Saturday, October 22, 2016
Joel 2:23-32, Psalm 65, 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18, Luke 18:9-14
The Pharisee and the tax collector, the tax collector also called the publican. The one is a patriot and the other a traitor.
The Pharisee desires the Kingdom of God, quite literally, politically, and to keep himself clean and pure and qualified for the Kingdom of God when it comes is the purpose of his rules and his disciplines.
But the publican is against the Kingdom of God. He collaborates with the Romans, he’s a traitor and a dirty thief. We are prejudiced against the Pharisees, but the publican would not have been your friend.
Jesus puts this in the temple in Jerusalem. Here the prayers of Israel were offered every day. The prayers were centered on the daily sacrifices, a lamb sacrificed every dawn and another every afternoon, to atone for the sins of Israel. When the sins of Israel were covered by the blood of the lamb, then they could make their prayers to God. The Levites lit the incense, and as the fragrant smoke rose up, the prayers rose up, the Levites at the altar interceding for the nation, and the individuals in attendance praying their personal supplications and intercessions.
Also praying is this Pharisee. He’s not interceding or supplicating, he’s lifting his hands in thanksgiving. He’s off to the side so he won’t get touched by anyone unclean, but he’s not a bad guy. He knows he is righteous. He fasts twice as often as he needs to and tithes more than he has too. We’d like him as a member of Old First, even if we’re irritated by his self-confidence.
Also praying is that Publican, but off in the back, and unwelcome here. He’s a bad man. Maybe he’s the guy who was ripping off the poor widow in the parable last week! He knows he’s bad. He’s praying with his head down, and beating his breast. And his prayer, if I translate it literally, is this: “O God, let the atonement be to me, the sinner.” He knows he’s guilty, and that he has no right to talk to God apart from that bloody sacrifice which is offered to cover his sins.
Well, that sacrifice is for him. That poor Pharisee, he got no benefit from that sacrifice, he assumed he didn’t need it. He might as well have stayed home, or praised God out in Nature, apart from any nasty people!
So then, which of these two went home qualified to be in the Kingdom of God? The publican, not because of himself, but because of the Kingdom of God. It’s not that the publican perversely earned his justification by his humility, it’s not about the publican at all, it’s about what God is like and what God makes God’s kingdom like, already now, already now for the publican. The Kingdom of God is not what you keep yourself clean for, it’s the Kingdom of God that declares the unclean clean, the Kingdom of God is God’s power in the world to make the unrighteous righteous, out of sheer grace, especially those who religion says don’t deserve it.
That’s why the Lord Jesus does not tell us that the publican went home and changed his life. We’d like it if he did, and he should, but that would confuse the point. That would suggest again that the Kingdom of God has to be proven by us, by our making it worthwhile. But the Kingdom of God is proven only by our need of it. If you don’t think you need it, you don’t get it. If you don’t think you need it, then all you get from it is judgement. It always is the great surprise.
Let me now turn to the epistle, the second letter to Timothy. St. Paul is boasting like a Pharisee! “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race,” I’m not a loser, I’m a winner (hint hint), “I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day.” Well, St. Paul, good for you.
Of course he’s got prison chains on him while he writes this, so he’s allowed to sound like this. And he does not exalt himself by degrading others. He does admit that other people did him wrong, that they did not support him, that they deserted him, but he asks that it not be counted against them. He wants grace for them too. He forgives them. He has to keep on forgiving them in his own mind, no doubt, because in his prison cell he’s reminded of their desertion every day again.
Look, he has to practice forgiveness every day, and he has to do that in order to practice thanksgiving every day. There’s a direct relationship between how thankful you can be and how much you have practiced forgiveness, both extending it and accepting it.
That’s a take home for today. You have a direct relationship in your life between your practice of forgiveness, both given and received, and your practice of thanksgiving. Grace makes for gratitude and gratitude makes for grace.
I want to go now to the Psalm. It’s one of my favorites, Psalm 65. (I wish you knew the marvelous tune for it.) The Psalm imagines a great song of thanksgiving that rises from the depths, and not just from the depths of human experience, but also from the world of nature, from the earth itself, the landscape, the soil and the pastures and the hills. (I heard the meadows singing, each to each.) Thanksgiving is not only what people do, but what all nature does, even in the roaring of the seas and in the clamor of the peoples, the whole creation rejoices in the gift of its very existence, giving thanks to God.
So the thanksgiving that we are talking about is not an instant messaging, as in mentioning what you feel good about today. We’re talking about long, slow, patient, persistent thanksgiving, night and day, year after year. Like what comes up from nature, the slow thanksgiving that rises from the soil, when the farmer comes through with a plow and opens up the furrows to the air and the sun and softened with showers and bearing life and giving growth.
The Psalm envisions the tracks of God’s wagon-wheels cutting through the surface of the earth, and in the cuts of the wagon tracks the richness rises up. These wagon tracks and the furrows of the farmers plow are the images of the prayers of repentance in verse 3 of the Psalm. The images of the Psalm suggest that it’s the cutting and plowing of repentance and forgiveness that allows for the new life of thanksgiving rising up. Or better, the plowing is the repentance, and the harvest is the thanksgiving, and in between we daily open up our lives in prayer and actions every day.
I want to say here that when we talk about good works and Christian action, it’s sometimes in our special witness to social change, but it’s mostly how you act within your daily jobs, both at work and at home, how you deal with your boss, and with those who report to you, how you address your work, with constantly ambiguous ethical decisions. That’s where you practice justice and your social action, from 9 to 5 and on the train and at home, that you let the Kingdom of God into your life, working from the forgiveness of sins always beneath you towards the world’s thanksgiving always around you.
When the Lord Jesus says that all who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted, this is both a judgment and a comfort. It means that your prayers and your actions are both humbled and exalted. Your prayers may be humble in how you say them, but they are exalted in the ears of God. Your good works and your actions for mercy and justice in the world may be humble in ordinary estimation and even hidden from the praise of other Christians, but they are magnified in the sight of God and exalted in the love of God.
Copyright © 2016 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.
Sunday, October 16, 2016
Jeremiah 31:27-34, Psalm 119:97-104, 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5, Luke 18:1-8
Now here’s a puzzle, and here’s an example of the difficulty of spelling the English language. Take the two words “resistance” and “persistence.” We spell “resistance” with an “a” and “persistence” with an “e”. Who knows why. In French they’re both spelled with an “a”, they both come from the same Latin root, they are obviously related, and to do one is to imply the other. The difference in spelling resists reason, yet the difference persists. Well, both words are suggested by all three of our lessons today. And both words are important for prayer and also for action.
In the parable, the widow is persistent. And to be persistent she has to be resistant. The parable is meant to be comic. The judge will be a small-town judge, and the scene is not a modern courtroom carefully controlled, but an open session with people pushing and crowding and competing for attention. A combination of Judge Judy and The Price is Right. The injustice against the widow will be economic—say she’s been refused the benefit of her deceased husband’s property, deprived by her brothers-in-law or even by her own sons, like that, an injustice all too ordinary.
The ordinary strategy was to offer the judge a bribe, which the judge was waiting for. But this widow won’t do that, and every time he takes his seat, here she comes shouting at him, in front of all the other people, who find her no less bothersome than the judge does. The joke in the parable is that it’s because the widow is so irritating that she gets her justice. Judge Judy, of course, would have shut her up and tossed her out of court.
The resistance in her persistence is her resistance to the bribe, and to the ordinary way of things, and to the interests of the crowd. Resistance is an irritant, persistence can lose you sympathy. Non-violent resistance is a case in point, the persistence of a sit-in at a lunch counter. You will get resistance back, quicker and stronger, even violent, aiming to break your non-violent persistence.
The attraction of violence is the attraction of a definitive solution. Kill him, take him out, bomb them, smash them. Mission accomplished. Of course violence breeds more violence, and what you end up with is worse than before. But at least you’ve looked decisive. But Christian action is so slow and unimpressive. Precisely because Christian action is non-violent is why it requires persistence and resistance. It takes faith and courage. Resisting violence is dangerous. It killed Jesus. We have our reasons of safety and survival that we don’t resist, we don’t persist, we give in, we get along.
The theme of “persistence” came to me from the second lesson. In this epistle St. Paul tells his squeamish protégé Rev. Timothy to be persistent in good times and bad. Timothy has to persist in preaching the right message of sound doctrine, even when it’s not the message people like to hear. He has to resist the desires of itchy ears. He has to resist the success of other preachers who give the people what they want. He has to resist his own internal doubts and fears, and the temptations of his weakness and his shame.
Let me just mention here that you could call this epistle the Second Letter of Paul to Daniel. In order to keep persisting we have to keep resisting the resistance against us from the outside and the resistance against us from our own insides.
Timothy, be persistent in prayer and action. St. Paul says you can be persistent in action because you’re proficient in good work, and you are sufficiently proficient in good work because you have the scripture, you have the instructions, you have the guidebook for training.
That’s why Timothy has to persist in teaching the right stuff, even if it’s unpopular, because it’s only the right stuff that will train you for doing good work when the good work gets hard, when your good work encounters the world’s resistance, when your good work brings back on you some suffering. Not that the pastor is a drill sergeant, forcing you through your training. The pastor only patiently persists in reminding you, encouraging you against the resistance of your distraction, your indifference, or your doubt.
Because God has already placed the instruction in your hearts. That’s the promise of Jeremiah’s prophecy. The covenant is written in your hearts. In that sense your knowledge of God is already more than I can teach you. I mean the necessary knowledge, the personal knowledge, the personal experience, the experience of forgiveness. That personal knowledge of forgiveness liberates you and empowers you. And one of the reasons you come to church every week is to rehearse that forgiveness once again. "Oh, yes, I remember, we are forgiven, I am forgiven, we live within God’s grace. "
And being forgiven you can rise to the vision, the vision ahead of you, like the visions you get in Jeremiah. That’s another reason you come to church, to be reminded of the vision. So every week you claim the forgiveness and you claim the vision, and living and breathing between these two you can get to work, praying your failures behind you and guiding your good work by the vision.
Now let me return to the parable. The parables in Luke’s gospel are designed to resist us. They always spin off a quick and easy meaning, but then they suggest the opposite when you mull them over. This one spins off the quick and easy meaning of persisting in prayer like the widow. And that’s not false. But it’s also not false that we pray and pray and God apparently does nothing about our request. And it’s also true that God can seem like an unjust judge, for how can a just and loving God allow such injustice and suffering in the earth. The parable is sadly true. Its comedy is dark.
But what is most resistant in this lesson to my own belief is those three interpretation lines of Jesus at the end. Two rhetorical questions and an answer.
First, “Will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?” I hope so, maybe in the long run.
Second, “Will he delay long in helping them?” Well, actually yes, sorry to say it, God does delay, God long delays.
And then, “I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them!” Quickly? I don’t think so. I wish it were true, Lord Jesus, but honestly I can’t see it and I can’t preach it. "O Lord, no wonder your very last line here is to wonder whether you will find any faith left on earth. Can you blame us!"
When you persist with what the Lord Jesus says he pushes back at you and then you have to consider whether the truth is in the resistance, whether the lesson is in your reaction. You come to Jesus for a nice hug and you find him wrestling you. Wrestle back.
So this is the best I can come up with this week, in terms of prayer and action. First let me say it in the negative and then I will say it in the positive.
You will not experience God as just unless you persist in your own acts of justice in the world, long past the resistance frustration and the criticism of others.
You will not experience God as a just God unless you do actions of social justice in the world long past the resistance of seeming uselessness and naivete.
You will not experience God as answering prayer unless you persist in prayer long past the resistance of God’s silences. I could wish it otherwise, but I think it’s true, and I think it’s the truth that the parable wants to wrestle free in us.
Now let me state it positively.
You can keep doing Christian actions past the rational term for results, especially actions of social justice, because when you do, you will discover that God loves justice. You will discover this not by the approbation of the world nor by the validation of quantity but by the authenticity of gratitude and the return of love.
You can work for social and economic justice and environmental justice past the resistance of frustration because it’s only by persistence that you determine how much God loves the world.
You can keep praying long past the resistance of God’s silence, and discover that God most certainly does hear your prayer, because what God does not reveal to you is the product you prayed for but God’s self. When you pray past the silence, God answers your prayer with God’s self and—here’s the surprise—at the same time with yourself. You become more you when you persist in prayer.
I believe that God’s resistance is designed to empower you. Because it is you that God loves. Yes, you are commanded to love God. But God’s own interest in your love is not God’s self. The interest of God is you. God empowers you. You’re able to love God because God loves you.
Copyright © 2016 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.
Saturday, October 08, 2016
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7, Psalm 66:1-11, 2 Timothy 2:8-15, Luke 17:11-19
This is the fourth sermon in my series on Prayer and Action. And our lesson from Jeremiah could not be more relevant: “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”
Seek the welfare of New York City and pray to the Lord on its behalf; or seek the welfare of Brooklyn and pray to the Lord on behalf of Brooklyn, for in the welfare of Brooklyn you will find your welfare. What if we changed our mission statement? Our mission is to share in God’s redemption of the city. Old First is a community of Jesus who work for the welfare of Brooklyn and pray for it. Well, that’s good, but it’s a little narrow I think.
But how is that specifically Christian, to seek the welfare of our city? Isn’t that what everybody wants, that their city prosper? So maybe the issue is the difference between welfare and prosperity, that we Christians have a particular responsibility for welfare, for being the agents and advocates of welfare. Both political parties vilify welfare, both political parties keep appealing to the issues and interests of the middle class. But the lower class, the underclass, is that the group whose issues and interests we Christians must appeal to, for in seeking their welfare we will find our own?
Jeremiah wrote this letter to the Jews in exile in Babylon because they were being told by other prophets that their exile would be short, maybe a couple years, and God would miraculously defeat the Babylonians and liberate Jerusalem and they’d all return in triumph. Jeremiah says, Nope.
Not gonna happen. Settle down. Build houses there, plant gardens, raise families, be at home there, be at home among the Babylonians who till now were your enemies. Effectively don’t have enemies.
Of course it’s when we are prospering that we start having enemies. When we prosper is when we go to war to protect our interests, our way of life, our markets, the oil we need, the resources we need. Poor nations don’t start wars. On a planet of limited resources, is it possible to seek the welfare of your city without having enemies?
So maybe we should be a little like exiles, resident exiles in our cities—to seek the welfare of our cities without being patriotic. We are not fully loyal to the city we seek the welfare of. We pray for it, we are active in its common life, we don’t keep ourselves separate, we fully integrate, we advocate, we are at home where we live, but we have a prior loyalty.
Our loyalty to the Kingdom of God is what compels us both to seek the welfare of our city but also not to identify ourselves by it. It’s a fine line. We might not be trusted. We might be made to suffer for it. Even in democracies you can go to jail for not acting loyal enough, especially in time of war.
The Apostle Paul could have stayed out of prison if he’d wanted to. If he’d just learned to get along. He kept on saying things that made people think he was their enemy. Even though he wasn’t. He was just not loyal to the reigning loyalties. There’s a message here for us about Christian action: your Christian action may well result in your being misunderstood, your motivations doubted, and you may be opposed, ironically, precisely because you will have no enemies!
St. Paul wrote this letter from prison to his protégé, the young Pastor Timothy. He was having a tough time of it. Not from prison or persecution but from his own self-doubt and his recurring weaknesses and how his little churches struggled, unlike the booming church in Corinth and the mega-church in Antioch. Timothy felt ashamed.
How to encourage him? Don’t be ashamed, how many times can you repeat it, don’t be ashamed, how many ways can you say it! Do stop measuring your work all the time. The outcome is not in your hands! Lift up your head, raise your eyes, remember the vision, remember the promises. Come on Timothy!
“Get up, get going, your faith has saved you.” What Jesus says to the Samaritan leper. Don’t misunderstand the gospel lesson. All ten of the lepers had been saved by their faith. All ten of them dared to act on Jesus’ instruction to go get certified as clean by a priests, as required by the law of Moses, and in their going they were cleansed.
Don’t condemn the nine who kept on going. They were following their instructions! And they were eager to get back to their lives, to their houses, their gardens, their wives and sons and daughters from which they had been cut off for so long.
But one does turn around. And when the Lord Jesus asks the question, “Where then are the other nine,” I don’t take his question as rhetorical and critical, but that he really means the question. He is wondering here, observing something, what happens to us when we get sudden goodness in our lives. How is it that only one turned back? And the one who was not a Jew? They were all together in their misery. There was no division among them, Jew or Samaritan, when they were outcasts, and now that they are cleansed, their differences come out. Why is that? What’s going on here?
I wonder if Jesus was wondering about his own results. How much he caused division. How often he was rejected. How often his followers abandoned him, how alone he often must have felt. He’s on his way to Jerusalem. He knows he’s going to die. He understands why, he even has a vision of the victory, but that won’t prevent his questioning: Why the division? Where are the other nine?
If you do Christian action, you will face both discouragement and opposition. Our Lord did, St. Paul did, self-doubt, like Timothy, self-criticism. You have to be reminded to get up and keep going, because your faith has already saved you. And the most important way we do this reminder is Sunday morning worship. Why go to church? To sustain you for Christian action during the week. I have noticed how often St. Luke structures his episodes like little worship services. You can see it in other places, like the Annunciation to the Virgin Mary or the Walk to Emmaus. It’s here too.
It begins with the prayer for mercy, literally here the Greek word eleison. Then comes a message, the instruction, the tiny one-sentence sermon, in this case, “Go show yourself.” Then you get songs of praise, and then you get thanksgiving, literally here the Greek word eucharist, and then a benediction. I believe this literary structure is by design. This rhythm of prayer is what sustains your Christian action: Mercy, praise, thanks, go.
Mercy, praise, thanks, go.
Mercy, praise, thanks, go.
After the Donald Trump tape on Friday I found myself weeping. Grief and discouragement. I don’t have to list the reasons. You wonder what real difference does your Christian witness make? Are we too soft, too complacent? Why aren’t we in jail, like Christians in other times and places?
So you have to come here again this week to be reminded that your faith saves you. Saves your soul, saves your mind, saves your peace of mind, saves your self-respect, saves your voice, saves your music, and saves your spirit in order to get up again. You come to be reminded that you are not ashamed. You came here today to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed.
One last thing. The middle part of our Timothy lesson is a quotation from a hymn or a liturgy, it’s obviously a poem, and scholars think it’s from an early baptismal liturgy.
If we’ve died with him we’ll live with him.
If we endure we’ll reign with him.
If we deny him he’ll deny us.
If we’re faithless he’s still faithful,
For he can’t deny himself.
We like that, that he keeps faithful even when we’re not, but then what does that mean that he might deny us? I’m going to take it that he’ll deny our denial, that he will overturn our mistakes and he will counteract our failures. This is the great promise of our baptisms, and this is why even we adults have to come to God like little children, even adults have to be baptized like children.
Because the power and the virtue of the baptism is in him and not in us. It’s a gift, a gift that we receive in our dependency and weakness. If we’re faithless he’s still faithful, for he can’t deny himself. That’s a promise you can just rest in, relax in, sleep in like a baby. He can’t deny himself because his name is Love.
Copyright © 2016 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.
Thursday, September 29, 2016
Lamentations 3:19-26, Psalm 137, 2 Timothy 1:1-14, Luke 17:5-10
We’ve got some difficult scripture lessons today. Another one from Lamentations—again. While the writer admits that their sufferings are justified by the multitude of their transgressions, that does not prevent his grief.
In Psalm 137 you get anger on top of the grief, and when grief and anger come together you get depression, and you see the depression in that they refused to sing.
What does this all say about prayer and action? That sometimes you just can’t pray and you just can’t act because you find yourself so angry at the world and angry at yourself and angry at God. You have to acknowledge it and sit in it before you can get out of it.
The gospel lesson is difficult as well. Listen again: “We are worthless slaves, we have done only what we ought to have done.” I doubt if that was as off-putting back then as it is now. Back then self-esteem and personal fulfillment were not your obligations to yourself, and slavery was not regarded as categorically wrong. But it’s certainly off-putting now, and yet there may be some hard truth it.
The hard truth is that the reason for us to have faith in God is that we are obliged to. It’s what we’re made for. Just as a tree is obliged to the sun, and a horse is obliged to run, and just as a seed is obliged to lose itself in the earth and break open and sprout, so you are designed to live by your faith and you therefore are obliged to it. Faith in God is the obligation of your existence.
That’s a counter-cultural truth. The prevailing view is to think of religion as a purely voluntary choice that you can make, like choosing whether or not to join a softball team. It’s like belonging to the food coop. They have the best food in Brooklyn, at the best prices, but they expect obligations. You can choose for that, or you can choose for the lesser produce at Key Food, which wants nothing from you except your money. It’s your choice.
We think of religion as something freely added on to life or not. But then you come to church, and you hear Jesus saying that you owe your life to God. And he compares you to a slave who is obliged to serve with no reward for your service except another job to do when you’re done with this one.
You open yourself to this hard truth. You give it room within yourself. You let yourself get used to it. So even though, because of your enculturation, you can’t help but approach your religion as a consumer, and then the Lord Jesus pushes you off for being a consumer, you come right back at him. “I’m with you Jesus, I’m hanging on to you Jesus, I just need a little more faith to handle some of the things you say.” Especially when you find yourself a little angry or aggrieved.
You only asked him to increase your faith. And it’s like he made fun of you by saying you should have faith the size of a mustard seed. That’s confusing. Does he mean your faith is so infinitesimal to begin with that just to get it merely tiny would make you a regular superhero, or does he mean the opposite, to get your faith small, so that asking for more is a wrong request?
Then he suggests a miracle which is silly, because why would you command a tree to uproot itself and plant itself in the sea, which would kill the tree by drowning? It feels like the Lord Jesus is more than teasing here, it feels a little like he’s mocking. Not the Jesus we’re used to.
How different is the tone of the Apostle Paul to Timothy. Encouraging, supportive, approving, very loving. He’s trying to instill some confidence in Timothy, his student and successor, who was overly self-critical and often doubtful of himself. The kind of guy who well might say, Increase my faith!
St. Paul is so different from the Lord Jesus in his style of communication. He’s never as funny, and rarely paradoxical or contradictory. He doesn’t write parables or engage in comedy. He’s more straightforward, occasionally prosaic, often passionate, and sometimes hot. Here he is confessional and exhortatory, which makes his literary style feel more Greek than Jewish.
He makes this wonderful statement that sounds like Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “But I am not ashamed, for I know the one in whom I have put my trust, and I am sure that he is able to guard until that day what I have entrusted to him.” I grew up singing that, in the old translation, my parents sang it at the dinner table, “But I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I’ve committed unto him against that day.” I know all the parts, soprano, alto, tenor, bass, because I sang them all in turn as my voice changed through the years. He is able to keep that which I commit to him.
The value and strength of my commitment comes from him whom I’ve committed to, not from me who commits. Like I’m a mediocre short-stop and he’s a fabulous first-baseman, who catches my throw no matter how badly I throw it. Like what the Lord Jesus said about the mustard seed, that it doesn’t matter how large or small your faith is, but that your faith is planted.
What does this all mean for prayer and action? It removes the pressure of effectiveness, of how much difference your prayers and actions make. That’s not up to you. You’re the servant, not the master. It doesn’t matter how well you pray. It doesn’t matter how good your actions are. And it doesn’t matter if what Our Lord expects of you looks to you to come up short.
I’m preaching to myself. I spent Sunday and Monday with Salam Qumsiyeh, our speaker for last week, and then on Tuesday and Wednesday I found myself depressed. I think it was my grief and anger at her experience as a Palestinian under occupation in her own land, and this mixed together with my love of Judaism and my support for the Jewish homeland. Nations have the right to defend themselves, both Israel and Palestine. The situation seems intractable and hopeless. I do pray, but what is prayer without action? She said simply, “Come visit us.” Come visit us. And that will make a difference? But that’s not up to me. Is that an action I must contemplate? Is that one for me?
You have your own actions to consider. What do you find yourself praying for a lot? What part of the world has God given you some power to be God’s servant in? What issues of need or illness or poverty or justice or someone’s loneliness are you able to address? Where are you able to sustain the cost that will come with action?
Not everyone can equally bear the costs. If you are vulnerable, let the group do it for you. Our congregation has already taken great steps in ethical investment of our church’s endowment. I myself would like to see us go further with fossil-fuel divestment. Will that cost us? Maybe, maybe not. If it does, would I be willing to take a pay cut? Do I have faith as small as a mustard seed to plant it in my Lord?
Our little prayers, our little actions, they seem so cost-ineffective. You’re tempted to doubt your usefulness. And the record of the church often leaves you ashamed. I’m sure that the Apostle Paul was also tempted by that shame, or else why would he confess, “But I am not ashamed.” When all your efforts seem quixotic and naive, that’s precisely when you need the faith of a mustard seed. To commit what you do to God, to entrust it to God, to let God hold on to what you do until the day of reckoning.
There is here no contradiction between faith and works. You need the faith to do the works. Not your great faith, but your little bit of faith, the one thing that you know.
Nine days from now I will be attending the Yom Kippur service at Beth Elohim. I have not missed for fifteen years, I have perfect attendance. The congregation knows I will be there. I know the liturgy well enough to sing along. You might regard my prayer with them as an action, an act of solidarity. Let that be my witness to the world. But that’s not why I do it. I don’t even do it for the very warm welcome that I get there. I do it for love. I love to sing and pray in Hebrew, I love the ancient yearnings of the Jewish people, I love to pray for Israel with Israel, I do it for love.
I’m ending with this because I think that love is the little secret hidden in the off-putting parable of the Lord Jesus here—because when you love someone, you will do more for them than any slave would do, and for less thanks. I think the off-putting parable is to clear away all motivation for prayer and action other than sheer love, the love that comes from God.
Copyright © 2016 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.
Thursday, September 22, 2016
This is Salam Qumsiyeh, from Bethlehem in Palestine. She will be speaking in our service on Sunday, and her experience has inspired my sermon.
Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15,
Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16,
1 Timothy 6:6-19,
This is the second in my sermon series on Prayer and Action. Let me start with prayer, with that most basic of prayers, the prayer for help.
The prayer for help is common to all religions. You ask the gods and goddesses for help; you buy their help with costly sacrifice; in Homer’s Iliad the Greek king Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia to buy good weather from the gods.
Do you pray to God for help? I think you can. I do! The Bible is full of it. We just read Psalm 91: Protect me, deliver me, rescue me, save me. How many ways can you say it: Help me O God.
I know that some people get very specific with their prayers for help, asking for this and asking for that. I tend to keep my prayer for help more general. I think of how the Lord Jesus answered that second temptation of the devil, “You shall not test the Lord your God.” Now you might say that’s just an excuse, that the real reason I keep it general is because of the monstrous gap between the help we ask for and the help we get. Maybe. But I think it’s like training for the Olympics. That your chances of winning a medal are very slim does not you from investing your life in that slim chance. And life is more like soccer than American football, in terms of how often you score for how long you play. It’s like that with prayer.
Instead of asking for help on this and help on that, my habit is rather to live like we’re told to in the Epistle of First Timothy, to work on my godliness and contentment, to live squarely in the present, to work on my present righteousness, my present faith and love, my endurance, my gentleness. But to live in the present is not the same as living for the present. I live for the future squarely in the present.
I regard my living in the present as an investment in the future. And I regard my prayers for help that way. Not as controlling the future but as investing in the future. I know I will have my losses, and much I must sacrifice, and that I cannot gain my life unless I lose it, so my prayers are like my actions, not my attempts to claim the future but my investments in the future that belongs to God.
You see it with Jeremiah. Jerusalem was besieged by the Babylonian army. The land of Judah was under occupation. I am sure that in the Temple the priests were praying night and day for God help them with deliverance. I’m sure they were quoting Psalm 91. They were not wrong to do so, even if God had firmly decided the opposite, and they’ll all be carried off.
Yet at the same time Jeremiah was commanded to buy a piece of land—property under occupation, a parcel he could not even get to, much less take possession of. And today that very piece of land today is somewhere in the West Bank. And there the Palestinians are reliving Jeremiah, their ancestral lands occupied by Israeli settlers, their houses bulldozed and their vineyards uprooted, and all this protected by the weapons of the IDF. And will God help them when they pray?
They should pray and they should act. Because our prayers and our actions are both investments that we make without our controlling the results. God says, I will help you in my time and in my way. That’s hard. To count on things not turning out as we intend, things not going to plan, on loss. But we still invest in actions of justice and mercy and social change, and we still invest in prayer, because it’s the Kingdom of God we’re investing in. The future belongs to God, not us, and, as I’ve said, we don’t build the Kingdom of God, it is given to us. Your Christian actions are meant for illustrations of what you pray, “Thy kingdom come . . . on earth as it is in heaven.”
Now let me turn to the parable. I’m going to step over much of its meaning and magic to glean it for Prayer and Action. Right off we notice that the Lord Jesus gives the poor man a name, the only time he does that in all his parables, so it’s important. And Lazarus means “God helps.” Much in the parable turns on this.
The rich man was thinking that God should help the poor man, so he didn’t have to, or, that God helps those who help themselves. The result is the same. If you’re poor or suffering, somewhere it’s your fault, or your parents’ fault, your karma, whatever, just not mine, so I don’t owe you anything. I can let you on my stoop, and eat the crumbs that trickle down when my servant sweeps the floor. This parable is a cartoon of trickle-down economics.
But then when it’s the rich man’s turn to suffer, he wants Abraham to send Lazarus down to soothe him. Which he had not done for Lazarus. Then he wants Abraham to help his brothers by sending Lazarus back to warn them. Which God had already done for him just by having Lazarus lie there at his door, and did he take the warning? With this opportunity to care for the poor man and stop being so selfish God had been helping the rich man, but he would take the help.
Even in his punishment he remains impenitent. He never once addresses Lazarus himself. He still regards Lazarus as beneath him. Just as when he had stepped over him on his stoop whenever he went out feasting with his brothers. Today we call this dehumanization. We did it in America to our black slaves. We used their labor but treated them like cattle. Even now African-Americans have daily experiences that tell them their lives don’t matter the same. Last week I read the transcript of a horrible sermon preached in a Reformed church in Hungary that compared the refugees in Europe to ants and rodents. And I have had Israelis tell me without shame that Palestinians are a lower race, with fewer rights. Dehumanization. And this parable is an accurate cartoon of dehumanization.
So then, how do we respond? Close by in action and at a distance in prayer.
Close by, our Christian action is to invest in relationships that humanize. Crossing boundaries of race and class, nervously crossing the monstrous gap of fear. This is what you volunteers did in our summer Respite Shelter. This is what some of you want to do in our new project on racial justice with Congregation Beth Elohim. This is what you can do at our forum with Salam right after church today.
Because the world says what Abraham said, “Between you and us, a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no once can cross from there to us.” But Christ has risen from the dead, and jumped across that chasm, and offers his body as a bridge. A bridge to risky relationships, outside of our control. To build relationships that others call impossible is a Christian act of investing in the Kingdom of God.
And then at a distance, is your intercessory prayer. We only have so many close relationships, but you can make relationships spanning space and time in intercessory prayer. Christian prayer is the ancient internet, and intercessions the original social media.
It’s true that intercessory prayer has many tangible benefits, both to yourself and to those whom you pray for, but I don’t want you to do it for these outcomes. That would miss the point. You pray your intercessions leaving the outcome up to God. Your prayers are investments in the Kingdom.
Martin Luther was asked what he would do if he knew that the Lord Jesus would return again tomorrow. He said that he would plant a tree. There has to be good humor in our actions and our prayers. Like the comedy in the parable. You know what a comedy is. The joke is on the hero and the powerful lose control and the nobles lose the game but love wins out. Plant that tree. Buy that piece of ground. Pray without ceasing. Because Love wins.
Copyright © 2016 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.
Saturday, September 17, 2016
I’m starting a new sermon series today. Last Sunday I finished a series on prophecy. That series was broken up over the summer, but you can get the whole of it on-line. I have a method for these series, which is to ask the same question of the scripture lessons every week.
And this is how I come up with a series: first I sit down with all the lessons for a few months ahead, and I look for themes and threads. I consider what questions those lessons might have answers to. I settle on a question that is honest to the lessons but also speaks to Old First. I use this method in the belief that God still speaks to us today out of this careful conversation with the Bible.
So this new series is called Prayer and Action. I’m asking the weekly lessons how our prayer and our ethical action enhance each other. Our attention to God, and the difference we can make in the world. I chose this question because I think Old First could be a little more activist than we are, and because prayer is a theme in the Gospel of Luke, and we’re in Luke through November. But this morning what we heard in Luke is about action, not prayer. For prayer we go to the other lessons.
The prayers in Jeremiah and Psalm 79 are lamentations. Grief and despair. All joy is gone. The city of God is a wreckage and ruin and the promises of God are contradicted by the facts. So you could just be done with God, or, in lamentation, you hold the awful contradiction up to God. As Dostoevsky shows us in The Brothers Karamazov, you could become an atheist or you could squarely face the terrible facts and yet make that dangerous leap to still believe in God.
The Old Testament is not afraid to complain to God and to complain to God about God. The Jewish tradition of kvetching goes way back in the Bible, while we Christians tend to talk nice. Last week Melody said to me that without the Old Testament, it’s just Jesus and TED talks!
Lamentation is spiritually necessary. If you want to pray realistically, you also have to pray the bad stuff, and pray it without receiving an explanation or a mitigation. You say, “It is bad, it is very, very bad, and where are you, O God?” And what does God say? “I know, I know.”
But if God’s not going to do anything to fix it, then what’s the use of us trying to make any difference in the world? This will be one of our working problems for this sermon series. If God’s not going to fix it, why even try to make a difference in the world, and if God’s not going to fix it, why even pray our supplications and intercessions, as St. Paul urges us to in First Timothy? Prayers of thanksgiving—okay, you’re not asking God to change anything. But supplications and intercessions ask God to act within the world and maybe even intervene. And when do you ever see it?
When you scratch the surface of what St. Paul says, it gets puzzling. St. Paul tells us to pray “for everyone,” but especially “for kings and all who are in high places, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.” Well, that is the kind of life we’d like our kings and officials to provide for us, but how often don’t they give us wars and tumult and taxes and corruption and oppression, and that was true no less back then. So are we supposed to pray for bad kings too, and corrupt officials? How about if they persecute us? Do we pray for their good health or for their defeat? Or do we just pray their names and let God sort it out?
I was taught in Christian school that the Roman Empire was providentially ordained by God for the first expansion of the church, with its excellent roads and a single common language and its freedom and safety of travel. We were not taught about the underside of the Empire’s vicious cruelty and rapacious exploitation. Just so in my own life I can say that I have benefited greatly from the freedom, prosperity, and security of America. So has this church, through the centuries, for which we give thanks, and we intercede for our government officials. But what about the underside?
I have sobering words from a Methodist bishop from South Africa: “American [churches] have a task more difficult, perhaps, than those faced by us under South Africa’s apartheid, or Christians under Communism. We had obvious evils to engage: you have to . . . expose, and confront, the greatest disconnection between the kindness, compassion, and caring of most American people, and the ruthless way American power is experienced, directly and indirectly, by the poor of the earth. You have to help good people see how they have let their institutions do their sinning for them. This is not easy among people who really believe that their country does nothing but good, but it is necessary, not only for their future, but for us all.”
I mean to be provocative. Because if we can get down off our chairs, and sit on the filthy ground of lamentation, if we just accept it is that bad, then what kind of Christian action is required of us? If we stop trying to justify our record and defend our honor, can we better make a difference in the world? And here St. Luke can help us. In the comic parable of the dishonest manager, the Lord Jesus offers us a way of liberation from the defensive posture of self-justification.
This is how it works. When the master discovers the manager’s mismanagement, and calls him to account for it, the manager wastes no breath in trying to defend or justify himself, nor does he grovel in guilt. He takes the opening generously handed him when the master, instead of throwing him in jail, orders him to produce his accounts. The sharecroppers do not know yet that he’s been fired, so when he tells them to rewrite their contracts they happily do so.
You see, he is calculating on the consistent generosity of his master. The master will not stain his noble reputation by making the sharecroppers pay up after the manager’s trick. What’s the moral? Don’t bother to justify yourself or the rightness of your wealth, accept God’s judgment, but count instead on the grace of God.
And then the Lord Jesus strangely says, “Make friends for yourselves with your unrighteous wealth.” His word for “wealth” is not the great wealth of the wealthy, but ordinary middle class wealth. He won’t let us be all moralistic and self-righteous about the wealth that we have, that we earned it and it’s good and we deserve to keep it. Nope. It’s crooked, every dime you have is connected to corruption and every shirt you wear has exploitation woven into it. The more you defend it or attend to it, the less you’ll have of the Kingdom of God. The more you service it, the less you can serve God. But the freer that you are with it, the more you can celebrate the kingdom of God.
I think of the famous quip of Rev. James Forbes, “Nobody gets into heaven without a letter of reference from the poor.” You help the needy not because they need it but because you need to! You need to take your place with the sharecroppers and the tenants and the lower class and accept their generosity. The way that you can get in close with them is by sharing what you have with them as if they have their own rights to what you have. You don’t give money to the poor because you’re so generous, or from a place of power and direction, that you can expect to improve them, but because of how much you need to share with them. To understand that is the shrewdness.
Which means, we do our Christian action in humility, we do our Christian action accepting our limits, the limits of what we can control, the limits of our possible outcomes, the limits of how much difference we actually can make within the world, just like when we pray. So you do your Christian action as a form of prayer. Your Christian action is an enacted intercession, a lived-out supplication, and you offer it up to God precisely to put it beyond your own control. So that Christian action can even include lamentation. Your lamentation can be a prayer of solidarity with those who suffer.
We do our Christian actions calculating on God’s character. Whether God will intervene here or do some special action there is beyond the limits of our knowledge and control, and God does not explain the where and when nor justify the here or there. Which goes with the reality of how much difference you really can effect in other people’s lives, no matter how great an activist you are.
But here’s the benefit. The risk of action is frustration. But when you give up the burden of control and the necessity of your outcomes, you end up with gratitude. When you do your Christian actions as enacted prayers, your intercessions and supplications generate thanksgivings. And you learn, along with that dishonest manager, to calculate on the possibility of God’s love.
Copyright © 2016 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.
Friday, September 09, 2016
Jeremiah 4:11-12, Psalm 14, 1 Timothy 1:12-17, Luke 16:1-13
Today is 9/11, fifteen years later to the day, and I ask you, is it providential or coincidental that our scripture lessons today should be these ones? I mean both the prophecy of Jeremiah and the gospel of Luke.
I mean the uncanny description in Jeremiah of the hot wind and the bare heights and my poor people and the waste and the void on earth and no light in the heavens and the birds had fled and the city was laid in ruins and the desolation and the earth in mourning and the heavens black.
I mean the uncanny metaphors in Luke of the woman searching for her coin and the shepherd for his sheep, that describe the first responders almost fanatically searching the rubble for every last person, alive or dead.
I ask you, was it providential or coincidental that five days after the disaster, on 9/16, a Sunday, these were the lessons, when I preached my trial sermon for the Old First pastoral search committee, preaching it in the neutral pulpit of the Flatbush Church? The first sermon any of you heard from me was on these texts, and that Sunday afternoon, the leaders of the search committee met with me and Melody to talk terms, and that Monday night the committee approved the call.
I ask you, was it providential or coincidental that on that 9/11, you had no pastor? Your interim, Dr. Wilbur Washington, lived way out in Jersey, so there was no one to depend on but you yourselves for your own first response, and it was you, not any pastor, on that very day who opened the front doors of the church and offered the sanctuary to the public as a safe and sacred space, and as the debris came falling from the awful cloud you were making quiet music in that space, and you hung long sheets of newsprint for people to write their prayers and messages on.
And it was you, not any pastor, who changed the reputation of this church, over night, from a mighty fortress with closed doors to a welcoming open space of hospitality and sanctuary for anyone seeking refuge and hope. You turned your sanctuary into mission, just like that.
And coincidentally, and providentially, on that Friday, Melody and I arrived here from Michigan, and drove by, and saw the open doors, and the people on the floor and in the pews, and the candles all over, and the long sheets of newsprint, and we felt called by God to serve this church.
Now I am not saying that the prophet Jeremiah foresaw 9/11 when he wrote these words. I am saying that the words of the prophets keep coming true, no matter when they were written and for which city, because they direct us to that alternate reality, that always presses down on us.
And I’m saying that you were being a prophetic congregation just by opening up your sanctuary to everyone. In those days there were some TV preachers who were trying to be prophetic by what they said about the disaster, that God had allowed it because these sins of America or those sins of New York. There always are false prophets out there. But the true prophecy of those days was grief and lamentation. Lamentation. You gave sanctuary to the lamentation.
The prophet Jeremiah was known as the Weeping Prophet, because he sat and wept in the ruins of Jerusalem, and he moaned and groaned in the burned down wreckage of the temple. We don’t often think of prophecy as lamentation, it’s too passive, it offers no solutions, it suggests no hope, but the last word in Biblical prophecy is lamentation: We’re done, it’s over, there’s nothing left. All our hopes for Israel, all the promises to David, the kingdom of God, every last expression of the kingdom is wrecked and ruined. We’ve got nothing left to show from God.
So you sit. Keeping vigil. Keeping open to the pain and grief. Offering no explanation, suggesting no mitigation, it’s just that bad. That takes prophecy. Because what practical religion tries to do is make some sense of it, with explanations and solutions and strategies to mask the pain and make it easier to still believe in God. And that’s why I’m saying it was prophetic for you to open up your sanctuary to whomever would come in, and you did not try to tell them what to think or say or do.
All you’ve got left from all your religion is God. Just God and nothing else. No temple, no Bible, no hymns, no prayers, no hopes, no visions, you have lost everything. And in your lostness is when God comes to find you. Like the woman for her coin. Like the shepherd for his sheep. You are lost in the wreckage, and you can’t move. You can hardly breathe. All is dark. And you don’t know it, but here comes God for you, digging down, digging through the wreckage and the rubble. That’s what the Lord Jesus is asking us to believe. Can you believe it works like this, that God does this?
St. Paul believed it was like that. You can see that in the Epistle. He calls himself the worst of sinners, a blasphemer, a persecutor, a man of violence. The enemy of God, the rightful object of God’s wrath. God knocked him down. Cast him into darkness, and he could not move, he could not see. And into his world entered Jesus Christ, like a first responder on the wreckage, to rescue him, to save him, in great mercy.
Has it ever been like that with you? It was once so with me. I was a wreck. And in my wreckage he came down to find me. In the back room of the ground floor apartment at 857 President Street. Has it ever been like that with you? It may yet be like that. At your death it will.
God is the one that has to do it. The church doesn’t do it, the church’s job is to make the space for it. The church’s job is to keep that space open for the vision and presence of that alternate reality. To be prophetic in that way, even if it’s by means of sanctuary and silent, patient hospitality.
Now I did not anticipate that my sermon series might come around to this, but I think it’s right, that for this particular church to be prophetic you can open up that sanctuary again, not for yourselves but for your mission to the city God has put you in. A great safe space for grief and lamentation as much as joy and exaltation. If it’s a beautiful space, so much the better, but its greatest beauty is its overarching hospitality. A sacred space which makes room in our lives for the kingdom of God.
I said a few sermons ago that prophecy speaks in extremes and in exaggerated terms. That’s how we hear it until we learn to how accurate it really is, and how the scale of our terms should not be so normative as we thought. It’s our experience that needs expansion. And in our lessons today we get extremities of wrath and joy. Extreme judgment and extreme rejoicing.
Let’s notice the rejoicing: When the shepherd gets home, he calls together his friends and neighbors to rejoice with him. The woman calls together her friends and neighbors to rejoice with her.
When my son Nicholas went to university in the island of Newfoundland in Canada, he took room and board in a private home. One evening I called him, and when I asked him what he was eating he told me it was spaghetti with moose-meat balls. What? Yeah, he said, the dad shot a moose and now they’ve got meat for the winter. Then I said it sounded quiet in the house for dinner time. Oh, he said, I’m the only one home. They’re all down at the bar, celebrating the moose.
Jesus poses his two parables as questions. “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep,” and “What woman, having ten silver coins.” To the first, the answer is obvious: “No one would.” No one would stupidly risk the ninety-nine for the sake of the one. What’s a one percent loss, when standard depreciation is ten percent? To the second, the answer is the opposite: “Every woman would.” The answers are opposite, and the second parable serves to turn you back to the first to reconsider it. “Could he mean that a shepherd actually should?” Or does he mean he would?
He’s saying the Messiah would. The Messiah would because God does. To God, every lost person is of inestimable worth, no matter what the risk, the most despicable, the least acceptable, the most unfit, no matter.
That was also the attitude of the first responders on 9/11, climbing the impossible staircases of the towers, at the cost of their own lives. Which one of you would do the same? That’s what Jesus did, and in Jesus, it was God who was doing it. That’s the plus in this disaster. In the grief we discover courage and honor. We mark the courage and honor of so many on that awful day. And then too love gets uncovered. Sacrificial love. Within the grief. Unreasonable love, extreme love, nothing other than the love that pours out of God for you and for the world.
Copyright © 2016, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.