Friday, September 28, 2018

September 30, Proper 21, Law and Gospel #4: Cause and Effect

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22, Psalm 124, James 5:13-20, Mark 9:38-50

Jesus! This Gospel lesson is a tough one. Mutilation, amputation, pull your eye out. A millstone on your neck and mafia-style be cast into the sea. Where’s the gospel in these sayings of Our Lord? It’s rather all law, all judgment, all condemnation, and hellfire. So much for the nice Jesus.

The translation doesn’t help. I wish it were literal. Our Lord did not actually say “hell,” he said “gehenna,” and by “gehenna” he did not mean “hell.” Gehenna was the garbage dump in the gully behind Jerusalem. In garbage dumps the fires never stop smoldering and maggots flourish. Gehenna was a disgusting place, and if the corpse of any deceased was tossed there instead of decently buried it was an end of ultimate shame. Gehenna became a metaphor, though not for eternal torture, but for exclusion, shameful  destruction, annihilation, and unmourned oblivion. Such a deceased would have no part in the resurrection of Israel or the life of the world to come.

That only helps a little, and what the Lord Jesus says is still very hard. If you stumble by what you do–cut it off, if you stumble by where you go–cut it off, if you stumble by what you see–cut it out. Better maimed or crippled or half-blind than to miss out on the resurrection. His metaphors are gruesome and extreme. One strike and you’re out! But you’ve only got two hands, two feet, two eyes. You don’t want to have to do this twice! Is that why the warning is extreme? There is a cost to your discipleship.

Actions have consequences that you can’t escape, no matter how far back your actions were. An immature immorality from high school will find you out. You may well be forgiven of your sin, and by the atonement of Christ be freed from your guilt, but that does not exempt you from the long-term consequences of your sin upon the lives of others, or even of the effects of its shadow on your personal development while you were denying it. Full repentance means to reckon with the consequences of what you’ve done, and it’s better to not to stand upon your rights. Maybe that Supreme Court seat for which you are most qualified is what you must give up. To enter the Kingdom of God is the better deal.

That actions have consequences is the moral law. The natural law is that causes have effects. The difference between nature and morality is that human beings are given freedom, and your freedom includes the freedom to disobey the law—but not to escape the consequences! How much freedom? Freedom from the constraints of nature? Freedom to choose our own morality? Free to continually redefine ourselves?

This freedom is what we are testing these days in our post-modern civilization. How free should the President be from the immoral things he said on tape? How free from the sins of his youth can be a candidate for the Supreme Court? How free may a woman be with her reproduction? How free may we be with our respective sexualities? The answers on these differ, but the testing is similar. How free are we to have an economy that depends for its growth on expanding consumption before the effects of our consumption make the climate rise up in revenge? Why should we expect the environment to be merciful or even fair? The longer the sin is hidden or the actions undealt with, the more extreme and the less fair are the consequences.

“For freedom Christ has set us free”—that’s the Gospel, and yet so much in our lives is not our choice and beyond our control, and we have to live with it. How vulnerable we are, how fragile our security. I sense this vulnerability as an underlying theme among our lessons this morning.

In the Book of Esther, the whole population of the Jews, being subject to the Persian Empire, were defenseless against the slaughter of the pogrom being instigated by Haman, if not for the rescue achieved by Queen Esther, whom no one but her uncle knew to be a Jew.

Our Psalm this morning, 124, is also about the people of God being rescued just at the point of annihilation.

The Epistle of James assumes a cultural context of opposition and struggle behind its exhortations to sing and pray and confess your sins to one another. He exhorts the early congregations, in their difficult and challenging context, against passivity, against bitterness, against resentment. He exhorts forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing, anointing with oil and prayer for the sick, and yet without descending to the primitive belief in a cause and effect of prayer and results. The practice of prayer exposes us to the mystery of unanswered prayer, and prayers for healing expose us to the inevitability of death.

We live in the world of nature, so we have to live with the effects of the causes beyond our control. We live in the world of human power, so we have to live with the consequences of the actions and choices of others not ourselves. To follow the Lord Jesus makes you even more vulnerable and exposed to the resistance of the world. Shall we therefore be defensive, and circle our wagons, and see other people as enemies real and potential, or shall we keep ourselves open? Shall we not accept even the most minimal gift of a cup of water as offering of love and hospitality?

I think the Lord Jesus goes even deeper in the gospel. I think he’s saying that our most difficult and challenging context is the one inside ourselves, that your worst opponent is yourself. Yes, you have opponents in the world who cause you to stumble, but don’t you cause yourself to stumble? Do you not have a history in your own life from which, despite your freedom, you can’t be free—mistakes you have made, offenses committed, bad calls, momentary lapses, with consequences that endure, to which you are vulnerable, so that your greatest danger and insecurity is inside you.

And yet there is power in forgiveness, great power in reconciliation, the reversal of cause and effect, the lifting of ultimate consequences. Not ultimate power, for even when the elders anoint the sick with oil, that person still may die. But power for affirming life and affirming goodness and community even in the midst of painful memories and present losses.

When James says that reconciling a sinner has power to cover a multitude of sins, he doesn’t mean hiding those sins, he’s using the technical language of “propitiation”, of sprinkling blood upon the sacrifice, exposing the sins and treating them with both grief and active reconciliation. The Lord Jesus uses the metaphors of fire and salt, by which the ancient sacrifice for sin was purified. He tells us to have salt in ourselves, and judge ourselves, in awareness of our own stumbling, and not judge others, and be at peace with one another. That is the real power that you have.

Who shall be our judges? Who shall give judgment in the Supreme Court of our land? The issues are moral but the decision is political. Right now America is trying to work out its morality politically. I imagine it is both necessary and impossible, and we are finding it impossible.

So it is more necessary now then ever for you as Christians to witness to your vision of the Kingdom of God, received by us though not achieved by us, and to live your vision by your example.

Let me remind you of our draft new mission statement: Old First Reformed Church is a community of Jesus Christ for Brooklyn, offering a space of unconditional welcome, a practice of worship and service, and a vision of the Kingdom of Heaven. We haven’t settled on the exact wording, but our mission is clear that we offer the vision and we witness to it by our words and our actions.

This vision offers the hope of the gospel against the judgments of the law.

The vision of space for welcome, for healing, for reconciliation, forgiveness, restitution, rehabilitation, space for grace and even for human flourishing.

The practice of worship and service, to pray and to sing and to anoint with oil, and that to worship God is also to receive a cup of water from the least of these, to unify worship and service by our prayers for all the world and for each other, to share our cooking and our food and our Holy Communion.

To see the Kingdom of Heaven in the economy of love, the love of God for those who stumble, for all of us half-blind, the love of God for all who are lost and wandering.

It’s precisely in being embraced when we have stumbled that we know this love. And it is your mission in the world to share this love of God.

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

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.