Thursday, October 18, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 12, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 06, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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