Friday, November 21, 2014

November 23, Ingathering Sunday: The Mission 1: What Is Jesus Up To?


 Ezekiel 34::11-16, 20-24, Psalm 100, Ephesians 1:15-23, Matthew 25:31-46

Today we can say that the Reformed Dutch Church of the Town of Brooklyn, a.k.a. “Old First,” is 360 years old. Probably. The early history of our congregation is a mixture of facts and mysteries.

It is a fact that our church was established in October of 1654 by Peter Stuyvesant, the governor of New Netherland. But we don’t know exactly when our congregation first met together. It’s reported  that a few months later Dominee Polhemus had been preaching here, and that two years later a consistory was already organized, but the rest is cloaked in mystery.

So the parish of Old First is older than the congregation. What I mean by parish is the public church, established by the government, intended for every inhabitant in the village of Breukelen, and supported by taxation. No one was forced to attend, but no one was excused from the church tax either.

What I mean by congregation is the community of Jesus gathering for worship, the people drawn by the call of God to get up early and stoke the fire and feed the cow and walk through the woods to gather in a barn, to hear the Word of God preached and sing the Psalms and pray the prayers and celebrate Holy Baptism and Holy Communion. And where they put the animals we do not know.

There on the table is a fact, a solid fact, hammered out of silver 330 years ago. The inscription on that communion beaker says that it was given to our church by Maria Badia on October 3, 1684. Was it given to mark our church’s 30th anniversary? Another mystery. It’s one of a pair. For safety we keep them on display at the New-York Historical Society.

Last week one of you asked me if we could use that beaker again for Holy Communion. I answered, quite stiffly, “No, because our consultants have told us how extremely carefully we must handle it to preserve it. No contact with human skin.” Afterward I realized that the stiffness of my answer was a cover for my deep desire for that very thing, that we could all drink together from that common up again. That’s what it wants, right?

There it sits as a cold fact, but it’s like the string on the kite of a great mystery, the mystery of the Blood of Christ. How many generations of believers have tasted the mystery in that cup? We don’t know. Dutch farmers, French Huguenots, Africans both free and enslaved, Canarsie Indians, English soldiers, all drinking in turn from that cup of salvation. I would love it if our nine new members today, Anna, Jessica, Paul, Gordon, Suzy, Cynthia, Gabe, Danny, and Jabe, could drink from that same cup. That we can’t does not negate the mystery that these nine share in that same community of Jesus reaching back across 360 years, a sea of faces now lost to us but once reflected in the silver of this cup and still quite visible to God.

The beaker is a symbol of our church as a community of Jesus, a congregation, and our building is a symbol of our church as a public institution, a parish. We were instituted as a parish which had to generate a congregation. Today we are a congregation which maintains a parish, and the parish includes far more people than our congregation and many more activities than our communion.

Our congregants now number about 200, including confessing members, the baptized children of confessing members, and adherents. Our adherents are participants who have not taken legal membership but who are fully members of the community of Jesus. This community of Jesus is not static. Its boundaries are a mystery to us, it breathes in and it breathes out, it gathers in for communion and then goes out into the parish and the world.

And who knows how many people belong to our parish. I could read a long list, but let’s just take James, who sleeps on our stoop. He spends more hours per week at Old First than any of you do. I pray with him. He belongs to the parish of Old First.

Parish and congregation, building and beaker, mission and communion, expanding circles of community and circles moving in, some people quick and some people slow, some children excited just to be here, some people standing up for membership, some people just trying to hang on and believe.

I’m talking about our mission here, the mission of Old First to be a congregation which serves our parish, a community of Jesus which hosts a sacred space for all the folks around us. Today I am starting a sermon series I’m calling “The Mission.” As we try to discern what we should do about our sanctuary, we should try to discern what God would have us do, which means: What is the mission that God has given us. No church exists for itself, but for the mission God has given it. “The church is for mission as a fire is for burning.” (Brunner)

The mission begins with God. God is on a mission. Think of Advent and Christmas as God going on a mission trip. The Father sends the Son down as a missionary, but first he has to learn the language, from his mother Mary. His mission trip ends with his death and resurrection, and forty days later his Ascension back to heaven, not only as the Son of God but now as well the Son of Man, and as God and Man to take the throne of heaven. And what is he up to on the throne?

He gave his disciples a parable for this, his very last parable on his last day of teaching, a day or so before he was arrested. The parable show him doing two things in the world. He is gathering and he is judging. Gathering and judging. If we interpret the parable by the Epistle to the Ephesians, he does this not just at the end, as is often thought, but now, in history, in the course of human events.

He gathered you all here today. You heard his call somewhere inside your mind and his Holy Spirit within you moved you to answer it. You didn’t have to stoke the fire or feed the cow, but you gathered here from various places in the parish to become again today a congregation, and again today the worship service converts you into a community of Jesus who commune with him.

He gathers you to himself. You enter your inheritance. Already. You share in the Kingdom of God. You share in the light. You inherit what Ephesians calls the immeasurable greatness of his power for you who believe, although Our Lord is so contrary to the usual measures of power that he keeps expressing his greatness in such small things as visiting prisoners and caring for the sick and feeding hungry people.

Your grocery bags connect to something much larger. It’s like when I was a kid on Herkimer Street we used to see these wispy seeds that floated in the air. Like dandelion seeds, only finer. We called them “money-mans.” We didn’t know where they came from or what they would grow into — that was a mystery to us. Your grocery bags are the floating seeds, little hard facts, floating between your giving and someone whom you don’t know receiving. They carry in them the greater mystery of what the Lord Jesus is doing in the world. God is gathering every little act that you do into that great goal that he told us to pray for, “that his Kingdom come, on earth, as it is in heaven.”

He is also judging. Not just at the end; this parable is about what he’s up to right now. It’s not about who is going to heaven or hell, it’s about this king and what he looks for, and what kind of deeds you do to express the standards of his kingdom and his judgment. His standards are published very clearly in his Word, and as we respond to his Word we actually judge ourselves. The peoples and the nations judge themselves.

I will say more about this judgment in future sermons, but today I will say that the history of the world since Our Lord’s ascension is like one great trial, of which the verdict is still out, and in which all of you are witnesses. I don’t mean witnesses that stand up on a soapbox or hand out tracts. I mean witnesses by how you feed and clothe and care and visit, by how you talk about yourself and what you value and how you tell the story of your life in very ordinary ways. When you stand up and say, “Yeah, I guess I believe that too.” When you all stand up to repeat the Apostles Creed you witness to each other and you encourage each other to believe this strange and humanly impossible combination of facts and mysteries which is the Christian faith.

The witnessing? That’s what the parish is for. The gathering? That’s the congregation. These two aspects of the church are both important, and they overlap and together they express the fullness of the mission of Our Lord. The building and the beaker. Outside and inside. The facts and the mystery. It’s a mystery why Our Lord has allowed this church to survive for 360 years when others have not.

But the fact is here you are. And the fact and mystery is that nine of you who will stand up today and then kneel down, and that will encourage the rest of us and remind us of God’s love for us.

Copyright © 2014 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Friday, November 14, 2014

November 16, Proper 28: Transformations 10: Your Worldview



The Parable of the Talents Window, by Tiffany, at Old First.

Judges 4:1-7, Psalm 123, 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11, Matthew 25:14-30

Weeping and gnashing of teeth. That means grief with anger. You’re hurt and you’re mad too. Yeah, you blew it, but it was a set up, it was unfair to begin with. You blew it, but you feel it’s really their fault.

This is a timeless parable. It’s about venture capitalism, it’s about start-ups, you could set the parable in Silicon Valley. A story in last week’s Sunday Business section of the Times reported that “30 to 40 percent of venture-backed start-ups blow through all or most of their investor’s money, and 70 to 80 percent do not deliver their projected return on investment.” I think the third slave must have read this article.

A "talent" is a lot of money, say a million dollars. The master left $5 million with the first slave, $2 million with the second, and $1 million with the last. He gave them the gifts of both responsibility and freedom. “Here’s a lot of money, now you do something with it.” The master was investing here, he was investing in his slaves, and his investments had a high exposure to risk. But he was setting an example to his slaves. “You do with my money as I have done with you. Invest and expose yourself to risk as I have done with you. I put my faith in you.”

How do you respond when you’re given the honor of responsibility? Do you shrink from it? How do you respond to the terrible gift of freedom—do you see it as an opportunity or do you fear it? The first two slaves took the risk of betting on their master’s graciousness if their investments didn’t pan out. They counted on him to be decent. They bet that when he came back, he would value it that they dared to trust in him.

Their investment of his money was even more their investment in their own future with their master. There was risk in what they did — they had no proof of either result, that their money would double, or that their master would honor their attempt, but they took those risks. Jesus says that this is what it’s like with the reign of God.

The third slave did not dare the risk of his master’s graciousness. By his prudence he covered his fear. His fear prevented his chance for joy. Not just at the end, but all along. The joy which the first two entered as their reward was the expansion of the excitement of the daring marketing and commerce they’d been conducting all along.

To live in joy and creativity, you’ve got to work your faith. It is a life of risky vulnerability, but it is an open life. If you don’t invest your faith, if you live all closed, if you don’t risk your relationships, if you don’t venture on the good will of your Lord, then you end up living fearfully and defensively. Jesus said that this is what it’s like with the reign of God.

Poor third slave, cast out into darkness. How harsh the punishment. Well, it’s a parable, and isn’t the outer darkness the expansion of the inner darkness inside him all along, before his master came back, isn’t the darkness the expression of the fear and alienation that was in him already?

But still, why wasn’t the master merciful? After all, the third slave hadn’t lost him any money. The master seems to prove the third slave’s fear that his master was a harsh and greedy man.

As I work this parable, it seems to me that it’s not mainly about the talents, or the slaves, but about the master. The parable makes obvious easy points about investment, and the risk of faith, and such, but deeper inside the parable is a sharper point, and the stinger is this: that to the first two slaves, the master is gracious and generous, but to the third slave, he’s harsh and greedy. Can Jesus really be saying that this is what God is like?

What is God like? How true is it to say that God is what you make of God? Do you find God giving you what you expect God to give you? Do you find God acting as you expect God to act? Don’t get me wrong — of course God is greater than our projections, God transcends our experience of God, but at the same time, paradoxically, you will experience God as much you dare to believe God is.

If you believe your God is great and generous and gracious, you will find God so. If you believe that God is small or harsh or cruel, you will find God so. Therefore take the risk, venture that God is the infinitely magnificent personality that Jesus says God is, invest in a future with that kind of God, and already you’ll be entering into joy, even before your Lord comes back.

Isn’t that what you all want to do, the way you want to live, creatively and joyfully? So what causes you to be immobilized? How do you lose your creativity, how do you cease to grow? Each one of us has something in us that makes us retreat into defensiveness. Guilt. Shame. Plain weakness. The disempowering effects of sin, the self-defeating condition of our alienation from God. And we become fearful like the third slave. You fear both the unknown and the known.

So what do you do? You have to go right through your fear. Faith is not fearlessness, faith has fear in it, faith is not blind faith, but what faith does is look beyond what you can’t know and look beyond even what you can know and venture on the character of your Lord.

Fear and money. Jesus brings them together in this parable. Both of them are powerful, they make you nervous, they touch your vulnerability. You keep them private, both of them, and your money becomes an occasion for your fear. You need to have a certain amount of both, and you tend to want more of the one and less of the other. They tend to control your behavior, more than you admit to yourself. From the power of both of them Jesus calls you to his freedom, and this freedom comes from setting the course of your life by your vision of God.

Is this another sermon about tithing? No it’s not, but tithing does express the issue here at hand. Is this another sermon about stewardship? No, it’s not, but it could have been. This sermon is about what God is like. You will discover a God who will be as great and as gracious as you depend on God to be. How big is your God, how magnificent, how gracious? How much are you willing to invest, in spite of all the valid reasons for your fear? How will you handle your stewardship of your life and your livelihood and all that portion of the world which God has put into your hands?

Is this another sermon about repairing our sanctuary? No, although the sanctuary expresses what is at stake, because the repair touches our money and our fear. It should not surprise us that we feel our fear at the very same time that we are really vital as a congregation,

with a new a members class of nine people whom we will recognize next week,

with increasing levels of financial stewardship,

with our congregation sounding like a trained choir when it sings,

with deacons and elders taking on new responsibilities and challenges,

with a Sunday School staff of ten teachers,

with the awarding of a Landmarks grant as we start getting ahead on our building maintenance,

with a 2nd Mission Team at work envisioning a new level of adult education,

with all the offerings of the 4th Mission team,

with our seasonal ministries to the homeless and the hungry,

all this vitality, and right here is where we should expect to feel our fear!

We feel like the third slave even when we’re hard at work like the first and second slaves. We can see the vision, we accept from God our daring mission, we get excited and we invest ourselves in it, and then we feel our exposure to our risks, and so we are quite naturally tempted to safeguard, hold back, hold in, or we may lose it all.

This sermon is partly about your worldview and the transformation of your worldview. See the world as a world belonging to God, and everything in it, not only the salvation of your soul but also the spheres of economics and politics and ecology and social justice. When you see the world as God’s world, that changes your values within it. The problem with religious worldviews is that they so often end up in fundamentalisms and religious wars.

So the deeper question is your God-view: what is God like, and what does God expect of human life and human institutions.

I invite you to the same God-view that our Lord Jesus ventured on. You have been given so much. Do not hide it, do not defend it, do not protect it, rather dare it, expose it, risk it, just as Our Lord Jesus did with his own sweet life. Because this is a God who reaps where he did not sow, and gathers where he did not scatter seed, and this is a good thing! Outside there may be darkness, but when the light from God shines in you see that what the darkness was trying to hide is a world of great resource and boundless return. You can always tell when its proper investment and risking by when it feels like love, just as God has risked so much investment in you precisely out of God’s inexhaustible love for you.

Copyright © 2014 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Ordination of Rev. Liz Niehoff, Bronxville, November 9: "I Pledge My Life"


Philippians 3:7-14

I want to thank the Bronxville Reformed Church for the hospitality of your pulpit, and I thank the Classis of Rockland-Westchester for the privilege of the floor, and Liz Niehoff, I thank you for having invited me here.

In just a few moments you will read out the Declaration for Ministers, that third Formulary in the Book of Church Order of the Reformed Church in America, and then you will sign your name to it in the register of the Classis. The Declaration is one the treasures of the RCA and the best part of the BCO, and we don’t even know who wrote it — the church wrote it. The words are sacred and the Classis will rise to its feet to hear you read it, as your witnesses, as the trustees of your sacred vow. And when you sign it, you will have made this RCA thing, this BCO thing — for the rest of your life you will have made this Declaration a Liz Niehoff thing.

You will declare these words: “Trusting in the Lord Jesus Christ for strength, I pledge my life to preach and teach the good news of salvation in Christ, to build up and equip the church for mission in the world, to free the enslaved, to relieve the oppressed, to comfort the afflicted, and to walk humbly with God.” You pledge your life. What else have you got, finally — your precious life that you have fought so hard to keep alive, and you’re going to pledge that to the gospel. It’s a vow that’s more extravagant than a wedding vow. I pledge my life. If I were to ask any one of you ministers here if you had a personal mission statement, you could just repeat these words.

I did not understand this thirty-four years ago when I first declared it for myself. I remember other things about my ordination, but not that I pledged my life. Probably because I really hadn’t. I was pledging a part of my life. I wasn’t lying, but I wasn’t declaring the whole truth. I wanted to do something else with my life, and I was doing the ministry thing until I could do what I was supposed to do. I would do this ministry thing until I could get my Ph.D. and then my teaching job, which I thought I knew I was meant to do.

Was I a fraud? Was I an imposter? No, I think not, because despite my not having given my life to it, the gospel was taking it. I got my degree and kept getting turned down by our seminaries and I was angry and bitter and then, about twelve years in, one day I noticed that I had been happy for the last three months, as a pastor. How Dutch is that, not to notice you’re happy till afterwards? So I decided to become a pastor. When people ask me when I decided to go into the ministry, I tell them it was about twelve years after my ordination.

Something else happened at the same time. I was up in Ontario on a pastor’s retreat, six of us in my friend’s cottage, a spring morning, bright sunlight, and Andrew, a minister from Ottawa, read these verses from Philippians 3, “I want to know Christ, and the power of his resurrection, and the sharing of his sufferings, being conformed to his death, that I might somehow attain the resurrection of the dead.” I heard these verses as if for the first time. I heard them as a direct revelation, like I was Muhammed listening to the angel Jabreel. These angelic verses called me. I needed to find out what they meant. I needed to know what they meant for my life.

I was always someone who wanted to know. I was lousy at sports but I was good at knowing things. At Trivial Pursuit it used to be me against my relatives. I was competitive at wanting to know things and I wanted to know what you knew better than you did. I wanted to know all the birds and all the trees. I wanted to know how to speak Dutch with my grandparents and then how to read Greek and I wanted to know Reformed theology and I wanted to know church history, I wanted to know it all and I ended up a know-it-all.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not criticizing the intellectual pursuit. Pastors should be lovers of learning and by no means avoid God’s mission to the public intellect. But what I am saying is that I discovered, more like, it hit me, I discovered it like you discover the piano that’s been dropped on your head, that now that I was willing to give my life to the gospel, I had to convert what I wanted to know. I needed to know Christ.

So if your personal mission statement is in the Declaration for Ministers, then your personal vision statement is Philippians 3:10-11. If you’re pledging your life to preach and teach the good news of salvation then you’re going want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings, conforming to his death to attain somehow the resurrection from the dead.

When I say “wanting to know Christ” I don’t mean wanting to be friends with Jesus, and I mean much more than knowing the Christ of history or even the second person of the Trinity. What St. Paul most certainly means is that in Christ you get to know the whole of God, for in him the fulness of God has come to dwell.

You want to know how, in the person of Jesus, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit actually entered and engaged and identified with humanity in real time in a real place as a real person. You want to explore this, you want to share in the suffering side of it and know the resurrection side of it. You want to know Christ because you want to know about this real connection God made with us by having a real mother named Mary and a real ethnicity named Jewish.

You want to know about God’s experience of us. You want to know what humanity feels like to God, you want to know what suffering feels like to God, and that you know in Christ. Closer than most of us, you have been like him in his death, and more than most of us, you have shared in suffering, but your own suffering can tell you only so much. How does suffering feel to this man Jesus, who caused no suffering to anyone else, who asked no sympathy, and who never complained?

You want the sharing of his sufferings. You don’t want the suffering itself, but the sharing of suffering. The word “suffer” comes from the Latin subfero which means under-carrying, undergoing, undergirding, undertaking, understanding. But you want to do that not on your own but in the power of his resurrection, and there where in your life and ministry you suffer most the likeness of his death is where you will learn to discover the power of his resurrection.

God is the one who frees the enslaved, it is God who relieves the oppressed, and God is the one who comforts the afflicted, but God has seen fit do that through the media of Word and Sacrament, and these media require human mediums. You pledge your life to be a medium. God is active in your mediation, God does business through your ministry. And in that business that you do, you want to know where Christ is, and keep yourself there.

You want to keep reading the encyclopedia of the power of his resurrection, you want to rehearse and rehearse the music of his suffering, you want to drill yourself in the dance-moves and in the verb-forms of his death, and you want to spend hours in the laboratory of the resurrection of the dead. You want to know Christ, you pledge your life to exploring God’s coming into the world, and reporting on God’s coming and taking people with you into God’s presence and no less meeting people who are already there and meeting up with God who is already there and waits for you in love.

St. Paul writes that he counts as rubbish all that he had gained. Should you? Should any of you? I have had a few losses in my life, but I’ve had much more privilege than loss. Should I count it as rubbish? This church is used to privilege; should you regard it all as rubbish? Well, yes, but only in comparison to the surpassing value of knowing Christ. Our candidate knows many things. She deserves to know them: she is an excellent student who studies hard, and she has paid very dearly for much of what she knows. And all that knowledge and experience increases the value of that young life of hers which she is pledging to the gospel today.

But she knows more than most of us the relative value of all that, compared to the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus as her Lord. She even counts all her losses as rubbish. I like to get some sympathy for my losses. Not her. She reminds me of St. Paul. Verse 13: “But this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press onward toward the goal of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” Her call is all she really knows about herself and her future. But she chose this text, so we know what else and whom else she wants to know. And so we commend her to churches, in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Copyright © 2014 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Saturday, November 01, 2014

November 2, Proper 26; Transformations 9: Your Money


 Joshua 3:7-17, Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37, 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13, Matthew 23:1-12

St. Paul reminds the Thessalonian Christians that he was "like a father" to them. So then if one of the Thessalonians gratefully and respectfully referred to him as Father Paul, would that transgress Our Lord’s admonition to call no man Father?

I’m addressed as Father out in public not infrequently. In the military, chaplains are generally called Padre even if they’re Protestant. In my third charge, in Hoboken, the Gujurati people called me Padrisahib, which literally means Father Master. Should I have stopped them? In my first charge, the Hungarians called me Tiszteletes Úr, which means Honorable Lord. Should I have refused it? In my second and fourth charges my Dutch parishioners called me Dominee, from the Latin for Lord. It should be intolerable, but it’s said with such affection that it’s my favorite. Dominee.

When I came to Brooklyn, and people asked me what they should call me, I said I didn’t care, only that the children could call me what they call their teachers, but it had not occurred to me that here children call teachers by their first names, and young children calling me Daniel let me know that actually I did care, and that I’m old-school, but are they not really closer to the admonition of Our Lord? Despite that, next week I will address Rabbi Bachman as Rabbi. The whole question of whether Gospel admonitions even count for him I will not go into today.

The question for today is what is Our Lord getting at? We have always to remember that Jesus is never about setting up a new set of rules to replace the old set of rules. He’s not about giving you do’s-and-don’ts. Here he is doing what he often does—he’s making a sweeping statement to clear away everything, to bring everything under total judgment, so that even the good things that you do you recognize for what they are, as fallen, and that your good works have value not in themselves but because God graciously accepts them, and that your best efforts have value precisely in your humility. If people call me Father, or Master, or Teacher, I accept it not as my prerogative but as my reminder to the necessary humility of my needing and receiving grace, yes, grace upon grace.

Did you ever notice that the deacons never put the collection plate in front of me? We’ve never discussed it, it’s never been brought up, but somehow it’s been the custom in all five of my charges. Do you think that I don’t give? When I was a kid my mom always passed out nickels to us kids, and they were not for us to keep. My wife and I do tithe. By tithing I mean we put our giving into our budget, just like our mortgage and our utilities and our insurance.

Tithing means that you budget a percentage of the first part of your income to give back to God. Your absolute minimum should be one percent. Your ideal target is ten percent, and so you try to raise it toward that a little every year. It’s not a law, it’s not a do-and-don’t, it’s a voluntary inner discipline to exercise your habit of trusting in God and your habit of living by faith and your habit of thanksgiving and your habit of proper sacrifice. It’s the economic expression of your inner commitment.

At this point you’re thinking, “That’s easy for you to say, Pastor, or Daniel, or Dominee, whatever, because so much of what I’m giving goes to your salary.” Fair enough, and I’m always under God’s judgment for that. But let me contend that you’re giving in your self-interest too, because you want to belong to the community of Jesus, and the community of Jesus does not exist in itself or on its own, but always in dynamic interplay with the Word of God, and the Word of God comes to you by means of human words.

As St. Paul says to the Thessalonians, “We constantly give thanks for this, that when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in you believers.” Now your pastor is not at the level of St. Paul, and my words remain human words, but in our weekly conversation you discern God’s Word from the interplay of what I say and what is at work in you believers.

In this community of Jesus my part is to keep on calling you to your mission, to call you to your best identity and to your best work, to encourage you with your identity, and to comfort you with how God sees you and what God has for you. First Thessalonians tell us that the community of Jesus requires someone working night and day to keep proclaiming to you the gospel of God.

Did you ever notice that in some churches the collection plate is quite visibly brought up to the preacher, and the preacher quite visibly pulls out his wallet and takes out some cash and puts it in the plate for all to see. Is this the hypocrisy that Our Lord condemns? It is intended as symbolic, as setting an example, as modeling behavior for the congregation, like my mom giving us our nickels. That’s why the Pharisees did what they did in Jesus’ day, with their phylacteries and fringes, they were showing their deep commitments to the people.

Why do the Amish wear their distinctive clothing? Not to judge your clothing but because they want to exercise their inner values and their disciplines of trust and sacrifice. Religion loves symbols and symbolic expressions. Religion trades on show-and-tell. But the danger is the show. Our Lord is judging the show in it and especially the showing off. So should we hide what we do? Are we supposed to shrink?

We were driving back from Canada the other day and I asked Melody to check her I-phone for the traffic in the Hugh Carey Tunnel. She laughed when Google asked her if she meant the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel. Why are we putting names on every bridge and tunnel? Would Robert F Kennedy really want his name upon the Triboro Bridge? In Lincoln Center, Philharmonic Hall was renamed Avery Fisher Hall in exchange for his money. The New York State Theater got renamed for David Koch in exchange for his money.

When I went to Calvin College it had the strict Calvinist policy of not naming buildings after donors. Our dormitories were all named for dead preachers and missionaries, who could give no money. Well, that changed. Now they name the buildings for donors of big bucks. Is that a necessary evil? What would Our Lord say to that?

I knew of a Calvinist elder in Saugatuck, Michigan who believed that the money you tithe would be better burned up or thrown into Lake Michigan than be given to the church. He thought you should generously support the church, but out of your 90%, because you get a benefit back from it, the church serves your self-interest, while tithing should be a letting-go, purely a sacrifice, like killing animals in the Old Testament. Well, it’s possible for Calvinists to be more righteous than God.

The sacrifice which the New Testament requires of you is a living sacrifice, which means it must be a positive investment, an investment in something which is productive and creative. And yet it is a sacrifice, at least when you give your tithe to this church, because in this church no one is allowed to know how much you tithe. How different is this from the fund-raising practice of the world. Here you do not get your name on what you give.

It’s our strict policy here that no one is allowed to know whether you tithe a lot or tithe a little, except for two designated secretaries who are pledged to confidentiality. That you get no credit within the community of Jesus for the amount of your tithe is the sign that it’s a sacrifice.

But this sacrifice is in your self-interest because it transformative, because it puts the whole rest of your money in perspective. Tithing is for the transformation of your money, it’s the portion that leads the meaning of this very important way that you measure what you are worth. It makes you more free with your money, so that your money has less power over you: you have more control of it than its control of you. You gain more power through your giving than your taking.

The sacrifice of giving is a sacrifice of giving thanks, and because it’s thanksgiving it has to be voluntary and of free will; it has no rules, no laws, no do’s-and-don’ts. Because it is free it can be flexible and creative and even playful. I say that even as a Calvinist.

Because it is free and playful it allows for a tolerable amount of generous self-interest, shared self-interest, the genuine self-interest of loving your neighbor as your: self. Your genuine and generous self-interest is in seeking the good of the community of Jesus. The community of Jesus deserves your investment, because it deserves your love. You know it transforms everything to see your money in the perspective of the love of God.

Copyright © 2014 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Note: The elder from Saugatuck, Michigan is reported in a poem by Stanley Wiersma.

Friday, October 17, 2014

October 19, Proper 24, Transformations 8: Your Sovereign


Exodus 33:12-23, Psalm 99, 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10, Matthew 22:15-22


When you live in Canada you get used to seeing a portrait of Queen Elizabeth displayed in every public building. Even in local the hockey arenas, even in the Blue Line Club where you go to drink your beer between the periods, there on the wall her face looks out, the image of serenity and sovereignty. It’s not the same in the USA. The face of the president is not the image of sovereignty.

Who has sovereignty over you? Who has dominion over your life? Who holds eminent domain? The answer is not difficult. You can tell by who takes the first cut of your paycheck. Who takes the first part of your income? Have you noticed that the IRS does not have to do pledge-drives and fund-raisers? The government does not do Consecration Sunday. Your taxes come out before your tithes and offerings. Your taxes come out before anything you spend on yourself.

The ideology of America is that you have total freedom, and the ideology is reinforced in the mythology of advertising: if you are free to spend as you please then you must be free in general. Ah.

Just sit down some time and examine your spending, and measure the proportions of how much you spend on this and that, and those proportions will indicate not only what you value but also what has power over you. What happens to your money tells you not only how much freedom you can exercise but also what dominates you and what demands your certain choices.

You can tell in your own life how eminent is the domain of Caesar and how eminent is the domain of God. You highly value God, but comparatively speaking, the effective sovereignty God in your life is rather weak. You have to wonder why God allows it, coming across so weak, like such an underachiever.

The taxes to Caesar were especially hateful to the Jews. Their taxes supported a government they considered illegitimate. Worse, Roman money was sinful, because the coins broke the second commandment by bearing the graven image of Caesar. Worse yet, Caesar was being worshiped as a god, so their taxes supported the violation of the first commandment. So Roman taxation forced the Jews continually to break the first and second commandments.

Well then, if Jesus claims to be the Messiah, that is, the candidate to be the true King of the Jews, the question they ask him is a legitimate matter of public policy which you’d ask any candidate for office. And then Jesus does not answer them directly. Is this a typical politician’s dodge? He does not say if it’s right or wrong. He leaves that up to his listeners. He turns it back on them.

He asks them to produce a coin. Notice they are able to. Right there is the indicator that they participate in the Roman economy. It means they accept the benefits of Roman rule, no matter how much they rail against it. That’s why he calls them hypocrites. He’s saying, “Oh cut it out.” Get real, stop being so self-righteous, like Caesar is really the problem here. He turns it back on them. He calls them to self-examination. That’s the impact of his response. Examine yourselves: How much in your life belongs to God, and how much in your life belongs to Caesar? Then, act accordingly.

What if they overlap? What if they conflict? What if they both claim the same, the whole field — what if they both claim everything? Caesar did claim everything. Caesar had power over them of life and death, he had eminent domain, he could enforce his sovereignty. The Jews were not citizens, they had no civil rights in their own land, and a Roman soldier could punish any Jew with impunity. The Jews had their Temple only because the Romans had found it politically expedient, and a few decades later when the Temple became a problem the Romans destroyed it.

In our own day it’s not so much that Caesar claims everything, it’s that Caesar gets to determine how much God gets. In the separation of church and state, it is the state which gets to set the boundary, and the church has to accept it. Notice that the IRS demands to know how much you give in tithes and offerings, but the church never asks you how much your taxes are.

But God claims everything as well. Psalm 24: The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, the world, and they that dwell therein. That’s a problem for us in America. We have relegated religion to the private spheres of life, and done our best to keep God out of the public square. We have separated church and state, which was a very good idea. But we blended that legal separation with the philosophical bias of the European Enlightenment, which says that religion is tolerable only when it’s compartmentalized as a private thing, and that a modern democratic state requires absolute secularism in the public affairs.

But religion keeps leaking out of its compartment, for better or worse. Religion keeps leaking from the private into the public. And it will do so unless your God is very small. You can’t stop God from going public, you can’t keep a lid on the sovereignty of God. When Jesus tells his fellow Jews to “Give to God what is God’s,” they must know from their own scriptures that “what is God’s” means everything, even what Caesar has claimed.

The kingdom of God is the sovereignty of God and that means eminent domain. The whole of your life belongs to God. You can’t say: This here is God’s and this here is not. If it’s true that even what belongs to Caesar first belongs to God, then what’s called for is not compartmentalization or even separation but dynamic interaction, that you pay what you pay to Caesar because you’re really paying it to God. Even when those taxes are heavy and unfair, you can be cheerful in paying them, because you’re really paying them to God.

That’s the transformation we are dealing with this weak. It’s the transformation of your loyalties, which means a transformation of your worldview, of how you see the world and whom the world belongs to, and how you divvy it up in order to behave in it. The gospel speaks not just to private behavior and private morality, it also speaks to how you view the world, to your worldview.

How much of the world belongs to God? How much of your day today belongs to God? How much of your life belongs to God? Can you see this problem of sovereignty as life-giving and even liberating? It relativizes every other claim on you, it makes every other claim on you just temporary and expedient. It means the benefit that your life is not compartmentalized, it means the wholeness to your life, it means you don’t have different sets of rules for different relationships. You are integrated, you are unified, you are in unity with yourself, no matter what claims the public powers may demand of you, your nation or boss or family or whatever. You belong to God, and you serve them all as serving God.

You may be thinking I’m sounding like a fundamentalist. They’re the ones who keep imposing their religion on the public, who try to make public law out of their private convictions. So let me say that in a very narrow sense, compared to the Enlightenment, some fundamentalists are right.

But let me tell you they are wrong. While the God that Jesus speaks for does claim everything, we see in Jesus that it is not in the defensive or aggressive way of claiming things. This God is a god who does not push his power or defend her dominion or enforce his sovereignty, except through appealing to your heart.

Of course we’d sometimes prefer it if God would act a bit more powerful, especially in helping us out with some convenient miracles or maybe some extra money for our churches, but that is not the way of God. The face on this God’s coinage is the face of Jesus Christ. And that makes all the difference in God’s approach to power.

The face of Jesus represents a God who does claim everything, but who claims it in the way of servanthood and sacrificial love. That’s not very thrilling or heroic or exciting. Not unless you’re thrilled to offer hospitality, and you’re heroic in reconciliation, and you’re excited by such love and understanding that you even sit down with the Romans and pray for Caesar, as awful as he is. That seems to be the way that Jesus establishes his sovereignty, by preparing a table in the presence of his enemies, and inviting them to eat with him. There is no sovereignty of God which is not expressed in love. And that means that your worldview, your viewing of the world, must always be a looking out for the love of God.

Copyright © 2014 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Friday, October 03, 2014

October 5, Proper 22: Transformations 6: I Want to Know Christ


At the Lake in Prospect Park, on a Sunday, my Grandpa Hartog, my mom, my brother and sister, and me.

 Exodus 20:1-4, 7-8, 12-20, Psalm 19, Philippians 3:4-14, Matthew 21:33-46

My text is Philippians 3:10, I want to know Christ, and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death. 

This verse has been my motto for the last twelve years. It’s my challenge, it’s my personal algorithm for transformation. My goal is to be transformed into a good and fully realized human being. I want to know the pattern for becoming a fully realized human being which is given to us by God.

The pattern is described in the Bible but also demonstrated in the person of Jesus — acted out, lived out, in real time, earned, endured, pursued all the way through death, achieved, accomplished, and I want to know that, I want to share in his continuing existence which has a real transformative power in the world.

The second part of the verse is difficult: the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death. That sounds negative and self-defeating. To get it is as much about feeling as logic. So let me tell you a story from my family history in the Dutch Reformed ghetto in Paterson, New Jersey.

My Grandpa on my mother’s side was a carpenter. He was an immigrant from Amsterdam. He was a lover of languages and books and music. But he made a mess of his life. He committed adultery against my Grandma as soon as they got married and for the next forty years. Just before I was born he left my Grandma and moved in with his girlfriend. He was suspended from Holy Communion, and shunned by all the relatives. I don’t blame them.

My Grandma, at the age of 62, left everything — her house and children and her whole extended family and moved to Massachusetts to take a job as a housemaid in a mansion. She was happy there, she was free. No humiliation, no shame. My Grandpa and his girlfriend found that they could not live with each other, and they split up pretty quick. He ended up all alone. He had lost everything. His life was what our epistle calls “rubbish”.

My parents were open-hearted, and let him come visit us in Brooklyn. When I was seven he moved in with us, in Bedford-Stuyvesant. He started driving for my dad. He did carpentry for my dad’s church. And he connected with me. I loved him in the house. We spent time together. It was for him I started learning Dutch. Eventually he moved out, and I saw him less, but over the years he told me the stories of his life. I was the only one of his nine grandsons to learn his language and his music. I learned to sing Dutch psalms with him. When he died I loved him very much.

I loved what was good about him, but can you understand that I also loved his failures and mistakes? Not that I approve of them, but they were part of him, and if not for his sins he would not have moved in with us and we would not have connected and I would have missed that whole rich part of my own life. His sins and his sufferings are part of what I am today — the music that moves me, the languages I speak, and even my love of Brooklyn. I loved him and I loved the whole of him, embracing his sins and miseries no less than his successes.

I also loved my Grandma, very very much, so his mistreatment of her, his humiliating her, and what it did to my mother that she grow up in a house full of anger, are also part of me. I can’t deny it or even reject it. I bear it, I carry it, I suffer it. I share the suffering my Grandpa brought upon himself and upon other people I have loved.

I want to know Christ and the sharing of his sufferings. Not because suffering itself is good, but the sharing of suffering. This kind of knowing is more than awareness, it’s engagement. It’s more than information, it’s an investment. It means an open mind, but more an open heart. It means understanding, yes, but more deeply it means undergoing, undergirding, undertaking. You already know that this is what makes us fully realized human beings. You have chosen to seek in Jesus how to live this way, by being open to his kind of suffering but also drawing on his resurrection power. It is a way to handle the world, it is a pattern to handle all the good and evil in the world, especially as it touches your own life and those you love.

I’m thinking of Christians in Hong Kong right now. I’m thinking of Christians in the Middle East right now. I’m thinking of Christians in Liberia and Sierra Leone right now. I’m thinking of all of you here who read the news each day and are tempted by cynicism and despair right now, and how much of the world can we bear to suffer?

I’m thinking of all of you here right now who are dealing with shadows in your life, from your own parents and grandparents, and also with the suffering you have brought upon yourself by doing stupid things or fearful things or things of desperation.  Don’t deny it or reject it. Bear it, carry it, suffer it. That’s to be real human beings. To be able to do that without despair and with love and grace must be transformative.

People ask me why we can’t just believe in God and leave it at God, why do we have to have this Christ guy in the middle. It’s a fair question, especially as we are so open to Jews and Muslims. For me it’s not that you have to, but I want to. It’s not about proving our religion right and all the others wrong, it’s believing that, in that real live guy named Jesus, God actually entered and engaged and identified with humanity in real time in a real place as a real person, and I want to know this, I want to have a share in the suffering side of it and know the positive power of it. I want to know Christ because I want to know about this real connection God made with us by having a real mother named Mary and a real ethnicity named Jewish.

I want to know about God’s experience of us. I want to know what humanity feels like to God, I want to know what suffering feels like to God, and I can know that in Christ. I want to know what suffering feels like to a man who, unlike my Grandpa, was innocent and righteous. Yes the suffering of my Grandpa and my Grandma that I feel is real but it can tell me only so much. What does suffering feel like to a guy like Jesus, who caused no suffering to anyone else, who asked no sympathy, and who never complained? That’s the pattern of humanity that I want for my life.

It’s not static. The pattern is still ahead of us. It’s for transformation. You are in process. You’re on the way. Humanity is on the way somewhere. Even God is on the way. God’s engagement is dynamic and has a direction. How can you know where you’re going? How can you know the goal?

St. Paul’s claim (which cannot be proven, you have to take it as a claim) is that if you know Christ, that will do it. He is the object of your certainty, both mystically and historically, the only object of your certainty. He claims that everything else you know, you can know without requiring certainty. Everything else you know you can know in passing, as you know a flower that you throw away, or a flavor that passes, or a smell or a tune. You can love it and let go of it. You can even count it as loss if you have to. Like my Grandma did when she moved to Massachusetts at the age of 62. Like what you risk if you are demonstrating in Hong Kong or nursing in Liberia.

This would be all heroism or romanticism if not for the first part of the verse: I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection. As much as you embrace with love and grace what’s in your past, even more you seek the future, the victory of God. It’s still to come, it’s in the future, the power of it is coming from the future backwards towards us, but in history it’s been guaranteed and grounded in the resurrection of that guy Jesus, whose rising propelled him into that new world that is coming and also anchored his new life in real live history.

The news of that great event keeps speaking through time with us as time continues to unfold, the promise of his rising keeps ringing and echoing through the halls and arenas of our human development, and from the future his power pulls us toward his great design.

I saw that power in my parents. They gave my Grandpa sanctuary when everyone else had shunned him. They honored my Grandpa even when he was dishonorable.

No less did they honor my Grandma. We had always loved it when she came from Massachusetts to stay with us. She was so full of stories and she taught us songs and rhymes in Dutch, and she was a wonderful cook and a wonderful seamstress and she always brought us homemade presents. She didn’t believe in divorce but she wanted nothing to do with my Grandpa.

I guess her visits must have stopped when he came to live with us, until he moved out again. And, then, encouraged by my parents, he asked her out for a date. She didn’t like it but she said Okay.

Well, they got back together for ten final years of marriage. They still argued, but not like before. When Grandpa had his stroke and was in the hospital, Grandma rode the bus downtown three times a day to give him homemade food, and then she took him home to take care of him herself.


Copyright © 2014 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Friday, September 26, 2014

September 28, Proper 21, Transformations 5: Quarreling


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

I’m doing this sermon series on Transformations, inspired by the epistle lesson of some weeks ago, Romans 12, which called us to be not conformed to the world but transformed by the renewal of our minds. So are the scripture lessons telling us this week?

We see the Children of Israel quarreling. Last week we saw them complaining. It’s not pretty, but it got results—food last week and water this week. I said that not all complaining is bad, some is allowed, and it depends. I said that the opposite of complaining is not complimenting but silence—not shutting up but the inner composure that you develop in worship and adoration.

Is quarreling always bad? Is it never allowed? Sometimes, when you are suffering, you vent your pain against the guy in charge. Sometimes you offer an opinion and or advance an argument and you end up in a quarrel. It was happening in the church in Philippi. The congregation was taking sides in a quarrel between two good women, Euodia and Syntyche. There are quarrels in our churches in the Classis. In the church I served in Ontario we had a quarrel that I did not handle well.

St. Paul calls the Philippians to be of full accord and of one mind. That is, get past defending your own position. See things from the other’s point of view, and honor their interests as legitimate. Find common ground and reach an understanding broad enough to include you both. No, that’s not what he says. That’s good, but that’s still being conformed to the world. That’s not a transformation.

The transformation is that your common ground is a new reality which is a challenge to you both. The transformation is that the one mind you share is not each other’s common mind but another mind beyond you both. The transformation is when you both renew your minds to share the mind of Christ. That takes regular renewal. You keep renewing it through worship, mostly, and also in private prayer, and in deeds of service to others, the practice of putting others’ needs before your own. You do these things imagining by faith the mind of Christ.

Your imagination of the mind of Christ is not just anything you want but is informed by his story in the gospel. So, let’s see for this week. The Lectionary has jumped forward in Matthew’s narrative to the last week of Jesus’ life. This was the day after Palm Sunday. Jesus had paraded into Jerusalem like he was taking it and then he cleansed the Temple like he owned the place.

So on this Monday morning the authorities of the city and the Temple come to intervene. “Hey, who said you could do all this?” Is it an honest question, like they’re open-minded, or is it a challenge? Do they think they have the right and the power to demand an answer? When a customs officer asks you questions, you’d better answer them, and don’t ask any questions back.

But Jesus is not in their power. He has no need to defend himself. Yes, he knows they are able to get him killed, and he’s not looking forward to the suffering, but he’s not in their power. He is self-determining, and free, and unattached from them, so that he freely can engage them.

Let’s be fair to the chief priests and elders. If somebody showed up at Old First and asked to preach but had no credentials, I wouldn’t let him. If have a preacher friend with a global reputation but for a number of reasons he belongs to no denomination and is an independent agent so I would never let him preach her. It’s a matter of accountability, which on the face of it the chief priests and the scribes are not wrong to expect. Who said you could do this? Who sent you?

But with his question back at them Jesus exposes them. They themselves will not be accountable They will not tell the truth of what they really think. They dissemble. Because of the popularity of John the Baptist they are afraid to say that they really think that John’s baptism did not come from heaven. Jesus knows they aren’t dealing in honest answers to begin with.

Jesus could advance a case for his authority, but he doesn’t advance it. His response is not argumentation but invitation. You see that in his parable. He offers them one last chance. “Many folks have been saying Yes to me, but they’ll soon desert me. You’ve been saying No to me all along, but you still come in. You’d come in behind the publicans and prostitutes, but you’d still come in. But you don’t want to, do you, because you’d have to let go of your position.” Defending your position is the root of quarreling—in other words, refusing transformation.

How Jesus deals with them is how he deals with us. Don’t you find it so, that the questions you ask of Jesus he answers with a question back, and a challenging one at that? He proves himself to you only by means of your own self-examination. You ask, “Is it true?” And he answers, “Do you want this to be true?” You ask, “Is he the Lord?” He answers, “What sort of Lord do you want?”

Jesus never defends himself. Neither does God, for that matter. What Jesus shows us is that God’s interest is not in your conclusion, but in your transformation. He’s renewing your mind. You cannot pay him any mind unless you renew your mind, and to renew your mind is to mind him well.

Religions speak of mindfulness. Usually it’s your own mindfulness, even when it’s reaching out into the world. Christian mindfulness is different. It’s more like a mind-meld, sharing the mind of another. The community of Jesus shares together the mind of Christ.

Now really, this is very strange talk. Your mind is your own. It’s the most private thing about you. It’s virtually impossible to enter someone else’s mind. My wife and I were having an argument (yes, we do quarrel the odd time), and she said to me, “You can’t see into my mind. I don’t care how long we’ve been married, my mind is private from you.” Of course she’s right.

But that’s our metaphor, as strange as it is. I think it means you have to use your God-given imagination to imagine the mind of Christ. Of course the gospel stories help by giving you reliable material. We know what Jesus wouldn’t do. As much as we consider what Jesus did we must consider what he, as a person in his position, did not do. Unlike the chief priests and elders, for example, he did not dissemble in order to protect his position, and he did not calculate what he said in order to preserve his status as the rightful King of the Jews and the legitimate Messiah.

He didn’t do that from the beginning, in his Incarnation, when he emptied himself of the rights and privilege of his divinity. He emptied himself and took the form and status of a slave. Don’t take this wrong. This does not mean he was powerless. Slavery was different then, slaves were often given power and discretion. But the benefit of their power and discretion was never in their own interest. The point about slavery is the absence of self-interest. That’s the mind of Christ. Power without self-interest.

Is this the transformation? Can you imagine it, your own empowerment under the sign of the cross? Can you imagine it, to be a slave and still be free? To be humble without humiliation? Can you imagine being a servant without servility? My basic instinct is to advance my interests and my causes and defend my point of view. Is this really what God wants for us?

You are unable to imagine it being a good thing unless you have your mind renewed. So you have to keep renewing it, and you keep renewing it by means of worship, devotions, seasons of repentance, and deeds of service. These are transformative when your purpose in them is to seek the mind of Christ.

We believe that God does not leave it up to us, but actually shares with us the mind of Christ by giving you the Holy Spirit. God is in you, God is among you. That makes a difference. That should have made a difference to the Children of Israel when they said, “Is the Lord among us or not?” You know how when your mother is standing right there it’s harder to quarrel with your brother? Just out of respect. You know you’re going to be put in your place. And that’s a lesson for all of us to remember when we’re pushing for our position, to respect the Lord who is present among us.

But there is grace in it as well. Renew your mind to receive the Lord among us, and you can leave it to God to empower you and establish your position and to advance your interests, and even, in God’s time and for God’s purposes, to exalt you. The whole issue of quarreling falls away. The transformation you’re after is to share with Jesus his constant God-awareness, the constant presence of God within his mind. A vindicating God. A providing God. A restoring God. A resurrecting God. A God will exalt you because God so loves you.

Copyright © 2014, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.