Thursday, June 21, 2018

June 24: Goliath and the Gale

1 Samuel 17:1a, 4-11, 19-23, 32-49, Psalm 9:9-20, 2 Corinthians 6:1-13, Mark 4:35-41

Don’t get the gospel story wrong. The disciples woke up Jesus not with a request but with a reprimand. What they expected was not a miracle but that he show some interest. “Start bailing, you lubber!” And after his miracle they were even more afraid! They went from the ordinary fear of the dangerous chaos of nature to their terror at the power of Jesus’ command. In contrast is the calm—the sudden calming of the sea, and the calm of Jesus all throughout.

Jesus has done what only God can do. In Psalm 107 and Psalm 148, God commands the wind and waves. The gods of the pagans also did such things, and took on human form, so if the disciples had been pagans they would have been glad and grateful and offered sacrifices to this deity among them. But they don’t. They are Jews, for whom there is one God, and this One God never takes on human form, so nothing here computes. They can’t make sense of it. The sudden and vast disparity between all they’d ever known and what’s now before them is the deep cause of their terror. Jesus is calm, but he stands in their boat like a black hole in their universe.

Yet he is a human being. For all his impossible extra identity, he is a man who is living by his faith. So Jesus trusts that the God who got Noah through the flood, and Moses through the Red Sea, will protect him enough for him to see the mission through that God had given him.

Does that mean that you are supposed to be fearless if you follow Jesus? Fearless like David against Goliath? Was St. Paul fearless in his endurance of afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, and hunger? If you fear such things, does that mean your faith is weak? I don’t believe so, but you might think that from what Jesus says, according to our translation: “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” 

We hear that as a reprimand. And maybe it is, but it’s also not a good translation. He actually says this: “Why are you timid, do you not yet have faith?” You can make the Greek words even stronger: “Why are you cowarding, why are you craven, not yet have you faith?” It’s not about fear but the effect of fear.

It’s more of a challenge than a reprimand, because of the “not yet have you faith?” This “not yet” will carry through Mark’s Gospel: when the disciples will see him walk on water they will be terrified, when all three times that Jesus predicts his death and resurrection they will be afraid of it, when he gets transfigured on the mountain they will be terrified, and finally on Easter morning, when the women see the empty tomb and get the message from the angel they depart in fear. Still not yet?

We live at this boundary between the present and the promise. What’s to come and what is now. The promise is the not-yet that we hope for and keep trying to believe in.

Now, it’s natural for us to try to extrapolate the promise from the present, to assume that we can calculate the promise from what we know of the present. This of course is what human beings do all the time. We Homo sapiens are the animals who are not contented with the present. We set goals, we calculate risk. We want to manage what we’re reasonably afraid of.

But the promises of God so often contradict our calculations from the present that we are expert in. And to believe those promises requires us to surrender our calculations and reverse and re-imagine the present in terms of the promises of God. Which makes the present unstable, and loose, and the disjunction of the promises may well make us cower.

Of course the armies of the Israelites were terrified of Goliath. Standing there he represented the military doctrines of Overwhelming Force and Shock and Awe. The Israelite soldiers had experience in war. The method of war between them and the Philistines was single combats, successive single combats side by side. They had the experience to calculate their individual chances against a giant ten feet tall hefting a spearhead 150 pounds. It’s not just his size but the reach of his thrust. But the expert extrapolations of both sides did not reckon on those five smooth stones in the wadi—how big do you think? Is this one maybe too big? Smaller! Such a contradiction in how you view the world. So David could say to the Israelite soldiers, "Why are you cowering, do you not yet have faith?"

Jesus never says there’s nothing to be afraid of. To fear things is inevitable to biological life. As all species do, we rank what we’re afraid of in order to make our choices. Because of our special capacity for reason and imagination, and because we are fallen, our fears are easily manipulated. We have been seeing this from the White House. Big men do it, Trump and Putin and Kim Jong Un and Orban and Erdogan and Chávez and Maduro, and the examples of Hungary, Turkey, and Venezuela show how quickly how much national damage the manipulation of fear can cause.

These big men are the Goliaths that make God’s people cower. Even with the reversal of the child separation policy, we’ve still got a zero tolerance policy on our borders, and that’s supported in the main by Christians. And St. Paul says, “Open wide your hearts!” The opposite of fear. To open wide your hearts to little children taken from their parents is merely animal. To open wide your hearts to refugees from violence is only decent. What’s Christian is to open wide your hearts as a categorical imperative without regard for protecting our economy.

For Christians to open our hearts is not a function of sharing our prosperity and blessing. For St. Paul it comes precisely from living at the fearful boundary, when dying and yet alive, when punished but not yet killed, when sorrowful and rejoicing, when poor and making others rich, when having nothing and possessing everything, just living at this disjunction between the present and promise is how we open up our hearts.

Because the power of God on our behalf is not to protect our prosperity, or even to give us a leg up on safety, but to protect our mission, to protect us living towards God’s promises, because to live in God’s promises will get you in trouble with the world, whether from the gales or the goliaths, whether from just the chaos of nature or the malice of the human powers of the world.

To believe God’s promises is a hard obedience. Faith feels fear, and follows anyway, because of whose word is calling us. What we count on is not our experience, but the God who calls us through it. Not on our accumulated expertise, but on the teaching of this Teacher who before his incarnation was the Word of God who in the beginning commanded the winds to blow and for eons told the waters to flow through that wadi and polish those five stones.

I invite you to believe that what Jesus teaches, though it may be disputed by big men, is in tune with the deepest structures of the universe. Whatever Jesus calls you to today makes the best sense of the world the way it really is, even if counters the current public certainties. I invite you to believe that this voice of this teacher is the voice of the creator, and therefore I invite you to cultivate calmness. This story is both a comfort and a challenge to the church. It’s not a proof, but it is an invitation.

You accept the invitation when you are here today, you are here because you want to live your life with ideals, you don’t want to succumb to opposition and resistance, whether evil or natural. You want your allegiance to challenge you, you want to do the right thing even when it’s the hard thing, you understand the right of sacrifice, and you want some help and guidance to live this way.

So here’s my take-home for today: The most important obedience for Christians is not in what you do but in what you trust God for. Your most important obedience is not in what you do but in what you trust God for. Behind the promises is God’s faithfulness, and the energy of God’s faithfulness is God’s love. What drove St. Paul to go through hell and high water was his passion to share this truth of such a loving and gracious God. And this same truth is what allowed the Lord Jesus to sleep in the boat. The opposite of fear isn’t courage, it’s love.

Here’s where the Gospel contradicts the glories of human literature and manly expertise: the opposite of fear is not courage, but love! Perfect love casts out fear. So you know that deep fear in your life? You know what it’s for? Your fear is your slingshot, for the small stone of your faith, that you aim at the heart of God. This God has no armor, your stone breaks God’s heart, and what pours out is God’s love for you.

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

Thursday, June 07, 2018

June 10, Proper 5: "I Believed, and so I Spoke" (for Confirmation)

1 Samuel 8:4-20, 11:14-15, Psalm 138, 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1, Mark 3:20-35

So much for Jesus and family values. His brothers and sisters will have been embarrassed, and his mother effectively dishonored. Shouldn’t he honor his mother as a categorical imperative, wouldn’t that be doing the will of God, as required by the fifth commandment?

Once again the Lord Jesus pushes so hard against established morality that he threatens to break it. What if our young confirmands today, with their mothers here to support them, decided to follow Jesus by saying, “Anyone of you here today is as much to us as our mothers are!”

Of course they won’t have to make that choice today, our confirmands. Soon enough they will be testing their family values and even threatening them. They have to, they’re teenagers, that’s their job. But today they’re doing the opposite, they are confirming something their families valued, and that is baptism. Everyone of them was baptized as a child. Everyone of them, without having been consulted by their parents, was brought to the church to be baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. And now everyone of them has chosen to confirm that baptism.

Our confirmation class has been meeting on Sunday afternoons since January. We used a new curriculum called Confirm, not Conform. The idea is that we all have many beliefs, quite apart from religion, and we mostly conform to the prevailing beliefs around us. As one of the confirmands put it, “Yeah, I believe most of the Park-Slope things to believe.” One of them remarked that conforming is not always bad, and often necessary. But we agreed that it is good to examine your beliefs and choose which ones to confirm, and be responsible for them.

So we reviewed the usual Park-Slope beliefs, and we reviewed the beliefs in the Apostles Creed. We learned about the Bible, and prayer, we acted out some church history on how the creeds developed, we looked at the beliefs of other religions, and then we looked at the Apostles Creed again. My goal was not church membership, but simply to have them consider Christianity well enough for them each to be able to decide whether to state in public, Yes, I am a Christian—or maybe not!

For the outcome of the class I gave them three choices: 1st, You can say thank you very much and walk away with no regrets. 2nd, You can come before the church and declare you are a Christian. 3rd, You can come before the church, declare you are a Christian, and be confirmed by the church. Four weeks ago they decided.

None chose to walk away. Two of them chose to declare that they are Christians, but reserving confirmation for later as Roman Catholics in their family heritage. One of those two could not be here today. Five chose confirmation. All seven were thoughtful about this and took it seriously, although as they gelled into a group I sometimes lost control of the class and once they had me laughing so hard we got off the rails. All seven have my esteem and admiration.

In coming years they may change their choices. That’s fine. I gave them no obligation to come to church. That doesn’t make it less real what they are doing today. We human beings are always making choices that we cannot see all the outcomes of. What I want for these young people is a first experience in a life-long task, which is to explore where in your own life you intersect with God. Where does God meet you, and how do you meet God? How do you come to terms with God, for now, at least? If you met Jesus on the road, would you want to hug him, or wrestle him? They’re close. Or maybe kill him, as the Lutheran poet Johann Heermann suggested we all have done!

Some years ago my wife Melody had a book with this title: If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him. That’s derived from a classic Zen Buddhist koan. It’s remarkable how close the Lord Jesus comes to certain forms of Buddhism. His parables can be like koans. Especially in St. Mark he speaks in riddles and puzzles and paradox. Twice he does it in our Gospel lesson today: about his mother and sisters and brothers, and about how if he’s empowered by Satan then he’s defeating Satan. Why does he speak this way? Why isn’t he more accommodating, why doesn’t he meet them half-way?

He keeps putting off balance those who judge him, whether his family or the authorities. They want order and law and clear, definable choices. They take him either as out of his mind or as defiant and needing to be stopped. He will not negotiate, not with the authorities nor his family. He keeps things in tension. He defies their judgment and his tension forces them to expose themselves and judge themselves. But his way is the way of liberation, and, if you can see it, it’s the way of grace.

These themes of grace and judgment and tension and defiance are apparent in our first reading, about the prophet Samuel. He defiantly tells the people, No, you shall not have a king! You are to be distinct among the nations, with everybody equal, no upper class, no royalty, your only king is God. And then God is in tension with his own prophet: You’re right, they’re wrong, but let them have their king. I will choose for them a king.

The people get their choice, and some kings will be good, but most of their kings were disasters and they led the nation into destruction and exile. Were they asking for it? We make our choices in the tension of the moment and we cannot see all the outcomes. In their choice the people judge themselves as rejecting God, but in the long haul God turns their rejection into grace. God defies their defiance. God gives them the House and Lineage of  David, from which will come the Messiah, the savior of the world, the outcome they don’t see. In the judgment is the grace.

Your choices are rarely neat and clean. You’re usually managing one paradox or another, and you’re choosing your way through puzzles and dilemmas. You’re often choosing for one thing inside another thing, and your reasons may be complex and even contradictory. How heavy can be the consequences of a choice you lightly made. How much weight do your choices have? How much certainty can you assume, and do you not make many choices simply on faith, or hope, or love?

In the next few years these young people will be making a whole number of choices that will have enormous outcomes for the rest of their lives. They will have to make judgments, they will have to judge other people, and they will be judged themselves. Some of their choices will be in tension with the world, with those in authority and even their families. At times they may have to be defiant in their choosing. Good. That’s precisely where they might meet God again.

I am inviting you to believe that they are not cast adrift in this or on their own. The meaning of the Second Reading, the epistle, is difficult to scan, as St. Paul seems to have learned his grammar from Kierkegaard or Hegel, while his images are often word plays in disguise. The Hebrew word for “glory” derives from the word for “heavy,” so he invents the phrase, “the weight of glory.” Maybe he learned his science from Einstein. We think that something spiritual cannot be heavy because it has no mass, but for St. Paul, the glory of God has enormous gravity. And that weight of glory that God has for us gives the stability to all our flimsy choices. God’s faithfulness hidden in our freedom.

These young people are still light on their feet, they are appropriately light-hearted, and rightly they lightly made their choices to declare their faith. The heaviness is the faithfulness of God to them, more than they yet can know, the gravity is the grace of God, more than they need of now before the afflictions come and the ultimate, inescapable wasting away, the weight is the glory of God within them daily renewing their inner nature into a human nature with the capacity for the outcomes of eternity. We don’t know what that mostly means, but the witnesses of the last 2000 years invite us to believe it along with them.

Seven more witnesses. They believe, and today they speak. Just a few words, key words, “I” and “do.” I do. Words to say in public rarely because they are weighty. I do believe. I do have questions, I do reserve the right to keep looking and keep exploring, but I do believe, and so I speak. And the rest of you are witnesses of the witnesses. Love them while you can. The love of God for them is eternal. In the words of the Psalm: The Lord will make good his purpose for them, O Lord, your love endures forever, abandon not the work of your hands. Believe it, the Lord God loves them forever.

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

Friday, June 01, 2018

June 3, Proper 4, A Clay Jar and a Withered Hand

1 Samuel 3:1-20, Psalm 139, 2 Corinthians 4:5-12, Mark 2:23–3:6

The story of Samuel takes place a couple centuries after Moses. There was no king yet, no Jerusalem yet, no temple yet. The only king was God, and the only jointly recognized authority was the high priest in Shiloh, at the tabernacle, the seat of God’s presence.

The tabernacle was the large sacred tent surviving from the time of Moses. The tent was three layers thick, enclosing two windowless chambers, the innermost one containing the Ark of the Covenant. Outside the tent was a sacred open space enclosed by a fabric fence, and here the worshipers could come with their offered animals for the priests to sacrifice and cook upon the altar, which then the people ate as dinners in the house of God, Lord’s suppers, so to speak.

In this tabernacle the boy Samuel was ministering. He lived there, he was on permanent loan by his parents, Hannah and Elkanah. What all did he do? Open the curtains in the morning, draw them at night, fetch firewood for the altars, water for the basins, clean up after the worshipers, clean up after the priests? Get Eli his breakfast, run errands for Eli’s sons, even do some of the priestly duties of Eli’s sons, when they could not be bothered?

How old was he—ten, twelve, eight? Was Eli kindly to him, courteous and patient, yet giving him responsibility, making him feel grown up? Did Eli love him, this special boy, so faithful, devoted, unlike his own two sons, such disappointments, who embezzled from the offerings and slept with the worshipers. Did Samuel comfort Eli’s disappointment? How much of this did Samuel feel, only half aware of, noticing but not yet judging, not yet understanding, still quietly accepting without getting corrupted himself, yet maybe beginning to sense that something wasn’t right?

What was it like for Samuel, not to live with his mother, not to play with other kids? What was it like to sleep alone, deep inside the tabernacle, in the Holy of Holies, beside the Ark of the Covenant, at the epicenter of God’s presence? How did he sleep  in such a spooky place, in such darkness? Where did he keep his teddy bear? The place was so holy that, officially, no one but Eli was allowed to go in there, and Eli only once a year, but Eli was easy-going, and indulgent, and Samuel was trustworthy, so there he slept.

Why did Eli have him sleep there? Was it Eli’s characteristically passive way of preventing his sons from using that place for their own devices and desires? Or was it said that someone had to tend the oil lamp that burned in the outer room? The darkness is deep and smothering, but in the darkness some small light has to shine, or we have lost all hope. Was Samuel that little light in Eli’s darkening life? This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.

Eli’s life was darkening, he was getting blind, all he could see were memories. He represented Israel. For all they worshiped God, for all they prayed, they never heard God’s voice. Was God silent, or were they all deaf, were they blind? Had they closed their minds to what God had already said? Did they even want to hear God speak, expecting not to like what God would say?

But now God has a new thing to say, and God has chosen an instrument, a vessel for the treasure of God’s word—this boy, this innocent boy, the fruit of his mother’s tough faith, the outcome of his mother’s suffering and her wrestling with God. Maybe he dreams of her when he sleeps. O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You search out my path and my lying down. Whither shall I go from your spirit, or whither shall I flee from your presence? If I say, “Let only darkness cover me, and the light about me be night,” even the darkness is not dark to you, the night is as bright as the day; for darkness is as light to you.

In the darkness a voice sounds. From just above the Ark of the Covenant, from between the statues of the cherubim, from the Mercy Seat the Spirit speaks. God calls him by his name. In the darkness sounds the voice, “Sh’muel, Sh’muel, Samuel, Samuel.” “Here I am, hineini.” How eager is this boy to hear his name, to know that he is wanted. He gets up quickly and he runs out of the dark tent through the courtyard, under the starlight, to Eli’s tent.

A minute later he comes back, a bit confused, maybe embarrassed, back into the spooky place that he’s accepted as his place. Two more times it happens. The fourth time, having been instructed by Eli, he offers up himself, he makes himself an offering, a living sacrifice, a vessel. The Lord stands there, and speaks to him, who, still a child, suddenly becomes a prophet, suddenly intimate with God, exceptionally so, God inside him, and alone. He reminds me of the Virgin Mary here.

Into this virgin vessel the Lord pours in a bitter wine. It is a painful message that this boy must bear, a message of judgment on Eli. Why didn’t God tell Eli directly, why make it come through the boy? Of course he can’t sleep anymore. What’s in his mind as he waits for the morning? Suddenly it’s a different world. Suddenly he learns the dark night of the soul, and he wants it to be over, he wants the morning to come. But he also fears its coming, from what he’ll have to tell Eli.

Eli draws the message out of him, and Eli takes it graciously, he accepts it from the Lord, almost passively. That’s in character, for Eli is accepting and easy-going to a fault. We feel bad for him, this gentle, tragic figure, the story allows us our sympathy. But we know he failed in his responsibility, he indulged his sons and their corruption, to the injury of the people who looked up to him.

Yes, we are only clay jars; we are not angels, we are not golden spirits of light, we are fragile human bodies, with warts and cracks and weaknesses, we are but earthen vessels. This is no excuse for immorality or meanness, or selfishness or corruption, as with Eli’s sons, nor indulgence of these things or passivity in the face of them, as with Eli. Especially among God’s chosen leaders, for what they do has such effect upon the ordinary people, especially the weak ones and the needy. Fragile earthiness is one thing, but corruption is another. Yes, we are “afflicted, and perplexed, and persecuted, and struck down,” but that’s not irresponsibility, nor a license for disobedience and ungodliness.

Rather, it’s in the midst of your brokenness that you are called to prophesy, and why God permits these things is for your prophecy. I spoke of this a few months ago, that you all are called to prophecy, and though prophecy is familiar as speaking truth to power, for most of you it’s more mundane, it’s telling the truth about yourself, it’s telling the truth about yourself that you can’t know from yourself unless you learn it from God, and then to share with others that truth about your experience and even your suffering, your story that you have learned from God.

You are but a clay jar, but you hold treasure. Your breakable body bears the death and the life of Christ. Learn it. Discern God’s work within you, see God’s faithfulness inside you. Rightly interpret your own life, to do which is prophecy, that says, though I am afflicted, I am not crushed. Learning this interpretation is self-fulfilling, for when you interpret your life as within the kingdom of God, then, whenever you get perplexed, you are not driven to despair. And when you get persecuted, it’s because you are in it with Christ, so the truth is you are not forsaken. And because you are in Christ, and Christ is God, then when you are struck down, it is God who is being struck down in you, God’s power is perfected in your weakness, God’s treasure in your earthen vessel, and you will not be destroyed.

I want you to think of obedience as a kind of prophecy and prophecy as the Christian approach to obedience. We think of obedience as toeing the line, not breaking rules, chain-of-command and all that. But think of obedience as creative and future-directed, acting according to the hope that is in you.

In the gospel, in the synagogue, Jesus broke the rules, though he did not violate the Torah. He didn’t work on the Sabbath day, he didn’t lift a finger, he just spoke to the man with the withered hand. He said, “Come up here.” And the man who for the shame of his disfigurement was sitting in the back, obeyed the call and cancelled his shame by coming up front.

That he was able to do, but he was not able to do the next thing Jesus told him to do, to stretch out his hand, precisely not! But in that same obedience he did what he was not able to do, and he healed himself in his obedience. His obedience was to act upon his own long desire and broken hope. His prophetic obedience triggered the plotting for the death of Jesus, but for Jesus it was why he came, his death for life in you, himself to be the self-sacrificing love of God for broken and longing people, earthen vessels, just like us.

Copyright © 2018 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Friday, May 25, 2018

May 25, Holy Trinity: The Prophets, the Dragons, and the Trinity

Isaiah 6:1-8, Psalm 29, Romans 8:12-17, John 3:1-17

Today is the Sunday of the Holy Trinity. That means we are now in what’s called Ordinary Time. Ordinary Time means time with no liturgical season in it. From now till Advent there are no big Christian holidays.

We have two liturgical seasons: the minor season is the six weeks of Christmas, from Advent to Epiphany, and the major season is the fourteen weeks of Easter, from Lent through Pentecost. The seasons are built around the holidays that mark the major events in the life of Christ. But there won’t be any such holidays for thirty-odd weeks now, and we call this Ordinary Time.

During those two seasons we watch God expose God’s self as Son and Father and Spirit: first as the infant in the manger, then at Jesus’ baptism, with the Father’s voice from heaven and the Spirit as a dove descending, and so on to the cross and the resurrection and the ascension and the Spirit as a fire descending on the disciples. Today we put God back together again as One God. In the words of our collect, one of my favorites: “O God, you have given to us your servants grace (in these two seasons) to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity, in the power of your divine Majesty (in Ordinary Time) to worship the Unity.”

The doctrine of the Trinity is not an easy one. On Monday I told my wife Melody that I was burdened by having to preach on it, and she said, “The best minds have written about it for two thousand years, so just tell the people to look it up.” How can One God be three persons? That’s the usual question in modern times. But in the earliest centuries the onus was the other way around: How can these three divine persons be the One God?

Nowadays we assume the Unity and try to understand the Trinity. In the early days they assumed the Trinity and tried to understand the Unity. It took the first four centuries for the church to work it out, and that was mostly in terms of saying, “No, not that. Not that either. Only this. Words fall short, that’s enough, don’t say more.”

The best way to know the Trinity is not in theory but in worship. It was at worship that Isaiah had his profound experience. He was in the Temple. Suddenly the unseeable was seeable to him, he was seeing into heaven. It’s not that he left the earth for heaven, because the earthly altar was still there, but rather the heaven that is the vast unseeable reality enveloping the small arena of our physical sensation was suddenly opened to him. The room that he is standing in is vast, everything is immense, and the ceiling is out of sight. It’s not that heaven is far away, it’s that the scale of things on earth is so small compared to it.

He saw the Lord, high and lofty, and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Let’s imagine from Isaiah’s report what he experienced. Shock, bewildering displacement, maybe dizziness, he’s craning his neck up into this vast space—at the sight of the Lord God, whose figure he dares not describe to us. Neither does he describe the seraphim beyond their wings. Are their faces human, or are they dragons? The sight is too great, the light too strong, so he covers his eyes, as do the seraphim, taking only glances. He covers his ears from the thundering of their voices, so loud it shakes the structure of the temple. The temple fills with smoke, and it burns his eyes and it’s hard to breathe.

“Woe is me, I am undone.” He confesses his unclean lips, and his people’s unclean lips, the filth of their speech and the corruption of their praise. Then the seraph touches his lips with the burning coal, and the fire of judgment is the heat that purifies, and he can answer, “Hineini, here I am. Send me.” If I am forgiven, then let me serve you.

Was this a real experience, or was it only a vision? Did Isaiah actually look on God? Which Moses was not allowed to do? John Calvin raises the question why it should be deadly to look on God, considering that the worship of God is the chief end of humankind, and also considering that God is the source of life, so why should the source of life be a cause of death? His answer is that the problem is not our human nature itself but the corrupt condition of our human nature.

Take this metaphor: If we are pure, the light of God’s presence will enter into us and light us up from the inside like the seraphim, or like Jesus himself at his Transfiguration. But our sins fill us with impurities that resist the light and heat up and ignite, and that burning would destroy us. Depending on our condition, the light of God’s grace is simultaneously the fire of God’s judgment.

But with the burning coal upon the lips of Isaiah we notice that the judgment can also be the purification. Is the difference because of Isaiah’s confession? He confessed his condition and God gave him the smaller fire of a purification he could handle. This was God’s purpose, the purpose of this experience was for his commission, his mission to relay a message to the kingdom of Judah, the Kingdom of God on earth. That message is not included in our lection, but it was a daunting one, of condemnation and disaster, and to give that terrible message the prophet will need to be inspired.

So where is the Trinity in all of this? Some theologians argued that the Trinity is in the three-fold cry of Holy, Holy, Holy. To this John Calvin says, Not really. And I don’t think Isaiah ever saw God in three persons. But many years later, the Lord Jesus saw himself in this vision. From his youth he heard it read out in the synagogue, and he will have meditated upon it in those quiet years before his coming out. He saw himself as a prophet, a messenger, a servant. But also as a Son, the Son of God, so when the Father said, “Who will go for us?” the Son said, “Hineini, here I am, send me!”

Jesus is the messenger sent from heaven with a message of judgment, but with a difference: the Son of God takes the judgment on himself. His judgment was the grace and reconciliation. As he says to Nicodemus, “[I] came not to condemn the world but that through [me] the world might be rescued.” 

The Son of Man was lifted up on the cross “like the serpent (seraph) that Moses lifted up on the pole, so that everyone who believes in him might be rescued.” His Spirit is the fiery burning coal who purifies our uncleanness, and we may present ourselves to God in confidence and joy, "Hineinu, here we are, send us."

St. Paul takes it further in Romans 8, almost that we are brought into the Trinity. He says that not only are we rescued to be God’s servants, even more we are adopted as God’s children. The Son of God goes as a servant so that the servants may be sons and daughters of God, and if sons and daughters, then heirs along with him. And then, through all our suffering, to keep us inspired till that great day when we come to our inheritance, we have the early inheritance of the Holy Spirit, that Spirit who is in the Son of God himself eternally among the Holy Trinity. And on that great day will be the great celestial banquet, “the feast of love of which we shall partake when his Kingdom has fully come, when with unveiled face we shall behold him, made like unto him in his glory,” and we see God face to face.

If you want a take-home, then this is why we do Holy Communion every week. Because the high point of the service is not the sermon, but the Sanctus, the Holy, Holy, Holy, that we sing with the angels every week. And then we eat the bread and raise the cup as a foretaste of that great celestial banquet of which God is the host, and also to celebrate our commission to feed the hungry and share the message and offer a vast and welcoming space of sanctuary and hospitality. You are adopted by God not only to receive God’s love but also to share that love with all your fellow sufferers within the world. Your worship is for your mission and your mission is for your worship.

One last thing. We do our worship as a human activity, but there is more going on in it than we can tell with our five senses. There is a reality unseen behind what we can see. We talk to each other about the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, but the liturgy moves us beyond ourselves to the unseeable depths of the universe and the mystery of the Unity: Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Sabaoth, Lord God of hosts. 

That Unity is love, for God is love. That love goes out in mission and that love comes back in worship. God is love not as compact love but complex love, not static love but expanding love, generating love, begetting love, interpersonal love, mutually-sustaining love, taking-eternal-pleasure-in-each-other love. The Holy Trinity is the circle of love and the Unity of God is love.

Copyright © 2018 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

May 20, Pentecost, The Mansion of God

Acts 2:1-21, Psalm 104:25-35, 37, Romans 8:22-27, John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15

Today we contemplate mysteries. Ten days ago, on Ascension Day, a man ascended into heaven. Of course this was not just any man, but the Son of God, and fully God, yet also the Son of Man, fully human, an earthling. Earthlings don’t belong in heaven, not with our bodies, so it’s a mystery that the man dwells there in his body until he comes again.

Meanwhile, today, on Pentecost, that man in heaven sends God to earth to enter his friends. That a man should send God is also a mystery.

Another mystery is that the God that this man sent to earth is the same God as himself yet not the same person as himself, nor the Father, but a third person of God: the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, the Comforter, who comes from the Father, who proceeds from the Father, even though the Son does the sending.

That the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father means that the Holy Spirit is the soul of God, the inner life of God, the personality of God, who comes from inside God to inside us. The man in heaven sends God to us to dwell within us earthlings till he comes again.

We call these “mysteries” because they are great truths that we can know but not fully know. The mystery of Pentecost is a big deal—it celebrates a very great movement in God’s self-revelation and investment. If Jesus was “God-with-us,” the Spirit is “God-in-us,” God dwelling on earth within us earthlings. It’s like with Jesus God visited and with the Spirit God has moved in.

As of Pentecost, we are called temples of the Holy Spirit because the Lord God comes to dwell in us as individual embodied persons. And as a community of Jesus the Lord God comes to dwell within us, and the church is called the Household of God. And the Lord God comes to dwell within the whole of creation, the world of nature and the world of culture, and the world is the Mansion of God.

If we think of the world as “worldly,” or of persons as “worldly” in a negative sense, that’s only because of the world being insensitive to the Holy Spirit or even resisting God’s claim. Notice that of the three great Christian holidays of Christmas and Easter and Pentecost, the secular world does not observe Pentecost. You know from Walgreens when it’s Christmas and Easter, but there is no aisle for Pentecost.

It’s more than denial, it’s resistance. “God, what are you doing here? Get back in heaven where you belong. Get out from inside me—I want to keep myself for myself. Our world of culture and political economy is none of your business, God, you just leave nature to us for our own exploitation.” Which of course is why creation groans.

The Holy Spirit loves the world and rests upon it. The Holy Spirit loves creation and inhabits it. The Holy Spirit loves human culture and blesses it. The world is the Mansion of God. The mansion is dirty and in disrepair, and whole rooms are blocked off, and many of the staff are in rebellion, but even in the dark and broken places the Holy Spirit dwells, in pain and sorrow and solidarity. You cannot keep God’s Holy Spirit out.

The earth is the Lord’s, and all that dwell therein. The Mansion of God is a Holy Ghost building, and you get to work on this building by your daily life in nature and culture and political economy, cleaning and repairing and decorating and developing and extending.

My first take-home is to confirm our church in our vision and our mission. You are renovating that sanctuary as a Mansion of God, as a Holy Ghost building. Yes, you’re doing it to benefit our congregation, and you’re doing it for the public good, but ultimately you are doing it to witness to the mission of God and movement of the Holy Spirit into this here world. If the groups we host are secular, the mystery is the truth that to the Holy Spirit nothing is secular; the world belongs to God.

Look, if all Jesus cared about was to get us into heaven when we die, then we might as well worship in an ugly windowless arena with video screens and sound equipment. If all God wanted was to get us to be good, we might as well worship in a public auditorium. But the Holy Spirit loves creation, and is working the sanctification of this here world as the Mansion of God, and we are working on this building for our Lord. We are witnessing to God’s great claim upon this here world.

We offer the first-fruits of human culture, the craft of human hands, the integration of natural materials and human ingenuity to the glory of God. It’s a Holy Ghost building, and a Pentecostal mission. It speaks in the tongues of its plaster and stenciling and multi-colored arabesques and stained-glass windows, to shelter all the souls that enter it. It speaks in the tongues of metal pipes that fill with wind and sing to God while they have breath. We turn dull, solid, heavy, leaden lumps of metal into voices of praise. O Lord, how manifold are your works. May the Lord rejoice in all his works!

We are right to do this as the testimony and witness of our congregation, but we remember that it’s not the building that is the house of God but the congregation. Until the Lord Jesus returns for the final harvest, the first-fruit is the church, the church as the people, the community of Jesus, the congregation. The congregation is the dwelling of the Advocate who makes the church the house of truth and the home of comfort. As we share our lives together, as we talk together and listen to each other, the Holy Spirit guides us into truth, and our community of Jesus is a Holy Ghost building.

The Spirit does not draw attention to herself. Jesus says in the Gospel that the Advocate does not speak on his own. You don’t hear the Holy Spirit directly or see her directly, but always mediated in the words and actions of God’s people, always behind the scenes and underneath our efforts.

When I hear people say they feel the Holy Spirit, my Calvinist critique is that what they feel are emotions they conventionally attribute to the Spirit, but the Holy Spirit can also be moving in other emotions like grief, or remorse, or even a guilty conscience. So my second take-home is not to judge yourself if you don’t feel the Spirit like other people say they do. The Spirit is not the servant of our desirable feelings. The Holy Spirit is the Lord, who challenges us as much as comforts us. As Jenn Cribbs said last week, the gift may well be in what we fear. But in all of this the Holy Spirit is never not loving.

The Spirit does not speak on his own, and you won’t feel the Spirit directly, but I invite you to believe that the Holy Spirit dwells within each one of you individually. The Spirit empowers you and empowers your natural gifts to be spiritual gifts. But the Spirit is not just for power, but also for weakness. The Advocate is the Comforter, and the Spirit helps you in your weakness.

I need this, because I’ve been feeling weakened lately; I feel weakened by the power of sin and evil in this world that belongs to God, by the brutal massacre of Palestinians, and by the sacrifice of our school-children to the Second Amendment, and by the cynical deconstruction of our government, and by the obvious disruption of seasonal weather, and by the accelerating aging of my body. We groan, while we wait for our adoption, the redemption of our bodies. We live in hope and not possession, but because we hope we need not fear our weakness. Inside you the Spirit intercedes for you with sighs too deep for words.

St. Paul interprets our groaning and our weakness as labor pains. He says the whole creation is groaning as in labor for the new life that the Holy Spirit has conceived in us. The world is pregnant, and expecting, and is in pain and discomfort until the birth. This is the discomfort of cleansing and sanctification and transformation, sufficient for the world to become the Mansion of God.

I want you to understand your own pain and discomfort as the birth-pangs of your transformation and sanctification, the Holy Spirit converting and preparing you, cleansing and enriching you, even through your death, that at your resurrection your soul and body will be capable of carrying in your flesh the life of the world to come. That mystery is not explained to us, but we have so many first-fruits in our lives to quicken our hope, and we are right to interpret them as fruits of the Holy Spirit.

Don’t underestimate the Holy Spirit within you. Don’t underestimate the claim of God upon this world. Don’t underestimate the comprehension of salvation, don’t underestimate how far God goes for love’s sake, how close God comes in love. The love of God is the greatest mystery of all, beyond understanding, but you can know as well as our children do the love of God for you.

Copyright © 2018 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

May 13, Easter 7, The Power of God #5: To Tell the Truth

Acts 1:15-17, 21-26, Psalm 1, 1 John 5:9-13, John 17:6-19

Do you speak up? When you see something do you say something? Or do you mind your own business, do you keep your mouth shut—if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all? Or, well, have you ever had to say, “Me too?” When do Christians speak up? And for what? What truth are we supposed to tell? What truth are we supposed to know? Can we even know the truth? What is required of us, when the Bible speaks of us being witnesses who testify?

We want to tell the truth. But we also want to offer a space of unconditional welcome. What if we say, “Jesus is Lord,” and someone comes into our space and then feels judged by our truth—is our welcome conditional? We live in this post-modern context of everybody having the right to their own truth, at least in public space. No one’s truth has privilege—your truth is for you and my truth is for me, and if our truths differ you may not say that mine is false. All the cultural problems here I’m not going into, but this is the context in which we find our conversation. The Christian faith has lost its cultural dominance, which is probably a good thing, and it has never hurt the gospel to have no power of privilege.

We are called to be witnesses. We are not called to be the judges or the jury. We are not judges to condemn those who disagree with us. We are not the jury who get to make the verdict. The verdict is not up to us. Nor are we called to be prosecutors of those who disagree with us. Our job is not to prove why any one else is wrong. Our job as witnesses is to offer our testimony for others to judge, and if we are challenged with tough questions about what we have testified, we do not get defensive but we count it our privilege to clarify what we have said and to back it up with our lives.

These last few weeks in the Easter Season we have been talking about the power of God. First the power to heal, then the power to invest your life, then the power to love, and then the power to choose. The power to choose your words is what we consider today, the power to testify, the power to speak what is true from what you know to be true. The Holy Spirit gives you power to know the truth, even if that truth is also a mystery beyond your full understanding. It’s the kind of truth that children love to know. When I teach Sunday School the children remind me of the joy of knowing God and knowing the things of God.

God wants to be known by you because God wants to be loved by you. This kind of knowing has some objective knowledge in it, but most deeply it’s what philosophers call personal knowledge, like a baby knowing her mother and my granddaughter knowing the way to school. It’s the knowledge of familiarity and intimacy and abiding, as a child abides in her mother’s arms. This kind of knowledge is what goes with love. Its purpose and its goal is love.

Your knowledge of God is for love. If what you think you know of God is not for love’s sake, then your knowledge is carnal and its power is worldly—“of the world,” as Jesus says—and not from God. If your testimony is not for love, then all your words, no matter how convincing to yourself, are noisy gongs and clanging cymbals.

You have the power to know God and the power to tell what you know, to testify to what you know. You are called to be a witness, that’s your contribution to God’s long-term redemption of the world. But what form should your witness take? Like the Jehovah’s Witnesses? Like the fundamentalists? Most of us are shy to think of ourselves as witnesses. “Come on. This is Park Slope. Half of my friends are Jewish. Do you expect me to witness to them?”

Well, actually, yes! If your witnessing is sharing instead of winning. And if it’s appropriate to you relationships. You know that my best friend among the clergy in Brooklyn is Rabbi Bachman, and he and I witness to each other all the time. We’re not interested in convincing each other, but we offer ourselves to each other, and we trust each other with what we believe.

Just this past Holy Week we were having a beer and he asked me about Good Friday and what it meant for my soul. What I told him really surprised him. (You’ll have to ask him yourself!) More than once I’ve told him what the Lord Jesus means to me, which he doesn’t share, and I don’t expect him to, and I listen to what’s in his heart too. We don’t judge each other. We leave it to God to be the judge and jury, we offer each other hospitality, I give him a place within my space. He does the same for me.

Fifteen years ago I went to a Bengladeshi coffee shop in the Kensington neighborhood to speak to some leaders from their mosque. We were talking about a joint prayer service. They were all about it, coming to pray with us at Old First. I remember that even though I was inviting them I was feeling doubts. I said, “You know, we’re going to pray in the name of Jesus.” “O we love Jesus!” Then I said, “But we will say that we believe in his resurrection from the dead.” “Oh, we know that! Come on!”

Why didn’t I just trust that my Christian testimony was a bridge and not a wall? Now of course it’s different in other parts of the world, but for you it is true that as long as you respectfully report what you believe without judging others, you can make place for others within your space.

Thirty-seven years ago I was the pastor of a small Hungarian Reformed church in Jersey–my first charge. Our son Nicholas was a year old, and I would hoist his carrier on my back and walk to visit my people, who all lived in that same north-end neighborhood. Out the back gate the first house I always passed was the house of Mrs. Elsie Pituk, one of our oldest members.

She’d be sitting outside, under this huge oak tree with a tall trunk. She was ancient, and tiny, and she didn’t speak much English, but she was gracious to me and she loved to see Nick—she’d give him a cookies, and one of his first words was “Pituk.” On the table next to her was always her Énekeskönyv, her hymnbook, with the psalms and all the prayers. I learned to read those prayers and sing the Psalms with her, including Psalm 1. I already knew the tune from singing it in Dutch. Aki nem jár hitlenek tanácsán, És meg nem áll a bűnösök útján. Like that.

Mrs. Pituk had a blood disease. Every couple months I would find her in the hospital. Never in her bed. She’d have gotten up early before the staff came in and made her bed and swept her room and sat in the chair. I liked to visit her and I’d bring my Énekeskönyv along to sing and pray from. I think she was my first funeral. I preached on Psalm 1, because as tiny as she was she seemed to me to be a tree, planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in season, with leaves that do not wither.

Being Hungarian, after the funeral we all went to the Elks Club for the party. Her son and her daughter and the grandchildren told me that yes, they knew how she sat there under that tree, and how she had been a great sheltering shade for all of them over the years, with her great love. Pituk. They knew what she believed. She knew what she knew, and her quiet witness was strong and her testimony true.

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

Friday, May 04, 2018

May 6, Easter 6, The Power of God #4: The Power to Choose

Acts 10:44-48, Psalm 98, 1 John 5:1-6, John 15:9-17

One question I often get asked is how can we belong to a church that teaches predestination. How can we teach that God chooses to save some people and not save others. This cruel doctrine seems to deny free-will and our responsibility. Are we puppets on strings, or pawns in God’s game?

Old First does not ask our members to believe in predestination. No Reformed Church does. What a Reformed Church asks its members to believe is the Apostles Creed, nothing more. For pastors it is different. I am accountable to the official doctrines of the Reformed Church, and these include predestination. Our official doctrines serve to keep my ministry rooted and grounded and protected from fads and fashion. If an official doctrine is unpopular, that may be exactly the point. And I do hold myself accountable to our official doctrines, even the ones I dissent from.

Predestination is associated with Calvinism. But John Calvin taught it as the old tradition, not something new. The full elaboration of it goes back to St. Augustine, and it became official Roman Catholic doctrine, though eventually it got underplayed. Martin Luther revived it as a teaching of great comfort, and it’s official doctrine for the Lutherans and the Episcopalians, although they rarely teach it. The Calvinists taught it boldly and systematically, and the Calvinist version of predestination is what’s in the official documents of the Reformed Church.

I believe that predestination at its core is sound and Biblical and valuable and comforting. I think much of the criticism of Calvinism is prejudiced and inaccurate. I also believe that Calvinism went too far with predestination, that we let the logic go too far, that our attempt to be intellectually consistent took the doctrine further than the Bible does. For clarity we lost the mystery. And for the sake of defending God’s sovereignty we missed the functional centrality of God’s love.

When Jesus says, “You did not choose me, I chose you,” he’s talking about his love. The choosing by God is a function of love. The doctrine of predestination has to be understood under the overarching rubric of God’s love. Yes, God chooses you, but God chooses from love and in love and for love. And that love sets limits and boundaries on what we may say about God’s choosing.

Last Sunday, I said that when we say God is love, that does not mean that we take what we prefer of love and magnify that into God, or that God is the same is love, or that love is all God is, or that there is nothing in God but love. God is much more than love. God is the origin and source of love, God defines and determines what love is, God is the great lover, the universal lover, so that when we say God is love we mean that there is nothing in God that is not also love, we mean that all the richness that God is and that God does is always loving. So then God’s love, as revealed and described in the progress of the stories of the Bible, is a necessary corrective and discipline upon any of our doctrines that we might develop from the Bible, including predestination.

That means that we should not take the logic of predestination beyond the boundaries of love. If our logic suggests the deduction that God also chooses people to suffer forever in hell, then we must not follow that logic because that logic goes beyond God’s love. We have said too much. We cannot go that far. Predestination must remain to some extent a mystery, under the greater mystery of God’s love, that greater mystery of which so much has been revealed that we can evaluate by it.

Neither should we take the logic of predestination to the denial of free will. That too would take predestination outside of love. God chooses us for freedom. God gives us room. The lover loves to give freedom to the one she loves. We are not compelled by fate or destiny. Predestination is not determinism. God has not predetermined what color shirt you’re wearing or where you’ll eat lunch. God’s sovereignty is in love and it’s for your freedom, for your freedom to make your life and to do the true and good and beautiful. Whatever you freely choose is gathered by God into God’s plan for the world, and God’s sovereignty is so deep and wide that it can embrace and enfold whatever you choose with your free will. God even chooses for what you have chosen, God lets you choose for God. That’s love!

I am speaking this Easter Season about the power of God, and I spoke last week about the power of love, the love that comes from God’s love. What we learn this week is that the power of love entails the power to choose. To be a lover is to be a chooser. Love means choices, and choice means freedom, discretion, decision, and the room and the right to make your choice. So today I am saying that the power of God in your life goes through love to give you the power to choose.

You can see this illustrated in the liturgy for weddings. There are two sets of vows, and the first set is the vows of consent, which are the legal instrument to determine that the couple have freely chosen each other, and not by compulsion. In love with each other, they freely choose to say, “I do,” and then, “I will”. In love they choose to love, and from that they can make their second set of vows, the lifelong vow of marriage. This loving and choosing in marriage is taken by St. Paul as a mystery that illustrates the mystery of God with us, the mystery of “I choose you.”

Jesus says to the disciples, “You did not choose me, I chose you.” He says this in the Upper Room, the night before he died, which means, remarkably, that just a couple hours after he says this to them they will run away and abandon him. No, they did not choose him—not what he was really in for. But that’s not the whole story. After his resurrection he gave them the Holy Spirit and in so doing he gave them to the power to choose him. In response to his prior choosing. The power to love him, in response to his prior loving.

That’s true for you as well. The reason that you are here is that you are choosing this God whom you feel has somehow chosen you. Why you are here and most of your friends are not is something of a mystery to you. You are here again because you can’t get away from it. You are here to love the God whom you deeply sense loves you. No one has forced you here. You choose it.

The difference between your choosing and God’s choosing is that God is absolutely free to choose, while you have conditions and limits to your choices, and you have to live with many things that are not your choice. You did not choose to be born, you did not choose your parents, you did not choose the color of your skin or the shape of your nose. You didn’t choose to have high blood pressure and you didn’t choose to get sick. And then there are very many things you might like to choose but you cannot. There are limits to your choices and your freedom, just as there are limits to your love, while the love of God is limitless.

You didn’t choose to live, or even how your life turned out, but you finally do have to choose it, even after the fact. You have to accept it, the life you have been given, and it’s best if you can love it. You have to choose it as a gift instead of a burden, and to choose the life that you’ve been given as a gift is an important step in love. I mean love in the sense of agape love that I talked about last week, that you be hospitable and welcoming to your own life. To choose that is one of the most important choices that you make, to love your own life no matter what otherwise you might have chosen on your own, to love your own life as a gift.

I would say that takes a daily choosing, and you can do that when you recognize that others love you too, that others welcome your life into their lives, that others welcome your peculiar history and personality. We do that for each other—by loving each other we help each other choose the way we have turned, out as gifts within the mystery of God’s sovereignty, and we help each other believe that God has chosen us and that God loves us.

Jesus says, This is my commandment, that you love each other. It’s his only commandment, and it’s both minimal and global, and it’s strange because the movement is circular. If you love, you will keep the commandment, and if you keep the commandment, you will abide in love. The choices you are choosing are carried in the momentum of God’s choice, and the love that you are loving with is carried by the loving energy of the Holy Spirit, flowing through you and out into your world.

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