Thursday, December 14, 2017
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11, Psalm 126, 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24, John 1:6-8, 19-28
John. Well, there’s two Johns. There is the John who wrote our Gospel, John the Evangelist, one of the twelve disciples, and the best friend of Jesus.
And there is John the cousin of Jesus, identified as John the Baptist in the Gospel of Matthew, John the baptizer in Mark, John the son of Zechariah in Luke, and in John he’s just plain John. The cousin of the Son of God.
He’s not the Word of God but the voice for the word. Not the light but the witness to the light. Not the Messiah but the pointer to the Messiah. John the pointer, the testifier, the witness, the voice, the confessor.
He is a mystery. When he’s asked about himself, he says, “I am not,” “I am not,” and, “No.” He is non-self-referential. Not, not, no. Then what is he? You can tell him in Christian iconography by his boney physique and leather belt and wild hair and his wild garment of camel’s hair. He is a man apart, a man whose life is his message. He’s a messenger for someone coming. He points into the crowd: “Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me.” We can’t tell whom within the crowd he’s pointing to. Not yet, because the one who is coming is hiding in plain sight.
There is mystery in the faith that we confess. Even the basic facts remain a mystery, the ones that we keep singing every week: “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” His coming again is of two kinds. His ultimate coming again will be the final great unveiling for every eye to see, and when that will happen, no one knows. But in the meantime he comes again each week. Christ will come again this week, but hidden in plain sight. He will come again this week, hidden in your week’s encounters and activities. “Among you stands one whom you do not know.”
And it’s our job as witnesses to point into the crowd and testify. If we’re not cousins of the Son of God, we are the sisters and brothers of the Son of God. We too give voice to the Word that is not heard. We too are witnesses who testify to the light within the darkness. We point to the one who is hidden among us in the crowded course of human events. We are the witnesses who testify in the great long trial of human history.
But if he’s hidden how can you point to him? Fair enough, but he told us whom he’d be hiding among, and what business and activities he’ll be hiding in. This morning he tells us in our reading from Isaiah, which you can take as the Lord Jesus telling us about himself, because this Isaiah passage is the one he chose to read when he introduced himself within the synagogue.
He’s telling us, look for me when you bring good news to the oppressed, look for me when you bind up the broken-hearted. Look for me when you proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners, look for me when you comfort those who mourn, who mourn for their city. Look for me when you build up the ancient ruins, look for me when you raise up the former devastations, and repair the ruined cities, and repair the devastations of many generations, in East New York, Brownsville, San Juan, Puerto Rico, Monrovia, Liberia. Christ will come again this week, today is a day of vengeance of our God, the year of the Lord’s favor. So the vengeance is a favor, a favorable vengeance, against the negative, against the devastation, robbery, and wrongdoing. It is a vindication. And he says that’s where you look for him.
I’m thinking of your pointing to him like in a courtroom, when the attorney asks the witness to point to the accused. “Is that person here in this courtroom? Can you point to him?” And where you point is into the seats of the onlookers behind the rail. What! Everyone turns their heads to figure out whom you’re pointing to. “Why should we believe you? What credibility do you have?”
Your credibility as a witness is your ordinary life. You’re not asked to witness in the subway or the street, you aren’t John the Baptist. Yes, you might be called out for active prophecy, if the community of Jesus designates you to speak out in public, or just sit down in the front seat of the bus.
Mostly it’s more mundane, and no less difficult, to bear your witness in the crowded events of ordinary life, in buying and selling, eating and drinking, working and playing, partying and sleeping, winning and losing, suffering and grieving, and through it all, in the words of First Thessalonians, rejoicing always, praying without ceasing, giving thanks in all circumstances, not quenching the Spirit of God in the world, not despising the strange words of the prophets in our Bible, testing everything around us, holding fast to what is good around us, abstaining from every form that evil takes within the world, letting ourselves be sanctified by the God of peace. To live like this we don’t remove ourselves from ordinary life, which gives us credibility whenever we point to him.
Always rejoicing is not so much a feeling as a choice. Always giving thanks is not an optimistic disposition but the choice to pray without ceasing your thanks to God, in every circumstance. It is a discipline. It’s costly. To always rejoice is its own kind of repentance because it’s your surrender of yourself. Joy comes from knowing what you’re not! Praying thanksgiving without ceasing is a kind of repentance because it forces your awareness and your sensitivity. It requires a habit that you learn, an attitude you practice and reinforce. You choose for joy in order to be joyful. When John the Baptist calls you to repent, you answer, Okay, I will rejoice! And when St. Paul calls you to rejoice, you answer, Okay, I will repent!
Advent repentance is not forcing yourself to wear the scratchy cloak of camel’s hair. Maybe for Lent, but not for Advent. Yes, you take off the clothes you chose to come in, that’s your Not, Not, No, and the Advent repentance is putting on new clothes of rejoicing. Back to Isaiah: You accept the glittering garments of salvation, the rainbow robe of righteousness, a garland of flowers like a bridegroom, and all the lavish jewelry of a bride. You rejoice in getting all decked out and you repent in wearing the costume that he gives you.
Isn’t this the joy of the pageant? That we get to dress up as angels and shepherds and wise men and sheep? Even for just a few minutes we forget ourselves, and inhabit the simple roles that ordinary people have dressed up in, once a year for how many centuries past. What is your garment of salvation? Shall you dress up as an angel? A shepherd? Or would dressing up as a donkey bring you more joy? Of course it’s beneath us to dress like that, but beneath us is where the joy is.
Is it delusional to choose for joy? Diversional, silly, irresponsible? Shouldn’t we be serious, considering how awful everything is right now? How can we rejoice amidst all the devastation and the robbery and injustice? How can we rejoice in the day of vengeance of our God? But the vengeance is the vengeance of flowers, a vengeance of jewels upon a bride. It’s the vengeance of life against the darkness and the cold, the vengeance of new shoots of green in the barren ground, the vengeance of a homeless mother giving birth out back among the animals behind the inn.
Choose joy to disconnect yourself from the evil that you witness against. Choose joy to abstain from every form of evil. Choose joy to judge the evil that you’re up against as stupid and banal, for all the power it claims. Test everything with your joy, and all the pretension fails the test of joy, and glamour cannot match the joy of dressing up as donkeys. Choose for joy to be open against depression and suppression and oppression, to not quench the Spirit. Choose for joy to judge the evil of the world without revenge, choose for joy to bear witness to the good.
Choose for joy in order to feel the coming of the Lord Jesus into your heart. And if joy is not self-absorbed, if joy is un-self-referential, if joy is outwardly directed (not necessarily extroverted, so often very quiet, in the listening) then you will feel the coming of the Lord Jesus into your heart when you are the one in whom he hides his business in the world.
You will feel his coming when you are comforting those who mourn. You will feel his coming when you are binding up the broken-hearted, when you are bringing liberty to captives and release to prisoners. You will feel his coming when you are raising up the former devastations and when you repair the ruined cities.
Whether as an angel proclaiming or a donkey as a beast of burden, you will know his coming when you share the wonders of his love, the wonders of his love. You will feel the joy of his coming in your heart, when you take your part and dress up in the wonders of his love.
Copyright © 2017 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.
Friday, December 08, 2017
Isaiah 40:1-11, Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13, 2 Peter 3:8-15a, Mark 1:1-8
For this sermon series I’m asking each Sunday’s quartet of lessons to sing the theme “Come, Lord Jesus,” and make music about how he comes into our lives and how we know it. But these last two weeks both quartets of lessons have answered my chosen theme with not just harmony but a counter-melody, with a strong theme of their own, the theme of repentance.
So that if we say “Come, Lord Jesus,” then how we meet him and greet him is with our repentance. Not just recognition or acknowledgment, but repentance, which means we have to learn a kind of repentance that is a welcoming kind. Call it making space in your life for your unconditional welcome of the Lord Jesus.
The repentance of Lent is more familiar. It means contrition and remorse. The word “remorse” suggests an inner death, with its penance and penalties and consequences. But last week we heard about a different side of repentance, repentance as an awareness, a sensitivity, a watching, the kind of active waiting you do when you are watching something moving and developing. Lent looks towards a death and Advent looks towards a birth.
And now to this Advent sort of repentance I am adding a new idea, that this awareness and sensitivity requires an attitude and a habit, an attitude of peace, a habit of peace, your choosing for peace, especially in the midst of turmoil and tumult.
We live in a day of global upset and cosmic revolution. The epistle offers apocalyptic images of what we experience daily in the world. When the epistle says “elements” it does not mean hydrogen and oxygen, but the basic structures of politics and power and the iron laws of economics and ownership, which are dissolving with a bang and a whoosh and fire.
It's partly the usual "raging of the nations, and the peoples imagining vain things," but strange to say, it's also the judgment of God coming into our world to shake it up.
Human power prefers the orderliness of oppression and the enforced stability of empire, a peace imposed by the force of arms. But the judgments of God come into our world like explosions of the settled order of things. They disrupt the laws of the market, they disrupt the controlling settlements of power and wealth and class and order and even of our sexual identities. The turmoil being caused by women who are saying “Me too” against the men who had power over them is partly the judgment of God against them, and it judges both conservatives and liberals.
The judgment of God upsets conservatives because its dissolves so much of cultural value that we’ve developed over the centuries. The judgment of God upsets liberals because it discloses the arrogance of humanistic self-sufficiency. The grass withers, the flower fades, and surely the people are grass. The turmoil upsets our stability and the tumult threatens our safety, and yet we are to live at peace.
Not a peace protected by our conserving structures, but a pregnant peace of something yet to come. The epistle says, While we are waiting for these things, we are to strive to be found by him at peace when he arrives. And the disruption of humanistic self-sufficiency gives you the space to lead lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for the hastening of the coming of the day of God.
This peace is a kind of repentance because it can feel like you are doing nothing, and not fighting back. You might be accused of submission. But peace does not exclude resistance and persistence. It’s a non-violent kind of resistance, it’s persistence without vengeance, it’s speaking truth to power with humility. It’s a peace that is not afraid of suffering, and the suffering that comes with it is the penance that’s in it. The suffering is the labor pains. It’s like you’re expecting. It’s Advent.
This week, after three powerful men were suspended from WNYC, I posted on Facebook how this felt both bad and good. A reply came from my former parishioner in Hoboken, who’s now a professor, and she’s had to face these things in her career. She wrote this: “I keep thinking about all of the women whose careers have been derailed, steam-rolled, or never even gotten off the ground to begin with, because of hostile, inappropriate, or unsafe workplaces and industries. Too often people make excuses that women don’t rise to the top of their professions because they aren’t as talented, as skilled, as committed, as whatever, when in fact it’s a wonder that ANY women can survive in any profession. Think about the reserves and resolve and emotional work that just persisting and staying afloat entails, never mind thriving or rising.”
To persist in peace is emotional work. It’s draining and discouraging. So to sustain your practicing peace you need comfort. To be found at peace when he comes you need some comfort in the meantime. Not a cushy kind of comfort, a plush comfort, but fortifying comfort, strengthening comfort. And where’s that comfort to be found? Not in our usual places, whether conservative or liberal.
When the hot wind of God’s judgment sweeps through our achievements to clear them away it leaves behind what feels like desert. Exposure. A terrifying openness and a fearful freedom. In the wilderness comes the wild man, John the Baptist, in dress and diet not within our element. He calls you to repent, that is, to realize that you are in the desert, to accept that everything is exposed, even in the US Senate and WNYC, even in our private lives.
And yet do not be defensive, nor arm yourself like a desert bandit, but be peaceful, and to stay peaceful, seek God’s comfort in the wilderness.
In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountains start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise. (W, H. Auden)
Look behind John the Baptist and notice a highway in the desert, a highway stretching off into the distance, beyond the horizon into the future, through this wilderness of thousands of years of time. It’s a high road, an ancient road, like a Roman road for human feet. It is a highway for our God, and it's a highway built toward you, for the Lord Jesus to come to you on. It’s illuminated, it’s shining with the glory of God.
It is the glory of the Holy Spirit, poured into your heart to strengthen and encourage you. The Spirit comforts you with an inner illumination that remains a mystery to you even when you have it in you. The Spirit gives you the inner conviction, not so much of having as desiring, the conviction of desire, the inner longing, the longing that confirms in you that what you want is true, even in the tumult and turmoil.
The Spirit gives you the power of humility and the knowledge that comes from your desire and your longing. The Spirit comforts you in your weakness (Der Geist hilft unsrer Schwachheit auf), with sighs too deep for words. Advent repentance is choosing for God’s Spirit to have her way in you, for her comfort to sustain you as you choose for peace in turmoil and tumult.
The glory on the highway is the glory of the Shepherd, who comforts you with his voice. He reminds you of his promises, his promises that counter so much of what the world would rather say. His promises may differ from what you wanted from him, so that to repent is to accept his promises instead. His voice reminds you that even in the tumult you may lead lives of holiness and godliness as you wait for and hasten the coming of the day of God.
Repentance is the call to admit the truth, and truth itself is a kind of comfort. We human beings are the creatures who are designed to be comforted by the truth. What truth means is fidelity, what truth means is faithfulness. And what is faithfulness but a sign of love. I think that’s why we take comfort in the truth, because behind truth we can read love. That also is what we human beings are designed to do, to sense the love behind the truth. Even in the tumult of the world you still can read the love of God. Come, Lord Jesus, we welcome you unconditionally into the waiting spaces of our lives, and we accept the comfort of your love for us.
Copyright © 2017 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.
Thursday, November 30, 2017
Isaiah 64:1-9, Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18, 1 Corinthians 1:3-9, Mark 13:24-37
If we say that Christ is coming, and that we must wait for it and watch for it, that means that Christ is absent in some way. In some measure he is not here. Is that true? And if we also say that in Christ is God, does that mean that in some measure God is absent, God is not here?
But isn’t God everywhere? The God of philosophy is not absent. The God of Descartes and Leibniz and Kant and Hegel is not absent, he just pretty much minds his own business and does his philosophical job. If the God of Karl Marx and Jean-Paul Sartre is absent it’s because there is no God. For Muslims, Allah is not absent in any way. For Hindus, God’s absence is impossible because God is in whatever is. “It is what it is.”
But one thing that Jesus Christ never said was, “It is what it is.” He told us that the world is not as it should be, that what is should be otherwise and will be otherwise, that there is more to come, that even though God is here God is not fully here, not on earth as in heaven, and that he himself will come again. So wait for it, don’t impatiently click off the youtube video, wait for it!
Maybe it’s not that God is absent but that God is hidden. Hidden in the heavens! Such that Isaiah implores, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.” So then is God’s hiding self-imposed, or is it that our sinful condition makes us blind to God? Isaiah suggests it is both: “There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you, for you have hidden your face from us, and delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.” If both are true, then God has to initiate God’s self-revelation and we have to repent in order to see God’s self-revelation.
Let’s say that God is hidden in plain sight. We can say that the almighty God behaves in the world as weak and powerless. Well, is that a dodge? Is that an excuse for all our unanswered prayers? Or rather that God does not act on our behest? God does not act powerfully to our satisfaction or expectations. God is not accountable to our philosophy or agendas. We don’t possess God, we don’t control God, and God’s self-hiding we have to understand a a kind of judgment. The very hiddenness of God in the world puts under judgment whatever we think we see about the world.
Can something be visible but also false? I think of the videos retweeted by the President. Can something be hidden and also true? Well, the Christian claim about the world is that much that is visible is not true. The Christian claim is that we see the same world as everybody else, but we see it differently, that so much of what’s visible, what people take as obvious, we take as not so true, not the full truth, and even false. The Christian claim is that the way to see the world truly is to see what looks obvious in terms of what is hidden, and to see that which is visible only to repentance.
I am talking about repentance as a kind of sight. This a different side of repentance than we do in Lent, that other penitential season, which is a repentance of self-examination, and sorrow, and even mortification. The repentance of Advent is more objective, more outward, not self-examination but hyper-sensitivity, not mortification but pregnancy, the opposite. In the words of St. Paul, an enrichment, a gift of speech and knowledge, a spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of Our Lord. Wait for it!
I’m talking about repentance as the kind of sight required to see what is only revealed. And what today we want to see, this first Sunday of Advent, this season of God’s coming, is not so much the presence of God, philosophically, but the coming of God dynamically, even historically, into our lives, the coming of God in Jesus Christ, the mystery available only to the sensitivity of repentance.
Last Sunday I said that the second coming of Christ will not be so much a traveling as an unveiling, an unveiling of the end that is already there, in the future where the Lord Jesus already is. Does that make any sense? Is that all metaphor or has it got some grounding for reality? Is this what St. Paul means in the epistle, that we are waiting for the revealing of Our Lord Jesus Christ? Is the revealing like an unveiling that he must do? How long must we watch? How long must we wait?
Two Sundays ago I said that in the Bible, time is conceived of differently than among us modern people. We think of time in Cartesian terms, as a kind of space, extended infinitely both behind us and before us, and we move our lives through the space of time on our time-lines point by point. I said that in the Bible time itself is moving, like a river, a stream, a wave that we ride upon, and that time is moving toward a goal, the goal of God, which is already there.
Bible-time is like a piece of music, that when you sing it, it carries you along until you reach its final cadences. Bible-time is like a video, a movie, an opera, which moves you as you watch it. Right now we’re in the second act, and a drama is unfolding looking bad, and only in the third act will the full tragedy be unveiled, like Tosca, or, maybe, like Falstaff, when a reversal into comedy is revealed.
You don’t watch an opera to find out how it ends, you already know how it ends. You watch an opera to see what you can see only when you’re within it. You know what’s coming, wait for it, wait for it. Not waiting as in a waiting room, but waiting as the kind of watching that we do in Advent.
The way that God is hidden is the same way that the third act is hidden from the second act. We can’t see it yet because some things have to happen before we get there, things have to develop before the potential tragedy unveils itself as comedy. The Lord Jesus has not yet taken the stage in the way that he will when we arrive there. Stay with it. Keep watching along. Wait for it.
Today I invite you to this watching and waiting that we can call “repentance” because of its operative humility. You take yourself off your own stage. You shut up and listen. You submit to the story, no matter how unlikely or extreme. You suspend your right to your disbelief. You surrender to the story and its music. You suspend your agenda and your right to your time. Wait for it! It is humility at the same time as it’s empowerment. It’s repentance with an undercurrent of joy, the joy of anticipation, like pregnancy instead of mortification, like waiting for a birth instead of a death, like Advent instead of Lent.
If God seems absent, or hidden, it’s because God chooses to enter the world in ways that look weak and powerless. There is a method to God’s madness. It’s first to allow for your own empowerment, even to require it, and second that your empowerment be of love, for love is your natural response to someone who is faithful to you but comes to you weak and powerless. The method in God’s madness is love. “O God, because I want to love you I will wait for you and watch for you as long as you take.” Because God waits for you and God watches for you because God loves you.
Copyright © 2017 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.
Saturday, November 25, 2017
Ezekiel 34::11-16, 20-24, Psalm 100, Ephesians 1:15-23, Matthew 25:31-46
Do you want to be judged? Do you want to be judged by anyone? Do you want to be judged by God? Would you agree with the Hungarian Calvinist theologian who said that to be judged by God is the greatest privilege of a human being? Or does the judgment of God automatically feel judgmental, the negative of the gospel, because it means that some souls are judged against, and thus excluded from eternal life, so that God’s judgment is a doctrine to be avoided?
Judgment can be a good thing, of course. You want your leaders to have good judgment. You want the consistory to have sound judgment. You want the President to have sober judgment. You want to trust them with when to say Yes and when to say No, this is allowed, and that’s not. You want them to be good judges of persons, discerning who should be admitted and who should not, whether it’s simply as immigrants and citizens, or into the halls of power, the White House, the cabinet. And if justice is a major responsibility of government, than judgment comes along with it.
You don’t want to be judged by other people, but yet you want to be justified if someone questions what you did. Or if you’re angry at someone, you want to justify your anger. You want to be in the right, and to be seen aright, your person and your actions judged for what they truly are. But no judge is perfect, no judge is omniscient, no judge is without some bias somewhere, unless that judge be God, whom to have as final judge it is your privilege as a human being.
And on what basis does God judge you? What criteria? That’s the point of Our Lord’s last parable in his last public speech before his arrest and subsequent execution. The purpose of his execution was to preclude him from the throne of David in Jerusalem. But the consequence of his execution was to raise him to the throne of God in heaven, his execution having allowed his resurrection and his resurrection allowing his ascension. He takes the throne of heaven for several purposes, as suggested by our reading from Ephesians, and one of those purposes, as Our Lord suggests himself, is to be our judge.
To be a judge was part of the job of being a king. In ancient monarchies, the king was the supreme court, and the king would hear appeals from ordinary courts. When St. Paul was on trial, and he was doubtful of his exoneration, he appealed to Caesar, which as a Roman citizen it was his privilege to do. And just as it was a Roman citizen’s privilege to be judged by Caesar, so it is your privilege as a human being to be judged by Jesus Christ, the Son of Man. It is your privilege not as a Christian but as a human being. Such is the vision of the parable.
The detailed meaning of the parable is disputed by interpreters. Is this the final judgment, at the end of time, or is it a present judgment being exercised in real history by the Lord Jesus, though seen from a heavenly perspective? I would say it’s both: that the Lord Jesus is judging the nations at present, right now, according to these criteria, and that when his present heavenly judgment is finally unveiled to all the world, then every eye will see him as the one who has come to be their judge.
If you apply this parable to the last judgment, then it strongly suggests that pagans and non-Christians can be admitted to eternal life. Entrance into eternal life is not based on baptism or being a Christian but on your self-giving service, no matter what your belief. The exclusion is not of pagans per se, and Christians and Jews will be surprised at their exclusion, for they assume that they belong by right but did not practice the service of welcome and feeding and visitation.
If you apply this parable to the Lord Jesus in heaven at present, then it tells us what Our Lord is looking for among the nations. Not whether a nation is Christian or not, but how the system of that nation treats the least of its people. So then: What in the system of our nation is the Lord Jesus looking for? We might try to justify our nation by comparing it to others, but up against the judgment of the Lord that will not do. I think right now we’re among the goats, don’t you? I mean as a total system of economy and law, a total culture? Face it, we’re goats.
Another dispute among interpreters is the meaning of the phrase, “the least of these my brethren.” I’m not going to go into the options except to say that the issue of the parable is not who are the recipients, but the interests of the king and what he’s looking for, and his criteria of judgment.
This parable is powerful; I’d say it’s brilliant. It leaves no doubt about the values of Our Lord’s government, and which sort of persons are the beneficiaries of his government. Note that the beneficiaries are not only the strangers and the hungry and prisoners and such. The beneficiaries are also those who welcome them and feed them and visit them.
The parable is brilliant because it is a judgment parable and even though it convicts us we find ourselves saying Yes, Yes, we want the judgment to be on such criteria, we want this kind of a Kingdom of Heaven. And good news, this Kingdom is your inheritance. This parable is meant for you. It is to welcome you, and to heal you, and to feed you, and to clothe you in your right mind, and to comfort you.
This is what the great power that God has put to work in Christ does for you. His power is in the word of the gospel that you hear, and the word is powerful to give you hope and brilliant to enlighten your eyes and brighten your heart. This parable is your inheritance, and when you read it you say Yes, Yes, Yes.
The parable is mostly metaphors, but it’s not a dream, yet it is a vision, a vision of the kingdom of heaven. So this puts us in mind of our draft new mission statement, and this is my final sermon on it, at least for now. In its current draft it goes like this: Old First Reformed Church is a community of Jesus Christ in Brooklyn, offering a space of unconditional welcome, a practice of worship and service, and a vision of the Kingdom of Heaven.
If I connect the statement to our lessons, I can say that while the practice of worship is not explicitly mentioned, the language of Ephesians is all liturgical and worshipful. And then from the parable I can say that Our Lord’s vision of the Kingdom of Heaven takes form in the world whenever we offer to strangers our unconditional welcome and when we practice service to the hungry and the sick. And to propel us and sustain us in our practice, we are to see the Lord Jesus in the least of these who need our food and drink and our welcome and our visitation.
This is a parable, not a new law, not a new set of commandments. I have said before that Jesus doesn’t do do’s-and-don’ts. It’s not a sin if you fail to visit a prisoner. We have no record of Jesus himself visiting prisoners, nor of clothing the naked. The deeper point is how you want the power of the Lord Jesus in the world to be expressed. What’s your vision of the kingdom of heaven? What do you want to see, how do you want the Lord Jesus to be vindicated, how do you want your religion to be justified and your belief to be defended? This is how: in your welcome and serving and visitation.
So if you want to see God, this is where to look. If you want to feel the presence of Jesus in your life, in such involvement will you find him. If you want to sense that the Kingdom of Heaven makes a difference in the world, you will gain that sense when you participate in such service. If you doubt the resurrection or ascension, if you need some confirmation that Jesus is Lord, then visit prisoners and welcome strangers, and you will get your confirmation.
Yes, yes, you want to share this vision. You want to practice it. You accept being judged by it, and you will even judge yourself by it, but you will not condemn yourself. You can’t do all things. You will not condemn yourself because Our Lord is powerfully gathering all things unto himself, even our shy and nervous welcoming and our intermittent feeding and our hesitant visitation, so that all our efforts, from feeble to noble, are being gathered by Our Lord into his great reconciliation and his greater consummation, and no stained and spotted fruit will be excluded from this harvest.
You know I always like to end on love, the love of God for us in Jesus Christ. I think the love is in the visitation. God’s visitation of us has been so total as to become one of us in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. God says, "I want to be with you, and I want to be with you because I love you."
Copyright © 2017 by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.
Thursday, November 16, 2017
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11,
Parable of the Talents
window at Old First
Chapter 25 of Matthew concludes the last public speech of the Lord Jesus before he gets arrested—like a commander giving his last speech to his troops before they enter into battle and maybe die. The conclusion of this speech takes the form of three last parables.
You heard the first one last week, the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins. Today you heard the Parable of the Talents, and next week you will hear the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats.
All three parables are about the coming of the king, however that will be, whenever that will be. “Like a thief in the night,” says St. Paul in First Thessalonians, in real human time, but not on anyone’s calendar. Like a bridegroom suddenly arriving, like a master suddenly returning. For five of the virgins it’s the wedding feast and for two of the slaves it’s the joy of their master, but for the other five virgins and the third slave it’s the outer darkness, with weeping and gnashing of teeth.
That does not mean hell or torture, but it does mean exclusion. Weeping and gnashing of teeth mean grief with anger, that you’re hurt, but you’re mad too. Yes, you blew it, but you maintain it was a set-up, that it was unfair from the start. You blew it, but you blame the other virgins who did not share their oil, or the master who you predicted would be harsh. You’re out and it’s their fault that you’re out.
This is the paradoxical experience of God that runs through the Bible. You will experience God as harsh if you see God as harsh. You might even want God to be harsh. But if you want God to be gracious you will experience God as gracious and even generous. So do so. The parable is the invitation. And if you see God in the way that Jesus does, then you need not fear what is unknown, you can handle all the great unknowns of time and space, even general and special relativity.
You don’t know the time that he is coming, so how do you act in the meantime? If you’re one of the virgins, you keep your lamps trimmed and you get spare oil, to be ready no matter how late he comes and even if you fall asleep. If you’re one of the slaves, you use the time and freedom that he gives you to buy and sell, make money, invest money, make more money, exposing yourself to risk, just as your master exposed himself to risk when he left his wealth with you!
A talent was a monetary unit like a million bucks, a fortune, really. That the master left you with five million or two million or even one million, and went a way and did not supervise you, confirms that the master understands risk. And if you can bet on him, then you can bet on his millions. If you bet on him being generous, you will find him generous. But if you presume against his generosity and expect him to be harsh, then you will find him harsh. Yes, the paradoxical experience of God.
If the slaves experienced their master so differently, I wonder how differently they experienced the passing of the time that their master was away, the long time, the weeks and months and maybe years. I know that I am risking the error of psychologizing this parable anachronistically, but I would imagine the two slaves regarding the long time of their master’s absence as positive, a good space of time, and the more time they had, the more they could risk; the more time they had, the greater their return. But for the third slave the time will have been empty and even a trial. Just reckoning for inflation, his static money would decrease in value. Worse, his time spent in passive waiting was empty time, and his time spent in fear of his master was negative time, even bad time.
There are different conceptions of time embedded in the Bible. The Egyptians and Babylonians regarded time as an endless repetition, an endless cycle of birthing and dying, like the Hindu wheel of karma. The Israelites thought of time more like a stream, a wave that we ride, a river that courses toward the goal God set for it. Like in the hymn by Isaac Watts: “Time like an ever-rolling stream bears all its sons away.”
We moderns, however, think of time in terms of space, Cartesian space like in geometry, and we draw time-lines running from left to right, all in order, date by date. Since Einstein, however, we’ve begun to think of time as relative, flexible, warped, and curved, as curved as space itself, but still very spacious.
So I want you to think about time as a kind of space of unconditional welcome that God has given to us. I want you to think about time and space as the room God makes for you within the universe for our human creativity and our cultural investment and your personal development and our congregational mission.
We are thinking about time because this is the Sunday that we choose to mark our anniversary, our 363rd trip around the sun since our church was established in 1654, thirty years before that communion beaker was given as a gift to the church. That beaker is 333 years old.
When I came here in 2001 a couple of our leaders said we had a window of only five years left before we might have to call it quits. We are much more positive about our time now. How much time do we have before us? Can this church endure in witness and mission until Our Lord returns? Maybe yes, but not by holding on. That’s the third slave. Rather by risking, investing, and expending.
First, in our programs that express our mission to our piece of the world. And if we see the world in terms of daylight and not darkness, we can discern, as Melody said last, that already the bridegroom comes among us now. Second, in our building that presents our witness and programs to the world. Third, and most of all, by risking, investing, and expanding in our relationships, as St. Paul writes in First Thessalonians, encouraging one another and building each other up, as indeed you are doing.
First Thessalonians is the earliest written epistle of St. Paul. At this point St. Paul expects the Lord Jesus to be returning soon, within his life-time. His later epistles show that he had come to terms with the delay of Our Lord’s return, and this developed appreciation for the spaciousness of God’s time went along with a developed realization of the wideness of Our Lord’s true significance.
At first the apostles saw him as the one to return the kingdom to Israel. Step by step the Holy Spirit taught them that Samaritans and Ethiopians and even Roman soldiers could have him as their Lord and Savior too. The longer the Lord delayed, the more their witness could expand. Eventually, by the epistles to the Ephesians and Colossians, St. Paul reckoned how global and cosmic the Lordship of Jesus was, so that the delay of his return was not a delay but a wonderful openness to time and space, for expansion and investment in all the nations and persons of the world, including you.
To invest in the market means lots of loss as well as gain. That’s the risk. And so this expansion and investment has never not been unopposed, resisted, and rejected. And this can be worst among those who spout the name of Jesus, from the false apostles who opposed St. Paul to Christian politicians in America today. This problem is addressed by our parable next week, when the goats will be surprised at the judgment against them and cry out, “Lord, Lord, when did we see you poor, and hungry, and in prison?” The kingdom of heaven expands and invests not by noble evolution but in weeping repentance and laughing conversion. And so too with your own personal development.
The two slaves bet on their master’s graciousness if their investments didn’t pan out. They bet that when he came back he would honor that they dared to trust in his decency. Their investment of his money was their investment in their own future with him. They had no proof of either result, that their money would double, or that their master would honor their attempt, but they took the risks of hope and faith. The Lord Jesus says that this is what it’s like with God.
The third slave did not risk his master’s decency. He felt himself prudent, but his prudence only served his fear. His fear prevented his opening to joy—at the end, but also all along. His final outer darkness was the expansion of his inner darkness all along, his distrust and his alienation. He should get himself a gun.
But the joy that the first two entered as their reward was the expansion of the excitement of the risky commerce they’d been conducting all along. You exercise your faith to live creatively in joy. It is a life of risky vulnerability, but it is an open life, a spacious life. Against your fear you wear the helmet of your hope of salvation, and to protect your vulnerability you wear the breastplate of faith and love. The Lord Jesus says that this is what it’s like with God, and that’s because your faith is the faithfulness of God and your love is the love of God for you and all the world.
Copyright © 2017 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.
Tuesday, November 14, 2017
Sermon by Rev. Melody Meeter
Matthew 25:1-13, and Psalm 78:1-7
“Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” How do you stay awake? How do you stay woke, as Dick Gregory, of blessed memory, comedian and political activist, would put it. If being awake is another way of saying be prepared, what does that mean? If you see something say something? Take your handgun to church? Issue machine guns to our deacons? Stay off the bike paths? We suffer together the terrible absence and the deafening silence of God.
The Parable of the Ten Maidens, only in Matthew, or literally, the Ten Virgins, is told by Jesus to his disciples just days or hours before his death. Jesus wants to prepare them for his death. But also to prepare them for his life in the world after his death. He wants them to wake up and get ready.
This parable is inside a longer sermon or discourse by Jesus about the end times, apocalypse, the coming of the Messiah. Chapter 24. You could scarcely squeeze more images of violence into one short passage: fire, earthquakes, floods, torture, persecution, two people in a field, one is taken one is left, pray that you are not pregnant in those days…etc.
You see, Jesus had just said---remember he is in Jerusalem with his disciples just before the Passover---Jesus had said that the beautiful new temple would be destroyed, not one stone left on stone. Now in Jesus’ context, freedom of speech was not a thing. We have to stop imagining Jesus down at the lake with a fishing pole. We should rather imagine Jesus in North Korea. These words, in Matthew’s telling, set in motion the events that lead to his arrest, his trial, his execution. So his disciples simply have to ask him: Why did you have to say that?
Through the years these texts about the end times have repelled or confused me. Why does Jesus make it seem that after his death he will be returning very shortly, like maybe before Labor Day, that his death will quickly set in motion the end of world? Then why does he turn it upside down and say nobody knows the day or the hour, so keep awake.
The Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids, though lighter in tone than all the images of the end times, also pushes us away, continuing the theme of judgement, and leaving us with an easy moral. Just be prepared and everything will be all right. Lazy people deserve what they get.
But this week, and this year, this time, as I read these texts, it was the morning news, the ink barely dry. Out of this parable has come much music, from Bach to this 1928 spiritual, “Keep your lamps trimmed and burning……” I can’t get this spiritual out of my head. When I sing it, it feels not like judgement but an invitation. A very personal invitation.
By the way, we shouldn’t judge the five maidens who don’t share their oil too harshly—first of all, in that social context and even in some cultures today, the procession IS the wedding, it’s part of the wedding. If the five had shared and they’d all run out of oil the wedding would have to be cancelled. Second, it’s an allegory; the fire in the lamp represents your unique-in-the-world self, which is not yours to give away.
So today, in the midst of violence and disaster, you are being asked to consider your financial pledge, to step up your commitment. In the midst of your own suffering. Don’t discount your suffering. I often hear people say, after they have just complained about something: First World Problem. But the truth is that suffering is suffering is suffering and there is plenty of it to go around even in Park Slope.
It’s a long list of names every week in our intercessory prayers and sometimes hidden behind those names is a whole lot of grief. In our congregation there is homelessness, the deaths of two adult children, schizophrenia, imprisonment, depression, cancer, chronic illness and deep personal betrayal. And that’s just in 2017.
There is so much suffering that money can’t fix. So why should you give to Old First? There are so many good causes. Wouldn’t it make more sense to invest in solar energy? The planet is in trouble and you are asking me to keep the lights on at Old First? There are so many things we could actually fix with money. What does this community fix?
Part of our suffering is deciding what cause is truly worthy of a portion of our paychecks. How much money should you spend to keep the flame of faith alive? If a tithe is the portion of your income you are aiming for how much of a tithe should go toward something as fragile as a community of Jesus?
Eric spoke a couple of weeks ago on why he gives to Old First and mentioned that he also gives to an organization that helps people getting out of prison. Dan and I tithe but we do not tithe everything to this community. Margaret spoke about the importance of consecration---about giving to create and maintain a holy space. Dan Silatonga spoke about giving to Old First because it means home to him, in the largest sense of that word. How do you put a monetary value on spiritual things?
More than 20 years ago, when I was in a chaplain residency at Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital, I met a man, about my age, who was in the hospital with some serious complications from his cancer and I had the privilege of knowing him over a couple of weeks. He was a strong-looking handsome man and he was a little macho, you know. He had a model of his red convertible sports car on the bedside table—this was the person he wanted people to know when they came into the room. I liked him and I daresay he liked me. I listened to him, I prayed for his healing, I prayed for his wife and children.
One day, while I was visiting, his nurse came in to tend to the wound that was on his back. (He was on his side, I was sitting facing him.) Unexpectedly, he asked me, “Would you like to see my wound?” So I went around to the other side of the bed where the nurse was tending his wound. And I saw it, in the middle of his back right next to his spine. I won’t describe it except to say it was deep and it was wide. I was woke. I mean that I woke up to his suffering. He invited me into it. He was teaching me about suffering.
And then our relationship changed. I had been praying for his healing. But now we could talk about his death and what it would mean to prepare for his death—even as we still fervently prayed for his healing. He was hoping for the best even as he prepared for the worst. And then a strange thing, a mysterious thing happened. Joy came into the room. And the joy was inextricably linked to the suffering. This deeper connection happens a lot in my work as a chaplain—those who are alive to their mortality are most alive in their deepest spirits.
Every week at communion we sing together “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” We should really translate that last phrase in a way that doesn’t make it seem that it’s some far off future. We should sing “Christ has come again.” Or “Christ is coming again,” Or “Christ is here again.” Wake up. It’s now. So in the parable of the Wedding Feast we are not being asked to prepare for some distant future. It’s not a 401K. It’s preparing for a joy that could happen any minute, that does happen any minute.
This is a truth that even children know. Psalm 78 enjoins us to share the faith with our children. Not only the glorious deeds of the Lord but even the dark sayings from of old. Children, like all of us, can be asleep to the spiritual realities. But they can also be wide awake. Like at Children in Worship here. Near the end of our time together each week we pray. First we go around the circle and ask the children what they want to pray about. And then the worship leader lifts up those prayers. And usually they say something that feels kind of rote like, I’m thankful for my Mommy and Daddy, or something that feels kind of trivial, like I’m thankful for my new socks. But if you are awake you will also hear amazing things, like the boy who said, “I’m sad because my Daddy doesn’t live in my house anymore. “ Or I think of the child who said, last spring,” I am thankful for the story.” They get it, you know?
Last week Sunday I was standing on the subway platform, waiting for the F train. Next to me were a father and two daughters, maybe 6 and 3 or 4. Now I don’t usually interject myself into conversations overheard. But out of nowhere the older girl said, “Daddy, when you and Mommy die…” The father interrupted her and said, “Victoria, don’t be morbid.” And I immediately said to the girl, “That wasn’t morbid, it was real!” And then the father said, not looking at me, “I’m sorry, Victoria, what were you going to say. The she said, “When you and Mommy die I will take care of my sister.” “That’s very nice,” said the dad.
This community has kept me woke to the presence of God in the world, because I can see and feel the presence of God in you. You are Christ-bearers. This community has been a gift to me from the day I arrived here. I often feel you have given me a love I don’t deserve, that I receive much more from this community than I give back to it. I don’t know how I could have continued my work as a chaplain without this community, which constantly calls me to faith, hope and love. Which constantly reminds me to be prepared to see Christ anywhere.
Keep awake, watch for it. I’m talking about the whole thing, the worship service, the sermons, the music, the weekly circle of communion, the beauty of the building, your individual spirits. I sometimes imagine I can see flames coming out of the tops of your heads. Every week we consecrate this space.
The invitation to the banquet arrives in the darkest times, when we ourselves and the whole world seem absolutely forsaken by God. But when we find ourselves seated at the table in the presence of our enemies, and the presence of the Good Shepherd, not only after we die, but any minute now, we find ourselves at such a feast as mends in length. We find ourselves truly awake.
Unto him that loved us and washed us from our sins in his own blood and has made us kings and priests unto God and his father, unto him be glory and dominion both now and forever, Amen.
Friday, November 03, 2017
Joshua 3:7-17, Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37, 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13, Matthew 23:1-12
St. Paul reminds the Thessalonian Christians that he was like a father to them. So then if one of these Thessalonians gratefully and respectfully refers to him as Father Paul, does that transgress the admonition of the Lord Jesus to call no man Father? I get addressed as Father out in public rather often. I don’t correct it. I’m sometimes called Padre. I accept it.
Should you call me Reverend? If you call me Pastor, I say, Here I am. But let me confess that I have always been uncomfortable with these titles, maybe a little bit because of this admonition, but more because of my inner struggle with having ended up a pastor. It was not my dream for my life.
And yet I like being called Dominee, which is the Dutch Reformed title, but that one really violates Our Lord’s admonition because it’s from the Latin for Lord. Here in Park Slope the children call their teachers by their first names, and some children in this church innocently call me Daniel, which I accept without liking it, but at least the kids are not transgressing Our Lord’s admonition!
When the Lord Jesus admonishes us like this, we have to remember that Our Lord is never about setting up a new set of rules to replace the old rules. He doesn’t do do’s-and-don’ts. Once again he is making a sweeping statement to sweep away everything, to bring everything under total judgment, even apparently good things, so that even the good things that you do, you recognize as also compromised, and that your good works have value not in themselves but because God lovingly accepts them, and that your best efforts have moral value precisely and only in your humility. If people call me Father, or Master, or Teacher, I accept it not as my prerogative but as my reminder of the necessary humility of my receiving love and needing love. Hineini, Here I am.
Today I’m talking about my peculiar position in this community of Jesus, my position as your pastor. This week our three lessons, including Joshua, combined to cause me to reflect on the importance of the ministry to a church. It struck me how even though I am never mentioned in either of our mission statements, old or new, yet my job, my role, my voice, and even my person is so important to the space and the practice and the vision of this church.
Why is that, why am I such a big deal in the church? You know, for the last 500 years, we Protestant have been waving our “priesthood of all believers” banner against the Roman Catholic hierarchy, yet here I am, with my salary and benefits costing you the largest portion of your church’s budget.
Have you noticed that the deacons never put the collection bag in front of me? We’ve never discussed it, but to not do that has been the unspoken custom in all five of my charges. In some church traditions, the pastor is the first one the deacons go to, and he visibly pulls out his wallet, and shows some cash, as he puts it in the plate. I won’t do that. But Melody and I do tithe.
By tithing I mean we put our giving money back to God into our budget, before our mortgage and our utilities and insurance. Tithing means that you budget the first percentage of your money to return to God. Your minimum should be one percent. Your target is ten percent, and every year you raise the percentage a step towards ten percent. It’s not a law, it’s not a do-or-don’t, it’s a voluntary inner exercise to practice your worship and your service. It is making space within your checkbook for unconditional welcome. It is holding up your debit card under the vision of the kingdom of heaven. Tithing isn’t charity, it’s clarity, it is purpose and intention.
“That’s easy for you to say, Pastor, or Dominee, or Daniel, whatever, it’s in your self-interest. Whatever you tithe comes back to you as salary! What a scam. What a confidence game.” Well, yes, I had better be worthy of your confidence.
But your tithing is in your self-interest too, first, because you need to give money just to be spiritually healthy, and second, because your community of Jesus needs to do mission in real terms in the real world. Your community of Jesus does not exist for itself, but for its mission, and your tithing pays for the programs of worship and music and teaching and sanctuary and hospitality that express your mission to the public world.
Neither does your community of Jesus exist in itself, on its own, but only and always as an answer to the call of God, “Here we are.” And that call of God that brings you into being as a community takes form, according to St. Paul, from the urging and encouraging and pleading of ministers, like myself, who keep calling you to your calling. He wrote to the Thessalonians, “When you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word.”
Yes, I am your pastor, your shepherd, your teacher, your song leader, your prayer leader, your board president, your CEO, your face to the public, but my first obligation is to be always calling your community to your mission. My first job is to keep calling to your mission. That’s never done. Look, communities like equilibrium. Stasis. Comfort. To groom themselves like cats. My job is to pick you up and put you out the door. To disturb your comfort as much as comfort you.
Not with my own words, but my well-informed and thoroughly human interpretations of the Bible, which you accept as what it really is, God’s word. So even though my job is not mentioned in the mission statement, to state your mission is my job! My job is mission-statement! The reason you donate towards my salary is because St. Paul tells us that a community of Jesus needs someone working night and day to keep proclaiming to you the gospel of God.
This week I have to pre-register for Medicare. I am 64. I will be with you a couple more years, to get you back into the sanctuary, and then for a while to get you accustomed to the sanctuary, and then for a while to help you to open up the sanctuary once again for mission to the public. And then you will look for someone new. Someone with new gifts and skills and attributes that I don’t have.
You will present that person with your new mission statement, whatever its final language is. And you will tell that person: Here’s our mission, now you keep calling us to it. Be like our mother and a nurse tenderly caring for her children, but also be like a father in urging us, encouraging us, and pleading with us to lead our lives worthy of God.
We will call you reverend, not for yourself but for your Lord who uses you, we will call you pastor, and mother, and fearing the admonition of Jesus we will even call you father and teacher and instructor. We will not call you Messiah, we will not call you savior, because you cannot rescue or save us or even guarantee our future. But we will honor you by answering your call, and we will keep on saying, Here we are. Each one of you, Here I am.
One other thing not in our draft new mission statement is the word Love. I think that’s okay, because it will arise out of the interplay of unconditional welcome and service, provided you do this interplay under the vision of the Kingdom of heaven. And that’s because the constitution of that Kingdom is love, and the law of that Kingdom is love, and the atmosphere of the Heavens is love, and the nature and the name of its King is Love (Charles Wesley).
So I have faith and hope that your next pastor may love this community of Jesus as much I have, and may experience from you, as much as I have, the love of God in Jesus Christ.
Copyright © 2017 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.