Thursday, January 31, 2019

February 3, Fourth after Epiphany; What We See #5: Jesus Makes Trouble

Jeremiah 1:4-10, Psalm 71:1-6, 1 Corinthians 13:1-13, Luke 4:21-30

What do we see in the Gospel today? We see the Lord Jesus making trouble in his hometown synagogue, and then we see the locals turning against him and even trying to kill him. Were some of them his relatives? Isn’t this story rather too extreme? Overly melodramatic? How enigmatic is it? Are we seeing it only dimly, like a distant image in an ancient mirror? Are we seeing only in part?

Why did Jesus speak like a noisy gong and a clanging cymbal? Why didn’t he show them more love? Why wasn’t he more considerate of their feelings? Why did he push them so? Was he not on their side?

It’s remarkable, according to St. Luke’s version, that the first opposition to Jesus came not from the scribes and Pharisees, as in St. Mark, but from his own people, and that the first people who tried to kill him were not the Romans but the very people he had come to save.

A prophet is without honor in his own country. No prophet is accepted in his own home town. I am no longer honored in the Classis of Brooklyn, though I’m the senior pastor in it, and of all the pastors in the Classis I am the only one who spent my childhood within it, and this is the Classis I wanted for years to come home to.

I am a life-long member of the Reformed Church in America, I have devoted my life to it and all my scholarship, and I have been blackballed for leadership in it. I am treated as a trouble-maker because I have spoken out to welcome and affirm LGBTQ Christians. Of doing that I have no regrets, and I stand by it, but you can understand my sense of loss.

Why were the people of Nazareth so suddenly upset? I think it was only natural. Their condition under the Romans was poverty and oppression. They were like captives in their own land. And as we saw last week, Jesus had just read out from Isaiah the prophecy of bringing good news to the poor, and lifting the oppressed, and liberating those in captivity. And then he said, “The time is now, and the Messiah prophesied is me!” So the people were delighted with their hometown boy.

If he was going to do that, then it was natural to expect him to judge those who kept them poor, and punish their oppressors who taxed them so, and vanquish the occupying soldiers who treated them like slaves. Be the enemy of our enemies.

But then the Lord Jesus reminded them of stories of God being as good to their enemies as to them, even to healing an enemy soldier who had defeated their own in battle, and it hit them that Jesus did not intend to be the enemy of their enemies. Of course they felt betrayed by him, and hurt, and enraged, with the extreme emotions of a crowd.

When we cry out for salvation, when we cry out for God to intervene, we naturally want God to fix our circumstances but leave us as we are, thank you very much. Save me, and save me as I am. Fight for me, that I win, and I get back what belongs to me. But the Savior has to save us mostly from ourselves. Our own worst enemy is us. So it’s good news that the Lord Jesus befriends our enemies, as that includes us! He has no enemies, only friends. Which sometimes hurts our feelings. But our feelings are what Jesus does not come to save. This is important.

It’s not that our feelings are not important. Jesus shared our feelings. This is one reason that our Savior had to be a fully human being, to feel first-hand the things we feel. Parents are right to care for their children’s feelings. Friends are careful of each other’s feelings. Lovers are all about each other’s feelings. If you love people, you care about their feelings.

It’s because you don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings that you might not say what you know to be true. Discretion is the better part of candor. And you have to ask yourself, Do they really need to hear it or is it my felt-need to say it? My mentor once explained to me that as a pastor I should tell somebody something only if that person is able to hear it. If he or she can’t hear it, then I am not obliged to say it.

Was that the problem with the people of Nazareth, that they were unable to hear the good news in what Jesus said? It’s why depressed citizens often respond to politicians who will end up hurting them more instead of responsible leaders whose truth is hard to hear.

But at the same time, when we say that we don’t want to hurt other people’s feelings, it’s often as much our own feelings we’re protecting, because if you tell that truth they will think less of you, or even get angry with you, like with Jesus. I confess the many times I did not tell the truth about myself because it was my own feelings I was protecting as much as the feelings of the person I was speaking to. Is it their feelings that you do not want to hurt or in fact your own? Or both? It’s hard to distinguish when it’s your family with whom you share your feelings or any group of people that you love. So how is Jesus loving here, when love is patient and love is kind, as in First Corinthians 13?

But love has its distinctions. It’s worth remembering, that the Greek language has three words for “love” to only one for English. Three kinds of love, and they blend into each other. Two of them are all about feeling and one is not. The first kind of love is eros, intimate love, sexual attraction, the love between lovers and spouses. It’s based on feelings and is very physical. It is wonderful and powerful and it can be dangerous and to keep it safe requires great protections.

The second kind of love is philia, brotherly love, sisterly love, family love, tribal love, even patriotic love. Its feeling is affection. At one end it’s family feeling, and at the other it’s the friendship of best friends. It’s based on shared genetics and language or shared experience and loyalties. It has to mean that some folks are in and some folks are out. These two kinds of love are good and natural, and they occur among animals. But they are not the kind of love that’s in First Corinthians 13.

I often notice Christians saying that the church they belong is like a family. They mean well, but the New Testament never uses “family” for the church, but for the whole of humanity. That’s because the church has to be based on the third kind of love, which is agape.

This is a rarer kind of love, Godly love, Gospel love, love beyond affection, love beyond feeling, love beyond friendship because it treats its enemies as friends, love beyond family because it treats strangers the same. It is not based on feeling and your feelings can confuse your loving this way when you want to. Feelings can oppose it, and hinder recognizing it when you receive it, especially if you’re judging it by the other kinds of love. Like at Nazareth. It is often unrequited—the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King loved his country with Gospel love and was killed for it. You live by this kind of love and it will get you into trouble. It’s unrealistic and practically impossible.

But I invite you to not rule it out because you fear it’s unrealistic, rather that you keep coming back to it and always imagine again, in both expectation and humility, how to try again to put this love into practice. Don’t ask how you can adjust the claim of love to conform to our reality, but how you change yourself to conform to the claim of love. What losses can you anticipate and accept as worth it, and what loss can you even welcome in order to gain the salvation that it offers?

This kind of love cannot depend on feeling, so it requires faith and hope. You can approach the claim of love when you live by faith instead of your own internal certainties. You can answer the challenge of love when you live in hope instead of your own realities. Love is always beyond you, so to attain it means the constant exercise of faith and hope. Faith and hope are the means to the goal that is love. You practice faith in order to love. You practice hope in order to keep on loving. And you can do this, love this way, if you do it by faith and if you accept the proof of it in your hope.

This kind of love is beyond your possession. It is in you but beyond us. That’s simply because it belongs to God. It’s not that love is God but that God is love. God defines what love is. Love is patient and kind because God is patient and kind. God does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. God does not insist on God’s own way. God bears all things, God believes all things, God hopes all things, God endures all things, and God will never end. For now you love as in a mirror dimly, but then you will love face to face. Now you love in part, but then you will love fully, even as you have been fully loved.

Copyright © 2019, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Friday, January 25, 2019

Epiphany +3, What We See#4: Jesus Makes Aliyah

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6,, 8-10, Psalm 19, 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a, Luke 4:14-21

Our sermon series for Epiphany is “What We See.” And what we see in two of our lessons today is people in church. Which is surprisingly rare in the Bible—depictions of actual worship services. Of course there’s lots of instruction on how to behave in church, but there is not one nice, full set of instructions for the Christian liturgy, nor is there one description of a Christian worship service from start to finish. We are offered only glimpses, and not many of them, but we get two of them today.

Of course I am being anachronistic. The glimpse in the Gospel is not of people in church, but in a synagogue. But the synagogue is the mother of the church. The earliest churches were Christianized synagogues, and church worship evolved from synagogue worship. Not from temple worship, with its altars and sacrifices, but from synagogue worship, with the reading and interpretation.

And I am being doubly anachronistic because the depiction in the First Reading, from Nehemiah, is not of a synagogue, but of a public meeting outdoors. I say “public” because it was equally church and state. The nation’s constitution was being read out loud to its citizens, in the original Hebrew, and then it was translated for them into the Aramaic dialect that they now spoke. And this experience moved them to worship. This event depicts the origins of synagogue worship, and so this event is like the grandmother of going to church. This is one source of what we do here every week.

Temple worship was different. There was no congregation. The priests did their sacrifices and the Levites made their music and you could watch it from a distance, if you were a man. Now, for temple worship, the Bible does have a full set of instructions, in the Torah, especially Leviticus.

But when the Temple was destroyed, and when Jewish communities scattered through the world, they developed the substitute of the synagogue. There they read out those same instructions from the Torah and interpreted them, not for the How but for the Why. If God wanted the Levites to do such-and-such in the ritual, then how shall we ordinary Jews apply that in our daily lives? Even way out here in Babylon or Africa or Rome? Or Brooklyn?

So which kind of worship does God desire, temple or synagogue? The sacrificial ritual or the book interpreted? Jesus attended both. But he also kept saying that crazy thing that his body was the temple. And then, on the night before he died, he instituted a sacred meal, and to that meal he applied the temple language of sacrifice when he called it his body and his blood, a little temple on the table. Which meal the apostles kept doing every week after his resurrection—first the synagogue-style reading and interpreting, and then the temple of his body in the meal. Word and Sacrament.

Over the following centuries, the church evolved into the traditions of Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism, and the worship got more like the temple and less like the synagogue. Eventually the Mass was the priestly sacrifice for the laity to watch from a distance, with no participation and little understanding.

The Reformation reacted and made the worship more like the synagogue again, Bible and interpretation, with our pastors more like rabbis than priests, and we minimized the sacraments. Recently both sides recognized that we went too far, so Catholics have restored the Bible and the language of the people, and many Protestants have restored the weekly sacred meal.

So this is why reading and interpreting is an act of worship. We meet God here, in the reading and interpreting. It’s not just talk about God, it’s God talking, and we talk back. God is present in the meeting of our minds. We find God here, God finds us here, and here we find ourselves.

That’s why they wept, when the people heard the reading of the Torah. They wept because they found themselves, they got present to themselves. Because they found God they worshiped and because they found themselves they wept. Because God was present to them they worshiped and because they were present to themselves they wept. Just from reading the Book and interpreting it.

And that’s why in the Gospel story Jesus went up to read. That’s called the Aliyah, when an ordinary Jew comes up to read. You might read from the Torah or you might read from what’s called the Haftarah, the second lesson from one of the prophets, say Isaiah. The Haftarah reading is less prescribed than the Torah reading, and when Jesus went up, and the elders decided it should be from Isaiah, Jesus could choose what from Isaiah.

What he chose was his campaign platform for being the Messiah. His vision statement, his public mission statement. But I’m sure it was also personal for him. This was his personal mission statement. In these words he found himself and his private experience. Here he was present to himself as much as God was present in him.

In my own small way, I do something similar every week as I prepare my sermons. Before I can apply the scripture lessons to you, I have to get personal with them, I have to find myself in them, how they challenge me. If my preaching has any value, it’s that I wrestle with the text every week. I have to be converted by it every week again.

It can be draining, and the weeks when I don’t have to prepare a sermon are such a relief. I get lots of church-work done and spare myself that self-examination. And yet I crave it. It’s the drug that I’m addicted to. I depend upon that sermon preparation to keep me engaged with God, and also honestly present to my own soul.

Isn’t that why you came here today? Not to hear a lecture, but a sermon. Not just teaching but preaching. What I mean is you didn’t just come for information, though you do want that, but you came for here for confirmation, for integration, for transformation, for one more bit of conversion.

You came here to listen to the reading from the book and the interpretation, and there to find God present in the meeting of your mind, and also to get present to yourself, you came here to find yourself with God. To put your own self on the table, and make a temple of your own body and soul.

Jesus said that he came to bring good news to the poor, and you think, that’s important information, and a necessary reminder of the Christian attitude to the poor. But how about you, how are you poor yourself, and what for your particular poverty would be good news, and if you heard it, would you weep, in recognition?

He said that he came to bring release to the captives, and how are you captive, and what are you captive to? I think when you recognize your own captivity you might well weep.

We are to recognize ourselves in these words, both individually and as a congregation. We are to let ourselves be described by this words, even if we would not say to other people that we are poor or captive or blind or oppressed, even if it would be not honest for us to describe ourselves this way considering our wealth and our health and our freedom and our privilege.

But when we are in the presence of God, we are invited to be present to ourselves as poor and captive and blind and oppressed, and to confess it, and weep, and be relieved, and resurrected, and be told to rise and eat the fat and drink sweet wine, and share with others who have none. In this weekly dying are we born to eternal life.

And then Ezra says this very strange thing: “The joy of the Lord is your strength.” What does that mean? Well, what kind of strength do you want? What personal power, spiritual stamina? What strength can you draw from the joy of the Lord? What is “the joy of the Lord?” That’s poetry, so you have to use your imagination on it for few years, to wonder how the joy of the Lord might strengthen you.

I can tell you this, that when you lend your strength to any effort that’s good news to the poor, be that political or social or charitable, you will find your strength in the joy of the Lord, because that’s his campaign platform.

And when you lend your power to what’s good news for prisoners, from ending mass incarceration or ending the bail system to liberating your friends from the prison of their days and the oppression of their shame, that’s what the Lord rejoices in.

And when you yourself are wrestling with your own poor, blind, and oppressive emotional captivity, your will find your strength in that joy that knows the weeping through to the celebration.

I am saying more than I can understand here, we have to believe it a while in order to begin to understand it, but I do believe it and I invite you to believe it too, that there is strength here for you, and there is joy here too.

Copyright © 2019, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

January 20, Epiphany +2, What We See #3: Six Barrels of Wine

Isaiah 62:1-5, Psalm 36:5-10, 1 Corinthians 12:1-11, John 2:1-11

My first congregation was Hungarian. Most Hungarians are Roman Catholic, but a strong minority is Reformed, and their emblem was the Communion Cup, because they were allowed to drink from it, while their Catholic neighbors were not. And drink from it they did, not just little sips. Hungarians are wine-makers, and my parishioners had grapevines in their yards along with plums and apricots. In the old days the members would donate their homemade wine for Holy Communion.

In the attic I found three big pewter pitchers. These were the old Communion pitchers. At Communion the people would stand side-by-side around the sanctuary, and as they passed the cups from hand to hand, the elders had to follow them to keep refilling them. Especially when particular members had made the wine. One of their communion hymns had language about drinking deeply from God’s cup. Who decided that at Holy Communion our portions should be so small?

There on the table is our old Communion pitcher and most of our old Communion beakers, from when we also passed the cups along and drank the wine. We are more careful now, more careful of addictions and fearful of disease. We also take for granted our abundance, more food than we can eat, more clothes that we can wear, more stuff than we can store. We fear the scarcity we do not live with and we are desensitized to our bounty, the abundance that comes from God. The Belgic Confession calls God, “the overflowing fountain of all good.” There are the signs right there.

“Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory, and his disciples believed in him.” The first of his signs. John’s Gospel never calls them “miracles” but “signs.” Visible revelations, epiphanies, manifestations. A sign is something you see that directs you to something beyond itself.

A sign can be simple or complex. A sign can be richly interpreted, and maybe sometimes overdone! So how richly symbolic was this first of Jesus’ signs? We begin by noticing what we see, and then we will consider what it points to, and we do this in order that we too might believe in him.

We see a wedding reception, however that went back then. People on the floor, on carpets, eating and drinking. Maybe some dancing. We see there, sitting together, Mary, and Jesus, and his four friends—Simon, Andrew, Philip, and Nathanael. We see Mary lean over to say something to Jesus. His response to her pulls her up sharp. She glares at him, but she doesn’t answer back.

A few minutes later we see her get up and walk over to where the servants are. Let’s say there are three of them. She speaks to them and then she turns and points to her son. She sits back down.

A couple minutes later, he gets up and goes over to the servants. They follow him to the front door, where there are six big stone jars, like barrels, say 25 gallons each. They contain the water for the guests to wash their hands and feet when they come in. He tells the servants something. They look at him in surprise, but eventually they nod their heads. He goes and sits back down.

Now we watch the servants fill the jars with water. It’s a job. They have go and get it from a public well, and how many trips does it take to fill those jars up to the brim. When they are done, Jesus quietly gets up again and talks to them. Again they look surprised, but one of them gets a cup, dips it in the barrel, and takes it to the master of ceremonies. He sips it, and now he looks surprised, and he goes to the groom and talks to him, and he then looks surprised. The servants are watching this from the back of the room.

That’s what we can see: Five brief conversations—Mary and Jesus, Mary and the servants, Jesus and the servants—twice, and the steward with the groom. We see two actions—one long and laborious, and the other brief, a drink.

We can ask questions: Will the bridegroom just accept the compliment, or will he admit that he doesn’t know where the good wine came from? Will they now drink all that new wine? It’s a good 650 bottles worth, 3500 cups of wine. How long will that reception go on? The guests will have to start wondering. The servants eventually will have to tell what happened. The disciples find out. But do the servants ever determine precisely when the water was transformed?

More questions: Why did Mary set Jesus up like this? Why did she think it was his business? She was not just making an observation—that’s obviously not how Jesus took it. And why did he put her off at first? Was he wrong about it not yet being his time? Was she impatient with him? He was thirty years old and he had still not acted on his destiny. Is that why she forces him, by talking to the servants? And how was she expecting him to solve the problem? Why would she expect a miracle? She knew that her son was the Messiah, but no one expected the Messiah to be a miracle-worker.

What’s the actual sign? The six big jars? Is abundance the sign?

Or is the sign the movement of the water and its transformation—that the water of cleansing becomes the wine of celebration?

Or is the sign the excellence of the wine—that the old was good but the new is better?

Is it part of the sign that wine is a mild intoxicant? Water is clean and sober, but wine is free and loose, and even dangerous?

Is there something to the wedding feast—that if it’s the bridegroom’s job to provide the wine, then Jesus has become the new bridegroom here? Is this all a sign of who Jesus is, and what Jesus brings to life, compared to whatever was life before him? You can read all these things into the sign.

Who is Jesus? If he wants to manifest himself as the new bridegroom, then according to the prophecy of Isaiah he might as well be God. Not just that he acts for God or stands in for God, but that he impossibly identifies himself with God. Although the disciples believe in him, they don’t connect the dots till after his resurrection. But Jesus already manifests it here, that in him is not just the Spirit of God, which many of us share, but the glory of God, which belongs to God alone. Who does Jesus think he is, to manifest himself this way!

If that’s who Jesus is, what does he bring to life? The gift of life in abundance, overflowing life, intoxicating life. Nature made into supernature, animal made spiritual, vegetable and mineral made spiritual! Natural gifts made into spiritual gifts. Not spiritual and natural in opposition, but spiritual gifts from natural gifts.

This is important for the Christian life. Our Epistle lesson speaks of spiritual gifts. The Holy Spirit does not make these out of air, but from out of your natural gifts.

What are you already good at doing? What do you love to do? Don’t deny those, rather deny that you do them for yourself. Do what you are good at and what you love to do, not to keep as your own, but as gifts for the glory of the bridegroom, who transforms them into spiritual gifts, by forgiving any sinful use of them and inspiring your use of them for love and more abundant life.

Last Tuesday night we had a meeting at the church and fifteen of you were seated around the table, and I was struck by the abounding giftedness of our congregation. Who am I that I should pastor such a group! I have few real talents of my own, but I work with an abundance of gifts because I work among you all. We keep thinking our congregation is small. And thereby also poor and weak. But we must not dishonor the bridegroom! We shall not discredit the Holy Spirit!

Our group was listening to a speaker who spoke of scarcity and abundance. Scarcity is real. A billion people on this planet are hungry. My parents did not have enough money to retire on and I worry about it too. We will survive, but maybe no trips to Europe to see our grandsons. The threat of scarcity is real within my soul. When is it accurate and when is it temptation?

But I want to believe in Jesus as the bridegroom, as the God who is "the overflowing fountain of all good," so I am also required to believe in his abundance, in some real way, in some real way that challenges me. We must be transformed by the gifts of God in order to receive them as the gifts they are, we must be challenged by God’s love in order to receive God’s love.

You can believe this, like the disciples, before you can connect all the dots. I invite to believe in it again, one more week, one more year, that God is abounding in gifts to you, that God is your overflowing fountain of life, and God is the unquenchable source of love for you. And if it's not scarce, and so abounding, then you can share it. Why don't you!

Copyright © 2019, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Friday, January 11, 2019

January 13, First after Epiphany, "What We See: Two Men and a Dove"

Isaiah 43:1-7, Psalm 29, Acts 8:14-17, Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

What do we see? Let’s make this gospel a painting, since St. Luke is the patron saint of painters. We’ll make it a clear day, with a bright sky. Across the center is a crowd of people in a clearing in a valley among some willow trees, and the ground is green. Behind the crowd is a river.

Left of center is one man standing in front of the crowd, and the people are turned towards him as if they are listening to him. He has very long hair and a cloak of shaggy brown fur. But he’s not looking back at the crowd, he’s looking to his right, and pointing with his right hand at another man beyond the crowd.

That man is standing off, turned half away from everyone, bending halfway over, and above him is a bird, descending upon him. Should we picture the bird diving down, like above our main front doors, or fluttering down to alight on him? The bird looks like a dove.

That first man is John the Baptist. We can tell by his hair and his cloak. He is already famous here, and for years to come he will have many followers throughout the Jewish world, even in Egypt and Asia Minor. He has ignited a revival movement among the Jews, both religious and political. He has no ambitions of his own nor any loyalties, but to every political and religious group he gives stern warning. But his warnings are also appealing, and the people have flocked to him.

He offers washing, cleansing, and through that cleansing, hope and expectation. Expectation of what? St. Luke tells us: Of God’s return to Israel along with a Messiah—who will come with fire! And if John cleansed them with water, the Messiah will cleanse them with fire and with the Holy Spirit, the fearsome purifying fire that is unquenchable becomes it comes from God.

When he says “Holy Spirit,” he does not intend what a modern Christian thinks! No one as yet believes in anything like one of the three persons of the Trinity. At this point, the term “Holy Spirit” implies the whole of God, the One God, the capital-S Spirit who is capital-H Holy, high and lifted up, Holy, Holy, Holy. But this One God had made visitations, like to Moses from a burning bush, and to the whole of Israel from the top of Mount Sinai in the column of fire and smoke with flashes of lightning.

A new visitation of God will be scary, and thrilling, and judgment, and purging, and it will be salvation. Fearsome as it is, the people hope for it—the Lord of Hosts returning to Israel like in the ancient days, and the Messiah as God’s representative upon the throne of David in victory and power. These people are gathered in expectation. They are hoping for God’s return.

In this picture the people are all done getting baptized. We don’t see Jesus getting baptized, nor talking with John, like in Matthew and Mark. We see him after he’s baptized, and not listening to John but praying, standing up, bending at the waist, head down. Like at synagogue? Is he praying the Eighteen Benedictions, is he praying the Amida? We are not told what his prayer is.

Shall we picture him with his hands on his chest, or lifted up, like in the Psalms? It makes a difference for how the dove lands. Does it land on his lifted hand, like a trained bird? Or on his head, or maybe on his shoulder, to be closer to his heart, as Riley once said in Sunday School with a child’s insight. How long will it rest on him? Will it fly off again? Or does it somehow merge into him, does it enter into his body? All that we are told is that this dove is the Holy Spirit taking on a form.

That’s weird. God as a dove? Is that even allowed, God as an animal? Isn’t that prohibited as leading to idolatry? God is never manifested as an animal, but only as fire. The closest God gets to a bird is in one of the possible translations of Genesis 1:2, before Creation, when the Spirit of God moved over the face of the Deep, or hovered, or brooded. But not a dove, because a dove is a sacrificial animal, like a calf, a dove is a poor man’s calf. But the Messiah was not for being sacrificed, the Messiah was to be mighty in battle and victorious over his enemies. Well then, maybe this was like the dove from Noah’s ark, that flew out over the Flood three times, until the waters had receded enough for her to make her nest. Does this dove manifest deliverance and peace?

We have  pictured  John the Baptist watching this dove come down on his cousin Jesus. But after all that he had preached about the Holy Spirit coming with fire, could he even imagine this dove to be the visitation of God? Can John the Baptist keep up with this brand new thing of God that he had not foreseen in his prophecies? Was he helped by the words that came from heaven? Could he even hear those words?

The words are addressed to Jesus directly, “You are my Son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.” What those words would have meant to Jesus for his own soul I preached about six years ago, but today I will just put those words in a word-balloon, to the horror of classical painters, a word-balloon coming down from heaven over Jesus’s head. If it’s only Jesus who can hear these words, at least he finally knows for sure that he is supposed to the Messiah.

So in what we see here what is manifest? These are the Sundays after Epiphany, and the word “epiphany” means manifestation, some revelation in what you can see. Well, if this dove is the sign of this guy is being anointed as the Messiah, then this Messiah was confirmed in choosing to identify with John’s repentance movement.

You see, he might have joined up with the Pharisees, who were the patriots of purity. Or with the Sadducees, who controlled the Temple, and were the heirs of the Maccabees, the last successful independence movement. Or he might have joined the Zealots, the revolutionaries who armed themselves for the resistance like the irregulars who had fought with David against the Philistines. No, the only group he joined was the whole people that was repentant.

But what did he have to repent of? I mean, he’s Jesus! Well, what do you think repentance is? Repentance is not just the penance for sin, and it’s not even really that. Repentance is an attitude, an attitude of vulnerability, a stance of openness, making space within your life, and keeping that space open before you. “The whole life of Christians is repentance,” is what Martin Luther wrote in his 95 Theses.

This guy Jesus had to repent in order to be anointed the Messiah. He had maybe nothing in particular to repent of but he had to share the stance, the attitude, the vulnerability, the opening, the bending, the offering your neck. Which is what lovers do when you make love. If repentance is the stance and angle of opening up yourself, than repentance is a stance towards love. The risk of love.

Now if we read the gospel in the light of the epistle reading, also written by St. Luke, what’s also manifest is the very first occurrence of the Baptism of the Spirit. The dove is the sign of a new thing, begun with Jesus himself and expanded to his followers. The dove has converted a Jewish ritual of repentance into a work of the Holy Spirit, the subtle miracle we call a sacrament. Just as the dove was the small sign of God visiting and inhabiting Jesus, so baptism is the sign that God inhabits you, God invests in you. You don’t just follow Jesus, God lands on you, enters you, merges into you, as certainly as the water of baptism was put upon your head. On children too, in whom the Holy Spirit delights to dwell.

So what I want to say about our painting is that the picture tells a story, and in this story you are included. I invite you this morning to believe that you are included in this story of the painting, not just among the crowd, but on the right, with the dove descending on you. And I invite you to believe that God also says to you, “With you I am well-pleased.” 

Not, “you’re fine, you’re good, you’re great.” It’s not about you, it’s about God, and God’s attitude toward you, the unshakeable attitude of God towards, which is the impact of God in your life. God does it this way in order to free you for your life of service in the world. When you serve God in the world, for justice and for peace and for mercy and healing, you will be resisted and opposed, but not by God.

Your attempts at the right thing will be ignored, or lack impact, or not be as good as you might wish, and you could always do better, but still you are free for action and creativity, because you cannot shake God’s pleasure in you, it’s unquenchable, it’s from God, “with you I am well-pleased.” Unconditionally? Yes, God’s love for you is unconditional, God’s love is absolutely free, God identifies what love is just by being God. Look at the dove and see that God is love.

Copyright © 2019, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Friday, January 04, 2019

January 6, Epiphany: What We See #1: Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh

 Isaiah 60:1-6, 26, Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14, Ephesians 3:1-12, Matthew 2:1-12

The twelve days of Christmas are the twelve days after Christmas, ending today. The word “Epiphany” comes from the Greek word for “manifestation”. Manifestation is one kind of revelation—not a voice, but an actual physical appearance, something visible to human eyes. And the gradual manifestations of Jesus to the world are reported in our gospel lessons during these Sundays after Epiphany. So my sermon series is entitled, “What We See.” The manifestations of Jesus are treated by the gospel writers as both historical and symbolical, that is, both immediate and prophetic.

We see the magi. How many there were we are not told. The magi were officials employed by Gentile kings. They could not have made this embassy without the endorsement of the authorities they worked for. Their role in government was a combination of astrologer, philosopher, and political adviser. They studied the stars and planets because the stars and planets manifested what the Epistle to the Ephesians calls “the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places,” that is, the cosmological powers that their bosses would always want to have the endorsement of.

They saw a new star at its rising. Low in the horizon, like a planet. Much ink has been wasted on trying to identify which planet this was or what sort of celestial phenomenon—as if to substantiate the gospel. No doubt Matthew understood it as an angel who took a form that would communicate as needed. God was being generous in revelation, offering a form of revelation that went beyond the scriptures but then led the magi to the scriptures. God was offering an invitation and a sign. The sign was that the Messiah of Israel was for the Gentiles too, and the nations were invited to come to the light. St. Matthew wants you to see that the prophecy of Isaiah was being fulfilled at long last.

We see King Herod and his own wise men. Because they’re Jews, the scribes study the scriptures instead of the stars. And what they read there is bad news for Herod and for the whole city that depends on him, because Herod is not of the dynasty of David, and thus Biblically illegitimate. So they who had the scriptures are troubled by the very thing that makes the pagans glad. St. Matthew wants you to see that the people of God can be the enemy of God.

But we can also be God’s friends. The story is for us not to condemn us but to invite us and to encourage us. We can be the people of God who respond to the search of the magi with honest joy and welcome. We do that by sharing what we know of the wisdom of God. In Ephesians, St. Paul gives the people of God a mission statement: “that through the church, the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.”  

"The wisdom of God in its rich variety." This is not fundamentalism. Neither is it getting the rulers to pass laws in our favor. And notice there’s no mention of the conversion of the magi. Conversion is not the goal of witness. Conversion is God’s business. Our church’s business is simply to share, to witness, and to welcome.

Getting back to the story, we don’t see Joseph, nor do we see much of Mary and the baby. St. Matthew wants us to see the three gifts. Why these particular gifts? Were they useful to the little family? They were poor, so imagine. The gold would pay for their flight to Egypt, and for a house, and for Joseph to set up shop. And as they fled through the desert, illegal immigrants avoiding places with water where the agents would be waiting, the myrrh served Mary for ointment on their dry skin. And the frankincense would give comfort to their fearful and lonely prayers.

The later tradition has explored the symbolism of the gifts, and we get that in our hymns. Gold for a king, frankincense for a priest, myrrh for a prophet, and the child will be all three. Now gold for kings and incense for priests seem obvious, but why is myrrh for prophecy? Myrrh is one of the spices used for embalming, and St. Mark reports that the women brought myrrh to Jesus’ burial. And if Jesus was killed because of what he said, of what he prophesied, and if prophets generally have so suffer, then myrrh is the symbol of the child becoming a prophet.

What St. Matthew wants you to see in these three gifts are three symbols, three physical prophecies, that together show you not only the identity of Jesus but also what the nature of his kingdom will be. Not a typical kingdom, but a kingdom tempered by sacrifice and the truth about the poor and the weak. You can see in them the Sermon on the Mount, you can see them as symbols of the Beatitudes, and the healings of the sick, and even of the cross and the tomb and the resurrection. The three gifts are physical prophecies of the witness and wisdom of the one they were given to.

But these gifts are also symbols for you and your identity. Stay with me here as I depart from the familiar tradition to get more Biblical. The tradition makes myrrh stand for grief and gloom. But in the Bible itself, myrrh is more often associated with love and joy and celebration. And sex, I might add. Myrrh is a joyful spice more often than it’s a mournful spice, and its bitterness only sharpens its pungence. Both myrrh and frankincense could be added to perfumes, but while frankincense was typically burnt, myrrh was typically mixed into creams and ointments and lotions. It was for the skin. Frankincense was for breathing but myrrh was for feeling. Frankincense was for your prayers and myrrh was for your flesh. In the Song of Solomon it’s regarded as erotic. If frankincense is what lifted you up to heaven, myrrh is what brought you down to feel your body.

Myrrh is for the body, for the skin, for the flesh. It heals the flesh and attracts you to your flesh. And that’s okay, because this infant Jesus was “the Word made flesh.” Frankincense is for your breath. It attracts you to your soul. It leads you to prayer. And that’s good, because we Homo sapiens are the animals that pray. And gold is for your arm. Gold is wealth and wealth is power. Gold means you can have what you want and you can do what you want. Gold is for your intention and your will, and it calls to your heart, which is good and also why it is dangerous.

All three gifts are precious. All three of them speak to your desires.

The desire of your skin, your flesh, your gut, your groin. For feeling, for pleasure, for holding and taking, for loving and being loved.

And the desire of your breath, of your soul and your mind, your hopes and your dreams, your aspirations, your prayers and your desire for transcendence. 

And the desire of your strength, your will, what you want to have and want to do, your plans and your intentions. What you want to achieve, your contribution to the world, what difference you want to make in the world, and what you want to be known for.

All these desires are precious to you, they move you, they motivate you, they empower you, your desire to be in the world and to rise up in the world.

These desires energize your love. And yet, because of our sin, they get in the way of love. That’s from the corruption of desire, and not from the fault of desire in itself. Your desires are part of you, you need them, you cannot exist without your desires. The question is what governs them. What are your desires in service to, where are they leading you? And whom do your desires belong to?

The take home today is simple: submit your desires to the rule of this Messiah, and your desires will have their place. The process of Christian conversion is converting your desires into gifts. Not just the desires of your soul and your heart but even the desires of your flesh. Your desires are God’s gift to you, spiritual gifts, and if you treat your desires as gifts from God, with guidance from God for the use of them, you can keep your desires.

This king needs nothing from you but your faith. This kingdom taxes you only in the currency of love. If you convert your desires according the love of God and the love of your neighbor, then your desires will have their rightful place within his government. And then your desires will lead you to what those magi experienced, overwhelming joy

Overwhelming joy! This is what you were meant for, this is the purpose of all your journey and all your burdens, to offer this gift, and the chance to make this gift gives you overwhelming joy.

Copyright © 2019, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.