Thursday, September 20, 2018

September 25, Proper 20, Law and Gospel #3: Unconventional Wisdom


Proverbs 31:10-31, Psalm 1, James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a, Mark 9:30-37

Let me say just a few words about our lesson from Proverbs, about the ideal wife. Yes, of course, it’s very traditional in its sex-roles, and the wife does all the work and the husband can just sit at the city gates. At the same time this wife has power and authority and initiative. She handles her own money and owns her property and runs her business. She does not fear her husband; she fears God—in the positive sense of fearing God, of knowing her place with God. She has wisdom and by her words and her actions she displays her wisdom.

The Greek view of wisdom is philosophical, abstract, and esoteric. You achieve it by putting yourself apart from ordinary life. The Biblical view of wisdom is down-to-earth—good choices and positive conduct in the daily round of life, how you speak to people and your deeds and actions in the world. This is important for the rest of our readings today. The wisdom of this wife from the Proverbs would have served the disciples well instead of their squabbling about who was greatest.

The Lord Jesus had been teaching the disciples and empowering them for a couple years now. They’ve congealed as a group, which was good, and developed some group identity, which is natural, and they’re arguing behind his back, which is usual. They want to divvy up the power when he becomes the king. Who will be number 2? Who will have authority, who will speak for him? Simon Peter might have claimed it, except that in last week’s Gospel lesson the Lord Jesus rebuked him and took him down a peg or ten, so it’s open. And now that Jesus is predicting crazy self-destructive things, they’re arguing who might take charge instead of him! No wonder they all clam up when the Lord Jesus asks them what they were talking about. But he knows.

He takes a child into his arms. Why the child? Not that we should be childish. You would call the disciples childish for their squabbling who was number 1. Boys will be boys. Nor is it that we should be childlike and innocent. I am not sure of the anthropological status of children in ancient societies, but they weren’t the precious jewels of sentimental Protestantism or indulged and protected like the children of Park Slope. I think it’s because the child had no rights, no privilege, no power, and no authority. So then, you must devote yourself to serving the powerless if you would be great.

It isn’t natural. What soldier would give his life for his country if his country was weak and powerless? Why pour yourself into your job if the company that you work for has no power to achieve its goals? Imagine if we decided that for some big special event we invited a famous preacher to come to Old First. We put extra money in the budget, organized a luncheon, advertised, publicized. And then when that preacher arrived we sent that preacher upstairs to the Nursery, and we said, Would you please take child-care today! Child-care workers are among the lowest paid in our economy. And that’s why Jesus embraced the child in his arms in front of the disciples.

He presents her as a symbol of himself, that even as the Messiah he will take no rights, no privilege, no power, and no authority. And he goes further to offer her as a symbol of God, that God takes no rights, nor privilege, nor power, nor authority.

But how could God not be God? God is omnipotent. Well, his point is how you have to accept God. You have to accept God not for any rights or privilege. You embrace the Lord Jesus not for the power and authority you get from Jesus. 

Embracing Jesus and receiving the God who sent Jesus will you get no power, privilege, rights, nor authority. This is off-putting. It makes no sense from the outside. You have to enter it to get it. You have to accept it first to understand it. It is worse than unconventional. It is the foolishness of God.

But didn’t Jesus tell the disciples that the Holy Spirit would give them power? And didn’t Jesus give his disciples authority to cast out evil spirits? And wasn’t it a privilege for the disciple to receive the Kingdom of God? And aren’t Christians committed to human rights? So why do I say that you have to receive God without expecting God to give you power, authority, or privilege, or rights?

I could say that the power that God gives you contradicts the power that the world esteems. The world does not recognize the authority that God gives you. The world does not value the rights and privilege that God offers you. So you can’t want any of these things for their sake, because then you will assume your estimation of them. You have rather to want God for nothing else than God, and Jesus for nothing else than Jesus, just as you embrace a child for nothing else than the child.

I am intentionally extreme. We live our lives in a fuzzy middle, our choices are rarely simple and usually complex. There is no pure right and no pure wrong, no pure evil and no pure good. There are no orcs nor elves, just us mushy human beings. But behind every mushy moment and complex experience is that single radical choice, an either/or, whether you want God or the world, whether you take God in terms of the world or God in terms of God, who then gives you to the world.

The Epistle of James is just as extreme. The Apostle goes so far as totally to deny all the wisdom of the world. Whether it’s conventional or philosophical, the Apostle unmasks all of worldly wisdom as earthly, unnatural, demoniacal, typified by envy and selfish ambition. He may be thinking of the upper classes of the Roman Empire and their degradation, but how about Washington or Albany or Wall Street or even NYU. He says that it brings disorder and wickedness of every kind. Yes, that extreme!

By contrast the wisdom that comes from God is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. Well, we all want this. How to get it! The Apostle is saying that there’s no way to get it if you start from the values of the world. The choice is stark. The only way to get it is to submit to God. Just as when you embrace a child you are submitting yourself to the agenda of the child. That’s the only way to this wisdom. The way is unconventional but the benefit is great: A harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.

The choice is stark, the options are extreme, but, as I said, we live our lives in the muddle. The choice never comes to us so clear and simple, but always complicated and mushy. How shall we not be discouraged? Who can live at such extremes? 

We cannot free ourselves from the world nor the obligations of the world. No matter what we think of Washington and Albany, they make the laws, and we have to obey the laws. And throughout the New Testament the apostolic writers advised the early Christians to obey the laws whenever they could, no matter how degraded the lawgivers were. We do our best. We try to carry deep within our souls the awareness of the extremity of the choice, and between these two poles we mushy humans make our flimsy choices in the daily muddle. But how can we ever be righteous in all this? We’re always tainted, we’re always compromised.

Well, all that I’ve been saying so far is the Law. But the deeper wisdom is the Gospel, and we go back to the child embraced in the arms of the Lord Jesus. He said, take that child for me. Take that child for God. And what a child does not do is judge you. The Lord God, in the person of Jesus, comes to you not as your judge but only as the object of your love.

But of course God is a judge. Psalm 1 says that the wicked shall not stand in the day of judgment. If God loves justice then God must judge. If God gives order to creation and laws to nature then God is a judge. And that’s the necessary wisdom of the Law. But the unconventional wisdom of the Gospel is that God offers Godself to you as a powerless, non-judging child, just the object of your love.

And that is how you navigate the mushiness of life and the daunting complexity of your choices, not in worry about your failure or your fear of collaboration or your guilt about your collusion but directed by love and the practice of love. That means the practice of acceptance and embrace. It means patience, and suffering in the sense of holding up. Making peace. Full of mercy. The wisdom is the deeper wisdom of the gospel. God offers Godself to you as a little child.

The way to love God is to accept the love of God. Be that child yourself. Of course you want to be as deservedly lovable as that wife in Proverbs, but already you are lovable to God, as incompetent and foolish as you judge yourself to be. I am telling you that you can navigate all the mushiness of the world because you are so unconditionally loved by God.

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

Sunday, September 16, 2018

September 16, Proper 19, Law and Gospel #2: Wisdom


Proverbs 1:20-3, Psalm 19, James 3:1-12, Mark 8:27-38

What is wisdom? Can we define it or do you know it when you see it? Good judgment, counsel, insight, discernment, far-sightedness, deep empathy.

Wisdom can be a gift—some people just have it, but it’s also a discipline—you can get wisdom, you can gain in wisdom. If you listen more than you speak, if you control your tongue, if you have self-control in general, you can be wise. If you learn your limits and your shortcomings, and if you fear the Lord, you can be wise.

Is wisdom always good? Can wisdom be evil? We know that discernment and insight and even self-discipline be used for wrong instead of right. Conventional wisdom can be all wrong. In the gospel lesson the disciple Peter demonstrated insight and understanding, but the Lord Jesus had to rebuke him anyway.

Just so the Epistle of James gives a general warning to all of us who are teachers and talkers by profession. I’m thinking of all the talking heads and experts on radio and cable. All this babbling that passes for insight. I’m thinking of myself as well—I do have things to say, but my speech is my most frequent fault, and I think to myself, what a fool I am, and I pray for wisdom.

From Proverbs we learn that wisdom is not just inside ourselves, it’s out there, larger than ourselves. It’s not just a personal gift or a discipline to gain, it’s a force in itself, a spirit from God. In the Bible it’s always feminine. She gets personified as an elegant woman who calls out to us in the public square, but who also laments our foolishness and mocks our pretensions. She teaches us and judges us. We are drawn to her and we feel ashamed before her.

In Psalm 19, wisdom is not personified but is presented as the yield and substance of the Law of God. By Law we mean not just the Commandments nor just the Torah but also the laws of nature that are the speech of God, the gift of God for ordering the universe. The wisdom that directs the universe is the constant repetition of the words of God by every element and energy.

Scientists remark on the fine-tuning of the universe. The Bible teaches the underlying harmony and integrity of nature. It’s not that everything is predictable, but that the God who made it and sustains it is a faithful God. Yes, creation has terrors, yes, the laws of nature can be deadly in their effect, and even science encounters unending surprises and insoluble mysteries, but not from the world being capricious. There are causes and effects. Laws have consequences. This is the foundation of science, and science, aware of it or not, depends upon the faithfulness of God.

Speaking biblically, the wisdom that we seek does not run counter to the grain of the universe. Biblical wisdom offers integration with the world around us. We can even gain wisdom from dogs and elephants! The Christian faith is not against learning, not against study, not against science, and it was in the Christian universities that modern science began to flourish, however much the clergy typically feared it. It’s no wonder that the first public schools and the first public hospitals in most of the world were founded by Christian missionaries. 

I am calling this the wisdom of the Law, the wisdom we gain by patient discipline, the wisdom of the good life.

There is another kind of wisdom, though, the wisdom of the Gospel, that contradicts the wisdom of the Law. This is the wisdom that you cannot gain upon your own, no matter how firm your discipline or how profound your humility. This is the wisdom that comes from the message you could not have known unless it were revealed to you in the good news of Jesus Christ. This is the wisdom that contradicts the laws of cause and effect. This is the wisdom that defies the consequences of the Law. This is the wisdom of pure grace.

The wisdom of the Gospel is the deeper faithfulness of God that science and philosophy cannot discover. This is the wisdom of the cross and resurrection. This is the wisdom that God loved us while we were yet sinners. This is the wisdom that God still loves you even in your foolishness and fallenness. It is the foolishness of God, that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected, and be killed, and after three days rise again

The wisdom of the gospel is foolishness to the world. It is foolish to deny yourself. It is foolish to take up your cross and be a loser. It is foolish to lose your life in order to save it. It may be foolish but it’s the wisdom of the gospel. It is good news because by the wisdom of the law we all fall short. Nature itself condemns us as the only species that destroys the world.. It is unnatural for God to save us, but the cross of Jesus reveals to us the deepest nature of God.

I plan to say more about this unconventional wisdom next week. But let me summarize today by saying that the Wisdom of the Law is good and moral and edifying and you need it for good works, and for good work in your job and decent life at home and living well in general. The wisdom of the law is why the Christian faith is interested in education and medicine and schools and hospitals and labor law and witnessing to politics.

But the wisdom of the Gospel is the hope for the fallen world, for fallen humanity, the wisdom of sheer grace, undeserved, the wisdom of forgiveness and mercy and reconciliation, the wisdom of welcoming back the prodigal son and setting free the prisoners, not just some of them but all of them, the passionate faithfulness of God. And this is why we always come back to the gospel foolishness of Jesus Christ, the scandal of Jesus, even in Park Slope.

Today we start again our Sunday School. The thing about children is that they see no contradiction between these two kinds of wisdom. That’s why I like teaching Sunday School, to get back into that space, the mind of children, who take it as a whole. Their hearts and minds are still so flexible and open, and they don’t make the same divisions between foolishness and wisdom. We can learn from them. Sunday School is not just for the benefit of the kids, but for the benefit of the whole church.

So let me close with this poem by the Pulitzer Prize winning poet Stephen Dunn, it’s called At the Smithville Methodist Church. It’s about secular parents letting their young daughter go to the local Vacation Bible School:

It was supposed to be Arts & Crafts for a week, 
but when she came home 
with the “Jesus Saves” button, we knew what art 
was up, what ancient craft.

She liked her little friends. She liked the songs 
they sang when they weren’t 
twisting and folding paper into dolls. 
What could be so bad?

Jesus had been a good man, and putting faith 
in good men was what 
we had to do to stay this side of cynicism, 
that other sadness.

OK, we said, One week. But when she came home 
singing “Jesus loves me, 
the Bible tells me so,” it was time to talk. 
Could we say Jesus

doesn’t love you? Could I tell her the Bible 
is a great book certain people use 
to make you feel bad? We sent her back 
without a word.

It had been so long since we believed, so long 
since we needed Jesus 
as our nemesis and friend, that we thought he was 
sufficiently dead,

that our children would think of him like Lincoln 
or Thomas Jefferson. 
Soon it became clear to us:
                                          you can’t teach disbelief 
to a child,

only wonderful stories, and we hadn’t a story 
nearly as good. 
On parents’ night there were the Arts & Crafts 
all spread out

like appetizers. Then we took our seats 
in the church 
and the children sang a song about the Ark, 
and Hallelujah

and one in which they had to jump up and down 
for Jesus. 
I can’t remember ever feeling so uncertain 
about what’s comic, what’s serious.

Evolution is magical but devoid of heroes. 
You can’t say to your child 
“Evolution loves you.” The story stinks 
of extinction and nothing

exciting happens for centuries. I didn’t have 
a wonderful story for my child 
and she was beaming. All the way home in the car 
she sang the songs,

occasionally standing up for Jesus. 
There was nothing to do 
but drive, ride it out, sing along 
in silence.

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

Friday, September 07, 2018

September 9, Proper 18; Law and Gospel #1: The Royal Law



NOTE: This is the first in a ten sermon series entitled Law and Gospel.

Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23, Psalm 125, James 2:1-17, Mark 7:24-37

“Law and Gospel,” that’s my sermon series for the next ten weeks. The interplay of these two words goes back at least to Martin Luther, and it’s still the Lutheran paradigm for how to preach the Bible.

In this paradigm the Law stands for all in the Bible that judges us, all that convicts us of our guilt, the perfect will of God that we fall short of, the good that we ought to do but do not do; the Law is all in the Bible that drives us to repentance and confess our sins.

By contrast the Gospel is all in the Bible of God’s mercy, God’s grace abounding to the chief of sinners, God’s forgiving us even before we repent. Law and Gospel work together—it’s the Law that drives you to the Gospel.

Of course we also mean by Gospel specifically those four books in the New Testament that tell us of the life of Our Lord, the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. But the word Gospel is also used in the larger sense of the whole good-news of grace, the proclamation of the Kingdom come, the apostolic message that the Lord has come to save us. And this good-news is found already in the Old Testament. I remember how thrilled I was by reading Martin Luther’s commentary on the life of the patriarch Jacob, how Luther worked the dialectic of Law and Gospel to interpret the story of this life-long deceiver whom God continually saved by grace.

So then, are Law and Gospel opposites? The angry face of God versus the loving heart of God? Or are they two sides of the same coin? Can these two be synthesized? That’s what John Calvin did. He said that the Law is not just to condemn us and to drive us to God’s mercy, it’s also to guide us in our life of thanksgiving for God’s mercy.

And this is where the Reformed tradition differs from the Lutherans, because we see Law more like Jews do, like Torah, like teaching, guidance, the way to live, the walk of righteousness, the pathway to peace and justice. But you cannot walk this way until you first have fallen to your knees in confession that you cannot walk it rightly on your own, and then been picked up lovingly from behind and set back on your feet and washed clean and fed with bread and wine to strengthen you on your way. Law and Gospel. I’m going to work the dialectic for the next few months.

And this is why. I want to get at our Christian witness in America right now. What’s our message: evangelism or resistance? Or both? Is our concern the law and order of our land, and who enforces the law, from the Supreme Court to the cops to the ICE, or is our concern teaching people to be good moral citizens, setting an example of ethics despite the abuses of the clergy and the churches’ cover-ups, or is it our concern to spread the gospel that no matter how abusive a person is, even that sinner is loved by God, and for saved sinners to be Christlike in our own voluntary service to the refugees and the homeless and the poor? Is our concern the laws or the gospel? Or both?

In our epistle lesson we get this phrase, “the royal law.” It’s royal because it’s kingdom law, the king’s law. It’s the moral will of Our Lord Jesus Christ. The royal law is this: that you shall love your neighbor as yourself. And if you don’t love your neighbor as yourself, if you show partiality, especially against the poor, then you commit sin and you are convicted by the law as a transgressor. That’s the Lutheran sense of the law right there, for who among us does not show partiality?

Showing partiality is the way of the world, even if it’s for good order. We build our societies to reward hard work and reward success. Especially a capitalist society. We build our education systems that way too, or why would students study hard and do their work? How else do we keep order in the world unless we reward good behavior and penalize the bad? Even the kingdom of God wants order. The way that God created the world was by giving order to the formless void. Let everything be done in good order, says the Apostle Paul. Law means order. Kingdom means order.

But what if the order of the kingdom is interrupted by human need! Like with the Lord Jesus in our gospel. Of course we are troubled by him comparing the woman and her daughter to dogs. Our Lord is obviously irritated. He’s exhausted, he’s on retreat outside of Israel, he needs some privacy and space. Back in Galilee the resistance is rising against him, and the very people that he came to save are beginning to oppose him. I can tell you personally that there’s no greater discouragement for a religious leader than to lose some of the people you were given. I’m sure he’s discouraged, but he must keep to his mission to be the Messiah for Israel, and the order of God’s plan is that he’s got to save the Jews first, and once he’s made the Jews a holy nation again then it will be the Gentiles’s turn. It’s all in the prophets—you can look it up. So all in good order. Call it trickle-down salvation!

He tells the woman she’s out of line. “It’s not your turn yet. Go to the back of the bus.” Nevertheless she persisted! She resists him, she turns the other cheek. “So you’re calling me a dog, so I’m under your table and it won’t cost you at all to let us have the crumbs your holy children trickle down. And some of the food dropping down is what you gave them but they don’t want! We dogs will take it.”

Her challenge was not against him like the scribes and Pharisees. It was a challenge forward, to the long game, an aggressive jumping of God’s orderly plan. And she challenged him to live by his faith. Yes, even Jesus had to live by his faith. By his heart and not his head.

I don’t want to be anachronistically psychological here, but notice the emotional transference going on. When he calls her a dog she doesn’t dispute him, she accepts his feelings and does not judge him, but she appeals to his heart, and he has to make a movement in his heart and soul. Her encounter has called him out of his privacy and his efficient strategy. Her confrontation has enlarged his soul.

Two applications, two take-homes. First, in God’s economy, the laws prioritize the poor. Even out of order.

Law and order has its place, but inevitably it serves best those who are well off. I teach my granddaughter to honor the police, but the very invention of policing in America was for the protection of property from the poor and from black people, and the bias seems built-in. Government is good, but finally it’s always biased on the side of privilege and class and wealth. So just as the need of the woman and her daughter subverted the order of the kingdom that Jesus had been following, so Christians should press the laws and the economic order of whatever country they are living in to serve the poor as a priority. True, the Gospel is not first political, but its political implications are inescapable. We bear witness to the Kingdom of God in our own political economies.

My second take-home is that for Christians it must also be personal and not just better laws and policies. This is why Christians minister directly to the poor, face to face, in personal engagement. Not just for their good, but for you own souls. For the emotional transference. For you to identify with them. To be among them. That’s gospel. Because of God’s preferential option for the poor. Because as our epistle says, God has chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom. You would want to be among them, even if your shyness makes you do it in a group. You do it to enlarge your soul. 

You can make no progress without risk, you cannot explore without uncertainty, and you cannot move without vulnerability. For you to grow and cultivate your soul you need to step outside of your natural boundaries in order to have such encounters. It’s work. But our epistle says that without work your faith dies. Without service, your soul withers. Without loving your neighbor as yourself, your soul shrinks away. It isn’t easy. It’s often frustrating, and you wonder what difference you really make, which is why doing this work requires you to keep up on your faith. There is no contradiction between faith and good works. Faith is useless unless you exercise it in good work, and your good works will only frustrate you unless you do them by faith in Our Lord Jesus Christ.

The Royal Law is the law of love. It’s the power of love that makes it the law of liberty. Freedom from needing to score success, freedom from performance, freedom from guilt and sin. Because mercy triumphs over judgment. In the Kingdom of God the coin of the realm is love, and law and gospel are the two sides of that coin. The gospel sets you free to freely exercise the only binding law, which is the law of love.


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

Sunday, September 02, 2018

September 2, Proper 17: My Beloved


 Song of Solomon 2:8-13, Psalm 45:1-2, 6-9, James 1:17-27, Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

The Pharisees were decent people. They had a program. They regarded the Roman occupation of Israel as the judgment of God. They believed that because of Israel’s impurity and sin, God was avoiding them, so that the Temple was empty of God’s glory and the throne was empty of David’s dynasty. They also believed that God would forgive them and return to Israel if all the people were scrupulously righteous.

So their strategy was to keep the Laws of Moses very strictly. Thus if the Law told Levites to wash their hands before a sacrifice, then all the Jews should wash their hands then they should wash before eating anything. Not just as good hygiene, but to get God to come back. If the Law said not to cook a kid in its mother’s milk, then never allow any meat and milk together in the kitchen at all. This program of overdone legalism was to win God’s favor, forgiveness, and return. But Jesus was not helping. That’s why they were against him. The felt he was keeping God away.

Jesus was saying that God already had come back—that is, in him—and that God was already forgiving sins, the sins of the sinners as much as the righteous. Jesus disputed the whole approach to their religious practices. Don’t get him wrong. It’s not that Jesus denied the value of good works and religious practices. His brother James, the author of our Epistle, certainly did not hear him to say that.

His point is that your religious practices and your good works are not where you connect with God. It’s in your souls where you connect with God. Your soul is what must be clean for God, no matter how clean your hands or how holy your practices.

You have a soul. You are a soul. Yes, you know yourself as a body, with a certain look and a certain height and weight, but you need to know yourself as a soul. Your soul is the most important thing about you. The business of your soul is the most important business that you have. You need to cultivate your soul. The cleaning and grooming of your soul, the care and feeding of your soul, the exercising of your soul, this is the most important thing you do each day.

When you get up in the morning, how long do you take to get ready? How much time do you need to make your breakfast, to shower, to groom yourself in front of the mirror, to get dressed? How much time do you give to your morning workout, or your visit to the gym? Such things are good, your body is a gift of God to you, so honor it and care for it and rejoice in it. It is meant someday to live forever before the face of God. But how much time do you give to the grooming and feeding of your soul?

The cultivation of your bodies has benefits discernible and immediate. You feel good when you eat and when you’re clean. When you look good you get compliments. But the payoff from the cultivation of your souls is never so discernible nor immediate. Your soul is something of a mystery, even for those who are most spiritual.

Indeed, the more you know your soul, the more mysterious it is. That’s from the very nature of the soul itself, it’s from the way it was designed by God. Your soul is designed for transcendence, it is designed to reach beyond the boundaries of sound and sight and sense, your soul is grounded in your body but it reaches beyond your mind. Because it traffics in transcendence it is mysterious.

Your soul is the leading organ of your body. The soul is the organ that gives the definition to our species. What the nose is for the dog, and what ears are for the bat, and eyes for the eagle, so the soul is the special organ given to our species for the distinct vocation of our species—we are the animals designed for spirituality, for transcendence, for the beyond.

Yes, the Bible sees our species as among the animals, it’s as plain as Noah’s Ark, and yet we have a special place and office among the animals. The Epistle of James says that we are a kind of first fruits of God’s creatures. We are those creatures that are dedicated to God, that are set aside for God, for special attention to God, for a special relationship to God.

In our culture today we see a reawakening to transcendence and a revival of spirituality. Yet so much of this spirituality is self-absorbed. It’s the soul turned in on itself. It’s all about self-empowerment and discovering one’s own divinity. This fashionable kind of spirituality is like looking in a mirror, to use the metaphor of James 1:24. You can look and look but when you look away you disappear. That’s because you cannot be at rest in your own self alone, you can only rest in God.

Why gaze in a mirror when you can look on your Beloved? Truest love is not the love of self but the love of someone other than yourself, someone who is always other than yourself.

Your soul belongs to you but it is not designed for yourself. You are designed for God. St. Augustine famously wrote, “Thou has made us for thyself, O God, and our souls are restless till they find their rest in thee.” Your soul is lost and wandering until you find your true goal and your proper object. The proper purpose of your soul is your relationship with God.

Your soul is that organ of your body which directs your body to live for God. Your soul is meant to animate your body and calibrate your feelings and integrate your actions and motivate your mind. But your soul can only do this if your soul is directed beyond yourself. Your soul cannot be satisfied until it is satisfied with God.

God is your soul’s Beloved, and your soul is the Beloved of God. Your soul is the handmaiden of God. In the Bible, the soul is regarded as feminine, even the souls of men. This is a wonderful and healing metaphor, for men as well as women, in different ways. I want to be clear that it is metaphorical and not essential, because finally God has no sexuality, God is a Spirit, God is neither male nor female, so the femininity of our souls is finally a metaphor, but it is a metaphor which God has given as a gift to us.

It’s a great gift to feel your soul as a she, and to be able to identify with the Virgin Mary, and to sing with her, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior, for he has regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden.” You are a handmaiden who becomes a lover, you are the servant who becomes a Beloved, you are the Virgin who becomes a mother. “I am my beloved’s and my Beloved’s mine.”

I close with words from James: Welcome with meekness the implanted word that has power to save your souls. The saving of your souls he means is not just when you die, but for today. The word of God has power to keep your souls alive, and more, to give you abundant life. The word of God is the food of your soul.

And God desires to feed you. God loves you. God loves your soul. So it doesn’t depend on you, except that you open yourself to God. It is all gift. Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a find of first fruits of his creatures.

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

Thursday, August 30, 2018

A Cool Poem that Melody sent me




At the Smithville Methodist Church


It was supposed to be Arts & Crafts for a week,
but when she came home
with the "Jesus Saves" button, we knew what art
was up, what ancient craft.

She liked her little friends. She liked the songs
they sang when they weren't
twisting and folding paper into dolls.
What could be so bad?

Jesus had been a good man, and putting faith
in good men was what
we had to do to stay this side of cynicism,
that other sadness.

OK, we said, One week. But when she came home
singing "Jesus loves me,
the Bible tells me so," it was time to talk.
Could we say Jesus

doesn't love you? Could I tell her the Bible
is a great book certain people use
to make you feel bad? We sent her back
without a word.

It had been so long since we believed, so long
since we needed Jesus
as our nemesis and friend, that we thought he was
sufficiently dead,

that our children would think of him like Lincoln
or Thomas Jefferson.
Soon it became clear to us: you can't teach disbelief
to a child,

only wonderful stories, and we hadn't a story
nearly as good.
On parents' night there were the Arts & Crafts
all spread out

like appetizers. Then we took our seats
in the church
and the children sang a song about the Ark,
and Hallelujah

and one in which they had to jump up and down
for Jesus.
I can't remember ever feeling so uncertain
about what's comic, what's serious.

Evolution is magical but devoid of heroes.
You can't say to your child
"Evolution loves you." The story stinks
of extinction and nothing

exciting happens for centuries. I didn't have
a wonderful story for my child
and she was beaming. All the way home in the car
she sang the songs,

occasionally standing up for Jesus.
There was nothing to do
but drive, ride it out, sing along
in silence.

Stephen Dunn

Thursday, June 21, 2018

June 24: Goliath and the Gale


1 Samuel 17:1a, 4-11, 19-23, 32-49, Psalm 9:9-20, 2 Corinthians 6:1-13, Mark 4:35-41

Don’t get the gospel story wrong. The disciples woke up Jesus not with a request but with a reprimand. What they expected was not a miracle but that he show some interest. “Start bailing, you lubber!” And after his miracle they were even more afraid! They went from the ordinary fear of the dangerous chaos of nature to their terror at the power of Jesus’ command. In contrast is the calm—the sudden calming of the sea, and the calm of Jesus all throughout.

Jesus has done what only God can do. In Psalm 107 and Psalm 148, God commands the wind and waves. The gods of the pagans also did such things, and took on human form, so if the disciples had been pagans they would have been glad and grateful and offered sacrifices to this deity among them. But they don’t. They are Jews, for whom there is one God, and this One God never takes on human form, so nothing here computes. They can’t make sense of it. The sudden and vast disparity between all they’d ever known and what’s now before them is the deep cause of their terror. Jesus is calm, but he stands in their boat like a black hole in their universe.

Yet he is a human being. For all his impossible extra identity, he is a man who is living by his faith. So Jesus trusts that the God who got Noah through the flood, and Moses through the Red Sea, will protect him enough for him to see the mission through that God had given him.

Does that mean that you are supposed to be fearless if you follow Jesus? Fearless like David against Goliath? Was St. Paul fearless in his endurance of afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, and hunger? If you fear such things, does that mean your faith is weak? I don’t believe so, but you might think that from what Jesus says, according to our translation: “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” 

We hear that as a reprimand. And maybe it is, but it’s also not a good translation. He actually says this: “Why are you timid, do you not yet have faith?” You can make the Greek words even stronger: “Why are you cowarding, why are you craven, not yet have you faith?” It’s not about fear but the effect of fear.

It’s more of a challenge than a reprimand, because of the “not yet have you faith?” This “not yet” will carry through Mark’s Gospel: when the disciples will see him walk on water they will be terrified, when all three times that Jesus predicts his death and resurrection they will be afraid of it, when he gets transfigured on the mountain they will be terrified, and finally on Easter morning, when the women see the empty tomb and get the message from the angel they depart in fear. Still not yet?

We live at this boundary between the present and the promise. What’s to come and what is now. The promise is the not-yet that we hope for and keep trying to believe in.

Now, it’s natural for us to try to extrapolate the promise from the present, to assume that we can calculate the promise from what we know of the present. This of course is what human beings do all the time. We Homo sapiens are the animals who are not contented with the present. We set goals, we calculate risk. We want to manage what we’re reasonably afraid of.

But the promises of God so often contradict our calculations from the present that we are expert in. And to believe those promises requires us to surrender our calculations and reverse and re-imagine the present in terms of the promises of God. Which makes the present unstable, and loose, and the disjunction of the promises may well make us cower.

Of course the armies of the Israelites were terrified of Goliath. Standing there he represented the military doctrines of Overwhelming Force and Shock and Awe. The Israelite soldiers had experience in war. The method of war between them and the Philistines was single combats, successive single combats side by side. They had the experience to calculate their individual chances against a giant ten feet tall hefting a spearhead 150 pounds. It’s not just his size but the reach of his thrust. But the expert extrapolations of both sides did not reckon on those five smooth stones in the wadi—how big do you think? Is this one maybe too big? Smaller! Such a contradiction in how you view the world. So David could say to the Israelite soldiers, "Why are you cowering, do you not yet have faith?"

Jesus never says there’s nothing to be afraid of. To fear things is inevitable to biological life. As all species do, we rank what we’re afraid of in order to make our choices. Because of our special capacity for reason and imagination, and because we are fallen, our fears are easily manipulated. We have been seeing this from the White House. Big men do it, Trump and Putin and Kim Jong Un and Orban and Erdogan and Ch├ívez and Maduro, and the examples of Hungary, Turkey, and Venezuela show how quickly how much national damage the manipulation of fear can cause.

These big men are the Goliaths that make God’s people cower. Even with the reversal of the child separation policy, we’ve still got a zero tolerance policy on our borders, and that’s supported in the main by Christians. And St. Paul says, “Open wide your hearts!” The opposite of fear. To open wide your hearts to little children taken from their parents is merely animal. To open wide your hearts to refugees from violence is only decent. What’s Christian is to open wide your hearts as a categorical imperative without regard for protecting our economy.

For Christians to open our hearts is not a function of sharing our prosperity and blessing. For St. Paul it comes precisely from living at the fearful boundary, when dying and yet alive, when punished but not yet killed, when sorrowful and rejoicing, when poor and making others rich, when having nothing and possessing everything, just living at this disjunction between the present and promise is how we open up our hearts.

Because the power of God on our behalf is not to protect our prosperity, or even to give us a leg up on safety, but to protect our mission, to protect us living towards God’s promises, because to live in God’s promises will get you in trouble with the world, whether from the gales or the goliaths, whether from just the chaos of nature or the malice of the human powers of the world.

To believe God’s promises is a hard obedience. Faith feels fear, and follows anyway, because of whose word is calling us. What we count on is not our experience, but the God who calls us through it. Not on our accumulated expertise, but on the teaching of this Teacher who before his incarnation was the Word of God who in the beginning commanded the winds to blow and for eons told the waters to flow through that wadi and polish those five stones.



I invite you to believe that what Jesus teaches, though it may be disputed by big men, is in tune with the deepest structures of the universe. Whatever Jesus calls you to today makes the best sense of the world the way it really is, even if counters the current public certainties. I invite you to believe that this voice of this teacher is the voice of the creator, and therefore I invite you to cultivate calmness. This story is both a comfort and a challenge to the church. It’s not a proof, but it is an invitation.

You accept the invitation when you are here today, you are here because you want to live your life with ideals, you don’t want to succumb to opposition and resistance, whether evil or natural. You want your allegiance to challenge you, you want to do the right thing even when it’s the hard thing, you understand the right of sacrifice, and you want some help and guidance to live this way.

So here’s my take-home for today: The most important obedience for Christians is not in what you do but in what you trust God for. Your most important obedience is not in what you do but in what you trust God for. Behind the promises is God’s faithfulness, and the energy of God’s faithfulness is God’s love. What drove St. Paul to go through hell and high water was his passion to share this truth of such a loving and gracious God. And this same truth is what allowed the Lord Jesus to sleep in the boat. The opposite of fear isn’t courage, it’s love.

Here’s where the Gospel contradicts the glories of human literature and manly expertise: the opposite of fear is not courage, but love! Perfect love casts out fear. So you know that deep fear in your life? You know what it’s for? Your fear is your slingshot, for the small stone of your faith, that you aim at the heart of God. This God has no armor, your stone breaks God’s heart, and what pours out is God’s love for you.

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

Thursday, June 07, 2018

June 10, Proper 5: "I Believed, and so I Spoke" (for Confirmation)


1 Samuel 8:4-20, 11:14-15, Psalm 138, 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1, Mark 3:20-35

So much for Jesus and family values. His brothers and sisters will have been embarrassed, and his mother effectively dishonored. Shouldn’t he honor his mother as a categorical imperative, wouldn’t that be doing the will of God, as required by the fifth commandment?

Once again the Lord Jesus pushes so hard against established morality that he threatens to break it. What if our young confirmands today, with their mothers here to support them, decided to follow Jesus by saying, “Anyone of you here today is as much to us as our mothers are!”

Of course they won’t have to make that choice today, our confirmands. Soon enough they will be testing their family values and even threatening them. They have to, they’re teenagers, that’s their job. But today they’re doing the opposite, they are confirming something their families valued, and that is baptism. Everyone of them was baptized as a child. Everyone of them, without having been consulted by their parents, was brought to the church to be baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. And now everyone of them has chosen to confirm that baptism.

Our confirmation class has been meeting on Sunday afternoons since January. We used a new curriculum called Confirm, not Conform. The idea is that we all have many beliefs, quite apart from religion, and we mostly conform to the prevailing beliefs around us. As one of the confirmands put it, “Yeah, I believe most of the Park-Slope things to believe.” One of them remarked that conforming is not always bad, and often necessary. But we agreed that it is good to examine your beliefs and choose which ones to confirm, and be responsible for them.

So we reviewed the usual Park-Slope beliefs, and we reviewed the beliefs in the Apostles Creed. We learned about the Bible, and prayer, we acted out some church history on how the creeds developed, we looked at the beliefs of other religions, and then we looked at the Apostles Creed again. My goal was not church membership, but simply to have them consider Christianity well enough for them each to be able to decide whether to state in public, Yes, I am a Christian—or maybe not!

For the outcome of the class I gave them three choices: 1st, You can say thank you very much and walk away with no regrets. 2nd, You can come before the church and declare you are a Christian. 3rd, You can come before the church, declare you are a Christian, and be confirmed by the church. Four weeks ago they decided.

None chose to walk away. Two of them chose to declare that they are Christians, but reserving confirmation for later as Roman Catholics in their family heritage. One of those two could not be here today. Five chose confirmation. All seven were thoughtful about this and took it seriously, although as they gelled into a group I sometimes lost control of the class and once they had me laughing so hard we got off the rails. All seven have my esteem and admiration.

In coming years they may change their choices. That’s fine. I gave them no obligation to come to church. That doesn’t make it less real what they are doing today. We human beings are always making choices that we cannot see all the outcomes of. What I want for these young people is a first experience in a life-long task, which is to explore where in your own life you intersect with God. Where does God meet you, and how do you meet God? How do you come to terms with God, for now, at least? If you met Jesus on the road, would you want to hug him, or wrestle him? They’re close. Or maybe kill him, as the Lutheran poet Johann Heermann suggested we all have done!

Some years ago my wife Melody had a book with this title: If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him. That’s derived from a classic Zen Buddhist koan. It’s remarkable how close the Lord Jesus comes to certain forms of Buddhism. His parables can be like koans. Especially in St. Mark he speaks in riddles and puzzles and paradox. Twice he does it in our Gospel lesson today: about his mother and sisters and brothers, and about how if he’s empowered by Satan then he’s defeating Satan. Why does he speak this way? Why isn’t he more accommodating, why doesn’t he meet them half-way?

He keeps putting off balance those who judge him, whether his family or the authorities. They want order and law and clear, definable choices. They take him either as out of his mind or as defiant and needing to be stopped. He will not negotiate, not with the authorities nor his family. He keeps things in tension. He defies their judgment and his tension forces them to expose themselves and judge themselves. But his way is the way of liberation, and, if you can see it, it’s the way of grace.

These themes of grace and judgment and tension and defiance are apparent in our first reading, about the prophet Samuel. He defiantly tells the people, No, you shall not have a king! You are to be distinct among the nations, with everybody equal, no upper class, no royalty, your only king is God. And then God is in tension with his own prophet: You’re right, they’re wrong, but let them have their king. I will choose for them a king.

The people get their choice, and some kings will be good, but most of their kings were disasters and they led the nation into destruction and exile. Were they asking for it? We make our choices in the tension of the moment and we cannot see all the outcomes. In their choice the people judge themselves as rejecting God, but in the long haul God turns their rejection into grace. God defies their defiance. God gives them the House and Lineage of  David, from which will come the Messiah, the savior of the world, the outcome they don’t see. In the judgment is the grace.

Your choices are rarely neat and clean. You’re usually managing one paradox or another, and you’re choosing your way through puzzles and dilemmas. You’re often choosing for one thing inside another thing, and your reasons may be complex and even contradictory. How heavy can be the consequences of a choice you lightly made. How much weight do your choices have? How much certainty can you assume, and do you not make many choices simply on faith, or hope, or love?

In the next few years these young people will be making a whole number of choices that will have enormous outcomes for the rest of their lives. They will have to make judgments, they will have to judge other people, and they will be judged themselves. Some of their choices will be in tension with the world, with those in authority and even their families. At times they may have to be defiant in their choosing. Good. That’s precisely where they might meet God again.

I am inviting you to believe that they are not cast adrift in this or on their own. The meaning of the Second Reading, the epistle, is difficult to scan, as St. Paul seems to have learned his grammar from Kierkegaard or Hegel, while his images are often word plays in disguise. The Hebrew word for “glory” derives from the word for “heavy,” so he invents the phrase, “the weight of glory.” Maybe he learned his science from Einstein. We think that something spiritual cannot be heavy because it has no mass, but for St. Paul, the glory of God has enormous gravity. And that weight of glory that God has for us gives the stability to all our flimsy choices. God’s faithfulness hidden in our freedom.

These young people are still light on their feet, they are appropriately light-hearted, and rightly they lightly made their choices to declare their faith. The heaviness is the faithfulness of God to them, more than they yet can know, the gravity is the grace of God, more than they need of now before the afflictions come and the ultimate, inescapable wasting away, the weight is the glory of God within them daily renewing their inner nature into a human nature with the capacity for the outcomes of eternity. We don’t know what that mostly means, but the witnesses of the last 2000 years invite us to believe it along with them.

Seven more witnesses. They believe, and today they speak. Just a few words, key words, “I” and “do.” I do. Words to say in public rarely because they are weighty. I do believe. I do have questions, I do reserve the right to keep looking and keep exploring, but I do believe, and so I speak. And the rest of you are witnesses of the witnesses. Love them while you can. The love of God for them is eternal. In the words of the Psalm: The Lord will make good his purpose for them, O Lord, your love endures forever, abandon not the work of your hands. Believe it, the Lord God loves them forever.

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

Friday, June 01, 2018

June 3, Proper 4, A Clay Jar and a Withered Hand


1 Samuel 3:1-20, Psalm 139, 2 Corinthians 4:5-12, Mark 2:23–3:6

The story of Samuel takes place a couple centuries after Moses. There was no king yet, no Jerusalem yet, no temple yet. The only king was God, and the only jointly recognized authority was the high priest in Shiloh, at the tabernacle, the seat of God’s presence.

The tabernacle was the large sacred tent surviving from the time of Moses. The tent was three layers thick, enclosing two windowless chambers, the innermost one containing the Ark of the Covenant. Outside the tent was a sacred open space enclosed by a fabric fence, and here the worshipers could come with their offered animals for the priests to sacrifice and cook upon the altar, which then the people ate as dinners in the house of God, Lord’s suppers, so to speak.

In this tabernacle the boy Samuel was ministering. He lived there, he was on permanent loan by his parents, Hannah and Elkanah. What all did he do? Open the curtains in the morning, draw them at night, fetch firewood for the altars, water for the basins, clean up after the worshipers, clean up after the priests? Get Eli his breakfast, run errands for Eli’s sons, even do some of the priestly duties of Eli’s sons, when they could not be bothered?

How old was he—ten, twelve, eight? Was Eli kindly to him, courteous and patient, yet giving him responsibility, making him feel grown up? Did Eli love him, this special boy, so faithful, devoted, unlike his own two sons, such disappointments, who embezzled from the offerings and slept with the worshipers. Did Samuel comfort Eli’s disappointment? How much of this did Samuel feel, only half aware of, noticing but not yet judging, not yet understanding, still quietly accepting without getting corrupted himself, yet maybe beginning to sense that something wasn’t right?

What was it like for Samuel, not to live with his mother, not to play with other kids? What was it like to sleep alone, deep inside the tabernacle, in the Holy of Holies, beside the Ark of the Covenant, at the epicenter of God’s presence? How did he sleep  in such a spooky place, in such darkness? Where did he keep his teddy bear? The place was so holy that, officially, no one but Eli was allowed to go in there, and Eli only once a year, but Eli was easy-going, and indulgent, and Samuel was trustworthy, so there he slept.

Why did Eli have him sleep there? Was it Eli’s characteristically passive way of preventing his sons from using that place for their own devices and desires? Or was it said that someone had to tend the oil lamp that burned in the outer room? The darkness is deep and smothering, but in the darkness some small light has to shine, or we have lost all hope. Was Samuel that little light in Eli’s darkening life? This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.

Eli’s life was darkening, he was getting blind, all he could see were memories. He represented Israel. For all they worshiped God, for all they prayed, they never heard God’s voice. Was God silent, or were they all deaf, were they blind? Had they closed their minds to what God had already said? Did they even want to hear God speak, expecting not to like what God would say?

But now God has a new thing to say, and God has chosen an instrument, a vessel for the treasure of God’s word—this boy, this innocent boy, the fruit of his mother’s tough faith, the outcome of his mother’s suffering and her wrestling with God. Maybe he dreams of her when he sleeps. O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You search out my path and my lying down. Whither shall I go from your spirit, or whither shall I flee from your presence? If I say, “Let only darkness cover me, and the light about me be night,” even the darkness is not dark to you, the night is as bright as the day; for darkness is as light to you.

In the darkness a voice sounds. From just above the Ark of the Covenant, from between the statues of the cherubim, from the Mercy Seat the Spirit speaks. God calls him by his name. In the darkness sounds the voice, “Sh’muel, Sh’muel, Samuel, Samuel.” “Here I am, hineini.” How eager is this boy to hear his name, to know that he is wanted. He gets up quickly and he runs out of the dark tent through the courtyard, under the starlight, to Eli’s tent.

A minute later he comes back, a bit confused, maybe embarrassed, back into the spooky place that he’s accepted as his place. Two more times it happens. The fourth time, having been instructed by Eli, he offers up himself, he makes himself an offering, a living sacrifice, a vessel. The Lord stands there, and speaks to him, who, still a child, suddenly becomes a prophet, suddenly intimate with God, exceptionally so, God inside him, and alone. He reminds me of the Virgin Mary here.

Into this virgin vessel the Lord pours in a bitter wine. It is a painful message that this boy must bear, a message of judgment on Eli. Why didn’t God tell Eli directly, why make it come through the boy? Of course he can’t sleep anymore. What’s in his mind as he waits for the morning? Suddenly it’s a different world. Suddenly he learns the dark night of the soul, and he wants it to be over, he wants the morning to come. But he also fears its coming, from what he’ll have to tell Eli.

Eli draws the message out of him, and Eli takes it graciously, he accepts it from the Lord, almost passively. That’s in character, for Eli is accepting and easy-going to a fault. We feel bad for him, this gentle, tragic figure, the story allows us our sympathy. But we know he failed in his responsibility, he indulged his sons and their corruption, to the injury of the people who looked up to him.

Yes, we are only clay jars; we are not angels, we are not golden spirits of light, we are fragile human bodies, with warts and cracks and weaknesses, we are but earthen vessels. This is no excuse for immorality or meanness, or selfishness or corruption, as with Eli’s sons, nor indulgence of these things or passivity in the face of them, as with Eli. Especially among God’s chosen leaders, for what they do has such effect upon the ordinary people, especially the weak ones and the needy. Fragile earthiness is one thing, but corruption is another. Yes, we are “afflicted, and perplexed, and persecuted, and struck down,” but that’s not irresponsibility, nor a license for disobedience and ungodliness.

Rather, it’s in the midst of your brokenness that you are called to prophesy, and why God permits these things is for your prophecy. I spoke of this a few months ago, that you all are called to prophecy, and though prophecy is familiar as speaking truth to power, for most of you it’s more mundane, it’s telling the truth about yourself, it’s telling the truth about yourself that you can’t know from yourself unless you learn it from God, and then to share with others that truth about your experience and even your suffering, your story that you have learned from God.

You are but a clay jar, but you hold treasure. Your breakable body bears the death and the life of Christ. Learn it. Discern God’s work within you, see God’s faithfulness inside you. Rightly interpret your own life, to do which is prophecy, that says, though I am afflicted, I am not crushed. Learning this interpretation is self-fulfilling, for when you interpret your life as within the kingdom of God, then, whenever you get perplexed, you are not driven to despair. And when you get persecuted, it’s because you are in it with Christ, so the truth is you are not forsaken. And because you are in Christ, and Christ is God, then when you are struck down, it is God who is being struck down in you, God’s power is perfected in your weakness, God’s treasure in your earthen vessel, and you will not be destroyed.

I want you to think of obedience as a kind of prophecy and prophecy as the Christian approach to obedience. We think of obedience as toeing the line, not breaking rules, chain-of-command and all that. But think of obedience as creative and future-directed, acting according to the hope that is in you.

In the gospel, in the synagogue, Jesus broke the rules, though he did not violate the Torah. He didn’t work on the Sabbath day, he didn’t lift a finger, he just spoke to the man with the withered hand. He said, “Come up here.” And the man who for the shame of his disfigurement was sitting in the back, obeyed the call and cancelled his shame by coming up front.

That he was able to do, but he was not able to do the next thing Jesus told him to do, to stretch out his hand, precisely not! But in that same obedience he did what he was not able to do, and he healed himself in his obedience. His obedience was to act upon his own long desire and broken hope. His prophetic obedience triggered the plotting for the death of Jesus, but for Jesus it was why he came, his death for life in you, himself to be the self-sacrificing love of God for broken and longing people, earthen vessels, just like us.

Copyright © 2018 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.