Friday, January 20, 2017

January 22, Epiphany 3: Righteousness #3: Your Desire

Isaiah 9:1-4, Psalm 27:1, 5-13, 1 Corinthians 1:10-18, Matthew 4:12-23

Did you know that in Ontario, the Catholic schools are fully funded by taxation and are tuition-free? In Alberta, Protestant schools get public funding too. Yet Canada is more socialist than Elizabeth Warren.

What if Betsy DeVos had gone that far in her confirmation hearings—not just parent vouchers, but direct government funding of Christian schools? Why do Americans consider this a right-wing idea? In The Netherlands, which is even more socialist, parents send their children to publically-funded religious schools of all different persuasions, not just Christian.

The big difference is that Dutch and Canadian religious schools are not private schools but public schools, and they accept all the government regulation and oversight of social democracy. Here in America the school freedom movement hates government oversight and wants a free market without regulation. Also, very many of our private Christian schools were founded after the court-ordered integration of the public schools. Not our Roman Catholic schools, and did you know that our Catholic schools do better than public schools at racial integration and economic diversity?

When Betsy DeVos was nominated, my wife reminded me that I used to agree with her. I wanted the separation of school and state, just like the separation of church and state, and I said it would be as good for the schools as it’s been for the church. There should be no direct funding of public schools, but parents should get vouchers to spend at any school that was accredited and certified, just like colleges are, be they Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, humanist, atheist, whatever.

I learned these ideas at the same Christian college that Betsy DeVos went to, three years behind me. We were not in the same circles but we imbibed the same religious ideology. I’ve moved on, but she still holds it, and has spoken out on it and spent millions of dollars advancing it.

This week she had to be political and tried to hide the religious side of it. But she’s a sincere Christian, and it’s an odd tribute to her Christian sincerity that her truth comes out, and she couldn’t hide that of course she is biased against public schools, nor does she want federal enforcement in schools of civil rights or LGBTQ equality. For a long time she’s been using her enormous wealth to fund the battle for the conservative Christian culture of the USA, and it looks like now she has official power to advance and defend conservative Christian values within our public institutions.

I get the desire for a Christian culture. My wife and I sent our daughter to the same Christian High School that the DeVos kids went to. I learned the richness of my faith in Christian schools and its application for all of life and culture. In Christian school the music was better than at church and we were academically ahead of public schools.

I desire a faith that is more than narrowly how to be good and save my soul, I desire a faith that is rich in poetry and thick in culture and deep in thought, strong for social justice and brilliant in the arts and intellectually powerful. I got that at school. The Kingdom of Heaven is larger than the church.

Look, it’s not a new idea that Christians should use economic power to advance the Kingdom of Heaven on earth and use political power to defend it. It goes back before the Roman Emperor Constantine. Christendom. The Holy Roman Empire. The Crusades. Queen Elizabeth is the Defender of the Faith and she was crowned in a church by a bishop. The churches in Germany are still funded by taxation. Our own congregation was established by the Dutch colonial government and paid for with taxes. The Kremlin in Moscow is a fortress with state-supported cathedrals inside it, and that’s just fine with Vladimir Putin. And Steve Bannon. And the President.

But against this is the Apostle Paul. In our epistle he bears witness to the power of the cross as the power of God. The cross is the Roman symbol of victimization, of disempowerment, of poverty, of powerlessness. The Kingdom of Heaven does not need political power or economic power for cultural power, and it doesn’t need to be defended. It’s a miracle, it’s a gift, it’s a free gift.

The Lord Jesus announced that the Kingdom of Heaven has come near, and we did not advance it nor do we build it—we receive it, in both repentance and joy. If we’re gathering power in the world in order to build the Kingdom and using lots of money to defend the Kingdom, then we’ve got the Kingdom wrong. We’ve got the wrong desire. We’re answering the wrong call. We’re aiming for the wrong kind of righteousness.

The word righteousness does not appear in any of our lessons today. It will next week, in spades, and it will play off the phrase that we did get this week: the power of God. This is the first half of a miniseries on the power of God, within my eight-part series on righteousness. Next week we’ll more explore what the power of God is like. This week we get the call of the disciples in Matthew, and in the Psalm we get desire. Call and desire. In terms of call and desire, let me propose two things:

First, I propose that when God’s call on you meets your desire, what you end up with is righteousness. The conjunction of God’s call on your life and your own desire for your life amounts to righteousness. I’ll say more about that in a minute.

Second, I propose that Jesus does not call us to political and economic power in order to advance and defend the Kingdom of Heaven, so any and all our efforts in that regard, be they legal, moral, and even sacrificial, may be admirable and culturally praiseworthy, but they do not count as righteousness.

Righteousness is not what you achieve but what you receive, and you have to receive it through the cross, the sign of loss and grief, the grief of God and the love of God for us; and the way to receive this grief and love of God for us is through repentance. Repentance is the border crossing of the Kingdom of Heaven, and you cross that border into joy. The Kingdom receives you.

The Lord Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.” And then he said to the fishermen, “Follow me.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. The call of God and their desire. The call of God and your desire, and what else is joy but the convergence of God’s call on you with your desires.

That’s why you want power, some power in your life, to get what you desire, to achieve what you desire; but the secret of the Kingdom of Heaven is that what you most desire you cannot achieve, you can only receive it, and it’s free, if you are willing freely to receive it, in your poverty, in your powerlessness, in what the world regards as weakness and humility.

Does the desire for God imply renunciation of some sort? It would seem so from the Psalm. To dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of your life implies the renunciation of family, home, and marketplace and concert hall. How much did those fishermen put behind them when they left their nets and followed Jesus? How did they continue to support their wives and families?

When you say Yes to the call of God, what must you say No to? Can you still say Yes to what you most deeply desire for your own life? How about even a rich Christian culture, the kind you get in Christian school? I will say Yes, we can, as long as you remember what God’s power is like (and not like), and how to receive it (not achieve it), and thus to share it, and that what you most desire is God’s call.

Last Sunday I saw that Jackson van Voorhees was reading The Hobbit. I think that one book did as much for my Christian faith as all of Christian school. Bilbo Baggins, one day sitting quietly at his door, and all of a sudden up walks Gandalf, and before he knows what’s happened he’s called away from it all to a great adventure, with suffering, and loss, and joy. Caught like a fish. You know, Jesus doesn’t wait for applications, he just calls you. And right there is the power of God, his calling you, his calling into you danger and suffering and freedom and joy.

How do you know that you’ve been called? Simple: do you desire righteousness? Not have you accomplished it but simply do you desire it? Do you desire God, do you want to know what God is like, which is another way of saying, do you seek God’s face? The only reason you are here today is because you’ve been called here. And God has called you here to receive the Kingdom of Heaven. It’s yours. It is God’s free gift of love to you.

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

Saturday, January 14, 2017

January 15, 2 Epiphany, Righteousness #2: Your Gift

Isaiah 49:1-7, Psalm 40:1-7, 1 Corinthians 1:1-9, John 1:29-42

Dearly beloved, the opening words of our liturgy every Sunday morning are called the Votum and the Salutation. The Votum and Salutation have been the opening words of the official Reformed Church liturgy since 1563, and I stick to them for reasons both historical and theological.

The Votum is this: “Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” That’s from Psalm 124. Right off it reminds us who we are and why we’re here, and it means to put us in the proper frame of mind: This is about God, what we’re about to do, it’s about God and our need for God.

The Salutation is this: “Grace to you, and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” You heard it in our second reading, from 1 Corinthians. It’s a greeting from God, and the greeting from God is the first greeting you get in the service, before my welcome. Yes, I’m the one who says the greeting, but I do it as a vehicle, not the source. In technical terms, I “pronounce” the Salutation, just as I pronounce the Benediction, the last word of the service which is the goodbye from God.

I am deliberate and particular about these things, and maybe even rigid. I would do it differently if I were to follow the pattern of one of our sister churches in Manhattan, a dynamic and successful congregation. I would open the service like this: “Hello Old First! You look great! You’re beautiful, Old First!” 

What do you think, shall I do that every week? Would you believe that I’m actually less against it than I used to be? I mean, doesn’t St. Paul say as much to the Corinthians? “In every way you are rich in God, in speech and all kinds of knowledge, and you’re not lacking in any spiritual gift.” You’re great, you Corinthians!

Well, of course, it’s only because of the gifts that God has given them. It’s not that they’re so great themselves as that God’s gifts are great among them. And yet those gifts are real among them, for not every early congregation enjoyed such gifts as the Corinthians did. Now St. Paul does not explicitly say that one of their gifts was righteousness, but he does call them “saints” and then he calls them “blameless,” and those two words together imply, I would say, the gift of righteousness.

Last week I said that righteousness can be real among you ordinary human beings, when you do what is right, as best you can, and upon your doing what is right you receive the wonderful, loving righteousness of God in the world. I said that the Holy Spirit synthesizes God’s righteousness with what you’re doing right to create the gift of real righteousness in you, real enough to be observed and recognized. So maybe I should open our service every week with this: “Hello Old First! You look righteous! You’re saints, Old First!”

This is the second sermon in a series on righteousness. Last week I also said that righteousness is not so much toeing the line on morality, it’s more about how you do right by those with whom you are in relationship, how you creatively invest in them in a way that’s right for them. And today I just said that righteousness is a real gift of God to you, and it can be recognized in you. Now, from our readings for today, is there anything else they can tell us about righteousness?

The word occurs twice in our Psalm: “I proclaimed righteousness in the great congregation; behold, I did not restrain my lips, and that, O Lord, you know. Your righteousness have I not hidden in my heart; I have spoken of your faithfulness and your deliverance; I have not concealed your love and faithfulness from the great congregation.” I proclaimed righteousness, your righteousness I have not hidden. 

Here righteousness, the righteousness of God, is something you want to proclaim among your fellow believers, something you want to celebrate. When you receive a gift, you want to celebrate the gift.

When my son went to university up in the province of Newfoundland, he took room and board at a private home with a few other students. Whenever we called him, he was on the family phone, and you’d hear the household in the background. One evening, when I called him, he told me that the husband had just come back from hunting and had bagged a moose. This was good news, as there would be lots of meat all winter. In fact, for dinner they’d just had spaghetti and moose balls. We laughed, and then I asked him how come it sounded so quiet in the house. He said, “Oh! Yeah, they’re all down at the bar, they’re celebratin’ the moose!”

To celebrate righteousness is not what we think of. We think of righteousness as more of an obligation than a gift. Not that there’s anything wrong with obligations! Indeed, a gift can be an obligation! (De gave is de opgave.) But if the culture around us does not celebrate righteousness, then we must be counter-cultural and celebrate it.

And what we rejoice in are such characteristics of righteousness as are mentioned in the Psalm: faithfulness, deliverance, love, faithfulness again, compassion, love again, and faithfulness one more time. The faithfulness reminds us that righteousness is relational, an investment in the other, and deliverance and compassion remind us that it’s for the good of the other, so this relationship is love and the righteousness is love, and that is something to enjoy and celebrate.

You celebrate it not just because it is so rare, so often frustrated, so often betrayed, so often missing in the lives of lonely people, of isolated people, suffering people, abused people, or selfish people or even very successful, dominating and domineering people, dictators, politicians, users, and abusers. You can have the world on your plate without such righteousness, so when you see it valued and honored and sought for and exhibited you want to celebrate and proclaim it, but even if it were not rare, and if it were the ordinary way of things, you would celebrate it anyway.

From celebration it has to move to mission, that you be conduits and extenders of the righteousness you enjoy, that you work out that righteousness in the world that both needs it and resists it. The gift you are given is the gift you keep giving. The gift is your obligation. I want to come back to the mission side of righteousness in coming weeks. But for today I will stay with receiving the gift, without your having to earn it or even deserve it.

So return with me to the gospel lesson, from John chapter 1. Let me explain that there are two Johns: John the author and John the Baptist. John the author was one of the twelve disciples and the best friend of Jesus. He wrote his gospel after Matthew, Mark, and Luke were all available, and he assumes you know the story from one of them. So he doesn’t report the actual baptism of Jesus, but the commentary on it a day later by John the Baptist. And he brings out a different side of John the Baptist.

In the other gospels he’s a hell-fire and brimstone preacher: Repent! Repent! The Messiah is coming and you’re in for it! How different here: “Behold the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” Those words have been set to music a million times, it’s in the liturgy as the Agnus Dei, I’m going to teach you to sing it this Lent. “O lamb of God that takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us. O lamb of God that takest away the sins of the world, grant us thy peace.”

How much of the sin, how much does he take away? All of it? How totally, how widely, how gradually, how immediately? We feel like in our lives we still have some sin to get rid of, so how can he take away all the sin of the world, past, present, future?

Let me say here that we generally underestimate sin in two ways. On the one hand we underestimate how extensive it is, how thorough, how insidious and powerful and destructive it is. On the other hand we undervalue how totally the Lord Jesus has taken away the sin of the world. The Christian claim is that both are true, even if they sound contradictory, and I invite you to believe them both and also to confess them both.

If they’re taken away that leaves you blameless. There’s nothing to blame you of. That leaves you pristine and pure. That means you’re a saint, you’re a regular Mother Teresa. You’re righteous, you’re beautiful, you look great! And that sets your righteousness free.

Your righteousness does not have to pay for anything, or even be successful. Your righteousness can be creative, imaginative, playful, joyful, experimental. It is liberated to be liberating. It is unleashed to be faithful. It’s an obligation that’s a gift, it’s absolutely free for love. Yes, your righteousness can be as experimental and as creative and as free as the love of God is for the world and for you.

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

Friday, January 06, 2017

January 8, First Sunday after Epiphany: Righteousness #1: Tzedek

Isaiah 42:1-9, Psalm 29, Acts 10:34-43, Matthew 3:13-17

This past Friday was Epiphany, the Twelfth Day of Christmas, the day that marks the Visit of the Magi. The word Epiphany means “manifestation,” that is, an appearance, an exposure to the public. The Sundays after Epiphany mark the successive exposures of the Lord Jesus, of which the most important was his baptism. We don’t know whether the Lord Jesus had any expectation of the dove or the voice from heaven, but they confirmed his identity and mission both for himself and for the public. His baptism was his coming out, his debut, his commissioning. Time to get to work.

This may be the sixteenth time I’ve preached to you on the Baptism of Jesus, and the sixth time I’ve preached on Matthew’s version on it. This time around I want to look at what the Lord Jesus said to John the Baptist in their brief exchange, to wit: “John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper in this way to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then he consented.” What does that mean, “to fulfill all righteousness?”

To answer that question is going to take eight weeks. This is the first sermon in an eight-part series on Righteousness. The Hebrew word is tzedek. It’s a very frequent word in the Torah and the Prophets, and it’s important to the Lord Jesus as well, especially in the Gospel of Matthew. In Matthew’s version of the Christmas story we read that Joseph was a righteous man, which was the best thing you could say about a man. The Lord Jesus speaks often of righteousness in his teaching.

As important as it was to them, it’s hardly a priority for us. We rarely use the word in daily life. You did not use “righteousness” to evaluate our presidential candidates. You don’t use the word to describe your friends, and I doubt that righteousness is something you even unconsciously aspire to. But the Lord Jesus did, as indicated by his words to John.

I’m going to preach on it not only because it’s a key word in the Bible, but also because the word assumes the union of things that we generally separate, like church and state, or spiritual and civil. We’ve been put off recently by how some Christian groups are trying to combine these again, claiming that America is a Christian nation, and wanting Christian personal morality to be enforced by law. We should not let the misuse of the gospel cancel the holistic Biblical vision that is implied by the word tzedek.

The word righteousness unifies personal goodness and social justice, and harmonizes doing right with human rights. This unity and harmony in human righteousness is a reflection and extension of the unity and harmony of God, for God is righteous most of all, and you are righteous for the sake of God. So, is this righteousness for you? Do you want to be righteous? Are you interested in God’s righteousness in the world, do you want to share in it?

I believe that the righteousness of God in the world is what the Lord Jesus was speaking of with John the Baptist. The whole historical stream of the righteousness of God from Genesis to Malachi—he was putting himself in front of that. In other words, he wasn’t just going to do his own thing, he was claiming the history of God’s work behind him, driving him and even pushing him. He was saying he wanted to capture that in what he’d do—he’d ride it, flow with it, channel it, express it.

But also, and more than it, expand it, because what he said to John can be translated differently, “For it is proper in this way to fill up all righteousness,” or even “fill out all righteousness.” So he saw himself as the one who would expand the righteousness of God within the world. He dared to see himself as in control of God’s righteousness. I suspect he already had an inkling of how costly it would be for him to do this, but only as Matthew unfolds the story will we see all that this righteousness entails.

We do know that the Lord Jesus was guided by the prophecies of Isaiah, especially by the so-called Servant Songs in the second half of the book. One of these Servant Songs provides our first reading, the call of God upon the Servant. God says, “I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness.” God calls, and the tone of voice God uses sounds like righteousness.

Righteousness is relational, it’s the tone of the relationship between God and the servant whom God is calling. Righteousness is not so much an abstract and objective standard out there but a personal investment, and there’s freedom in it. God is freely entering into a binding relationship with the Servant, and in this relationship each party has rights, and the goodness of the relationship requires the rightness of their mutual behaviors. Righteousness is a freely chosen behavior within a relationship. That means righteousness is creative, and active, and an investment in someone.

Like when Joseph took the pregnant Mary to be his wife. He could have chosen for the familiar kind of righteousness, regarding appearances, keeping the rules, standing on his right, but he dared to choose the more risky kind of righteousness in relationship, freely choosing Mary, investing in her in the midst of her predicament and serving her in her special mission and sharing it with her.

A righteousness not defensive but generative, not wall-building but life-sharing.  A bruised reed he will not break, a dimly burning wick he will not quench, he will bring forth justice in the earth. He will not stand upon his rights, he will bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness. This is a righteousness of liberation and a justice of restoration. This is a creative, investing kind of righteousness. Is this the kind of righteousness for you? Do you want it, to receive it and to have it and to do it? What do you need in order to practice it?

Most people want to do the right thing. Yes, I know there’s lots of scary and conniving people out there, especially the ones who get elected around the world, but even they probably think they are doing what is right. And the Bible can sometimes sound very tolerant of this. In our second reading, for example, St. Peter says “that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” Is that the same as righteousness, doing what is right?

But what is right in one nation is often wrong in another. And then not doing what is wrong is not necessarily the same as doing what is right. Doing what is right often goes farther than not doing what is wrong. It is not righteousness to just not do what is wrong. But then you can do what is right without it being righteousness. I’m sure that in general you want to do what is always the right thing to do, but it would seem that righteousness aspires to more than that.

Righteousness means aspiration. Righteousness means character. Righteousness means commitment, and hard choices, and sacrifice. Righteousness means investment and relationship. And when it means investment in relationships it looks like love. Maybe that’s why it had to wait for the Lord Jesus to come into the world for it to be filled out, for it had to be a righteousness full of love, brimming with radical love, pouring out sacrificial love.

John the Baptist wanted to prevent Jesus from being baptized because he saw baptism first and foremost as the sign of a person’s repentance, and he could not imagine that the Messiah should have anything to repent of. John the Baptist expected that the Messiah should be righteous already. But the righteousness of this Messiah will be an outgoing righteousness, embracing, investing, God with us, getting baptized along with sinners, eating with prostitutes as well as Pharisees, drinking with tax-collectors as well as scribes, touching the untouchable.

We have seven weeks more for this, but already I can say that what it means for you is this: you, for your part, you do what is right, as best you can. And God, for God’s part, works God’s own righteousness in the world, through God’s Word and Spirit and love. And the righteousness of God takes up your doing right into a synthesis which is your own righteousness.

It’s a process, it takes a life time. Your righteousness is not your accomplishment but the gift that you receive upon what you do that is right. You aspire for the righteousness of God, and God meets your aspiration with love, and righteousness is worked into your character by the power of the love of God. I know that this is what you want, the righteousness of the love of God. 

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

Sunday, January 01, 2017

January 1, Feast of Circumcision: "The Fullness of Time"

Numbers 6:22-27, Psalm 8, Galatians 4:4-7, Luke 2:15-21

“When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son,” says Galatians. What does that mean, ‘the fullness of time?”

If the time was full when that happened, what about all the time since then, 2017 or so years of it—did it stay full, or lose its fullness? Isn’t time empty in principle? Isn’t time like space? Or, is it more like a line, a time-line, another dimension like length and width and height? If we think of time as a fourth dimension, that means our sense of time is a Cartesian and Newtonian cultural construct, which Einstein challenged with his theory of relativity, and which has no place for time getting full.

The Biblical writers thought of time as neither line nor space, but something like a river. Isaac Watts got it right: “Time, like an ever-rolling stream, bears all its sons away.” We ride the crest of time (Henri Frankfort), like surfers on a wave. Time is fluid, with a force and pressure. We don’t move through time so much as time itself moves, and carries us with it. I tell you this not to suggest that the Biblical view is more accurate or that we have to hold it, only that you understand it for the Bible, and that we acknowledge the subjective relativity of our own modern sense of time.

The Biblical view is that God created time. God commits to time but is outside of it and free of it though also free to enter it and be in it without being confined to it. God created time for us and all the other creatures to live and thrive within. Our souls and bodies are confined to time, but our minds and our imaginations can share in God’s freedom from time. In our fallen nature we have experienced time as a burden and a bondage, a prison, but God gives us time as a good gift. God provides it to us, it belongs to God’s providence. In the Bible, time is a medium of God’s love and grace. “Our times are in God’s hand.”

In the Bible, God works time. Time is moving to where God wants it. It’s like God is a hydraulics engineer who controls the flow of water in the irrigation channels of history, now faster, now slower, now deeper or shallower. God gives time for flowering and full vitality and growth. God has a grand strategy and a long-term purpose.

But God does not force us. God gives us freedom of initiative and choice and God respects our freedom. Yet God is able to gather whatever we choose for good or ill into God’s ultimate purpose. Even though we are less free than we think we are. It’s not that God confines us, rather that we confine ourselves, from one generation to the next, and our choices are predictable and so easily manipulated. But the grace of God in time is that even our stupidity and rebellion get gathered up in time by God into God’s good purposes.

We cannot predict what time will bring us, nor the changes time will make in us. Ten years ago last night, a young mother from my former congregation was killed by a drunken driver. It was devastating, especially to the lives of her children and her husband. Two days ago I was messaging with someone from that congregation, and this is what she wrote to me: “There were lessons to be learned from Jackie’s [sic] death. Different lessons for different people I suppose. It was about a year or more after Jackie’s death that I realized that I had been changed in a really big way. I was questioning whether we have a choice in the way we are changed. I remember being grateful that I wasn’t left bitter and hateful. I’m still not sure if we have a choice in how we are molded by life’s events. It’s like we are being molded without an awareness of it happening, until after the fact.”

This is wise, and true. How much we are molded by what we’re not aware of, and how much our personal development is not in our control. And yet God holds us responsible for what we become. So we have the constant interplay of our personal freedom and the pressure of the stream of time that moves us forward. Sort of like swimming in a river instead of a lake.

And in this interplay I invite you to believe two things: First, that God really does call you to freedom and the responsible exercise of it, and second, what may be harder to believe, that within the stream of time there flows the providential grace of God towards us.

Consider with me now one particular current within the stream of time. It is the current that is the history of Israel, one particular history of one particular people, a very small and insignificant people in the grand scheme of the planet, but the people of God’s covenant, so on this current ride the promises of God, like a basket on the stream. And the river rose, and crested, and when the stream was at its height, Jesus was born, in the dark, out back, of no count to the world.

In our Gospel lesson we observe how this private secret of Mary and Joseph was broadcast by the angels to the shepherds, and then by the shepherds to the public. As Mary pondered these things in her heart so we are to ponder the opening of God’s purposes. When the fullness of time had come, God sent his son, born of a woman, born under the law. That law required that after he was born of the woman he should be circumcised, and that is what we mark today.

We would celebrate it if we were Jewish, but that would be awkward for Christians, so churches prefer to emphasize the naming in the story, his Holy Name, but the circumcision is more important. It’s circumcision that puts you in the covenant. Circumcision marks that a Jew belongs to God, and is not his own.

On Christmas, we mark that God became a human being, and today we mark that God became a Jew. The Jewishness of Jesus is not incidental, and his Jewishness is not just his born ethnicity. His circumcision was the sign of Jewish faith and observance, Jewish obedience and Jewish suffering. He will be crucified by the Romans precisely as a Jew. For his circumcision the Nazis would gas him.

It also means that he inherited a history, that covenantal history, that particular current within the broad stream of time. And precisely in him, this current will now suddenly widen and spread into the whole river. The audacious claim of St. Paul in Galatians is that this one particular Jew is the savior of all the world and every nation in the world, just because he is the Son of God.

It is not for nothing that the whole world now marks its time by his time. Today is the first day of A.D. 2017, anno domini, in the year of the Lord (adjusted by four years because of clerical miscalculation). The lower right corner of my computer screen says 2017, and constantly witnesses how many years ago Our Lord was born; my software constantly witnesses how many years ago Our Lord was circumcised. His time fills the whole electronic world.

You will think this all meaningless if you think that God sent his Son simply to save our souls and get us into heaven. But if you believe that there is much more to God’s purposes, that the Kingdom of God embraces the concerns of all the world, then you will hold it as a marvelous mystery that yesterday city after city around the globe successively shot fireworks and dropped balls in witness, even unintended, to the time of Our Lord.

We have much to celebrate. In the 362 years of our Old First congregation, we have seen the abolition of slavery, the emancipation of women, the emancipation of gay and lesbian people, and the dawn of hope for transgender people. These advances are spreading in the world. Not without evidence, I believe that this evolution of freedom has been molded by the gospel. This despite the betrayal and denial of the gospel by the church that bears it, but our betrayal and denial of the gospel is part of the gospel. As is the resistance and reaction against this freedom and evolution.

This new year looks already like a fearful one, a nasty one, a dangerous one. So much is out of our control, and what time will to do us we can’t know ahead of time and how it will mold us we won’t be aware of till afterward. Our freedom may be limited, but our moral freedom and responsibility we still do have.

When the fullness of time had come, God sent his son . . . so that you might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying “Abba, Father.” That is how God sustains you in your moral freedom. God pours God’s self into you in order that you can have this peculiar and mysterious intimacy with God, this comfortable direct connection with the living and breathing energy of the universe.

Sometimes what I tell you sounds preposterous, and this does too, but if love be the measure of truth, then the combination of God’s providence and your freedom is a combination that expresses love, God’s love. That’s what I invite you to believe in and act upon this coming year, that this Love will carry you.

Copyright © 2017 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

December 24, Christmas Eve: The Prince of Peace

Good evening, and welcome to the 362nd Christmas of our congregation. Whoever you are, wherever you come from, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or something else, no matter what your belief or unbelief, whether you worship Christ or admire him, we are glad that you came here tonight.

Let me acknowledge the musicians and singers and readers for tonight. I welcome my colleague Cantor Josh Breitzer from Congregation Beth Elohim who will read the second lesson and sing the Akeda. It is a precious gift. Michael Daves, I thank you, and your guest singers with you. I thank especially our music director Aleeza Meir, our kapellmeisterin, who makes this service happen. You may not applaud them during the service, but you may applaud them now.

 The candles are all alight. Later in the service it will get dark. I’m instructing you not to turn on your cell-phone lights. Please just enjoy the candlelight. If you can’t make out all the lyrics in the bulletin, then just sing what you can from memory. Most of the words will come to you. So would you kindly turn off all your mobile devices right now and keep them off?

I love the traditions and the hymns of the holidays, but if they provide you your only knowledge of Christian doctrine, then it might surprise you that the New Testament never appeals to the Virgin Birth of Jesus to establish his divinity; it rather derives his divinity from his Resurrection. The mystery of the Virgin Birth is certainly told by the Gospels, but its immediate import, if anything, is a negative comment about men, and the sexual rights of men, of which I will not say more right now!

So what this feast of the Incarnation celebrates is the opposite of the exaltation of a man to godhood. Rather, we marvel at God’s voluntary humiliation, the great made small, the high made low, the glorious made humble, the almighty choosing to be powerless. You know, “What if God was one of us, just a stranger on the bus.” The omnipotent creator of the universe now fully at the mercy of the MTA. It’s as if God had to surrender all of God’s divine right and privilege, and be absolutely weak and poor and small, just to earn the right to be God again at Easter.

That God should behave like this is not new with Christians. We got it from Israel. It’s already in the Torah. When God first identified with Abram, who was Abram? Nobody. Not a prince nor a priest, not a doctor, not a lawyer, a nobody. When God identified with the twelve tribes of Jacob, who were they? A rabble of slaves descended from a despicable band of brothers who were boorish brigands among the civilized Canaanites. When God identified with Israel and Judah, what were they but two scrabbling minor principalities, critiqued by their own prophets, both of them ending in total failure. God said, “I’m with them! Here I am!” And the other gods and goddesses said, “What kind of a self-loathing, self-hating god are you?”

Why does God behave this way? For love, for love’s sake, God is mad with love, as mad as Don Quixote. This lavish love of God is taught by the Torah and the Prophets. And then we Christians take it a further step, that God identifies with us so far as literally to become one of us, and one of us in poverty, weakness, and dishonor. Again for love, but for something else as well. For peace.

By doing this God demonstrates that God is for peace, full stop. The angels said so to the shepherds. For in such a humble and vulnerable status, what other recourse do you have? So it’s not just that God stands for peace, but God lies down for peace.

We have been troubled by the rise in violence around us. The congregation heard me preach on violence the last four weeks. Yesterday we heard of a new arms race of nuclear weapons. We’ve felt the increase in aggression as the necessary means to make us great again. This is just another version of one historic vision for humanity, the vision shared by empire after empire since ancient times, the brutal vision of how to be strong and great and powerful. It makes some sense; Plato and Aristotle agreed with it, and it goes with nature: kill or be killed, if you’re not on top you’re on the bottom. And if we have gods we contrive our gods to back this up. Christians too often do this too.

Tonight the story reminds us that the God of the gospels does not back this up, that this God as a baby is on the bottom, and as a young man gets killed, for in the life of Jesus, God lies down for peace. This presents the other vision of humanity, which is so unnatural that it takes a miracle. The Incarnation should remind us every year what the God of the Prophets and the Gospels really is for, that God is for peace, full stop.

This is the reason behind the communion of the saints, that God does not build walls. This is the reason for the forgiveness of sins, that God does not stand upon his rights. This is the reason for the resurrection of the body, that God wants healing over judgment, and this is the reason for the life everlasting, the God offers unconditioned hospitality. This is why God’s light shines in the darkness that we weave around ourselves, to find us in our fear and misery of our own making.

The lessons that follow tonight will tell you where to look for God and what kind of God to look for. They tell you what God stands for. You will hear Cantor Breitzer chant the blessing of Abraham, whose hand was stayed from violence. You will hear the vision of Isaiah, of the Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace. 

That’s why you came here tonight, for the light that shines in the darkness, to see the other vision once again, to be reminded of the hope, to be quickened by the music, and to confirm it when you sing. This is the kind of thing you want to believe, the challenge you accept, this is the kind of life you want to live, that’s why you are here. You did right to come here tonight. God bless you one and all.

Copyright © 2016 by Daniel Meeter, All Rights Reserved.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

December 18, Advent 4, Violence #4: Jesus

Isaiah 7:10-18, Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18, Romans 1:1-7, Matthew 1:18-25

Let me repeat what the angel said to Joseph in his dream: “Joseph, son of David, fear not to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” So that’s what Jesus is supposed to do–save us from our sins. Is one of those sins violence? Can Jesus save us from the sin of violence?

The general witness of the Bible is that the problem of violence will not finally be solved by us. In some things we may make real progress, but the evolution of humanity is also the evolution of destruction, devastation, deprivation, and depravity. The creation of deserts, the multiplications of Mordors on the landscape for the fossil fuels–violence on the earth.

Now this doesn’t matter, if you believe, as many Christians do, that Jesus saves our souls to free us from this sorry world and send us to eternity in heaven, and we will abandon the earth forever. If this world is just a testing ground for ultimate heaven or hell, then violence is a condition to be escaped and not a problem to be solved, and there is no point in being anti-violent.

But if you believe that “God sent not his son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved,” if you believe that the Lord Jesus was born into the world to save us in the world, and that he saves us for what he told us to pray for: “thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven,” then the problem of violence must eventually be solved. Which takes more faith than believing that we just escape to heaven, because the solution seems no closer than it ever was. Faith wears out.

No wonder faith is regarded by St. Paul as a kind of obedience. He speaks in our Epistle of “the obedience of faith.” This means that faith is not so much what we favor God with upon our evaluating God to be worthy of our faith, it’s rather that faith is an obligation that we owe to God just by our being human beings, when we recognize our place in the world and acknowledge our condition.

You have faith in God to save you from your sins. You trust God to answer your prayer that God will purify your conscience by God’s daily visitation. You trust that God frees you from the guilt of your sin and liberates you from the power of your sin. This is the offer of the gospel that bears repeating and explaining, but today let me assume it, with regard to the specific sin of violence.

In the first sermon I said that violence is natural and of necessity, and that all nations are violent, even the best of them. I said that following Jesus means choosing against violence. We can choose against what’s natural and of necessity because Jesus calls us to freedom. Not yet in this life freedom from violence, but freedom within it. Freedom from the guilt of our inevitable complicity, and freedom to witness against the violence that includes us. Jesus saves you from your sin of violence by freeing you from the guilt of your participation in it, and liberating you from its dominion so that you can bear witness against it in the great courtroom trial that is the history of the world.

In the second sermon I said that we witness against it in two ways: unmasking and advocating. We unmask the pretensions of violence, that it does not make us great, and as a solution it’s a delusion because if it solves one problem it only makes for more, even if in extremity we have no recourse but to participate in it. Our second witnessing is to advocate for the meek of the earth, using our reputations as good citizens to speak up for the unacknowledged victims of violence, especially when that violence is subtle and institutional and tolerated as a cost of business by otherwise good governments and respectable corporations. We do this despite being regarded as quixotic and naive.

In the third sermon I said that being the witness is not to be jury or the judge, and we have no control of the verdict, which we have to leave to God. But then if the bad guys keep getting away with it, or even the mostly good guys who do not see their complicity in violence keep denying it, we will be tempted by our grievances to bitterness. I said that in order to practice anti-violence we have to cultivate the disciplines of penitence and joy.

All this is what I mean by Jesus saving you from the sin of violence. Not sparing you from its existence but saving you from your guilt in it and liberating you for witness within it. But now I have to say something more. I want to speak to the emotional side of it. I want to speak to the ominous feeling of the violence that threatens us even if we want to live by faith. What about the fear of it?

For this I want to step back and take a look at Joseph in our gospel story, and the choices that he had to make. His choices were not easy. Should he act upon his dream? Should he even believe his dream? If he ignores his dream and keeps to his plan to dismiss Mary quietly, he will save his righteous reputation.

But if he believes his dream and takes her as his wife he takes on her disgrace. He’ll be assumed to have slept with her ahead of time and thus regarded not only as unrighteous but a hypocrite. Or, worse, maybe his fiancĂ© has slept with someone else, and then he’s a cuckold and a fool, or at best, he’ll be regarded as quixotic and naive, just as I said you will be if you choose anti-violence.

It will cost a lot for Joseph to act upon his dream, and he’ll to practice the obedience of faith, for him a new kind of righteousness. I have heard it said by atheists that faith is a refuge for weaklings. Not for Joseph in this case, and not for practitioners of anti-violence.

The obedience of faith calls us into that which we fear. In the dream the angel said, “Joseph, fear not to take Mary as your wife.” The angel has to say it because Joseph will certainly fear.

You know how shaken you feel when you wake up from a powerful dream, even when it’s not a nightmare. I can imagine the poor guy sitting on his bed in the dark before the dawn, the dream all in his head, and he is facing all these new unknowns, so much in his life outside of his control, that he must take and name and raise a child who belongs to God, with a destiny beyond him for which he was now responsible. “Joseph, son of David, fear not!” Oh my God. Every Advent I regain my admiration for this quiet man.

I have been preaching this series on violence in part because I am afraid. I can feel it in my body. I am not the only one. We fear for our nation. We fear the top-down celebration of violence and its increased cultivation. We fear the anger of our longtime victims, and their bitterness. We fear the other nations posturing for war. We fear our violence against our planet and the weather responding in kind. If courage is not the absence of fear but making the awful choice between your fears, then what should you fear most? The violent environment in which you live or the call of the gospel upon your conscience? If we do the right thing, can Jesus save us from our fear? Not completely, the bad guys will always be out there, without consciences or scruples, and gaining power.

I can’t solve the problem, apart from the obedience of faith. I don’t have an antidote to fear, except for this: There’s something in the way our souls are made that we can be quickened by a sign, even in the midst of fearful chaos and disorder. The sign for Joseph was the vision of a mother pregnant with her child. The same sign was offered by Isaiah to King Ahaz when Jerusalem was under siege, surrounded by armies ready to kill them. The sign is the mother with the infant child, even in the midst of all the violence.

This shall be a sign to you. Such vulnerability. Such weakness in military terms, but in biological terms such power, more real power in the body of the mother than in the pretensions of the guys in charge. The virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and you shall call his name, God with us. God saves the world from the soft inside and not from the top, and you must receive God in God’s chosen vulnerability.

I cannot solve the problem of violence but I offer you the sign, and that you read in the sign that God does not abandon you, and that God’s presence with you is small and soft and fragile but with the power of life. I cannot prove it for you, I can only invite you to believe it, and even more I invite you to love it, because love is stronger than death, and your love will be stronger than your fear.

Copyright © 2016 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Thursday, December 08, 2016

December 11, Advent 3, Violence #3: Vengeance

Isaiah 35:1-10, Magnificat, James 5:7-10, Matthew 11:2-11

When I was a kid my parents did not allow us to have toy guns. So we just used the best sticks we could find. For my tenth birthday I was given some money and I bought myself a toy machine gun. It had a crank that when you turned it, it went rata-tata-tata. My parents gave in and let me keep it.

Violence, as I’ve been saying for the last three weeks, is natural, and today I’m adding that violence is attractive and alluring, even to children. Cartoons and comics and video games are full of it. And judging by so much of adult television and cinema I’m going to say that violence is seductive and even beautiful.

If beauty be defined as “that which draws your eye to look at, again and again, with desire,” then, judging by what we watch on screen, you’d have to say that we find violence to be beautiful. And judging by what we watch on screen, you could say that what we find most beautiful of all is vengeance.

If vengeance can be beautiful then it’s not contradictory for this lovely prophecy from Isaiah about blossoms and the crocus and the majesty of the mountains also to have vengeance right there in it. “Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.” Terrible recompense does seem necessary for there to be real justice, that is, for salvation to be more than an escape. For salvation to be righteous, then the bad guys have to be defeated plus punished.

So of course John the Baptist, in our gospel lesson, who by this time was in Guantanamo, had been doubting his cousin Jesus as the long-expected Messiah. And all those miracles of healing that he did are beside the point. Not just the symptoms but the system! Social work is nice, but a salvation worth giving your life for requires a revolution. "Listen, Jesus, didn’t your mother Mary ever teach you that revolutionary song she sang when you were still inside her womb?"

Vengeance is a second step in violence. I mean the violence of necessity, non-malicious violence. The first step in violence is defensive, when the aggression of another forces you to be violent back, or when the government wields the sword to keep the peace, protecting the innocent and punishing the guilty.

But from punishment it’s a short next step to vengeance. Vengeance is aggression that claims its rightness, vengeance claims justice, vengeance assumes real grievance, blood crying out, a debt unpaid, somebody getting away with something, an upset in the moral equilibrium requiring further violence to get the balance back.

Last Monday I was in my bodega getting a coffee and a neighbor was looking at The Daily News with its report on the death of that three-year old boy who had been tortured by his father. She said, “That father should be tortured and killed, he deserves it.” She said, “You know I used to work at Rikers, and if he goes there, they’ll know what to do with him, they’ll torture him and kill him like he deserves. You know they have an ethic there.” Vengeance is violence that claims an ethic.

Well, I can tell you that the ethic of the Bible, in both Testaments, for all of the Bible’s violence, is that vengeance is absolutely reserved for God. The Torah does prescribe regulations to put limits on vengeance, thus admitting it, but the right to vengeance is fundamentally denied to humans, and the Book of Judges tells of the general misery for everyone when vengeance is allowed.

So I have to say that the current alliance between the Christian-right and the NRA is not only unbiblical but also would have been unthinkable to the conservative Protestant Republicans of my childhood, like my parents. It’s the historic ethic of the Christian church that private persons are not allowed to initiate any violence, no matter how bad the other guy, and if blood cries out, that is up to the government.

But how about if they keep getting away with it? What was remarkable in this latest presidential campaign is that both sides complained that the candidate of the other kept getting away with doing wrong. And the big banks keep getting away with it, hedgefund traders, multinationals, ExxonMobil, tobacco companies. How could God allow Hitler and Stalin and Mao and whoever else to get away with all their murderous evil for so long? That’s the complaint against God that I hear most often from people who reject belief, and the most telling complaint, I think. Evil gets away with it.

At the more personal level we grumble, we grumble from a sense of grievance. This is what is addressed by our epistle. That spiritual root of bitterness which can grow into the choking vine of vengeance. And what the epistle calls for is patience. Not patience as passivity, but specifically active patience, “heart-strengthened” patience, robust patience, a kind of activity and busy-ness that leaves the outcome open to God. Doing Christian action but trusting God with the outcome.

Witnessing, for example, as I said last week. Witnesses in the forms of unmasking and advocating. First, unmasking the full extent of violence in all of its subtlety and toleration, unmasking the reality of its misery even when the use of it cannot be avoided. Second, advocating for the silent victims of violence, especially when that violence is done by otherwise respectable governments and institutions—advocating for the meek of the earth.

In both unmasking and advocating being witnesses, even when our witness is unpopular. But then, and here’s the hardest part, not being the jury or the judge, that is, leaving the verdict up to God, and still being hopeful, and still being loving, which takes an awful lot of patience, and an awful lot of trust in God.

To respond to evil not with vengeance but with witnessing is what I mean by active patience, and active patience is what I’m calling anti-violence. But to maintain this active patience requires some Christian disciplines. And the two Christian disciplines that I’m going to recommend to you today are penitence and joy.

Penitence is the opposite of grievance. Your grievances are real, so your penitence has to be just as real. Penitence is when you stop judging others and you judge yourself. Penitence is when you take yourself off the throne of your Cartesian autocracy, with all your rights and privilege pertaining thereto, and you take your place among the petitioners, among the humble, even among the guilty, and “there but for the grace of God go I.”

Lenten penitence is mortification, preparing to die. Advent penitence is about surrendering your place, giving up your nice room at the inn to bed down in the stable. Advent penitence is surrendering your right to your grievances. Anti-violence.

The opposite of bitterness is joy. Because the real endurance of real grievances give real cause for bitterness, you have to cultivate joy. As a discipline. You know the Bible is remarkable in that it commands you to love, when love is usually considered a feeling; a feeling is raised into an ethic. Just so the Bible commands joy, and another feeling is raised into an ethic. Not that you can force the feeling of joy. But you cultivate the attitudes of joy, the patterns of joy, the language of joy, even the habits of joy.

The pattern of joy is signified by the command “re-joice,” which in Latin is gaudete, and Gaudete is the traditional name of the Third Sunday of Advent and the reason for the candle’s color being rose. Today you are commanded to rejoice, and so today you have to ask yourself what right do you have not to be joyful? Your cultivation of joy is your active antidote to bitterness, and your penitence reminds you that you have no enduring right to bitterness. Occasions for bitterness will certainly come, as your anti-violence will be met by unfair opposition, so you’ll need to practice joy in order to keep on going in your anti-violence.

Penitence and joy are the means. The end is love. I invite you to the anti-vengeance that is love, that love of God that is so humble that it surrenders every right and privilege and takes on flesh in the stable among the poor and the beasts. Find yourself in this great mystery of God’s love for you.

Copyright © 2016 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.