Saturday, January 31, 2015

February 1, Epiphany 4, The Mission #8: Sanctuary and Hospitality

Deuteronomy 18:15-20, Psalm 111, 1 Corinthians 8:1-13, Mark 1:21-28

The public career of the Lord Jesus was about three years. At first, Our Lord did his preaching and teaching in the synagogues. Later on, not so much, as the opposition mounted against him. Already at the beginning is the first hint of that opposition, in the synagogue that welcomed him.

In those days a synagogue was less a sanctuary than a meeting house, a town hall, a union hall. There was no division between the laws of religion and political economy—it was all one. You went to synagogue for training on how to be Jewish in daily life, how to apply the ancient rules of the Torah to current situations, how to get along under the Romans and still be holy, how to share the marketplace with your pagan neighbors and still be clean.

You went to hear the scribes lay out the rules and regulations in the commentaries by the best minds of Judaism from prior centuries, and especially the carefully collected precedents. To keep these precedents in current application was the job of the scribe. What no scribe would ever want to claim was a fresh, new, personal interpretation.

You went to synagogue to worship, for prayer and praise and spirituality. You went to hear the stories from the Torah–of creation, of the patriarchs, of the exodus–the stories that told you God’s meaning for the world, and what your special Jewish place was in the world. You went to hear the readings from the prophets, as Moses had predicted. The prophets told you to hope that your God would remember you someday. You went to synagogue to keep your hope alive.

And here was sudden hope again. This Jesus, this thrilling Jesus giving his new teaching, daring to offer his fresh and unprecedented interpretations with his risky applications—it’s exciting even if it might not work. Maybe he is right. Maybe things are breaking open finally at last.

But that will be trouble for some of them. They will have been compromised. They will have their secrets. Like this one guy, in what St. Mark calls an “unclean spirit”. What does that mean?

Don’t think of it as a demon from hell. It’s natural, because they drew no line between the natural and the supernatural, and they took the natural world as spiritual, so this unclean spirit is relatively natural but it’s nature out of whack. It’s unclean like your shirt is unclean when your spaghetti sauce is on your shirt instead of your plate. Things where things do not belong. Nature made unnatural. Rotten, corrupted, like rotting meat. Pollution, a toxic environment.

This guy is in the power of corruption. Maybe he’s got a toxic boss, or a toxic family. Maybe he’s Sheldon Silver at schul, or Tony Soprano at Mass, or a drug-dealer with his mom at church. He is captive to powers greater than himself, powers human and more than human, powers which pass the boundaries of reason. He is beholden to corruption both natural and supernatural. As most Jews were in Jesus’ day, more or less, intentionally or not, actively or passively. The Roman soldier, the Roman taxes, the Roman imperium, Roman idolatry, and Roman gods and goddesses. Spiritual. Unclean.

So Jesus is a threat, for all of his good news. This guy is threatened because he can recognize Our Lord’s holiness and purity and he can sense the implications for people like himself. So he says to Jesus, “What are we to you? What do you care about us? I know who you are, the holy one of God, and that will be no help to us in our lives here, you’re only going to bring us trouble. If you win, we will be your casualties.” Well, that’s kind of true. That’s insightful.

What you’ve got here is a contest of insight, on both sides. Just as Jesus could see more in the scriptures than the scribes could, so this guy can see more in Jesus than the others can, and when the guy opposes him, Jesus can see more on him than others can. There is a contest here between two spiritualities, the spirituality of the world gone out of whack, and the Holy Spirit of God in Christ.

This guy has knowledge, apparently more knowledge than others in the synagogue, but not enough knowledge. He doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. He does not have the knowledge of God’s love. He can’t, because he’s beholden, and he can’t let go of what is binding him. So he fears the power and authority of Jesus as even more oppression and domination. He cannot see that this power and authority of Jesus is for the freedom of God’s love.

Jesus rebukes him, and silences him, and casts him out, and with the first two actions the author doesn’t clearly distinguish whether Jesus is addressing the unclean spirit or the guy himself. And this, I think, is accurate to our experience of spirituality and its effects. Where does spirituality begin and what does it include? And not all spirituality is good. That’s one implicit lesson in this story.

Spirituality is in. People are wanting spirituality again, certainly in reaction to the empty mechanistic worldview of modernity and its desacralization of the world, reducing everything to physics and chemistry and mere biology.

And I can understand that people like to say that they are spiritual but not religious. Religion looks toxic, violence is done in God’s name, and organized religion is corrupted. This week one of our members told me that she’s the only one who goes to church of all her good friends in Park Slope. Religion? No thanks. Church? Nah. Oh yes, Jesus said nice things, but to consider him having some authority or Lordship, for example, is a non-starter. “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” What the guy said—the guy in the synagogue.

How much of it is fear? That member and I were talking about the pervasive fear in people’s lives today. Existential fear. For all of our modern achievements in science and technology we have not been able to solve the problem of fear.

I believe that people are more fearful today than they were when I was young. More fearful for the safety of their children than my parents were. More fearful for our health. More fearful economically. Fearful ecologically. Fearful of what we’re doing to the planet. Fearful of terrorists, fearful of foreigners. Fear is driving our elections. Around the world, people are saying to each other what the guy said, “Have you come to destroy us?” 

The fear is so pervasive that it is spiritual. Indeed, it’s because it is spiritual that it’s pervasive and powerful. And in this crisis we are called to be prophetic to identify this fear for what it is.

It’s easy to be negatively prophetic, as so many Christian voices seem to be today, which advocate retrenchment, and defensiveness, and call for division, and tolerate violence. They may have knowledge. But not love. We need to be prophetic and knowledgeable not in a spirit of fear but a spirit of love. 

What are the pervasive fears in your own life? What fears have power over you to force your choices? What fears compel you, and what fears limit you? What toxic relationships are you in? What deals have you made that are not really clean but you fear they are too costly and convulsive to get out of? I believe that for you to consider the Lordship of Jesus is always an exercise in examining your deepest fears. He challenges you. Can you believe that he is challenging you in love?

You know what I’m afraid of? Whether I have the ability and capacity to lead this congregation through its difficult challenges for the next few years. I fear that our growth and progress in the last few years could all come crashing down. What if the renovation of our sanctuary is a reach too far? What if we fail? What if I fail? What if it divides our congregation? What if I don’t lead us well and keep us together?

That’s my own personal share of our general spirituality of fear. I want to be free from the grip of my fear. I want to accept my fear and be free in my fear. I want to do what Melody said last week and run towards that which makes me afraid. I want to aim for the Lordship of Jesus.

I want to do this because of our mission, the mission of our church. Our mission is not just to gather more people into our church to make our numbers grow. Our mission is not just to worship together and educate each other. Our mission is to witness in public to the character of the authority of Jesus Christ, and how his authority leads to the freedom of love. And we have two practical ways to do that public witness within this general spirituality of fear: Sanctuary, and Hospitality.

Sanctuary and Hospitality are the two distinctive missions of Old First. That these two missions were sort of forced on us by our building is providential because these two missions are so relevant to our public culture within its general spirituality of fear. They are the opposite of fear. They are public works of love. They are prophetic, because they point to the Kingdom of God, and they witness to the character of Jesus, and his authority over you gives you the freedom to love.

Copyright © 2015 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Monday, January 26, 2015

January 25, Ordination of Rachel Daley, "A Feast of Rich Food"

Isaiah 25:6-9

Psalm 104

Luke 14:15-24

Hospital food.

Not your favorite cuisine!

What you would not get in a hospital is a feast of rich food and well-aged wines. But why not? Really, considering all the other expense and all the other risky fluids that hospital patients take in, why not?

When I was in my third congregation, in Hoboken, one of my elderly parishioners was a patient at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Manhattan. She was from India, and so every day my people took turns delivering homemade Gujurati food to her.

Of course hospital food is only a symptom of the dispiriting dehumanization of the health care system in our nation, which is why Rachel’s ministry is so necessary—not for just spirituality, but for plain humanity, to help the patients be fully human beings, whether they live or die. In this connection are the other remarkable images from Isaiah’s prophecy, the shroud and the sheet. The shroud overshadows the patients and even the staff, and the sheet is spread over all the people, the dark shroud and the white sheet that is death. We go to hospital to get well and we go to hospital to die.

And yet this prophecy of Isaiah contains one of the first hints of eternal life in the Bible. Let me remind you that there is absolutely no interest in eternal life in all the books of Moses, nor in the historical books from Joshua to Chronicles. Only one or two of the Psalms hint at salvation from death, and from the prophets, only a couple passages, of which this is the first and the strongest, that God “will swallow up death forever.” 

God will pull back the sheet that covers our dead faces. God will remove the shroud, which means both death itself and the shadow of death upon our lives before we die.

Can we combine these images for the sake of your ministry, Rachel, that even though we all have to die, you have something to set on the table before us which removes the shadow of death? Will you prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemy, my final enemy?

The marvelous feast of rich food which God will set before us is for the future, for eternal life, the celestial banquet, but is it not also for now, are we not already in it, partially perhaps, not yet fully so, for God has not yet “wiped away every tear,” so it’s a promise for which we wait, but can you not already set rich food on the tables of those whom you serve, in hospital or in church or the street?

Yes, sometimes we need no more than baby food, or clear broth in times of spiritual sickness, or sometimes simple comfort food, but we believe that a minister of the Word and sacraments can set before the people of God a table rich with nourishment and flavor and spice and delight.

What a shame that we reject the feast of such rich food. You see that in the parable in the Gospel. We are invited to the feast, and we decline the invitation. We’re busy, so we’ll just get take-out. The rich feast means sitting down and waiting. To enjoy the rich feast means you have to give up what you were doing and sit down, and be served, and give in to your host’s agenda for a while. But you’re too busy, or too self-involved, or too proud, or too afraid, or both, and you’d rather keep control and just go where you can get on line and look up at the menu selections and order the happy meal you want for-here-or-to-go. “I cannot come,” they all repeat, “I can’t, I just can’t.”

You can avoid God yourself but you can’t stop God from having God’s own good pleasure, and it’s God’s party. So that God’s house may be full, God invites the uninvited. Okay, so then you go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame. Do that today and you will find those people mostly in clinics and emergency rooms and waiting rooms and nursing homes and institutions and hospices and hospitals.

I can imagine why they might say, “I cannot come.” I can’t go anywhere, I can’t do anything, I’m stuck here. They’re stuck, right, for a few days, for a few years? So, Rachel, you’ve got a captive audience. I wonder, does their captivity make them less open or more open to your invitation to come to the table you are setting before them right there in their captivity? In the very presence of their enemy, their ailment, their disability, their death? Well, I guess that’s your mission, to find out.

If this parable has any modern relevance, then it seems to me that a modern hospital is place not just for ministry but mission. I doubt that Rachel has been telling people that she is going to be a missionary, and I’m not talking about her using her captive audience to sign up new Christians. But listen, the Reformed Church in America defines the word “missions” to mean “crossing cultural boundaries to witness in word and deed to the Kingdom of God,” and it is very true that a modern American hospital has a distinct and peculiar culture, and to enter the doors of a hospital is to cross a cultural boundary, and if you cross that boundary to witness in the particular words and deeds of chaplaincy to the Kingdom of God, then it’s mission.

I am saying that a hospital chaplain is a missionary in terms of this parable. Your mission is not recruiting, for your people have already been recruited by their ailments. Their illnesses and disabilities have already gathered them from all the streets and lanes of the town. It’s now your job to set the table before them, lavishly and recklessly. It’s your job to set them a bountiful table of rich food and well-aged wines.

You knew that already, Rachel, or you felt it, which is why you chose these passages. So now, what is this rich food? I mean beyond the obvious food and wine of Holy Communion? How do these rich images suggest your ministry? Well, the images in Isaiah are both positive and negative, the positive offered and the negative removed, the offering of the feast and the removal of the shroud and the sheet of death.

So let me suggest that the offering of the positive is your ministry of the Word and sacraments. You know, the objective gift of the promises of God and the means of grace. The reading of the gospel and the recitation of the Psalter. The Psalms in the ear, the oil on the skin, the bread and wine within the mouth. These all the feed the soul and nourish and strengthen and comfort it.

And then let me suggest that the removal of the negative is your ministry of presence, your person, your body and your soul within the room, your personal light and your personal hope and the example of your faith. You pull back the sheet. Your own hope pulls back the shroud. So you have these two things to offer. The good news and your own life. Your life for the good news.

In just a few minutes, just after we lay hands on you, you will read out loud the Declaration for Ministers. It’s one of the most wonderful treasures of the Reformed Church. We don’t exactly know who wrote it. Some committee. The church wrote it. When you read that Declaration, you will say that you "pledge your life to the good news of salvation in Christ." That is a reckless and lavish and audacious pledge. Your life. It could be said that you are throwing away your life. Losing it to gain it.

If I think about your life, I think about that great and marvelous landscape of your mind and soul inside you. Into that great landscape your parents planted very many different kinds of seeds. Others did too, but your parents mostly. And those seeds have sprouted and grown and are bearing much fruit within you, sixty fold, a hundred fold. And you take that bounty into the kitchen of your mind and then you come back out with dishes of rich food to set upon the tray-tables of your people.

Is it hospital food? Yes, but it’s rich because it is a medium. It’s portions and pieces of God.

I mean, isn’t that what’s at stake, especially in a hospital, the question of God? Why would God let this happen to me? If there’s a God, why is God allowing this? Is this all God has for me at the end of my life? Why would I even believe in God anymore? Rachel, you have to be a theologian in your job. It’s God you represent as much as comfort and hope and healing. The food you set is the pieces of God’s self, it’s the food of love, because if at these times of trial and sickness, if people can still believe in love, then they can believe in God, and if they believe in God, then they can believe in love.

Copyright © 2015 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

January 18, Epiphany 2, The Mission #8: Listening to Listening

1 Samuel 3:1-20
Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17
1 Corinthians 6:12-20
John 1:43-51

Twenty years ago I was leading a youth group on a backpacking trip in the Adirondacks, and we saw this beautiful, rushing mountain stream, say fifteen yards wide, and I asked our guide what it was, and I was taken aback when she said it was the Hudson River. That’s not how I always pictured the Hudson River.

But the Hudson is like that for its northern half, rapid and tumbling in the mountains, then winding through the hills, until just north of Albany. There already it hits sea level, and the tide reaches that far north, so from Albany south the Hudson is essentially a tidal estuary, and the southward flow of its water is in a constant back-and-forth with the rising and falling tide.

Then between Newburgh and West Point the estuary becomes a fjord, like in Scandinavia, a sunken valley reaching inland from the sea, and the water begins to get salty already at Peekskill. Is the Tappan Zee a river or a sea? Where does the river end and the sea begin?

Why this illustration? A couple years ago, one of you asked me the question why God doesn’t speak to us anymore like in Bible days. A very good question. And my answer is that in Bible days God spoke to us like the upper Hudson and in post-Biblical days like the lower Hudson.

In the Old Testament and up through Jesus, God spoke rarely but directly, like a small swift river, clear and definite, and then after Jesus, God speaks to us like the lower Hudson, with its mixing of waters back-and-forth, and you can’t tell where God’s voice ends and our own minds begin.

Look, in our First Reading, God spoke directly to little Samuel. What God said to little Samuel was one thing, and what Samuel thought about it was another. There was no mixing. And when Samuel reported it to old Eli he recited it, word for word.

But in the Gospel we see the Lord Jesus beginning something else, setting up a new way of God speaking, the way of conversation. He gathers a group of companions, who will engage in conversation, and it’s in the conversation that God will speak, in the back-and-forth, in the mixing of God’s word and our own thoughts, so thoroughly mixed that you can’t tell where God’s voice ends and your own thoughts begin.

Do you want God to talk to you? Maybe not. God might tell you something that will tingle your ears and keep you awake all night. But if you do want God to talk to you, then you have to become a companion in the community of Jesus and join the conversation. Not just the easy conversation at coffee hour, but the conversation with the Lord Jesus at the center, who says, “Follow me,” which for us means “Follow me into the Bible,” and as you follow his stories and follow his teachings and talk about it all together, then God will speak to you.

It will be God, although you can never neatly distinguish God’s voice from your own thoughts or separate God’s voice from the back-and-forth of dialogue, and though it will not be the clear, sharp voice of a mountain stream, it will be God’s voice. That’s the way that Our Lord Jesus began to set it up with his companions.

It is worth contrasting to our sister religion of Islam. The Holy Koran is absolutely a recitation, word for word, from the single voice of the angel Gabriel. It is not a conversation, the Prophet (peace be upon him) did not mix one of his own thoughts in. He had companions, who are important in Islam, but they did not contribute to the Holy Koran.

 But the Lord Jesus let his companions share in giving the revelation and he speaks to us only through their artfully written-down memories in the gospels and their thoughtful reflections in the epistles. Into this conversation between the four gospels, and them with the epistles, and all of them with the Old Testament, Jesus says to follow him.

This gives us room, and room for us to have our own conversation with the Bible. The Bible is like your lover, not your boss. There is play in your relationship with it. Like with our Gospel. Did you notice the playful banter between Jesus and Nathanael? What’s going on here, we ask?

Why did Nathanael insult the natives of Nazareth? We don’t know. Why did Jesus call him "an Israelite with no guile"? Was he teasing him or giving him credit as a very innocent man? When Jesus said that he had seen him sitting under the fig tree, the natural reading is that Jesus had spotted him along the road as all the pilgrims were heading home to Galilee, and he drew his conclusions about Nathanael from the circumstance. Or did Jesus see him with prophetic sight? We guess the latter but are not told so.

Why does the skeptical Nathanael now suddenly make the improbable leap from rabbi to royalty, that a rabbi should be the promised king of Israel? We are not told. Is this meant by the author to anticipate, at the beginning of his story, the greater leap of Doubting Thomas at the end of the story? And then what does Jesus mean by his very strange image of the angels going up and down to heaven on him? Are we to imagine him stretched out and elongated like he himself is Jacob’s ladder, or does he carry the angels piggyback on the stairway to heaven? What image is this?

The Word of God pushes us off a bit, it makes space in us. It pushes you off a bit so that you can’t get close enough to God for you to have God to yourself, but also to make room for community and to require that community for you to hear God’s voice. This means that one of our missions as a community of Jesus is to offer each other the active space that we can hear God’s voice together. Not some distinct angelic voice, but through the medium of our mixed-up back-and-forth conversation around the word of God.

Your part in this is to host each other’s listening, to make space in your life and in your opinions for you to host other people listening for God. And what I mean by this is not so much that you listen to what they are saying, as that you listen to them listening. Yes, you listen to them listening. In the community of Jesus you are companions who listen to each other listen for God.

We treasure the right to freedom of speech. But more important is your obligation to listen. That’s what love does. I’m thinking about the latest cover cartoon of Charlie Hebdo. In secular terms, the magazine has every right to publish a caricature of the prophet Mohammed. But in Christian terms, I would hesitate. As St. Paul says in our Second Reading, “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are beneficial.” Freedom of speech has no value if the community is not obliged to listen, always to listen, always to give space to listen. It’s safety of speech as much as freedom of speech. That’s what dictators do not do and what tyrants will not do, they will hear but they will not listen. Freedom of speech is a precious right. The obligation to listen is more precious, but it cannot be enforced, and that’s because it depends on love. It’s an obligation of the community of Jesus.

This community is textured. We have our various roles within it, and I have mine. When I was in third grade, in the St. John’s Lutheran School over on Myrtle Avenue, I was Samuel in a school play, and so my mother made me a yarmulka and a robe, and I had to say, “Speak Lord, for your servant heareth.” That's what I do all week when I prepare my sermons. And in my preparations, when I listen for God to speak, I don’t wait for a distinctly heavenly voice, but I depend on God to speak through my using the tools of historical and literary analysis, and from my thinking about you all and the give-and-take of what you need to hear.

Tomorrow night is our consistory meeting. Our job is to discern God’s will for our congregation. We cannot and we should not try to separate that from the all-mixed-up experience of our church.

Neither should you in your own life. You hear the lessons and the sermon and you use your head to apply it to the give-and-take of your own life. God’s voice in you will not be clear and direct, but rising and falling and mixed-up in your thoughts and conversation. So I want you to listen to the listening of others as you all deal with these strange stories from the Bible. In their very strangeness is their freshness and their room.

What is God up to, since Jesus, to speak in this indirect communal way? God’s mission is to turn you into a certain kind of people, a people less passive than the old priest Eli, waiting for God to say what God will say, and more like Samuel, ready to get up and answer with your lives, and more like Nathanael, making leaps beyond your certainty.

"Come and see." See what? You won’t know till you see it.
"Follow me." Where? You won’t know till you follow.
Follow him into your own life, but not your life as self-contained and independent, rather your own life within a community who listen to each other listening. That takes love. God speaks this way that to hear it requires that you practice love.

Copyright © 2015 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Thursday, January 08, 2015

January 11, First Sunday after Epiphany, The Mission #7, "Walking Wet"

Baptism of Jesus, Genesis 1:1-5, Psalm 29, Acts 19:1-7, Mark 1:4-11

We know that the earliest Christian movement was not monolithic. There were various groups and doctrines and it took some time to sort things out. As you would expect.

To begin with, there had been a larger renewal movement going on in Judaism when John was baptizing, and around him one part of that movement coalesced. Not all of John’s movement went over to the Lord Jesus. John’s disciples saw Jesus as an ally, but not all them followed him. He had disappointed them. He was not fiery enough, and not saving Israel in the political and economic way they expected of the Messiah.

We know that even after John’s death at the hands of Herod, his movement continued in the Jewish diaspora of the Roman Empire. These disciples of John continued to repent so that God would forgive the sins of Israel and give it that political liberation which they could go back home to.

The movements of John and Jesus sometimes overlapped, and some of the John groups evolved into Jesus groups when they heard the news that God had raised Jesus from the dead, and so they had to adjust their beliefs and expectations, such as whether they should expect to meet the fullness of God’s saving presence only in Jerusalem or maybe right there where they were, in pagan Ephesus, for example.

To get close to God, don’t we go to the Holy City, or does God come to find us here? Is the temple in Jerusalem the dwelling place for God’s Spirit or dare we think that God’s Spirit may fully dwell in us? And then, is God’s Spirit like a fire or like a dove? Is it the Spirit of judgment or the Spirit of peace? What about what John expected? Do we have to lose John to gain Jesus?

There is always both losing and gaining in religion. In Holy Baptism there is losing and gaining. The losing is in the repentance, in the surrender, when you give up, when you lose yourself. The gaining is in the Holy Spirit, that God has come to find you to dwell in you, and the Spirit is in you to help you find yourself. You gain enlightenment, when within you God says, “Let there be light,” you gain illumination for your vision of yourself.

You gain your new creation of yourself and the beginning of an evolution in you, and it will take its time, because God is very slow. Not millions of years as with the evolution of God’s creation, but months and seasons and decades with you, and the rest of your life of discipleship is always both your losing and your gaining.

For the disciples of John in pagan Ephesus there was losing in the gaining. To be able to speak God’s word in any language now implied the loss of the special privilege of their Hebrew. To be full of God’s indwelling Spirit implied they must let go of their patriotic dreams for the temple in Jerusalem, and even the privilege of their Jewish ethnicity. They will have to adjust their ethics from preservation to participation. Do we have to blend in now?

Is that what it means for the Holy Spirit to speak in any language indiscriminately? Is God just blending in? Is that God’s mission? Where’s our edge? Religion needs an edge. Where’s our boundary, religion needs boundaries. Is this how it will feel, from now on? Will it always feel so fluid, so liquid, like walking on water?

Well, yes, or if not on the water then in it and through it all the time. You’re always kind of wet. I mean, if you’re in Christ, then you’re as wet as he is when he comes out of the water. Maybe that’s why the Spirit came as a dove, because the Lord Jesus was too wet for the fire which John expected.

This dove above the water of the river evokes the dove that Noah sent out from the ark to fly above the receding of the Flood, and bringing back to Noah’s hand the olive branch of peace. The water evokes the waters at Creation, that ancient deep, which God blew upon, and the warm breath from God’s mouth brought life into the void.

In another way of translating the Hebrew of Genesis 1, the Spirit of God brooded upon the face the deep like a bird upon a nest, so that the warmth of God’s Spirit softened up the formless void enough for it to hear God’s Word and obey, and suddenly the darkness of the deep was illuminated by the light. And God saw the light, and it was good.

The creation story gets recapitulated in the baptism of Jesus. The voice that said, “Let there be light,” now says, “You are my son.” The breath of God over the face of the waters is now the dove above the river. Creation begets the new creation, new life rising out of the water, the Light of the World, and God saw his light, and God saw that he was good, and God said, “In you I am well pleased.”

Your own baptism means many things, even if you don’t remember it; it is the sign of many wonders. You are adopted as God’s child. You are incorporated into Christ, and included in his death and resurrection. You receive the Holy Spirit, in which the whole of God dwells in you as God’s temple.

It means your new creation, the creation of the new you, your second nature, never separated from your old nature, always together, the new one always converting the old one and forgiving it, even loving it as it slowly dies away, until you die and only your new one will be left. That’s the losing in the gaining. It means enlightenment, so that you recognize God’s Word for you and for the world. It means illumination, that you can envision your way in the world. And it means repentance, when you lose yourself, but you lose yourself in God.

You are baptized only once, for all of your life, but no matter how far off it was, the reality of it is not maintained by you or by your faithfulness, the reality of it is maintained by God. It doesn’t matter that you don’t remember it, because God does, because God, outside of time, is holding that sign in sight. God sees you as wet.

I’m not the first one to describe the Christian life as “walking wet”. The phrase combines the New Testament image of baptismal water with the Old Testament image of halakhah, the Hebrew word for walking, for life with God as a “long obedience in the same direction” (Eugene Peterson).

We are calling our new adult discipleship program The Walk, which we initiate today, by welcoming our eight new Walkers. It’s our modern version of an ancient practice called the Catechumenate, and our eight participants would be called Catechumens. It’s ancient in the mystical way that it integrates the mysteries of the sacraments as well as the holidays of the Christian calendar which connect us to the life of Christ.

On this first Sunday of Epiphany is the Rite of Welcome, when we rejoice in what we gain. On the first Sunday of Lent they will come before us again for the Rite of the Cross, and Lent is when we look at what we lose. They walk towards Easter, actually Easter Eve, when we will initiate the ancient worship service of the Easter Vigil, the time for baptisms and for confirmations of previous baptisms. That service will be quite wet. The Christian life is “walking wet.”

Thirteen years ago, when I came here, I told the search committee of my vision for The Walk. Well, now it’s time. God is slow, but God is always on time. I envision it as not just for these eight, but for the benefit of all of you who are hosting them, for the benefit of our congregation, that it may enhance the passionate spirituality that we have long desired. You will welcome them today and you will bless them. Enjoy them, project yourself on them, pray for them as they will pray for you, and let their walking wet encourage you in your own walk with God.

On them you can see God’s mission. I have been saying that God’s great general mission is to save and renew the world, including the creation that God made, and that you have your own part to contribute to that. At the same time God’s mission is to save and renovate each individual one of you. Each one of you is like the whole world to God.

I don’t mean that you are at the center of the universe, sorry. That’s what you have to lose. What you gain is the presence in your life of the God who is at the center of the universe. What you gain is light in your life, so that your life is not a formless void, nor deep darkness, but everything in you gets illuminated, so that you can see God’s purpose in what you thought was the void of your life, and God’s meaning in what you worried was the formlessness of your life. You gain peace with yourself.

It takes a while. You know it took billions of years for God’s creation to evolve the eye to see God’s light. God is slow, but always on time. It is God’s light that makes you able to see God’s light. It is God’s voice that makes you able to hear God’s voice. It is God’s Spirit that makes you able to believe it when God says this to you: “You are my child, my beloved, and in you I am well-pleased.”

Copyright © 2015 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Christmas Eve: The Light Shineth in Darkness, and the Darkness Comprehended It Not

Good evening, and welcome; I’m happy to welcome you here tonight. Whoever you are, wherever you come from, Christian or Jewish or Buddhist or something else, no matter what your belief or unbelief, we are glad that you are here to celebrate the Incarnation of Our Lord.

Let me announce some changes in the program. Our sixth lesson will not be read by Mark Wingerson but by Jenny Burrill. Another soprano soloist tonight is Merrill Grant. Michael Daves will be singing the traditional number, Star of Bethlehem, with Eva Lawitz on bass.

Tonight you do not get your own candle, and we’re sorry to disappoint you. But with the difficult means of exit up here we need to keep you safe. You will get your own candle when we return to our main sanctuary, which is a reason to look forward to it. We long to hear again someday the glory of our pipe organ, but we also love to have Aleeza Meir directing her chamber orchestra up here, so God is good.

Meanwhile, it was right for you to come here tonight, whatever your reasons, whether you worship Christ or simply admire him, your complex reasons and your overlapping reasons. One very deep reason you all share, so allow me to bring it out of you and elucidate it for you.

You came for the light. You came to choose for the light and choose against the darkness. Yes, because it is dark out there right now, and the darkness threatens all the other points of light. You came tonight to listen again to those words from our ninth and final lesson: The light shineth in darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not. It’s dark out there, but you came tonight because, against that darkness, you are choosing for the light.

Of course there is a darkness which is good, the loveliness of night-time, the time for rest and silence. Darkness has its place. But there’s also a darkness out of place, a resistance to the light, a darkness chosen, a cover, a cloaking, a willful obfuscation. It is powerful, and it overpowers you even when it’s you who have chosen it.

It is compelling. It tells you it’s the true state of affairs, and that the universe is vast and cold and dark, and that existence in it is a struggle to survive – the survival of the fittest, the strong against the weak, the wolf against the lamb, the lion against the ox, the poison asp against the infant child, the cold hard facts against the vision of Isaiah in our fourth lesson, the law of club and fang – and that finally there is no peace except by self-defense and no justice but by retaliation.

The darkness tempts you to choose it because it offers you cover and relief. It covers your guilt and shame. It lets you keep your secrets. It lets you maintain your ignorance. You can hide your prejudice and your resentments, you can cover your fear and cloak your anger.

You can choose it but you can’t control it, because it also gives cover to the evil spirits, and I don’t mean ghosts and goblins, I mean the cultural spirits of greed and corruption, of exploitation, and of hatred and fear, which, once you let them loose, will grow on you. The darkness gives cover to the spirit of violence which is loose in our land, violence taking on a life of its own and breeding itself in us, violence feeding on our anger and our fear, violence feeding itself on murder and suicide and tempting us to turn our backs against each other. The voice that calls you to do that is calling you to choose for darkness. But you want to choose against that, which is why you came here tonight.

They know not what they do. Darkness does not comprehend itself, because it does not comprehend the light, and it’s only because of the light that you can identify the darkness. By choosing the light you can see that spirit of violence and reject it, you can see that the stronghold of hostility is a prison, and that you don’t have to turn your back on any other child of God. You can comprehend the light, and you get help for that from the music and the lessons, which is why you are here tonight.

Let the story told by the the lessons encourage you, because the darkness seems to be constant. The lessons tell you what so many of the world’s religions agree on, that the truer constant is the light, and science agrees with this as well, that light is the constant, not darkness. There’s your hope, there is your encouragement.

Tonight it is a tiny light, a little baby. You can choose his light. In the fifth and sixth lessons you will hear again how Mary and Joseph made their choices for his light.

You choose it if you admire him and find in him an inspiration and example. You choose it if you worship him as Lord and God and find in him the living source of light. And if you came only to consider him, you may choose for light as well. No matter what else you came here for, you did come here for this, and you did well.

There is a glimmer in the shadows of the barn; it is tiny but it will not go out, the darkness does not overwhelm it. This little light is a miracle, a wonder, for in this light you see light, you can see all the other lights in the world that the darkness tried to hide, all the other deeds of love around the world, irrespective of religion, all the other acts of courage and generosity by individuals of every tribe and nation. Peace on earth, good will towards humankind. 

Sometimes the light surprises you when you sing, and it rekindles and strengthens your own little light inside you, and it breaks forth beauteous, and the greater light surrounds you like it did the shepherds, and you see the glory beyond a glimmer and you hear the music in the air.

Copyright © 2014 by Daniel Meeter, All Rights Reserved.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

December 21, Advent 4, The Mission #5, God Comes (and Here You Are)

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16, Magnificat, Romans 16:25-27, Luke 1:26-38

In 1889 our consistory relocated our church from downtown to this location. They decided to build a great Gothic edifice with the tallest steeple in Brooklyn and lavish decoration and costly stained glass windows and the fanciest pipe organ available. Not because they thought God needed it, but to make an impression in our new location: “We are not just another new church, we are the powerful, wealthy, and eminently respectable Old First church.”

Had they built a typical Calvinist church, like their former one, with simple classic lines and big clear windows and a normal pipe organ, less impressive and cheaper to maintain, we might be spared the costly building problems we have now.

When I came here thirteen years ago one of my colleague pastors told me that my first job was to get rid of our building, so that we could start doing some real ministry. Two years later a couple of consultants from the denomination came here and told me that our building was an obstacle to our mission and our growth. Our sanctuary was a turn-off and it was keeping people away. Better to rent space in a public school. The church is not a building anyway, the church is a people.

This could be the take-home from Second Samuel. King David wants to build a temple for the Lord, and the Lord says, “Nah. I am quite content to live in a tent. I don’t need a temple, I don’t want it.” We know why David wants it. As much as the Bible loves David, the text always hints at his political ambition and how every good thing that he does he also calculates for his own success. He wants a temple to solidify his claim on God’s endorsement of his rule and to sanctify his dynasty.

But God will work with him. This is John Calvin’s doctrine of Accommodation, that God will adjust to accommodate our weakness — not to our sin but to our weakness. So God accommodates David, and God will sanctify his dynasty anyway. God promises that someone from the house and lineage of David will ever after occupy the throne, no matter what.

This is despite God originally having not allowed a king for Israel. In the Torah, the only king of Israel was God. God warned the Israelites that having a king like other nations was a bad idea. But they begged for a king and God accommodated them, and after the disaster of King Saul, God provided them with David. And later, God even let them have a temple, despite what the prophet Nathan said to David here. God even adopted the temple, God’s glory overshadowed it and God’s spirit entered into it. How humble of God, to adjust to them like this; how generous of God, to accommodate our weaknesses.

These two innovations, which Moses would have opposed, became central symbols of Jewish identity, the house and lineage of David, and the temple in Jerusalem. But this became a problem. Four hundred years after David his dynasty was dethroned and the temple destroyed. What about God’s promises? The house and lineage of David would never sit on any throne again. A second temple was built, but God’s spirit and glory never came back to it, and a generation after Jesus, the temple was destroyed forever. The promises of God to David were problems that were unsolved, and they remain unsolved in Judaism till today.

But for Christians, God solved the problem in the Virgin Mary. That’s what St. Paul implicitly claims in Romans. The problems hid a mystery which was the long-term plan of God, and the promises were fulfilled in a way that no one was expecting. In the pregnancy of Mary the great mystery which God had keep secret for centuries is now wonderfully revealed.

She, by her genealogy, is of the house and lineage of David, and her body is the temple of the Holy Spirit. This is specific temple language which Gabriel speaks to her, that the Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Her womb becomes the Holy of Holies. The gospel claims that this was God’s goal all along. So the temple in Jerusalem the and royal lineage of David were both expedient accommodations which God used to get us to Mary.

Our translation is weak. “Greetings, favored one.” Sounds like aliens on Star Trek. “Hail,  you have been graced, Hail, full of grace, Hail, your grace.” Picture the angel bending down before her, reverencing her, the most exalted creature in God’s universe bending before this ordinary girl.

Why her? That remains a mystery. There is nothing in the Bible about her being without sin, but she is pure in that unlike her ancestor David she has no political ambition, and God’s gift to her will disadvantage her in so many ways, and she will suffer so much more trouble than if she had said No.

This event is called the Annunciation. But we might better call it the Invitation. Because it was not forced on her. The angel waits for her decision and her answer. She is not given time to calculate the consequences. It’s not a choice between a and b, but a choice between a and not a, it’s one of those choices you have to make immediately, to choose for the right thing in itself, no matter what may follow.

She chooses, she answers, and I’ve become convinced, after a life of Bible study, that it’s her answer that causes the conception of the life within her, her decision in the power of the Holy Spirit. “Here I am,” she says, “the servant of the Lord, let it be with me as you have said.” Her "let it be" is when the miracle comes to be.

Here I am. In Hebrew, that’s Hineini, the same thing Abraham says to God, and what Isaiah says, what Jeremiah says. Who is this girl, talking like she’s among the prophets? Hineini, here I am, I am present to you God, I present myself to you, I am open to you God. I know who you are, and I know who I am.

That’s what St. Paul calls the obedience of faith. Not an obedience of action or good works, but the obedience of being. She is the mother of the faithful, she is the Eve of the new humanity, and we bless her through all generations, and we see in her what God wants from us, this same obedience of faith, that you say, Here I am.

Say it, Here I am (here I am), the handmaid of the Lord (the handmaid of the Lord). You are now God’s chosen temple. You are now God’s royalty. Each one of you. Your status is what God intended all along, the secret that was hidden in God’s expedient accommodations in Hebrew history, the secret now revealed in Mary. Now God accommodates to you. Now God submits to you, and you in turn submit to God. This mutual submission, you may understand as love.

What’s the take-home for today? On the one hand, none. Rather than take something home you are to make yourself fully present. Here you are. You are to love this story and admire it. Put yourself into this story, paint the scene with your imagination. How do you imagine this young girl, how young, how old, how rich, how poor, how beautiful, how plain, and how do you imagine the angel, and how do you show the interaction between them, the energy, the closeness, the distance, and at what moment do you freeze the frame, and what emotions do you show in her? Here you are.

On the other hand, you can take home the picture of how God does God’s mission and how you have a part in it, a vision of how God comes to you, at home, when you are alone, when you say, “Here I am, the handmaid of the Lord.”

You might want God to fully come and intervene and fix the world, and end all the misery and suffering, and stop the genocides, stop the violence, stop the hatred and the fear, stop us from ruining the planet. That would be the greatest accommodation of them all, and maybe the worst, that God would intervene and invade and rescue us from what we are responsible for.

That’s what the promises seem to promise, that God will ultimately do this, but in the meantime God accommodates a different way, and that is to your individual belief. God comes not by invasion or intervention but by invitation. God waits for your acceptance. God submits to your personal faith, or lack of it. God comes into you if you will have him – if it’s Jesus, or if you will have her – if it’s the Spirit. How patient of God, how generous, indeed, how humble. How gracious.

God gives you that much discretion. And God does it also with congregations. God gives us that much discretion. If we house our church within a tent or if we build ourselves a cathedral, God will work with us, as much as we see our church not in service to ourselves but as God’s handmaiden for God’s mission.

And that is what you want to be. You came here today to say, "Here we are, the handmaidens of the Lord, let it be with us as you have said."

It was not out of normal human lovemaking that the Lord Jesus was conceived, but it is a greater love, that God should wait on you like this.

Copyright © 2014 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

December 14, Advent 3, The Mission #4, "God's Way"

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11, Psalm 126, 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24, John 1:6-8, 19-28

My topic today is the convergence of God’s great mission with your personal religious needs, how God’s divine and sovereign purposes in the world converge with your own purposes to come to church. These two things are not the same, God’s mission on the one hand and your religious needs on the other, but their convergence is a happy one, a joyful one, although of course a challenging one. You come here for your reasons, and you want to leave here with God’s reasons.

Why are you here today? What are your reasons for practicing religion, your personal motivation, your consumer purposes for going to church?

You want some God in your life, you want to be close to God, you want to find some greater meaning than you can generate on your own, you want that greater perspective to help you make sense of the world and where it’s going, or how to rescue the world from the human effects of violence and destruction, or to help you with the facts in your own life, your own disease or disappointments, your own desires and delights. 

You believe there is a God, and you want to have a positive relationship with God, and the Christian religion is the most familiar and available.

Maybe you’re not sure there is a God but you want to explore the possibility.

You want some religious instruction for your kids. You want some company, some community, to help you maintain your spiritual life.

You want to confess your sins and get told you are forgiven.

You want to pray, and pray along with other people.

You want to praise God with music, and it’s not right to do that all alone.

You want to practice love, and love in the larger sense, a love beyond what is available in humanism.

You want some recharging of your morality, some inspiration for your ethics.

You come for inspiration and information in some combination with reconciliation.

If these are your reasons they are good and right, these are your positive consumer purposes.

So you come here today, and you hear me telling you that God is on a mission distinct from your own needs and purposes. God is on a mission to reclaim the world from our rebellion, and to repair the world from our damage and our violence, and to restore the world to God’s original intention, only this time better. God is on a mission to make the world fit for God finally to come into the world, that the world itself may be God’s temple, God’s mansion, God’s city, God’s kingdom, as completely as heaven is already.

God is on a mission to come into the world right now, if partially, in order to include you in God’s mission, to pardon you and save you and reclaim you and repair you and restore you and make you fit to share in the great life of that kingdom when it full comes, that city when it opens up, that mansion, that temple, so that you share in it when God comes into it, so that God’s final coming will be your own coming into it as well.

God’s great mission in the world is far greater than your personal consumer motivation for religion. But they are not opposed. The greater may satisfy the lesser without the lesser constraining the greater. So do come with your consumer motivations, do come with your demands, but then also welcome the transformation of your demands the great demands of God, which are for your good. You get that. You can see that. That’s why you keep coming back.

You get it that this relationship of God’s mission and your religious needs is unequal. It is not an equal partnership, it’s not like a marriage. But it is like the Incarnation, that special convergence of God and humanity that came true in the birth of Jesus, the son of Mary, when God Almighty poured God’s self into an infant boy — not that God’s nature be reduced, but that human nature be taken up into God — two natures, and yet one person, one heart, one soul, one Jesus, son of Mary and Son of God, the mystery of the Incarnation. In Jesus we have seen God’s way.

Just so, you have one heart, one soul, and one experience, but in your single experience the Holy Spirit converges God’s great, high mission with your personal consumer interest in religion. God’s way is to invest God’s great universal work of salvation in the present reality of your personal need, although of course, the Holy Spirit uses that convergence to transform your personal interest to fit God’s greater plan. And because Jesus was a little boy who looked and smelled like any other little boy while God was fully in him, just so your consumer agenda for religion can look anybody else’s in Brooklyn and yet be full of God’s mission, without limiting God’s mission or restricting it.

This is God’s way. You can see God’s way in the metaphors of Isaiah’s prophecy: the God who liberates captives and releases prisoners, the God who builds up ancient ruins and raises up the former devastations, the God who repairs the ruined cities and replants the devastated forests, that God also decks you out, puts new clothes on you, and jewelry, and puts a robe of righteousness on you.

The reason you are here today is because you want to believe that it is real in your own life, although you know there must be more to come. You want to believe that the Kingdom of God has truly come into the world, but you know from the agony of the world that it has not come yet as it is in heaven, and you find ourselves impatient for its coming. This impatience is the message of the Advent season, that you must wait for it, but in your waiting also to prepare for it.

The metaphors from Isaiah give you hope but also give you discontent. When we who live in New York City hear of proclaiming liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners, how can we not think of Rikers Island and all the penitentiaries upstate? How can we not think of the mass incarceration of a whole generation of young black men, which we have allowed ourselves to pay no attention to, which we should have known about, the alienation and the deep frustration that finally is breaking out?

You cannot separate the larger issues of this city from your personal need of being set free from your own inner bondages and liberated from your sins and miseries. God addresses with a single promise both your personal spiritual health and welfare and the health and welfare of this nation, especially those people who do not share it. All those lovely metaphors will become literally true in our vision for God’s great mission in the world.

Between God’s great mission in the world and your need for religion is the church, and this church in particular. This church is a religious corporation registered in the State of New York in order to serve your spiritual needs. First you came here first as a religious consumer to receive its services, and then you enter the community of Jesus, and then you begin to see the larger mission which takes up into it your own religious needs, and you are challenged to join in the larger mission of the church, and then you discover that the challenge is fulfilling because your religious needs are more than you knew, your religious need is to give as much as to be given to, to forgive as much as to be forgiven, and to love as much as to be loved. You begin to experience this church as your church, and then you go further, and you begin to experience your church as God’s church.

This building is our building according to the laws of New York but this building is really God’s building for God’s mission. That sanctuary out there is God’s sanctuary for God’s mission. That pipe organ out there is God’s pipe organ for God’s glory. And if you rebuild that ancient ruin on the other side of that wall you’re doing an incarnation of God rebuilding ancient ruins and building up the former devastations, and there is no separation between God’s mission and your fulfillment.

We end with the Thessalonians. We can hardly imagine their personal religious needs. Why would these people want to meet those needs by signing up with this impossible new religion, which will bring them persecution just for signing up? Yet St. Paul tells them to rejoice always and to pray without ceasing and to give thanks in all circumstances. How in the world shall they do that?

You can rejoice in the vision of God’s promise for the whole known world. You keep your mind upon that promise by praying without ceasing. You can give thanks for the small and passing but also real and quietly powerful incarnations of that promise in your own lives right now. And you can rejoice with the angels and the shepherds who have seen God’s way, that God has come into the world as one of us, Immanuel, God with us.

Copyright © 2014 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.