Sunday, December 16, 2007

Christmas Pageant

We just finished our Christmas pageant. O magnum mysterium. Not just animals, but children!

Jessica Stockton, aka Booknerd, and one of our Sunday School teachers, sent us this reflection by Rick Moody:

"Why is it that the worse the Christmas service, the closer we get to the idea of Christmas? Children's services, with children running aimlessly in the aisles in lamb costumes or dressed as wise men, neglecting or refusing to say their lines, why so much closer to the idea of Christmas?
What is this thing about Christmas, the paradoxical tendency of Christmas, that the more heartbreaking it is the closer it seems to get to the point? Why is failure and awkwardness so human and so natural at Christmas?...
Why is it that desperation is closer to God?...
At the same time, what about the Mean Estate stuff, what about Mary lying in bad circumstances? Why is it that the no-room-at-the-inn part is inevitably moving, even when you are skeptical about the whole thing?...
And why an ideology of the neglected and left out and miserable and disinherited and lonely and poor and ill and exiled, anyway?...
And why is it, meanwhile, that singing is the thing that enables me to understand this, why is it that singing makes the Christmas holiday what it is, what it can be, what it ought to be?"

- Rick Moody, Christmas 2006

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Please Not Pettitte


Oh no, not Andy Pettitte. I have always loved Andy Pettitte as much as I hated Roger Clemens. (The great things about sports is you get to love and hate with the purity of the Psalms!) And not just because Andy Pettitte taught Sunday School.

I'm sorry, Theresa, in my posting earlier this week, that I compared our Sunday School team-teaching to you being Pettitte and me Posada.

(I'll still take Posada. Theresa, you can be Dontrelle. But please come to Queens, Dontrelle, take the 7-train, not the D-train.)

I always figured that Clemens was on Rocket Juice. But to learn that Andy Pettitte is supposed to have taken "human-growth-hormone" is just too hard to bear.

I always figured that Pettitte's friendship with Clemens had to be chalked up to Grace, like Jesus loving sinners. There goes that sentiment.

When my kids were small, we all were fans of Lenny Dykstra. When Nick was six and Anni was four they would call out "Lenny Dykstra" when they saw him up at bat. We loved his energy and style of play, but also that he was one of ours, not just a Dutchman, but a Frisian!

And then he bulked up and tried to be a long-ball hitter. God made him a lead-off man, and now he wanted to hit home runs. No, Lenny, no. And how did he get such big muscles over the winter?

Well, as Frank DeFord always says, sports is the entertainment business, and sports stars are entertainers. What we do is amplify entertainers.

This past week we had some children singing in our sanctuary, and they miked them and amplified them with enough electronic equipment for a Stones Tour. Children's voices on steroids. It seems to be what people want.

It can't be good for the souls of those children, and it was very bad for Lenny Dykstra's body. I don't know if Pettitte still teaches Sunday School, but Sunday Schools have to offer children a whole different set of expectations, and give them back their own small voices, and quiet sounds, and their bodies as temples.

Sermon for Advent 3, December 16: God In Me


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

This is the third sermon in my series on the inner experience of God. This series is not going how I expected it. I had expected to focus this week on Mary. We just read responsively her famous song, the Magnificat, her ecstasy upon her pregnancy. She’s had a unique experience of God.

The character of Mary belongs to the Gospel of Luke, which we read every third year. The Gospel of Matthew takes the nativity from Joseph’s point of view. Matthew is more traditionally masculine. If Luke is Puccini, Matthew is Verdi. If Luke is Mozart, Matthew is Beethoven. Luke is Leonardo da Vinci, and Matthew Michelangelo. If Luke is ecstasy, Matthew is agony.
We will stay with the male viewpoint, with the agony of John the Baptist, and throught that find the ecstasy.
John the Baptist had expected great things from the Messiah, which things did not happen. He expected a revolution, he announced a regime change, which is why he was in Guantanamo.
But the leader he had pointed to was not leading it. The teaching and the miracles were nice, but not the Messiah’s job. We need a leader, not a teacher. We need a king, not a preacher. We need a commander, not a healer. So Jesus, no hard feelings, should we be expecting someone else?
The disappointment of John the Baptist is like the disappointment of that parishioner whose questions led to this series of sermons: How come I don’t feel like I have God in my heart, like other people do? Yes, where’s the benefit? If we can’t feel God, then why not stay with what we can feel—material things, food and drink, sex, exercise, yoga, or ordinary social relationships?

What can I expect in the experience of God? Should I feel Jesus inside me? Is the feeling discernibly distinct from my ordinary feelings? John the Baptist thought the Messiah would bring a discernible change in day-to-day events, that the power and glory would be undeniable.
Well, Jesus can explain himself. He has to be careful, because if says directly, Yes, I am the Messiah, then King Herod will arrest him too, because King Herod has the same expectations as John the Baptist, though opposite desires. Jesus does not regard it as the time and place to declare himself so directly. He has to reserve his royalty for the throne that is the cross.
But in the mean time, to any one with eyes to see, he is able to explain himself. The blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk, the dumb speak.
Please note how Jesus is not a typical revolutionary. How little he changes things. In a real sense his miracles are not even supernatural. It’s nature he’s restoring as nature should be. He makes the lame to walk, not fly. His power as Messiah is not to do the radical and supernatural in the world, but to restore the ordinary world to how the Creator intended it, and to reveal within it where its Creator intends to take it. The only difference between the world he points to and the world we’re used to is the removal of the power and corruption of human sin.

Religious people so often look for the supernatural, the radically different, the miracle which is inexplicable. It appeals to the ancient love of magic and the modern love of getting high and the lure of special knowledge for the special class. It’s often as innocent as desiring a sacred pill to get us through a life which otherwise is nasty, brutish, and short.

Now it’s true that in special cases, for the sake of a special mission, God comes to people in special ways. During World War II, the German Resistance theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was in a Nazi jail, and he reported in his letters home that occasionally Christ had come to be with him in his cell. When his friends wrote back to ask how they could get similar experiences of God, he answered in some exasperation that they had the normal encouragements of family and church and music, and all he had was this special experience of God, to compensate.
I have told you about my single direct experience of God, at 857 President Street. It was when I was at my lowest, and discouraged in my ministry, feeling my failures and my weaknesses. One day while I was in prayer, repeating a Psalm, I suddenly felt the presence of Jesus next to me. And it was not Jesus in my heart, but Jesus, somehow in the Word of scripture, next to me. And then suddenly he left, and has not come again. But I knew at once that is was for my mission, and since then I do not doubt my ministry.
Should I look for this kind of thing? No. Thou shalt not covet. It was a gift, not a possession. Too bad many Christians chase such feelings, and when the thrill is gone, they lose their faith.

The world that God offers us is the ordinary world. It is not a supernatural world, but this world, fully moral and spiritual. God gives us eyes to see the birds, not the future. God gives us ears to hear our neighbors, not the angels. The difference in the world God offers us is a moral difference, the removal of sin and guilt and corruption.
Thet moral difference is greater and more inclusive than we expect, the moral difference has a profound affect on many, many things, from family life to the economy to the soil to the weather to our physical well-being. The prophecy of Isaiah is of the world of nature coming to flower and full fruition. We are so used to a world that is corrupted that we cannot even imagine a fully moral world in all its consequence. And we might not even welcome it, considering the changes in ourselves to make us fit to live in it.
What we like is this world as it is, only in our favor. We like this world to be nice to us and we can stay the way we are. We like the presence of God to be the continuation of our current expectations. We like the experience of God to satisfy our current appetites, even as corrupted.
Look, our experience of God will not be what we demand, and yet it will be very natural. It will be real, but not as we expected it, and it will even judge our expectations. If we stand by our demands we may will miss it. If we are compelled by our felt needs we may miss his gifts, and our agendas leave no room for his agenda. But if we get past our stumbling blocks, if we get past our offense at him, if we give in, we are set free.
You get the healing of your own nature, the fulfillment of your creation. You will feel the presence of God in feeling yourself, for once, as God intended you to be. Your experience of the Spirit is your experience of yourself as God intends you will become.

What’s coming to birth in you is you. The Virgin Mary is unique in giving birth to God. What's in you is you, what the Holy Spirit conceives in you is the new birth of yourself. Your ecstasy is the feeling of that new self in you, moral and spiritual, and that is from God’s presence in you.

That is not the typical modern kind of self-discovery, of searching for your own authentic self. You cannot perform, you have to receive it. It has to be directed from the outside, it is conceived in you by the Spirit of God and its genetic code is the Word of God. And that takes openness, prayer, and study.
There is no substitute here for the Word of God. Yes, the scriptures, and the hearing of the scriptures in the community, in this local community, and the great community of Christians across the ages. There is no magic to the Bible, it isn’t quick, it takes time and patience, and studied openness.
But when we read the Bible, in patience and humility, and in community, it gives us the world back. It gives us back the natural joy of the world that we’re supposed to have. Not the world as we have made it, but the world as God intends it. We can already sense it and rejoice in it, and we can rejoice in ourselves as part of the world.
So when others forgive us, we can learn not to be ashamed of that forgiveness but to enjoy it. We learn to rejoice, not in what we achieve, but in what we are forgiven of. We rejoice not in what we have, but in what we are being given. I can tell you that that the enjoyment of your own forgiveness is the doorway to the joy and wonder in the world that God is giving you.

Copyright © 2007 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Teaching Junior Highs

I notice that Rabbi Andy Bachman also teaches Junior High kids in his shul. And then every week he writes about it in his blog.

I love it. I teach Junior High too. Actually I team-teach it with Theresa Levin, and lately she's become the leader in the team. She's Pettite, I'm Posada.

I am a little jealous that Andy gets to do it on a weekday afternoon. That's the right time. You just can't do it right on Sunday mornings before church.

As I read his blogs (Andy is a wonderful blogger) I am reminded that teaching Junior High can be one greatest pleasures of the ministry. Stimulating, satisfying, challenging, engaging. What a privilege. Makes one a much better theologian. Every theologian should teach Junior High.

How come our society doesn't regard Junior High teachers with greater esteem than Harvard professors?

I look forward to that Junior High class every week, as short as the sessions always are.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Jim Wallis at Old First, January 22


The Lord willing, we will host author Jim Wallis at Old First on Tuesday, January 22, 2008, at 7 pm, in partnership with the Community Bookstore.

He will be reading from his new book, The Great Awakening: Reviving Faith and Politics in a Post-Religious-Right America (Harper San Francisco).

The Community Bookstore will have copies for sale, and you can have your copy signed by Mr. Wallis.

Admission is free, and all are welcome. We are the second location in Mr. Wallis' nationwide tour to introduce the book, which debuts the day before, on January 21.

It will have been a big day for us at Old First. That morning we expect to host the second "Home Team" event in Brooklyn for the NYC Department of Homeless Services, working with the Park Slope Coalition for the Homeless.

Coalition for the Homeless

Something real that you can do.

Please go to my partner Rabbi Andy Bachman's blog, for information and an invitation to participate in Hope 2008.

Hope 2008 is the annual census of Homeless folks in New York City.

Rounding up volunteers to participate is one of the first activities of our young-and-restless Park Slope Coalition for the Homeless (PSCH, pronounce it as you please!).

By the way, I think it was great that our Old First Homeless Men were put in the Park Slope 100.

PS. So were the Transformers, and Heather Johnston, and Club Loco, and the Doe Fund Guys (the current two whose names are Irving and John), and the Written Nerd (Jessica Stockton).

Monday, December 10, 2007

Advent 3 Three Years Ago

Where’s the Messiah When We Need Him

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

John the Baptist was disappointed with his cousin Jesus. Jesus was not performing as the Messiah.

John had prepared the way for him, predicting his fiery judgment, the purity of his justice, the righteousness of his government, and the defeat of evil. John was expecting a holy revolution in Israel, and a total change in the systems of the world. John had prepared the population, they had repented, they were ready to join up and get going.

And what did Jesus do but talk and teach and do individual works of healing and mercy. John was expecting a new King David, but Jesus just seemed like a glorified social worker, Jesus just let the powers be.

The Jewish philosopher Martin Buber said that he liked Jesus very much, but he did not regard him as the Messiah, because he never accomplished what the Messiah was supposed to do. The prophets had foretold that the Messiah would make a real difference in the world, addressing systems, not just individuals, dealing with empires, not just villages.

Jesus offers his cousin an answer back. He echoes Isaiah’s prophecy about the blind, the lame, the lepers, and the poor. He maintains that what he’s doing is real, though it is different than their expectations. His evidence is minimal. He calculates his evidence to leave a lot of room for reasonable doubt.

If there isn’t any room for doubt, then neither is there room for the development of faith and hope. What Jesus wants is for his followers to develop, for his followers to address the systems of the world, for his followers to move from villages to empires, starting with individuals.

The answer that Jesus offers requires a leap of faith. To accept him as the Messiah requires a jump, a risk, it just might not be true, the evidence will not be overwhelming, you have to take a chance. Notice that Jesus does not reprimand his cousin’s doubt. Your doubt is where you have to start. Where your doubt is, that’s the nursery of your faith. It’s not that Jesus proves his identity, he offers it, and you have to risk the decision of accepting it, and that’s always a running decision.

What troubled John was that Jesus’ miracles were all temporary gifts to individuals, while the permanent problems of society he left untouched. Blindness and leprosy were individual abnormalities, but it was normal to be poor.

Jesus’ answer to his cousin touches the issue between them. The sick get healed, but the poor just get good news. The blind get their sight, but the poor don’t get their money. The dead are raised, but the peasants are not raised from poverty. That would require Jesus dealing with the whole system of the Roman Empire, which is precisely what John the Baptist had been telling the people to expect.

To be fair to Jesus, it really was news. Look, it’s a given in ancient religion that the gods were intimate with those on top: the rulers, the priesthood, the brahmans, the donors, the benefactors, those who can demonstrate by status or success that they are blessed.

And Jesus was telling them that God actually likes to be intimate with the poor, with those who have nothing to donate back. God is so willing to be intimate with those on the bottom that God is willing to live among them precisely in their poverty. Which is one reason that Jesus doesn’t change the situation, for that would say that he really did find them unacceptable as poor. "Don’t fix me, just be with me."

And it was news because it’s a given in natural religion that the law of Karma holds, that people get what they deserve, that if you are poor, you probably deserve it, so just accept your lot. But Jesus is telling them that their poverty is not God’s judgment on them, and it isn’t even God’s idea.

And it’s news because it’s a given in modern economic theory that there’s little you can really do about the poor, that poverty is inevitable, and some Nobel Prize economists have told us that the way to deal with poverty is for the government to increase the wealth of the rich.

So it is real news that God sees things very differently, and just to know that is empowering. Especially when you look at the Torah and you read that God’s idea for Israel was a single economic class, and a system that every seven years returned to the poor a piece of private property, and every fifty years canceled all indebtedness. That was God’s idea. But God will not do it for you. You have to do it for yourself, and not through violent revolution, but through obedience and faith.

Where’s the Messiah when we need him? If you want him to come and change the world, you’ll be disappointed. If you want him to be among us and tell us what God’s will is, and empower us to do God’s will, then the Messiah is right here, inviting us to do our own works of healing and mercy and good news.

His style is not to act triumphantly and dramatically, but organically and quietly, patiently, through very individual acts of personal connection, demonstrating to us the very kinds of things that we can do.

We tend to see time and space as vast and empty. The centuries stretch before us into millennia, and then into eons, and millions of years, while light keeps traveling through the empty reaches of outer space. We see ourselves as individuals, specks of dust, points of light, brief candles, tiny atoms of self-awareness trying to make a little bit of meaning for the short time we exist.

But Jesus didn’t see the world that way, as empty stretches of time and space. He saw it with the eyes of God, as full and rich, where every little person counts, where every tiny thing has meaning as an object of God’s attention and love, and where every little act we do gets its true significance sub specie aeternitatis, that is, under the rubric of eternity. From Jesus’ point of view, to help one person see was to make a permanent change in the universe.

You know, Jesus was his mother’s son. He was the son of his mother as much as his father. You can get an idea of the kind of things that Mary will have taught Jesus from the song she sang to the mother of John the Baptist while Mary was still pregnant with him inside her.

I mean, what is more ordinary than pregnancy, and yet she sings, My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit exults in God my savior. What is more organic and commonplace, and she sings, for he that is mighty has done me great things, and holy is his name. Who is as powerless as pregnant girl, and she sings, he has cast down mighty from their thrones and exalted those of low degree. What is as draining and exhausting and painful at the end, and she sings, he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away.

This season you might be discouraged, and dealing with disappointment and difficulty and emptiness and loss. I have good news for you. You are filled as Mary was filled, the Holy Spirit has conceived inside you something fragile, and organic, and very small, but real, right here in your belly, what has been conceived inside you is not from the world, but that special godly love for the smallest thing, the most organic thing, which the world ignores, but God counts precious, and rejoices in, to give you hope and joy.

Advent Sermon Series

This year I'm preaching a series of sermons for the Advent Season. The series is on the Experience of God.

The series is a response to the questions of a parishioner. I tell the story of those questions in the first part of the first sermon, the one I preached on Advent 1, December 2.

Can we have an inner experience of God? Can we have a direct experience of God with us? Can we have God inside our hearts and know it? We hear people say that they have Jesus in their hearts---can we have that too?

I should say here, in passing, that the classic Reformed answer is Well, no, but yes.

I've been composing these sermons by studying the usual Advent Lessons (from the Lectionary) with these questions in mind, and then seeing what kind of sermon comes out.

I'll say this: it makes for very different sermons than what I preached on these same texts three years ago. Just for the fun of it, I'll post some of the sermons from three years ago too. Maybe it shows how rich and suggestive these Advent lessons are, to yield such different applications.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Sermon for December 9, Advent 2: Opening To God

Isaiah 11:1-10, Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19, Romans 15:4-13, Matthew 2:13-23

Advent Series on Our Inner Experience of God
Sermon 2: Opening to God

This is the second sermon in a series on our inner experience of God. Last week I spoke on the desire for God, this week on opening up to God. My text is Matthew 3:2-3: In those days, John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, "The voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’"

In the days of John the Baptist, the people of Judea did not feel God among them, but far away. The Temple was empty of God’s presence and no Son of David was on the throne. The only glory in Jerusalem was that of Caesar and the gods in power were Jupiter and Mars. So they were praying for the return of the Lord.

Be careful what you ask for, you might get it. The prophet is standing at the Jordan River, just down the road from Jericho, to remind them of the first return of the Lord, with Moses and Joshua, the Lord of Hosts upon the Ark of the Covenant, on the shoulders of the Levites, who stood in the Jordan River and the waters held back, and thousands and thousands of the hosts of Israel were baptized as they passed through the Jordan into the Promised Land.

Joshua led them marching around the walls of Jericho, and they shouted "The Lord of Hosts" and the walls came tumbling down. All the inhabitants of Canaan were terrified, their armies melted away, and their leaders trembled to sue for peace.

The Lord is coming back, says John the Baptist, with a fiery host we can only imagine, and their leader will be another Jeshua, another David, and those in power will come down. When God comes it’s not just God, it’s the whole kingdom of heaven, a new administration, a new set of laws, a new kind of justice. Justice means judgment, so be careful what you ask for.

When he comes to judge, when everyone gets examined, how will you stand up? Will you have been connected with the Romans? Do you collaborate? Have you been trying to get along? Did you join the Baath party just to get your job? Are you now or have you ever been a Communist? If the Lord is really coming, you might want to repent.

You can hardly blame John the Baptist for expecting it like this. How could he have known what only Jesus was the first to see, that the Lord would come but so much differently? Yes, in judgment and holiness and righteousness, but from the inside, in the heart, his only army the Spirit of God, his only weapon the Word of God.

Jesus knew it from that same Spirit resting on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. This is the Holy Spirit we want inside of us, opening us up, making room, increasing our capacity for God. To give way to this Spirit is to repent.

When I was a child I was allergenic and asthmatic. Some nights I was so clogged up I couldn’t breathe. We had a little machine called a vaporizer, which made steam, and my mom would put it in my room. She would add Vick’s Vaporub to the water, which added menthol to the steam. That vapor would fill the room and I would breathe it in and that would open up my passageways inside, and the more I breathed the more I could breathe.

Consider now the proposition that repentance is not something you do, but that God does inside you. Consider that repentance is not your act, but God’s activity inside you. That repentance is God’s Spirit inside you making room for God’s self, like cleaning out the place while moving in, like clearing the land and building a house. It helps us, I think, to realize that repentance is not so much our work as the work of God in us.

Our part in repentance is to give way to God, to let God do it, to not prevent it nor obstruct it, to give way to God’s Spirit opening us up inside, painful and scary as that may be. Because you can’t expect to have the feeling of God inside you and have everything else about you stay the same. You can’t have more God in your life and still keep yourself the way you are. Of course not.

Maybe you don’t want to have God inside you. That’s easy. Just don’t repent. Who wants to give way to outside influence? Who wants to call oneself into question, who wants to doubt oneself? Who wants to hesitate, or look weak, or not in control? Ain’t it so that he who hesitates is lost? Who wants to be examined, to be up for review, to be subject to reconsideration, who wants to let another have more say about you than yourself, who wants to be judged?

Or maybe you do want God inside you but you don’t want to repent. So what you can do is keep God’s spirit small and weak and minimal. You keep it in a little box and keep it silent. You can protect yourself and your estimation of yourself, the way you’ve worked out everything, the commitments and loyalties you already have, your promises to yourself and to your past, your solutions to your problems, your own judgments about people and the world. You can keep the judgments of God confined within you.

Or you could do designer spirituality, which is fashionable today. Keep your god the size and shape to fit within you. Your own personal higher power, your piece of the energy of the universe, the god who is everything and everywhere, the god with no desires and no initiative and no justice and no judgments. This god needs no larger room in you, you don’t need to repent.

But do you want to have inside you the God of Israel and Jesus, who is willing to stand against you, to challenge you and wrestle you and call you into question?

About four years ago, my wife Melody finally got it through to me that I should expect resistance to my leadership and opposition to my big ideas, and not get angry when it happens and even welcome it. It took me fifty years to get this. None of us like to be opposed, none of us likes to be judged, but we face this from other people all the time. When we welcome others into our lives, we have to welcome this as well. So, will I resist it back or gain from it?

I am claiming that you can get help with repentance from the opposition and resistance of the world. We’re tempted to resist it back or dismiss it because it’s usually unfair and frequently misleading. The trick is not to take it on its own terms, but to interpret the opposition against me by means of the Word of God, so that my opposition’s value does not depend on its intent.

When other people judge me, my gain is from when I let their judgments move me on to the judgments of God, which are more fair and loving, and useful, and always more just. It’s not that God sends the opposition, the world is hard enough as it is, but that God’s Word can make a straight path in it and God’s Spirit can enter in upon it.

Even our blessings and successes can be opportunities for repentance if we are listening to God and judging our experience by the categories not of the world but of the Word of God. Not just from the Bible, but the Bible in community, the Word of God as we share it together, the wisdom of those who have been kind to us and have our better interests in their hearts, who love us, warts and all, and want us to love them back. Welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you.

In the Apostles Creed, the Holy Spirit makes the communion of saints which leads to the forgiveness of sins. The community can help in our repentance, help to open us up, to notice when we need the vaporizer in the room, and even to come close and massage the Vaporub upon our chests, and give us words to clear our minds. The community can be the mother that helps you breathe and the Voice in which you hear the Words of God.

So now let me state it once again. Repentance is God’s work in you. It’s not that you first repent in order to be clean and ready for God to come to you. That makes you focus on yourself. Rather focus on welcoming this God. Welcome the Word of God in all its ways and means into yourself, and the Holy Spirit certainly makes room in you to build her nest.

Copyright © 2007 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Sermon for December 2, Advent 1: Where is God?

Isaiah 2:1-5, Psalm 122, Romans 13:11-14, Matthew 24:36-44

Let me tell you about a conversation I had last Sunday after church. Someone said to me, I liked your sermon, especially the end, when you talked about how your grandfather still loved the Dutch Queen, and you know, I want to have Jesus in my heart, like other people do, but I don’t feel like I do.

I was both gratified and mystified. I didn’t see the connection. Of course the sermon preached is not always the sermon heard. Maybe I was unclear, or maybe what I said could be taken a different way than what I meant, or what I said touched off a deeper issue in the listener’s mind.

Well, I your preacher am a jealous preacher, and I like my sermons to mean what I mean them to mean, so I reviewed my point that our hearts have a place that desires to love and be loyal to someone who is Lord, like a king. Then I said it’s not that Jesus is in my heart. Jesus is out there, on the right hand of the Father.

Then I mentioned that the Lutherans and the Reformed differ from the Methodists on this. The Lutherans and the Reformed emphasize Jesus being objectively outside us, for us to put our faith in, while the Methodists emphasize the subjective inner feeling in our hearts. I said it’s important not to base our faith on our feelings, as feelings come and go, but to base our faith on something objective, something public, on the promises of God. And the way that God is in our hearts is not Jesus but the Holy Spirit, and that makes things different.

The person said, Whatever; I want to have the feeling of God in my heart.

Well, that is the same desire as the Advent hymn that we just sang:
Redeemer come, we open wide / our hearts to thee, here Lord abide;
Let us thy inner presence feel, / thy grace and love to us reveal.
(And that was written by a Lutheran, not a Methodist!)

So this Advent season I will preach a series on how God comes to us, not just generally, but personally. Can I have God in my heart, and know it and feel it?

We will be guided by the scripture lessons from the lectionary. So we will put off until Advent 3 the matter of feelings, the feeling of God inside you. Next week, Advent 2, I’ll talk about making room for God inside you. On the fourth week I’ll talk about moving with the God who comes to you. Today I’ll talk about the desire for God, the longing for God, and the longing for the experience of God.

The longing for God is good and right, it is built into us, we are designed to desire God. But this longing can be painful, because God can seem so absent and so far away. We tend to blunt this longing, even to make ourselves insensitive to it, whether from our pride, or frustration, or long dissatisfaction. We compensate with food and drink, we substitute with sex and science, with the lure of the flesh and the life of the mind. We occupy ourselves with materialism. Buying this, buying that, and we feel less guilty about it if we are buying for someone else. We devote ourselves to other people’s expectations, laboring to make them happy by the presents we wrap and the table we spread. It would be fine if it were not a distraction and diversion. At least I can manage my appetites and occupations, but God is so great and so distant and so uncontrollable, so it’s easy to substitute.

It is not so much ironic, as it is poignant and even predictable, that Advent should coincide with the month that is most materialistic, whether from purchasing or from partying. We commit to passing satisfactions, and we starve ourselves of what we deeply long for. This season is the costliest and busiest, and our restlessness indicates how deep a desire we are diverting from. St. Augustine reminds us, "Thou has made us for thyself O God, and our souls are restless till they find their rest in thee."

We are troubled by the poignancy of our desire for God. We are discomforted by this longing. We are not used to dealing with real hunger, we who have cash on hand, to just get something to eat. We live in a culture that emphasizes the early satisfaction of our appetites and the quick resolution of our feelings. If you desire it, get it. So we think, what’s wrong with me, that I keep on having this desire?

Why don’t I feel God when other people do? Where is God, where’s God in my own life? Because the satisfaction seems distant I reach for closer compensations. And so therefore what the practice of piety offers is help to keep me from going to those compensations. The practices of piety help to keep the longing sharp, to stay with it and not to be afraid of it. The practices of piety also confirm in me the promises of God and the faithfulness of God, that God will come, that God will come and let me know it. The practices of piety help me trust the time and place of God.

The life of faith requires a leap. The act of faith is a projection. We have to believe in what we cannot know in the way that we know other things. We have to be satisfied in what we cannot get in the way that we get other things. What we know best is our own fears, our doubts are what we are most certain of. We are convinced of our failures, and the wrongs that others have done to us, and in our virtues we have small confidence. The practices of piety help me aim and project my powerful subjective feelings into the goal of the objective public promises.

Let yourself fully feel your longing. Don’t drown yourself in it, but fully give yourself to it in ways that are intelligent and mindful and responsible. We learn from it. The longing makes us richer and deeper, more open, less proud, sweeter, more gentle. God has placed the longing in you. If you feel the desire for God in you, that already is from God’s Spirit inside you, building a nest inside you, in which there will be life to come. You wouldn’t have the desire unless God’s Spirit were at work in you already. We do not look for God until God calls us.

And I believe there is another value to feeling the desire and the length of our longing. It’s because God is going somewhere. God is moving somewhere. The God of the Bible is not the static God of the philosophers, nor the ethereal higher power of the universe that is somehow always there. The God of the Bible is purposeful and intentional. This God has designs, this God has designs for the world and designs on us. This God has a project, a project that we can know of now sufficiently, but also is more fully in the future, and we can know of it only in part.

God is taking us there. We need to be discontent with what is now. We need to long for resolution, and also recognize that the resolution is something we cannot achieve but must receive.

God takes us there by means of Instruction. Isaiah 2:3. Out of Zion shall go forth Torah: instruction, the law, the commandments, the wisdom, the word of God. And we desire it. Tell us more. Tell us how should walk. Remind us how we should be saved. Remind us who we are and whom we belong to. The word of God is both the satisfaction and the stimulation.

I rejoice in that passage from Isaiah. It excites our desire and it stimulates our longing. The mountain of the Lord’s house rising up, all nations streaming up to it, all nations learning peace, desiring to walk in the light of the Lord. That prophecy has more than one fulfillment. We see it fulfilled already in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, and his gospel spreading through the nations. We will see it more fully when he comes again, though how and when we do not know. The news of it is both to stimulate and satisfy. The more in you it satisfies, the more it stimulates. The more you get of God the more you long for God.

Yesterday morning the sunrise was at 6:59 A.M. I watched the sunrise from my window that looks out over the park. But at 6:00 A.M. already I was there, when it was still dark. And that’s when I could see Venus low in the sky. It is called the morning star. It reflects the light of the sun before we can see the sun. Venus tells me that the dawning is at hand. And so the darkness before the dawn is a joyful pleasure in itself. And that is our life now. In the darkness of the world we live as children of the light.

Copyright © 2007 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The Ailanthus and The Ginko

Outside my window, across the street, next to the fence of Prospect Park, is a ginko tree. It shades the bench where Melody and I sometimes sit.

Last Wednesday, it still had all its leaves, though most of them had turned. We went to Connecticut for Thanksgiving. When we got back on Friday all its leaves were down. Suddenly, like that.

And there was a beautiful carpet of yellow gold, with touches of green, around our bench. The sidewalk was covered, and the carpet was clean and fresh. In a day or two its lustre would be gone.

The ailanthus is on our side of the street, right against our building. It seems to have dropped its leaves just as suddenly. But they were scattered, and on the street. And it dropped its stems as well, the long leaf stems on which its leaflets grow, and they now litter the corner like straw.

I do not love thee, ailanthus, as I love the ginko. You have come here from China too, but you are lower class, and you have no lovely bark, and your branches break, and people call you messy.

How they can call you "Tree of Heaven" I don't know, unless it is the love of God in Heaven that loves you, and loves you no less than the ginko. But I am not God. My heart is so much smaller with less room for love.

Yet I have accepted you, finally, next to my window. At first I was consumed with wishing you were a maple or an oak, but you are what you are, and I submit to God's love of you.

But ginko, thank you for the carpet that showed us what Eden was like in its first autumn.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Sermon for November 25: Christendom and Theocracy

Christ King 2007, Jeremiah 23:1-6, Benedictus, Colossians 1:11-20, Luke 23-33-43

The Feast of Christ the King is a very late addition to the church’s calendar. In 1925, Pope Pius XI invented the Feast and required Roman Catholics to observe it. That’s how it got into the ecumenical calendar. It’s only for ecumenical reasons that we Reformed Christians observe it now.

We would say, "Why not Christ the Prophet, and why not Christ the Priest?" We prefer the title, "Christ the Lord." We would say we already have a celebration of his kingship on Ascension Day, when he took his seat on the right hand of his Father, and also, for that matter, on Good Friday, when he was enthroned upon the cross and his title was posted above his head for all to see.

The reason the pope invented this feast day was to defend the Kingship of Christ against the secularism of politicians and intellectuals. Not to mention that the Roman Catholic Church was losing power, prestige, and privilege.

Just ten years later, in 1935, Josef Stalin made his famous remark about the pope. The French Foreign Minister had suggested to Stalin that if he would encourage more Roman Catholics in Russia, then the pope would be on better terms with him. Stalin replied, "The Pope? How many divisions has he got?"

All the Christian churches use to have a lot more power in the world, including politics and economics. Now that we have so much less, does that imply that Jesus has less power too?

When I became a citizen of Canada, I had to swear allegiance to Queen Elizabeth the Second. Ironically, it’s only because she is a powerless figure-head that modern Canadians are willing to swear that. The Queen of the Netherlands actually has more influence behind the scenes, but only as long as she behaves. Is this what we have done with Jesus Christ, that we have preserved his lovely royalty but emptied it of real authority and sovereignty? Pope Benedict seems to think so.

In 1925 Pope Pius was trying to preserve the old order of Europe—historic Christendom. There are many Christians in America today who are trying to preserve America as a Christian nation. The best of their reasons is their belief that the kingship of Christ demands it.

There is no doubt that the separation of church and state has gone along with the privatization of religion and the narrowing of the kingdom of God to merely personal issues. Since religion can have no place in the public arena, you have to keep it as your own private choice. But that’s like keeping a tiger in your back yard.

Theocracy means that all of worldly power and authority derives from God. Political sovereignty derives from God, not from the people. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are theocratic religions at their base. These three religions speak to all of life. The Laws of Moses structure a whole society. So does the Koran. The theocracy of Judaism is restricted to the land of Israel. But the theocracy of Islam is meant for all the world. Even a modern Muslim nation is expected to enforce it, whether it does that softly or strictly.

We cannot get around the theocratic element in Christianity. But how are to understand it? Should we be concerned for Christendom? Are we required to protect our Christian civilization? Is America a Christian country? Should we try to bring our Christian values into public policies and politics? Isn’t to leave it a private and individual matter to surrender the kingdom of God?

But the theocratic element in Christianity has been altered by Jesus Christ himself. The gospel version of theocracy we might better call Christocracy. There is a movement in the Bible. The Kingdom of God has been transferred into the Kingdom of Christ, the sovereignty of God is now focused in the sovereignty of Christ. And because he is the Christ who is crucified, his sovereignty is unlike any other in the world.

You can see it best revealed upon the cross. His cross is a judgement on the whole idea of kingship, but also the expression of how he does it.

Yes, his crucifixion is a travesty of justice, and in his accepting it he’s making a comment about the way that human beings do sovereignty in general. At the same time, because the cross is his throne, he’s showing us the radical difference of his kingdom. His glory is his humility. His policy is grace and reconciliation, his army is his very enemies, his weapons are the wounds of love upon his hands and feet. He does not defend his kingdom, so neither should we. He does not ask us to fight for his kingdom but simply to receive it by accepting his reconciliation.

I confess to you that I have sometimes been attracted by the arguments of those thinkers like Pope Benedict who believe it’s important for us to preserve the benefits of Christendom. I confess to you that sometimes I think I preach a slovenly form of Christianity, accommodating, easy-going, giving in too much, without standards and insufficiently rigorous. I don’t know, do you wonder this yourself? Are we selling short the sovereignty of Christ?

But then I remind myself of his sovereignty upon the cross in all its humility and lavish generosity. If you keep on bringing your enemies into your kingdom, then your kingdom needs no defense.

* * * *

Historically, kings were always judges, the supreme judges of the land. That is true of Christ, it is through judgement that Jesus exercises his kingship, not through conquest or through controlling things behind the scenes, but through judgement. And his verdicts are all set out ahead of time, his judgement is very public, it is easily available in the gospel, in what he said and what he did.

He judges all the powers and pretensions of the world. He judged the rulers of Jerusalem, both Jewish and Roman, especially by his death. He exposed the cruelty of Rome and the venality of Roman law. He exposed the corruption of the leaders of Judea and how shallow was their piety. Just by standing there before them hee exposed the fear that motivated all of them.

His judgements still continue in the world. By this very gospel he judges every nation of the world. He judges our exercise of power and our use of violence. His cross is the standard against which is measured all of our empires and achievements, and they all fall short.

But his judgement is to justify. He exposes us to reconcile us. He unmasks our pretensions in order to clothe us in his love. He condemns us with himself in order to take us with him walking in his royal garden, his paradise.

The Roman inscription posted on the cross above his head said, This is the King of the Judeans. It was a cruel joke, not to mention being anti-Semitic. The thief hanging next him did not get the joke. Unaccountably he believed it, that this loser of a Messiah would someday have a kingdom. "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom."

Jesus answered that his kingdom was already there. Not completely, not yet fully, but truly there. Wherever there is reconciliation in the name of Jesus, there is the kingdom of God. We do not have to fight for it, we have only to receive it. The forgiveness of sins and of debts and of trespasses is much more important for the world and its politics than anyone seems to recognize. And that forgiveness and reconciliation is our version of Christendom and of theocracy.

A last word. The Dutch queen is not crowned, but installed, and she takes an oath of loyalty to the constitution. Dutch citizens do not swear allegiance to the Queen, but to the constitution. From 1890 till 1948 the Queen of the Netherlands was Wilhelmina, a remarkable woman of courage and intelligence who puts the modern monarchies to shame.

My grandfather loved her. Even after he immigrated in 1914. Even though he was a socialist. He might have been the only Calvinistic Socialist in New Jersey. Even after he became an America citizen he still regarded Wilhelmina as his Queen.

I believe that even as the world is changing with the positive benefits of secularization, there remains within the human heart a place for just that kind of loyalty and love, and we want to extend it to a Lord of whom the earthly kings and queens are but pale images.

So our concern is not defending the kingdom of Christ but loving its king, not its boundaries but its center, and being loyal to the power of his love, even to loving his enemies. This loyalty trumps all other loyalties, and this love generates so much other love. I want to say, "My Lord."

Copyright © 2007 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Park Slope Coalition for the Homeless

Good news. We had our first meeting last night in the study of Rabbi Bachman at Beth Elohim. Please read his account of it. "A Visit from DHS," at http://www.brooklynjews.org/weblog/

Thank you, George and Jodi of the DHS of the City of New York. Thank you, Common Ground. Thank you, Park Slope Civic Council. Thank you, Beth Elohim. Thank you, Deacons of Old First.

More to come.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Latest Julia


Isn't this one great? Julia just put it up out front. I love it.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Weimaraner

As I was walking through the Park this morning on the way to work, I was thinking again about William Wegman's famous Weimaraner photos, and wondering why they trouble me. They feel vaguely exploitive, and disrepectful to the very dogs they celebrate. Sort of like what we did to natives and aborigines, when the European explorers brought them back to Europe, and dressed them up in formal clothes and showed them off, remarking how much manners they could be taught.

As I approached the bridge a dogwalker came out of the trees, accompanied by a Weimaraner! What coincidence. And an ally, I thought, who doubtless would confirm my opinions on the matter.

I said, point blank, "What do you think of Wegman's photos?"

She said, "I like them."

Drat. Oh dear.

I walked on, a little chastened in my self-righteousness.

But what is it that troubles me? There's nothing wrong with children dressing up their pets. We did it too. At the other end of the continuum is The Island of Doctor Moreau. It's a very broad continuum, and I don't dispute that Wegman is way over toward Dick, Jane, and Sally.

One of the most remarkable things about dogs is how "plastic" they are as a species. Much more than cats, for example. For some strange genetic reason, we can breed them into such distinct varieties (fr0m Chihuahuas to St. Bernards) that a visiting Martian, at first glance, would have to assume they're different species.

If we humans have done this to them generally, then what's wrong with what Wegman does?

And I know firsthand he treats them royally. I have a friend who is an assistant in that studio, and whose hands I have recognized sticking forward out of sleeves. Those dogs are loved. And they seem to enjoy their work.

I can't quite put my finger on it. And I'm not going to say it's immoral, or even wrong. But isn't there anyone else who finds it disrespectful to the very dogs that are being celebrated?

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

More on the Pastor and the Homeless


I should be flattered, and I am.
This was the editorial cartoon in the November 4, 2007, edition of The Brooklyn Paper.
(Do I have automatic permission to post it just because I'm in it? Does my caricature belong to me?)
If you haven't been following the story, the three men who see, speak, and hear no evil, are more or less Robert, Will, and Frank, I guess.
Read the story in the web edition of the Brooklyn Paper. The headline is, well, unflattering, but then I have to remember Luke 6:26. And the story itself is accurate enough. Only we're not "Reformed Presbyterian"!

Monday, November 05, 2007

The Parrots of Brooklyn

I knew about the colony of feral parrots in the gothic gateway of Green-Wood Cemetery. I knew about the feral parrots at Brooklyn College; you can see their nests on the light standards. Last spring I saw the parrots at the south end of City Island.

But now I've seen the parrots in my own neighborhood, in Windsor Terrace. Twice.

Saturday, as I walked to the Kensington Post Office on McDonald Avenue, I saw three of them in the oak trees next to the Greenwood Ave pedestrian bridge over the Prospect Expressway.

Of course, first I heard them. I wan't out bird-watching, my thoughts were on something else. But their noise is unmistakable. When you hear them, you look for them.

This morning, as I waited for the B67 bus at the corner of McDonald and Terrace, a whole flock of them flew over me, flying south out of the cemetery into our neighborhood.

On Saturday I had thought we might have our own little colony in our neighborhood, but from what I saw this morning I'm guessing that the Gatehouse parrots are wide-ranging.

I love them, I think they are so cool. Sure, I know they are not native, they're invaders, but so are my people, we invaded from the Netherlands, so how can I judge them?

If you want to read about them, go to http://www.brooklynparrots.com/

Thursday, October 25, 2007

The Bobs Lake Gang

This Sunday through Tuesday I will be attending the 31st session of the Bobs Lake Gang. Our name doesn't say much for our imaginations, but hey, we're guys, and we're pastors, so who expects imagination?

In October 1992, a Canadian pastor friend of mine, Rev. Dr. Orville James, had the idea of starting a small pastors' group to meet on retreat at his cottage on Bobs Lake in Ontario. We were joined by Bob Ripley, whose star was just rising. We talked, prayed, smoked cigars, read scripture, played air guitar, repeated Monty Python scripts, did dishes, prayed some more, and failed to shower and shave.

On Monday night, we lay on the floor in the dark and listened to the Blue Jays play their first World Series. It was a tiny old AM radio, and the woodstove was on to keep us warm.

We met again in the spring, and three more pastors joined us, Drew and Andrew and Orville's brother John. Or did Andrew come the next time? Or was John there the first time? We've been going long enough to need an historian.

Since then we've added new members, three of them, and we've had vacancies and visitors along the way, but there's no question that we have forged ourselves into something; just what that something is I am not sure I want to know.

We are all Canadian pastors, mainline denominations, United and Anglican, except for me, a Dutch Calvinist from the States (though I am a dual citizen, and a subject of Elizabetha Regina and her heirs-by-law). I used to say that they wanted me in so that I could buy the single-malt Scotch at the Duty Free at the border. Then my wife and I bought the cottage next door to Orville's, and if they kicked me out I could just go up any and blast my radio like at General Noriega. And now some of the other guys are bringing the Scotch.

Fifteen years, now, or 31 sessions, without a break. We're the only group we know to have endured so long. Orville is the leader, and the rest of us have different roles to play. Andrew makes breakfast, Ripley cooks a formal dinner on Monday night (despite our lack of shaving and showering). John and I fight over the control of the coffee. We've been fighting over the coffee for years. It's what we do.

Sunday night we kick back and let loose. We report the news, and we tell the stories that pastors never dare tell anyone else but pastors. I always try to have a long joke ready. Early on I told the one about the Lutheran pastor who wakes up in hell. It remains the unbeatable standard, like Johnny Vander Meer's back-to-back no-hitters.

Monday, after breakfast, we spend all morning in scripture and prayer. We use the Anglican service for morning prayer, and whatever lessons that come up in the lectionary. We try to do that sitting outside on the deck above the lake, if it's not too cold. It's never too cold for me; I love to wrap myself in blankets like a sachem and talk about the Eternal, and then talk to the Eternal.

Soup and sandwiches for lunch, then we split up for exercise and naps and conversations, and golf or hiking or canoing on the bright, cold lake. Monday dinner is nice with napkins and wine. Monday night, the talk is quieter and calmer.

Tuesday morning, prayers and scripture again, but less intense. A quick lunch and then off home.

We have prayed each other through many difficulties. We have prayed each other through broken marriages and tough times in the ministry. Wandering children and troublesome staffs. Clergy stuff. We challenge and support each other. We probably should use more soap.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Update on the Homeless Men

In the words of the Leonard Cohen song, "It's come to this, oh yes, it's come to this."

First, I thank you all for your participation in this conversation. I thank you for your comments and your interest. In particular I thank the Park Slope Civic Council for their desire to be part of a solution, and I thank Rabbi Andy Bachman and Congregation Beth Elohim for their offering to support us and assist us. ("Love bears all things, believes all things, endures all things.")

Second, now that this conversation has started, it needs to keep developing. If Park Slope was just voted the best neighborhood in NYC, then why shouldn't homeless people want to live here too? A truly diverse community needs to embrace its FULL diversity. Old First wants to be part of the continuing conversation, especially with Beth Elohim and the Civic Council.

Third, because this is a developing story, let me update you on the weekend. There are some new facts on the ground. On Sunday afternoon, the cops were called in twice by neighbors. I have to say the cops were great.

As left the church on Sunday evening, I found a steel bar the guys were keeping as a weapon. On Monday morning I learned that the men had been urinating in front of nursery school children and into their play-yard. On Monday evening a deacon confirmed to me that the men had exposed themselves in front of children while urinating.

Yesterday Frank showed me his face, very badly bruised. He told me had fallen, but I don't believe him. His face tells a different story. This morning I removed a blanket with blood stains on it.

"It's come to this, oh yes, it's come to this." (I guess I always expected it would come to this.)

I have been denying them permission to sleep on our grounds since last July, but I found it impossible to enforce. As of this morning, the Commander of Precinct 78 agreed with me that the police would enforce it.

The story isn't over. What's going to happen next, I don't know. But now that the community seems to have woken up I want it to stay involved. The men were sleeping and hanging out at Old First because Old First is public space for the community, and because, like anyone, they want a short commute, and they work on Seventh Avenue.

So please don't give them money. Give them food. Address them by name. Robert, Will, and Frank.

It's not over for us with them either at Old First. We have three deacons who will work on this with me. We'll get back to you.

Meanwhile, you might check the Brooklyn Paper for a story this weekend.

Monday, October 22, 2007

With Apologies to Frost

Nature’s last green is brown,
Her tints are going down
To blend in with the earth
From which we rise in birth.

Prospect Park is finally changing color now, though the temperature is still too warm. Most of the trees just go to brown, while a few are beginning to show off their yellows, golds, and reds.

Not the white pines on Lookout Hill, above the Nethermead, the white pines that I love. Their needles are even greener than a month ago. They have groomed themselves for winter. It is not so that they do not loose their leaves like other trees. They do.

In September we went to our cabin in Ontario, and my wife Melody said, "Look, the white pines are turning brown." And they were. Their branches were all dead brown needles. She worried for our trees, but she needn’t have. Those brown quintuplet clusters hid the tiny new growth needles behind them.

When I went back in October, the ground was thick with needles, and the white pines were bright and fresh and green. For white pines, Easter should happen in October. Oaks and maples celebrate Passover as the New Year, but conifers keep true to Rosh Hashanah.

White pines like the winter sun. And so in wintertime, when I walk from my apartment to the church, I take the long way, up and over Lookout Hill, so that I can say hello to the white pines, especially when there is snow on the ground.

I haven’t started that yet. And Sunday I was running late, so I took the Center Drive. And as I walked past the Friends Cemetery I saw what I had seen before, that most of the gravestones were in shadow from the trees, but some of the stones were brightly lit in the low rays of the autumn sun.

What’s better for gravestones — sunlight or shadow? I mean, what hastens their decay, the algae that grow in shade, or the heating and cooling of solar energy? Those stones that are brightly lit, do they mark the graves of specially righteous Quakers, whose spirits leave an energy behind to greet the sun, or of specially sinful Quakers, unhappy ones, whose souls are not at rest, and cannot abide the sweet decay of shadow and shade? Is there anyone who can come back from the dead to tell me?

Time is linear for Quakers, and for the rest of us Christians. What has been has been, there is no return, and we are praying for the future, which is a fulfillment of the past, but also therefore essentially different from the past. That's a fundamental belief of Jews and Christians and Muslims.

But trees are Taoists or Buddhists, I think. Trees believe that time is circular, and that everything will come around again. I have no desire to convert the trees to Christianity. Certainly not the white pines. They have no need of redemption.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

The Homeless Men at Old First

Their names are Robert Royster, Will Franklin, and Frank. They cause me a great deal of trouble, and lots of anger from our neighbors, and I do wish they would go away, but, whatever else, they remain human beings, images of God, and they need to be treated with respect.

People keep asking why don't we get rid of them. We can't. We've tried. Believe me, we have tried. They have abused our hospitality, they piss on our building, they leave food around, they leave garbage all over, they play their radio at great volumes (God forgive me, I have had to resort to theft against them to deal with that one). They are a pain in the neck. But we will not treat them as less than human beings.

We have tried to get rid of them. We've discovered the hard way that we can't do it, we can't beat them. Whenever I chase them away, they just wait an hour, two hours, and they come back. I go home at night, and they come back. No matter what we do or say, they come back.

I will confess a strong desire inside myself to just let them be. It's Jesus' church, not mine, not ours, and the New Testament is very clear about our hospitality to the poor. "The poor you will always have with you." The parable of Lazarus. Etc. You get the point. And there is no asterix pointing to a codicil that says, "the nice poor."

But at the same time I recognize we belong to a community, and the church has the responsiblity to be a good neighbor, and if the guys scare the kids, and make lewd comments at women and passersby, and if they leave food scraps around for vermin to get at, etc. etc., then, well, I know that the church has to be a good neighbor. So we decided this last July that they absolutely had to go. We tried to get rid of them. As I said, we couldn't.

We chased them away every morning. They came back every night. We threw out their stuff. They found new stuff. Only now they started getting even more hostile, to us and to other passersby. We finally found that we couldn't beat them, and the only thing was to try to control it. Yes, they beat us.

The cops can't do anything either, apparently. If you call them, you have to wait there, on the spot for about half an hour till the cops come, and all they can say is "Scram," and they give you dirty looks for taking up their time, and half an hour later the guys are back.

The cops have to catch them in the act of public urination or public consumption of liquor, which are misdemeanors, and mean nothing to anyone, or catch them inside the building, which is trespassing, and might mean a trip to Rikers Island, but Rikers is already over-crowded and they don't want to put vagrants there.

Why are they there at Old First? Easy. The money is good on Seventh Avenue. The money dries up, the guys go. Where I grew up in Bedford-Stuyvesant there are no panhandlers. Up at Ethical Culture the front porch is deeper and drier, but people don't give out money on PPW.

Old First is the only church on Seventh Avenue without a fence. That's important to us, we love it that people sit on our steps and that kids run on the top of our little wall. And that's also why they are at Old First.

Today, again, I cleaned up their garbage. Waddayagonnado. But I will not remove their sleeping bags. Some of our neighbors think I should do that. But that's a moral line I will not cross. The Torah is very clear, that you should not take from a poor man what keeps him warm at night. Leaving their filthy sleeping bags there is my little attempt to be moral in this whole thing, and honor the basic dignity the Torah assigns them.

I used to talk to them and pray with them. I used to be able to reason with them. That's no longer possible. They're drinking 24/7 lately. They are nasty to me too. How long this will go on I do not know. In the short term, it's people giving them money that keeps it going. In the long term, they are killing themselves. If they manage to get arrested, they will get cleaned up at Rikers, and we'll have them back in February!

Before Robert had descended to his current condition, and when he had sober moments, he used to pray very moving prayers for certain people in the area. for poor children, for illiterates (such as himself), for soldiers, for forgiveness of his sins. I hate what has become of him. I always knew it would be coming.

It's a grief, and we're at our wits end. We have been unable to find any solution. In a strange way, the three of them are in control. Robert, Will, and Franklin.

They have names. They have souls. They belong to our community. They tell us something about ourselves.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

On Widows and Apologetics

I just had a little piece published in a theology magazine, under the title above. It's about how God seems to have set things up in such a way as to make God's self more credible to orphans, widows, and the poor than to intellectuals.

And I say a word of two about our desire for intellectual respect, which can be a kind of covetousness.

To get to the full journal, called Perspectives, go here: http://www.perspectivesjournal.org/index.html
There are some other worthwhile articles as well.

To get to my little essay, go here: http://www.perspectivesjournal.org/2007/10/seeit-widows.html

Babycoat

I love Julia Durgee's cartoon style, which is why I am happy to host her on this blog.

And this last one is my favorite. Because it's so real about the self-conscious, the zelf-bewustzijn in Dutch, the self-awarness that is often sharpest in the memory of dreams. I love her take on wimsy and how she touches what is just under the surface.

And I love how her drawing is essential to her little stories, and not a mere excuse for dialogue.

I don't want to say too much about this cartoon, because I should let it speak for itself, but it expresses for me the complexity of love. There is desire in it, humility, courage, grandiosity, childlikeness, great gift and great need. This is a Romantic cartoon in the classic Don Quixotic sense of High Romance.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Thoughts on Being Honest Even if it Hurts: or, Yes, I Stole a Backpack

Note: this is a guest entry from one of my parishioners, Julia Hurn. Enjoy.

Recently my husband and I gave a Game Boy to my son Aidan. To say that he really loves it is an understatement. When he first got it, he had no self-control. He could not turn the thing off, despite pleadings, bargainnings and even threats from us. We have had to wrench it out of his hands often. Things are getting better, but while we were on vacation, he was in the throes of Game Boy mania and decided to bring it with him to the beach one day.

On our way home from the beach as we were unloading the car, he decided to take a bucket full of seawater and sea creatures out of the backseat with the same hand that was holding his Game Boy. You can guess the rest.

I don’t know who was more upset, Aidan or my husband who knew by heart every word of the replacement agreement he paid for when he bought the thing…”water damage not covered” was what was echoing through his head. While it did not cost near what a new one cost, it was about the priciest toy we’ve bought him, weighing in at about $60, not including the game cartridges.

Well, Aidan was so dejected. He had this shocked, devastated look on his face. Shawn was hopping mad, and I was watching all this thinking; we never should have done it in the first place. Once the shock wore off and we got safely back to Brooklyn, Shawn had the idea of taking it anyway back to the store and seeing if they would fix it or exchange it, even though water damage was clearly not covered.

I wasn’t happy that he was getting Aidan’s hopes up, but Shawn did a good job of explaining to him that he might not get a new one and he should be prepared for the disappointment. (Big sigh) “yes, dad,” says Aidan.

Not more than an hour later, I hear the happy sounds of chatting and the electronic ping ping ping of a…you guessed it, new Game Boy floating up our stairs. In walks Aidan, happy as a clam. “What happened?” I ask Shawn, incredulous.

Apparently they approached the clerk, and Shawn urged Aidan to speak directly to her about what happened. Shawn did not say he had to volunteer that he dropped it in water. But, Aidan, with sheepish shame, head bowed, muttered “I sort of accidently kind of dropped it in some water.” The clerk took one look at him (the fact that he has sandy blond hair, freckles and huge, gorgeous blue eyes didn’t hurt) and said “the truth will set you free, my friend. Here’s a new one.”

When I heard this story, I have to admit to some feelings of ambiguity. I’m happy he got another one, of course, but a bit saddened that Aidan did not learn about the consequence of his actions.

How does an accidental dropping of a game in water constitute an action, you ask? We had warned him that the likelihood that it would get damaged was very great when he took it in the car to the beach. We told him not to do it, but he went ahead anyway. Because he chose to keep his precious possession in proximity to potential disaster, he has to take some responsibility for what happened.

But I am relieved that, in telling the truth, he was met with mercy and compassion. For a little guy who is six, I think this is very appropriate. See, because now that I’m a parent, I can’t hide from my own parental/moral uprightness. I’m ashamed of something I did recently, and as a way of avoiding being hypocritical (do as I say, not as I do), I’ve just plain avoided the situation.

About a year ago this summer, I was loaned a backpack by the good people at Prospect Park Audobon Center, filled with materials to do an educational experiment. I am ashamed and embarrassed to say that I did not do the experiment, and that the materials (including some clip boards, some plastic containers and mostly papers and bird guides) are sitting in my closet.

My regular backpack started to fall apart recently; and out of desperation, I appropriated the one in my closet containing all the stuff in it, toke the stuff out of it, and voila...new backpack for me. Pretty reprehensible, huh? I have always had some excuse for not returning it all…I don’t have time right now to do the experiment; we will get to it soon; blah blah (it involved observing ducks on the pond in the park).

My husband just recently pointed out to me that in reality, I have stolen that stuff as it was given to me in good faith to be used then returned and I have not returned it, and he doesn’t think I’m ever going to. He said this because it’s been sitting for a year in our closet.

And you know, in my paralysis of guilt, he’s right. I stopped recently thinking I would ever return it. In my mind there was a “statute of limitations” on returning it, and that if I did now return it, I would be really chastised…with questions, like: what took you so long? How could you be such a bad person as to keep this very important and valuable stuff from being used by some other well-deserving person/people?

The anticipation of the scolding and shaming I would receive really was the thing that kept me from doing the right thing. Rather than facing up to the possible bad reception by the staff there and just doing the right thing, I’d best just avoid it all together by keeping it, though every passing week and month I keep it, I feel worse.

Isn’t it the same with our children? The anticipation of the punishment for doing something bad prevents us and them from doing right thing and owning up. Being bad (or the Christian term Sinning) is something we all do because we are human. We screw up; we fail to give back what’s not ours; we try not to take responsibility for something bad we caused so we can get out of fixing it.

I love my husband for being my moral compass in these areas; my morality can get pretty loosey-goosey sometimes (one reason why I think I make a lousy Christian), and he often gently and not so gently reminds me to do the right thing. What does Jesus have to do with this? I think Jesus would laugh at me for keeping the backpack for so long. He would stand over my shoulder and say, “hey, you’ll feel so much better when you give it back,” with a smile and a wink, and then just walk away.

My plan is to go tomorrow to the Audobon Center in a car service to drop it ever so stealthily by the front door of the education dept. Anonymously, of course. If anyone asks me, I’ll just say: “I’m returning something I found to it’s rightful owners,” and leave it at that.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Everyone Has A 9/11 Story

It was in the evil tragedy of 9/11 that I was called here, to Old First.

In the summer of 2001, the pulpit of Old First church was, as we say, "vacant." Pastor Otte had moved on to Tarrytown, and an interim pastor, Dr. Washington, was filling-in part-time, while the Search Committee looked for a new pastor to fill the pulpit.

I was the senior pastor at Central Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I had applied to Old First, and had been interviewed. My wife Melody did not want to come to Brooklyn: she had a good job in Grand Rapids, we owned a home (for the first time), and we were near her parents.
The other candidate preached her trial sermon at the "neutral site" of the Flatbush Church on Sunday, 9/9, where the Search Committee had gone to hear her. I was scheduled to preach there on 9/16. It was all very confidential in Grand Rapids; I had used the excuse that our Grand Rapids church was considering a partnership with the Flatbush Church, which was not untrue. Only my church officers and my associate pastors knew the whole story.

On the morning of 9/11 I was visiting a neighboring African-American pastor with whom I was trying to do some joint programming (Grand Rapids is very divided racially). His secretary ran in to the study and told us to come look at the television. We watched, transfixed, unbelieving, and listened to Bryant Gumble, who seemed just as shocked as we were.

I raced back to my own church. Immediately I began working with other city clergy to prepare a city-wide prayer service at the cathedral. And then I got a phone call, from Rick, the vice chair of the Old First search committee. He was at the Grand Rapids airport and could I maybe pick him up, and could he stay with us (the hotels were full) and could we send some clergy to the airport to minister to the people there?

It seems Rick had been flying to San Francisco for business, and his plane got put down in Grand Rapids. Coincidence? Providence? I went to the airport and picked him up. As we drove we agreed that I might have to postpone my trial sermon, as I really had to be with my own people at this time, and Rick understood, but the problem was that the next available date would be in October or November, and they already had a good candidate. I was very disappointed of course.

That afternoon, Melody got home from work, and there was Rick on our front porch. She looked up to heaven, and said, "Did you have to drop him right on the porch?" Then I told her that my trial sermon was now up in the air, so to speak.

That night I led some of the prayers at the cathedral downtown. My congregation's own service was scheduled for Thursday. On Wednesday I met with my leadership. They encouraged me to go to Brooklyn anyway. They said, "Of all the times to preach in New York, it's now. Especially since you're from there. You'll be with us tomorrow. We can cover the rest." Okay. It's on.

So Friday we drove to Brooklyn. No planes were flying, of course, and rental cars were scarce. Rick and Melody drove, and I sat in the back seat and rewrote my sermon.

Crossing the Tappan Zee we could see the fires and smoke at ground zero. Coming in over the Triboro was where it hit me emotionally. It was a familiar route from my childhood, how we drove back home to Bedford-Stuyvesant after visiting my relatives in Jersey. As you know, the whole city felt stunned and shocked and wounded. No airliners over the Grand Central Parkway, but fighter jets circling, a powerful symbol. That's where I "lost it."

We got into Park Slope Friday night. We walked around. The doors of Old First were open, people were there, candles were burning in and out, sheets of newsprint were hanging in the narthex and people were writing their prayers. The laymembers of Old First, without any help from any clergy, had decided to make this grand old building a sanctuary for everyone. I was impressed. This was the kind of church I'd like to serve. And every other church in the neighborhood was closed up and their gates locked.

On Sunday I preached the 9/11 sermon at the Flatbush Church, and the text from Jeremiah was perfect. As I came down the aisle, I was greeted by Mr. Woodson, an elder from the church of my childhood. He calls me Danny and he welcomed me home.

I have never felt so "called" as I felt then. And Melody began to believe that maybe this could be okay.

A week later the Search Committee offered me the pulpit. They made a great offer to Melody as well. Over the next two months we went through the normal approvals of the consistory, the congregation, and the Classis of Brooklyn, and in December, 2001, we moved to Garfield Place.

I am always uncomfortable in pointing to this or that in my life and saying, This was God. That feels presumptuous to me. I certainly do not believe that the destruction of the World Trade Center was an act of God, or was endorsed by God, or desired by God. And I do not want to trivialize 9/11, or make it overly personal for myself, when it was far more personal for many other people.

But it is very strange and mysterious to me how such an evil thing should have been, in my own life, for good. But in the midst of that awful event, I was called here, and I came.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Sermon for September 9, 2007

Note: This was a special interfaith prayer service. The first part of what follows here is the Welcome at the opening. The second part is my homily on Jeremiah 18:1-11, which is the Old Testament lesson for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost. I am sorry that I do not have here the other sermon we heard, which was by Dr. Gazi Erdem.

Opening Welcome

Today we commemorate 9-11. That day made all the difference. We need to interpret that day in terms of God and to pray to God about the repercussions of that day. That day made all the difference to Muslims in America, and so it’s fitting that we do this together with Muslims. We Jews and Christians and Muslims pray to the same God. We tell different stories about God, and our stories don’t all match up, but God is One, and our God is the truest unity we have, so it’s in praying together that our best unity is found.

It was in 2002 that Rabbi Jerry Weider challenged me to use 9-11 to make contact with the Muslims of Brooklyn. Since then we have welcomed here Imam Abdallah Allam of the Dawood Mosque, and then Wa’el Mousfar of the Arab Muslim American Federation, and then Faruq Wadud of the Bangladeshi Baitul Jannah Mosque, and then Debbie Almontaser of Women of Islam.

Today we are pleased to welcome the Universal Foundation, which represents the Turkish community of Brooklyn. But their hospitality was first. They welcomed us to their Ramadan Iftars. It was at the Mosque of the Crimean Turks that I was first invited to join the prayers. That was profound for me. While they prayed in Arabic I knelt beside the wall and I prayed as a Christian, and there, in prayer, I discovered that it was the same God we were praying to. It was in prayer that I found our deepest unity, because the Spirit of God was present there.

Today I am most pleased to welcome Dr. Gazi Erdem, from the Consulate General of Turkey, who is the Mufti or chief Iman of all the Turkish Imams in North America. Sort of like a Muslim archbishop. It’s an impressive office but Dr. Erdem carries it with gentleness and a great sense of humor. I love his laughter and his joy. I have heard Dr. Erdem address a thousand people at the Waldorf-Astoria, but I’m really looking forward to what he has to say within a house of prayer.

Today we are praying side-by-side. Our Christian prayers will be Christian and our Muslim prayers will be Muslim. Our unity is not some unnatural amalgamation. Or unity is in the One God that we worship, and in the loving hospitality that we practice with each other.

Homily

On the basis of Jeremiah, you might get the impression that God was behind 9-11, that God sent the evil against America. That was the claim of some fundamentalist Christians, and ironically, that put them very close to Al-qaeda, as if 9-11 was what God wanted.

On the one hand, we do believe that God has the freedom and authority and sovereignty and power to do whatever God wills to do, and we believe that God is the great judge of the world, and that God judges the nations, but on the other hand, we also believe that ever since Jesus, at least, the way God judges us is not through violence or disaster or weapons or by making use of criminal actions but simply and directly by means of God’s Word.

God’s public Word. God’s open and straightforward Word. In the prophets. In the Book. We are people of the Book, we are people who honor the prophets, because through the Book and the prophets God speaks to us and judges us, and the reason that God judges us is in order for us to hear and learn and turn and live.

The judgement of God is a privilege and a gift. People make judgements all the time, pundits and politicians, police chiefs and generals, CEOs and CFOs, regulators and mortgage lenders, we make judgements all the time, and our judgements affect our freedom and our lives, and amidst the clamor and tumult of all these voice, to get the judgement of God is a privilege and a gift.

And the judgement of God is simultaneously good and bad for us. It is good for us if we honor and accept it and it is bad for us if we refuse it and ignore it. It justifies us if we affirm it and it condemns us if we deny it. It’s up to us whether it’s for evil or for good. God gives us such freedom and responsibility.

This prophecy from Jeremiah combines what many people find paradoxical, the freedom and responsibility of humanity with the total sovereignty of God. But the truth of this, in different ways, is a common conviction of both the Reformed Church and Islam. And so, to push the metaphor, we say to God, "Thou are the potter, I am the clay, mold me and make me after thy will, while I am waiting, yielded and still." That’s a Christian song, but it perfectly describes the physical attitude of "islam," which is to wait on God, yielded and still.

The enduring significance of 9-11, for us, at least, is not how many died, though that is hugely important. The enduring significance of 9-11 is not why Al-qaeda did it, though we need to be clear about that for our foreign policy. The enduring significance of 9-11 is that we learn from it, that we learn from it rightly and not wrongly, that we interpret it rightly, not on our own, but with God’s wisdom, and that in response to it we examine our own selves, that we search ourselves, and the way that we search ourselves is by means of the judgements of God, and the judgements of God are given to us faithfully and lovingly in the Word of God.

In a moment we will do just that. We will pray selections from Psalm 139, in which we open ourselves to the searching of God. I wish that our lectionary editors had not taken out the last few verses, which are both the most severe and most liberating, but we do with what we have. Psalm 139 is one of the great prayers in the Bible, it’s a profound expression of the religious consciousness, and remarkably modern despite its antiquity, and, as far as I can tell, it’s a prayer that can be said equally by Jews and Christians and Muslims.

We will take a few moments of silence in order for you all to look it over, and then I will invite you to rise together and pray it with me. Our custom here is to do it responsively; I read the first part, and you read together the part in bold print. After the Psalm will come the traditional Gloria Patri, and would the Muslims and Jews be so kind as to indulge the Christians as we sing it with the hospitality of your listening? I thank you in advance.

Watching the Episcopalians

I remember during the heady days of ecumenism that one of the top Lutheran bishops was happy for the prospect of full communion with the Episcopalians because it took them one step closer to Rome. Well, the next step will have to be like Neil Armstrong’s, because right now the Episcopalians are even in trouble with Canterbury.

As I write this, Bishop Gene New Hampshire (that would be Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson) has been uninvited to the next Lambeth Conference, which is a big deal for Anglicans. Is the Archbishop of Canterbury not in full communion with the Bishop of New Hampshire? Shall the rest of the Episcopal Church accept this half of an excommunication of one of their own?

Did Rowan Williams expect this when he became Archbishop? I wonder if he looks back with longing on his quiet days in the see of St. David and the primacy of Wales. All this Anglican Communion politics, when what he’s best at is encouraging the church in a secular England and winsomely representing the gospel there. Canterbury is the head of the Communion, but he’s only the first among equals, and he has little clout compared to Rome and even Constantinople.

We grieve for the Anglican Communion right now. I don’t see how they can work this out, considering the parties and positions. The Nigerians versus the Americans. The Americans are the Nigerians of the Western hemisphere and the Nigerians are the Americans of Africa. Or some would say, the Germans, but Germans are not Anglicans.

From a Reformed perspective, you have to ask, why is Bishop Robinson such an issue when Bishop Spong never threatened the Anglican Communion? I have met Bishop Robinson and heard him speak. He loves the Lord Jesus. He worships the Trinity. He confesses the faith once delivered and he testifies to the gospel. He believes in the Resurrection and the Atonement and the Exodus from Egypt, for Heaven’s sake.

Bishop Spong is still called a Christian only because he calls himself that. He’s an impressive man, especially to himself. Bishop Robinson exhibits repentance, humor, and self-deprecation.
But the Anglicans don’t think from a Reformed perspective. When you finally come down to it, apparently the cliche is true, that for Anglicans it doesn’t matter what you believe. Well, it does, of course, but not enough to pose a threat.

What matters is your ritual. What you celebrate and how you celebrate. This has its virtues. If you attend any Anglican church, the sermon might be thin, but the liturgy will give you a Creed, the Trinity, the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus and his coming again, some repentance from sins, some real prayers, some real blessings, and some real miracles — the sacraments. During the sermon you can read the Thirty-Nine Articles in the back of the Prayerbook and thank God for the Belgic Confession.

Anglicans found it problematic when some Canadians and Americans began celebrating gay weddings, or holy unions, or whatever, but even this was tolerable. It used to be the case that all Anglicans, worldwide, were united by the Book of Common Prayer. But since the ’60’s the various provinces have developed their own Prayerbooks, and the New Zealand book is now very different from the British ASB. Liturgical disunity may distress Anglicans, but they’ve been living with divergence for some decades now, and it hasn’t threatened their Communion’s unity.

But a gay bishop! Anglicans are fundamentalists about one thing, and one thing only, and that is the hierarchical episcopacy. In the Seventeenth Century their motivation was political — "No bishop, no king." What their motivation is nowadays is open to question. But as we saw in the process of full communion with the Lutherans, everything is negotiable, except episcopacy.
And when an out gay man is elevated to the episcopacy, then Anglicans are threatened.

What matters is not what he believes but what he is, because a bishop is. The symbol of an hierarchical bishop is not his pulpit but his chair. When he’s just sitting there, holding his staff, he’s at the center of his job. Celebrating Eucharist and baptizing and preaching can be done by mere priests. Only bishops can confirm, but since a Prayer Book Study in the ’60’s it’s agreed that this is not essential but political. It gives the bishop something special to do when he or she visits a parish. Otherwise a bishop has nothing distinctive to do.

A bishop just is. The chief role of a bishop is to represent the church, and, with such Incarnational theology, to represent Christ himself. Well!

The Anglican Communion is at heart a communion of bishops. This communion is objective and linear, like a family tree. They may or may not take the Bible literally, but they are literal about their hierarchical network.

Your ordinary American and Canadian laity are not really in communion with each other. They are in communion with their respective bishops, who are in communion with each other, provided their communion is guaranteed by being in communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury. The crisis shows us what Anglicans are fundamentalist and literalist about!

This past July I attended three different Anglican churches in Canada. The first week I went to the tiny parish near our cottage, where we have prayed for eighteen years. Our lay reader preached on the gospel, and he was good; he preached the text. The next Sunday I had to be in Kingston so I attended the cathedral. An archdeacon preached on the gospel, and he was excellent; he preached the text. The third week our little parish had a union service with the parish in the next town, so with four other locals I went there. I heard another archdeacon preach on the gospel, and he was very good; he preached the text.

Not once did I hear a peep about the troubles of the Anglican Communion. I heard about the Lord Jesus, and his death, resurrection, and coming again, and we confessed our sins, and we praised the Trinity, and we repeated the Creed, and we gave thanks and ate his precious body and blood. I was quite satisfied each time.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Sermon for August 5: Security and Greed

Proper 13, Hosea 11:1-11, Psalm 107:1-9, 43, Colossians 3:1-11, Luke 12:13-21
08/05/07

Jewish religion was all about the Promised Land, and the possession of the Promised Land, so the laws of property and inheritance were very important. The rule was that the property went to the eldest son, who could keep most of it but had to divvy the rest out among his brothers. In case of a conflict, they could take it to a rabbi.

And a rabbi was not just a teacher but also a lawyer and a judge. He was expert in Biblical law and its manifold interpretations in order to issue opinions and decisions. A rabbi’s decision was binding. So this guy takes it to Jesus.

Jesus answers, "Friend, who set me to be a judge and arbitrator over you," and he means that he’s not been officially ordained as a rabbi, so his opinion would not be binding. He also means this: "Do you know who I am? I don’t issue opinions; I have no opinions. I have only the total Word of God. I don’t decide disputes, but my message demands your decision. And I make no judgments but all of you must judge yourselves by what I say."

And his message is this: "Take care, be on your guard against all kinds of greed: for your life does not consist in the abundance of possessions." Jesus means both brothers, the older one who has it, and the younger one who wants it. The property in question is an expression of the heart.

Whenever we deal with material possessions, we must always examine our hearts. "What’s up, why do I think I need this, why do I think it will make me happy, what burden does it cause my life, and what about people who have less. Every time. Every single possession, every single material good. No exceptions.

Not because material possessions are not important. They are very important. Not because we should not value them. We are to value material possessions as much as God so loves the world and the earth is the Lord’s. God has made us stewards of our material possessions, God has put the earth in our care and given us gifts to develop it. But the question is their claim on us, and where we get our agendas, and where our hope is, and what we think will make us happy, and give us security.

In the case of the property in dispute between the brothers, it was a matter not only of current income, but also future security, and the security of their own sons. It was a matter of justice. Material possessions are not unimportant, they are matters of justice and love.

Jesus tells the parable of the rich fool. This parable reminds us that you can’t take it with you, and, more, that even in this life you don’t have real control. You think you control your future, but you don’t control the most basic thing about yourself, and that is your own life.

As usual with parables, there is a more subtle point. This parable has a sharp edge. Jesus has God do what he tells us elsewhere we may not do, which is call a person a fool. Of course God may say things we may not say, because God is the perfect judge. But Jesus means to raise our hackles here. He means to make everyone feel uncomfortable, even if we are not rich.

The rich man is prudent. He’s wise in terms of economics. He’s got a long-term business plan. He’s planning his long-term capitalization. He is the kind of guy in whom you might invest. So why is he a fool? What does his behavior have to do with greed?

There’s a connection between security and greed. What we feel as security is functionally greed. We good and decent people don’t feel our greed as greed. We think of rich people as greedy, or nasty people. But how our greed works is in our need for security, both actual and emotional. And our systems of economic security end up as systemic greed. We have to examine as greed our systems of security, both individual and corporate, both personal and national.

The rich man had more abundance than he had planned on. So by building new barns he thought he could secure the unexpected. But of course our future is always unexpected. And why not share his unplanned abundance with all the impoverished peasantry around him?

There was no middle class back then, there were rich landowners and poor share-croppers. By keeping his abundance in his barns, he did not share it with the people who actually worked his land.

The only way he could have gotten so much was by owning lots of land, which meant either buying the land of the poor or holding it in collateral for debt. But according to the law of Moses, every seven years those debts would have been forgiven, and every forty-nine years the land would return, free of charge, to the family of its original inheritance. According to the law of Moses, this man could be comfortable, but he’d never have so much wealth for himself.

The forgiveness of debt and the return of property to the poor expresses a whole different approach to security. Not by storing but by sharing; not by defending but by befriending. In the Promised Land the land belonged to God, and God had lent it out to the families of Israel on long-term leases to see what they would do with it, to see if they would use it for justice and for love. It’s a message for us. The planet Earth belongs to God, and God has lent it out to the nations of humanity to see what we will do with it, and whether we use it for justice and love. We’ll only do so if we trust the providence of God.

In this regard, don’t mistake what St. Paul means in our reading from Colossians. When he says, "Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth," it’s not a call to super-spirituality and a disregard for earthly life, the life of the world and things of the world.

When he says the "things that are above," his meaning is dynamic, not static. He means the things that are above which in the future will come down, when Christ comes in his glory, and our own hidden glory will be revealed, and the earth is renewed to what it should be. We pray this every week: "thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven."

St. Paul means that we should set our minds on what’s already true in heaven in order to live that way on earth. Set our minds on the policies and patterns and projects of the kingdom of heaven, instead of the policies and patterns and projects of the kingdoms of the earth, which by comparison are prejudices and prohibitions, dividing the slave from the free, Gentiles from Jews, brothers from brothers, and the rich from the poor. A brother is a brother for his brother, the Jew is a Jew for the Gentile, and the rich are rich for the poor. Seek what is above precisely for what is below.

We can’t avoid the world in which we live. We don’t live in villages any more, where people took care of each organically. For better and worse we live in a culture where the market governs everything, even your long-term healthcare. Social security will not protect you. You have to provide for your own security. And yet our prosperity is huge; but as a society we will not pay the price of sharing the bounty for everyone, not if that price is to restrict our individual freedom and initiative.

That’s not going to happen in America, that’s not how we are constituted. Immigrants come here having left their villages in order to seek their own prosperity and security. So if our need for security ends up functionally as greed, then greed is always at issue for Americans.

Is there a remedy? Yes, it’s very simple. Did you get the remarkable image in Hosea? God is the roaring lion whose fearful voice is what chases you back from exile to the Promised Land.

The remedy: Always confess your greed. Everyone, always, no exceptions, even when you can't see it in yourself. It’s always an accurate confession, even when you’re making economic sense, even when it’s for security, it has greed in it. Confess it in the knowledge of God’s hair-raising grace and forgiveness. When you come to accept yourself as God does, with no exceptions or excuses or rationalizations, you can decrease your greed by finding your security in God’s grace, in God’s gracious provision for your life, which is not revealed to you, but hidden with Christ in God. Set your mind there, and the way to set your mind there is through praying it to God. A simple remedy.

Copyright © 2007 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.