Saturday, May 19, 2018

May 20, Pentecost, The Mansion of God

Acts 2:1-21, Psalm 104:25-35, 37, Romans 8:22-27, John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15

Today we contemplate mysteries. Ten days ago, on Ascension Day, a man ascended into heaven. Of course this was not just any man, but the Son of God, and fully God, yet also the Son of Man, fully human, an earthling. Earthlings don’t belong in heaven, not with our bodies, so it’s a mystery that the man dwells there in his body until he comes again.

Meanwhile, today, on Pentecost, that man in heaven sends God to earth to enter his friends. That a man should send God is also a mystery.

Another mystery is that the God that this man sent to earth is the same God as himself yet not the same person as himself, nor the Father, but a third person of God: the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, the Comforter, who comes from the Father, who proceeds from the Father, even though the Son does the sending.

That the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father means that the Holy Spirit is the soul of God, the inner life of God, the personality of God, who comes from inside God to inside us. The man in heaven sends God to us to dwell within us earthlings till he comes again.

We call these “mysteries” because they are great truths that we can know but not fully know. The mystery of Pentecost is a big deal—it celebrates a very great movement in God’s self-revelation and investment. If Jesus was “God-with-us,” the Spirit is “God-in-us,” God dwelling on earth within us earthlings. It’s like with Jesus God visited and with the Spirit God has moved in.

As of Pentecost, we are called temples of the Holy Spirit because the Lord God comes to dwell in us as individual embodied persons. And as a community of Jesus the Lord God comes to dwell within us, and the church is called the Household of God. And the Lord God comes to dwell within the whole of creation, the world of nature and the world of culture, and the world is the Mansion of God.

If we think of the world as “worldly,” or of persons as “worldly” in a negative sense, that’s only because of the world being insensitive to the Holy Spirit or even resisting God’s claim. Notice that of the three great Christian holidays of Christmas and Easter and Pentecost, the secular world does not observe Pentecost. You know from Walgreens when it’s Christmas and Easter, but there is no aisle for Pentecost.

It’s more than denial, it’s resistance. “God, what are you doing here? Get back in heaven where you belong. Get out from inside me—I want to keep myself for myself. Our world of culture and political economy is none of your business, God, you just leave nature to us for our own exploitation.” Which of course is why creation groans.

The Holy Spirit loves the world and rests upon it. The Holy Spirit loves creation and inhabits it. The Holy Spirit loves human culture and blesses it. The world is the Mansion of God. The mansion is dirty and in disrepair, and whole rooms are blocked off, and many of the staff are in rebellion, but even in the dark and broken places the Holy Spirit dwells, in pain and sorrow and solidarity. You cannot keep God’s Holy Spirit out.

The earth is the Lord’s, and all that dwell therein. The Mansion of God is a Holy Ghost building, and you get to work on this building by your daily life in nature and culture and political economy, cleaning and repairing and decorating and developing and extending.

My first take-home is to confirm our church in our vision and our mission. You are renovating that sanctuary as a Mansion of God, as a Holy Ghost building. Yes, you’re doing it to benefit our congregation, and you’re doing it for the public good, but ultimately you are doing it to witness to the mission of God and movement of the Holy Spirit into this here world. If the groups we host are secular, the mystery is the truth that to the Holy Spirit nothing is secular; the world belongs to God.

Look, if all Jesus cared about was to get us into heaven when we die, then we might as well worship in an ugly windowless arena with video screens and sound equipment. If all God wanted was to get us to be good, we might as well worship in a public auditorium. But the Holy Spirit loves creation, and is working the sanctification of this here world as the Mansion of God, and we are working on this building for our Lord. We are witnessing to God’s great claim upon this here world.

We offer the first-fruits of human culture, the craft of human hands, the integration of natural materials and human ingenuity to the glory of God. It’s a Holy Ghost building, and a Pentecostal mission. It speaks in the tongues of its plaster and stenciling and multi-colored arabesques and stained-glass windows, to shelter all the souls that enter it. It speaks in the tongues of metal pipes that fill with wind and sing to God while they have breath. We turn dull, solid, heavy, leaden lumps of metal into voices of praise. O Lord, how manifold are your works. May the Lord rejoice in all his works!

We are right to do this as the testimony and witness of our congregation, but we remember that it’s not the building that is the house of God but the congregation. Until the Lord Jesus returns for the final harvest, the first-fruit is the church, the church as the people, the community of Jesus, the congregation. The congregation is the dwelling of the Advocate who makes the church the house of truth and the home of comfort. As we share our lives together, as we talk together and listen to each other, the Holy Spirit guides us into truth, and our community of Jesus is a Holy Ghost building.

The Spirit does not draw attention to herself. Jesus says in the Gospel that the Advocate does not speak on his own. You don’t hear the Holy Spirit directly or see her directly, but always mediated in the words and actions of God’s people, always behind the scenes and underneath our efforts.

When I hear people say they feel the Holy Spirit, my Calvinist critique is that what they feel are emotions they conventionally attribute to the Spirit, but the Holy Spirit can also be moving in other emotions like grief, or remorse, or even a guilty conscience. So my second take-home is not to judge yourself if you don’t feel the Spirit like other people say they do. The Spirit is not the servant of our desirable feelings. The Holy Spirit is the Lord, who challenges us as much as comforts us. As Jenn Cribbs said last week, the gift may well be in what we fear. But in all of this the Holy Spirit is never not loving.

The Spirit does not speak on his own, and you won’t feel the Spirit directly, but I invite you to believe that the Holy Spirit dwells within each one of you individually. The Spirit empowers you and empowers your natural gifts to be spiritual gifts. But the Spirit is not just for power, but also for weakness. The Advocate is the Comforter, and the Spirit helps you in your weakness.

I need this, because I’ve been feeling weakened lately; I feel weakened by the power of sin and evil in this world that belongs to God, by the brutal massacre of Palestinians, and by the sacrifice of our school-children to the Second Amendment, and by the cynical deconstruction of our government, and by the obvious disruption of seasonal weather, and by the accelerating aging of my body. We groan, while we wait for our adoption, the redemption of our bodies. We live in hope and not possession, but because we hope we need not fear our weakness. Inside you the Spirit intercedes for you with sighs too deep for words.

St. Paul interprets our groaning and our weakness as labor pains. He says the whole creation is groaning as in labor for the new life that the Holy Spirit has conceived in us. The world is pregnant, and expecting, and is in pain and discomfort until the birth. This is the discomfort of cleansing and sanctification and transformation, sufficient for the world to become the Mansion of God.

I want you to understand your own pain and discomfort as the birth-pangs of your transformation and sanctification, the Holy Spirit converting and preparing you, cleansing and enriching you, even through your death, that at your resurrection your soul and body will be capable of carrying in your flesh the life of the world to come. That mystery is not explained to us, but we have so many first-fruits in our lives to quicken our hope, and we are right to interpret them as fruits of the Holy Spirit.

Don’t underestimate the Holy Spirit within you. Don’t underestimate the claim of God upon this world. Don’t underestimate the comprehension of salvation, don’t underestimate how far God goes for love’s sake, how close God comes in love. The love of God is the greatest mystery of all, beyond understanding, but you can know as well as our children do the love of God for you.

Copyright © 2018 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

May 13, Easter 7, The Power of God #5: To Tell the Truth

Acts 1:15-17, 21-26, Psalm 1, 1 John 5:9-13, John 17:6-19

Do you speak up? When you see something do you say something? Or do you mind your own business, do you keep your mouth shut—if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all? Or, well, have you ever had to say, “Me too?” When do Christians speak up? And for what? What truth are we supposed to tell? What truth are we supposed to know? Can we even know the truth? What is required of us, when the Bible speaks of us being witnesses who testify?

We want to tell the truth. But we also want to offer a space of unconditional welcome. What if we say, “Jesus is Lord,” and someone comes into our space and then feels judged by our truth—is our welcome conditional? We live in this post-modern context of everybody having the right to their own truth, at least in public space. No one’s truth has privilege—your truth is for you and my truth is for me, and if our truths differ you may not say that mine is false. All the cultural problems here I’m not going into, but this is the context in which we find our conversation. The Christian faith has lost its cultural dominance, which is probably a good thing, and it has never hurt the gospel to have no power of privilege.

We are called to be witnesses. We are not called to be the judges or the jury. We are not judges to condemn those who disagree with us. We are not the jury who get to make the verdict. The verdict is not up to us. Nor are we called to be prosecutors of those who disagree with us. Our job is not to prove why any one else is wrong. Our job as witnesses is to offer our testimony for others to judge, and if we are challenged with tough questions about what we have testified, we do not get defensive but we count it our privilege to clarify what we have said and to back it up with our lives.

These last few weeks in the Easter Season we have been talking about the power of God. First the power to heal, then the power to invest your life, then the power to love, and then the power to choose. The power to choose your words is what we consider today, the power to testify, the power to speak what is true from what you know to be true. The Holy Spirit gives you power to know the truth, even if that truth is also a mystery beyond your full understanding. It’s the kind of truth that children love to know. When I teach Sunday School the children remind me of the joy of knowing God and knowing the things of God.

God wants to be known by you because God wants to be loved by you. This kind of knowing has some objective knowledge in it, but most deeply it’s what philosophers call personal knowledge, like a baby knowing her mother and my granddaughter knowing the way to school. It’s the knowledge of familiarity and intimacy and abiding, as a child abides in her mother’s arms. This kind of knowledge is what goes with love. Its purpose and its goal is love.

Your knowledge of God is for love. If what you think you know of God is not for love’s sake, then your knowledge is carnal and its power is worldly—“of the world,” as Jesus says—and not from God. If your testimony is not for love, then all your words, no matter how convincing to yourself, are noisy gongs and clanging cymbals.

You have the power to know God and the power to tell what you know, to testify to what you know. You are called to be a witness, that’s your contribution to God’s long-term redemption of the world. But what form should your witness take? Like the Jehovah’s Witnesses? Like the fundamentalists? Most of us are shy to think of ourselves as witnesses. “Come on. This is Park Slope. Half of my friends are Jewish. Do you expect me to witness to them?”

Well, actually, yes! If your witnessing is sharing instead of winning. And if it’s appropriate to you relationships. You know that my best friend among the clergy in Brooklyn is Rabbi Bachman, and he and I witness to each other all the time. We’re not interested in convincing each other, but we offer ourselves to each other, and we trust each other with what we believe.

Just this past Holy Week we were having a beer and he asked me about Good Friday and what it meant for my soul. What I told him really surprised him. (You’ll have to ask him yourself!) More than once I’ve told him what the Lord Jesus means to me, which he doesn’t share, and I don’t expect him to, and I listen to what’s in his heart too. We don’t judge each other. We leave it to God to be the judge and jury, we offer each other hospitality, I give him a place within my space. He does the same for me.

Fifteen years ago I went to a Bengladeshi coffee shop in the Kensington neighborhood to speak to some leaders from their mosque. We were talking about a joint prayer service. They were all about it, coming to pray with us at Old First. I remember that even though I was inviting them I was feeling doubts. I said, “You know, we’re going to pray in the name of Jesus.” “O we love Jesus!” Then I said, “But we will say that we believe in his resurrection from the dead.” “Oh, we know that! Come on!”

Why didn’t I just trust that my Christian testimony was a bridge and not a wall? Now of course it’s different in other parts of the world, but for you it is true that as long as you respectfully report what you believe without judging others, you can make place for others within your space.

Thirty-seven years ago I was the pastor of a small Hungarian Reformed church in Jersey–my first charge. Our son Nicholas was a year old, and I would hoist his carrier on my back and walk to visit my people, who all lived in that same north-end neighborhood. Out the back gate the first house I always passed was the house of Mrs. Elsie Pituk, one of our oldest members.

She’d be sitting outside, under this huge oak tree with a tall trunk. She was ancient, and tiny, and she didn’t speak much English, but she was gracious to me and she loved to see Nick—she’d give him a cookies, and one of his first words was “Pituk.” On the table next to her was always her Énekeskönyv, her hymnbook, with the psalms and all the prayers. I learned to read those prayers and sing the Psalms with her, including Psalm 1. I already knew the tune from singing it in Dutch. Aki nem jár hitlenek tanácsán, És meg nem áll a bűnösök útján. Like that.

Mrs. Pituk had a blood disease. Every couple months I would find her in the hospital. Never in her bed. She’d have gotten up early before the staff came in and made her bed and swept her room and sat in the chair. I liked to visit her and I’d bring my Énekeskönyv along to sing and pray from. I think she was my first funeral. I preached on Psalm 1, because as tiny as she was she seemed to me to be a tree, planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in season, with leaves that do not wither.

Being Hungarian, after the funeral we all went to the Elks Club for the party. Her son and her daughter and the grandchildren told me that yes, they knew how she sat there under that tree, and how she had been a great sheltering shade for all of them over the years, with her great love. Pituk. They knew what she believed. She knew what she knew, and her quiet witness was strong and her testimony true.

Copyright © 2018, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Friday, May 04, 2018

May 6, Easter 6, The Power of God #4: The Power to Choose

Acts 10:44-48, Psalm 98, 1 John 5:1-6, John 15:9-17

One question I often get asked is how can we belong to a church that teaches predestination. How can we teach that God chooses to save some people and not save others. This cruel doctrine seems to deny free-will and our responsibility. Are we puppets on strings, or pawns in God’s game?

Old First does not ask our members to believe in predestination. No Reformed Church does. What a Reformed Church asks its members to believe is the Apostles Creed, nothing more. For pastors it is different. I am accountable to the official doctrines of the Reformed Church, and these include predestination. Our official doctrines serve to keep my ministry rooted and grounded and protected from fads and fashion. If an official doctrine is unpopular, that may be exactly the point. And I do hold myself accountable to our official doctrines, even the ones I dissent from.

Predestination is associated with Calvinism. But John Calvin taught it as the old tradition, not something new. The full elaboration of it goes back to St. Augustine, and it became official Roman Catholic doctrine, though eventually it got underplayed. Martin Luther revived it as a teaching of great comfort, and it’s official doctrine for the Lutherans and the Episcopalians, although they rarely teach it. The Calvinists taught it boldly and systematically, and the Calvinist version of predestination is what’s in the official documents of the Reformed Church.

I believe that predestination at its core is sound and Biblical and valuable and comforting. I think much of the criticism of Calvinism is prejudiced and inaccurate. I also believe that Calvinism went too far with predestination, that we let the logic go too far, that our attempt to be intellectually consistent took the doctrine further than the Bible does. For clarity we lost the mystery. And for the sake of defending God’s sovereignty we missed the functional centrality of God’s love.

When Jesus says, “You did not choose me, I chose you,” he’s talking about his love. The choosing by God is a function of love. The doctrine of predestination has to be understood under the overarching rubric of God’s love. Yes, God chooses you, but God chooses from love and in love and for love. And that love sets limits and boundaries on what we may say about God’s choosing.

Last Sunday, I said that when we say God is love, that does not mean that we take what we prefer of love and magnify that into God, or that God is the same is love, or that love is all God is, or that there is nothing in God but love. God is much more than love. God is the origin and source of love, God defines and determines what love is, God is the great lover, the universal lover, so that when we say God is love we mean that there is nothing in God that is not also love, we mean that all the richness that God is and that God does is always loving. So then God’s love, as revealed and described in the progress of the stories of the Bible, is a necessary corrective and discipline upon any of our doctrines that we might develop from the Bible, including predestination.

That means that we should not take the logic of predestination beyond the boundaries of love. If our logic suggests the deduction that God also chooses people to suffer forever in hell, then we must not follow that logic because that logic goes beyond God’s love. We have said too much. We cannot go that far. Predestination must remain to some extent a mystery, under the greater mystery of God’s love, that greater mystery of which so much has been revealed that we can evaluate by it.

Neither should we take the logic of predestination to the denial of free will. That too would take predestination outside of love. God chooses us for freedom. God gives us room. The lover loves to give freedom to the one she loves. We are not compelled by fate or destiny. Predestination is not determinism. God has not predetermined what color shirt you’re wearing or where you’ll eat lunch. God’s sovereignty is in love and it’s for your freedom, for your freedom to make your life and to do the true and good and beautiful. Whatever you freely choose is gathered by God into God’s plan for the world, and God’s sovereignty is so deep and wide that it can embrace and enfold whatever you choose with your free will. God even chooses for what you have chosen, God lets you choose for God. That’s love!

I am speaking this Easter Season about the power of God, and I spoke last week about the power of love, the love that comes from God’s love. What we learn this week is that the power of love entails the power to choose. To be a lover is to be a chooser. Love means choices, and choice means freedom, discretion, decision, and the room and the right to make your choice. So today I am saying that the power of God in your life goes through love to give you the power to choose.

You can see this illustrated in the liturgy for weddings. There are two sets of vows, and the first set is the vows of consent, which are the legal instrument to determine that the couple have freely chosen each other, and not by compulsion. In love with each other, they freely choose to say, “I do,” and then, “I will”. In love they choose to love, and from that they can make their second set of vows, the lifelong vow of marriage. This loving and choosing in marriage is taken by St. Paul as a mystery that illustrates the mystery of God with us, the mystery of “I choose you.”

Jesus says to the disciples, “You did not choose me, I chose you.” He says this in the Upper Room, the night before he died, which means, remarkably, that just a couple hours after he says this to them they will run away and abandon him. No, they did not choose him—not what he was really in for. But that’s not the whole story. After his resurrection he gave them the Holy Spirit and in so doing he gave them to the power to choose him. In response to his prior choosing. The power to love him, in response to his prior loving.

That’s true for you as well. The reason that you are here is that you are choosing this God whom you feel has somehow chosen you. Why you are here and most of your friends are not is something of a mystery to you. You are here again because you can’t get away from it. You are here to love the God whom you deeply sense loves you. No one has forced you here. You choose it.

The difference between your choosing and God’s choosing is that God is absolutely free to choose, while you have conditions and limits to your choices, and you have to live with many things that are not your choice. You did not choose to be born, you did not choose your parents, you did not choose the color of your skin or the shape of your nose. You didn’t choose to have high blood pressure and you didn’t choose to get sick. And then there are very many things you might like to choose but you cannot. There are limits to your choices and your freedom, just as there are limits to your love, while the love of God is limitless.

You didn’t choose to live, or even how your life turned out, but you finally do have to choose it, even after the fact. You have to accept it, the life you have been given, and it’s best if you can love it. You have to choose it as a gift instead of a burden, and to choose the life that you’ve been given as a gift is an important step in love. I mean love in the sense of agape love that I talked about last week, that you be hospitable and welcoming to your own life. To choose that is one of the most important choices that you make, to love your own life no matter what otherwise you might have chosen on your own, to love your own life as a gift.

I would say that takes a daily choosing, and you can do that when you recognize that others love you too, that others welcome your life into their lives, that others welcome your peculiar history and personality. We do that for each other—by loving each other we help each other choose the way we have turned, out as gifts within the mystery of God’s sovereignty, and we help each other believe that God has chosen us and that God loves us.

Jesus says, This is my commandment, that you love each other. It’s his only commandment, and it’s both minimal and global, and it’s strange because the movement is circular. If you love, you will keep the commandment, and if you keep the commandment, you will abide in love. The choices you are choosing are carried in the momentum of God’s choice, and the love that you are loving with is carried by the loving energy of the Holy Spirit, flowing through you and out into your world.

Copyright © 2018, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Friday, April 27, 2018

April 29, Easter 5, The Power of God #3: To Love

Acts 8:26-40, Psalm 22:24-30, 1 John 4:7-21, John 15:1-8

You want to bear fruit, right? You don’t want to just hang on. You want to abide, but not just abide, not just take up space, you want to be productive, you want to produce something, offer something, contribute something, make some difference in the world. You want to bear fruit.

I’ve never grown grapes, but I have had roses. I learned to prune them. The vital power in the plant is called its “virtue,” and whenever a branch lost its virtue, and shriveled, I trimmed it, but I also pruned some green and vital branches for the sake of the whole. I did the same with the rosebuds—I would disbud some of them to give more virtue to the remaining ones.

Which God does with you, according to Jesus. With your fruit, your virtue, your power—and to get pruned hurts. “Why have you taken that away from me?” “Because the fruitfulness that I want from you is love.” And love is that power of God that we are talking about today.

The English word “love” translates three different Greek words in the Bible: eros, philia, and agape. These three kinds of love overlap, but we can say that eros is sexual love, erotic love, a kind of love with lots of power. Philia is fraternal love, brotherly love, sisterly love, family love and tribal love, and that has power too.

These two loves are natural and necessary. They both require possessing as much as sharing—not selfishness but some essential payback to yourself. There are limits to freedom in these loves: your lover owes you obligations, and so do your children and your parents. Both loves have abiding power: the two lovers become one flesh, and siblings share their genetics and their memories. They eat at the same table and live in the same abode. But if siblings no longer can abide each other, if lovers no longer abide each other, that power gets negative and nasty.

The third kind of love is agape. In the ancient Greek vocabulary of Homer, what this word meant was to welcome, to entertain a guest, even an enemy, and show respect. Essential to your welcome was the freedom of your guest from your own interest.

This word was chosen by the Jewish translators of the Hebrew Bible into Greek for the love of the Lord your God and the love of your neighbor as yourself. The Lord Jesus used this word in his teaching, as did his followers in their epistles.

Agape is the word for love that evokes the distinctive Christian ethic and the distinctive Christian mission. Radical welcome, sharing without possessing, giving without payback, honoring the other with freedom for the other. It is making room without making distance, it’s making space not to keep you off but invite you in. It’s a mistake to call it selfless—the Bible doesn’t make that mistake—you are to love your neighbor as yourself, not instead of yourself. Agape-love is sacrificial without being self-destructive, and to show respect is useless if you don’t respect yourself.

Agape-love is not absent from erotic love and filial love. Lovers welcome the differences in each other to be happy in love, and happy siblings give each other room and rejoice in their differences. Close friends have to respect each other and trust each other with freedom. I can easily love my cousins when we share so many tribal traits, but when Jesus calls me to love my enemies, that goes against the instincts of filial love. Agape-love does not have any physical or emotional reinforcements, so its abiding power has constantly to be renewed. Jesus says, you won’t be able to sustain it unless “you abide in me and in my love.” You have to be in communion with Jesus.

Old First is a community of Jesus. We are not changing that part of our mission statement. But the Consistory is revising the second part. It’s going from this: “we welcome persons of every ethnicity, race, and orientation to worship, serve, and love God, and love our neighbors as ourselves,” to this: “offering a space of unconditional welcome.” In fewer words we get precisely at the practice of agape-love, offering unconditional welcome, and how we sustain this is as a communion of Jesus, drinking from the power and virtue of his vine.

The way that this power of love flows from Jesus into us is not in some supernatural ether or some invisible gamma ray of love sent down from heaven. You get it from the ordinary weekly means of grace, the preaching of the Word and the sacraments. God quite simply uses your sharing in the hearing and thinking of the congregation around the Word, and your sharing in the singing and the eating of the Communion, to keep you abiding in Jesus and also to stimulate and empower and sustain your practice of love as mission to the world. God does it quite down-to-earth!

Now let me direct your common mind to the story of the Ethiopian eunuch. The Holy Spirit pushed the deacon Philip to offer unconditional welcome to this eunuch. It wasn’t automatic, and the deacon took a risk. It was not a rhetorical question when the eunuch pointedly asked Philip, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?”

“Well, for one, we baptize into community, and you’re going back alone. Second, you’re a Gentile, we’re not baptizing Gentiles yet. And third, you’re half-transsexual, you’re Queer. The Book of Deuteronomy specifically prohibits people like from the congregation. I’d like to baptize you, but I have these conditions to consider!”

Of course it so happens that the eunuch was reading the prophet Isaiah, who prophesied, three chapters later, that a eunuch shall no longer call himself a dry branch, and a faggot for the fire, but he too will have a place in God’s house and he shall never be cut off. Hmm! Isaiah or Deuteronomy?

So Philip has to make a decision. Can he interpret one part of scripture by another, the part that excludes by the part that includes, the part that cuts off by the part that welcomes, and can he do this on the spot without the approval of the apostles? But did the Holy Spirit plunk him down into this chariot to tell this queer guy No? He baptizes him. He loves him, agape-love, in terms of an action. He gives him unconditional welcome. And freedom too, he lets him go with no obligations.

There’s something else here. The power to love is the power to interpret–to interpret scripture. To interpret scripture in a spirit of welcome and freedom. God puts scripture in our hands, not as law to be defended but as gospel to be expanded. The power to love is to welcome into scripture new guests and new experiences. Our interpretation of the Bible is never settled and complete, it is living and growing and bears new fruit, and it is rooted in the vital, expanding love of Jesus Christ.

This power of love is the power of God, because God is love. When we say that God is love, we must be careful, we are not saying that love is God. We do not start from our human experience and understanding of love and magnify that as God. We work the other way around, we observe the lift and death and resurrection of Jesus and what he said and whom he touched and welcomed and we say, O, that’s what God is like, and then we contemplate this God and the stories of God from Genesis to Revelation and we say, O, that’s what love is like. Rich, complex, constant, open, weak in the eyes of the powers of the world, but as powerful as the force of life in the body of a little bird.

When we say that God is love, we do not say that all God is, is love. There is more to God than love. But there is nothing in God that is not also love. All that God is, is loving, and all that God does, is loving.

When we say that God is love, we say that God welcomes you, God rejoices in your otherness, God gives you space and room, not for distance but for your inclusion precisely as you.

When we say that God is love, we say that God gives you freedom, that God loves you unconditionally. Yes, God has conditions for your life, for holiness and righteousness, for justice and fairness, but those conditions for your life are not conditions on God’s love for you.

When we say that God is love, we do not say that God is the energy of love or essentially the power of love, as if God were a what. God is a who, and God is free, and God is the creator of love and the sustainer of love. God is love because God is a lover—the great lover, the original lover, the great respecter, the universal welcomer. You can know this God and learn this love and abide in this love and share this love. Once again I invite you to share with your world the love God has for you.

Copyright © 2018, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

April 22, Easter 4, The Power of God #2: To Lay Down Your life

Acts 4:5-12, Psalm 23, 1 John 3:16-24, John 10:11-18

This morning's sermon is in two parts. For the first part, I am telling the Beulah Land version of the Good Shepherd story, on flannel-board, before the congregation. After that I am giving this short message:

We have two references to power. The Lord Jesus said that he had the power to lay down his life, and the power to take it up again. The Apostle Peter said that the name of Jesus had to power to save the crippled man. Is this the same power, the same power of God, in two different expressions?

We are taught that we are saved, that is, made safe, somehow by the voluntary death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, kept safe like sheep within a sheepfold, that his laying down and taking up his life is powerful to secure us for God and to give us such security that you also may lay down your life in love for anyone in need.

Laying down does not have to mean dying, it’s like laying some cash down on the table or chips in the game, it means depositing and investing. For us it’s mostly not dying but living, and investing your life and livelihood in others who are in need. The point is that you risk your good living for those in need—not from general humanistic motivation, though we should not be critical of those who do so—but in the power of the name of Jesus of Nazareth.

How does the name of Jesus have power? It’s not an abracadabra, it’s not a spell or formula. It’s a pole star, a North Star, magnetic North, a compass, a gyroscope, to balance you and guide you. His name means his person and his life and reputation, what he stood for. Recently another pastor was worshiping with us and she said there was a lot more Jesus here than in her church. Indeed. It’s in the name of Jesus Christ that we want our church to find our power and where to keep our power centered.

Not narrowly, not simplistically, but broadly and richly, with sufficient intellect without the pride of intellect, with all the sophistication of the Christian faith, and all that comes under his name, which means the teachings of Jesus at his most comforting and at his most challenging, and his laying down his life on our behalf and taking it up to secure us—all that is in his name, and our church has no business looking for our power under any other name.

My second point is about the sheepfold and security. I’m glad for Social Security, which in three years I will be living on, but at the same time security has become an idolatry, that is, a natural good to which we surrender power and authority and made an idol of. For example, national security. Security has become through out the world, and in our nation too, an excuse for constant war, for authoritarian regimes, for the curtailment of human rights, for the oppression of refugees, for the policing of daily life, and for the constriction of our freedom to venture without insurance and to play without regulations. Security. Under the name of security shall we be safe, under the name of security shall we be saved.

Look, we can’t avoid realities. Bad guys are out there. But to believe in the power of the name of the Lord Jesus requires us to examine what we want to be saved from and to be kept safe from. Where do we look for our security and what do we want from it, and what security can we expect from God?

If you want to keep your good living, if you want to hold on to what you have as long as possible, if you want to secure your goods and your possessions, go ahead, but it is not the name of Jesus that will help you, not for that kind of savings and security.

But if, while being responsible to your social and economic obligations, while being responsible for the interests of your family and your own self-care, if then you also try to invest your life and livelihood in some real action of sharing with the oppressed and needy, your time, your money, your wealth, your efforts for justice, and then, when your conscience convicts you that you could do more, and the world needs more, and does it really make a difference, and you wonder whether you’re still being too tight and too careful about your own financial security, whenever your heart condemns you, his name has the power to reassure your heart, and to free your conscience from the guilt of having to live within the compromising entanglement of the world.

The power of his name is not that you lay down your life to die but that you lay down your life to live. The power of his name is that you can abide, and abide in his love exactly in this real world, and that his love abides in you.

Copyright © 2018, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Friday, April 13, 2018

April 15, Easter 3, The Power of God #1: Healing

Acts 3:12-19, Psalm 4, 1 John 3:1-7, Luke 24:36-48

For the next few weeks we will talk about the power of God. This Easter Season we will talk about the power of the resurrection, the power of the Holy Spirit, God’s power that empowers us, and what that power is for. I chose power as the theme for this sermons series when I surveyed the lessons for the Easter Season, where the word and its synonyms keep coming up.

If you can lift a block of concrete weighing 550 pounds one foot high in one second’s time, then you have as much power as one horse—you have one horsepower. Power is for lifting and raising and pushing and pulling and even for throwing. Power moves things, it changes the position and the condition of things. Power does work, be that muscle power for physical work, or brainpower for mental work, or economic power and political power and even spiritual power for cultural work.

We speak about empowerment. If you are created in God’s image, if God designed you for freedom and for creativity, then you need some power to exercise your freedom and do the work that satisfies you and benefits others. Parents empower their children. Teachers empower their students. Bosses empower their employees. People work hard if they can exercise their freedom and creativity. You need empowerment if you’re powerless. If you’re oppressed or suppressed or depressed or just pressed down, you need some power to raise you up. Like maybe the power of the resurrection.

People want power. Individuals want power. Groups of people want power for their groups. Recently on PBS Newshour I heard David Brooks say that liberals have the cultural power while conservatives have the political power, and now conservatives are using their political power to gain cultural power.

Last week I read about a Bible study among some members of the Cabinet. Every week Betsy De Vos and Mike Pompeo and Jeff Sessions meet to study the Bible. They believe that God used Donald Trump to give them the power to change the culture of the United States. They want to serve the Lordship of Jesus Christ, not only in their own private lives, but also in public, for the good of the world. How much should you want the same, and in what way?

What kind of power do you want for yourself? Not superpower, but just the power to be successful, to achieve your goals, to reach your potential, to keep your resolutions, to solve your problems and rise above your troubles and get yourself through hard times.

You know why thousands of people fill the megachurch of Joel Osteen every week and millions more tune in to him. He interprets the Christian gospel for his message of personal empowerment, that you can have the power to meet your full potential. Every sermon is a variation on that message and he packs them in. That’s what Robert Schuller preached. So did Norman Vincent Peale. I figure if I preach on this every week I can make Old First a megachurch. Soon the sanctuary will be too small and we’ll to move into the Armory. It’s too bad I waited till I was 64 to figure this out.

Of course, some power is negative. Consider the first lesson. The Apostle Peter accused his fellow Jews of killing the Author of life, even though they had to get the Romans to do it for them, because they did not have the legal power of execution. Even the powerless can use their negative power and manipulate the law to overpower someone else. Our second lesson calls this lawlessness, when it says that sin is lawlessness. Sin is the Christian term for power in the negative. And the sin we commit gains power over us who commit it, and sin confines us in its power even when we tell ourselves that we are free. This is not just in the Bible—all of world literature tells the tragic tale of this, the stories of one character after another trapped within the faulty choices they have made.

But the message of power that I have for you today is that you don’t have to stay trapped, you can be liberated from this tragedy. That’s the greater message of Peter to the crowds. He’s telling them that although you people killed the Author of Life, you don’t have to be trapped within the negative power of your sin, because God raised your victim from the dead.

His message to that crowd can be expanded as the gospel’s larger message for every human generation, that the resurrection of Our Lord has power to overcome the negative power of human sin. And you access this power simply by your repentance and belief. Your repentance and belief can break the bondage of sin and death and set you free to live as God intended you to live.

Let me take a step back here. The back story of Peter’s preaching was the healing miracle that he and John had just performed, the very first miracle of healing by the early church. They had healed a lame man who was begging at the entrance of the Temple. Peter had taken him by the hand, and in the name of Jesus raised him up. His rising expressed the resurrection. That’s what healings are in the New Testament—temporary evidences in our real embodied lives of Our Lord’s resurrection in the body and his own eternal life, which will be for us as well.

In our Gospel lesson, St. Luke shows us that the resurrection of Jesus was nothing if it was only spiritual, for then the Lord Jesus would be nothing but a very important ghost. His body changed, to pass through doors, but it’s a real body, who can eat fish (which I’m happy to say was broiled instead of fried and thus more healthy), and though his body will never die again, it’s the same body, with the marks of the nails in his hands and feet.

That’s what healing means in the Bible, that even though every one of our healings is temporary, because we first must die before we can be raised again into eternal life, yet our very physical and biological bodies can share in the power of the resurrection.

Healing is real, but it’s always outside of our control. There are faith-healers on TV, but you notice they only work in their own arenas, they never work in hospitals. How come faith-healers don’t work the hospitals? Because the people who do work in hospitals are the real faith-healers, healers who work by faithfulness, by patient hospitality, by long-term care, by hard work, scientific work, mental work, creative work, with the God-given power of medicine. Healing is real.

In the Book of Acts the healing of the lame man was good in itself, but its larger good was to lead to the preaching, and the purpose of the preaching was repentance and reconciliation. That’s the greater healing. Repentance breaks you from the grip and bondage of your sin and reconciliation repairs the damage of the sin and opens you up for the healing of your relationships and the healing of the world. Repentance is a fearful thing, you put yourself at risk when you admit you did wrong, but the power of the resurrection gives you the power to repent and to convert your fears to peace.

When Jesus appeared to his disciples they were terrified. He tells them to look right at his hands and feet, with the marks of shame and pain and cruelty still on them. If we’re afraid to look straight on the awful evidence of sin, the healing cannot start. Every week at Holy Communion, for us to eat the Bread of Life and drink the Cup of Salvation, I first have to say these words: “On the night he was betrayed.” Don’t hide the pain, don’t cover up the sin, don’t be afraid of the awful truth of what we have done with the power God has given us. The greater power of healing is the empowerment to do the hard work of facing the truth about yourselves, and confess it, and the power to raise yourself up from your knees, and the power to move your reconciliation, and then to spread your arms wide and claim your freedom to be creative and do your good work in the world. You have that power.

Every healing is temporary. But everything else is temporary too. You have the power to plant the seeds of transformation that will grow up beyond your own control and bear fruit beyond your knowing. The second reading says that we are still like children, who don’t know yet what we will be. But you have the power to hold on and be faithful without fully knowing and the power to keep believing until it is revealed what we shall be. You have the power to reconcile all the passing realities of life with the promise of resurrection and the world to come. And you have the power to share this with your friends here in Brooklyn.

Copyright © 2018, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

April 1, Easter: The Alarming Good News

Isaiah 25:6-9, Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24, Acts 10:34-43, Mark 16:1-7

You might have noticed that I ended the Gospel reading two sentences early, compared to what is printed in your insert. That’s because those last two sentences were not in the original Gospel of St. Mark, not in the oldest manuscripts. They were tacked on later, making the ending less abrupt and disconcerting. The subsequent Latin versions have an even longer ending, to solve the problem of St. Mark stopping short of any appearance of the resurrected Jesus.

St. Mark does not doubt the resurrection, as his Gospel is full of the intimations of it. But why does he end his Gospel with the women fleeing from the tomb in terror and amazement, disregarding the young man’s instructions, reporting nothing to no-one, because they were afraid, full stop? Don’t they have good news to tell?

On Sunday afternoons I teach confirmation to a wonderful group of teenagers. Last month I was explaining the doctrine of the resurrection—the resurrection of Jesus in history and the future resurrection of humanity, and I was saying that the resurrection is not just spiritual but physical and embodied, and not just heavenly, but for the world, and one of the students said, “You mean, like zombies?” Good point, Julian! So maybe the women in the gospel story fled from the tomb in terror and amazement because how did they know that Jesus was not a zombie!

What would a body be like that had risen from three days of decomposition? Not a good thing, if it’s like the walking dead. What would it be like to live forever? Maybe not good, if it’s like being a vampire, despite the fantasies of True Blood. Maybe it’s like the elves in The Lord of the Rings, only without those ridiculous ears. The entertainment industry suggests that resurrection and eternal life are not just Biblical matters but secular preoccupations—here is what it might be like to live forever, here is what it might be like to rise from the dead. But then what gets envisioned is something to run away from. Like the women do from the tomb.

Let me shift this a bit. Our reading from Acts says that God had anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. Power is also a secular preoccupation, but the entertainment industry calls it "superpower". In my elementary Sunday School class I asked the girls to tell me the superpowers of their favorite superheros. I asked them if their superheros always use their powers to fight, and they admitted, Yes, always. I wonder, is there a Marvel superhero with the superpower to heal the sick and give sight to the blind and feed five thousand people with five loaves and two fish? I haven’t yet seen Black Panther, but Wonder Woman saves the world by the power of her violence. These two movies have positive value when they celebrate people other than white males, but the power that we envision in these secular saviors is always a violent power. Good violence versus bad violence.

You can extrapolate from these movies to propose that the best way to deal with school shootings is to arm the teachers. But then, what is your vision of human life on earth? What kind of a world do you imagine, what kind of life can you hope for? If you think the more people that bear arms the better, then what can you believe is the capacity of human beings for a good life together, and what is the capacity of this world for long and happy lives within it?

Many Christians in America estimate these capacities as low. What they see is violence against violence until we die and our souls go off to heaven, and leave this world behind, and it’s only in heaven that we ever get the good life. Until then the 2nd Amendment protects us and comforts us with our God-given right to violence.

The Lord Jesus, however, presented a power that was absolutely non-violent. He could walk on water and calm the raging storm but did not fight the police arresting him. He’s offering a blending of power and ethics that the world ever finds incomprehensible, unbelievable, preposterous, and maybe with good reasons. Shouldn’t we persist and resist, shouldn’t we fight back? I know, but this image of power and ethics that he presents is not just about himself, it’s a worldview, it’s a vision of the world, and it’s not just for belief in God, it’s a vision of humanity and of your capacity, and you with your own ethical life are invited to offer form and shape to the world of God’s future.

It’s always been hard to comprehend and even harder to believe, even for those who were close to him. Of this difficulty the Gospel writers are not shy. The case in point is the disconcerted ending of our Gospel today. St. Mark was not shy of the women not comprehending the empty tomb, of them not believing the testimony of the mysterious young man in it, and their fearing the implications. That later on the church felt the need to add those nicer endings reveals that even the church has ever found the good news hard to comprehend and even harder to believe.

If the resurrection is good news, how can the good news be alarming? It’s at least because an embodied resurrection is so much more disruptive than simple immortality of the soul. If Easter were only a case of Jesus going to heaven when he died, there was no cause for alarm. It’s not hard to imagine immortal souls in heaven, it’s done all the time. Plato, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and even Galileo found it perfectly comprehensible. Immortality of the soul is not alarming.

But in our confirmation class, once we got past the zombies, when we tried filling out a picture of embodied resurrection for embodied life in the world to come, we quickly encountered all kinds of biological problems and social and political obstacles to undying physical lives upon this earth. The good news of embodied resurrection starts getting just too weird, and the alarm bells go off.

The resurrection is a disruption even of immortality, it’s worse than a wrinkle in time, it tears the fabric of the cosmic order, or as Isaiah said, Destroys the shroud that is cast over all peoples and the sheet that is spread over the nations. If liberation is exposure, then that sudden opening can be alarming.

You know there are good things you’re afraid of. Belief means choosing between your fears—which fears you run from and which fears you walk through. This good news is for the hard times, not the nice times. This good news addresses the relentless realities of life and loss and pain. This good news is quieter than the loud noise of hatred and the clamor of violence. It is offered to you precisely in a time of discouragement and national despair, in a time of cultural exhaustion and personal stress. I invite you to believe the news that, while death comes to us all, and despite the necessary grief, you may expect that life is not finally defined by mourning.

The Gospel of St. Mark ends this way because the ending is actually a beginning, the beginning of a whole new world of unforeseen possibilities. At the lake in Ontario where we have our cottage there’s a shore of cliffs, twenty to forty feet above the water, which there is deep, and you stand on the edge, and your children are telling to go ahead and jump—they did! The ending of St. Mark’s Gospel feels like a precipice but it’s a launching, a take-off, a leap. The resurrection is wide open.

Believe it with a belief that is open instead of closed, a belief not in a hard set of doctrines but in God’s faithfulness, a belief not strictured by certitude but open to wonder and imagination. Believe this news in order for you to imagine that this physical world is ever more open to the presence of God in it, believe it to consider that your biological bodies have more capacity for God’s Spirit than you know, believe it to countenance that our political and economic structures have more capacity for love and for healing and for feeding the hungry than their known capacity for violence, believe it to inspire you to stand up and speak for this strong peace and persist and resist by the power of love instead of fear, in the forgiveness of sins instead of violence, in the power of life coming out of death.

The resurrection is both the central doctrine of the Christian faith and the hardest to believe, as I think St. Mark intends to show us. Today I’m inviting you to believe, to believe the good news of a righteous God saying Yes to this real world, Yes to this here creation, even as we wait and long for the full redemption that God has for it, Yes to rich food and well-aged wines, Yes to your own resurrection, Yes to your capacity for power and goodness that God has in mind for you, Yes to openness and joyful wonder.

Today you answer that Yes when you sing and pray and when you pass the peace. No matter how much you believe or you doubt, you were right to come here today to give yourself to hope and to love, and to answer Yes to the incomprehensible and unconditional love of God for you.

Copyright © 2018, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.