Saturday, March 31, 2018

April 1, Easter: The Alarming Good News

Isaiah 25:6-9, Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24, Acts 10:34-43, Mark 16:1-7

You might have noticed that I ended the Gospel reading two sentences early, compared to what is printed in your insert. That’s because those last two sentences were not in the original Gospel of St. Mark, not in the oldest manuscripts. They were tacked on later, making the ending less abrupt and disconcerting. The subsequent Latin versions have an even longer ending, to solve the problem of St. Mark stopping short of any appearance of the resurrected Jesus.

St. Mark does not doubt the resurrection, as his Gospel is full of the intimations of it. But why does he end his Gospel with the women fleeing from the tomb in terror and amazement, disregarding the young man’s instructions, reporting nothing to no-one, because they were afraid, full stop? Don’t they have good news to tell?

On Sunday afternoons I teach confirmation to a wonderful group of teenagers. Last month I was explaining the doctrine of the resurrection—the resurrection of Jesus in history and the future resurrection of humanity, and I was saying that the resurrection is not just spiritual but physical and embodied, and not just heavenly, but for the world, and one of the students said, “You mean, like zombies?” Good point, Julian! So maybe the women in the gospel story fled from the tomb in terror and amazement because how did they know that Jesus was not a zombie!

What would a body be like that had risen from three days of decomposition? Not a good thing, if it’s like the walking dead. What would it be like to live forever? Maybe not good, if it’s like being a vampire, despite the fantasies of True Blood. Maybe it’s like the elves in The Lord of the Rings, only without those ridiculous ears. The entertainment industry suggests that resurrection and eternal life are not just Biblical matters but secular preoccupations—here is what it might be like to live forever, here is what it might be like to rise from the dead. But then what gets envisioned is something to run away from. Like the women do from the tomb.

Let me shift this a bit. Our reading from Acts says that God had anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. Power is also a secular preoccupation, but the entertainment industry calls it "superpower". In my elementary Sunday School class I asked the girls to tell me the superpowers of their favorite superheros. I asked them if their superheros always use their powers to fight, and they admitted, Yes, always. I wonder, is there a Marvel superhero with the superpower to heal the sick and give sight to the blind and feed five thousand people with five loaves and two fish? I haven’t yet seen Black Panther, but Wonder Woman saves the world by the power of her violence. These two movies have positive value when they celebrate people other than white males, but the power that we envision in these secular saviors is always a violent power. Good violence versus bad violence.

You can extrapolate from these movies to propose that the best way to deal with school shootings is to arm the teachers. But then, what is your vision of human life on earth? What kind of a world do you imagine, what kind of life can you hope for? If you think the more people that bear arms the better, then what can you believe is the capacity of human beings for a good life together, and what is the capacity of this world for long and happy lives within it?

Many Christians in America estimate these capacities as low. What they see is violence against violence until we die and our souls go off to heaven, and leave this world behind, and it’s only in heaven that we ever get the good life. Until then the 2nd Amendment protects us and comforts us with our God-given right to violence.

The Lord Jesus, however, presented a power that was absolutely non-violent. He could walk on water and calm the raging storm but did not fight the police arresting him. He’s offering a blending of power and ethics that the world ever finds incomprehensible, unbelievable, preposterous, and maybe with good reasons. Shouldn’t we persist and resist, shouldn’t we fight back? I know, but this image of power and ethics that he presents is not just about himself, it’s a worldview, it’s a vision of the world, and it’s not just for belief in God, it’s a vision of humanity and of your capacity, and you with your own ethical life are invited to offer form and shape to the world of God’s future.

It’s always been hard to comprehend and even harder to believe, even for those who were close to him. Of this difficulty the Gospel writers are not shy. The case in point is the disconcerted ending of our Gospel today. St. Mark was not shy of the women not comprehending the empty tomb, of them not believing the testimony of the mysterious young man in it, and their fearing the implications. That later on the church felt the need to add those nicer endings reveals that even the church has ever found the good news hard to comprehend and even harder to believe.

If the resurrection is good news, how can the good news be alarming? It’s at least because an embodied resurrection is so much more disruptive than simple immortality of the soul. If Easter were only a case of Jesus going to heaven when he died, there was no cause for alarm. It’s not hard to imagine immortal souls in heaven, it’s done all the time. Plato, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and even Galileo found it perfectly comprehensible. Immortality of the soul is not alarming.

But in our confirmation class, once we got past the zombies, when we tried filling out a picture of embodied resurrection for embodied life in the world to come, we quickly encountered all kinds of biological problems and social and political obstacles to undying physical lives upon this earth. The good news of embodied resurrection starts getting just too weird, and the alarm bells go off.

The resurrection is a disruption even of immortality, it’s worse than a wrinkle in time, it tears the fabric of the cosmic order, or as Isaiah said, Destroys the shroud that is cast over all peoples and the sheet that is spread over the nations. If liberation is exposure, then that sudden opening can be alarming.

You know there are good things you’re afraid of. Belief means choosing between your fears—which fears you run from and which fears you walk through. This good news is for the hard times, not the nice times. This good news addresses the relentless realities of life and loss and pain. This good news is quieter than the loud noise of hatred and the clamor of violence. It is offered to you precisely in a time of discouragement and national despair, in a time of cultural exhaustion and personal stress. I invite you to believe the news that, while death comes to us all, and despite the necessary grief, you may expect that life is not finally defined by mourning.

The Gospel of St. Mark ends this way because the ending is actually a beginning, the beginning of a whole new world of unforeseen possibilities. At the lake in Ontario where we have our cottage there’s a shore of cliffs, twenty to forty feet above the water, which there is deep, and you stand on the edge, and your children are telling to go ahead and jump—they did! The ending of St. Mark’s Gospel feels like a precipice but it’s a launching, a take-off, a leap. The resurrection is wide open.

Believe it with a belief that is open instead of closed, a belief not in a hard set of doctrines but in God’s faithfulness, a belief not strictured by certitude but open to wonder and imagination. Believe this news in order for you to imagine that this physical world is ever more open to the presence of God in it, believe it to consider that your biological bodies have more capacity for God’s Spirit than you know, believe it to countenance that our political and economic structures have more capacity for love and for healing and for feeding the hungry than their known capacity for violence, believe it to inspire you to stand up and speak for this strong peace and persist and resist by the power of love instead of fear, in the forgiveness of sins instead of violence, in the power of life coming out of death.

The resurrection is both the central doctrine of the Christian faith and the hardest to believe, as I think St. Mark intends to show us. Today I’m inviting you to believe, to believe the good news of a righteous God saying Yes to this real world, Yes to this here creation, even as we wait and long for the full redemption that God has for it, Yes to rich food and well-aged wines, Yes to your own resurrection, Yes to your capacity for power and goodness that God has in mind for you, Yes to openness and joyful wonder.

Today you answer that Yes when you sing and pray and when you pass the peace. No matter how much you believe or you doubt, you were right to come here today to give yourself to hope and to love, and to answer Yes to the incomprehensible and unconditional love of God for you.

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

Friday, March 16, 2018

March 18, Lent 5: Signs of God #4: The Sign of Jesus

Jeremiah 31:31-34, Psalm 51:1-13, Hebrews 5:5-10, John 12:20-33

“Sir, we wish to see Jesus,” famously said the Greeks. Whether they ever did see him we are not told. We get the impression that once their request got to Jesus, he did not bother to meet up with them. We are told that Jesus took their request as a sort of rubicon, a defining moment, the confirmation of his choices and his doom. He says, “The hour has come.”

But we are not told why Jesus took their request that way. What I surmise is that the Greeks represent the world, the larger world outside Israel, and they confirmed in him that the world was ready for him—or that he was ready for the world.

The world had been on his mind since at least his conversation with Nicodemus three years earlier, from which we heard last Sunday. He had said, “God so loved the world,” and that “God sent his son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world through him might be saved.”

Don’t take that for granted, because his terminology represents a controversial choice on his part, a doom, a deadly choice. He had not said, “God so loved Israel,” nor that “God sent his son into Israel not to condemn Israel but that Israel through him might be saved.” But that’s what you should expect him to have said, considering such prophecies as Jeremiah’s, who promised that God would make a new covenant with the House of Israel—not with the world! When God said, “I was their husband,” that meant that God was the lover of Israel. God’s love was for Israel, not the world.

But the Lord Jesus, as early as his talk with Nicodemus, apparently made his complex choice to be a Messiah for the world. Fine. But that entailed him being a failure as the Messiah of Israel. In that sense, Our Lord was a failure. And that troubled him, even though he believed in the choice he was making. Just because you’re choosing what you believe doesn’t mean it won’t trouble you. You grieve the loss of other possibilities, you grieve your losing the life you enjoy, and losing your loved ones. The right choice is often the grievous choice. Jesus knew what it meant when he said that “If you love your life you’ll lose it.”

He failed as Israel’s Messiah. He lost to the Romans. He failed to establish his kingdom of peace for his own people. His teaching failed to persuade the thousands of people that he miraculously fed, and at the end only 120 people were still loyal to him. He was a loser, he went down in shame instead of glory. It troubled him, that he’d have to accept them killing him, but he had made his choices, and his doom was to plant his death, like a seed, in the fertile ground of God’s future.

Despite his grief he was resolved. Maybe because of his grief he was resolved. He said, “What should I say, Father, deliver me? No, Father, glorify your name.”  That was what the Epistle to the Hebrews called his reverent submission to his Father. Not submission like groveling surrender, but submission like you submit your proposal, you submit your manuscript, you submit your best work.

He made his reverent submission and then, like an unexpected thunderclap, his Father vindicated him. Didn’t explain him, didn’t convince the crowd, but certainly did vindicate his choices and his doom.

Then Jesus shared his vision, his vision of himself, which he held before himself as he made his complex choices. He said, “And I, when I am lifted up, will draw all people to myself.” Lifted up, like on a Roman cross? Yes. But also lifted by his Father up from death. Also lifted up to heaven at God’s right hand, presiding over all the world and drawing all people to himself.

His lifting up is the last one of our signs of God. He’s lifted up like a signpost. The sign is not his cross so much as him who is up on it. The sign is your own mental image of him, and, like those Greeks who had wanted to see him, you have to be satisfied with your mental image of him, your image of him that you draw from the testimony of the witnesses and the memoirs of the apostles. His sign for you is how you envision him in your hope and in your longing.

He is a complex sign. He recapitulates the other signs of God that we have seen this season of Lent.

He is lifted up like that bronze serpent that Moses put up on the pole, so that everyone who gazes on him is healed.

He is raised up like the temple three days after it was broken down, that is, the temple of his body, his embodied life of ethical obedience, the house for God that he had built by his lifelong obedience to the Ten Commandments, the obedience he learned through what he suffered.

He is lifted up on the cross by the jeering Romans soldiers, who stripped him naked to expose his circumcision, thus to shame him and all the other Jews. But as Hebrews says elsewhere, that’s the sign “that he despised the shame—for the joy that was set before him, he endured the cross and despised the shame.”

He is lifted up from the earth like the rainbow, that sign of God for Noah and the animals, that bow-and-arrow aimed back up at God’s own heart, God saying “cross my heart and hope to die,” the sign of God’s all-in commitment to every living creature, that God freely takes personal responsibility for all the sin and evil of the world, and even takes the rap for it, though sin and evil come from us, not God. Way back at the rainbow God had committed to that doom, and now the hour has come.

Jesus is the sign of God’s identification with humankind, for better or worse, in life and death, with nothing held back. And thus the Incarnation, so that God should die! Because if God, who is pure spirit, had not become a human being, then God could not die. But why should God have to die? Because of God’s commitment to take the rap for evil and the penalty for sin. It was to be able to die a human death that God became a human being. How awful.

And yet how wonderful and mysterious is God’s answer to the problem of evil in the world, and it challenges our expectations. The No, No, No of humanity is answered by the Yes, Yes, Yes of God, but more than that, this Yes of God rises from the world as Yes to God from the life of someone who is genuinely human.. As Hebrews says, “Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.” The Yes of Jesus is both the Yes of God and the Yes to God, said both ways in loving commitment even unto death.

So Jesus did not die a sacrifice to senseless evil, though sensible evil took him as its victim. He died a sacrifice for righteousness, but not a victim of righteousness, rather a sacrifice for righteousness just as a seed is a sacrifice for the plant rises from it. He sacrificed for justice as an investment in justice. The Romans took him as a victim, but he was really the priest who offered up the sacrifice of himself. He was no victim, he wasn’t even a guinea pig, he was the pioneer and perfecter. Jesus is the sign that points to this way as the right way, to take the risk, even at the cost of suffering, that righteousness and justice are worth the risk to gain the future of God.

He was lifted up on the cross as the priest of his own sacrifice. As a priest he offers up to God the guilt of the world that he takes upon himself. He also offers up to God the grief of the world, he offers his prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears, the misery of the world and the anguish of humanity, your fear, your isolation, your frustration, your longing, and even your rage, crying out to God. “Why have you forsaken us? Why have you allowed all this? Why have you created us?”

Hebrews says that he was heard, that his prayers were heard. And yet he was not spared, he was not rescued. He was allowed to fail, to fail as the Messiah of Israel. Even in his failure he was the sign, the sign that it’s precisely in our failure that God meets us. God meets us human beings in the terrors and trials of time and circumstance.

Does God recognize failure? Yes, if your failure is that point where God meets you. I’m not saying that God ignores your prayers. I’m inviting you to believe that God suffers with you whatever suffering you pray about. God accompanies you through it.

With all the misery and suffering of the world that we keep praying about, you might conclude that Jesus has also been a failure as the Messiah of the world. Where is the Messianic age? But I invite you to believe that Jesus is the sign that God is willing to go the whole way with humanity, to not cut short human history and development and cultural creativity, to give humanity lots of time and room and freedom to do what it wants in the world and seek its destiny, and God patiently and lovingly suffers us.

Suffers us, not endures us. Suffers us without resenting us, suffers us and speaks to us, suffers us and enlightens us, suffers us and writes God’s words upon our hearts. I invite you to believe in this kind of salvation, I invite you to believe in this kind of strategy of God, this motivation for prayer, and I invite you to believe that this grand strategy of God is the expression of God’s own self-denying love for the world, God’s self-sacrificing love for humanity, and God’s joyful love for you.

Copyright © 2018 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Sunday, March 04, 2018

March 4, Lent 3: Signs of God #3; Commandments and Temple

Exodus 20:1-17, Psalm 19, 1 Corinthians 1:18-25, John 2:13-22

In 1980 I began my first ministry, at the Hungarian Reformed Church in South River NJ. The ladies held an Election Day Stuffed Cabbage Supper as an annual fund-raiser. I love stuffed cabbage. So did the whole north end of town.

That first Election Day evening we stood on line to come into the hall for dinner, and there inside the door was a table where Mrs. Buga was selling chances. Gambling in church! I was horrified. She sat there with a black metal cash box, a roll of numbered tickets colored red, and a rotating steel mesh ball for shuffling the tickets. At the next consistory meeting I asked the elders and deacons to put an end to this practice, and they did so, which amazes me now because they were going against their wives. But I had a very positive ministry there for five years.

In 1986 I left that church for graduate school, but on Election Day we went back to eat stuffed cabbage and say hello. We came into the hall and there at her table sat Mrs. Buga, with her cash box and red roll of tickets and steel mesh ball. Kept safe for five years. They had just waited me out. So how long did it take for the money-changers to get back into the temple and set up shop again?

The Cleansing of the Temple happens on Palm Sunday, according to Matthew, but in John’s Gospel it’s way earlier, right after Our Lord’s first miracle of turning water into wine. In both events his actions were symbolic, they were meant as signs, but how opposite. Water and wine, and then wrath and a whip. One sign pointing to extravagant generosity and the other to extreme judgment.

Our Lord does this at Passover, the holiday when three years later he will be killed. Already he knows he’s in for it. He’s walking into a three-year Lent. He knows his words will be resisted and his actions opposed, he knows they’ll do away with him for doing what he has to do and saying what he has to say. To do the right thing, you have to sacrifice. To commit to the right thing, you have to pay for it. We know that’s true, but why does it have to be true? It stinks. And just because you know it’s right doesn’t mean you won’t feel anger for having to do it. As Jesus did.

Because sacrifice and suffering are not good things in themselves. You are not called to seek out martyrdom. You are called to a living sacrifice, not a dying one, you are called not to get up on the cross but to carry it—that is, to be realistic, to face the real and unfair cost of leading lives of ethical love. You know this from experience. If you’ve loved, you’ve suffered: whether from the death or misfortune of a loved one, or from having lost out when you did what was right. If you don’t want to sacrifice, don’t love.

Love costs even God. It’s suffering and sacrifice even for God when God commits to us. I said last week that for love’s sake God suffers us. We saw in the story of Noah and the rainbow that God points a bow and arrow back at God’s own heart, the symbol of God’s self-sacrifice. In the story of Abraham we saw God commit to a special relationship with Abraham and his offspring, which then subsequently required God to suffer the shamefully bad behavior of Abraham’s descendants. When God commits to the church, God suffers the relentless scandal of the church.

But even for God, suffering is not good in itself, and it’s in God’s interest to move the relationship along and do something about that behavior. God wants God’s partners to be ethical. So God gives to the children of Abraham the Ten Commandments. This was a new thing in the world, for gods and goddesses to have much interest in ethical behavior, whether among themselves or us. But this God is on a mission to heal the world, and to develop an ethical humanity to share in that healing, and God’s directions to shape that new humanity are the Ten Commandments.

You can think of the Ten Commandments as a sign, a great big sign, erected by God to direct our development towards that humanity that helps to save the world. Of course what the world would prefer is that God do it all himself and prove himself by means of supernatural interventions and convenient miracles and fixing things and stopping things. God does not do it that way, and maybe God is foolish not to. God’s foolishness is rather to be proven by the behavior of those who believe in God.

God commits to us, God identifies with us, and the result of God identifying with us is that God’s reputation is in our hands and our lives. We are entrusted with God’s image in the world. Our behavior is a house for God. Our thoughts and actions and our bodies are God’s temple. The Commandments are a blueprint for the temple of God that is our behavior. God offers this pattern of behavior as something so designed that our performing this pattern converts us into a people whose culture and character become a sign of God within in the world.

These Commandments can be examined one by one, like the details of a blueprint, but they are best in their unity, as an entity. I’m saying to think of them as a house, in which each commandment is a structural member holding up the whole, each commandment holds in tension and compression with the others. The house of our behavior is a house of God, and your ethical lives are a dwelling-place of God in the world, a temple.

For Christians the Ten Commandments are wisdom instead of obligation. For us, the Torah is not obligatory, as St. Paul said last week, but we are obligated to learn the wisdom of God that is carried in them. And we must be willing to pay the price that they demand of us. Like the sacrifice of your freedom of speech that comes with not bearing false witness. Like your sacrifice of sexual freedom that comes with not committing adultery. Like your sacrifice of your right to carry a gun so that you shall not kill. Like the surrender that comes with not coveting your neighbor’s brownstone, if you rent. To love your neighbor as yourself is usually a sacrifice.

And so here is a take-home: If loving your neighbor hasn’t cost you, it isn’t love yet, it’s only being nice. Nice is good, but that’s not what we mean by loving your neighbor as yourself. You will know it’s love when somehow it costs you, even if your neighbor doesn’t know it, and even if you don’t feel very loving. In fact you might feel like Jesus in the temple. Yet you continue to wish them well and serve their good as best you can. And as you pay the costs to be good to your neighbor, you explore what love is. You all need a few relationships of potential irritation for practicing this love. A good place to find such irritating neighbors is in church!

During Lent you confess that in your ethical behavior you have failed to be good representatives of God. During Lent you have be like Jesus in the temple of your own life, pouring out the coins in your heart and upsetting the tables of your own mind. Do that within yourself. That’s confession.

But here’s the deeper level of God’s commitment to you and identification with you: God will be recognized not only in your good behavior, but even in your confession of your bad behavior. God will be recognized, not only as the God who loves the good, but even more as the God who loves the weak and the fallen. In ethical terms, that is the foolishness of God.

The most important ethical behavior that you can do and by which God wants to be known is your telling the truth about yourselves. That can feel like extravagance and extremity, like Jesus in the temple, when you confess “there is no health in us, miserable offenders.” Uncomfortable words? If confession doesn’t cost you your comfort, you haven’t confessed yet. 

I said that if loving your neighbor hasn’t cost you yet, it’s only being nice. It’s true for God as well. God has neighbors too, and that means you. God has to love you as God’s self.  God treats you with respect, God gives you space and room to live your life as you develop it. God abides you the way you are, God abides you in your weakness and suffers you in your failures. It costs God every day to keep on loving you as God’s self. But that’s what love does, that’s what love loves to do. So I am telling you again that while this pilgrimage of Lent is partly about us, it’s mostly about your journey deep into the unfathomable, unbounded love of God.

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