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.