Friday, October 20, 2017

October 22, Proper 24, Space, Practice, Vision #8: Community of Jesus, Vision of God

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

October 15, Proper 23, Space, Practice, Vision #7: Resist, Respect, Rejoice

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

October 8, Proper 22, Space, Practice, Vision #6: God Commands Worship and Service

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.

Friday, September 29, 2017

October 1, Proper 21, Space, Practice, Vision #5: God "In Service"

 Exodus 17:1-7, Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16, Philippians 2:1-13, Matthew 21:23-32

This is the fifth sermon in my series called Space, Practice, Vision. I am testing the terms of our draft new mission statement against the scripture lessons every week. This is the statement: Old First Reformed Church is a community of Jesus Christ in Brooklyn, offering a space of unconditional welcome, a practice of worship and service, and a vision of the Kingdom of Heaven.

The last phrase is my favorite, “a vision of the Kingdom of Heaven.” But some of you have told me that you’d rather that phrase be something else. I mentioned this to my wife Melody last week, and she said, “Me too.” What! She offered some different language which she thinks says it better. And maybe so! You’ll have to ask her yourself.

I like the phrase because it’s both Biblical and evocative. I hear the “kingdom of heaven” as expansive, inclusive, embracing, and uplifting. But what if others hear it as the opposite, as judgmental and restricting and confining? Especially with the rise of the Christian Right?

That’s a real consideration, and it’s up to the consistory eventually to decide. Please understand that this sermon is not meant to make a case for whatever final version of the new mission statement, only that the image of the kingdom of heaven is so much in the Bible that we need to know what it means.

Let me take a step back. Last Sunday the Germans had their election and one of the right-wing politicians from the AfD made this statement: “In Germany, Muslims are allowed, but not Islam.” Why? Because Islam does not distinguish the sacred from the secular, and at its root it is a political religion, and look, in Saudi Arabia Christians are allowed but not Christianity. Many Germans want their nation to be Christian by law. And you know of Americans who want the same. This is not just fundamentalism. To dismiss this merely as fundamentalism is to misunderstand religion.

The American strategy of pluralism has been to make religion a private matter, which liberals take for granted. Your religion is for your soul and your personal behavior, but not for public policy. We erect a wall of separation between the church and state, and it’s the state that gets to decide where the wall is. We’ve squeezed our religions into boxes to keep them safe, but also to keep us safe from our religions.

Because religions actually do make claims on public policies, religions have theocratic claims, public claims, political claims. Islam, for example, was never meant to be just a private religion for Muslims, but a vision for the whole of society, including the government.

And now in America the Christian Right is rejecting our strategy for pluralism. If Jesus is King of Kings, and since the word “king” is obviously political, then America must be a Christian nation again. (And also capitalist and nationalist, just not Christian socialist!) So if that’s what people hear in the phrase, “a vision of the Kingdom of Heaven,” then I can understand the hesitation.

No matter what we say in our mission statement, it is for this congregation to testify to a whole different vision of the kingdom of heaven, and in our spaces and our practices for us to model it. The culture of this kingdom is determined by the character of the king from whom it extends. So the vision begins is focused on Jesus, and where he takes his throne. 

His only throne on earth is a cross. While in heaven he is seated on the right hand of his Father, on earth he is enthroned upon a cross. Crux probat omnia, the cross (judges) changes everything, or at least it should.

Crucifixion was not a Jewish thing. The Jews did not crucify people. The chief priests were not allowed to crucify Jesus, they had to ask Pontius Pilate to do it. Crucifixion was a Roman thing. It was how they punished their slaves. When the Romans crucified Jesus, and posted above his head that he was the king of the Jews, they were showing that a Jewish king was no more than a slave to them: “This cross is the kind of throne we Romans give to Jewish kings.”

So when St. Paul says in his famous passage in Philippians 2 that Jesus “emptied himself and took the form of a slave,” his reference is precisely to the slave on the cross: Jesus, displayed to the Roman world as the king who is a slave, and St. Paul daringly says that Jesus freely took it on as his self-expression.

 We don’t know how St. Paul died, there is no record. But he would not have been crucified, because he was born a Roman citizen. He had privilege. Jesus did not. In American terms, Paul was white and Jesus was black. At least slavery among the Romans was not defined by the racism that we built America upon. And there were Roman slaves of high-status owners who were given lots of power and discretion. A Roman slave could do many things an American slave could not do.

But it was still slavery, because the point of slavery is not what you cannot do but what you may not do. No matter how much power you have, you may not use your power in your own interest, but in the interest of your owner. Freedom means the freedom to pursue your own interests. But slaves must sacrifice their own interests, even their children, to the interests of their owners. And just so St. Paul writes that you are empowered to “look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” Why? Because the king of this kingdom is enthroned on earth as a slave upon a Roman cross.

St. Paul writes, “have this same mind in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped at, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.” I’m sorry this translation is inaccurate. The word “though” is not in the Greek; it’s more correctly, “who being in the form of God.” In other words it’s just like God to act this way. Maybe not like Jupiter or Zeus, but just like the God of the Exodus who took the form of a servant for his people.

Do you see it? The people were thirsty and there was no water and they complained. Moses was offended, but God was not. God said to Moses, Take your staff, the one with which you struck the Nile, and strike the rock where I will be standing before you.” Why didn’t God just send a powerful bolt of lightning down to break the rock open? Why did God stand there at the rock like Mr. Carson from Downton Abbey, as Lady Mary cuts her meat, as Moses breaks the rock. Like Daisy the kitchen maid, God put Godself “in service;” there in the desert God put God’s own servanthood on display.

So the slavery of Jesus is the extreme expression of the service of the God of Israel. That mind that was in Christ Jesus is the mind of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The culture of the kingdom of Jesus on earth is the culture of the kingdom of heaven. A sovereignty of service. A dominion of surrender to the interests of others. And in America today it is so important that this vision of the kingdom of heaven, this truer vision, is the vision that our congregation witnesses to by our space of unconditional welcome and that we model by our practices of worship and service.

According to St. Paul, our concern is not a Christian America, but to be Christians in America. If he says that we should in humility regard others as better than ourselves, then shouldn’t we regard non-Christians as better than ourselves? Should we not look to the interest of Muslims as the interest of the church? How can we say otherwise?

I’m not downplaying the Lordship of Christ. I’m not saying that all religions are finally the same. I’m not talking about what Jesus cannot do but what we may not do. I am not countering the vision of St. Paul that “at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, the glory of God the Father.” I’m talking about how in the meantime the Lord Jesus expects us to bear witness to his Lordship.

I close with this. I was at a conference of ministers where one of my colleagues stated in good faith that the model of Christian discipleship is servanthood. Then one of our black pastors stood up and said, “We in the black church have had enough of that. You can say that for yourselves from your place of privilege. But please don’t come to a black church and tell us all to be servants.”

Got it! I get that servanthood is a metaphor, just as kingdom is a metaphor, and as a metaphor servanthood it is not always appropriate. We are called to freedom, not slavery, and God is able to take the form of servanthood because God is absolutely free. I would not force the metaphor of servanthood on a people whose salvation needs to be experienced as freedom and dignity.

The point of the metaphor is love, self-giving love. Your freedom is for your loving others in their own interests. The culture of the kingdom expresses the character of the king from whom it extends. And what pours out of him is the love of God. Have this same love in you that is in Christ.

Copyright © 2017, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Friday, September 22, 2017

September 24, Proper 20, Space, Practice, Vision # 4: Welcome to the Wilderness

Exodus 16:2-15, Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45, Philippians 1:21-30, Matthew 20:1-16

Monday morning, I sat up in bed and I said to Melody, “Another week of trying to get people to do stuff. And they already have too much to do.” Am I complaining? I love my job, it’s my privilege to be your pastor, but privately I’m a constant complainer. If I act nice in public, under my breath I’m always grousing and griping. It is a trial for my wife. I went with her to Costco last week and as we came back out to the parking lot she said, “I’m never taking you here again.”

So in the parable, that would be me complaining about the landowner’s generosity as a case of unfairness. In Exodus, that would be me filing a complaint about our hunger in the wilderness. I take offense at suffering. That would be me who is challenged by  St. Paul in Philippians, that our suffering is a privilege, at least when it’s for Christ. And I suspect that challenges you as well.

In the parable, the joke is that what the vineyard workers complain about is grace. Not the principle of grace but the effect of grace. The principle of grace is that you get gifts from God you have not earned and do not merit. The effect of grace is that other people can get gifts from God that you don’t get. “Hey, yes you gave me enough, but they suffered less for it! This grace thing feels unfair.”

One of the difficult lessons of the Christian life is that God is not accountable to our human notions of fairness. That the world is unfair we learn to cope with from an early age. But when God feels unfair, well that’s like growing up with unfair parents: your brother got a better bike than you did, your troubles did not receive the same attention as your sister’s. It takes real faith to keep believing in God when the lives of other believers seem more blessed than your own.

This living by faith is in itself a kind of suffering, suffering as endurance, as enduring while not receiving. Having faith in a God who does not answer to your experience of fairness is a kind of suffering, the suffering you do for Christ, which St. Paul calls your privilege! St. Paul can be such a Calvinist!

Everybody knows that the ethical life is choosing for the right against the wrong, for what is fair against what isn’t fair. But what about when choosing for the right will cost you unfairly, or cost you things that other people get to keep? That too is a kind of suffering, and that too requires to live by faith, that the right thing is its own reward, that the cost is itself the benefit. You have to live by faith that love wins, because with love the cost is the same thing as the benefit.

It sounds glib when it comes from me. What do I know of real suffering? That I’ve been treated unfairly by the denomination that I love? First world problem. So don’t take it from me, take it from St. Paul, who knew of what he spoke. He wrote these words from prison. He had to spend his most productive years in prison, like Muhammad Ali, like Nelson Mandela, and his imprisonment was totally unfair. False incarceration. He was confined in conditions of isolation, and yet, from his soul he extended out across the empire a great space of unconditional welcome. His privilege.

Last week I spoke about the space of unconditional welcome in very glowing terms. This week the plot thickens, because that space does not exclude your suffering. The space of unconditional welcome can be a wilderness. A place of testing and temptation. A bare and empty space, that gives you no accouterments, no conveniences, no comforts and no furniture. No groceries. All cost and no benefits. And maybe no vision, no vision of the kingdom of heaven to encourage you, just the empty space with no conditions of comfort.

Into the wilderness God welcomes the Children of Israel, this god they do not know from Adam. The gods and goddesses of Egypt they understand, but not this new god who has forced them here. Is his palace on that legendary mountain where they have to go to meet him?

Whoever he is, they’re now his guests, in his realm, and as his guests they feel he is obliged to feed them. Or maybe they felt like they are the slaves of this god who bought them from the Egyptians at the price of blood, and so as his slaves they have the right to rations. In either case, it’s up to God to feed them. Their complaint seems to be legitimate. God does not contend the point.

What upsets Moses is the way they ask for it, the tone of their complaint, insulting God, and slandering the liberation God has won for them. Talking about their former enslavement as the good old days. Ingrates! Well, they’re hungry. And afraid. And traumatized by the violence of their liberation. They had not asked for freedom, only for relief. They have no experience at freedom, and freedom is scary. They don’t know what to expect from this god, and their slavery has trained them in distrust and resistance. They are passive-aggressive, untrusting, always acting victimized.

God designs their daily rations to be a testing, a proving, a training in obedience. Not the old obedience of slavery but the new obedience of freedom. The obedience of trust instead of the whip, by faith instead of force. You go out every morning to collect your food, but you get only enough for each day. If you keep it a second day it spoils, except what you collect on the sixth day, which will be twice as much and will not spoil for the Sabbath Day. “Give us this day our daily bread.”

Notice it’s not, Give me this day my daily bread, because no matter how much or little you collect, everybody has just enough. So too in the parable of the vineyard, every worker got the same pay no matter how long and hard they worked. They grumbled that the landowner made them equal! Socialism! What happens to initiative! Making everybody equal isn’t fair. Give me this day my daily bread! But the bread God gives us is to share. In the parable, it’s to share and share alike, but in Exodus it’s to share according to our need. In the wilderness God trains in communion.

This training in obedience is a training in receptivity, the receptivity to grace, because it’s grace that will get you through the wilderness. You need training in receiving grace. You resist receiving it even when you need it, so God trains you in receptivity, and for that God welcomes you into the wilderness. Are you in a wilderness in your life? How much baggage are you still depending on?

What was the wilderness in Philippi, what was the suffering of the Philippians? The effect of their baptisms was to make them undocumented aliens in their own land. Dreamers whose DACA status has been revoked. Worse yet, allegiance to the Lord Jesus was treason against the Lord Caesar. This was the threat they lived with every day. A constant low-grade suffering that might break out in violence and beatings at any time. Unfair indeed, because for Jesus’ sake they kept honoring Caesar far more than he deserved. Their freedom in Christ was worth it, the benefit was more than equal to the cost, but living by faith is its own kind of suffering, enduring, holding on and holding up.

The space of unconditional welcome can be a wilderness, and it’s God who welcomes you into it. And when you find yourself complaining, it’s precisely in your complaining that you must seek for God. You must look deeper into your wilderness to see God’s glory.

I’m not talking about the power of positive thinking. I’m not talking about turning mountains into goldmines and lemons into lemonade. I’m saying that what you are complaining about is what God is testing you in, your wilderness is your proving ground. “The flame shall not hurt you, I only design / your dross to consume and your gold to refine.” Your gold is your collection plate, your bowl for gathering manna, not your success but your receptivity to God’s grace within your life, God’s presence in your life. I can attest that this has been true for me, and I myself did not welcome it, it was painful and I was afraid and I complained to God, but it was true and good and hopeful, because what I was given was God’s self.

One last thought. When the space of unconditional welcome is a wilderness, we’re still called to be a community of Jesus, especially then. And that means that when you are in your suffering, it is the privilege of the rest of us in this community to suffer your complaining and make space in our lives for you, to welcome your emptiness into our lives. As unconditionally as we know how. We give you the gift of ourselves to go along with the gift of God’s own self, and sometimes the gift of ourselves may have to stand in for God when God feels absent or unfair.

You don’t have to earn this gift of ourselves from us, it is grace, and you don’t have to worry that it might cost us, because the cost is the same as the benefit, because it is love and that’s the way it is with love, when it’s the love of God that needs no benefit and spares no cost.

Copyright © 2017, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

September 17, Proper 19: Space, Practice, Vision #3: A Space of Unconditional Welcome

 Exodus 14:19-31, Psalm 114, Romans 14:1-12, Matthew 18:21-35

This is the third installment in my sermon series Space, Practice, Vision, in which we test the terms of our draft new mission statement: Old First is a community of Jesus Christ in Brooklyn offering a space of unconditional welcome, a practice of worship and service, and a vision of the Kingdom of Heaven.

This week: a community offering a space of unconditional welcome.

The first chapter of the Book of Genesis sings the song of God making space, space within the chaos of the ancient deep. Great space, safe space, for the tender flourishing of life. Space under the lofty ceiling of the firmament. Space between the waters for dry land to appear. Space for birds above and creeping things below. God began this work by God’s Spirit moving over the face of the primeval deep, the wind of God upon the waters.

God did something similar in the Exodus. The exodus of the Israelites through the Red Sea recapitulates Genesis. When Moses stretched out his hand, the wind of God blew over the waters and divided the sea to make dry land, between the walls of water on their right hand and their left. It was a long, thin space towards their escape. It was a great long hallway into freedom.

But the welcome in this space was not unconditional. The welcome for the Israelites was a trap for the Egyptians and the death of them. This is taken by Exodus as just and right, that life for one group means death for another, that some are in and some are out, and the walls of God’s design are there to protect us from our evil enemies.

Unconditional welcome is not natural. Animals don’t practice it, no nation practices it, even when it’s our ideal. Human communities don’t practice it. Our welcoming each other naturally is conditional. We welcome you if you do not threaten us and our young, if you do not threaten our comfort or our treasure, nor our allies with whom we have allegiances. In the realm of religion, we welcome you if you fit our holiness code (not that we ourselves ever measure up to it). Right now a group in the Reformed Church is working to keep our churches unwelcoming to Christians who are gay or lesbian.

What else is new. It’s the way of the world, but it’s not the kingdom of heaven. The death and resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ is the end of all exclusion, all separation, all distinction. His royal welcome is so lavish and total and unconditional that the church hardly believes it and rarely practices it. But the space of unconditional welcome is the earthly image of the vision of the kingdom of heaven.

Now let me tell you a story. Sixteen years ago yesterday, at the Flatbush church, I preached my candidating sermon to become your pastor. The search committee was there to hear me, including Lindsay, Peter, Jane, and Cecilia. It was the Sunday right after 9/11. I mention in passing that the lectionary texts that Sunday were miraculously relevant to the devastation of the World Trade Center.

That Friday we had driven here from Grand Rapids, Michigan, and we drove because all the flights were grounded. Rick Stazesky was driving, Melody up front, and me in the back seat working on my sermon. From the Tappan Zee Bridge we got our first sight of the smoke. Soon we saw fighter jets patrolling overhead and then military vehicles on the Triboro Bridge, and I broke down sobbing in the back. From the BQE you couldn’t take your eyes off the hideous column of smoke.

Rick drove us into Park Slope, and we saw our first good thing. The front doors of this church were open. People were sitting on the stoop and in the doorways and the narthex, with lighted candles all around. People were sitting in the sanctuary, some of them in groups. On the walls long sheets of newsprint were hanging and people had written their prayers on them. The prayers were from all different religions and some things written were against religion. No problem—the welcome was unconditional.

We learned that the sanctuary had been open all week. We learned that very soon after the airplanes hit, while the debris from the burning was raining down on Brooklyn, someone from this congregation had opened up the doors and started making quiet music. In the shadow of the terror, people came in, seeking refuge, seeking sanctuary, and here was sanctuary. Someone hung up the prayer sheets.

I’m not sure who it was, but it wasn’t the pastor, you didn’t have one then. The interim pastor was stuck out in New Jersey. Someone of the congregation had the vision of a space of unconditional welcome. And on that Friday, when Melody and I saw what we saw, we knew we wanted to come here.

Do you know that what you did that week changed the church’s reputation in the community? Before that we were regarded as the mighty fortress, deservedly or not. Did you know that only the center of the narthex was open, and the outer doors at either end, below the steeple and the porte-cochere, were sealed shut and never opened because both ends of the narthex were closed off for storage? That hallway there was also full of storage and cabinets that blocked the doors to the alley. A mighty fortress.

Since then we’ve gradually opened things up to make the space more welcoming. Decluttering, cleaning, opening windows, rebuilding windows, opening doors, removing pews, making room, making space. It is true and paradoxical that in such a great big building it takes constant work to offer space.

Just as in your community of Jesus it takes constant work to keep offering emotional, social, and spiritual space, constant re-imagining the vision. It is true and not paradoxical that in order to make this community a space of welcome you have to keep doing your own personal inner decluttering. Making room and space within yourself. Which brings us to our gospel lesson from Matthew 18.

The parable of the king and the two slaves has a comic ending. Melody says to think of the king as Tony Soprano and the first slave as one of his capos who owes him money. Tony lets him. Then Tony finds out the capo he let off easy won’t let off an underling for far less dough, and Tony takes that as disrespect. So he has the capo tortured, to teach him some respect.

The point is that you forgive the sins of other people against you if only out of respect for God. If you don’t forgive other people, you are disrespecting God. The comic point of Jesus here is that you forgive the sins of others finally not because you yourself are such a saint, but because you fear God! Or at least show some respect for God and what God has done for you! Who do you think you are, not to forgive? Hasn’t God forgiven you seventy-seven times?

Think of the practice of forgiving sins as your internal decluttering. You make yourself free of that thing they did you, and that insult is no obstacle, and this unfairness is no longer in the way. You just don’t want that on you any more, what they did to you.

Now if what they did to you was hurtful injury, and the damage remains and the pain keeps coming back, you’re going to have to forgive them for the same sin every day for years. If they can’t change, you make space between you and even disconnect from them altogether in order to be able to forgive them. Otherwise you’ll be so busy having to forgive their every new sin that you won’t have space in your life to welcome other people who really need you.

The practice of welcoming is taught by the Epistle to the Romans. St. Paul tells the community of Jesus to offer room within it for people who practice their religion with opposing practices. If you abstain, you abstain to the Lord. If you eat, you eat to the Lord. Here too it’s a matter of respect to the Lord.

And if the other person’s religious practice is hurtful or racist or homophobic, then you invoke last week’s section of Matthew 18, when Jesus called us to try reconciliation first, and if that doesn’t work, to bring it to the church. You take it to Tony Soprano. Which is why we have the Board of Elders, our collective mob boss, for spiritual muscle and respect. It’s hard, it’s hard to do both, to have a community which is a real community and also to offer unconditional welcome. It isn’t natural, which may be why more churches don’t do it, but the vision is worth keeping ever before us, because it’s the vision of the kingdom of heaven.

Here’s how we’re going to keep it before us: with a symbol and a story. The great big symbol is our sanctuary, a living symbol, an active symbol that actually is what it symbolizes. You are restoring it for mission, to give back to the public community its great, safe space of unconditional welcome. It is for you and for your worship, but no less is it for people who are not you, but who are God’s.

And the story is what you did here sixteen years ago, before I came. You need to tell that story every year to be reminded of the mission that God has given you. You need to tell that story as a love story, the tale of how someone saw how to express the love of God for all the people of the world.

Copyright © 2017 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Friday, September 08, 2017

September 10, Proper 18: Space, Practice, Vision #2: A Practice of Worship and Service

Exodus 12:1-14, Psalm 149, Romans 13:8-14, Matthew 18:15-20

This is the second in my sermon series in which we test the terms of our draft new mission statement:  Old First is a community of Jesus Christ in Brooklyn offering a space of unconditional welcome, a practice of worship and service, and a vision of the Kingdom of Heaven. This week: "a community offering a practice of worship and service."

The very first practice of worship in the Bible is the Passover. The Passover was the first regular sacrifice that God instituted, the first communal meal to be repeated as a ritual. And every year Jews still celebrate the drama of their liberation, the Feast of Freedom, Pesach. We Christians celebrate a derivation of it every week. Passover is one of the two sources that the Lord Jesus blended to give us holy communion, also a supper of the lamb.

At sundown they slaughtered their lambs, as one, the very first costly thing that this collection of slaves ever freely did together. Then in common they stayed inside their homes to roast their lambs. In common they painted their doorposts and lintels with the blood of their lambs, and the blood was the means to distinguish them from the Egyptians around them, the only means.

The blood of the lamb is what spared them from the wrath of God upon the Egyptians and their gods and from the judgment of God upon their oppressors. They were spared, they were saved, not by their own revolt or war of liberation, but by believing in common the promise of the lamb. The meal is what made them a holy communion, and eating the meal is what nourished them for their first steps into freedom.

The Passover is wonderful and horrible. We are rightly horrified that God should have slaughtered all those Egyptian children, no matter how many Hebrew children the Egyptians themselves had killed. Two wrongs don’t make a right even for God. Of course, American history reminds us that no nation has ever let its slaves go free without bloodshed. And in ancient times, people just accepted that gods could act like this. But isn’t this God supposedly different, isn’t this God supposed to be moral?

We have to remember that Old Testament stories are not about morality. They’re not about justifying the good and condemning the bad. They’re rather about God’s election and God’s judgment — God’s election of a humble people, in this case Israel, and God’s judgment on a people of pride and prejudice, in this case Egypt.

So when we are troubled by questions about God’s jealousy and wrath, the Passover story does not address these questions; they are answered for us only in the distance, in the Passover of Jesus and his blood upon the post and lintel of the cross. Here in Exodus, election and judgment are displayed in naked conflict with the world. For us this conflict is only resolved in Christ, in whom God enters the world and takes the judgment and the wrath upon himself.

So the Passover story leaves you up in the air with morality unresolved, and you can come down to land only with the morality of Jesus. To read this wonderful and horrible story you have to be like an angel who passes over the violence, because on the doorposts of history you have haltingly spread the blood of Christ, the lamb of God. Agnus dei, qui tolles peccata mundi, miserere nobis. “O Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.”

But that first night, in fearful obedience to God, that night the tribes became a communion, the rabble became a congregation, the slaves became a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. This is the same transformation that we practice every week in worship too. We enter the room as individuals, open for something. We listen to God’s messages of judgment and love, we eat the sacred meal that celebrates our freedom, and we are transformed thereby into a communion of the lamb.

Maybe you did not ask to be transformed. You just wanted to add some God into your life. But the effect of this practice of worship is gradually to transform your whole view of the world—what you desire, what you value, what you long for. In a word, your culture. Instead of the world of the flesh on its own terms, even the best of the world on its own terms, you enter the culture of the Kingdom of Heaven, with different kinds of power, a different sort of freedom, and a different set of benefits.

The transformation was traumatic for Israel, as the later stories show. What God gave them they had not asked for nor planned for. They had not asked for freedom, just for some relief. They had not asked to leave their homes in Egypt, and they don’t know where they’re going. This God of Moses — they don’t know this God from Adam. After centuries of absence he suddenly remembers them, and says he’s on their side, and by signs and wonders he gives them what they had not asked for. And if this God did this to the Egyptians tonight, who knew what this God might do to them next week?

Even to escape the slaughter of the firstborn must have been traumatic. The wailing in Egypt outside their houses. They would have suffered the same fate as the Egyptians if not for believing the strange instructions. You see how it works: To survive the judgment you must believe in the judgment. If you trust the Word of this God, the judgment of this God frees you instead of punishing you. For them it was freedom from slavery in Egypt. In your case it’s freedom from the guilt and bondage of your sin. Without even waiting for you to confess your sins, God unexpectedly and gratuitously passes over them. You are free.

I did not say freedom from sin, not yet in this life. But freedom from the guilt and therefore from the bondage of your sin, and that’s the second practice after worship, the second practice of the Christian life, the practice of forgiving sins. Forgiving our own sins, which we can do appropriately by accepting God’s forgiveness and then learning to confess our sin. And forgiving the sins of others, the ones they do against us, and learning to do this appropriately and with justice and good mental health.

In our gospel lesson the Lord Jesus calls it the loosening of sin, from loosening the bonds of bondage.  It’s a kind of freedom and also a kind of space, it’s your giving room to other sinners. It is a service that you offer. And it’s one part of offering a space of unconditional welcome. It’s a matter of practicing the roomy and spacious freedom of the culture of the kingdom of heaven, the culture of the dawn, the culture that you learn in worship, instead of the confining culture of the world, of darkness, of bondage, of punishment, of payback, of cause and effect.

Consider the method Our Lord lays out for us in Matthew 18, how you deal with an offense against you by someone also in the church. In the old culture you rightly take offense, and you complain to your allies and they owe loyalty against the offender. We do this all the time. It is being bound to the offense. In the new culture, you loosen the grip of the offense on you. You make space for yourself and for the offender. You go to the offender first, and you follow the steps to work it through. 

Now in the end you might not achieve your hoped-for reconciliation, but already you’ve invested in the other person, and so you have implicitly begun the process of forgiveness already in yourself, and that means you are acting in your freedom. The method has its limitations when your offender is sick in the head or malicious or violent. And even at best the method is challenging, so you learn to just mostly not get offended. You keep raising the threshold of offense. You pass over their offenses against you. Or in the language of our epistle to the Romans, you owe no one anything. And then you’re really free.

If they don’t want to reconcile, you disconnect a bit, you give them space. You treat them as "a Gentile and a tax-collector." Now Jesus must have said this with a grin, because it was Gentiles and tax-collectors that he was always eating with and drinking with. When Jesus made a space, it was still always unconditional welcome. Now if I’m not as successfully forgiving as Jesus was, please don’t judge me, and I won’t judge you. But the point is clear: in the culture of the world, sin compels you and it compels your response to the sins of others. In the new culture, sin is there, sins exist, but they lose their power, they roar but they are in a cage. In the culture of freedom, sins are no longer occasions for compulsion but opportunities for the exercise of grace.

The space of unconditional welcome does not mean we will never offend each other, but rather that we are not bound by our offenses. We transform the culture of bondage to the culture of freedom, and we do this by our practices of worship and service. The freedom is owing no one anything, except to love one other. This is what you want. This is why you are here today. You came to worship to receive God’s love, the learn the culture of God’s love, and to share God’s love for all the world.

Copyright © 2017 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.