Thursday, June 22, 2017

June 25, Proper 7: A Handmaid's Tale, or When Pride Is Not a Deadly Sin

Genesis 21:8-21, Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17, Romans 6:1-11, Matthew 10:24-39

Heidelberg Catechism Q 88-90.

Our story from Genesis makes Abraham look not so good. True, he was in a fix, but the story is on Hagar’s side.

It reminds me of The Handmaid’s Tale. Hagar was a slave who got used to bear a son for Abraham. Hagar had no say in the matter, and no right to her own son, not if her mistress claimed him for herself. But suddenly Hagar’s boy became inconvenient when Sarah gave birth to a boy of her own. So Abraham disinherited Hagar’s boy, which Abraham had the right to do.

Abraham had all the rights here, including the right to free his slaves, which he did to Hagar. Hagar had no rights, not even in her freedom. Her freedom was dangerous to her. Back then every woman had to be under the protection of some man, lest some other man take his way with her. Every village would be dangerous for Hagar and her boy, so she took her chances on the desert.

Of all that Abraham did to Hagar, setting her free was the worst. Though back then it was not unethical, the story depicts him as dishonorable. He sets her free in the dark, before dawn, by himself, surreptitiously, and he packs her provisions, which is a servant’s job, and he does it on the cheap, with just some bread and water, he who had just hosted a lavish feast to honor little Isaac. He puts the skin of water on her shoulder, touching her body, which once he had loved. She has to yield to him again. This is how he treats the mother of his firstborn son, for some years his only son: dishonorably and shamefully.

We are troubled by God’s complicity. God tells Abraham to do what Sarah said. True, God was not complicit in their having used Hagar in the first place, and it was their having doubted God that resulted in this shameful outcome. True, God promises Abraham that Hagar and her son will survive and someday flourish, but imagine him trying to tell her that as he casts her out in the dark.

We are troubled by God letting her suffer first. That it’s the crying of the boy that God responds to. Does she count for nothing? God watches her suffer and only saves her at the last resort. Does God prefer to wait till other hopes are gone? Do we say that God is always just in time? Where is the goodness in this story? Or is she the goodness, she who was the one true innocent, she who was being punished for having been obedient to her masters.

She reveals some strength and determination. It’s more than the desperate tenacity of a refugee mother because she determines to keep her freedom. She will not submit to some other man to be her protection. She determines freedom for her son, and that he be expert with the bow, which frees him from the culture of his rejecting father. She gets him a wife from Egypt, which frees him from social obligation to some other local chieftain. She persisted! Go Hagar. Who does she think she is? In the words of Hebrews 2, “She despised the shame.” She made honor out of their dishonor. It was Abraham who acted shamefully, but I think her son would have reasons to be proud of her.

I love it that we get this story on Pride Sunday, even though it’s only a coincidence. Now you know that it’s my discipline not to use the pulpit to augment secular holidays, like Mothers Day or Labor Day. I determine my preaching by the scripture lessons, not by topics of the day. But doesn’t this story speak to the experience of gay people in the church, cast out by the patriarchs, with the apparent complicity of God, sent off in the dark with a skin of water and a little bread, and only reluctantly rescued by God but kept out in the wilderness. If you had to pick an Old Testament lesson for Pride Sunday, what better could you select than this!

The other lessons are relevant as well. Take the opening charge of Romans 6: “Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?” That charge is used today against LGBTQ Christians who have accepted their orientation and seek to live wholesome lives within it. Take the gospel, where Jesus speaks about being divided from your family, and many LGBTQ Christians know this all too well.

It’s also my discipline not to preach to one group of people, but to the whole church. So while we note the special relevance of the lessons today, all of us are meant to feel the sharpness of St. Paul’s charge not to continue in sin. And we all have to face the challenge that ones foes will be members of one’ s own household. And all of us should consider with Abraham and Hagar our own experiences of shame and dishonor and exclusion and casting out, both when we do it or when it’s done to us. All of us are called to despise the shame and get free and stand up straight.

Pride is not a word that comes easy to Christians. Pride is considered one of the seven deadly sins. But the pride that is deadly is the pride that is the opposite of humility, the opposite of taking up your cross. The Lord Jesus says that those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for his sake will find it. That’s the humility of the cross, the surrender, the death that paradoxically is the way to life, and in this way to life one of the worst obstacles can be your pride. When you think you don’t need salvation, when you don’t need to repent and surrender to the gracious love of God, then your pride is a deadly sin.

But there’s also a pride that is the opposite of shame. The shame of those who cast you out even while saying they love you and they feel distressed in doing it. They give you a skin of water and a little bread and hope you go away quietly. And shame is contagious, so their shame you take upon yourself. Their rejection engenders your own self-rejection. But then look at Hagar who decides to despise the shame and seek her own freedom and hold her head up high. Well, if that’s pride, then good. And that of course is the kind of pride that we can honor today for gay folks in the church.

At issue of course is how we locate our sin and how we define our righteousness. Religion tends to locate sin as this kind of behavior or that kind of action. A sinful life is this kind of person and a righteous life is that kind of person. Those folks are sinners, and these are saints. St. Paul does it very differently in our Epistle. He says that everyone of you is both, both sinful and righteous, and all your behavior is both sinful and righteous.

St. Paul teaches, and our Catechism confirms, that there are two of you, simultaneously, the old self always dying, and the new self always rising. As certainly as you are baptized, your old you has been crucified with Christ and your new you has been born again in you. You both live on in you, your you who is enslaved to sin and death and your you who is already free from sin.

Your conversion is not a once-thing, as if before you were converted you were a sinner and after your conversion you’re a saint. Your conversion is a daily thing, a daily converting your old you to your new you, and every day you convert yourself again. This continues all your life till you die, and for Christians death is not a punishment, but a final casting off of that old you so that only the new you is left. Your old you will be dead for good, and your new you of the resurrection inherits the life of the world to come.

Do you find it realistic and helpful to consider yourself this way, simultaneously dead to sin and alive to God in Christ? Does it relieve you of the shame of your continuing sinful, selfish, and even morbid self in you despite your better intentions and your absolute desire to be righteous and joyful?

But is it psychologically healthy to consider yourself a double self or a divided self? Maybe, maybe not, but let me employ again the quantum mechanics that Jabe Ziino employed in his sermon last week. A remarkable discovery of quantum mechanics is that one electron can be in two places at once simultaneously. So, let’s say that it’s not that you are a divided self, but that you exist as a whole in two places at once—in the old you in the death of Christ, and in the new you in his rising again. It is your being in him that makes you righteous and holy, not your fitting in anywhere else.

Which is how I deal with the character of Abraham, that shameful and sinful saint. I’m all on Hagar’s side, but I can still love Abraham for the him that belongs to God. As I want to be dealt with myself, as I want to be loved, and in what I want to boast. I invite you to believe that this is how it works, and that this is how you are loved, and how you are loved by God.

Copyright © 2017 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved. 

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

June 18, Proper 6, Guest Sermon by our Seminarian Jabe Ziino

Links to Scripture Lessons:

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

God makes a promise, and Sarah laughs.
What will be your response, when God shows up uninvited to your house, tonight, for dinner? Or, I should say, when three random guys show up tonight, hungry and unwashed, and make an outrageous promise to you?

There’s a common idea that belief, faith in God, has gotten more difficult in recent years. Our expanding scientific knowledge sometimes seems to contradict what’s in the Bible. Who needs to have faith when we can know everything for certain?
IN our neighborhoods We value peaceful diversity of belief, living alongside people who have beliefs quite different from our own.
But this is not an easy goal to accomplish.
Another person’s belief can challenge our own, asking us to question our assumptions, and sometimes our faith.
These are real challenges.

So we often accept the idea that way back in the day, before things got so complicated, before we acquired all this sophistication and intelligence, faith in God was just easier. People were more simple-minded.

But in our reading from Genesis, we see that belief in God was not easy thousands of years ago, even for uneducated nomads in the Palestinian desert, the parents of our faith Abraham and Sarah.
God makes a promise to Sarah. And it is so hard to believe, that she laughs!!
I don’t think this is because she is a scoffing kind of a person.
Probably she is practical. She is a realist. Understandably she may be somewhat bitter and skeptical of promises and hope.
Her entire life she has hoped for a child.
She lives in a society in which a woman’s chief honor and duty is to bear children, and she has failed to do that.  
And now she is 90 years old. She spent her life traveling with her husband, herding animals hundreds of miles across the desert, under the burning sun and through the cold night, living in a tent. I wonder what she looked like.
They were prosperous. But by our standards today, they had a hard life. And after 90 years, Sarah’s been disappointed a lot. She’s wanted nothing more than to have her own child.
But at least she finally knows what to expect out of life. Sarah knows who she is, she knows what her skills are, and what her skills are not. She is resigned to reality.
Her life has been hard. But at least she’s found some comfort in knowing what to expect from herself and from life.

And then one day, three strangers come to her tent.
And they have a message not for the man Abraham, but for Sarah.
“Sarah, 90 years old, childless, you who could never be the kind of person your husband, your society wanted you to be-- you shall have a son.”

The promise is ridiculous. And Sarah laughs to herself.
“After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?”
But when offered this pleasure, she can’t accept it.
It’s ridiculous. It can’t be true. Not for me.

God’s promise contradicts everything Sarah knows about the world, and about herself.
And God asks her to let it all go.

It is no wonder that she laughs, and then she is afraid, when she realizes the pleasure God is calling her to. God is asking her to forget who she is, and to start a new life.

God’s promise asks Sarah to step into darkness and nothingness.


Why does God appear in this strange manner, or maybe I should say, in such an ordinary manner? If God only wanted to deliver the message to Sarah as efficiently as possible, maximizing everyone’s productivity, then why didn’t God show up as a burning bush or with a multitude of angels?

Instead, God appears as three human strangers. They eat, and drink, they are dirty and need to wash up just like everyone else. It is only after Sarah laughs to herself at their message, that they reveal they know her innermost thoughts and thus reveal their divinity.
So she stops laughing and is afraid, she tries to take back her thoughts, but God calls her out. Embarrassed in front of the master of the Universe.

Now if God had shown up in a blaze of glory and brilliance, surely this awkwardness could have been avoided. Sarah would not have laughed-- she would have fallen down, blinded by God’s majesty, and received the message with awe and terror.

But is that really the best way to send a message? Is that the way we learn best? By being shouted and scared into submission?

As painful as it is, the best way to learn to be careful around fire, is to touch a hot stove and be burned!

The Apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans, encourages us to boast and celebrate in our sufferings.

knowing that suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because of the love we have been given.

Suffering produces endurance. Through the trials, the pains, the weights we carry in this life, we learn patience and endurance.
Endurance produces character. The word translated “character” here, is δοκιμη (dokime) in Paul’s Greek, which could literally be translated “testing,” or “the character of one who has been tested.”
So endurance helps us through δοκιμη, through testing. And our character is formed through our testing.

And testing produces hope.
Paul doesn’t say that victory or triumph over your test produces hope.
It’s not passing the test, getting an A, that produces hope.

Sarah had plenty of suffering. And her suffering produced great endurance. And her endurance produced testing, when God visited her. Her process of testing was frightening. and embarrassing. She didn’t pass the test; God didn’t give her a grade at the end. But Sarah passed through the test, and her testing produced character and hope.

Despite the fact that we make mistakes and often fail our tests.
Something happens in the process of testing, that produces hope.

(Don’t tell the New York Department of Education that testing produces hope.)

Anytime we go through a test, we put something at stake. We make ourselves vulnerable.
We are ready to learn something that we didn’t know before.
And we might lose something dear to us.

And when we make ourselves truly vulnerable, ready to let go of everything we hold on to, we have faith.
Faith is the secret strength in vulnerability.
Faith that despite the darkness and the many losses-- we are created and saved in a true love that cannot be lost.

As our brother Paul reminds us, we are not made righteous by winning, by passing the test. This is not a human test with right answers and wrong answers.

We are made righteous by faith.
We are tested so that we can learn ourselves in hope, and become ourselves in the process.

Physicists who study the nature of matter, quantum mechanics, identify in the tiniest particles a strange property, called quantum superposition. I’m not an expert, but I understand the essential idea to be, that a tiny particle like an electron cannot be described as occupying a single position or a single path, the way large objects do, the way this glass or this microphone exists here in this one location, until it moves along a single path to another location.

Rather, the electron exists as a composite of all the possible paths or positions it might take. It’s not just that we don’t know where the electron is, but that truly the election does not have a single position or path.
It is only when human observers test this electron, that it collapses from occupying all those possible states, and takes a single path to a single destination.

This is in contrast with the classical Newtonian view of matter, that if we know enough about an object right now, we can predict with certainty its future state.
Quantum physicists says, No. Until we actually test a particle, the best we can know is its possibilities.

It seems that God has built into the very fabric of our world, the reality that the process of being tested, makes us who we are.

As we learn from our Gospel reading, God has compassion for us. God sees we are like sheep without a shepherd. We are a full and ready harvest with few laborers to gather us.
So God, having compassion, sends to us those who can heal, cure our diseases, cast out demons, and bring the dead back to life. God sends to us those who proclaim the good news, “The Kingdom of heaven has come near.” And God also sends us to do all these things.

In compassion, God has visited us, more than once!
God came to visit Sarah and Abraham, and ate their food and washed up under the tree outside their tent.
God came to us again, to our towns, looking for welcoming hearts, and God gave us food and drink and washed our feet.
And God has promised to come again to visit us, and God us making us into who we are.

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 forever and ever, Amen.

Friday, June 09, 2017

June 11, Holy Trinity: Grace, Love, and Communion

Genesis 1:1-2:4a, Psalm 8, 2 Corinthians 13:11-13, Matthew 28:16-20

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Bereshit barah Elohim ha-shamaim va ha-arets. About this beginning I made a little song. I wrote it sixteen years ago. I can’t make it public because the tune for it is under copyright. So if you don’t mind I’m going to have a little fun and sing it for you.

Let’s start at the very beginning,
             a very good place to start.
When you read you begin with ABC.
             ABC! ABC!
For the world God began with, “Let there be.”
            Let there be! Let there be!
The first three words just happen to be:
            Let there be.
            Let there be!
Let there be and so it came to be!

Let there be the light and dark,
        Let there be the sea and sky,
Let the dry land now appear,
             let the green things multiply.

Let there be sun, moon, and stars,
        Let them be that swim and fly,
Let them be that walk on land,
             let the critters multiply.
Last of all, let there be Humankind serving me.
God said, “Yes! This is the best!
             Now let’s take a day for rest.”

There! Not bad! A fun song, not a great song, not great like the original song. That is what Genesis 1 is—a song, a chant, a poem, more serious, but still for delight. It was written to be sung. Even today, in synagogues, it is never just read but always sung. We are to assume that when God said it, God sang it, God chanted it. “Let there be light! / And there was light.” Genesis 1 is a magnificent hymn, a poem, full of wonder, wisdom, and delight.

It’s too bad we have wasted so much energy debating whether it’s literal or not. Do we debate whether Psalm 23 is literal or not? I’m quite sure the ancient Hebrews did not take it literally.

Actually most of them didn’t even believe it—the proof of which is that they kept sliding back into idolatry to serve the pagan gods and goddesses with their more popular mythologies about the origins of the world, in which the primal and formless void of the deep generated gods and goddesses, who generated the lesser divinities and demons and all the rest of the creatures whether by cosmic sex or cosmic violence or both, and legitimized the same in humankind.

But this hymn of creation has no sex, no violence, no hierarchy of greater gods and lesser gods or human dynasties descended from the gods, no mythology at all in the proper sense, but a chant, a song, a call and response, God singing “let there be” and every creature answering implicitly, “Here we are, Here I am, hineini, I present myself, at your service.”

How polite the whole thing is, God is such a gentleman, how civil, how gracious of God not to force it but to let things be. The grace of God, not violence. Nor cosmic sex, but the love of Jesus Christ. No force, no hierarchy, but rather call and response, communication, community, the communion of the Holy Spirit.

And underneath it all, behind it all, is the theme of hospitality, of room, of space for us, safe space, good space, room for us and for our lives, for us to live our lives in freedom and security before God’s face. No intermediate gods and goddesses to worry about and mollify. No demigods or demons to watch out for. No royalty, no nobility, no upper class.

It’s actually a very modern worldview, almost secular except for this one single God. Indeed, the power of this hymn over the centuries has been to generate our modern worldview, giving room for human freedom and equality, for freedom and initiative, and culture and learning and science itself.

The sequence of the six days is structural, not literally temporal. The days are a pair of threes. The first three days are the spaces, the rooms, the habitations, and the second three days are the dwellers in those spaces, the inhabitants, the guests, for whom God is providing hospitality.

 Day 1 is light and dark, so day 4 is the inhabitants of light and dark.

Day 2 is sea and sky, so day 5 is fish and birds.

Day 3 is dry land with its lush green carpet of plants, so day 6 is animals that walk upon the land and feed upon the plants.

Hospitality, room, spaces, for creatures to live their lives before God’s face and just by existing give their praise to God. Creation is envisioned as God’s temple, God’s great palace in which we all are given room and space. The Lord Jesus echoed this on the night before he died: “In my Father’s house are many rooms, and I go to prepare a place for you.” He was talking about communion, and love, and grace for the church, given to the church for the mission to all the world of the love of God, and the grace of Jesus, and the communion of the Holy Spirit.

Now every palace has a majordomo, every hotel a maître-d’, and every temple priests. God entrusted one species of the animals to have this mission of governance, stewardship, and service to our other creatures. That’s our mission among the animals and vegetables and minerals.

For this mission God made us in God’s image and likeness, whatever all that means. It does mean this, that we are able to commune with God, so that God has full communion with the world through us. God loves the world through us, and God is gracious with the world through us.

And on the 7th day God rested. In other words, God turned the labor over to us, the labor of creation. For us to do this God gave us creativity, and we are creative because we’re in the image of our Creator. So that’s our place in the world. Genesis 1 still speaks today.

It tells us we are meant to be at home in the world, God made it good for us, and we are made for it, among the fellowship of plants and animals, but not to be confined by it, but rather to keep it in full communion with its creator outside the world in whom we live and move and have our being.

It tells us why our species of Homo sapiens is distinct among the animals and why we have power over them, and why we are able to modify the world, for better or worse, or even to destroy it.

It tells us that the world belongs to God, and not to us, and we are responsible to God for it. Every decision we make about the world, about planting a field or slaughtering a cow or extracting coal or fracking natural gas, we are not independent to decide according to our bottom line, but we owe to God our every last justification for what we take and what we do, and we owe it to all the rest of the creatures as well, whose stewardship we bear.

The hymn tells us about our place in the world but it also tells us about this God. What kind of God would create a world like this?

A God who offers room and space because God has room and space within God’s self.

A God who offers gracious hospitality because God has gracious hospitality within God’s self.

A God who offers communion and fellowship because God has communion and fellowship within God’s self.

God loves the world with the same love that is moving around inside God’s self, not self-love, but other-love, what Jesus revealed to us as the love of the Father to the Son and back and both of them to the Spirit and back. God made a world to share God’s love with.

That’s the reason God made a world, so that there could be something and not nothing. Not that God was lonely, for God was already the joyful fellowship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but that there might be something else than God for God to have communion with, something not God, other than God, but capable of communion with God, something for God’s Holy Spirit to enter in and bring to life.

And also some place for the Son of God to come into in grace, as a real gentleman, taking on upon himself its creatureliness, its limitations and frailty, its not-godness, and graciously honoring it but also winning it into full communion with God.

Also some universe for God the Father to love with the same love God has for the Son and the Spirit, unending love, unfathomable love, for creatures such as you—love above you and beneath you, beside you, before you and behind you. You were created for love, especially the love of God.

Copyright © 2017 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Saturday, June 03, 2017

June 4, Pentecost: Believing Is Receiving

Acts 2:1-21, Psalm 104:25-35, 37, 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13, John 20:19-23 and 7:37-39

Let me tell you what we’re doing here today. We are receiving. We are receiving gifts, and the gifts are persons. In a few minutes we will be recognizing persons and their gifts—the particular gifts that each person brings and the peculiar gift that each person is. Sunday School children and catechumens are gifts to us just by being here. We receive them, we believe in them, and we celebrate them.

The opposite of “gifts are being received” is “casualties are being counted.” That’s the phrase I heard on Wednesday Morning on WNYC just after I had written those opening lines about receiving gifts. Casualties are being counted in Kabul. More than 80 dead. By Thursday it was 140. Casualties – a strange term, a casual term, suggesting how casual we are with death and violence, that we receive it and accept it and even celebrate it in America.

I don’t mean to rain on our parade. I bring up the contrast lest we too casually celebrate today: a charming recognition of our Sunday School students, a pleasing receiving of our catechumens. I invite you to believe it’s more than that. Our numbers are small compared to the casualties, and what we do is small compared to bombs and foreign policies, smaller than a mustard seed, but Our Lord told us the kingdom of heaven would be like this, so small as mustard seeds. I invite you to see the kingdom of heaven in the gifts of the children and the catechumens.

We have come to celebrate the first-fruits. Like in our first reading, all “the devout Jews from every nation under heaven” who gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of Pentecost, Shavuoth, the feast of the first-fruits. To the temple they brought their gifts of early grain (for us it would be asparagus and fiddle-heads), the earnest of the greater harvest still to come.

Image result for fiddleheads

Our Sunday School children are first-fruits manifestly, their lives still before them, with richer gifts to come, gifts we can just begin to see in them, beginning to unfold and then bear greater fruit. Our catechumens are offering first-fruits today, their estimations of their several callings, their individual vocations, their personal missions. O Lord, how manifold are your works, in wisdom you have made them all.

So we’re doing some believing here, our receiving is believing. Believing is a rich and complex thing that we do. Let me take a moment to review this sermon series on believing. Back in Lent, with Nicodemus, I said that believing is rebirth. Then with the woman at the well I said believing is drinking. With the raising of Lazarus I said believing is disturbing, and with doubting Thomas, believing is not seeing. With the walk to Emmaus, believing is welcoming, then with the epistle of Peter, that believing is suffering-in-action, and last from the talk of Jesus with his disciples, that believing is living-on-the-boundary. Today I’m saying that believing is receiving.

We expect to think of believing as more like achieving, like achieving certainty, certainty versus doubt, or certainty versus confusion. Of course there is some achieving in belief, but achieving belief tends towards ideology and superiority, and judging others who don’t believe as you do. On the other hand, believing as receiving sounds passive and submissive.

But not if it’s also living-on-the-boundary and suffering-in-action and welcoming and disturbing. Not if it’s drinking, and breathing, and receiving the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit inside you who is doing the believing, and who by doing that is giving life to your soul and your body. It is the Holy Spirit mixing it up with your own soul who energizes your soul to believe.

What do you receive when you believe? You receive a story about God in the world, that God so loves the world. This story conflicts with other stories that you know, or is in tension with them, but it also makes sense of other stories you’ve been living with. When you receive this story as the larger epic in which to insert the story of your own life, you are believing it.

You receive the forgiveness of sins. You receive the power to forgive sins. Forgiving sins is a small and active miracle. Retaining sins is easy, it is no trick. But to forgive sins requires believing in a future that has no proof, an outcome still at risk, a result hoped-for, not gained. Forgiving sins takes believing in miracles. You do it for others when you believe that you yourself are the receptor of this miracle, that you recognize that you yourself are being forgiven, that you are receiving the forgiveness of sins and passing it along. And when you forgive someone, you receive the power of that forgiveness back on you as the power of new life and joy in you.

You receive the story, you receive the miracle of forgiveness, and more than that, you receive God in you. You receive the presence of God in your life, not just out there alongside but inside you—that’s the audacious Christian claim.

You receive the Holy Spirit, who is not just one-third of God but fully God, mostly deeply God, the soul of God, God’s inner flame, the self of the Father and the soul of the Son, resting upon you. This Christian claim strikes me as more extravagant than walking on water. If we consider our humdrum ordinary lives, to claim that we are inhabited by this great God seems either preposterous or meaningless.

We’ve been conditioned by pentecostalism and evangelicalism to think of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit individualistically. But in the Bible and in historical theology it is always more communal. The indwelling of the Holy Spirit is not for myself alone, but only as I am in fellowship with you. Think of the Creed, how as soon as we say we believe in the Holy Spirit we move right on to the church and the communion of saints and the forgiveness of sins.

It is our fellowship and our sharing that God inhabits. Of course! Because the fire inside the Holy Spirit is the flame of love, and love seeks always the other. The Holy Spirit dwells in us as we are members of one body, sharing our gifts for the common good. You receive the Holy Spirit personally insofar as you are in community, and in community for the redemption of the world. For the casualties.

So your believing moves from receiving to becoming. Believing is becoming. Like water becoming wine. You have heard it said that your body is mostly water. So Jesus compares the Holy Spirit to water within you, living water, pure water. But when Jesus turns the water into wine, there is no such thing as pure wine. Every wine is a different mixture, from its own variety of grape and its particular soil. I’m saying that the pure water of the Holy Spirit within you becomes the particular varietal of your peculiar life. In the slow fermentation of your believing the purity of the Spirit becomes the manifold diversity of all your lives.

Today we have new wine, in the children whom we celebrate. The catechumens have been aging for a while, and we receive them too. We share the same cup, we breathe each other’s air, we receive each other and we become the communion of saints, the Holy Catholic Church, the habitation of the Holy Spirit. We believe what God loves in us, and we become the love of God.

Copyright © 2017 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

May 28, 2017: In Memoriam John A. Hartog


Philippians 3:8: “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ.”

For Hank and me, Johnny was the cool cousin. Older enough to be always cool, but closer in age to us than the Vermeulens. One time my parents had to go to General Synod and they farmed us out, so I stayed with Auntie Jo, which meant good food. But I was jealous of Hank going to Uncle Bert’s, and getting to sleep in Johnny’s room on that trundle bed.

Our admiration for him was absolute. I have an early memory of him with an old truck in the back yard on Prescott Avenue. Was he driving it? Was “A. Hartog” written on it? I remember not knowing who A. Hartog was. All I knew of my uncle’s name was Bert, so Johnny had to explain it to me.

Johnny was funny and smart, and he had cool stuff, especially tools and cars. Wasn’t it true for him that all stuff was cool, all stuff had value? All stuff had stories, and the stories fascinated him. How remarkable that this Jersey boy should have been the one to learn and tell the stories of the rocks in this landscape, these streams and ponds and mountains.

Down this road at the first little creek he showed me a depression in the ground where once a house had been and a family lived. Further down is the stream where he showed me a mill pond and he could read in the rocks the change from cross-cut saws to radial saws. This very building, once derelict-–he heard its story of a sacred space. Some broken rusty piece of metal that you thought was junk he could tell the story of. For Johnny there was no such thing as junk, but everything had “surpassing value.” How many examples could I multiply?

Which is why our text from Philippians 3 is contradictory. “For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse.” Refuse. Garbage. Trash. It’s “dung” in the KJV. These are all attempts politely to translate the Greek word σκυβαλα. Let’s go with “junk”. Could Johnny count nothing as junk?

Or, precisely to count all things as junk in order to gain Christ is why he built his barn and filled it up. St. Paul meant it for negative, but how about if we treat it as positive: I count all things as junk in order that I may gain Christ. How about if the junk is how you get to Christ?

I know that Johnny saw things differently than I did, than most of us, and he saw things we did not see. I think this was often for him a frustration and distraction, because if the world fit together differently for him, then how did he fit in? Was it distraction or abstraction? What is there after all to gain? And to gain, what must I count as loss? To count as loss brings things to conclusion.

How do you conclude things when everything has more to say, and its own thing to say? Including God? How do you draw conclusions about God, the way that other people seem to do, the way that we, his family, are always doing? To draw conclusions means you end the story, but everything has more to say and more to see.

I came lately to understand how he much an observer he was. Let me read from a letter that he wrote to Melody and me eight years ago. It’s dated 12/13/09. “Needless to say, but I have to speak about how wonderful our gathering at Maria’s was. I was watching all the participants, and both youse guys came up golden. Each particular characteriza-tion of the involved folks seems to change a bit a every year. I believe myself to be a sensitive observer, watching the coolest “cats” in my life. I’ll admit the outcome is always spectacular. It’s tough to get down, & tough to go back — Friday rain ruled, puddle to puddle. But, I’m back, & the cat still loves me.”

If you’re always observing you’re likely abstracted and a little removed, but maybe not at rest. He was a restless guy. But not from fear, and I don’t think from an internal itch. He wasn’t ever trying to prove something or even solve something, just keep open to everything as long as he could. Not at rest does not necessarily mean not at home. He was at home on this pocket of a mountain, in this landscape whose story he made his own.

And he prepared a place for himself. A home for his soul. A suitable church. I wonder if it put his soul at rest when he was alone by himself that he had this church to belong to. Especially in those last weeks of his life as he was contemplating the loss of all things, and suffering the loss of all things. This was the Johnny Hartog way of gaining Christ, to have a church for him and for himself to end in. Surpassing value. Johnny Hartog, rest in peace and rise in Glory, and God be with you.

Copyright © 2017 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

May 21, Easter 6, Volunteer Sunday: Eager to Do Good

1 Peter 3:13-22, John 14:15-21

If you love me, you will keep my commandments. A well-known statement of Jesus to his disciples the night before he died. Less well known is that opening statement from the First Epistle of Peter: Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? The two statements in combination are my topic today.

But first let me thank The Stone House Singers for helping us celebrate our volunteering. Now you singers are not paid, correct? You are all volunteers, right? Not me. I get paid for this. How do you like it that I who am preaching the sermon on volunteering am also the one person in the room who isn’t doing it?

Do you consider the Lord Jesus a volunteer? Did he get paid for being Messiah? We know that St. Paul was a volunteer—he earned his keep by making tents. St. Peter seems to have gotten a stipend when he got promoted from disciple to apostle, but I’m guessing the readers of his epistle were volunteers. Like you all. So let me thank you, today especially Phil, Michael, Jenn, Dave, Jessica, Pete, Karen, and all of you, all of you because you are here today voluntarily.

The Christian faith, at its heart, is voluntary. Because it appeals to belief it requires freedom, not compulsion. It’s based on choice, not coercion. On attraction, not fear. The church has no police. Our only form of penalty is to keep you from communion, which most people do without anyway, so what use is that? The church assumes free will, volition, from the Latin voluntas, voluntatis, voluntate, voluntarily. Every Sunday is a volunteer Sunday. To keep you all volunteering is what I get paid for.

Which does take some doing, even though you all know that what you get back from your volunteering more than compensates for what you put into it.  And even though you understand the fulfillment and the satisfaction of having done something that costs you, it does cost you. Maybe time away from your family. Time away from your own pursuits that no one else looks after but yourself. Time away from your own self-care.

In our modern democratic culture the cost of your religion is rarely other than an opportunity cost. Your choosing for one thing reduces your opportunity to do something else as well. But you know there have been many times when your religion might cost you life and limb and many places where to support a church results in discrimination and even persecution. Your voluntary choice for church is also a choice for suffering, not suffering as a desirable but suffering as inevitable.

For us, supporting the church has cultural advantages and is regarded as respectable. It offers good programs and I don’t have to list them. But in the time of St. Peter’s epistle, the church had no programs besides its weekly gathering, and in the surrounding culture it was not respectable and it brought you disadvantages and social penalties.

So it’s a real question that the epistle opens with, it’s not rhetorical. Let me translate it extremely literally: “Now who is the one who will be harming you if you are zealous for the good?” Because you will be harmed! Maybe not in a religiously neutral situation like our own, but in a situation when your religion is not respectable, or even illegal, you will be harmed for doing good, especially when the good you do is to counter the prevailing power that maintains its power by doing harm. All governments are violent, all of them. Some less than others, but all of them. All governments lie, some less than others. Yet even when they lie, you be eager to tell the truth. Even when they are violent, you be eager to wage peace. And when they do harm, you be eager to do good.

One of the ways of doing good is the contribution of your voluntary time to the alternative community of the church. Now there are many free-will communities in the culture for you to contribute your voluntary time to. They have their value. Choirs. The Park Slope Civic Council. Alumni associations. Sports clubs. I’m on the board of my housing co-op. But there is only one kind of voluntary association that I know of the only purpose of which is goodness itself, the source of goodness, the extension of goodness, and the maintenance of goodness against evil.

There is only one voluntary association I know of that trains you to head towards suffering, be that your own or someone else’s. There is only one voluntary association I know of for training in transforming love, transcendent love. This training in transcendent love makes use of many different exercises and fitness routines, and these are the volunteer jobs in a church, all the various kinds of service, all different aspects and expressions that woven together make up the complexity of love. That is what you are volunteering for, from coffee to counting money to serving communion, to train yourself in practical love and to contribute to a community witnessing to transcendent love.

If you love me you will keep my commandments. As typical in John’s gospel it can be taken different  ways. The verb forms allow all of indicative, subjunctive, and imperative, yielding an if-then condition either present-imperative or future-probable or maybe intentionally both. If ye love me, keep my commandments. If you are loving me you will be keeping my commandments.

I confess that loving Jesus has always felt awkward to me. I have no difficulty in loving God simply as God, but loving Jesus means also loving God as a human being, and loving a human being implies affection, but how can I feel affection for a human being at such a great remove in time and space? God as God I feel so close to, and my love of God is not about affection. So how do I love Jesus? If not by affection, then by action? By keeping his commandments? Okay, and what are his commandments? That we love. It’s circular, which is also typical of John. We love by keeping his commandments and we keep his commandments by loving.

My granddaughter is old enough now to be done with singing that Barney song, “I love you, you love me, we’re a happy family.” It isn’t just any love that you practice here. I call it transcendent love because it is the love between God the Father and God the Son, and I call it transforming love that God took on our suffering in Jesus-being-eager to do good to those who harmed him, and I call it voluntary love because you do it in freedom. You choose for that love voluntarily behind its various manifestations in the down-to-earth realities of the congregation. You are eager for this love. You are eager to do good precisely against all the harm being done in the world. You are eager for love.

Copyright © 2017 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.