Thursday, November 16, 2017
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11,
Parable of the Talents
window at Old First
Chapter 25 of Matthew concludes the last public speech of the Lord Jesus before he gets arrested—like a commander giving his last speech to his troops before they enter into battle and maybe die. The conclusion of this speech takes the form of three last parables.
You heard the first one last week, the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins. Today you heard the Parable of the Talents, and next week you will hear the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats.
All three parables are about the coming of the king, however that will be, whenever that will be. “Like a thief in the night,” says St. Paul in First Thessalonians, in real human time, but not on anyone’s calendar. Like a bridegroom suddenly arriving, like a master suddenly returning. For five of the virgins it’s the wedding feast and for two of the slaves it’s the joy of their master, but for the other five virgins and the third slave it’s the outer darkness, with weeping and gnashing of teeth.
That does not mean hell or torture, but it does mean exclusion. Weeping and gnashing of teeth mean grief with anger, that you’re hurt, but you’re mad too. Yes, you blew it, but you maintain it was a set-up, that it was unfair from the start. You blew it, but you blame the other virgins who did not share their oil, or the master who you predicted would be harsh. You’re out and it’s their fault that you’re out.
This is the paradoxical experience of God that runs through the Bible. You will experience God as harsh if you see God as harsh. You might even want God to be harsh. But if you want God to be gracious you will experience God as gracious and even generous. So do so. The parable is the invitation. And if you see God in the way that Jesus does, then you need not fear what is unknown, you can handle all the great unknowns of time and space, even general and special relativity.
You don’t know the time that he is coming, so how do you act in the meantime? If you’re one of the virgins, you keep your lamps trimmed and you get spare oil, to be ready no matter how late he comes and even if you fall asleep. If you’re one of the slaves, you use the time and freedom that he gives you to buy and sell, make money, invest money, make more money, exposing yourself to risk, just as your master exposed himself to risk when he left his wealth with you!
A talent was a monetary unit like a million bucks, a fortune, really. That the master left you with five million or two million or even one million, and went a way and did not supervise you, confirms that the master understands risk. And if you can bet on him, then you can bet on his millions. If you bet on him being generous, you will find him generous. But if you presume against his generosity and expect him to be harsh, then you will find him harsh. Yes, the paradoxical experience of God.
If the slaves experienced their master so differently, I wonder how differently they experienced the passing of the time that their master was away, the long time, the weeks and months and maybe years. I know that I am risking the error of psychologizing this parable anachronistically, but I would imagine the two slaves regarding the long time of their master’s absence as positive, a good space of time, and the more time they had, the more they could risk; the more time they had, the greater their return. But for the third slave the time will have been empty and even a trial. Just reckoning for inflation, his static money would decrease in value. Worse, his time spent in passive waiting was empty time, and his time spent in fear of his master was negative time, even bad time.
There are different conceptions of time embedded in the Bible. The Egyptians and Babylonians regarded time as an endless repetition, an endless cycle of birthing and dying, like the Hindu wheel of karma. The Israelites thought of time more like a stream, a wave that we ride, a river that courses toward the goal God set for it. Like in the hymn by Isaac Watts: “Time like an ever-rolling stream bears all its sons away.”
We moderns, however, think of time in terms of space, Cartesian space like in geometry, and we draw time-lines running from left to right, all in order, date by date. Since Einstein, however, we’ve begun to think of time as relative, flexible, warped, and curved, as curved as space itself, but still very spacious.
So I want you to think about time as a kind of space of unconditional welcome that God has given to us. I want you to think about time and space as the room God makes for you within the universe for our human creativity and our cultural investment and your personal development and our congregational mission.
We are thinking about time because this is the Sunday that we choose to mark our anniversary, our 363rd trip around the sun since our church was established in 1654, thirty years before that communion beaker was given as a gift to the church. That beaker is 333 years old.
When I came here in 2001 a couple of our leaders said we had a window of only five years left before we might have to call it quits. We are much more positive about our time now. How much time do we have before us? Can this church endure in witness and mission until Our Lord returns? Maybe yes, but not by holding on. That’s the third slave. Rather by risking, investing, and expending.
First, in our programs that express our mission to our piece of the world. And if we see the world in terms of daylight and not darkness, we can discern, as Melody said last, that already the bridegroom comes among us now. Second, in our building that presents our witness and programs to the world. Third, and most of all, by risking, investing, and expanding in our relationships, as St. Paul writes in First Thessalonians, encouraging one another and building each other up, as indeed you are doing.
First Thessalonians is the earliest written epistle of St. Paul. At this point St. Paul expects the Lord Jesus to be returning soon, within his life-time. His later epistles show that he had come to terms with the delay of Our Lord’s return, and this developed appreciation for the spaciousness of God’s time went along with a developed realization of the wideness of Our Lord’s true significance.
At first the apostles saw him as the one to return the kingdom to Israel. Step by step the Holy Spirit taught them that Samaritans and Ethiopians and even Roman soldiers could have him as their Lord and Savior too. The longer the Lord delayed, the more their witness could expand. Eventually, by the epistles to the Ephesians and Colossians, St. Paul reckoned how global and cosmic the Lordship of Jesus was, so that the delay of his return was not a delay but a wonderful openness to time and space, for expansion and investment in all the nations and persons of the world, including you.
To invest in the market means lots of loss as well as gain. That’s the risk. And so this expansion and investment has never not been unopposed, resisted, and rejected. And this can be worst among those who spout the name of Jesus, from the false apostles who opposed St. Paul to Christian politicians in America today. This problem is addressed by our parable next week, when the goats will be surprised at the judgment against them and cry out, “Lord, Lord, when did we see you poor, and hungry, and in prison?” The kingdom of heaven expands and invests not by noble evolution but in weeping repentance and laughing conversion. And so too with your own personal development.
The two slaves bet on their master’s graciousness if their investments didn’t pan out. They bet that when he came back he would honor that they dared to trust in his decency. Their investment of his money was their investment in their own future with him. They had no proof of either result, that their money would double, or that their master would honor their attempt, but they took the risks of hope and faith. The Lord Jesus says that this is what it’s like with God.
The third slave did not risk his master’s decency. He felt himself prudent, but his prudence only served his fear. His fear prevented his opening to joy—at the end, but also all along. His final outer darkness was the expansion of his inner darkness all along, his distrust and his alienation. He should get himself a gun.
But the joy that the first two entered as their reward was the expansion of the excitement of the risky commerce they’d been conducting all along. You exercise your faith to live creatively in joy. It is a life of risky vulnerability, but it is an open life, a spacious life. Against your fear you wear the helmet of your hope of salvation, and to protect your vulnerability you wear the breastplate of faith and love. The Lord Jesus says that this is what it’s like with God, and that’s because your faith is the faithfulness of God and your love is the love of God for you and all the world.
Copyright © 2017 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.
Tuesday, November 14, 2017
Sermon by Rev. Melody Meeter
Matthew 25:1-13, and Psalm 78:1-7
“Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” How do you stay awake? How do you stay woke, as Dick Gregory, of blessed memory, comedian and political activist, would put it. If being awake is another way of saying be prepared, what does that mean? If you see something say something? Take your handgun to church? Issue machine guns to our deacons? Stay off the bike paths? We suffer together the terrible absence and the deafening silence of God.
The Parable of the Ten Maidens, only in Matthew, or literally, the Ten Virgins, is told by Jesus to his disciples just days or hours before his death. Jesus wants to prepare them for his death. But also to prepare them for his life in the world after his death. He wants them to wake up and get ready.
This parable is inside a longer sermon or discourse by Jesus about the end times, apocalypse, the coming of the Messiah. Chapter 24. You could scarcely squeeze more images of violence into one short passage: fire, earthquakes, floods, torture, persecution, two people in a field, one is taken one is left, pray that you are not pregnant in those days…etc.
You see, Jesus had just said---remember he is in Jerusalem with his disciples just before the Passover---Jesus had said that the beautiful new temple would be destroyed, not one stone left on stone. Now in Jesus’ context, freedom of speech was not a thing. We have to stop imagining Jesus down at the lake with a fishing pole. We should rather imagine Jesus in North Korea. These words, in Matthew’s telling, set in motion the events that lead to his arrest, his trial, his execution. So his disciples simply have to ask him: Why did you have to say that?
Through the years these texts about the end times have repelled or confused me. Why does Jesus make it seem that after his death he will be returning very shortly, like maybe before Labor Day, that his death will quickly set in motion the end of world? Then why does he turn it upside down and say nobody knows the day or the hour, so keep awake.
The Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids, though lighter in tone than all the images of the end times, also pushes us away, continuing the theme of judgement, and leaving us with an easy moral. Just be prepared and everything will be all right. Lazy people deserve what they get.
But this week, and this year, this time, as I read these texts, it was the morning news, the ink barely dry. Out of this parable has come much music, from Bach to this 1928 spiritual, “Keep your lamps trimmed and burning……” I can’t get this spiritual out of my head. When I sing it, it feels not like judgement but an invitation. A very personal invitation.
By the way, we shouldn’t judge the five maidens who don’t share their oil too harshly—first of all, in that social context and even in some cultures today, the procession IS the wedding, it’s part of the wedding. If the five had shared and they’d all run out of oil the wedding would have to be cancelled. Second, it’s an allegory; the fire in the lamp represents your unique-in-the-world self, which is not yours to give away.
So today, in the midst of violence and disaster, you are being asked to consider your financial pledge, to step up your commitment. In the midst of your own suffering. Don’t discount your suffering. I often hear people say, after they have just complained about something: First World Problem. But the truth is that suffering is suffering is suffering and there is plenty of it to go around even in Park Slope.
It’s a long list of names every week in our intercessory prayers and sometimes hidden behind those names is a whole lot of grief. In our congregation there is homelessness, the deaths of two adult children, schizophrenia, imprisonment, depression, cancer, chronic illness and deep personal betrayal. And that’s just in 2017.
There is so much suffering that money can’t fix. So why should you give to Old First? There are so many good causes. Wouldn’t it make more sense to invest in solar energy? The planet is in trouble and you are asking me to keep the lights on at Old First? There are so many things we could actually fix with money. What does this community fix?
Part of our suffering is deciding what cause is truly worthy of a portion of our paychecks. How much money should you spend to keep the flame of faith alive? If a tithe is the portion of your income you are aiming for how much of a tithe should go toward something as fragile as a community of Jesus?
Eric spoke a couple of weeks ago on why he gives to Old First and mentioned that he also gives to an organization that helps people getting out of prison. Dan and I tithe but we do not tithe everything to this community. Margaret spoke about the importance of consecration---about giving to create and maintain a holy space. Dan Silatonga spoke about giving to Old First because it means home to him, in the largest sense of that word. How do you put a monetary value on spiritual things?
More than 20 years ago, when I was in a chaplain residency at Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital, I met a man, about my age, who was in the hospital with some serious complications from his cancer and I had the privilege of knowing him over a couple of weeks. He was a strong-looking handsome man and he was a little macho, you know. He had a model of his red convertible sports car on the bedside table—this was the person he wanted people to know when they came into the room. I liked him and I daresay he liked me. I listened to him, I prayed for his healing, I prayed for his wife and children.
One day, while I was visiting, his nurse came in to tend to the wound that was on his back. (He was on his side, I was sitting facing him.) Unexpectedly, he asked me, “Would you like to see my wound?” So I went around to the other side of the bed where the nurse was tending his wound. And I saw it, in the middle of his back right next to his spine. I won’t describe it except to say it was deep and it was wide. I was woke. I mean that I woke up to his suffering. He invited me into it. He was teaching me about suffering.
And then our relationship changed. I had been praying for his healing. But now we could talk about his death and what it would mean to prepare for his death—even as we still fervently prayed for his healing. He was hoping for the best even as he prepared for the worst. And then a strange thing, a mysterious thing happened. Joy came into the room. And the joy was inextricably linked to the suffering. This deeper connection happens a lot in my work as a chaplain—those who are alive to their mortality are most alive in their deepest spirits.
Every week at communion we sing together “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” We should really translate that last phrase in a way that doesn’t make it seem that it’s some far off future. We should sing “Christ has come again.” Or “Christ is coming again,” Or “Christ is here again.” Wake up. It’s now. So in the parable of the Wedding Feast we are not being asked to prepare for some distant future. It’s not a 401K. It’s preparing for a joy that could happen any minute, that does happen any minute.
This is a truth that even children know. Psalm 78 enjoins us to share the faith with our children. Not only the glorious deeds of the Lord but even the dark sayings from of old. Children, like all of us, can be asleep to the spiritual realities. But they can also be wide awake. Like at Children in Worship here. Near the end of our time together each week we pray. First we go around the circle and ask the children what they want to pray about. And then the worship leader lifts up those prayers. And usually they say something that feels kind of rote like, I’m thankful for my Mommy and Daddy, or something that feels kind of trivial, like I’m thankful for my new socks. But if you are awake you will also hear amazing things, like the boy who said, “I’m sad because my Daddy doesn’t live in my house anymore. “ Or I think of the child who said, last spring,” I am thankful for the story.” They get it, you know?
Last week Sunday I was standing on the subway platform, waiting for the F train. Next to me were a father and two daughters, maybe 6 and 3 or 4. Now I don’t usually interject myself into conversations overheard. But out of nowhere the older girl said, “Daddy, when you and Mommy die…” The father interrupted her and said, “Victoria, don’t be morbid.” And I immediately said to the girl, “That wasn’t morbid, it was real!” And then the father said, not looking at me, “I’m sorry, Victoria, what were you going to say. The she said, “When you and Mommy die I will take care of my sister.” “That’s very nice,” said the dad.
This community has kept me woke to the presence of God in the world, because I can see and feel the presence of God in you. You are Christ-bearers. This community has been a gift to me from the day I arrived here. I often feel you have given me a love I don’t deserve, that I receive much more from this community than I give back to it. I don’t know how I could have continued my work as a chaplain without this community, which constantly calls me to faith, hope and love. Which constantly reminds me to be prepared to see Christ anywhere.
Keep awake, watch for it. I’m talking about the whole thing, the worship service, the sermons, the music, the weekly circle of communion, the beauty of the building, your individual spirits. I sometimes imagine I can see flames coming out of the tops of your heads. Every week we consecrate this space.
The invitation to the banquet arrives in the darkest times, when we ourselves and the whole world seem absolutely forsaken by God. But when we find ourselves seated at the table in the presence of our enemies, and the presence of the Good Shepherd, not only after we die, but any minute now, we find ourselves at such a feast as mends in length. We find ourselves truly awake.
Unto him that loved us and washed us from our sins in his own blood and has made us kings and priests unto God and his father, unto him be glory and dominion both now and forever, Amen.
Friday, November 03, 2017
Joshua 3:7-17, Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37, 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13, Matthew 23:1-12
St. Paul reminds the Thessalonian Christians that he was like a father to them. So then if one of these Thessalonians gratefully and respectfully refers to him as Father Paul, does that transgress the admonition of the Lord Jesus to call no man Father? I get addressed as Father out in public rather often. I don’t correct it. I’m sometimes called Padre. I accept it.
Should you call me Reverend? If you call me Pastor, I say, Here I am. But let me confess that I have always been uncomfortable with these titles, maybe a little bit because of this admonition, but more because of my inner struggle with having ended up a pastor. It was not my dream for my life.
And yet I like being called Dominee, which is the Dutch Reformed title, but that one really violates Our Lord’s admonition because it’s from the Latin for Lord. Here in Park Slope the children call their teachers by their first names, and some children in this church innocently call me Daniel, which I accept without liking it, but at least the kids are not transgressing Our Lord’s admonition!
When the Lord Jesus admonishes us like this, we have to remember that Our Lord is never about setting up a new set of rules to replace the old rules. He doesn’t do do’s-and-don’ts. Once again he is making a sweeping statement to sweep away everything, to bring everything under total judgment, even apparently good things, so that even the good things that you do, you recognize as also compromised, and that your good works have value not in themselves but because God lovingly accepts them, and that your best efforts have moral value precisely and only in your humility. If people call me Father, or Master, or Teacher, I accept it not as my prerogative but as my reminder of the necessary humility of my receiving love and needing love. Hineini, Here I am.
Today I’m talking about my peculiar position in this community of Jesus, my position as your pastor. This week our three lessons, including Joshua, combined to cause me to reflect on the importance of the ministry to a church. It struck me how even though I am never mentioned in either of our mission statements, old or new, yet my job, my role, my voice, and even my person is so important to the space and the practice and the vision of this church.
Why is that, why am I such a big deal in the church? You know, for the last 500 years, we Protestant have been waving our “priesthood of all believers” banner against the Roman Catholic hierarchy, yet here I am, with my salary and benefits costing you the largest portion of your church’s budget.
Have you noticed that the deacons never put the collection bag in front of me? We’ve never discussed it, but to not do that has been the unspoken custom in all five of my charges. In some church traditions, the pastor is the first one the deacons go to, and he visibly pulls out his wallet, and shows some cash, as he puts it in the plate. I won’t do that. But Melody and I do tithe.
By tithing I mean we put our giving money back to God into our budget, before our mortgage and our utilities and insurance. Tithing means that you budget the first percentage of your money to return to God. Your minimum should be one percent. Your target is ten percent, and every year you raise the percentage a step towards ten percent. It’s not a law, it’s not a do-or-don’t, it’s a voluntary inner exercise to practice your worship and your service. It is making space within your checkbook for unconditional welcome. It is holding up your debit card under the vision of the kingdom of heaven. Tithing isn’t charity, it’s clarity, it is purpose and intention.
“That’s easy for you to say, Pastor, or Dominee, or Daniel, whatever, it’s in your self-interest. Whatever you tithe comes back to you as salary! What a scam. What a confidence game.” Well, yes, I had better be worthy of your confidence.
But your tithing is in your self-interest too, first, because you need to give money just to be spiritually healthy, and second, because your community of Jesus needs to do mission in real terms in the real world. Your community of Jesus does not exist for itself, but for its mission, and your tithing pays for the programs of worship and music and teaching and sanctuary and hospitality that express your mission to the public world.
Neither does your community of Jesus exist in itself, on its own, but only and always as an answer to the call of God, “Here we are.” And that call of God that brings you into being as a community takes form, according to St. Paul, from the urging and encouraging and pleading of ministers, like myself, who keep calling you to your calling. He wrote to the Thessalonians, “When you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word.”
Yes, I am your pastor, your shepherd, your teacher, your song leader, your prayer leader, your board president, your CEO, your face to the public, but my first obligation is to be always calling your community to your mission. My first job is to keep calling to your mission. That’s never done. Look, communities like equilibrium. Stasis. Comfort. To groom themselves like cats. My job is to pick you up and put you out the door. To disturb your comfort as much as comfort you.
Not with my own words, but my well-informed and thoroughly human interpretations of the Bible, which you accept as what it really is, God’s word. So even though my job is not mentioned in the mission statement, to state your mission is my job! My job is mission-statement! The reason you donate towards my salary is because St. Paul tells us that a community of Jesus needs someone working night and day to keep proclaiming to you the gospel of God.
This week I have to pre-register for Medicare. I am 64. I will be with you a couple more years, to get you back into the sanctuary, and then for a while to get you accustomed to the sanctuary, and then for a while to help you to open up the sanctuary once again for mission to the public. And then you will look for someone new. Someone with new gifts and skills and attributes that I don’t have.
You will present that person with your new mission statement, whatever its final language is. And you will tell that person: Here’s our mission, now you keep calling us to it. Be like our mother and a nurse tenderly caring for her children, but also be like a father in urging us, encouraging us, and pleading with us to lead our lives worthy of God.
We will call you reverend, not for yourself but for your Lord who uses you, we will call you pastor, and mother, and fearing the admonition of Jesus we will even call you father and teacher and instructor. We will not call you Messiah, we will not call you savior, because you cannot rescue or save us or even guarantee our future. But we will honor you by answering your call, and we will keep on saying, Here we are. Each one of you, Here I am.
One other thing not in our draft new mission statement is the word Love. I think that’s okay, because it will arise out of the interplay of unconditional welcome and service, provided you do this interplay under the vision of the Kingdom of heaven. And that’s because the constitution of that Kingdom is love, and the law of that Kingdom is love, and the atmosphere of the Heavens is love, and the nature and the name of its King is Love (Charles Wesley).
So I have faith and hope that your next pastor may love this community of Jesus as much I have, and may experience from you, as much as I have, the love of God in Jesus Christ.
Copyright © 2017 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.
Friday, October 27, 2017
Deuteronomy 34, Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17, 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13, Matthew 22:34-46
Deuteronomy 34 is the final chapter of the Torah, the five books of Moses. The Israelites are taking one last rest in the plains of Moab before they enter to possess the Promised Land. But Moses goes up the mountain.
From the mountaintop God shows Moses all the land, which he may not enter, but here on the mountain he was satisfied, “satisfied by God’s loving-kindness in the morning.” And here he dies alone and not alone, but in the presence of God. The people down below all know he is to die, so they weep for him, for thirty days, the people sit Shiva for Moses.
They don’t know where he was buried. Who then will have buried him? Imagine that God wrapped his body in the shroud, and dug the grave, and laid the body down, and put the earth back perfectly without a trace, and then God sat Shiva too.
This last private intimacy of God and Moses is an image of love. Not just general love, but personal love. Imagine that Moses felt that love as he lay dying, the touch of God upon his skin, God being gentle with him (in the words of First Thessalonians), like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children, because he had become very dear to God.
We have come far from Egypt, with its pyramids and temples, their massive monuments to immortality, their construction exploiting the labor of countless peasants and slaves. The Egyptian rulers craved immortality because they were not satisfied with life. They mummified themselves to last as long as their gigantic tombs. While Moses doesn’t even get a gravestone.
That’s not a loss, that’s a gain. Moses was satisfied with his life. He had reached the full enjoyment of God’s love. His people should rightly grieve for him, but they can spare their labor, they need not build him any monument. What they should do instead is “love the Lord their God with all their heart and soul and mind.” Them doing that will be his monument.
Moses had taught them that in his final speech to them, there on the plains of Moab, earlier in Deuteronomy. “Shema yisroel, adonai eloheinu adonai ehad.”
“Hear O Israel, the Lord our God the Lord is one, and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind.” It is a monument to Moses that these words are repeated every morning still today by every faithful Jew—to be satisfied in the morning with the loving-kindness of God.
For the last two months we have been watching God training the Israelites. The Passover, the Red Sea, the manna, the water from the rock, the commandments. How to believe, what to believe, what belief includes, and how God is believable. All this is for us too—we have to learn how to believe, and learn what to believe, and we need to trust in God as believable.
But belief is not the goal. It is the means. The goal is love. In order to be a Christian, you need to be a believer. But your purpose in being a Christian is not to be a believer; you are a believer in order to be a lover. We are saved by faith, but not for faith, we are saved for love. God saves us, by our faith, in order to restore us to love, to love God fully and love our neighbors as ourselves. Belief is the means, and the goal is love.
The Pharisees asked Jesus which commandment was the greatest. When he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind,” he was quoting the very words from the Shema that they all had prayed that morning. His only innovation was to add that a second was like it, that “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
His innovation would not have been unreasonable to any Pharisee, since this too was a quotation from Moses, from Leviticus. It was accepted midrashic practice to add a second verse from the Torah to expand and confirm the first verse.
The innovation of Jesus was that you need both verses to summarize the law. It’s not that some commandments are about loving God and others are about loving your neighbor. All commandments are about both, every commandment in the Torah, all the commandments hang from both.
This means that everything you do in order to love God must also serve your neighbor, and everything you do to love your neighbor must also put God first. There is nothing that God requires of you that is not loving of your neighbor too. The innovation of Jesus is to say that to fix your ethical course through life, you always need to work by two coordinates. Working by these two coordinates will sufficiently guide you in deciding everything you need to do.
How can love be commanded? Love cannot be legislated, love cannot be forced. Any more than you can make a flower grow. You can plant it, and protect and nourish it, but it has to grow from its own inner power of life. You can not force love. You make the conditions, you protect and nourish it, and it will grow, of its own internal power. And the conditions for love to grow are fidelity and faithfulness and faith. That’s the way it works.
When a couple comes to me requesting marriage, and I meet with them ahead of time, my concern is not whether they love each other. Of course they do. But whether their love will mature and endure depends on if they can make and keep their promises to each other, whether they can believe in each other and keep believing in each other, whether they can be faithful with each other. A marriage is not built on love, it’s built upon fidelity. Faith and faithfulness are what make the conditions possible for love to grow. Faith is the means, and love is the goal.
Every week I ask you in the liturgy, “In whom do you believe?” And every week you answer, quite agreeably, with the Apostles Creed. (I’m glad that you don’t conspire to answer with something else.) But what if I asked you, “Why do you believe?” What would you say?
You believe in order that you might love. You believe all this about the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit in order that you might love God above all and love your neighbor as yourself. You believe these things about God in order to be satisfied with God’s love, and thus to create such conditions in your soul for your love for God and your neighbor to mature and endure.
To love requires risk. There is so much evidence to make you doubt the power of love and its dependability. There is much to convince you that love will fail. To keep practicing love you need the more mundane practice of fidelity, of faithfulness, of keeping faith, of living by your faith. Your faith is how you handle all the ongoing risks of love.
This Tuesday is the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. The great discovery of Martin Luther that sparked the Reformation was “justification by faith.” We are right with God not by our merits or our love or our good works, but by our faith—that is by hanging on to the message of the gospel by faith. Sometimes y only the fingernails of faith.
Faith is a practice of worship and service, it’s one of our most important Christian practices. Your Sunday morning practice of worship is to exercise your faith, by what you sing and pray and say what you believe in, even the morsel of holy bread you eat. Your weekday practice of service in the world is to express what you believe about the world because of the gospel.
The practice of worship and service is offered by this community of Jesus in which I invite you to exercise your faith and love.
Practice faith, but don’t be faithful for its own sake, because then you’ll be judgmental of those who fail in faith. Faith is for love, and not the other way around.
Practice love, but not by working on your love for the other folks in this community, rather start by having faith in them. Be faithful to them, quite apart from their deserving it, invest your faith in them. Be gentle among each other, like a nurse tenderly caring for her children. Share with each other not only the gospel but your own selves.
Share, invest, and receive their sharing too, staying with each other, being faithful to each other. And then the love will come, not as your own achievement, but as a work of the Holy Spirit among you. Actually God is practicing God’s own love among you. Your community of Jesus is God’s living experiment of love.
Copyright © 2017, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.
Friday, October 20, 2017
Exodus 33:12-23, Psalm 99, 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10, Matthew 22:15-22
They think they’ve caught the Lord Jesus with a gotcha question. If he says Yes to paying taxes to Caesar he’ll offend one constituency and if he says No he’ll offend the other. So they think. But he’s a smart candidate and he turns the question back on them.
The Roman coin called the denarius was hateful to the Jews who had to use it. On it was graven the image of the face of Caesar, so it violated the second commandment, against graven images. Worse, Caesar claimed to be a god, so it made them break the first commandment. On the obverse was engraved Caesar’s mother in the image of the goddess Juno.
The Jews were forced to support idolatry because they were forced to participate in the economy of their Roman oppressors. And yet they will have treasured their denarii because to have them signified some value in their lives. Oppression is brilliant when it both oppresses you and makes you guilty in your oppression.
What does a goddess look like? What does a god look like? The whole of Greek and Roman civilization thought the question was no big deal. Depends on who your god is, take your pick. Against this was the lonely witness of Judaism that you may not picture God. There is no image of God that is not woefully inaccurate, no image that is not misguided and misleading, so just don’t. We don’t have the mental capacity. We are constitutionally unable to see God’s face. And so because you cannot picture God you may not picture God.
But of course we cannot help but imagine God. God did give us our imaginations. And if we are to love God, how can we not imagine God? Take the case of Moses in the Exodus. Moses has been dealing intimately with this newly rediscovered God of Abraham, after 400 years of silence, who kept surprising them and saying such remarkable things, defying every category of godhood assumed by all the ancient civilizations.
“Who are you really? All this time that we’ve been talking, you’ve been hiding in that cloud. Could you let me in? Could I take just one good look at you?”
“No, you can’t, because I would overwhelm you. You know you can’t look at the sun without injury, and to look at me would injure you worse, you wouldn’t survive it, you just don’t have the capacity. The best that I can offer is to let you look at me from behind as I pass by.”
And Moses was able to see God’s back. What this means is that we can see God after the fact, in the ways God moves and the works that God has done. You can see God from behind.
Recently one of you was telling me about a thing that happened in your life, a very difficult thing, and you said that when you were going through it you hated it, but now when you look back, you can see that it was good that you went through it.
Another one of you told me that during the last few years of your life, things turned out other than what you had wanted, and the doors you had wanted to go through had closed on you; but now, as you look back, you can see from behind that it was God. Yes, that’s how we see God, from behind. It’s true. But it’s not the only way.
This past August in Ontario I visited a family from the congregation I served there twenty-eight years ago. I had performed the wedding of the parents, Peter and Janice, to whom we had been rather close, and I had baptized the oldest child, but the three younger children I had never met, and they were now young adults, wonderful young people, about the age of their parents when I was their pastor.
Tragically, ten years ago their mother had been killed by a drunk driver. But on that August morning, when her children were talking to me, it was uncanny how often I would hear in their voices the distinctive voice of their mother. “Oh, you said that just like Janice would!” And how often in their body language, the way they turned their heads, I was seeing again the way that Janice looked and the expressions of her face. After twenty-five years I was watching her and hearing her within her kids.
Janice Wassink Oskam
Child of God, Rest in peace, and rise in glory.
I was seeing their mother after the fact, from behind, but even more, I was seeing her still alive, because these kids of hers had once been part of her own body. Not just their DNA, but the very energy of life, that mysterious energy of life that was animating their bodies had been generated by her life. Her life was living on in them, her kids, as they talked to me.
And so we are to see God not only from behind but also alive in the community of Jesus Christ. That’s the claim. That’s the claim that St. Paul is making in the reading from the First Epistle to the Thessalonians, and he says it so obliquely we might miss how much of a claim it is. He calls them “a church in God the Father and in the Lord Jesus Christ.” That’s odd. What does he mean by “in”?
Well, I think it’s like those young people I was talking to were in their mother Janice. Janice was alive in them and they looked like Janice. So God is alive in us and we look like God. So if you want to know what God is like, God wants you to look at the community of Jesus to see God living there.
When the Russian cosmonaut, fifty years ago, famously went up into outer space and reported back that while he was up in the heavens he did not see God, the answer is, you dummy, you could have seen God in your old grandmother and her elderly friends as they prayed together in church. And you might say, Oh come on, that’s sentimental, and metaphorical at best, and St. Paul would say, Nope, get used to it, that’s exactly real, where God wants to be found and seen and heard.
Recently one of you privately and discretely complained of being let down by Old First, that when you were going through a very hard time, we failed to be a community of Jesus when you needed it. To hear you say this was difficult for me, of course, but I took it as honest and sincere. And I wondered, does this church really want to be a community of Jesus? Or is that just my own imposition on it?
Maybe that’s not what people want, maybe that’s not what people need. That’s not what Marble Collegiate is, that’s not how Fifth Avenue Presbyterian identifies itself. Maybe it has been a very wrong strategy for Old First to hold this up as our mission. Maybe what we should offer is the “Communion of Jesus”—you come, you hear the message, you get your communion, and you go home and get whatever community you need from your ordinary friends in ordinary life. We’re just not equipped to offer some more authentic sort of “community” than ordinary life.
But then I read a passage like First Thessalonians, and I’m convicted that a community of Jesus Christ is indicated, prescribed, expected, because we’re in that community that is God, the eternal and uncreated community of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, God in three persons, blessed Trinity, the original community. Com-unity, combined unity, union of plurality, and in the middle of that community, their glory, is the crucified one, the abandoned one, the disappointed one, the failed one, the let-down one, the betrayed one.
There is a mystery here, I haven’t figured it out, that our disappointments with each other are somehow part of how God is to be seen in our community.
Our new draft mission statement opens with the language of our old mission statement: Old First is community of Jesus Christ. That’s a statement of identity, because our bodies draw our life from God’s life, but also of active mission, because God is exposing God’s self to the world through the body of our community of Jesus. God is saying, Look at me here, and when you look at me, you see that I am love—disappointed love, let-down love, betrayed love, but enduring love.
Copyright © 2017 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.
Saturday, October 14, 2017
Exodus 32:1-14, Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23, Philippians 4:1-9, Matthew 22:1-14
This parable is a Monty Python parable—comic, outrageous, exaggerated violence, an army at war while the banquet food is sitting ready on the tables. It’s a Road-Runner and Coyote parable, when that poor guest without a wedding garment gets thrown out like the Coyote to the bottom of the cliff, banged up and gnashing his teeth in bitter frustration. The parable is extreme and absurd.
Whatever is comic, whatever is confusing, whatever is vengeful, whatever is violent, whatever is impulsive, whatever is short-sighted, if there is any unfairness, if there is any impatience, that is this parable. Is this the Kingdom of Heaven that we want our draft mission statement to refer to?
It’s true that life under the Kingdom of Heaven can feel outrageous and extreme, and sometimes comical and sometimes troubling. Not so much that God will act like this, but when the Reign of God is near, if we don’t take the matter seriously, even before the pressure is on, and if we don’t move heaven and hell to receive it and accept it, then it’s going to feel like this. If the Lord is near, that means we’re in a day of decision and a day of judgment and a moment of truth, and though our choices may seem small, the outcomes are extreme.
While the Israelites were living in Egypt for 400 years, they were worshiping who-knows-what. Some combination of the gods of Egypt and Canaan and Abraham. Maybe some golden calves. But now the Lord has liberated them, and there is no return to the status quo ante. Once having accepted God’s invitation, even if hardly comprehending it, you can’t go back. If you accept an invitation to the banquet, don’t go without a garment. Show some respect to the God who brought you out of Egypt.
But the Israelites use their freedom to indulge their fears and appetites. “Make us gods that we’re familiar with. Make us gods who will serve us but not challenge us. Make us gods with no expectations.” God had liberated them for worship and for service, and they said, No Thanks.
You know the long-term story of the Bible is not just the story of God’s love. It’s the double-story of God’s love and our resistance. God’s grace and our ingratitude. God’s invitation and our refusal. God’s Yes and our No Thanks. The Kingdom coming and our resisting it. That’s the double-story of the Bible the whole way through, until the very end, when God says the final No to our No Thanks and all that’s left is Yes, the final Yes to which we witness by our worship and service.
If we compare the parable to our draft new mission statement, it does seem mostly to suggest a welcome that is unconditional. Everyone is welcome to the banquet, everyone both good and bad. Yet it also is conditional for that one guy who got tossed out. What do we make of this, even if the parable is absurd?
Well, the meaning of the parable is not within the parable, but in our response to it, and how we examine our own response to God. So that if I am suddenly invited to the banquet, then I’m going to show respect, and act the part, and get decked out to rejoice in my inclusion, or grab a sheet at least and show my respect for what God has done for me.
The Kingdom of Heaven is welcoming. You find yourself within it. Maybe you started coming to church, and then you began to see the Heavens not just above you but before you and around you. Maybe you grew up knowing you were in it; you always knew “The Lord is near.” However you find yourself within it, you face its challenge and its expectation that you embrace its expectation.
Which might daunt you, except that its expectation is most natural. Not the kind of “natural” that the flesh regards as natural, with our distractions and idolatries, with our typical indulgence of our fears and appetites, but the “natural” of God’s design, the truly human nature that we aspire to.
The Kingdom of Heaven is not some foreign realm, but the true reality that we were meant to live within. The Kingdom of Heaven is always coming near on earth for life within the world. The Kingdom of Heaven is our natural environment when our human nature is restored to be truly human as God intended us, and not in bondage to the idolatries that we run to whenever we indulge our fears and appetites. The Kingdom of Heaven is our true and native land for peace on earth and good will towards humankind. It is good ground for us to live on and healthy air for us to breathe. It is actually less alien to us than the pretense of reality that the empire wants our allegiance to.
That the Kingdom of Heaven is truly natural and not foreign is indicated by that marvelous sing-song list of virtues from Philippians: “Finally beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything praiseworthy, think about these things.”
These virtues are in a vocabulary is not narrowly Biblical, but drawn from popular Greek philosophy. Any new convert could understand this list right off. You don’t even have to be a believer to see the virtue of these virtues. We can tell that St. Paul offers this list as the truly human virtues, recognized throughout the world, which every culture has aspired to.
What this means is that to live within the Realm of God, to live under the Kingdom of Heaven, is not to live apart for some utopia, but to live within the restoration of humanity and the reclamation of human culture. The Kingdom of Heaven is what the world desires even when it does not know its own desiring. To live it is to join in the Resistance, with a capital R, that is, the true and lawful government in resistance against the false and idolatrous empire that holds itself in power.
But not an armed resistance. Nor hidden, like the French Underground. But open and peaceful, with its gentleness known to everyone. Which is more revolutionary than the revolutionaries. You have to consider that this nice list of virtues and the call to be gentle were written to the Philippians when they were under constant threat of persecution. Their faith was illegal and seditious, and they could be rounded up for their loyalty to a foreign king. Their situation was like undocumented immigrants in America, or the Dreamers of DACA, always nervous of their place and subject to arrest. And yet what they should keep thinking about and doing is all the best of human aspirations.
It’s an amazing vision, and a constant choice. It does not just come. You will be tempted to keep thinking about the evil around you, and how you are misunderstood, and how things are going from bad to worse, and the imperial authorities are unjust, and Caesar is a brutal pig, even a moron, and Syntyche did this to Euodia and Euodia did that to Syntyche. You are tempted to irritation and defensiveness. So you have to keep the vision before you and to keep on choosing for it. The daily choices are often small but the outcome is extreme.
He says it another way. Keep choosing for joy. Rejoice, and again I say rejoice. Practice the resistance of rejoicing. Yes, join the Resistance, but make it a resistance of rejoicing. Dress up, get decked out. “Deck thyself, my soul, with gladness.” The banquet is set, the bridegroom is near! Keep your lamps trimmed and burning! Keep your wedding garment always ready.
The New Testament never gives a punch list for the practice of worship and service. Instead it offers a wide field, with room and space for flexibility, creativity, and improvisation. As an ethic it is aesthetic and artistic. It looks like “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, any excellence, anything praiseworthy.” In fact this sing-song list is not so much a list as a field, and these virtues are not discrete—they overlap, they weave into each other, they blend into the fabric of the garment to wear to the banquet of the Kingdom of Heaven.
The parable, for all its outrageous absurdity, is about a wedding reception. The wedding reception is one of Our Lord’s favorite images. It’s how he wants you to see your lives within the Reign of God. And what else is a wedding reception but a love-feast. A wedding reception celebrates pledging love and making love. Love is where the joy comes from—joy is the heady froth upon the wine that’s poured into the cup of love.
Yes, it always comes back to love, extreme love, outrageous love, absurdly unconditional love, the love that our reluctance and resistance cannot stop, because it is the overflowing love that rises from the eternal fountain of God’s heart.
Copyright © 2017, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.
Thursday, October 05, 2017
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20, Psalm 19, Philippians 3:4b-14, Matthew 21:33-46.
The photo above is of the reredos in our sanctuary, with the text of the Ten Commandments written out in full, unnumbered, undivided, across three panels, the only such depiction of the Ten Commandments I have ever seen.
My meditation on the gospel this past week was disturbed by the killings in Las Vegas. I found the violent metaphors of the parable a stumbling block. Lord Jesus, how can you toss off violence like that? And Jesus, why do you evoke such judgment and condemnation on your own people? Are they so much worse than anybody else?
There is judgment and condemnation in the Ten Commandments too. Or there would be if the editors of the lectionary had not removed verses 5 and 6 from our Reading. These verses say that if you take God’s name in vain, the Lord will not hold you guiltless and will punish your children to the fourth generation. Such language offends our modern sensibilities. All this guilt and punishment.
You might remember that some years ago, in Alabama, the infamous Judge Roy Moore installed a monument of the Ten Commandments in his courthouse, which he then was ordered to remove. This same Roy Moore is now a candidate for the Senate. He poses as a defender of the freedom of religion and also the right to bear arms, and at recent a campaign rally he pulled out a handgun and raised it triumphantly. Which suggests that his monument to the Ten Commandments was actually a weaponizing of the Commandments; he was using them as symbolic ammunition in the culture war. Ironically in doing so he was taking the name of the Lord God in vain, but you can see why so many people feel the Ten Commandments as negative and even violent.
In the Reformed tradition as practiced by the Reformed and Presbyterian churches, we honored the Ten Commandments but precisely because we honored them we never imposed them on the state, but kept them for the church. We used them liturgically, not politically. Until the 1960’s, in the Reformed church, you heard them read out every Sunday morning in the liturgy. It’s because I heard my dad read the Law from the pulpit every week that I absorbed it and know it all by heart.
In the Reformed tradition, the Law of God has three purposes. First, to convict us of our sin, to let us know that we are guilty, yes, and inspire us to penitence. Second, to drive us to the bosom Christ, who kept the Commandments, so that we find our righteousness in him and not within ourselves. Third, to give us guidance for a good and wholesome life. It took the apostles to work out that we are free from the Law, and the Commandments are not binding on us, but yet we are free to be guided by them. So we repeat the words of Psalm 19 as our positive feeling for the Law of God.
The Ten Commandments were a good and gracious gift to the Children of Israel. The last three Sundays we’ve seen the gifts of manna, and water, and now the Law. God gave them manna to feed them and water to revive them, and now God feeds their minds and freshens their morality. And yet they were afraid. They feared the fire and the smoke and the sound of God’s voice. But I think the words themselves were fearsome too.
The Ten Commandments describe a revolutionary way of life and a society that was heretofore unthinkable. No gods and goddesses, no hierarchy in heaven and none on earth, no upper class, no lower class, no king, no princes, no generals, no army, no police, no principalities, no powers, no structure of obligations up or down, none of the standard codes of law from any other civilization at the time. Just the God who created you and your neighbor. And that is the sum total of the social structure, that everyone is to you your neighbor. Everyone’s life is equal in value and obligation. Only your parents get extra honor because it was through them that God created you.
This is radical equality before the law. This is the original puritan common-wealth. You have no obligations to anyone above you and you have no control over anyone beneath you, but yet you have a total obligation to your neighbor beside you, who does not control you. This blend of total freedom and total obligation must have been a fearful thing, it is too radical not to be afraid of it.
Another fearful feature was the second commandment’s prohibition of graven images and any ritual of worship, which was the abnegation of religion as they knew it. The graven images served to keep divinity available and manageable, to keep God close but in his place. When they heard this second commandment, they must have been terrified of a god who was so totally transcendent and so free. How shall we deal with such a God? We don’t know how. There was no precedent for this.
If there is no organized religion, then is nothing sacred? Well, yes, in the third commandment the name of God, and in the fourth commandment the Sabbath day, but what about something more tangible, as tangible as a graven image? Okay, if you want an image of God to serve, how about your neighbor. God put God’s image in your neighbor. God identifies with your neighbor, and God takes it personally how you serve your neighbor’s good. Your neighbor’s life, your neighbor’s wife, your neighbor’s property, your neighbor’s reputation, and even your neighbor’s good fortune if he’s got a nicer house or spouse or flock than you have—all that is sacred to you. So the practice of worship and service are just about the same. To worship God is to serve your neighbor. At last we touch upon our draft new mission statement! To offer a practice of worship and service is our mission, just like Israel’s.
Many of you have seen the inscription of the Ten Commandments in our sanctuary, on the reredos above the pulpit, on the other side of that wall. In 1891, when this building was new, the Consistory chose to put the Ten Commandments there. Why? Why did they give them pride of place? What were they saying to themselves and to their public and eventually to us? Why this gift?
The typical iconography is of twin tablets with the commandments enumerated in two columns, like up in the sanctuary of Beth Elohim or on the monument in Alabama. But our inscription is of a single, seamless recitation, without numbers, not divided up, just as it was first spoken to the people by God’s own voice, in the only public speech God ever made in the Bible. Is that what our Consistory wanted to convey in 1891, or was it simply because they were read out weekly in the liturgy? We don’t know, but of the rare things in our sanctuary, it is the rarest—the Ten Commandments in the original spoken version, not as a list of rules, but as a message, a recitation, a chant, a song, a speech that calls into being a new reality, a spell that gives shape to the sovereignty of God.
The words go out into the world to shape a new creation, and we are ever trying to catch up to listen and respond to them. “Thou shalt not kill.” Full stop, but it goes out ahead of us. Don’t lessen it, don’t cheapen it, don’t make it more acceptable by translating “kill” as “murder.” It is total and unconditional, “You shall not kill.” It is never right to kill. You do not have the right to kill.
But how can that be, when elsewhere in the Torah God allows killing and even commands it? Submit to the tension, because the word goes out into time, and we keep moving to catch up to it. Until we get past this evil world some killing is going to happen, but it must be done by public officers, in uniforms, not private persons, certainly not by neighbors of each other. The kingdom of God gives no private person the license to kill or the right to bear arms.
I said to Melody this week that Americans can hardly tell the difference between freedom and chaos. These things feel about the same to Americans. We take freedom as an absolute, the abolition of limits and the absence of control. My rights and my freedom are absolute. This is the same as chaos, disorder, and violence. Politics can’t solve it because it is an inner spiritual compulsion, a bondage disguising itself as freedom because it’s a bondage that we keep choosing. True freedom comes in the word of God to which we submit in freedom from the chaos and the violent dark.
Last week Melody suggested to me that the last part of our new mission statement might better be something like, “a vision of the true and alternate reality.” And the way we give form and shape to this new and alternate reality is by means of our practice of worship and service. The form and shape, according to the Lord Jesus, is love. He said this when he summarized the Ten Commandments. He said that the new and alternate reality will take form and shape when you love God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind, and you love your neighbor as yourself. From these two commandments of love hang all the Law and the Prophets.
Copyright © 2017, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.