth and its power is love, and that’s what you want to belong to. You want your life to bear witness to what is true and good and beautiful, and you want whatever power that you possess to be for love. That’s your mission, that’s your share in the mission of Jesus in the world, as he gathers all things to that great end when all will be in all—to live your life in the greatest truth of all, which is the love of God for you and for all the world.

Copyright © 2018, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Friday, November 16, 2018

November 18, Proper 28, 364th Anniversary: The Alternate Story

1 Samuel 1:4-20, Canticle of Hannah, Hebrews 10:11-25, Mark 13:1-8

Wars and rumors of wars, nation rising against nation, earthquakes and famines. It was the story then and it’s the story now, the same old story and the story of our lives. Buildings built up and buildings demolished. The post-war order coming down, the President demolishing our moral structures, the Roman Catholic hierarchy in self-destruct, earthquakes in Indonesia and famines all around. It is the over-arching story of humanity, with an ever new cast of characters, including us who live within it.

It’s a true story. It’s not fake news. But it’s not the only story that is true. There is another one, an alternate story, and just as true. The alternate story is harder to believe, so it’s considered a delusion and a fairy tale. It’s the story we tell in church, the alternate story of the world. It too is an over-arching story with countless characters and ever new details, and we who tell it are also in it.

The alternate story is never separate from the same old story. It keeps arising out of it and turns back toward it in grief and hope and love. It is always coming to birth in it, and the pain and stress we feel who tell it are the birthpangs of the gospel story being born again within our dying world.

In our gospel lesson the Lord Jesus told the disciples that when the Romans, being Romans, would inevitably demolish the Temple, the looming agony of Jerusalem would be the labor pains of something more wonderful and universal in the ever-developing story of God’s love for the world. But for all its promise there would be some loss and grief and that was hard for them to hear.

The same old story is in the Epistle lesson with the daily sacrifices of the priests that can never finally take away our sin, the old story of religion as guilt, of some people pure and others not. But out of this arose the alternate story: the good news of the Lord Jesus who offered himself once, for all of time, to break the grip of guilt and sin. We tell it not as a theory but as a story, especially to our children, because even children can recognize the love in it and we all can imagine the hope in it.

The same old story is in the Old Testament lesson in the jealousies and competition in the family of Elkanah. How typical and conventional. But the shame and despair of Hannah gives birth to the gospel of her praying and her blessing. She offers up her first-born son to God, just as the Lord Jesus offered up himself. So the alternate story challenges you too to offer your life, the good news makes a claim on you, it challenges you to bless you. Yes, you too want to offer your life for your part in that story that both challenges and blesses the same old story of the world.

The interplay of these two stories is in the Canticle of Hannah that we just repeated, the winners and losers of the same old story upended by the alternate story of the gospel. The weapons of the mighty are broken, but the weak are clothed in strength. Those once full now labor for bread; those who hungered are now well fed. The childless woman finds her life fruitful, and the mother of many sits forlorn. God raises the poor from the dust, and lifts the needy from the ash heap to make them sit with rulers and inherit a place of honor.

Is this true? Is this at best a fantasy, a fairy tale? Doesn’t it always go the other way, the old story just grinding on? Yes, it does, the dreary news is not fake news, but the alternate story is also true, and it gets more true the more you believe it and repeat it, as it inspires you to love instead of domination, and good deeds instead of power. So let us hold fast to the confession of our hope, and encourage one another by keeping the alternate story in the telling, as we have been doing for the 364 years of our congregation. Which is not very long in the universal scheme of things.

In 1664 the alternate story led our deacons to a good deed of encouragement when they bought four dairy cows to farm out among the poor to provide them with free milk. 348 years later the story led you to start a respite shelter for homeless men, and then the Hurricane Sandy Relief Kitchen that made 200,000 meals. I’m telling you your story as part of the larger story to encourage you.

You can see the story there on the table. That’s one of our two communion beakers from 1684, crafted in silver for a rustic village church, a thirtieth birthday present from a woman named Maria Badia to a poor congregation too poor to afford its own pastor.

Think of all the different hands that passed that cup along and all the lips that drank from its silver brim. Well-to-do and poor, Dutch, French, English, German, Canarsie Indian, free African, but also the African slaves of the Dutch and the French. From the same old sinful story we drink the alternate story of grace, and the work of human hands is the vessel of a miracle.

On the surface of that cup has been reflected the lost interiors of four church buildings. Five times now the stones were built up and four times the stones thrown down. Our first building was square and squat and ugly. Our fourth building was a grand Greek temple, the largest of all, but we used it only fifty years before it was demolished.

The demolition is the judgment that breaks down the stones, but from those same stones we built new houses of reconciliation, and so the alternate story keeps rising up from the old, the story of judgment and death for resurrection. How long will this fifth building last, these loftiest stones of all? How long will our part of the story go on?

We have been awarded a $250,000 challenge grant by the Partners for Sacred Places from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. There are many beautiful churches in America, and many churches doing marvelous ministries, but they recognized in us the special combination of four factors: a culturally significant building, an expensive need for restoration, a vital congregation, and a commitment of service to the larger community as a public good. That combination is special.

In these four factors I can recognize our new draft mission statement: “we are a community of Jesus Christ for Brooklyn, offering a space of unconditional welcome, a practice of worship and service, and a vision of the kingdom of heaven.” That’s our particular application of the alternate story, the story of the kingdom of heaven that makes upon the earth a space of welcome, a welcome that can be unconditional because of the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus, whose offering encourages us to good deeds of worship and service unselfishly for the public good.

Unsaid within our statement but assumed by it is the mission of every Christian church, which is to tell the alternate story to every generation. A community of Jesus is that community that tells the story and is always being shaped by the story that it tells, and then is being stimulated by that story to express it in love and good deeds and mutual encouragement.

We are used to thinking of our congregation as small and poor. That’s the same old story. But Partners for Sacred Places is trying to show us the alternate vision of ourselves and of our mission, a vision of abundance born from within our scarcity, a cultural significance we have not dared to recognize, and our church as a public good beyond our estimation.

Yes, we know our steeple is a landmark and our sanctuary is extraordinary, but we are being encouraged that our congregation is fully capable of living out our vision and fulfilling our mission with generosity and with joy. And that’s right—the alternate story, for all its judgment and its challenges, is a story of confidence and joy.

You are a part of it. The story of your own life is part it. Your needing a space of unconditional welcome is part of it. How you always have to live within the same old story, and you hope that you can trust the alternate story to encourage you, and you hope that the pains in your life are the birthpangs of the better you that you long to be, who are not finished yet.

And in that interplay within you of the same old and the good news is how you best contribute to the mission of this church, how you encourage one another, and share with one another in good deeds, and always trying love. Your contribution of your love and your good deeds to this community strengthens and sustains it for its mission, a mission as expansive as our sanctuary and as intimate as our old communion cup.

What was Maria Badia thinking to give this gorgeous gift to our poor congregation? I can see on its lovely surface a vision of gratitude and love, that she would drink her sacred wine from this same cup with all these rustic people. Her gift of love expressing the love of God. The great story that we are commissioned to tell is the story of God’s love.

Copyright © 2018, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Thursday, November 01, 2018

November 4, Proper 26, Law and Gospel #8, The Law of Love is Gospel

Ruth 1:1-18, Psalm 146, Hebrews 9:11-14, Mark 12:28-34

In the Gospel of Mark we have jumped two chapters to the other side of Palm Sunday. We have left the villages of Galilee, and finished the road to Jerusalem, and entered the Temple.

The Temple, where the rabbis taught and the schools debated, where the priests killed the animals and burned the flesh and offered the blood to sanctify the defilement of the people to permit them to worship the living God, and the focus of all the hopes and beliefs of Jesus and his disciples and his opponents, the very center of the Kingdom of God.

So it’s a riddling compliment for the Lord Jesus to tell the scribe that he was “not far from the Kingdom of God.” Could you get any closer? Well, soon, at the cross!

In the Temple, morning and evening, the Levites began the liturgy by singing out the Sh’ma, from Deuteronomy 6: Sh’ma yisro‘el adonai eloheinu adonai echad. “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” 

So it’s no wonder that the Lord Jesus answered the scribe’s question by quoting what they heard, and what they themselves recited in private every morning. If Jesus had been a Protestant, he might have answered with one of the Ten Commandments, but for Jews, there are not just ten commandments, but 613 mitzvoth, all through the Torah, so neither was it odd that for his second great commandment, the Lord Jesus took one of the mitzvoth from Leviticus instead of one of the Ten.

Love is the heart and focus of the Law. Love is law because love is your duty to God. But love is also gospel because it’s good news about the nature of God. It is only a god who loves you who would want your love back, and only a god in whom love is supreme would expect your love as your supreme duty. 

God expects of you what is consonant with God’s own being. And because God’s being is one and undivided, there is nothing in God that is not also loving, so that God requires your undivided love, from all your heart and all your soul and all your strength and mind.

How much is your “all,” how big is your “all”? How much love have you got in you to share? Is your love scarce or bountiful? You can’t be thrifty with love. Yes, love is a risk, and a costly investment, and it takes intention and you have to be wise, but if you are thrifty with your love then you will love only those people and things that are close to you and you get back from, which is really only loving yourself.

You could assume the scarcity of love, but you are called instead to believe in the bounty of love, and in your own capacity for abundance in love, that your own love can overflow, because you believe in the gospel of God, who is overflowing love beyond all measure.

Let me point you to our first lesson and the risky bounty of love in the young woman Ruth. Her mother-in-law Naomi represents scarcity, famine, and loss. Scarcity is a law for her. It tells her how to act. It was the scarcity of the famine that made her and her husband move to Moab. And now when she returns she expects a scarcity of available husbands for Orpah and Ruth, so she tells them to stay back in Moab.

Orpah gives in, but love abounded in Ruth, expressed in her famous speech that I had to memorize as a child: “Entreat me not to depart from thee, or to return from following after thee. For whither thou goest I will go, and whither thou lodgest I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God.”

Ruth was loving her mother-in-law as herself. She offers to bitter Naomi the whole of herself, all of her, totally risking, totally investing, making bounty out of scarcity.

You could say that it’s a matter of seeing the glass half-empty or the glass half-full. Except that Naomi was draining the glass and Ruth was pouring into it. If you read the rest of the Book of Ruth you will see the young woman keep on doing this, until by the end she manages to fill the emptying glass of Naomi right up to the brim.

The Book of Ruth is a short-story, with several themes, but its primary theme is loving your neighbor as yourself despite the odds in real-life ways. Loving your neighbor as yourself as law, as obligation, not based on prosperity or good feelings, and also as gospel, how it can lead to human flourishing even in time of trial.

On this first Sunday of November it is my obligation to preach to you on tithing, and my take-home today is that tithing is an act of love. You think of charity as love, you might think of charity as gospel and tithing as law. Charity is the generous response to human need when you encounter it, and charity is your Christian obligation, but tithing is different.

Tithing expresses your inner desire and commitment. Tithing is not a response but an investment, which is like love, and tithing is challenging, like love, and risky and intentional, like the kind of love which God commands of you. But tithing is also gospel, because to do it makes you a fully-realized Christian, and you are a fully-realized Christian in order to be a fully-realized human being.

Tithing is when you make a challenging commitment ahead of time. Ahead of time, you commit a certain percentage of your money before you spend it on anything else. The ideal is ten percent, which is costly, but if you have to you start out less and then every year you challenge yourself another percent. Tithing is costly, just like love, but it’s a good work that converts scarcity to bounty.

I said that Ruth poured her love into Naomi’s emptying glass. She invested her love in Naomi, not that Naomi needed anything from her. So tithing is not a response to the need of the church but an investment in this community of Jesus and in its mission and in its vision. When you tithe you are saying that you want to strengthen this community of Jesus and support the mission and extend the vision to the heavens.

You do it because you want a practical way to love your neighbor as yourself and to love God every week by means of worship. You can do it, you can tithe, and do it to free yourself from the temptation of scarcity for the reality of abundance.

The conviction of the Bible is that by loving your neighbor as yourself and by loving God with all of yourself you become a full human being. Love defines your human nature just at love defines God’s nature, because you bear the image of God. And because the law of love makes you a full human being is also gospel. You can love like this, and your love will increase as you love.

We come back to the Lord Jesus conversing in the Temple. St. Mark’s gospel is the only one to put this conversation in that venue and at that time, just days before his crucifixion. In his answer to the scribe he was reporting what challenged him, the law of love that drove him to accept his death.

Across the temple courts he could hear the bleating of the animals as they were being killed for sacrifice, as he himself would soon be crying out. He would be doing it not because of any guilt that he had to pay but freely from the bounty of his love. He threw his whole self in for the universe of humanity, just as Ruth threw her whole self in for Naomi. Such abundance, so absolute, and because God was totally in him, therefore eternal and ever valid and once for all, the absolute expression of God’s love, the nature of God fully and finally exposed. "His nature and his name is Love."

Copyright © 2018, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

October 21, Proper 24, Law and Gospel #7: The Law of the Last

Job 38:1-7, 34-41, Psalm 104:1-9, 25, 37b, Hebrews 5:1-10, Mark 10:35-45

I think the take-home message from this Gospel lesson is fairly straight-forward: if you want to be great in the Kingdom of God, be a servant; if you want to be first, be a slave. How far can we take this, beyond our individual persons?

Can we say that if we want to make America great again, America should be the servant of other nations? If we say “America first,” then we should be the voluntary slaves of other peoples? Or if we want Old First church to be a great church, then must we be a servant church? If we want Old First to be truly first, should we be Old Slave church? No one’s going to argue with Jesus, but how far do we take it? How general is what he says, how total?

The point about servanthood and slavery is not groveling, nor is it even humility. It’s rather to substitute the interests of whomever you are serving against your own self-interest. You give up your freedom, and you say, “Your wish is my command.” An effective servant has some power and authority and discretion and strength, but never for the servant’s own purposes, only for whatever suits the master. As for yourself, you put yourself last in line for anything. So dare I say, “America Last?”

How is what the Lord Jesus says here law and how is it gospel? It is law because it’s more than just good advice, it’s a ruling, it’s policy. And yet Our Lord was not in the business of issuing a new set of laws and requirements. His only laws are the long-standing laws of love, of loving God above all and your neighbor as yourself. And to love your neighbors that way is effectively to make yourself their servant, and not for the sake of any possible payback but in order to love God thereby.

It is gospel because, paradoxically, it means all kinds of freedom. The freedom from the need to be first. The freedom from competition, from jockeying for position, from scheming, from fighting to keep your place, freedom from offense and defense, freedom from politicking, and even freedom from needing to defend your honor. Not to be dishonorable, but always actively honorable, so it means candor for yourself, and it means you believing other people. It can be scary to follow the Lord Jesus here, precisely because it’s freedom. The gospel is more challenging than the law!

It is gospel because it also means you don’t have to fight for God or defend the cause of God. That’s a challenge if you have sacrificed your time and money to the church or to Christian institutions, or if you recognize the evident benefits of Christian civilization. You want to protect them and preserve them! But that is not for us to do. We are called instead to put our churches and Christian institutions and even our Christian civilization completely into the role of servanthood, and counting as last in line all that we have worked for and achieved. Last in line.

It also means the freedom for radical hospitality, to offer a space of unconditional welcome. And that is our part in the resistance. Beyond what you do as individuals, our church’s proper contribution to the resistance is this, to maintain the message and practice of this voluntary servitude and vulnerable hospitality. This is joyful resistance against the corruption of the Christian message by so many of its false prophets today, and the co-option of it by the politicians, who have been doing this since the Roman Emperor Constantine, and which the church must ever resist.

This doesn’t mean that God is not first, or great, or that God is weak. We may think so when God does not protect our Christian institutions or defend Godself. So I want you to notice our first lesson, from Job, in which Job finally gets the audience with God that Job had been contending for. Job, in his suffering, had been calling on God to answer and defend Godself, and now finally God answers, but not to defend Godself. For example, God doesn’t pin the suffering of Job on Satan, nor does God explain the wager with Satan, or bother to say, “And see, I was right to bet on you, you held up after all.” No, God does not defend Godself for any of what happened to Job.

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” In this speech God puts Godself on the far side of the boundary of our knowable world. We humans are bounded within the observable universe and inside the limits of the knowable creation, we are servants of the laws of nature and slaves to cause and effect, whereas God is outside of all of that and free of all of that, so how can we judge God? On what grounds can we hold God accountable? By which of our rules can we bind God? The God of the Bible never defends Godself, and never seeks to prove God’s own existence.

Now let me move you abruptly, for here is the heart of the gospel, that God has crossed that boundary into the bondage of our limitations and our weakness in the person of Jesus Christ. In a real human being God submitted to the laws of nature and the suffering of Job. In Jesus the Jew, who was as innocent as Job, God became a slave to the laws of Rome. The Epistle to the Hebrews says, “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears.” Loud groans and weeping. He drank deeply from our cup of misery, he was overwhelmed by the flood of of human sorrow. That was the cup he drank, that was the baptism he was baptized with.

In the gospel lesson, James and John didn’t know what they were asking when they asked to share his glory on his right hand and his left. When they answered his question by saying they could drink from his cup and take their baths with him, they were thinking of the customs of the Romans with their famous bathhouses. It was a big deal to be invited to bathe with a high-ranking noble and then to share a cup of wine with him.

Of course this metaphor has layers. The Lord Jesus meant it for his disciples to share the cup of his doom and to share his submersion into death. The gospel writer means it also for drinking the holy communion and for being baptized into his death, that is, for us to identify with his suffering as our way to peace and to share in his death as our way to life.

And then it is also our mission as the people of the church not to be spared from the suffering of the world but to wade right into the dangerous waters of the grinding life of the world, just as God did wade right in, and to drink from the same bitter cup that other people have to drink just as Jesus drank the vinegar on the cross.

Our mission is not to defend God nor to excuse God from their suffering but to bring God into it by our own entry into it. Not that you need to suffer, though neither should you avoid it, but you be present to their suffering, to wait on people in their trials, and that is the meaning of the servanthood that Jesus calls you to—to be great in the Kingdom of God is to be willing to drink from the same cup as the most miserable person you next encounter.

In my third congregation, when I unsuccessfully advocated restoring the practice of drinking from the common cup at Holy Communion, I remember telling an elder that Jesus told us to drink from the same cup with him, and he answered, “Pastor, I would drink from the same cup with Jesus but not with you!” Are my cooties that bad? Look, I know there are limits to our best intentions, and we do not serve God as we ought, and we do not serve the least of our neighbors as we’d wish to. The summons of the Lord Jesus to risky and vulnerable servanthood is meant as gospel for us, not as a new law to condemn us. He means it not to add to our guilt but to set us free.

So every week you come back confessing your faith and then your falling short, and then you are once again absolved by God and offered the peace of Christ, and then you who have betrayed him are once again invited to share his cup and break the bread. You remember and celebrate that no matter how often you fall short in your servanthood, the servanthood of your Master even to the death is sufficient for the resurrection of the world. You taste in your body the sign and wonder of the overwhelming love of God for people like you.

Copyright © 2018, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Friday, October 12, 2018

October 14, Proper 23, Law and Gospel #6: Us Against God

Job 23:1-9, 16-17, Psalm 22:1-15, Hebrews 4:12-16, Mark 10:17-31

How shall we interpret what the Lord Jesus says in this Gospel lesson? Some Christians have regarded his charge to the rich young man as counting for all of us, so that we all should sell off what we own and give the proceeds to the poor. Of course, upon our doing this we too shall be poor, and must depend upon the proceeds of others selling their possessions too, and on and on.

But the apostles who gave us the gospels did not require their converts to do this. Yes, they called their congregations to generosity and sharing, but not to sell their property to live in mutual poverty. Many of their converts were poor already, many of them were slaves and wives who did not even have the right to property. The apostles apparently regarded what the Lord Jesus said to the young man as either parabolic or particular to him. The Lord Jesus was not making it a new law to enter the Kingdom of God that you must sell off all you own and give the proceeds to the poor.

The Lord Jesus said to him, “You lack one thing.” What was that one thing that he lacked? He said that from his youth he’d kept all the commandments that Jesus listed for him. But Jesus listed only the last six, not the first four. The last six address your social obligations and possessions. The first four address the devotion of your soul to God. I’m thinking that’s the one thing that he lacked.

Was his devotion to the bourgeois morality of his wealth and prosperity? Was he the kind of guy who kept saying, “Look how blessed I am! God is good.” And also thinking, “I must be good!” What if God took that all away, like with Job? Would he still be good? What if he gave it all away himself, and just had one thing, the one thing, the treasure in heaven, the pearl of great price, your love of God, that singular love that determines all your other loves, like your love of the world and your possessions of the world. So that, like the disciples, you can give them up, even if God gives them back to you and they come with persecution. That’s the one thing: to love God.

How do you love God? None of our ordinary tools of love apply to God. God is so far away, so totally other, untouchable and unaffectionate. And yet it’s the first commandment in the Torah, your prime directive. It’s not the prime directive in other religions. It’s not what a Muslim is required to do. Certainly not a Buddhist or a Hindu. Not that they hate god, but love is not the fabric of their respective relationships to their gods as they understand them. Maybe that’s because the other religions are more humanistic and intentionally more achievable.

To love God is a problem because God is a problem. God is both the greatest idea that humans can imagine and also the greatest disappointment. God doesn’t bless whenever we want God to. God doesn’t heal whenever we ask God to. God allows evil to have its way. God allows the wicked to prosper and the innocent to suffer. We are tested in our belief in God, and many have concluded that they can’t believe in God. One of my friends believes it’s all a sham, a pious delusion, and not just innocuous but causing more harm than good, and he used to be a pastor!

You could argue from the absence of God that there is no God. Or you could say instead that there is a God but God is absent. You could argue from the silence of God that there is no God, or you could say that there is a God but God is silent. You could argue from the inaction of God that is no God, or you could say that there is a God who does not intervene. The experience of God can be a bitter one.

How can I love this God, this God who does not answer? How can I love this God who has not defended me? “O God, I can’t convince myself to not believe in you, and I might even fear you, but how can I love you?” This is the testing of those who believe in God but who are tested in their love of God, because they feel abandoned by God, avoided, forsaken, despairing of God.

This kind of testing is the testing of Job. “Today my complaint is bitter; his hand is heavy despite my groaning. If I go forward, he is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him; on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him; I turn to the right, but I cannot see him. God has made my heart faint; the Almighty has terrified me.”

The power of the Book of Job is that it dares to contend with God. The Job who is tested wants to put God to the test! His speech gives us words for when it’s us against God.

Is it wrong for lovers to test each other? Is it wrong for lovers to prove each other, to probe each other, to try each other, to contend with each other? Is mutual testing a necessary part of love? The gospel lesson says that Jesus looked at the rich young man, and loved him, and challenged him. Is the love between us and God a challenging love, a trying love?

God certainly reserves the right to challenge us. Not only because we’re sinful. But also because we are proud and like to be self-sufficient. Listen to the Epistle to the Hebrews: “The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.” Fearful words. Naked, laid bare.

Naked like victims or naked like lovers? There’s not much difference in the risky vulnerability of making love. Is this the vulnerable depth of intimacy that is the love of God? Isn’t it easier to find our comfort in our possessions and in the consolations of bourgeois morality?

Jesus himself was both the lover of God and the victim of God, the victim naked on the cross. It’s on the cross that we observe the mutual testing of love between God the Father and God the Son. What Jesus suffered most was not the physical pain, nor the betrayal by his one disciple, nor his abandonment by the eleven, nor the perversion of justice, but forsakenness by God.

The abandonment and absence of his Father. The testing in extreme of the original love within the Holy Trinity. One person of God enduring the silence and absence of the other person of God. God testing Godself upon the cross. God naked and bleeding and exposed before the lookers-on who mocked the pious hope in God. “He trusted in God that God would deliver him, let God deliver him if he delight in him.” They were mocking his crying out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

From this the Epistle to the Hebrews advises that “we have a high priest who in every respect has been tested as we are. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” The Christian formula is if you believe in the Jesus who as both lover and victim exposed the broken heart of God upon the cross, then you can find the way to love God. This is the kind of God that you can love.

You will be tested if you are a Christian, not just by the world, or by your own failures, but by the word of God, and by the silence of God. You will find yourself angry at God and even raising your fist at God. You will find yourself against the God you believe in and tested in your love for God. But I believe that you can love the God who is exposed upon the cross.

It’s by believing in the Lord Jesus that you find the way to love God. I notice that the Bible doesn’t command us to believe in God. It commands us to love God. And that’s my take-home—that to love God you believe in Jesus. I invite you to it once again. And just as Jesus looked at that young man and loved him, so God looks at you and loves you.

Copyright © 2018, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Saturday, October 06, 2018

October 7, Proper 22, Law and Gospel #5: The Flaw in the Law

Job 1:1, 2:1-10, Psalm 26, Hebrews 1:1-4,2:5-12, Mark 10:2-16

For my last two years of college I had a work-study job as a campus security guard. Half of my job was writing parking tickets on the campus roadways. I was diligent. I was strict. I was merciless. I was righteous. If you parked wrong I would get you. The wife of one famous professor would constantly park illegally, and I was indignant. “How can they do this!”

I loved feeling offended, and being able to write that ticket. I loved feeling angry, and being able to act on my anger. This is all true. Eighteen years ago I did not reveal this to the search committee.

The director of campus security was a retired Grand Rapids cop named Harry Faber. I liked him a lot. I knew that Mr Faber forgave some of my tickets, but I admired him and I accepted that as his weakness. One week we had some big festival coming up, with lots of visitors expected, and Mr Faber said to me, “Write some tickets, Dan, we’ve got to keep the roads cleared.” I was stunned. It hit me that Mr Faber had a functional view of parking rules. They were a means to an end. It wasn’t about morality. It wasn’t about right and wrong. That was a big moment in my education.

You can regard the laws of a nation as the regulations designed to achieve a positive society. Or you could regard the laws of a nation as the rules of a game that are enforced by those in power to their own benefit. Then you might be an anarchist. Or you could regard the laws of a nation as moral applications derived from the laws of nature or the laws of God, and you’d be a classic conservative. I suppose it’s some combination of all three within a capitalist democracy.

As a preacher in the Reformed Church I do not regard myself as either competent or authorized to address the specific laws and policies of the government. But I am supposed to speak to the morality of our laws whenever the scripture lessons are relevant. In this morning’s gospel lesson, once again the Lord Jesus takes in his hands the little children, and that’s relevant to the treatment of refugees and aliens on our borders.

Many have regarded the forceful separation of young children from their parents and confining them in cages as the very debasement of American society and the indictment against our American mythology of moral superiority among the nations. Was this not a symptom of a general contamination of our whole American system, even of things that we allow as morally defensible depending on your political philosophy? If this is the fruit, then what is the root?

Our government defended this policy on functional grounds—that it was designed to discourage refugees: if they didn’t want to lose their children they shouldn’t have come here in the first place. But then both the Attorney General and the Press Secretary appealed to the Bible to defend defending the law. But they did not appeal to any of the laws in the Torah that actually address the moral treatment of aliens and strangers in the land.

The Bible does have a positive respect for law. The Bible is founded on the law of Moses, the Torah. The Psalms are full of praises of the law and of those who keep the law. God is a law-giver, so it is not just all functional. Or perhaps we should say that it is functional in the prerogative of God, that God has designed the laws of nature in order to achieve a good creation and the laws of morality to achieve a positive society. And then we should say that we are responsible to make our laws in honor of God’s designs. So then what are God’s designs? What does God want?

The Bible is full of conventional religious morality, and that is good. If you obey God’s laws, you will live a good life. If you honor your father and your mother, you will live long in the land God gave you. If you keep the covenant the land will yield its increase; and you will prosper if you walk in the precepts of the Lord. The opposite is true as well: the wicked will pay in the end.

It all makes sense, it does work out, it’s almost cause and effect, and the word of God is behind it. Except that the Bible is a conversation, and there is another voice, a voice in contention, saying maybe not; it’s not so simple as cause and effect. The righteous suffer too!

That, of course, it the message of the Book of Job. Our first lessons will be from Job the next few weeks. Unfortunately we will not get to hear the speeches of Job’s three friends. They all tell Job that he must have done something wrong to earn his suffering. If he would repent of his sin, then God would restore him.

But Job steadfastly affirms his innocence, and he has nothing to repent of. The Book of Job is the Bible’s witness against its own conventional morality. There is no simple cause and effect between obedience and success or righteousness and reward.

We have no record of the Lord Jesus ever discussing the Book of Job. But he certainly lived it, he embodied it, he too suffered even though he was innocent. Indeed, it was precisely because he was so uniquely righteous that he suffered and was killed. The Epistle to the Hebrews runs with this idea. It says that the Lord Jesus was made perfect in his sufferings. This should be surprising.

Our conventional theology is that Jesus was morally perfect from his sinlessness in daily life, that he was thoroughly obedient to the law. This is on good Biblical grounds. But the Epistle to the Hebrews dares to teach that his perfection was not perfected until his suffering, his suffering precisely because he was obedient, which reverses the cause and effect of conventional religious morality.

It further teaches that having made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, and became the pioneer of our salvation. By salvation I don’t mean just at the end of your life. I mean salvation from your present disappointment, from your present discouragement, and from your present failure.

In my first parish there was a woman named Esther whom everybody loved. She was nominated for deacon, but she told me that she couldn’t serve, because she was divorced. She felt she was guilty of what the Lord Jesus was teaching in our Gospel today. I told her that Jesus was calling adultery only remarriage after divorce, and even then, what he meant by adultery was not a life-time state of continuing in sin, but a one-time act that was forgivable. Esther was not convinced.

Worse, Esther considered herself a failure in her marriage. Well, yes, but the guy she had married was a selfish creep. Her failure had been to marry him. For which she now was being penalized. And that is the flaw in the law. The grinding consequence of past mistakes. The shackles of cause and effect. Salvation is to free you from this burden every day, and that salvation is what the Lord Jesus accomplished when he was perfected by his suffering and took his seat at the right hand of God.

I notice that after the Lord Jesus said these challenging things about marriage and divorce, the disciples were trying to be righteous and keep the parents of the children from having Jesus touch them like some dispenser of magic. We have standards here! I think the Lord Jesus surprised them by his indignation, especially after having said these challenging things about divorce. They thought that Jesus would approve of their strictness.

But his greater challenge is that to receive the Kingdom of God is not to receive it as a righteous man or a virtuous woman. It’s not to receive it because you are law-abiding or obedient. “Truly I tell you, who does not receive the Kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” What?

As a little child. All need. No power. No rights. All need. You bring nothing to this but your need for it. You offer me nothing but your need for me. How’s this for a comparison: “Whoever does not receive the United States of America as a little child will never enter it.” An immigration policy based not on what you can bring to this country but precisely on what you need from this country. That’s the immigration policy of the Kingdom of God.

You are never turned back at the border unless you take it as your right to enter it. You rather enter from your need to enter it. You enter it for safety, not reward. You enter as a loser, a failure, an adulterer, a wanderer, a refugee, a victim of the sin of others and a victim of your own sin. Because the indignation of Jesus is from unconditional love, and the deepest righteousness of God is love, the love for you that is embodied in Jesus Christ.

Copyright © 2018, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.