Thursday, January 17, 2019
Isaiah 62:1-5, Psalm 36:5-10, 1 Corinthians 12:1-11, John 2:1-11
My first congregation was Hungarian. Most Hungarians are Roman Catholic, but a strong minority is Reformed, and their emblem was the Communion Cup, because they were allowed to drink from it, while their Catholic neighbors were not. And drink from it they did, not just little sips. Hungarians are wine-makers, and my parishioners had grapevines in their yards along with plums and apricots. In the old days the members would donate their homemade wine for Holy Communion.
In the attic I found three big pewter pitchers. These were the old Communion pitchers. At Communion the people would stand side-by-side around the sanctuary, and as they passed the cups from hand to hand, the elders had to follow them to keep refilling them. Especially when particular members had made the wine. One of their communion hymns had language about drinking deeply from God’s cup. Who decided that at Holy Communion our portions should be so small?
There on the table is our old Communion pitcher and most of our old Communion beakers, from when we also passed the cups along and drank the wine. We are more careful now, more careful of addictions and fearful of disease. We also take for granted our abundance, more food than we can eat, more clothes that we can wear, more stuff than we can store. We fear the scarcity we do not live with and we are desensitized to our bounty, the abundance that comes from God. The Belgic Confession calls God, “the overflowing fountain of all good.” There are the signs right there.
“Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory, and his disciples believed in him.” The first of his signs. John’s Gospel never calls them “miracles” but “signs.” Visible revelations, epiphanies, manifestations. A sign is something you see that directs you to something beyond itself.
A sign can be simple or complex. A sign can be richly interpreted, and maybe sometimes overdone! So how richly symbolic was this first of Jesus’ signs? We begin by noticing what we see, and then we will consider what it points to, and we do this in order that we too might believe in him.
We see a wedding reception, however that went back then. People on the floor, on carpets, eating and drinking. Maybe some dancing. We see there, sitting together, Mary, and Jesus, and his four friends—Simon, Andrew, Philip, and Nathanael. We see Mary lean over to say something to Jesus. His response to her pulls her up sharp. She glares at him, but she doesn’t answer back.
A few minutes later we see her get up and walk over to where the servants are. Let’s say there are three of them. She speaks to them and then she turns and points to her son. She sits back down.
A couple minutes later, he gets up and goes over to the servants. They follow him to the front door, where there are six big stone jars, like barrels, say 25 gallons each. They contain the water for the guests to wash their hands and feet when they come in. He tells the servants something. They look at him in surprise, but eventually they nod their heads. He goes and sits back down.
Now we watch the servants fill the jars with water. It’s a job. They have go and get it from a public well, and how many trips does it take to fill those jars up to the brim. When they are done, Jesus quietly gets up again and talks to them. Again they look surprised, but one of them gets a cup, dips it in the barrel, and takes it to the master of ceremonies. He sips it, and now he looks surprised, and he goes to the groom and talks to him, and he then looks surprised. The servants are watching this from the back of the room.
That’s what we can see: Five brief conversations—Mary and Jesus, Mary and the servants, Jesus and the servants—twice, and the steward with the groom. We see two actions—one long and laborious, and the other brief, a drink.
We can ask questions: Will the bridegroom just accept the compliment, or will he admit that he doesn’t know where the good wine came from? Will they now drink all that new wine? It’s a good 650 bottles worth, 3500 cups of wine. How long will that reception go on? The guests will have to start wondering. The servants eventually will have to tell what happened. The disciples find out. But do the servants ever determine precisely when the water was transformed?
More questions: Why did Mary set Jesus up like this? Why did she think it was his business? She was not just making an observation—that’s obviously not how Jesus took it. And why did he put her off at first? Was he wrong about it not yet being his time? Was she impatient with him? He was thirty years old and he had still not acted on his destiny. Is that why she forces him, by talking to the servants? And how was she expecting him to solve the problem? Why would she expect a miracle? She knew that her son was the Messiah, but no one expected the Messiah to be a miracle-worker.
What’s the actual sign? The six big jars? Is abundance the sign?
Or is the sign the movement of the water and its transformation—that the water of cleansing becomes the wine of celebration?
Or is the sign the excellence of the wine—that the old was good but the new is better?
Is it part of the sign that wine is a mild intoxicant? Water is clean and sober, but wine is free and loose, and even dangerous?
Is there something to the wedding feast—that if it’s the bridegroom’s job to provide the wine, then Jesus has become the new bridegroom here? Is this all a sign of who Jesus is, and what Jesus brings to life, compared to whatever was life before him? You can read all these things into the sign.
Who is Jesus? If he wants to manifest himself as the new bridegroom, then according to the prophecy of Isaiah he might as well be God. Not just that he acts for God or stands in for God, but that he impossibly identifies himself with God. Although the disciples believe in him, they don’t connect the dots till after his resurrection. But Jesus already manifests it here, that in him is not just the Spirit of God, which many of us share, but the glory of God, which belongs to God alone. Who does Jesus think he is, to manifest himself this way!
If that’s who Jesus is, what does he bring to life? The gift of life in abundance, overflowing life, intoxicating life. Nature made into supernature, animal made spiritual, vegetable and mineral made spiritual! Natural gifts made into spiritual gifts. Not spiritual and natural in opposition, but spiritual gifts from natural gifts.
This is important for the Christian life. Our Epistle lesson speaks of spiritual gifts. The Holy Spirit does not make these out of air, but from out of your natural gifts.
What are you already good at doing? What do you love to do? Don’t deny those, rather deny that you do them for yourself. Do what you are good at and what you love to do, not to keep as your own, but as gifts for the glory of the bridegroom, who transforms them into spiritual gifts, by forgiving any sinful use of them and inspiring your use of them for love and more abundant life.
Last Tuesday night we had a meeting at the church and fifteen of you were seated around the table, and I was struck by the abounding giftedness of our congregation. Who am I that I should pastor such a group! I have few real talents of my own, but I work with an abundance of gifts because I work among you all. We keep thinking our congregation is small. And thereby also poor and weak. But we must not dishonor the bridegroom! We shall not discredit the Holy Spirit!
Our group was listening to a speaker who spoke of scarcity and abundance. Scarcity is real. A billion people on this planet are hungry. My parents did not have enough money to retire on and I worry about it too. We will survive, but maybe no trips to Europe to see our grandsons. The threat of scarcity is real within my soul. When is it accurate and when is it temptation?
But I want to believe in Jesus as the bridegroom, as the God who is "the overflowing fountain of all good," so I am also required to believe in his abundance, in some real way, in some real way that challenges me. We must be transformed by the gifts of God in order to receive them as the gifts they are, we must be challenged by God’s love in order to receive God’s love.
You can believe this, like the disciples, before you can connect all the dots. I invite to believe in it again, one more week, one more year, that God is abounding in gifts to you, that God is your overflowing fountain of life, and God is the unquenchable source of love for you. And if it's not scarce, and so abounding, then you can share it. Why don't you!
Copyright © 2019, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.
Friday, January 11, 2019
Isaiah 43:1-7, Psalm 29, Acts 8:14-17, Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
What do we see? Let’s make this gospel a painting, since St. Luke is the patron saint of painters. We’ll make it a clear day, with a bright sky. Across the center is a crowd of people in a clearing in a valley among some willow trees, and the ground is green. Behind the crowd is a river.
Left of center is one man standing in front of the crowd, and the people are turned towards him as if they are listening to him. He has very long hair and a cloak of shaggy brown fur. But he’s not looking back at the crowd, he’s looking to his right, and pointing with his right hand at another man beyond the crowd.
That man is standing off, turned half away from everyone, bending halfway over, and above him is a bird, descending upon him. Should we picture the bird diving down, like above our main front doors, or fluttering down to alight on him? The bird looks like a dove.
That first man is John the Baptist. We can tell by his hair and his cloak. He is already famous here, and for years to come he will have many followers throughout the Jewish world, even in Egypt and Asia Minor. He has ignited a revival movement among the Jews, both religious and political. He has no ambitions of his own nor any loyalties, but to every political and religious group he gives stern warning. But his warnings are also appealing, and the people have flocked to him.
He offers washing, cleansing, and through that cleansing, hope and expectation. Expectation of what? St. Luke tells us: Of God’s return to Israel along with a Messiah—who will come with fire! And if John cleansed them with water, the Messiah will cleanse them with fire and with the Holy Spirit, the fearsome purifying fire that is unquenchable becomes it comes from God.
When he says “Holy Spirit,” he does not intend what a modern Christian thinks! No one as yet believes in anything like one of the three persons of the Trinity. At this point, the term “Holy Spirit” implies the whole of God, the One God, the capital-S Spirit who is capital-H Holy, high and lifted up, Holy, Holy, Holy. But this One God had made visitations, like to Moses from a burning bush, and to the whole of Israel from the top of Mount Sinai in the column of fire and smoke with flashes of lightning.
A new visitation of God will be scary, and thrilling, and judgment, and purging, and it will be salvation. Fearsome as it is, the people hope for it—the Lord of Hosts returning to Israel like in the ancient days, and the Messiah as God’s representative upon the throne of David in victory and power. These people are gathered in expectation. They are hoping for God’s return.
In this picture the people are all done getting baptized. We don’t see Jesus getting baptized, nor talking with John, like in Matthew and Mark. We see him after he’s baptized, and not listening to John but praying, standing up, bending at the waist, head down. Like at synagogue? Is he praying the Eighteen Benedictions, is he praying the Amida? We are not told what his prayer is.
Shall we picture him with his hands on his chest, or lifted up, like in the Psalms? It makes a difference for how the dove lands. Does it land on his lifted hand, like a trained bird? Or on his head, or maybe on his shoulder, to be closer to his heart, as Riley once said in Sunday School with a child’s insight. How long will it rest on him? Will it fly off again? Or does it somehow merge into him, does it enter into his body? All that we are told is that this dove is the Holy Spirit taking on a form.
That’s weird. God as a dove? Is that even allowed, God as an animal? Isn’t that prohibited as leading to idolatry? God is never manifested as an animal, but only as fire. The closest God gets to a bird is in one of the possible translations of Genesis 1:2, before Creation, when the Spirit of God moved over the face of the Deep, or hovered, or brooded. But not a dove, because a dove is a sacrificial animal, like a calf, a dove is a poor man’s calf. But the Messiah was not for being sacrificed, the Messiah was to be mighty in battle and victorious over his enemies. Well then, maybe this was like the dove from Noah’s ark, that flew out over the Flood three times, until the waters had receded enough for her to make her nest. Does this dove manifest deliverance and peace?
We have pictured John the Baptist watching this dove come down on his cousin Jesus. But after all that he had preached about the Holy Spirit coming with fire, could he even imagine this dove to be the visitation of God? Can John the Baptist keep up with this brand new thing of God that he had not foreseen in his prophecies? Was he helped by the words that came from heaven? Could he even hear those words?
The words are addressed to Jesus directly, “You are my Son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.” What those words would have meant to Jesus for his own soul I preached about six years ago, but today I will just put those words in a word-balloon, to the horror of classical painters, a word-balloon coming down from heaven over Jesus’s head. If it’s only Jesus who can hear these words, at least he finally knows for sure that he is supposed to the Messiah.
So in what we see here what is manifest? These are the Sundays after Epiphany, and the word “epiphany” means manifestation, some revelation in what you can see. Well, if this dove is the sign of this guy is being anointed as the Messiah, then this Messiah was confirmed in choosing to identify with John’s repentance movement.
You see, he might have joined up with the Pharisees, who were the patriots of purity. Or with the Sadducees, who controlled the Temple, and were the heirs of the Maccabees, the last successful independence movement. Or he might have joined the Zealots, the revolutionaries who armed themselves for the resistance like the irregulars who had fought with David against the Philistines. No, the only group he joined was the whole people that was repentant.
But what did he have to repent of? I mean, he’s Jesus! Well, what do you think repentance is? Repentance is not just the penance for sin, and it’s not even really that. Repentance is an attitude, an attitude of vulnerability, a stance of openness, making space within your life, and keeping that space open before you. “The whole life of Christians is repentance,” is what Martin Luther wrote in his 95 Theses.
This guy Jesus had to repent in order to be anointed the Messiah. He had maybe nothing in particular to repent of but he had to share the stance, the attitude, the vulnerability, the opening, the bending, the offering your neck. Which is what lovers do when you make love. If repentance is the stance and angle of opening up yourself, than repentance is a stance towards love. The risk of love.
Now if we read the gospel in the light of the epistle reading, also written by St. Luke, what’s also manifest is the very first occurrence of the Baptism of the Spirit. The dove is the sign of a new thing, begun with Jesus himself and expanded to his followers. The dove has converted a Jewish ritual of repentance into a work of the Holy Spirit, the subtle miracle we call a sacrament. Just as the dove was the small sign of God visiting and inhabiting Jesus, so baptism is the sign that God inhabits you, God invests in you. You don’t just follow Jesus, God lands on you, enters you, merges into you, as certainly as the water of baptism was put upon your head. On children too, in whom the Holy Spirit delights to dwell.
So what I want to say about our painting is that the picture tells a story, and in this story you are included. I invite you this morning to believe that you are included in this story of the painting, not just among the crowd, but on the right, with the dove descending on you. And I invite you to believe that God also says to you, “With you I am well-pleased.”
Not, “you’re fine, you’re good, you’re great.” It’s not about you, it’s about God, and God’s attitude toward you, the unshakeable attitude of God towards, which is the impact of God in your life. God does it this way in order to free you for your life of service in the world. When you serve God in the world, for justice and for peace and for mercy and healing, you will be resisted and opposed, but not by God.
Your attempts at the right thing will be ignored, or lack impact, or not be as good as you might wish, and you could always do better, but still you are free for action and creativity, because you cannot shake God’s pleasure in you, it’s unquenchable, it’s from God, “with you I am well-pleased.” Unconditionally? Yes, God’s love for you is unconditional, God’s love is absolutely free, God identifies what love is just by being God. Look at the dove and see that God is love.
Copyright © 2019, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.
Friday, January 04, 2019
Isaiah 60:1-6, 26, Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14, Ephesians 3:1-12, Matthew 2:1-12
The twelve days of Christmas are the twelve days after Christmas, ending today. The word “Epiphany” comes from the Greek word for “manifestation”. Manifestation is one kind of revelation—not a voice, but an actual physical appearance, something visible to human eyes. And the gradual manifestations of Jesus to the world are reported in our gospel lessons during these Sundays after Epiphany. So my sermon series is entitled, “What We See.” The manifestations of Jesus are treated by the gospel writers as both historical and symbolical, that is, both immediate and prophetic.
We see the magi. How many there were we are not told. The magi were officials employed by Gentile kings. They could not have made this embassy without the endorsement of the authorities they worked for. Their role in government was a combination of astrologer, philosopher, and political adviser. They studied the stars and planets because the stars and planets manifested what the Epistle to the Ephesians calls “the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places,” that is, the cosmological powers that their bosses would always want to have the endorsement of.
They saw a new star at its rising. Low in the horizon, like a planet. Much ink has been wasted on trying to identify which planet this was or what sort of celestial phenomenon—as if to substantiate the gospel. No doubt Matthew understood it as an angel who took a form that would communicate as needed. God was being generous in revelation, offering a form of revelation that went beyond the scriptures but then led the magi to the scriptures. God was offering an invitation and a sign. The sign was that the Messiah of Israel was for the Gentiles too, and the nations were invited to come to the light. St. Matthew wants you to see that the prophecy of Isaiah was being fulfilled at long last.
We see King Herod and his own wise men. Because they’re Jews, the scribes study the scriptures instead of the stars. And what they read there is bad news for Herod and for the whole city that depends on him, because Herod is not of the dynasty of David, and thus Biblically illegitimate. So they who had the scriptures are troubled by the very thing that makes the pagans glad. St. Matthew wants you to see that the people of God can be the enemy of God.
But we can also be God’s friends. The story is for us not to condemn us but to invite us and to encourage us. We can be the people of God who respond to the search of the magi with honest joy and welcome. We do that by sharing what we know of the wisdom of God. In Ephesians, St. Paul gives the people of God a mission statement: “that through the church, the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.”
"The wisdom of God in its rich variety." This is not fundamentalism. Neither is it getting the rulers to pass laws in our favor. And notice there’s no mention of the conversion of the magi. Conversion is not the goal of witness. Conversion is God’s business. Our church’s business is simply to share, to witness, and to welcome.
Getting back to the story, we don’t see Joseph, nor do we see much of Mary and the baby. St. Matthew wants us to see the three gifts. Why these particular gifts? Were they useful to the little family? They were poor, so imagine. The gold would pay for their flight to Egypt, and for a house, and for Joseph to set up shop. And as they fled through the desert, illegal immigrants avoiding places with water where the agents would be waiting, the myrrh served Mary for ointment on their dry skin. And the frankincense would give comfort to their fearful and lonely prayers.
The later tradition has explored the symbolism of the gifts, and we get that in our hymns. Gold for a king, frankincense for a priest, myrrh for a prophet, and the child will be all three. Now gold for kings and incense for priests seem obvious, but why is myrrh for prophecy? Myrrh is one of the spices used for embalming, and St. Mark reports that the women brought myrrh to Jesus’ burial. And if Jesus was killed because of what he said, of what he prophesied, and if prophets generally have so suffer, then myrrh is the symbol of the child becoming a prophet.
What St. Matthew wants you to see in these three gifts are three symbols, three physical prophecies, that together show you not only the identity of Jesus but also what the nature of his kingdom will be. Not a typical kingdom, but a kingdom tempered by sacrifice and the truth about the poor and the weak. You can see in them the Sermon on the Mount, you can see them as symbols of the Beatitudes, and the healings of the sick, and even of the cross and the tomb and the resurrection. The three gifts are physical prophecies of the witness and wisdom of the one they were given to.
But these gifts are also symbols for you and your identity. Stay with me here as I depart from the familiar tradition to get more Biblical. The tradition makes myrrh stand for grief and gloom. But in the Bible itself, myrrh is more often associated with love and joy and celebration. And sex, I might add. Myrrh is a joyful spice more often than it’s a mournful spice, and its bitterness only sharpens its pungence. Both myrrh and frankincense could be added to perfumes, but while frankincense was typically burnt, myrrh was typically mixed into creams and ointments and lotions. It was for the skin. Frankincense was for breathing but myrrh was for feeling. Frankincense was for your prayers and myrrh was for your flesh. In the Song of Solomon it’s regarded as erotic. If frankincense is what lifted you up to heaven, myrrh is what brought you down to feel your body.
Myrrh is for the body, for the skin, for the flesh. It heals the flesh and attracts you to your flesh. And that’s okay, because this infant Jesus was “the Word made flesh.” Frankincense is for your breath. It attracts you to your soul. It leads you to prayer. And that’s good, because we Homo sapiens are the animals that pray. And gold is for your arm. Gold is wealth and wealth is power. Gold means you can have what you want and you can do what you want. Gold is for your intention and your will, and it calls to your heart, which is good and also why it is dangerous.
All three gifts are precious. All three of them speak to your desires.
The desire of your skin, your flesh, your gut, your groin. For feeling, for pleasure, for holding and taking, for loving and being loved.
And the desire of your breath, of your soul and your mind, your hopes and your dreams, your aspirations, your prayers and your desire for transcendence.
And the desire of your strength, your will, what you want to have and want to do, your plans and your intentions. What you want to achieve, your contribution to the world, what difference you want to make in the world, and what you want to be known for.
All these desires are precious to you, they move you, they motivate you, they empower you, your desire to be in the world and to rise up in the world.
These desires energize your love. And yet, because of our sin, they get in the way of love. That’s from the corruption of desire, and not from the fault of desire in itself. Your desires are part of you, you need them, you cannot exist without your desires. The question is what governs them. What are your desires in service to, where are they leading you? And whom do your desires belong to?
The take home today is simple: submit your desires to the rule of this Messiah, and your desires will have their place. The process of Christian conversion is converting your desires into gifts. Not just the desires of your soul and your heart but even the desires of your flesh. Your desires are God’s gift to you, spiritual gifts, and if you treat your desires as gifts from God, with guidance from God for the use of them, you can keep your desires.
This king needs nothing from you but your faith. This kingdom taxes you only in the currency of love. If you convert your desires according the love of God and the love of your neighbor, then your desires will have their rightful place within his government. And then your desires will lead you to what those magi experienced, overwhelming joy.
Overwhelming joy! This is what you were meant for, this is the purpose of all your journey and all your burdens, to offer this gift, and the chance to make this gift gives you overwhelming joy.
Copyright © 2019, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.
Friday, December 28, 2018
Isaiah 61:10—62:3, Psalm 147, Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7, John 1:1-18
Our gospel for this morning is also the ninth and final lesson in our Christmas Eve service. I’m the one who gets to read it, and it’s the moment when Christmas finally arrives for me. Up till then my Christmas Eve is all about the details and distractions of managing liturgy and people, and I am not a first-class manager. But that’s all done by the time of at the ninth lesson, and I get to stand up in the darkness and read it: “St. John unfolds the great mystery of the Incarnation.”
The Incarnation is claimed in verse 14: “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we have beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” I’m not going to preach on that today, but on the previous two verses, which are about you, and how you are children of God: “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.”
That’s you. You were born of God. It’s remarkable that the birth which St. John presents in the opening of his Gospel is not the birth of Jesus but the birth of you! You, believer, are a child of God because you were born of God.
Well, no you weren’t! You were born from your mother. You are the child of your parents. So this is a metaphor, but it’s a very basic metaphor of Christianity. “If anybody asks you who I am, who I am, who I am, if anybody asks you who I am, tell them I’m a child of God.”
Judaism does not speak this way. Jews regard themselves as Children of Israel, and Israel is the other name for Jacob, the grandson of Abraham, so for Jews it’s more literal than metaphorical. The Torah never calls God “our Father,” and the psalms and prophets do so only rarely. And Islam never, ever calls God a father, and Muslims do not call themselves the children of God; indeed, the very word “muslim” means a willing servant who submits to God.
This “children of God” language of the Gospel circles back to the natural religions and the mythologies which claim that we’re descended from the gods. But we’re not. We are descended from the same primitive primates as the monkeys are. And so was Jesus, in his fully human nature. And yet uniquely, by the hovering of the Holy Spirit upon the womb of Mary, he was the son of God, the only begotten child of God. His unique identity as the Son of God is the stone cast into the water, and the expanding ripples on the water are you, the children of God.
Let’s explore the metaphor of being children. A first point of the metaphor is that you belong. To be a child is to belong, and to belong to someone other than yourself, but with a belonging that is different than servanthood, which is being owned. It is a belonging which is not contractual, it’s not even covenantal, it’s a belonging which you cannot break. Yes, you can be at odds with God, as children can be at odds with their parents, and yet they have a connection which is deep and tough and physical and emotional and is broken only by violence against nature. You belong to God in a way that was not your choice any more than being born was your own choice.
So then, as born of God, you can presume that sense of belonging, that easy sense of security, which children have within their families (if their parents do their job). So you can presume the security and the comfort of having been born of God.
Galatians develops the metaphor. St. Paul writes that we are children of God, and that is by adoption. What difference does that make? Adoption can be a dicey thing. My youngest sister and brother are adopted. It took some time for them to feel like they belonged. And it wasn’t easy. They didn’t have that physical connection with my parents that we older ones had, that genetic connection which reinforces the belonging. And yet somehow, over the years, my adopted brother connected with my father in ways more powerful than did the rest of us.
It was my adopted brother who gave the eulogy at my father’s funeral. Perhaps their connection was more powerful because there had been some choice in their relationship, some moving toward each other. Those two had a friendship that the rest of us did not have. Adoption can be a stronger connection than natural descent. What my brother stressed in his eulogy was the Christian faith that my father had bequeathed him.
For St. Paul here the significance of childhood is inheritance. Not genetic inheritance so much as cultural and legal inheritance. Because you are God’s children, even by adoption, you inherit things from God. In many genetic ways I am like my mother. But my inheritance from my dad is very great. He was a Reformed Church pastor born in Paterson, New Jersey, who was serving a church in Brooklyn, New York. I should change my name to Marvin Meeter Jr.
Some of my siblings miss my father more than I do. I feel like he’s living on inside me. Which is another meaning of the metaphor. If you are God’s child, then God is living in you. God’s eternal life is in your life right now. God is present within you. You’re not so different from other people, except that there’s always some small feeling or something of God just under your awareness, just beneath the surface, and all it takes is a bump for you to feel it and a scratch for it to come out.
You also inherit the world. Your being a child of God is not to disconnect you from the world but to get you at home in the world, as it is God’s world. It’s not that you belong to the world, but that the world belongs to God. God created it and God is saving it. That salvation is for creation is very strong in both Isaiah and Psalm 147.
It is not coincidental that St. John’s Gospel opens by quoting from Genesis: “In the beginning.” The great mystery of the Incarnation is that the miracle of Salvation comes into the naturalness of Creation for the revival and renewal of Creation. Your salvation is not to free you from the world but to give you freedom in the world.
You are not a slave to the world, but you are as free in the world as the child of the owner of the world can be. Now at the same time your childhood means that your freedom does not deny the appropriate dependency and humility of children. You are not the measure of your world, which fact gives you greater freedom and joy in it than if it were your own.
One last thing, and that’s the way we talk to God. I refer you to the opening line of the gospel: In the beginning was the word. That translation is not wrong, but you could also translate it as “in the beginning was the talk.” The conversation. The word of God is not just dictation, it initiates a conversation. God wants you to talk back. You are God’s children after all.
Did you know that Christianity is unique among the religions in the room it gives for free prayer, informal prayer, for prayers made up on the spot. In other religions the prayers are formal and prescribed. You learn them, and you don’t think to make up your own. But we Christians act like we can talk to God with all the familiarity of children talking to their mother or father. Precisely.
It can go too far. Just as children can be undisciplined and disrespectful, and talk to their parents in unseemly ways, so too do we Protestants especially. So much of Protestant free prayer strikes me as shallow, impulsive, and clichéd. There is great value in the discipline of formal prayers, in how they convert your mind and train you to pray more deeply and widely than you ever could on your own.
I pray the Daily Office every morning, and almost all of it is the traditional readings and prayers, but every morning a time is reserved for my own made-up prayer, and I am not ashamed to confess that my made-up prayers are little different from those of my childhood. Let me recommend the same to you. The formal prayers are for your great benefit, not God’s, and what God loves to hear is your own most personal voice, with all the open naiveté of a child.
You are a child of God. You have a status more intimate with God than servants do. Yes, it’s okay to be known as servants of God, but today Galatians wants us to say that you are not God’s servant — God does not own you, you do not owe to God your service, you do not owe God anything but your love, and everything which comes from love. That is what God wants from you, you who were born of God — what God wants from you is your love.
Copyright © 2018 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.
Wednesday, December 19, 2018
Micah 5:2-5a, Song of Mary, Hebrews 10:5-10, Luke 1:39-45
In our gospel story today we get a glimpse of the Virgin Mary between the times—between the time of her getting pregnant and the time of her giving birth. She’s in the intermezzo of expecting. She’s expecting the promise inside her to come true.
This event we call The Visitation. It follows on The Annunciation, when the angel announced to Mary that she would bear a son. She said, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel told her that the Holy Spirit would come upon her, and then also that her elderly cousin Elizabeth was six months pregnant. That extra news was the incentive for her Visitation.
Mary races to visit Elizabeth. You can imagine her desire for the confirmation. She probably had not told anybody yet. Pregnancy is something you keep secret at first. And she can imagine her trouble when the news gets out. Pregnant before wedlock. A sinner, a slut, or just a victim, but we blame the victim. Doubtless Mary could sense from the start what she would be up against to carry this child, so for confirmation she races to visit Elizabeth.
Elizabeth will be showing by now, while Mary is not yet far along. But Mary does not have to show for Elizabeth to know—from her own baby leaping inside her. A prophet already before he’s born—John the Baptist, the forerunner, the announcer. Elizabeth gets prophetic too, by the Holy Spirit, when she blesses Mary, twice. And Mary answers with her own prophetic song. Both mothers are prophetic. Those two boys will take after their mothers more than their fathers. These four persons make a little prophetic community. In fact, it’s the first Community of Jesus ever.
I love the emphasis on women in the Gospel of St. Luke. The first prophetic song in St. Luke is Mary’s song, her Magnificat. From the Latin for the first line: Magnificat anima mea dominum. In Greek: Μεγαλύνει ἡ ψυχή μου τὸν κύριον. Literally, “Magnifies my soul the Lord.”
The Greek original and the Latin translation are both compact, but the modern English versions are wordy and diffuse, and they underplay the femininity and the sexuality. In the last line, she does not say “descendants.” What she says is “seed” (literally “σπερμα”), and you know what that means. She’s singing about her uterus no less than about her soul. She is singing about her womanhood. She is young and pregnant, and she’s got God inside her body like a little seed. Was that scary or thrilling or both?
It’s an assumption among scholars that Mary could not have written this song—that St. Luke must have put these words in her mouth, like a librettist for an opera. But hold it, why not? Because she’s young? Because she’s a girl? Maybe she’s smarter than the scholars are! What other sort of woman would God choose to home-school the Messiah? At least we can say that the Holy Spirit that dwelt in her uterus could also dwell in her mind! I’m going with Mary as the singer of this song.
She sings that God made her great–with child!–and so she magnifies God right back. That’s daring talk. As if a girl could increase God’s greatness. Who does she think she is! Well, she’s been empowered by her obedience to God. She says, “All generations will bless me.” Yes, we will, world without end, because of what God has done in her, but isn’t it presumptuous of her to claim it?
Not according to St. Luke. She can claim her own experience as a demonstration of all the rest that she’s singing of: God casting down and raising up, God filling and emptying. And when God gets done with all of this, especially with her, then God is even greater than God was before, if not mathematically, then historically. God is great in her, she is the Blessed Virgin Mary, the mother of the church.
The last line of the canticle has a paradox. She says that God “remembered the promise God made to Abraham and his seed forever.” But there was no seed of Abraham in her. She conceived her child as a virgin. No sperma. So the seed of Abraham that she mentions must be herself. She, and not some man, is the bearer of God’s promises. This was daring. So greatly does she conceive herself.
I love the Blessed Virgin Mary. So do Muslims, did you know that? We Protestants should love her more, and Roman Catholics should love her more as flesh and blood. Her devotion to do God’s will cost her greatly, but it meant no diminution of herself. Just so, you are made greater when you make God great. I don’t mean greatness of wealth or reputation. I mean the capacity of your soul. How much God asks of you, and how much you gain by what God asks of you. That’s my only take-home today: You are magnified when you magnify God.
She sings that “God has remembered.” Why that? That feels like an old-person thing to say. Why, when you’re a young woman just getting used to the idea of being pregnant, which is challenging enough and then scandalous on top of it, and your mind is all on the next nine months, why would you sing that God has remembered? Maybe I would get it if I had ever been pregnant!
I guess the point is that you can feel remembered even before the fulfillment, even before the promise is delivered. You can feel remembered when you get the earnest before the payoff. You can feel remembered while you’re still expecting, while you’re living in between the time of the promise announced and the time of the promise delivered. You can say that even though you don’t have it yet you know you’re not forgotten. This is the experience of a great deal of the Christian life.
Promises and memories behind you, incompletion before you, and beyond that it’s all unknown. The world. Your own life. Your health. Your loved ones. If you’re pregnant, what your child will be, and how will her life turn out in the end. If the future feels uncertain, the present feels uncertain too, and as you get older even the past gets less certain. “Am I remembering right?”
God remembers. God remembered Noah. God remembered Joseph in Pharaoh’s prison. God remembered Israel in Egypt. God remembered David. God remembered the Jews in captivity in Babylon. God remembers. Why else do we pray every day? Not that God ever forgets, this isn’t philosophical logic here, but the gist is that God bends God’s attention to God’s promises.
I invite you to believe that God remembers you, that God has made promises to you, and even though those promises are not yet fulfilled, God remembers you and reminds you in so many ways that you are on God’s mind. And in your waiting and your expecting, God actually makes you greater, greater than if you were not expecting. The arc of God’s promise is long, but it bends towards remembering.
Which is why it’s remarkable that God’s remembering gets enfleshed in a little baby who has nothing at all to remember. Isn’t that odd? And then his life will be short, just over thirty years, just getting started. What he had to remember was what his mother told him and what he read in the sacred scrolls of Israel’s memory, all the promises of God that were set out in the Holy Book and waiting to be kept.
He gathered that remembering and made it his own life. In the words of our Epistle, “See God, I have come to do your will, in the scroll of the book it is written of me.” From that literature he remembered all the years of longing and expectation of his people, and he offered himself to keep those promises in body and soul.
But the first years, while he was still young, his mother had to do the remembering for him. We know that she pondered so much in her heart. And I’m guessing she taught him what she knew, and from her own experience, for she did the same herself, though not in death, but she offered her body to the pain of labor and the sacrifice of pregnancy, the sacrifice that every mother makes to that beloved parasite inside her body, her sacrifice to the future of the species.
His mother did first what Christ said later, in the words of the Epistle, “animal sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me. Then I said, ‘See God, I have come to do your will.’” From his mom he learned not just to be a prophet, but also to be priest, because she offered up herself. And a priest because she begins the gospel liturgy with her song. A priest, a prophet, and the queen-mother of Israel.
We do the expecting and God does the remembering. For living in-between the times. Keep your expectation on the love of God. I invite you to choose for love. Choose to be expecting of love, especially the love of God that we remember in this Blessed Virgin Mary, the mother of our infant Lord.
Copyright © 2018, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.
Friday, December 14, 2018
Zephaniah 3:14-20, First Song of Isaiah, Philippians 4:4-7, Luke 3:7-18
In my final year in my third congregation, in Hoboken, my wife Melody developed a Christmas pageant that I was very proud of. It was based on a medieval mystery play and had all these cool parts for the children, from Adam and Eve to Joseph and Mary. (I should credit Gretchen Wolf Pritchard.)
So when I went to my fourth charge, in Grand Rapids, a big church, I was excited to introduce this kind of pageant, especially with the assistance of this big staff under me and lots of resources for music and costumes. But one of the education staff had designed his own Christmas pageant a couple years before I arrived. And the first time I saw it I disliked it very much. It contradicted everything I valued in a pageant.
So over the following months I shared my vision of what a Christmas pageant should be, but my education person was not buying it and neither did the children’s committee. I did not like this resistance. I was the senior pastor, and I was supposed to be the visionary leader. Eventually I realized I was going to have to yield, and I was not happy. And I guess my unhappiness got out.
Because on that next Advent Sunday when I came to church and I stepped inside the door a senior elder came up to me. He had been a pastor once himself. He took my hand and he looked me in the eye and he said, “You will enjoy this pageant and you will show it.” He was right, I knew it right away. He was commanding me to rejoice, and let your gentleness be known to all, just like St. Paul did.
Rejoice. The Latin word is gaudete, the second-person-plural present-active-imperative, which is why the third Sunday of Advent is called Gaudete Sunday. You-all–rejoice! It’s a command, do it! But how can joy be commanded? Shouldn’t it be spontaneous, a feeling that rises inside you? How can you command a feeling?
Well, in Christian terms the feeling of joy is only one result of the practice of joy, and the practice of joy may have all different kinds of feelings not typically recognized as joyful, such as very quiet contemplation or even “weeping with them that weep.” In all these feelings you have to choose for joy, but if you pursue it directly it will evade you, you have to get it roundabout.
You can pursue happiness. The pursuit of happiness is your inalienable right. I’m not against happiness, even though I am a Calvinist. But happiness is not the same as joy. Happiness is based on your circumstances, your happenstance. “Life is good, these are the best of times, I wish this could go on forever.” Happiness prefers the status quo, and it is not for living between the times. So happiness can get in the way of joy. Your pursuit of happiness can be an obstacle to your joy. Because what joy looks for is news, news of something coming, news of a change, news of hope. Joy responds to what is outside of your control. Joy gives in.
Which is why the prophets like John the Baptist come along to disrupt your happiness. How disruptive are his words: “You brood of vipers!” Yet the people come out to him anyway, they are drawn to him, even tax collectors and soldiers, who sense the disruption coming, that they are living in between the times. They hear his harsh words as good news. It was good for them because when you repent you disrupt your own happiness in order to give room for joy to come in. You give room and you give in. Like I did on that Advent Sunday in Grand Rapids when that elder admonished me.
Joy is your obligation as a Christian, so when you are commanded to rejoice, how shall you obey the command? The mistake is to try to generate your own joy within yourself. To force yourself to be joyful does not work, and it misses the meaning of joy. When you are commanded to rejoice, the best way to respond is by your belief. Belief is how you obey to the command to rejoice.
You believe it’s true, you believe that there is something outside yourself, you believe that there is something beyond your circumstance and happenstance, beyond your happiness that even judges your pursuit of happiness. When you believe, you open a window, and when the window is open the joy comes in. When you repent you open a crack in yourself, and through the crack the light comes in. Repentance and belief are the roundabout to joy.
This is precisely why that, while sorrow may be the opposite of happiness, it is not the opposite of joy. You can have joy in the midst of loss and sorrow. You can have joy within your grief and pain—because of what you believe, despite your happenstance. The literature of religion has many testimonies of people knowing joy in the midst of their sorrow, and not just only Christian testimonies. You can be in a dark room, but the window can be open. That’s how you know the difference between happiness and joy, because joy is a gift against your circumstances.
In the Christian view, joy is not some general quality or aether or independent energy. Joy comes from God. God is joyful and the source of joy. In our Christmas hymn we sing that Joy is to the world because the Lord is come. Can I say that joy is God’s aroma, the body odor of God, and not a stench but a fragrance? The window is open and it smells like the Holy Spirit in here.
According to the prophet Zephaniah you can have your joy because the Lord God rejoices over you. Can I say that God enjoys you? And the joy of God comes into you inspiring you to your own joy, which you would not have on your own.
I love the picture that Zephaniah gives us of God singing. When I think of all the familiar depictions of God, from Michelangelo to Monty Python, I can’t think any picture of God singing. Or of Jesus either. What if God only sings, what if whenever God speaks it’s always to music? Whatever, by your belief you open your window to the singing of God and the joy of God, who gives that joy to you. Joy is always a gift, and it is God’s gift to you to help you live between the times.
As Christians we say that we are living between the times of his coming once at Bethlehem and his coming again in glory to judge the living and the dead. But as ordinary citizens we feel that we are living between the time of recent prosperity and the time of looming crisis and disaster from global climate change. The end of our world as we have known it, and not because of God, but because of our mismanagement and greed. It’s not the judgement of God that we fear but the judgment of Nature.
In my sixty-five years I can’t remember such general cultural pessimism. You call up someone on the phone, “How you doing?” “Not bad, considering everything going on.” Of course the people in many parts of the world would say that we are only finally feeling the loss of our privilege and domination, which they have been suffering under for so long. And so we are tempted to be both aggressive and defensive in our pursuit of our happiness. This is America right now.
In the midst of this pessimism some Christians feel that we are called to judgment. Maybe. But if the Lord is near, I say leave the judgment to him. What you are called to is joy. Not to pretend that the pessimism is unreasonable, not to falsify the awful truth of how bad things are, but by your belief to keep that window open to the presence of God, the judgment of God, the grace of God, and the joy of God.
As you walk down this long corridor of time, between the time behind and the time ahead, as you walk you keep on opening the windows. It’s not a tunnel, it’s a cloister walk under the sky, it’s a passage under the stars, a gallery of windows, and you keep opening them to the presence of God till you arrive at the great hall of the feast. You are commanded to rejoice as an invitation to believe, to believe that the Lord is at hand—so close at hand that nature sings, and the fields and the floods repeat the sounding joy.
The joy can be raucous and foot-stomping, or it can be contradictory, like when you hold the precious body of a loved one dying, or it can be quiet and peaceful, like when you hold a newborn baby in your arms. That Christmas memory tells us that the aroma of joy is the fragrance arising from the substance of love, the Spirit of love, and that God is joyful because God is love.
Copyright © 2018, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.
Thursday, December 06, 2018
Malachi 3:1-4, Song of Zechariah, Philippians 1:3-11, Luke 3:1-6
Are you a prophet? Do you know anyone who is? What makes a prophet a prophet? Someone who foretells the future? That’s too narrow a definition. It’s not just foresight, but also insight. A prophet is a truth-teller about the present—with future implications. And Christian prophecy never treats the future as inevitable, it always leaves room for human choice to change the future for the better. The prophet puts you in a crisis, the prophet says to mind your ways and mend your ways, please do!
Prophets aren’t always welcome. The full truth about the present can be uncomfortable. And inconvenient! Prophets are unpopular. They are people who don’t get along, and difficult. It’s no fun to be a prophet. People in power do not like prophets. People in positions of prestige and prosperity do not like them. It’s the poor and oppressed who generally have no problem with them.
A prophet says, Stop! A prophet says, Wake up! A prophet says, “You’re a miserable offender,” and you say, “I’m not that bad.” A prophet says, “There is no health in you,” and you protest your health. You want to justify yourself and preserve your self-regard. But can you let go, surrender your self-regard, and what’s even harder, risk your investments in the future as you have bet on it so far? If your pension fund is invested in ExxonMobil, and if the prophet is warning you of global climate change, then you might resist the prophet to protect the comfort of your retirement!
Do you have a vision for the future of your life? Are you a visionary? The late president George H. W. Bush was famously hobbled by what he called “the vision thing.” I have been as well. When I came to my fourth charge, in Grand Rapids, I was repeatedly asked what was my vision for that church. I had no answer. I had never been asked that in my three former charges. “What do you mean? You called me to come and be your pastor. I came!”
“But a church like ours needs a vision for our future!” So I brought in advisers and I went on retreats, and finally I presented to the Consistory a vision plan—which they voted down 23 to 3! “We like you as our pastor but that’s not where we want to go!” Two years later, after I had been in Brooklyn for a while, I was talking to a friend back in Grand Rapids about where Old First was headed and he said, “Dan, your vision was right all along. You just had it for the wrong church!”
Well, nice, but did my vision come from God? Was it a prophetic vision? Not every visionary is a prophet. And many truth-tellers are simply pundits. The difference is your truth comes from God, your vision comes from God, when these are not available to human deduction apart from the gift of God. A prophet is a messenger, an instrument, even an oracle. The Christian prophet’s personality is never to be separated from her message, but her source is ultimately not herself. That’s why I never preach to you except from out of the Bible, because I’m supposed to be your prophet.
Does that mean that God still speaks? That God still talks today? Yes, but my speaking is not equal to God speaking, nor is even the Bible equal to God speaking. Where God speaks is in our making sense of the Bible together. In the interaction of this ancient text with our common life is God still speaking, so that God makes us a prophetic people, God makes us a visionary people.
But not as we just are. As it transforms us. If we prefer the status quo, if we don’t desire our transformation, then we cannot be prophetic. We have to participate in the transformation that we call for. And our transformation is guided by our vision, a vision that we seek from God, from our common interaction with the Word of God as it’s been given to us within the Holy Bible.
We say that we “offer a vision of the kingdom of heaven.” For the past few years we have been preoccupied with our sanctuary as the expression of that vision. The day is coming when we can enter back in it. And then we will have to do the further work of making that sanctuary “a space of unconditional welcome.” What does that mean? What about security? What about safety? What about good behavior? Is the kingdom of heaven ever in tension with the unconditional welcome?
Not all behaviors are welcome in the kingdom of heaven. Not if we believe in transformation. To sort out which behaviors are welcome is our task as a prophetic people, and we assign this task to the Board of Elders (which please remember as we are choosing new consistory members). The task isn’t always easy, and it can’t be just our preferences—we must be interpreting and applying the gospel of God that directs us. It must come out of our sense of mission given us by God.
Our consistory is accountable to a wider assembly called the Classis of Brooklyn, and just last Sunday we had a meeting with its officers. The Classis of Brooklyn cannot support our mission of full acceptance and affirmation of LGBTQ people, our visions differ on the kingdom of heaven, and so we explained our request to be transferred to a different classis.
We testified that we dissent from the traditional expectation that LGBTQ people should behave straight somehow. No, and we believe that the vision of the kingdom of heaven is calling us to ever new realities of unconditional welcome. God is not finished speaking yet, and is always addressing new developments. The vision is of the future, not the past. The golden age is still to come, and it’s waiting for us with God.
Of course all of us require transformation, in whatever ways that are appropriate to our several conditions and orientations. Also needing further transformation is our unconditional welcome. We can never say that we’ve arrived. Are we fully welcoming to trans-gendered people? Are we fully welcoming to the poor and dispossessed? If we look at our building we must admit that our space is only very conditionally welcoming to disabled and differently-abled people. How with our building can we yet make the crooked straight and the rough places plain? How more open can we yet be?
Why are we on these topics in December instead of talking more about Christmas? Well, mostly because that’s where our scripture lessons are—they’re not yet about the fulfillment, but the longing, the pregnancy, the time of expecting and not yet the time of delivery, and we are living between the times, this space within the time of prophecy and transformation, the season of Advent.
Advent is a penitential season, because transformation has to begin with repentance. But the repentance of Advent is different from that of Lent. It is not mortification and self-examination but openness and expectation. You open up your soul like Mary’s womb. You open your heart like Mary’s uterus. You open your mind to the prophecy that sounds too strong, too critical, extreme, and you say, Well, maybe!
You don’t answer back, you listen. I think the greater part of repentance is just listening to the prophecy. To entertain the prophets in all of their difficulty is repentance in itself. Of course the prophet doesn’t have the last word, but is for preparation between the times.
The last word belongs to the savior himself, for whom the prophet prepares the way. And the savior comes in the way that we need but not how we expect him. The savior surprises even the prophets. The prophet Malachi expected him to come like fire, which burns, or like bleach, which stings, and not like an infant who needs to be kept warm. The prophet John the Baptist expected him to come like a warrior-king, building his military highways in the deserts like the Roman soldiers did, and not like a baby needing to be held and touched and comforted. A wonderful surprise.
So the preparation you need to work in this Advent season is conditioned by the character of the savior who comes at the end of it wrapped in swaddling clothes, which means a preparation of receiving, embracing, holding in your arms, holding on your chest. You need to open up your love. If you are resisting the stringent purging of the prophet, you are also restricting your love. If you resist the overly critical urging of the prophecy you are closing off yourself from the overflow of love. You are trying to keep control, you are trying to be the boss, you are in the way of God in you.
The marvelous thing is that he doesn’t wait for us to be ready. Ready or not he comes. His coming does not depend on what we do even though we are called to do it. For I am confident that the one who began a good work in you will bring it to completion in the day of Jesus Christ. Why would God wait for you to get ready first when God has such great love for you?
Copyright © 2018, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.