Thursday, October 10, 2019

October 13, Proper 23: The Sober Truths (#6) of Thanks and Praise

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7, Psalm 66:1-11, 2 Timothy 2:8-15, Luke 17:11-19

Leprosy was a long, slow death. It made these ten untouchable—cast out of their homes, dead to their families, dead to God’s people. They could not worship—they were dehumanized. Even to the enmity between Jews and Samaritans they were dead, suspended beyond the boundaries of life.

Jesus restored them back to the world. They were healed, but by not standing there—first they had to go to their village priests. They had to obey his command, and in their obedience they were made clean. No doubt they scattered, each to his own village to get the ritual certification of being clean again. All ten of them were made well through their faith.

The nine did nothing wrong. They were doing what Jesus told them to. The Messiah had done his job for them, he had restored them to Israel, they could go back to their normal human lives, they could “build their houses and live in them, they could plant their gardens and eat the produce, they could take their wives and have their sons and daughters” again. They had “returned to normalcy.”

The nine were not wrong, so what the one did was a surplus. Why he turned around was more than gratitude. He was praising God as he came back. He came right up to Jesus instead of keeping his distance as before. He acted already restored without first being certified. Jesus had no authority to certify him clean, but the authority to make him clean the tenth one recognized. He read the presence of God into Jesus—that back there with that man Jesus is where God came into his life. He saw by faith that in Jesus God had come to him. So he went back there to Jesus to thank him and praise God.

I can imagine the nine not turning around for fear of interrupting their healing. The tenth one actually disobeyed what Jesus said, or at least he interrupted his obedience. For praise and thanksgiving. As if praise and thanksgiving are the point of obedience. As if he’s already been restored to his full humanity before his return to his old life in the village. As if returning to normalcy is not even the point, but returning in praise and thanksgiving is the point.

There’s another surplus. Jesus gave him something extra. The last thing that the Lord Jesus says to him is “Get up and go on your way.” A better translation is “Rise up and get going.” The word that Jesus uses here is the same as the word for resurrection. That’s no coincidence in Luke. And that’s the surplus—the power of the resurrection, beyond the power of cleansing and restoration.

If the nine got normalcy, the tenth got something new, something not normal, that new humanity that is a favorite theme of Luke, that new humanity that the Lord Jesus was bringing into the old world by the power of his resurrection. The tenth one was saved into the people of the resurrection, the new humanity.

What does it mean to be a human being? Build houses and plant gardens and take spouses and have children. The normal things, things all good, and what God wants for us, but to be a part of the new humanity is to know when to turn from all of that and return to God in praise and thanksgiving. To be a part of this new humanity is why you are saved.

When your faith has saved you, that does mean cleansing, it does mean restoration to the world, but it also means orientation to God. It’s by your turning to God in praise and thanksgiving that you get the even greater fullness of the world. You are saved not to escape from the world, but to get you going in the world while God is renewing it.

All ten had faith. All ten believed the command of Jesus and acted on it. But faith is more than just believing that God’s word is true. Faith is also vision. Faith sees more than observation can. Faith can hear the word of God in the voice of a human being. Faith can see the hand of God in ordinary things. And faith can see God’s renewal in the midst of all the breakdown and decay.

You here today are living like the lepers in between, in between the boundaries of life and death. You are on the way to death, although you are not cut off, nor you are dehumanized, though many people are. You live in tension. You live in disconnect. Maybe even in exile, like the Jews in Babylon, to whom Jeremiah wrote his letter.

Rabbi Bachman once pointed out to me that for the 5780 years of Jewish history, they’ve lived in exile for more years than in the Promised Land. So to, the Christians in the Roman Empire were treated as strangers and aliens even in their native lands. So you have to have hope for the future, but can you give thanks in the present tension, and praise God in the disconnect? Your praise and thanksgiving take faith, your faith to see what can’t be seen.

Praise and thanksgiving should be natural. If we take our cue from song birds and wildflowers with their extravagance of sound and color and the unnecessary complexity of stars and planets, then praise of God should be natural. But human beings are creatures with this extra moral sense, and your moral sense tells you that something is wrong with the normalcy of the world, and that existence means pain and suffering, and that leads you to question whether God is worthy of your thanks or even if there is a God to praise. Or we don’t question God, and we blame our creaturely misery on human sin, then how shall we praise God when we don’t feel at home in the world, how shall we give thanks when we’re in exile within the only world we know? So the first sober truth about praise and thanksgiving is that our experience of the world can argue convincingly against it.

The second sober truth about praise and thanksgiving is that it takes faith just to do it. It takes faith to praise God against the arguments of experience and to thank God against the evidence of futility. It takes faith to live within the new humanity, not disconnected from the old but alive within the old, to recognize the goodness of God even in your failures and your failing body, to report the faithfulness of God even as you approach your death. It takes faith for praise and thanksgiving.

The third sober truth about praise and thanksgiving is that these are not optional, but a kind of obedience. We don’t just offer them as a result of our good times. Rather they are necessary, especially so for the bad times. To practice thanksgiving is to practice your faith. That’s a take home for today. If you want to live by your faith, then practice thanksgiving. Thanksgiving to God is the way to express your faith and the way to rehearse your faith and the way to maintain your faith.

Your praise and thanksgiving serve to save you. Your praise saves your soul, your thanksgiving saves your mind and your peace of mind, your thanksgiving saves your self-respect, your praise saves your voice and your music, your thanksgiving saves your spirit to rise up and get moving again. Your praise and thanksgiving are what save you for the new humanity and also keep you in it.

The fourth truth about praise and thanksgiving is not a sober one, but a joyful one. This truth is that praise and thanksgiving give off love. They are an exercise in faithfulness, which is the ground of love. Thanksgiving generates generosity, the sign of love, and praise yields affirmation and encouragement, the works of love. Gratitude yields grace, the attitude of love. You practice your praise and thanksgiving, finally, in order to live within the love of God.

Copyright © 2019 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Thursday, October 03, 2019

October 6, Proper 22: The Sober Truth (#5) of Getting No Credit

Lamentations 3:19-26, Psalm 137, 2 Timothy 1:1-14, Luke 17:5-10

What are the obligations that you have in your life? You have obligations to your spouse, to your children, obligations to your job, to your employer, obligations to your landlord, or to the bank that financed your apartment, or to the bank that holds your student loans, obligations to the Park Slope Food Coop, if you choose to shop there, obligations to your pets, if you choose to have pets, and obligations to the government in which you have no choice, and if you don’t pay your taxes you can end up in jail, unless you’re President.

Do you see your obligations as burdens, as enforced inconveniences, as constrictions on your freedom, or do you see them as valuable, helpful, giving you guidance, helping you be moral? Take your friendships. If you want to maintain your friendships you respect the obligations of friendship.

Obligations are actions and relationships you get no credit for fulfilling. It’s rather the other way around: if you don’t fulfill them you get sanctioned or punished. For most of Christendom, belief in Christ was considered so obligatory that if you didn’t do it, God was only right to punish you in the flames of hell forever. Obligations can be better enforced by fear than by law!

In the Reformed tradition of Christianity we took a different slant. I refer you to the Westminster Shorter Catechism, that anchor of Presbyterians and early Congregationalists. Question # 1: What is the chief end of man? Answer: The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy God forever. In other words, just by virtue of your being human you are obliged to glorify God. And if you don’t do your human duty, you should be punished—and though they interpreted the flames of hell as only metaphorical, they still believed in eternal conscious punishment for unbelief. (Which I do not, as you may know, although I am not a universalist.)

Do you regard your Christian faith as an obligation? Or as your choice which you are free to make or not? I doubt that anyone here was compelled to be here, that you would get punished if you were not here, or risk your employment, or be subject to the sanctions of your family’s expectations. Indeed, the resistance is more likely against your being here. Should you not get some credit for it, for giving up some of your precious leisure time for church? Do you have an obligation to praise God, or are you free to hang your harp up on the willow tree when you don’t feel like praising God?

Isn’t this what Jesus’ parable is getting at, in our Gospel lesson for today? Listen again: “We are worthless slaves, we have done only what we ought to have done.” I doubt if this was as off-putting back then as it is now. Back then self-esteem and personal fulfillment were not your obligations in any way, and slavery was not regarded as categorically wrong. But it’s off-putting now, and it would be a sober truth: That your belief in Jesus and his teaching is basically your human obligation, so why should you expect any credit for doing it?

It’s what you were made for. Just as a tree is obliged to the sun, and a horse is obliged to run, and just as a seed is obliged to lose itself in the earth and break open and sprout, so are you designed to live by your faith and you are therefore obliged to it. Faith in God is the obligation of your existence. How does this sound to you, who love your freedom?

You get the sense of obligation in our other lessons. In the Lamentations there is with all that grief and sorrow also the recognition that they deserved it. They had transgressed against the covenant that God had made with them, that covenant with its obligations liturgical and ritual and moral and even economic. For their failure to keep their obligations, even by title, they were being taken off the Promised Land that God had given them precisely to be the garden of those obligations.

In the Second Letter of St. Paul to Timothy, his protégé, we get words of sympathy and great encouragement, but you can’t escape the undertone of “Buck up, big boy, stop feeling so sorry for yourself, it wasn’t meant to be a picnic, just do your job. Your mother and your grandmother stood fast against the odds, and their gift of faith to you is now your obligation.” And dearly beloved, if you think about it, isn’t every gift that you’ve received also in some part an obligation?

So too with the Gospel lesson. You have been given the gift of faith, and now your faith is an obligation that you have. You think of your faith as something you freely chose, your choice to add meaning and fulfillment to your life, but the gospel says that it was your duty anyway, your faith is obligatory, you owe it to God, you are accountable for it. That which you have freely chosen is only not to be delinquent, not to have defaulted on your obligations, and what credit is that to you? You are only doing what you are supposed to do. And if that’s true that is a sober truth.

 We think of religion as something freely added on to life or not. But then you come to church, and you hear Jesus saying that you owe your life to God. And he compares you to a slave who is obliged to serve with no reward for your service except another job to do when you’re done with this one. You open yourself to this sober truth. You give it room within yourself. You let yourself get used to it. Even though, because of your enculturation, you can’t help but approach your religion as a consumer, and then the Lord Jesus pushes you off for being a consumer, you come right back at him. “I’m with you Jesus, I’m hanging on to you Jesus, I just need a little more faith to handle some of the things you say.” Especially when you find yourself a little angry or aggrieved or just tired.

You only asked him to increase your faith. And it’s like he made fun of you by saying you should have faith the size of a mustard seed. That’s confusing. Does he mean your faith is so infinitesimal to begin with that just to get it merely tiny would make you a regular superhero, or does he mean the opposite, to get your faith small, so that asking for more is a wrong request?

Then he suggests a miracle which is silly, because why would you command a tree to uproot itself and plant itself in the sea, which would kill the tree? Is the Lord Jesus teasing us here? Is he not teasing our desire for help, or even for spiritual power and success in being good? I think I get it, I’m a performer, I love to do well, I love when it I’m good, and I love approval of what I do. But the gospel says this to me: “Okay, you preached a good sermon—you were supposed to, what do you want, a medal? You want recognition? Go tend the sick, go visit some prisoners in jail.”

How shall you regard this faith-in-Jesus obligation as life-giving and joy-returning and not just one more burden among all the other obligations you have anyway? Two things: first, it is that one great obligation that helps you measure all your other obligations and balance them. It is that one obligation that can free you from other obligations that the world will always put on you—the obligations expected by your family, the obligations expected by polite society, even the obligations demanded by your country. These obligations are now all relative, and for your choosing. So this one is the liberating obligation, the obligation that gives you greater freedom all around.

The second thing is that the burden of this one great obligation is not on you anyway, but on the Lord God who requires it of you. That is the greater gift. The value and strength of your commitment comes from the one whom you’ve committed to, not from you who commits. Like you’re a mediocre short-stop and God is a fabulous first-baseman, who snags your throw no matter how badly you threw it. No matter how well or poorly you’ve fulfilled your obligations, it’s the One to whom you are obliged who keeps your fulfillment for you. No need to be ashamed of your record.

That’s what St. Paul says in his advice to Timothy, which sounds like it could be have been said by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “But I am not ashamed, for I know the one in whom I have put my trust, and I am sure that he is able to guard until that day what I have entrusted to him.” 

This is also taught us by that famous first answer from the Heidelberg Catechism, that older and more lovely anchor of the Reformed tradition: My only comfort in life and in death is that I am not my own, but I belong . . . to my faithful savior Jesus Christ. . . . Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now to live for him. 

This is love-talk. Lovers who belong each other regard their obligations to each other as the pleasures of their love. Their gifts are their obligations and their obligations are their gifts. So if you are obligated to love God, you do it because God loved you first.

Copyright © 2019 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

September 29, Proper 21, The Sober Truth (#4) about Privilege

Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15, Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16, 1 Timothy 6:6-19, Luke 16:19-31

Only twelve years ago did I first start working with homeless men. I wasn’t inclined to, it’s not my specialty, but there they were, sleeping on the church’s stoop and begging out front.

At that time the Bloomberg administration had an optimistic Department of Homeless Services that aimed to solve the homeless problem, and the DHS began to treat me as their local agent. I was able to get housing for all of our guys, and then for nine more guys besides.

Then the door slammed shut. I couldn’t get housing for anyone. My referrals were useless. The DHS had changed it policies. The men had to prove that they were homeless by being sighted, sleeping out on the sidewalk, by an observer driving around the city, on any given night over a period of months. The guys wouldn’t do it, they knew it wasn’t safe, so they never got sighted.

We suspected why the policies had changed. It looked like the new priority was to get the homeless off the streets and out of sight of the tourists and visitors. Out of sight, out of mind. The city’s optimism had crashed against reality. Despite their efforts, homelessness was getting worse, because the cause of homelessness got worse.

The root cause is not mental illness or crime or any such circumstance. The root cause is simply the cost of housing. When real estate goes up, so does rent, and then so does homelessness. Face it: at least in our system, an increase in wealth brings with it an increase in poverty. So much for “a rising tide lifts all boats” and for the “trickle down effect.”

The “trickle down” is in the parable, in the crumbs from the rich guy’s table, which the servants would sweep them out the door, where the beggar could pick at them. The really nasty thing was the licking of the dogs, which was shameful and humiliating. Dehumanizing.

The beggar was dehumanized, so the rich guy owed him nothing. He could just step around him every day. It’s what we do in a crowded city: proximity with invisibility. Not out of sight, out of mind, but in sight and out of mind. Up close and impersonal. We cultivate an active unawareness. We think it’s nothing personal—there are just too many people, but in the aggregate and for the poor it’s dehumanizing.

An innocent unawareness is one thing, but the cultivated unawareness of the rich man made him guilty. It was the cultivated unawareness of his privilege. And that’s what privilege gives you: a useful and even comfortable unawareness. So that you can be in sight and out of mind.

It’s become a movement in our culture to talk about white privilege and male privilege and straight privilege, and although it’s often irritating it’s important, and valuable. I need to be aware that I do not just walk through life neutrally, but I walk through life with the benefits of white, male, straight privilege. If I refuse to be aware of this, then I’m like the rich man in the parable. If I get defensive and say it’s not my problem, then I’m really like the rich man in the parable.

Now, I’m not saying that the Lord Jesus told this parable to address the issue of privilege, but in that marvelous weekly interaction of present culture and the Bible, our present culture helps us to hear new things in the Gospel. I’ve preached on this parable at least eleven times, and for the first time I’m hearing it in terms of privilege, and the connection of privilege to cultivated unawareness.

Look how the rich man assumes his privilege even after death. Both men die, and both go to Hades—Lazarus to the Paradise part and the rich man to the Gehenna part, where he’s slowly being consumed. The rich man spies Lazarus over there, and he still assumes his privilege. He expects Lazarus to do for him now what he would not do for Lazarus back then. And he continues to dehumanize Lazarus by not addressing him directly, but by asking Abraham to order Lazarus to do it.

He further assumes his privilege by defending himself. He complains that he didn’t know, like he wasn’t told, that it’s not his fault because it was not made clear to him, and it isn’t fair. But it was made clear to him. He had not wanted to see what he was seeing, he didn’t want the awareness. He didn’t want to see what God had been showing him all along.

God had been helping him just by putting the beggar at his door. That’s why the Lord Jesus gives the beggar a name, the only time in all the parables. “Lazarus” means “God helps.” Maybe the rich man thought, “God helps those who help themselves, so if this guy is suffering it’s his own fault, and I don’t owe him anything.” I have that thought a lot. But Lazarus at his gate was how God was helping him with the chance to break free from his cultivated unawareness and the blindness of his privilege. For him to have helped this beggar would have added so much richness to his life.

We needed those homeless men out on our stoop at Old First. Last Spring, when we reopened the sanctuary and the front doors, I told that guy James he couldn’t sleep there any more. But he still does, and maybe we need him to, maybe it’s how God is helping us. We are the only church on Seventh Avenue without a front gate or a fence. Our open stoop is part of our mission. And don’t we have to accept whoever comes into our openness? When passersby ask me why I let him sleep there, I just answer, “It’s God’s house,” which either convinces them or just confirms their disdain.

There are scholarly wags who say that the radical message of Jesus was altered by the Apostles like St. Paul in order to establish the power structure of the church, and for that they needed access to privilege and wealth. It doesn’t hold up if you look closely at how Jesus financed his campaign. In any case, our second reading takes the parable and makes it practical.

Wealth is costly to us who are wealthy. I’m talking about the social cost, and the spiritual cost, and the moral cost. Your wealth offers you enjoyment and security and it demands your attention and your service and it becomes a jealous lover. So that your love of your money is the root of so much evil in your life. Evil to yourself, evil to others like yourself, and evil to the poor. This is a sobering truth. This is my second sermon in a row on wealth, and next week I hope the Lord Jesus talks about something else!

The Bible is not against the privilege of property per se. Look how God tells the prophet Jeremiah to buy some property, even though that piece of ground is in an area occupied by the Babylonian army besieging Jerusalem; and Jeremiah, himself in prison for his prophecy, will never see that property. It was God’s sign that God would bring the people back, after their necessary exile, to inherit the land and live in it again. It was their privilege, but not their right. They did not have the right to the land unless they served God on it. Their privilege was only for their responsibility.

Whenever we have privilege, we do not have the right to it, but only the responsibility for it. It’s not my fault that I was born white, and male, and straight. I am not guilty of these things, but I am responsible for them. I am guilty of it if I claim some right to my privilege, or maintain or defend it at the cost of others, or ignore how just having my privilege is costly to other people. I am responsible for it, and to serve God with it, and that means my neighbor, whoever is at my door.

We belong to each other. We are all in this together—this life, this humanity, this planet. The Christian message has its own kind of egalitarianism, its internationalism, its globalism, its vision of human solidarity. Historians tell us that the primitive Christian church grew within the Roman Empire not by evangelistic preaching so much as by taking in the sick that the pagans did not care for, and by rescuing the newborn baby girls that the Romans exposed to die outside their city walls.

That’s the kind of religion that what you want, that’s why you are here today, and you can respect the challenge of its sobering truths. This religion is the one great privilege that I did inherit from my parents, and it’s my privilege to celebrate it with you every week. So let me end where Jesus ends his parable, with his resurrection, and with his take on Moses and the prophets, and turn it positive.

He rose from the dead to vindicate the love of God, the love of God for all the world, and it is our privilege to love God back, and to love God back in terms of loving our neighbors as ourselves. We’ll be okay if we just stay with the radical and unconditional love of God.

Copyright © 2019 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

September 22, Proper 20: The Sober Truth (3) of Money and Security

Jeremiah 8:18–9:1, Psalm 79:1-9, 1 Timothy 2:1-7, Luke 16:1-13

I never wanted to be wealthy. I just wanted enough money to be comfortable, and to afford some pleasures and concerts and some eating-out and travel. When I was the pastor of a small church in Hoboken, my salary was low but so were our expenses. We lived for free in a big old parsonage,  we got financial aid to send our kids to a progressive Christian school, and we rarely used our car. I had free time to do extra activities, like a housing ministry, ecumenical work, political activism, and the board of that school, for none of which did I get paid. But we always had just enough money.

One day I got a phone call from the HR director of our denomination (Al Poppen), and he said, “Daniel, I was reviewing your pension account, and at your current rate you will retire into poverty. My conscience tells me that you need to find a new church that can pay you a decent salary and build up your pension fund.” Oh! Suddenly we had to think about our long-term financial security, which means we had to think about gathering some wealth.

That’s the kind of wealth that the Lord Jesus has in mind in our gospel lesson. The word that he uses for wealth, mammon, doesn’t mean the riches of the rich but the moderate means of the ordinary middle class. Your savings, your equity, your pension plan, your security. Not your mansion but your coop apartment. And is the Lord Jesus saying that this is a problem? Yes, because of its grip on us.

Our gospel lesson is in two parts, in a literary structure that is typical to Luke. The first part is the parable, which Jesus probably used more often in his preaching, and the second part is a list of spin-off lines, that are the various “take-homes” that Jesus tailored to whatever audience he was addressing. The spin-off lines are punchy, sharp, and even alarming, while the parable is playful. It’s like an Aesop’s Fable, with a wily fox, or like Uncle Remus, with Bre’r Rabbit, who outwits his enemies, or even Bugs Bunny, who gets away with everything.

The rich man owns an estate, with sharecroppers on it, tenant farmers who pay their rent in kind. The master employs a manager to run things. He hears complaints that his manager is corrupt, so he calls him in. “What’s this about you? Hand over your records. You’re done.” The master is severe but more than fair—he gives the manager a break by not throwing him right in jail and giving time to gather his accounts. 

The manager doesn’t deny the accusation or try to justify himself—he doesn’t waste his breath. The parable gets comic. “Now what am I gonna do? I could dig. Nah. I could beg. Nah.” Light bulb comes on. “I’ve got it. He wants the accounts, and the tenants don’t know yet that I’m fired. If I work fast they will owe me and be on my side.”

He goes to the tenants. “How much do you owe the master? 800 gallons of olive oil?” (That’s a preposterous amount of oil, but this is comic.) “Here, rewrite your contract and reduce it by half.” No problem, you’re the best!

“And you, how much?” 1000 bushels of wheat?” (An impossible amount of wheat.) “Quick, take off 200 bushels and keep them.” Hey thanks, I owe you one!

What’s the gambit here? The manager knows that his master is more than fair, and he’s betting that when the master finds out, he will not force the tenants to pay up for the manager’s misdeed. The manager calculates on the decency of the master, no matter how crooked he was himself. Calculating on his master’s character rather than justifying himself was the shrewdness commendable.

I can justify my middle-class wealth in terms of sound financial security. The Reformed Church pension plan is notoriously weak, and our health insurance plan is no better. I need to be prepared. The old assumption was that the pastor dedicated his life to the church, and then the church would take care of him and his wife.

My parents assumed that, and they retired with nothing, and they had to depend on the generosity of others for their housing (Al Poppen again), my dad had to work part-time into his 80's, and now my mom has her bills paid by Medicaid, which essentially is Welfare.

The assumption is over—retired ministers are on their own, so Melody and I thank you for the housing allowance from which we could buy an apartment and build up our equity, which no one begrudges us. But shall I try to justify our wealth? The increase in the equity in our apartment makes me complicit with the increased cost of housing that makes for homelessness in New York. My increase in equity is why we have to run our homeless shelter. I am complicit.

All of us are complicit. We enjoy the benefits of a global economy that increases both the wealth of the wealthy and the poverty of the poor, and is endangering the planet for our children. Do we waste our breath denying it, or defending it, or trying to justify our innocent share in it, or be more shrewd, like the manager?

Accept the judgment of Jesus that all of our wealth is ultimately unjust and unfair. Unequal. That’s a better translation than “dishonest” here. To say “dishonest” misses it. My moderate wealth is honest, but it’s also effectively unequal and unfair. The sober truth is that our moderate wealth is more unjust than anyone of us thinks it is. And because it isn’t right we do not have the right to it.

Accept the judgment and be shrewd. The trick is Our Lord’s strange advice that is the bridge from the parable to the spin-off lines: “Make friends for yourselves with your unfair wealth.” You have some wealth? Okay. You can still be the manager. Manage it but don’t kid yourself that you have the right to it, or that you’re not in bondage to it. You’re always more in bondage to it than you think, so be more generous with it than makes sense, which generosity loosens your bondage.

Shall we justify the endowment fund of this congregation? It’s tripled in the last fifteen years, thanks to honest, thrifty management by some of you, but also because of the stock market, which makes us complicit in our unfair economic system. Some of our endowment is old money, which means white privilege, a privilege denied to our sister congregations in Bedford-Stuyvesant and East New York. And yet I believe that our endowment helps to secure the future of our church, and it literally secures the loan for our renovation.

Our endowment is a blessing, but it’s also a temptation. It’s a temptation when we assume the right to it while there’s so much not right about it. We are tempted to put our security first and preserve our wealth which is to serve our wealth. But we can’t serve both God and our wealth. This temptation is faced by our Consistory every time we review our financial statements. Are we making friends for ourselves with our unfair wealth?

Here’s the take-home: Since we are always more in bondage to our wealth than we think, then always be more generous with it than makes sense. If we aren’t risking our security, then we are not yet generous enough.

You had to face that yourself when you made pledges for the renovation. You could have saved that money for your future. Why did you risk your own financial security? You were practicing the shrewdness of the manager. You went for welcome over security. You counted on God to be true to God’s own character, that God is more than fair, and faithful, and merciful, and the quality of God’s mercy is not strained, no matter how much you need God’s mercy.

Now let me turn this parable one more time for deeper down. If every parable that the Lord Jesus tells is ultimately about himself, then he’s both the master and the manager. He’s the master who expects you to be ethical, and to give an account of your life. He’s your Lord who holds you accountable for your accounting of your life. At the same time he is the crafty manager who comes to you and cancels for you your ethical debts to God. He is the wily fox in the fable, Bre’r Rabbit, Bugs Bunny, who beats the system and the penalty. He is that one mediator between God and humankind, himself human, who gave himself as a ransom to pay for you, and set you free.

And he welcomes you into his eternal homes. A better translation is “pavilions of the age,” the age to come. Pavilions of celebration, pavilions of feasting and joy. There’s all this extra olive oil, there’s all this extra bread.

So yes, the character of God that you count on is excess fairness, and mercy, and faithfulness, but if the goal is welcome and celebration, then the deepest character of God is more than generosity, it is abounding love, the love that says, “Come and share my joy with me.”

Copyright © 2019, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

September 15, Proper 19, The Sober Truth (#2) of Loss and Joy

Jeremiah 4:11-13, Psalm 14, 1 Timothy 1:-12-17, Luke 15:1-10

Now that we are back in the Sanctuary we can look at that stained-glass window there, our Good Shepherd window. The shepherd, of course, is the Lord Jesus, but with the European features that artists always gave him. Jesus names himself the Good Shepherd in the Gospel of John, but here in Luke’s Gospel he does it indirectly. In the parable it’s actually the Pharisees and scribes that he invites to think like shepherds. He says, “Which one of you?” Which one of you would go searching for that one lost? If our stained-glass window were strictly on this parable, the face of the shepherd might better be a mirror, for every which one of you to see your face reflected in it.

And yet, since the Lord Jesus tells every parable ultimately about himself, his face does belong there, only more Arabic-looking. And in the face of Jesus we are to read the face of God. The Pharisees and scribes had no problem with God as the Shepherd of Israel, but the Lord Jesus is suggesting that their God is that kind of shepherd that seeks out sinners at the risk of the righteous.

If it was acceptable to compare God to a shepherd, it was not acceptable to compare God to a woman. Notice that in the woman part of the parable, the Lord Jesus does not say, “Which one of you,” because no Pharisee or scribe would want to sweep a house. That’s what women were for, and servants. But the implication is clear—the Lord Jesus would be that woman, and further, God would be that woman. Imagine a stained-glass window of that woman! A dark-skinned Arabic-looking woman, wearing all her jewelry, depicted so that you could count nine coins in her jewelry with one coin missing. With her face as Jesus’ face made feminine, implicitly a face for God.

Is it really true? Does this woman show us God? Does God really come after you like that? Are you so important to her, so precious? You are but one of seven billion people, and our planet is one speck in the galaxy, and our galaxy is one of billions, and are you to believe that God is so aware of you, and passionate to find you, and joyful to have found you? Does God get happy over you? Are you like a coin in God’s earring, or a ring on one of her toes?

Would you like it to be true? Do you want that kind of God? Would you like God to notice when you’re missing? Would you like God to come searching after you and find you? Or would you rather have God more objective, a little less personal, thank you very much, more like a king or an executive than like a woman with a broom?

But how can you even be lost to God? Doesn’t God know everything? Wouldn’t God already know where the coin is, where every last sheep is? How far do you push a parable? What does it mean when we say that we are lost but have been found? How lost are we ever?

It seems like there are very many people in the world whom God does not come after, whom God apparently lets stay lost. Lost in misery, lost in poverty, lost in oppression and grinding hopelessness. And even so among the rich. We in the world have as much good reason for grieving and mourning and lamentation as God would have for joy in heaven. If God rejoices over one that is found, doesn’t God also grieve and lament for all the millions that stay lost in so many different ways, and all across the planet, and all through the centuries? It wasn’t only the Jerusalem of Jeremiah that was burned down, it wasn’t only the people of Israel who are “my poor people.”

The prophet Jeremiah attributes this loss and misery to God’s fierce anger. Fair enough. God’s fierce anger may be regarded as righteous if we consider all the inhumanity of humankind, all the violence and greed and cruelty, especially by men with power who “eat up their people like bread,” which causes the misery and poverty and oppression and grinding hopelessness of the countless unremembered people through the ages who have been let stay lost. Within God’s anger is there grieving, is there lamentation within God’s judgment, as much as there is rejoicing in heaven?

I hope so. We have reason to think so—because of the cross, because of the grief and lamentation of the Son of God upon the cross. If we can read upon the cross the otherwise unfathomable heart of God, if we can see upon the sorrowful face of the crucified Jesus the otherwise unimaginable face of God, if we can say that the desolation described by Jeremiah is revealed upon the cross as the desolation of God’s own soul, then we have reason to think so, and you may hope so.

That’s where I must take you as a preacher of the Gospel, and that’s what you may see within the Sacrament: the breaking of the bread for the broken heart of God, and the pouring of the wine for the spilling of God’s soul. If you can imagine God to be like a woman, then you can imagine a God who grieves eternally for every last lost child. It must be a sober truth.

The Christian Church has taught for centuries that all those billions of lost souls have been condemned to hell, no matter how much they might have suffered already in this life. I don’t believe it, and neither did the early Church, nor does the Bible teach it when interpreted correctly. But neither does the Bible reveal to us their ultimate fate beyond their death. We might offer implications and suggestions, but finally we have to leave it with God, and the nature of God revealed in Jesus Christ, especially upon the cross. We have to leave it with the grace of God, and the love of God.

And although the grief of God is real for every last lost child, grief is not the last word for God, lamentation is not the end for God. The goal of God is finding, finding past the limits and beyond the edge, finding in the darkest places, the goal of God is reclaiming and rejoicing. God is more like the woman than a king. The king says, That is my law, so be it! But the woman lights her lamp and keeps on sweeping till she finds it, and rejoices, and she wants us all to share her joy with her.

I wonder if the Lord Jesus was laughing a little when he told this parable. Because the joke was on the Pharisees and scribes. They complained about Jesus eating with sinners, and by "sinners" they meant other people. But Jesus ate with scribes and Pharisees no less often, precisely because they were sinners too, and that’s the joke. The Lord Jesus loved the scribes and Pharisees no less than the tax collectors, maybe even a little more, but they could not accept his love. You poor Pharisees, you silly scribes, just let yourself be lost and you will find that you are found.

Here’s the best part of the joke. The Pharisees had a brilliant student named Saul of Tarsus. He was an ultra-Pharisee, a take-no-prisoners zealot, ruthless in his righteousness, zealous for the Law and more jealous than God. He was the hot wind of Jeremiah, devastating the infant church. He went out searching for Christian lambs to save them from themselves, with violence if necessary, finding them and binding them and punishing them for their own good.

And the Lord Jesus came after him, on the road, like the woman with the broom, and knocked him down, blinded him with light, and cast him into darkness. All of his brilliant righteousness he realized was the worst of sin. He lost everything—his mission, his vision, his reputation, his mentors and his friends, his purpose in life, he was absolutely lost—because he had been found. He was the tenth coin, and the Lord Jesus fastened him on his earring, and put a fancy dress on, and he danced with the angels.

The sober truth is that we are lost, more than we know. And the joke on us is that we were found before we knew that we were lost. Silly us. If we can laugh at ourselves we can laugh along with God. Why else repent? Repentance is letting go, and let the woman take you in her arms and hold you as she dances. Or let him put you on his shoulder and he will carry you.

This is the same good news every week, and every week we have to hear it and believe it once again. And if this is true, then God’s nature must be love. Here we have to park our unanswered questions, that God, by nature, is love. The sorrow and the grief of God is from love, and God’s love is so great that the final outcome for absolutely everything and everyone will be grace and joy.

Copyright © 2019, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Thursday, September 05, 2019

September 8, Proper 18: The Sober Truth (1) of the Cost of Freedom

Jeremiah 18:1-11, Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17, Philemon 1-21, Luke 14:25-33

These are tough texts, all of them, although they have their logic. In the first reading, from Jeremiah, the metaphor of the potter’s house reasonably illustrates the sovereignty of God together with the freedom of God. God is free to change God’s mind—not capriciously, but in order for God to keep steady on God’s own personal axis of righteousness.

Fair enough, but what troubles us is God reserving the right to plan evil against us. That may logically follow from God being both sovereign and free, and it may honor human responsibility, but how can a loving God plan evil against anyone?

The epistle to Philemon is troubling because of what St. Paul does not say. He does not condemn slavery in general. To get Philemon to take back his slave Onesimus without punishing him and to even give him his freedom, St. Paul bases his appeal on Philemon owing him his faith, not because slavery itself is wrong. This apparent acceptance of slavery by St. Paul has been the instrumental cause of trouble and oppression and evil among Christians beyond all reckoning.

Then, in the Gospel, the Lord Jesus is impossibly unreasonable. He says you have to give up all your possessions. But then won’t you become dependent on someone else who has possessions? Like a Buddhist monk, or even like a slave? The Lord Jesus says you have to hate the members of your family, the parents you were commanded to honor. So do you to abandon your wife and kids and condemn them to begging and poverty? This text could have given cover to the cruel separation of families in the slave markets of America. The separation of families at our border right now is an evil and is supposed to be illegal. So why does the Lord Jesus suggest we do it to ourselves?

You came here today because you are drawn to Jesus as representing a good and loving God, and you want Jesus to make a difference in your life, but when you get close to him, he turns around and talks like this—that you renounce all your substance and your relationships and all that you hold dear.

What you wanted from Jesus was the wisdom to improve your relationships with your family, not to renounce them. What you wanted was guidance on how to handle your possessions ethically, with stewardship and generosity, not just throw them away. He doesn’t even allow for you defending your family and property, because if you’re carrying your cross, you can’t carry a gun. Carrying a cross is what the Romans had designed for slaves, crucifixion was the punishment for slaves, and slaves had no right to bear arms. Is Jesus comparing following him to the social status of slavery?

The Lord Jesus is very much the Biblical prophet here. In Biblical prophecy, the words of the prophet are not meant to be reasonable. The prophet does not offer explanations and does not negotiate. The prophet does not answer your questions, the prophet rather questions everything. No deals are made and no excuses are accepted, no matter how reasonable your particulars may be.

So the words of the Lord Jesus here show no concern for reasoning with us. There’s no deal to be made, no solution, no synthesis. His words break the pottery. He plucks up and breaks down. He clears the ground, ripping out the flowers with the weeds. We want his words to be like a nice summer morning, but he speaks like the hurricane that threatens our security. He means to trouble us.

We will not soften these hard sayings of Our Lord. We will honor their hardness and challenge, like a big rock right in your pathway that you always have to reckon with. Jesus offers you a constant obstacle, a persistent problem that you cannot dispose of. This is a problem you have to live with all your life. You have to keep facing it daily, and examine yourself, even judge yourself. All your good convincing reasons that you need to own this thing, or keep that relationship, or hold on to this arrangement, to all those reasons the Lord Jesus says, “Really?” Time and time again: “Really?”

Don’t bother trying to reason it through with God. God places no value on our affluence. God has no interest in protecting your possessions, or in getting you more of them. That’s not what God does for you. God’s opinion about our possessions is right here in Luke 14.

We have to keep returning to the sober realization that the Christian life will cost you. Especially if you work for justice and righteousness in this world that is biased towards injustice and ungodliness. You might feel like you are losing, not gaining. To accomplish any real change requires you to sacrifice, maybe even your life. This is troubling. A commander of an army has to keep fighting the battle even at the cost of death among his soldiers. During the struggle against apartheid in South Africa I was friends with a black pastor in Soweto, and he told me, “We will be free. It’s up to us. We control it. It just depends how many of us we are willing to let die.” That is troubling.

That’s what Our Lord means by carrying your cross. The cross was not yet the religious symbol of Christianity, but the symbol of Roman oppression and vindictiveness. It was a negative symbol of pain and loss. To carry your cross means that even in the midst of pain and loss you still follow Christ, that you stay faithful to God even in suffering and tragedy. The cost of discipleship.

And yet this is your power. Your freedom and your power. Because, ironically, though Jesus died on a cross he never surrendered. He continued to say exactly what he wanted and did exactly as he willed. In that sense they had no power over him. He was free to the end, though he knew it would cost him. That was his power. So how free do you really want to be, and at what cost?

What if being true to your convictions puts you at odds with your family, especially with your parents? There’s a cost. You take a stand, you get involved in some action, you get involved in some controversial ministry, and you embarrass your relatives and your family accuses you of disloyalty or being inconsiderate.

That’s what Jesus means when he says you have to hate your father and mother: he doesn’t mean the internal emotion, he means the external reputation. If they act all offended at you, that is the cost of discipleship. They may cut you off from their good graces and their sympathy; and that’s when you realize that you are carrying your cross.

Here’s the take-home: How free do you want to be, and what are you willing to pay for it? That is the question you have always to keep before you, it’s never finally resolved. How free do you want to be and at what cost? It’s not so much an obstacle in your daily walk as a stream across your path you have to wade through every day, and you will get wet. How free do you want to be, and at what cost? Following Jesus gives you the pattern and also the hope.

The second feature of Biblical prophecy is that it’s not so much predictive as prescriptive. It’s not an oracle that reveals the predetermined future that we’re locked into and can’t get out of, rather it always offers a moral choice: if you do this, then I will do that, but if you do that, I will do this. The Biblical prophet offers you the challenge and the choice, and the Biblical God responds to you faithfully in honor of the choice you make. Nothing is inevitably predetermined, and the only thing predestined is God’s faithfulness to you.

And everyday the prophecy comes new again, the challenge comes new again, the moral choice is yours again, because God respects your freedom. And thanks to the sacrifice of Christ upon the cross, God does not punish you if you fail the choice, it’s only that tomorrow you will be less free, and your right choice will be costlier again.

Most of the Lord Jesus’ parables are most deeply about himself, and what he had to do. He was only describing what he would have to do on our behalf. That he abandoned his parents, that he took no wife and had no children, that he gave up all his possessions, that he gave away his own life upon the Roman cross.

Why did he do this to himself? For us? The atonement? How does that work? There is a mystery here of sacrifice and substitution here, ransom and replacement. This mystery has challenged and troubled theologians through the centuries. All explanations falter because it is finally unreasonable. God does not explain it, God only offers it.

In his loss is your gain, in his bondage is your freedom, in his surrender is your power, so that you gain freedom and you gain power, but that freedom and power is revealed upon the cross as self-giving love, the great unreasonable love of God for all the world and the love of God for you.

Copyright © 2019, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Sunday, September 01, 2019

September 1, Proper 17: Beggars' Banquet

Proper 17 2019, Jeremiah 2:4-13, Psalm 81:1, 10-16, Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16, Luke 14:1, 7–14

“They were watching him closely.” Because he was at the head table, he was the special guest. And because Pharisees were observant by definition; plus they would be watching each other too: Who is trying to talk to him, and who is keeping his distance? Who is keeping pharisaical, and who is risking it? Who is moving up, and who is down? Whom do we honor, or do we tolerate? Who is successful, and who is losing? The whole atmosphere would be watchfulness.

I have always been observant, even vigilant. I’m always watching, always analyzing, ever judging, I’m a critic. And I feel like I am always being watched. I live my life on view. When I was little, we would go visit my Grandma Meeter in a conservative Dutch community in New Jersey, and she’d take us for a Sunday walk, and we’d fool around and she’d say, “Walk nice. What will people think?”

She had reason to feel this way. My grandma had been born out-of-wedlock—her father was unknown—and her mother went crazy and ended her life in the state mental hospital. My grandma lived with shame. Yet she was loving and generous and courageous, and she loved to laugh, but I remember how self-conscious she was, especially in church, and she preferred to sit in the back.

But my Grandpa Meeter liked to sit up front, so they ended up in the middle. My grandpa did not mind people watching him. He sang loud in church. He would call out greetings in three languages, Dutch and English and Frisian. He was devout and faithful and successful in his business. But not once in his life was he ever nominated for consistory. Because he was crippled from his childhood, and he walked with a gigantic limp. People didn’t want to have to watch him march in like that when the elders all came in together to start the service.

When we went to church with my mom’s parents, the Hartogs, we sat in the back pews of the balcony. They too had reasons for shame. My grandpa was a known adulterer. In the words of our Hebrews reading, he did not “hold his marriage in honor,” nor “keep his marriage bed undefiled.” The elders had suspended him from taking Communion. When he repented of his ways he was reinstated, but he never did take Communion again, and they sat in the very back.

We are social creatures, we can’t help but watch each other and analyze. So do you find church a place of welcome and security, or a place of uncertain hospitality and ambiguous acceptance? Do you want to be noticed and talked to or do you need your privacy? Are you looking for fellowship, or would you rather just focus on God without us distracting you? Do you want to be recognized or do you keep back because you don’t know what your status here would be?

Jesus tells a parable that offers a strategy for avoiding unexpected humiliation. If you don’t want to look bad at a party, act deferential, and you can only go up. If you assume the place of honor you might get humiliated. This strategy is obvious and true, but did we need the Son of God to tell us this?

Remember that Jesus designs his parables to give some resistance to your understanding. A parable has layers of meaning. The first layer is obvious and easy to understand. But it is actually too easy to understand, on purpose, so that if your heart is hard, you will think you understand it and be satisfied with yourself. The deeper layer has resisted you, as it was meant to do. The parable will be closed if you are closed. But if you keep open, the parable can open its deeper layer, which can seem almost the opposite of the outer layer.

Jesus has done that here. The outer layer suggests that humility is an act you can adopt to spare yourself a worse humiliation. But the deeper layer is that you don’t have to act at all. How do I get that? Well, the key that opens the deeper layer is the last thing the Lord Jesus says here, about inviting to your banquets the people you wouldn’t normally invite. Jesus suggests what the active virtue of humility is, and it has nothing to do with how you look in people’s observation.

The active Christian virtue of humility is simply acting without regard for your own self-interest, and with no expectation of repayment. It is removing the idea of investment from your relationships with other people. In your relationships, don’t be concerned with the benefit you might get back from those relationships. The active virtue of humility is acting without observing self-interest.

This sets you free for all kinds of creative relationships with people you would not normally connect with, especially those who cannot do anything for you. Not that you should let them take advantage of you. In Our Lord’s illustration you’re the one who gives the luncheon and you’re the one who gives the banquet, so you’re the host and you’re in charge of what you offer them and what you do not offer them. This kind of active humility is not self-abnegation nor a lack of self-respect. When someone acts all knavish or obsequious, that’s the humiliation of victimization, not the active humility of freedom.

This also sets you free from getting miserable and resentful when other people have failed or disappointed you. You don’t care where you sit or whom you sit with. You are able to live on, and be self-determining and even joyful in the midst of a very fallen humanity. You are able still to offer what you offer and you are even able to keep on loving the unlovely.

Of course this is challenging. We do have expectations of each other. We do have obligations to each other and to each other’s interest. Even in the generous of marriages there is some necessary self-interest, some mutual obligation, requiring faithfulness. And I don’t think the Lord Jesus means to ruin all wedding receptions in the future by not allowing the inviting of your friends and family.

But the challenge still stands, you recognize its value as the attitude of the alternate humanity that is countercultural to the always dominant humanity that puts self-interest first. Whether we’re speaking of the dominant humanity of today, as exemplified by our President and our Governor and our Mayor and all the powerful people in politics and economics and our cultural institutions and universities, or we’re speaking of the dominant humanity of the Roman Empire within which our Gospel and our Epistle both were written.

I have spoken before of the new kind of humanity that is a major theme of St. Luke’s Gospel. You see it in a different way in the Hebrews reading, in that catchall list of short exhortations that do not feel quite unified. The underlying unity is that these exhortations contradict the dominating aspirations of the best and brightest in the Roman world. Remember those in prison, as if you’re in prison with them, remember those being tortured, as if you’re tortured with them, and torture was legal in the Empire and a tool of state.

Prison and torture were risks the early Christians had to live with because of their belief. And yet they considered themselves more free, free to be more creative with their relationships and more loving as a way of life. They were examples of the new kind of humanity coming to life in the world because of the resurrection and the gift of the Holy Spirit.

So it’s not just for the church that we have to welcome in the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. You could say that it might be true for the church, but not for the nation. You could say that the nation should only welcome in the educated immigrants with skills and money to contribute, and that our national policy should express our national self-interest.

Yes, the words of the Lord Jesus and the exhortations of Hebrews are certainly for the church, and for the practice of the church. But the vision is larger than that, for the Kingdom of God is beyond the church for the new humanity. We’re talking about a whole humanity that welcomes into our general society the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind, and the immigrants who precisely cannot pay us back, and then we will be blessed, says the Lord Jesus.

Brenda Lynn Stolk was a young woman in my second congregation, in Ontario. She was a nurse practitioner, in a group home for the mentally handicapped. I did her wedding. It was a great big Dutch-Canadian wedding with very many relatives and substitute relatives among the immigrants. At Dutch wedding receptions they usually seat the domine right up front. Not at Brenda Lynn’s. Who were seated at the head table? The mentally handicapped residents of her group home were her special guests. And during that reception they kept watching her with affection and love and pride, because she was a beautiful bride. Her greatest beauty was in showing us what God is like, that God is love.

Copyright © 2019, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.