Wednesday, October 15, 2008

A Form of Daily Prayer

Are you looking for a form of daily prayer? Maybe you want to pray, but you don't know what to say. Try the "Daily Office," as it's called, which exists in many different forms, from simple to complex. For a relatively simple form, which is also very contemporary, let me direct you with this link to the Northumbria Community in Great Britain. Click on "Pray the Office." Thank you to Paul Miller, a friend of mine from St. Catherines, Ontario, who introduced this to me.
(And thank you Amy. Oh, I remember with what wonder my brother and I contemplated our first pomme grenate ("seedy apple") when my mom brought it home from the grocery. I think I was nine. I should eat one every morning, and use it as rosary.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Sermon from Three Years Ago: Eminent Domain

Note: This coming Sunday our preacher will be Rev. Dr. Carol Bechtel, the president of General Synod. So I am posting the sermon from three years ago on the texts for Proper 24, Exodus 33:12-23, Psalm 99, 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10, Matthew 22:15-22.

Last June the Supreme Court made a controversial ruling on the issue of Eminent Domain. The ruling allows government to take your private property, against your will, and sell it to some other private owner the government prefers. Bruce Ratner was happy. I wasn’t. I read the arguments. They’ve cancelled one of the main points of the American experiment since 1776.

You know I lived in Canada for a while, and I got used to seeing a picture of Queen Elizabeth displayed in every public building. Even in the hockey arenas, there on the wall of the Blue Line Club where you drink your beer between the periods, her face looks out, the very image of serenity and sovereignty. It’s not the same in the US. The face of the president is not the image of sovereignty.

Who has sovereignty over you? What has sovereignty over your life? What in your life has eminent domain? How much of your life is in whose domain? And whose domain is eminent?
Well, who takes the first cut of your paycheck? You may have noticed that the IRS does not have pledge-drives and fund-raisers. The government has no need for Consecration Sunday. It’s not just that your taxes come out before your tithes and offerings, it’s that your taxes come out before anything, even yourself.
The proportion of where your money goes is not only a measure of what you value, it is also an indicator of what has power over you. You can judge by what happens to your money not only how much freedom you really have, but also how eminent in your life is the domain of Caesar and how eminent is the domain of God. We may highly value God, but how much functional power does God’s sovereignty really have in our lives? Does God mind coming across so weak?

The taxes to Caesar were especially hateful to the Jews. Their taxes supported a government they considered illegitimate. Worse, Roman money in itself was sinful, because the coins bore the image of Caesar, and broke the second commandment. Worse yet, the Caesars were claiming divinity, and their taxes supported a violation of the first commandment.
So if Jesus is really the Messiah, that is, the candidate for the true King of the Jews, then the question they ask him is legitimate, it’s a matter of public policy, like you would ask Fernando Ferrer. Jesus' answer might strike you as a politician’s dodge. He doesn’t answer directly. He doesn’t say it’s right or wrong. He leaves that up to his listeners. He turns it back on them.
He asks them to produce a coin.
And notice they are able to. Right there is the indicator that they participate in the Roman economy. It means they accept the benefits of Roman rule, no matter how much they rail against it. That’s why he calls them hypocrites. He’s saying, "Oh cut it out." Get real, stop being so self-righteous. Like Caesar is really the problem here.
He turns it back on them. He calls them to self-examination. That’s the impact of his response. Examine yourselves: How much in your life belongs to God, and how much in your life belongs to Caesar? Then act accordingly.
But how about if both claim everything? How about if God claims everything? How about if God says that the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it? Last month I was talking to the president of the synagogue in Bay Ridge, and he repeated what I’ve often heard, that Judaism is not just a religion, it’s a way of life. It’s a total way of life, because God claims everything.
So if it’s to his fellow Jews that Jesus says, "Give to God what is God’s," then that means everything. You can separate church and state, but you can’t divide religion from everything else in life. So what’s left for Caesar?
But how about if Caesar claims everything? I mean Caesar had power over them of life and death, he had eminent domain. The Jews were not even citizens, they had no civil rights, even in their own land, and a Roman soldier could kill any Jew with impunity. They still had the temple only because the Romans tolerated it for political expediency, and when just a few decades later it was no longer expedient Caesar destroyed it.
In our own day it’s not so much that Caesar claims everything, it’s that Caesar gets to determine how much God gets. In the separation of church and state, who sets the boundary -- the church or the state? The IRS demands to know how much you give in tithes and offerings, but the church never asks how much your taxes are.

We need to separate church and state. But we cannot divide the claims of God. The kingdom of God claims eminent domain. The Jews are right, this religion is meant to be a way of life, and the whole of our lives belong to God.
What Jesus calls us to is dynamic interaction. How much of the world belongs to God? The taxes I pay to Caesar, I pay as a servant of God. How much of your world belongs to God? Every day you can ask yourself, how much of my day belongs to God? How much of my life belongs to God? Do you see that as life-giving? Can you intuit that it’s actually liberating, because it makes every other claim on you just expedient?
That’s the payoff, that’s the benefit if everything in your life belongs to God, it means that your life is not compartmentalized, it means there is a wholeness to your life, it means you don’t have different sets of rules for different relationships. The world outside of you won’t like this, but inside you are whole and complete, you are in unity with yourself, and no matter what claims they make on you, your nation or family or boss or whatever, most deeply you are free. If you belong to God, then you are more free, that is, depending on what this God is like.
So what is this God like? This God really does claim everything, but not in a way that some Christians seem to think -- that our response requires fundamentalism or the religious right or Christian America. This God is a god who does not push his eminent domain or force her claims of sovereignty. Of course we would sometimes prefer it if God would act a little more powerful, especially if God could help us out with our churches and our institutions, maybe a little more cash, for example, but that is not the way of God. The face on this God’s coinage is the face of Jesus Christ. And that makes all the difference in God’s approach to power.

There is a novel you might read called Silence, by the Japanese writer Shusaku Endo. The story takes place in 17th Century Japan, when the Christian church there was exterminated by the Shogun’s government. A Portuguese priest is captured and put in prison with a whole village of Christian peasants. The soldiers offer him a deal: they will not torture the villagers if he will recant his faith. He can do that by stepping on a picture of Jesus’ face. In oriental terms the face is everything. But he’s a priest, he’s taken vows, how can he deny his Lord, precisely in the hour of trial, like Judas Iscariot, like Peter? The soldiers lead him out before the other prisoners, and put the picture of Jesus on the ground before his feet. Suddenly the face of Jesus says to him, "Step on me. Go ahead. Step on me. I accept it."

The face of Jesus represents a God who does claim everything, but who claims it in the way of servanthood and sacrificial love. That’s not so thrilling, not so heroic, not so exciting. Not unless you’re thrilled to offer hospitality, and heroic in reconciliation, and excited by love and understanding, even to sit down with the Romans, and pray for Caesar, as awful as he is. That seems to be the way that Jesus establishes his eminent domain, by preparing a table in the presence of his enemies, and inviting them to eat with him.

Copyright © 2008 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008


I just had an article published in Perspectives, A Journal of Reformed Thought. This is the theology magazine of the Reformed Church. You can read it online here.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

The Next Step for our Homeless Men

Well, good news. We've got our homeless men housed. The Three Homeless of Old First, plus three more who have to Old First asking for help. Thanks to Common Ground, and the city's Department of Homeless Services, we've got a little thing going. Hooray.

But, here's the next step: Frying Pans. Curtains. Tea Towels. Dishes. Napkins. You know, the ordinary things, the personal touches that turn a house into a home.

So, the Park Slope Coalition for the Homeless is working on the next step. The Coalition includes Old First, Congregation Beth Elohim, the Park Slope Civic Council, and some neighbors.

Here’s how it works. Common Ground has selected ten clients (including the three who used to live on the steps of Old First) to receive housewarming care packages. Common Ground will help the clients with their wish lists (dishes, linens, bath accessories, small kitchen appliances, etc.). Once they finish the wish lists, it's our turn to get to work.

First, we’ll collect donated items on the wish lists, from now through July 27. Next, we’ll have volunteers work with the DHS to gather the donations and package them for delivery to the clients, and then deliver them, starting at the beginning of August.

For personal items, we'll help the clients choose their own items. They'll get gift cards to use at a the store of their choice. We'll need volunteers to assist the clients on their shopping trips, accompanied by a staff member from Common Ground or DHS.

Won’t you join us in this exciting opportunity to help our less fortunate neighbors? You can sign up with us at our coffee hour after church on Sundays. Or you can call the church office and leave your name and contact information. 718-638-8300.

(This was written by Pat Caldwell and Pastor Meeter)

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Summer Concerts at Old First

Theresa Levin, a member of Old First, has organized this summer evening concerts. They're free, and the church doors will be open to the street. Walk in, stay as long as you like, and enjoy the music.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Sermon for June 15: Genesis Stories: Sarah Laughed

Proper 06, Genesis 18:1-15, Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19, Romans 5:1-8, Matthew 9:35-10:8

These three lessons we get every third year, according to the schedule of the Common Lectionary. This time around I will not preach on the gospel lesson. I will touch on the epistle, but my focus is the Old Testament lesson, as it will be for the next few months.
We’re watching God gather, protect, and preserve a community of faith. We’re tracing God’s long-term strategy of blessing inside the corruption, a strategy so gradual, so fragile, so limited, and so ambiguous. Why does God do it this way? Why doesn’t God just intervene and fix it all? The strategy of God is never easy to believe. To keep believing in God’s strategy requires the exercise of faith.

Last week we saw that God made promises to Abram and Sarai much earlier in their lives, promises based on having children. Well, that was now impossible. Sarah was in her nineties, past her menopause, and that was that. I guess the promises of God were a joke.
Abraham is now a wealthy bedouin, who lives a life of ease. But when he offers hospitality he has no son to stand with him at his right hand, no son to convey his commands to the servants, so when Abraham runs around like this he acts beneath his dignity and honor. This is a symbol of his shame.
I wonder how much he still believed the promises of God? And when his eyes met Sarah’s eyes, how long did they hold each others’ glance? Did they regard themselves as suffering? They were privileged with wealth, they were blessed, but how much suffering was in their shame?
Do we dare raise such a thing with God, when other people are grateful just for a morsel of food? Compared to Myanmar and Sichuan, what right do we have to consider our own suffering? Or to hold up to God the matter of God’s promises that seem to us unkept?
Sarah had been a beauty. When Pharaoh saw her he tried to take her for a trophy wife. Yet her desirability had faded, and most desirable was that she bear a child, which she had not, and that was shame. Even her lowest slave-girl could laugh behind her back. Was it for shame that she kept herself inside the tent, that she just didn’t want to deal with the eyes of the public?
Both of my grandmothers had cause for shame, especially since they lived in a pious culture that was conservative and critical My father’s mother was born illegitimate. But she had learned to live above that shame. She had a husband who loved her, and a son, and she could show her face in public and be present in their shoe store and go to church and to the Ladies’ Aid and such.
My mother’s mother had to endure the shame of her husband’s long-term infidelity. Despite that in her day she had been beautiful. And whereas illegitimacy is never your own fault, the infidelity of your husband always comes back on you. So in those days my grandmother almost never went to church, where those pious and critical Hollanders would look at her. She didn’t go to Ladies’ Aid, but she worked untiringly at home for her family and neighbors and everybody else.
Both of my grandmothers laughed, but differently. My father’s mother could laugh out loud among church people. Her open and hearty laughter lives on in the laughter of my dad.
My mother’s mother laughed in private with her children, and with her non-church friends, and then with us grandkids. My sister and I loved to listen to her stories and her songs and her jokes. She was a comic, and she could get us all to laugh. Later I also listened to her biting comments and her bitter commentary, and under that I learned to sense her longing.
Both of my grandmothers were women of faith. My father’s mother had a faith like Abraham, and she was known for it. My mother’s mother’s faith was more like Sarah’s, and sometimes, I think, she believed in God because she didn’t know what else to believe in. Amen.
In this story, Sarah gets both judgement and sympathy. Like when she denied that she had laughed. That was a lie, that was wrong, but the story is sympathetic to her in that what she did in private was exposed without her consent. And the story implies her dignity by making Abraham look a little comical. The energy of her laughter, at least in the opinion of one our deacons, is the energy of disdain, like, "Hey stupid, I’m ninety-five years old." The story regards her dignity. But dignity can hinder us, because living by faith can make us look as comical as Abraham.

The story has play in it. It is playful in its editing. The visitors play a bit with Abraham. And hasn’t God been playing Abraham and Sarah for some years now, making a promise and then holding off on it beyond its possibility? And they’re supposed to just keep believing? Is this what God expects us? Doesn’t God show us some regard? Are does God always keep the winning till the very last trick? How can you be the partner of someone who plays cards like this? Why does God choose to win it only in the end and with such a risky strategy, like a suicide squeeze play with two outs in the ninth?
We know that to live by faith is to live with risk, to live beyond the certainties of evidence, and to live by hope is to live in terms of the future. But when we talk about being blessed, doesn’t that include the experience of now? We can believe in a later and greater blessing if we receive some portion of it now. How much present suffering or shame or emptiness can we tolerate and still regard ourselves as being blessed? We don’t want to see life as a joke. That is not to live by faith and hope and love. We do not expect to be exempt from suffering, but we shouldn’t we expect to have enough blessing to mitigate the suffering?

I think the effect of God’s blessing in our lives is not so much to mitigate the suffering as to process it. God blessing engages our suffering in order to process it, and to generate from it the products of faith and hope and love. Not only our own suffering, but the suffering of our spouses, of our lovers and our friends, the suffering of our children and the children of the world, the suffering of the poor, and of the animals, and of the planet. Not least, the suffering of guilt and shame.
The blessing of God is meant to process all that suffering into faith and hope and love.
The process moves through stages, as suggested by St. Paul. You find yourself in suffering, and suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and it is hope that gets us through our suffering. This is one of St. Paul’s circular dynamics, one of his gracious cycles.
Of course suffering can result in a vicious cycle, from suffering to defeat to bitterness to hopelessness and disappointment. What makes the cycle turn the right direction is the wind the Spirit blowing on it, it is the love of God that keeps pouring against it to make it turn the right direction. The addition of love to suffering is what produces endurance, and the addition of love to endurance is what produces character, and the addition of love to character is what produces hope.

We have to submit to that love and even bend to that love, and that bending may be at the cost of our dignity and it may feel like foolishness. We have to not mind laughing at ourselves. And our participation in that love is how we share in God’s blessing of the world. God’s blessing is not the absence of suffering, but how God’s love can process suffering into faith and hope and even greater love.
Oh Sarah, beautiful Sarah. God still finds you beautiful, even in your old age, more lovely than before. God delights in you. And your last years shall be your best. You will not be a matriarch of dignity, you will be laughing and playing with your little baby boy. And you won’t care.
Copyright © 2008 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Sermon for June 8: Genesis Stories: Abram and Sarai

Proper 05, Genesis 12:1-9, Psalm 33:1-12, Romans 4:13-25, Matthew 9:9-13, 18-26

Here is God’s new strategy, here in Genesis, with the story of Abram and Sarai. I mean God’s new strategy compared to the previous strategy which we saw last Sunday in the story of Noah’s Ark. I’m talking about the strategies of God for dealing with our corruption of creation and our violation of God’s good order and the intricate violence of human sin.

The strategy with Noah was huge and cataclysmic, while the strategy with Abram is small and very gradual.
The strategy with Noah was from the outside, from the windows of heaven and the fountains of the deep, while the strategy with Abram is from the inside, in the depth of his soul through the windows of his mind.
The strategy with Noah was to wash the planet clean, without regard for human interaction, while the strategy with Abram is to cleanse the human individual, one by one, and develop a community to bless the broken world.
The strategy with Noah took forty days and forty nights, and the strategy with Abram has taken forty centuries: twenty centuries BC and twenty centuries AD, first of leading up to Jesus and then of following him.

Forty days of divine catastrophe and forty centuries of divine forbearance, and patience, and interaction and investment, and of human hope and faith as the medium of God’s activity. God does it now through us. We move from a clear and sudden judgement to a long slow blessing, often small and weak and hidden, often ambiguous.

God tenders God’s sovereignty through our partnership and God filters God’s activity through our faith, and because God works it through our faith, to see it work takes faith, especially as this strategy contradicts so much of typical religion. To make sense of it takes faith and hope and love. To believe in it requires the wisdom of forgiveness and long-suffering. Indeed, to stay with it requires us to become like God, to be like God in how we deal with the corruption and violence in the world and even in ourselves.

Jesus shows us how a human being can be like God. And he invites us to follow him in this. His ministry is a ministry of blessing. He finds Matthew at the tax booth, and he blesses him, he blesses him by calling him to follow him. Matthew was working for the enemy, he was serving the system of taxation that was oppressive to his own people. Jesus judged him, yes, there is an implied judgement in Jesus calling Matthew to get up and follow him, but this judgement is not a condemnation but a blessing. It is a blessing that requires a change in Matthew’s life. To receive the blessing requires Matthew to make a judgement about himself and a decision to risk the blessing.

If Matthew was ethically compromised, the ruler of the synagogue was the opposite, he was honored and esteemed, and Jesus blesses him as well; he brings his daughter back to life. He touches her. He needn’t have touched her, his word was powerful enough, as with Lazarus, but he chooses to touch her, and thereby makes himself unclean. It was unkosher to touch a dead body. But here we see the strategy of God, which is counter to typical religion, so it takes faith. He was also made unkosher by unclean the woman touching him, the woman with the flow of blood. He made himself unkosher by eating food with sinners and traitors, as unkosher as was Matthew just by occupation.

Of course the Pharisees were upset, because the mission that they had been given by God was so fragile, and under siege, and compromised, and they felt it had to be protected. But the blessing of Jesus is not a blessing to be protected nor achieved, but a blessing to be risked by giving it, and given precisely to those are not considered to deserve it. Like to us.

This strategy of Jesus is the strategy that God began in Genesis already with Abram and Sarai, who had nothing to offer to God’s plan but simply to receive it and go along with it. God was beginning to gather a community here, a community of faith, and the purpose of this community was to be blessing, not just to themselves, but to rest of the world.

That is the mission of the chosen people. That’s why God made Abram and Sarai’s progeny the chosen people. And that is why God was giving them the promised land. They were chosen for mission. It is a privilege, yes, but for purpose. It was not for gathering to themselves, protecting their own special sanctity, preserving their own future. It was for bringing blessing to the other people of the world. (This theme of the activity of blessing is another theme that I will be developing the next few months as we follow these stories from Genesis.)

But what a difficult strategy of God. There are great drawbacks to being chosen. Downsides and liabilities. What about everybody else? If God will have a relationship now with Abram and Sarai and their descendants, doesn’t that imply a rejection of everyone else, or at least benign neglect? And what about the gift of the Promised Land. Did God consult with the people already living there? Doesn’t giving the land to Abraham’s descendants mean taking the land from someone else? If God graciously gathers, protects, and preserves some people in the community of faith, what about everybody else?

I cannot fully defend for you the strategy and choices of our God. Yes, I can maintain that being chosen is not for privilege but for mission, and I can repeat that the gift of the promised land is not a right based on ethnicity but a provision to enable the mission of blessing, and that the enjoyment of the promised land was always conditional upon obedience and repentance, and that God would take it away from them just as easily as giving it. But the election of certain people for a special bond with God is a problem, because deep in our hearts we know that separate but equal is finally not equal

So I find myself sometimes ambivalent about the choice and strategy of God, and even a little guilty, especially when I do interfaith activities and dialogue. I can’t take the easier tack of unitarianism or universalism; I don’t want to discard the difficult angularities of the story of the sovereignty of God, the reality of God’s strategy, God’s choices, God’s covenants, God’s commitments, God’s special bond with Abraham and Israel.

I am committed to God’s unique identity in Jesus Christ, who both connects me to Judaism and Islam and also is a stumbling-block, because we call him Lord. And this is a bit of trouble for our democratic instincts. The Yes of God here means the No of God there, and of that No we cannot help but feel unease and even a little bit of guilt.

Well, maybe this guilt can be a doorway for us. It opens us to a deep kind of humility. Just because we have been given the truth does not entail that we know better. Just because we are made holy does not mean we’re not unclean. And so we have a constant sacrifice to make, and that is both to keep requiring mercy and to practice mercy. And we cannot practice mercy unless we keep requiring it for ourselves.

Jesus says to the Pharisees, "Go find out what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’" He doesn’t tell them to sit down and research it. He tells them to go, find out. They have to find it out by acting it out. It’s not a theory but an attitude. It’s not an idea, it’s a skill. It’s a practice. It’s a habit. It is from out of our guilt that we discover and display our blessedness. It’s from the place of our own corruption that we exhibit grace and the condition of our own uncleanness that we exhibit holiness. The rights and privileges that come with our election to the community of God are the right to humility and the privilege to repent. I desire mercy, not sacrifice. The greatest sacrifice that God demands is that we live by mercy.

When Jesus came in to heal the little girl, they laughed at him. They meant it for mockery. If we try to bless the world like Jesus did, we will get laughed at. And we will deserve it. We can accept it, and keep on blessing people and blessing situations and blessing the world, in many foolish ways, and we can accept the laughter of mockery as the laughter of our judgement and our joy.

Copyright © 2008 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Twelve Questions For the June 8 Gospel

The Gospel for this coming Sunday, June 8, is Matthew 9:9-13, 18-26. This is not a sermon on it, but some questions which I bring to it, to try to open it up.

1. I wonder why Matthew has stitched these little stories together, the story of Matthew's own calling from his seat at the tollbooth, the story of Jesus eating dinner with the sinners, the story of the ruler's daughter, and the story of the woman with the flow of blood. Why does he make it a single story?

2. I wonder what it means to get up and follow. That happens twice in our lesson. Matthew "got up and followed" Jesus. Then later, after dinner, when the ruler comes to beg the help of Jesus, he "got up and followed" the ruler. Jesus does what Matthew did. Is he giving Matthew an example? Does it mean that if we follow Jesus, we first have to follow him away from our place in the world, and then follow him right back into the world when it's in need of us?

3. I wonder why the emphasis on hands. The ruler asks Jesus to "lay his hand upon his daughter." Then the women comes up and touches the fringe of his cloak. Then when Jesus sees the ruler's daughter, he takes her hand in his hand and he raises her up. Your hand, her hand, his hand, her hand. What do these hands mean? Can I put my hand on God? Can I have the hand of God on me? Is this why we do the laying-on-of-hands?

4. I wonder why Jesus touched the ruler's daughter. Why didn't he just speak to her? We know he could have done that, we know the Word of God has power. We know that when Jesus resurrected Lazarus he didn't touch him, he just said, "Lazarus, come forth." Why did Jesus touch her?

It was a thing undone in Israel, touching a dead body. If you touched a dead body you became unclean, you became unkosher. This prohibition made a lot of sense, there was good medicine behind it. Jesus disobeyed the prohibition. He touched her.

It's not because he was invulnerable, we know that he was not invulnerable. Did Jesus want to take on her corruption? Or is he saying that he is more powerful than corruption? Was it because the healing power was coming out of him, that it had more pressure than the power of corruption coming in? His healing power had such pressure, such voltage, that it even sparked across the tassels of his cloak? Does he touch the girl, because the woman first touched him?

5. I wonder why Jesus calls the woman "daughter." Is it because he's on his way to heal another daughter? I wonder what it is to be a daughter. I wonder how this woman feels when Jesus calls her daughter. Does it belittle her? Does it raise her up? Does it encourage her? Does it represent his natural affection, his feeling for her misery, his sympathy, his pity, his love? Is the love of God like this, so natural, so sudden, so immediate?

6. I wonder if it's like a resurrection for this woman. Was what happened to the girl the truth of what happened to the woman? No, she wasn't dead. But because of her bleeding, she was unclean, she was ritually unclean, she was considered contaminated, permanently contaminated.

She was not allowed to set her foot inside the synagogue. She was not allowed to go up to the temple. She was officially untouchable. By the law of Moses, any one who touched her was also made unkosher. And anything she touched, another person, even another person's clothing, just her touch made that untouchable. That's why she tried to touch him secretly. For Jesus to heal her, wasn't that a resurrection for this woman? Is the healing of the woman and the girl the same?

7. I wonder why the one daughter was active in her healing, she reached out, and the other daughter was passive in her healing, she just lay there. It wasn't the young girl's faith that saved her. Maybe the father's faith, but not her own faith. But Jesus clearly tells the woman, "Your faith has saved you." Is he giving her a commendation, or is he teaching her? Is he saying that it wasn't her actual touching of his robe that saved her, but her faith? Is he telling her it wasn't something magical, that touching without faith would have been powerless?

8. I wonder if Matthew combines these two stories to show us what faith really does. If not for the second story, we might think it is our faith itself that saves us, that whether we get healed or not depends upon our faith. But the second story shows us that it is the power of God that saves us, that heals us, not our faith. Our faith is not the energy that does it. Our faith is the extension cord that we plug into God. We might have thought that for the woman the extension cord was her hand on Jesus' cloak. But this was just a physical expression of the invisible extension cord of her faith, plugged into God's grace. His cloak and her hand was like a sacrament: "as surely as you eat the bread with your mouth, so surely does Christ feed you with his own body."

9. I wonder what it means to be saved. Today when people ask you if you're saved, what they mean is, "Will you spend eternity in heaven?" But clearly in this story Matthew means something else, for when Jesus says to the woman, "Your faith has saved you," he's not talking about eternity, he's talking about the here and now. What does salvation mean now? I wonder how God saves us now, already in this life. Is it like saving drowning swimmers? Is it like saving money, or saving dessert till last? I wonder what salvation all includes.

10. I wonder how important is physical healing. Is it something in itself, or is it a powerful symbol or even a sacrament of something else, a means of grace, a means to an end? This little girl must die again, this woman will get sick again. Salvation: is it restoration? Is it the restoration of an older woman to an ordinary life, the restoration of a daughter to her father, the restoration of a family? Is it reconciliation, that God will eat and drink with us? Is that salvation, to sit at God's table, alive and clean, and be at peace?

11. I wonder at the theme of shame, lying just beneath the surface of these stories. It was a thing of shame for a rabbi to be eating with these sinners. It destroyed his credibility. They would say he lacked integrity. How could he speak for God? He made himself unkosher by eating with these sinners. He should be ashamed of himself.

And the woman lived in shame. A sickness of shame. Any time we have a sickness or infirmity "down there," in that part of our bodies, it's a thing of shame. In certain circles, even ordinary menstruation can be thing of shame. And when it's constant, that's a life of shame.

And then the people laughed at Jesus. When he said she wasn't dead, they laughed at what he said. They ridiculed him. Can you feel the shame in that? They scorned him, they scorned him in the ruler's house, they scorned him at dinner with the sinners, and the woman lived a life of scorn. I wonder if Jesus is entering the suffering of the woman that he healed, if he's entering the alienation of the sinners that he ate with, and I wonder if that's what his disciples must also do if they get up and follow him. Can we expect to be laughed at and ridiculed? Is that the price of victory over shame, that we "despise the shame" (Hebrews 12:2).

12. Finally, I wonder how we find out what it means that God desires mercy and not sacrifice. He told the Pharisees to go and find out what it means. He didn't tell them to go look it up. Maybe the only way to learn it is to go and do it, practice mercy, entering into lives of shame and sinfulness, touching and eating, and even enjoying the pleasure of their company, do you know what I mean, trusting in the power and the pressure of God's righteousness in us. Is this what it means to get up and follow Jesus?

Copyright © 2008 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Sermon for June 1: Genesis Stories: Noah

Proper 04, Genesis 6:11-22; 7:24; 8:14-19, Psalm 46, Romans 1:16-17, 3:22-31, Matthew 7:21-29

Heidelberg Catechism Q 54: What do you believe concerning "the holy catholic church"?
A. I believe that the Son of God through his Spirit and Word, out of the entire human race, from the beginning of the world to its end, gathers, protects, and preserves for himself a community chosen for eternal life and united in true faith. And of this community I am and always will be a living member.

Now that Pentecost is behind us, the church calendar has entered what we call Ordinary Time. It’s called "ordinary" because we’re not in one of the two great seasons of Christmas or Easter, and Sundays are plain Sundays. Since our scripture lessons don’t have to relate to the seasons, we let the lessons follow the Bible books as they unfold. The gospel lesson will now just move continuously through Matthew.

And during Ordinary Time we also release the Old Testament lesson from having to serve as background for the gospel. We let the Old Testament lessons follow their own course and tell their own story. For the next few months we’ll be following the stories of Genesis.

I love these stories. We need to know them. We need to see how these Old Testament stories are gospel too, they are good news. My theme for these stories will be those phrases from the catechism, how from the beginning of the world, out of the entire human race, God was gathering, protecting, and preserving a community chosen for eternal life and united in true faith. Of this community we are part. Those of us who are not Jewish have been adopted into this community, and these are the stories of our adopted ancestors, and how God dealt with them.

I said recently that the story of Noah’s Ark is one of the favorite children’s story of all time. To debate its narrow historicity is to miss the point. We hardly need reminding that catastrophic floods are facts of life upon the surface of this planet. The ancient editors of Genesis have described the flood as an undoing of day three of creation, resulting in the death of everything created in day six. I would say therefore that we can read this story not as ordinary history but as primordial and paradigmatic. Sort of like the Iliad of Homer. This story gets repeated all the time. The story tells us what the world is like, and what God is like, and what God wants for the world.

We see in this story God’s anger and God’s judgement and God’s purging and washing clean. We see God’s indignation at humanity for corrupting the world from what it should have been. We sense God’s frustration, and we can imply God’s private grief and suffering.

We see in this story how God’s judgement includes a plan for salvation. It’s not that judgement is from a nasty God and grace is from a nice God. They are both from love, for the God who loves the world is grieved at all our violence and corruption, and out of love will not abide it, but also out of love will not destroy it, but graciously will save it, with a method of salvation that serves God’s justice and the integrity of God’s judgement.
We see in this story the vulnerability and fragility of our lives and the lives of other creatures. We are companions with the animals, and we are all so small against the larger forces of the planet, which can kill us by the thousands and the millions without pity, even though these forces ethically are innocent.

We see in this story that God requires our connection with animals, and holds our species accountable for the fortunes of the planet and all its creatures. We are made for this planet, and our salvation is for the restoration of this planet, not for our escape from it.

Even though this story stands on its own and in so many children’s books, it was given to us as one chapter in the larger story of salvation, the story of the covenants that God kept making, first with Noah, and then with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, and then with Moses and Israel at Mount Sinai. By means of these covenants God was gathering, protecting, and preserving a community chosen for eternal life and untied in true faith. We will be watching this covenant history unfolding in the next few months.

But notice today how God, through Noah, gathered the animals and protected them and preserved the future of life on earth. The animals were Noah’s congregation, a zoological community of faith, who all were rescued for life because Noah believed the gospel of God’s judgement and God’s salvation.

Okay. Now this. The storms and troubles of our lives are of three kinds.
The first kind is the ordinary trouble of the world, which is natural and ethically innocent. Cyclones and earthquakes and floods. The fragility of our bodies, that get infected, that get disease, and strokes and heart attacks, for no other reason than biology, and we are not exempt from biology nor from geology nor meteorology.

I said to you recently that we can know from Jesus’ Ascension that we are not to interpret such disasters and diseases as the judgements of God, but simply the fragility of life in a world in which the laws of nature do their job without regard for mercy or compassion.

The second kind of trouble is the extra trouble which humanity has added to the world, what Genesis calls the "corruption of the earth," because we have "filled the earth with violence." You could write the history of the last two centuries in terms of violence and our attempts to deal with it. Exploitation in all its forms is a kind of violence. We are continually reminded that when we answer violence with violence, no matter how good our intentions, at best we only divert it and mostly we compound it. And now our exploitation of the earth has begun to aggravate the first kind of trouble.

The third kind of trouble in our lives is the judgement of God. This trouble comes exclusively through God’s Word. God doesn’t send diseases and disasters to judge us, whether by tremors or by terrorists. At least since the Ascension, God is faithful to judge us simply and completely through God’s Word. And by our response to God’s Word is how we either condemn ourselves or save ourselves.

God’s judgements are the wake up call, and they make us sense our guilt and give us shame and trouble us. This trouble is designed to drive us to the very God who judges us. All our own devices for solving our guilt and shame are only swimming against the flood. God tells us rather to get inside the ark.

The solution to the third kind of trouble is by our faith—faith in what God has done for the world in Jesus Christ. Outside of that is only judgement. Faith is not your power to swim. Faith is believing the instruction to get your hind end into the boat. It’s not our faith itself that saves us, but the faithfulness of God. Faith is our investment in the faithfulness of God.

The solution to the second kind of trouble is partly by us but mostly by God. Our corruption is beyond our own capacity to fix it or solve it. The Bible’s conviction throughout is that God will have to intervene somehow. But at the same time we can disembark out the boat and enter back into the world and we can serve the world as Jesus did with love and grace.

The solution to the first kind of trouble is not ours to make. And though God promised never to destroy the earth again because of human sin, I don’t know that God ever guaranteed to prevent us from doing it ourselves. We are invited to expect a new creation, a new heaven and new earth, where God’s intention for the world will be just as physical and natural but perfectly hospitable to human life, and something of a Paradise. Of that we only have the promise and not the sight. But already we have loved ones who have disembarked upon that farther shore.

Where all these Old Testament stories will lead us to, at the end of Ordinary Time, is the story of Mary and Joseph, and their baby. That’s the story of when God the Son became a creature, and God became a passenger on the boat.

Because there was no room for them in the upper deck, they laid him down in the lower deck, in a feed-trough, in the fodder which Noah had gathered for the feeding of the animals. I think that’s why children love to crowd the animals around the baby Jesus.

We love it that the Son of God is deep in the boat with us and all the animals. And we love it that God the Father is the Noah of this great ark. We are meant, like children, to feel the story, in all our storms and troubles, as the story of God’s love, which will see us through.

Copyright © 2008 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

In Memoriam: Vincent Edward Walker, 1964-2008

June 2, 2008

On John 11:1-45, The Raising of Lazarus.

It is a terrible honor and a grievous privilege to preach this funeral sermon for Vincent Walker. This sermon will be in two parts. This first is about Vincent, and the second is about his family and us. Nineteen days ago, at his kitchen table, in the presence of Deborah, he told me a remarkable story, a testimony, actually. I told him he needed eventually to tell it to others as well, so now I must do that for him.

As you know, Vincent was very sick since January, and we still don’t know exactly what his sickness was. Even the tumor on his brain stem left so much unexplained. He was paralyzed on one whole side. He struggled to recuperate, and he finally was able to come home. About a month or so ago he had a sudden total paralysis, but through water and touch and prayer he experienced just as sudden a healing. The doctors can’t explain it, and he was convicted that it was miraculous. I gave him examples from scripture and experience to confirm his conviction, because a miracle is simply a physical event that first, defies our explanation, and second, that leads to wholeness.

Was it healing? Yes. Even though he died so soon thereafter? Yes, because healing is not just physical recuperation, but when you are made whole, morally and spiritually. And that particular experience was the climax of a general process of healing that Vincent had been experiencing through the whole course of his illness. He dared to say to me, in Deborah’s presence, that his illness had been good for him; not that the illness itself was good, but that he had gained from it, and not least in terms of gratitude and spirituality.

In the hospital wards and waiting rooms and even on the sidewalk he had been touched and moved by the prayers and grace of even perfect strangers. And although he had always known of God and believed in God, he now had a whole new level of experience with God. And he felt that his sudden physical healing was the climax of that.

I told him that he had experienced an early foretaste of the final resurrection. Like with Lazarus in the gospel. The raising of Lazarus was not the final resurrection, but a foretaste of it, for Lazarus would someday have to die again. But the power of the Lord Jesus finally to call us forth from the grave is the very same power to call us to rise up out of sickness.

I have reason to believe that the voice of Deborah was the last voice Vincent heard. I know whose was the next voice Vincent heard. It was the voice of Our Lord, calling him, like Lazarus, "Come out"; calling him, "Vincent, come out of your death and come into the presence of your God."

And so, for us who remain here, we must bless God, if only at the level of our faith; we must bless God, because Vincent has reached his goal. Earlier than he expected, no doubt earlier than he would have wanted, but we are not given the choice of when, and in moments of clarity we recognize that this is for the best. But when we look back over the last few months we have to understand that Vincent must have been getting ready, practicing to hear the voice of God. His last few months were preparation, were they not?

I have wondered how Lazarus must have felt when he was told by God to return. Like winning a race and being asked to run it again. We might imagine that if given the same chance as Lazarus Vincent might ask to come back, for the sake of his wife and his two boys. From our perspective that makes sense. But our perspective is so limited, and we know that Vincent is already seeing the future of his family from the perspective of eternity, and the perfect knowledge of the grace of God, so that even about his family, it is well with his soul. And his witness to us who are left behind would be to hold fast to this same God whom he beholds with unveiled sight.

The name Vincent is from the Latin for the victorious one. For him it his final victory but for Deborah and Justin and Evan it’s a grievous loss. Justin and Evan are young enough that the pain is not so sharp, though they will feel the ache of it for years to come. Deborah already feels the greatness of her loss, not only of her husband and her co-worker, but, as it seems to me, her best friend, and the father of her sons.

It is pointless to lessen the loss by comparing it to the losses from the earthquakes in China or the cyclone in Myanmar or the War in Iraq, for every loss by death is infinite and incalculable. It is not for nothing that Jesus wept; even though he knew what he would do, still he wept. It is unchristlike not to weep and grieve this loss. And even to groan as Jesus did. I am certain that in spite of God’s awful wisdom in calling Vincent home right now God also grieves for his family left behind. It wasn’t just Jesus in his humanity that wept, it was also Jesus in his divinity. God is grieving here for us.

It’s right in the midst of death that Jesus calls us to our deep capacity, which we so rarely go down into, but keep ourselves upon the surfaces. We are spiritual. We are the creatures that are special because we are spiritual, and we are designed to live by faith, not sight. So must this family do now.

And we all of us are called to support them according to the nature of community we have with them. The community of their families, the community of their church, the community of their neighbors and their friends. We must support them and encourage them to live out of that deep place in our spiritual capacities that can sense the long-term healing of the world, and that can work the reconciliation of this grief into a long-term wisdom and compassion. It is for us to help them through the inevitable temptations of frustration and resentment and bitterness. Grief can mature into wisdom, and anger into compassion, and it is only the heart that is broken that is open.

In the Biblical Book of Judges, Deborah was the judge and the leader who was proven stronger than any man, and she led the children of Israel out of misery. Deborah Rennie Walker, I don’t know strong you feel, but I recognize in you an inner toughness and resilience. You must be the leader now, and you must judge, and keep your eyes upon God’s promises like your namesake did.

In the history of the early church Justin was the pagan philosopher who converted to the faith and learned to understand the ways of God for the larger world, and gave his life for it. In the history of Celtic Christianity, Evan is the Celtic version of the name of St. John, who mystically saw deep into the heart of God, and was a friend of God, and wrote this story of Jesus and Lazarus to encourage the early Christians during loss and persecution. So we will pray today that as God has seen fit for Vincent to be victorious ahead of time, so the Spirit of God will strengthen these three to be strong and tenacious in their hold on the world and no less on the promises of God, so that they too may be victorious, and even in their loss and grief, honor thereby the name that is their legacy, Vincent Edward Walker. Rest in peace.

Copyright © 2008 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Sermon for May 18: What Christians Mean by Trinity

Trinity 2008, Genesis 1:1-2:4, Psalm 8, 2 Corinthians 13:11-13, Matthew 28:16-20

(For the baptism of Elianna Simone Philips, daughter of Jason and Janet.)

We take it for granted what Jesus said in the Great Commission, but to the Jewish ears of his disciples it will have been a strange instruction, to baptize the nations in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

The Jews had been doing baptism for some time already, before Jesus came around. It meant repentance, and being washed clean from your sin, and starting fresh, like getting born a second time. It meant returning to the roots of Judaism by recapitulating the passage of the Red Sea in the Exodus and crossing the Jordan with Joshua. Baptism was a symbol of Jewish revival.

And Jesus says, Now do this to the nations. What? That would be like us asking the other nations of the world to say the Pledge of Allegiance. On top of that, Jesus says to put a name on the ritual, in fact, three names. Where did this naming thing come from, and what does that have to do with baptism? The disciples scratched their heads. Maybe some kept doubting.

Today we will follow the instruction. We want to do this, we can feel it in our hearts that it’s right for us to do this, but none of us fully knows why we do it. We know enough to do it with integrity, but the meaning of this ritual is open-ended, its meaning is an expanding one.

It certainly retains that original Jewish meaning of washing and repentance and revival and rebirth. It still retains that original recapitulation of the ancient stories, of crossing the Jordan River and passing through the Red Sea. It also recapitulates the story of being a passenger on Noah’s Ark and riding out the flood with all the animals.

You know, the story of Noah’s Ark is the most favorite children’s story of all time. That story has life-and-death elements that children love, and these are baptismal elements. That story makes a connection for children with the other creatures of the world, and their salvation too. That’s all expressed by baptism.

Baptism has added meaning from the naming thing that Jesus introduces into it. Each of the names that Jesus mentions carries a way that God relates to us. God relates to us as Father, God relates to us as Son, and God relates to us as Holy Spirit. God has promised to act in certain ways towards us, God has made commitments to us that we depend on.

These promises and commitments come under these three names. The pledge of these promises, the sign and seal, the signature of these commitments is the sacrament. So that we can say, "O God you promised. I have your signature right here, I was baptized on May 18th, 2008, you made a pledge, so now, O God, you be to us a Father, and a Son, and a Holy Spirit. I hold you to your pledge, O God."

We will baptize Elianna in the name of the Father. We claim God’s promise to be fatherlike to her. That God treat her not just as a creature but as God’s child. That God love her like Jason does. The way that you see Jason hold Elianna is how God has pledged to hold her. God will know her name and know her ways and what she needs. That God will comfort her and also challenge her as Jason does. As Jason provides for her, so God pledges to be providential to her.

Think with me about Genesis 1, this ancient poem about the structure of the world. It is so unlike the other ancient mythologies, in which the gods and goddesses generate the world by various combinations of sex and violence. In Genesis the creator is providential and peaceful and hospitable.

In the first three days, God makes three spaces, three great houses, and in the second three days, God invites the creatures to live in them.
On Day One God makes the houses of light and dark, and on Day Four God makes the sun to live in the light and the moon and stars to live in the dark.
On Day Two God makes room for the sky and sea, and on Day Five God calls the birds to live in the sky and the fish to live in the sea.
On Day Three God makes the house of the dry land, and he gives it a carpet of grass and furniture of trees and he stocks its pantries with fruits and vegetables, and on Day Six he makes the animals to live in it, including us.

God makes the world a place for us, as Jason makes a home for Elianna. And gives us room for us with freedom to play, and for our own creative development. Jason has to say of his daughter, Let her be, and so says God. And if Jason ever owns a house, or an apartment, then Elianna will inherit it. So God has given us the world as our inheritance, for us to see what we will do with it.

You know what happened. Soon after that in Genesis. We fell, we blew it, we began to ruin our inheritance. The Psalm says that God has made us a little lower than God, but very much lower is where we brought ourselves. The Psalm says God has put all creatures under our feet, and we have crushed them and extinguished them and poisoned the air and the water and the ground that is their home.

And in order to heal the world the God who made the world also entered the world. The God who is a Father became the baby of a mother. God became subject to the world, and subject to the suffering of the world, diagnosing it and judging us, in order to justify us and heal the world. And the power of that healing God extends to us. That is the promise under the name of God the Son.

We will baptize Elianna in the name of the Son. In the name of the son of Joseph and Mary, an Israelite of Bethlehem, descended from David and from Abraham, the Messiah, the son of man and the Son of God. This name means that all the promises of God to Israel are also pledged to Elianna, as her inheritance to enjoy but also to offer for the healing of the world.

This name means that just as Jesus was adopted by his father Joseph, even so in Christ is she adopted as a child of God, and God extends to her what Jesus did, his life of reconciliation, his death and resurrection, and his power of hope, and faith, and love.

We will baptize Elianna in the name of the Holy Spirit. God promises to send the Spirit to her to apply to her what Jesus did for us. God promises also to inhabit her, to dwell in her, to be at home in her, to delight in her, to rejoice in her, to quicken her and freshen her and bring to flourish her potentiality. The Spirit enables her to be spiritual and to hear God’s voice.

Let me return to Genesis 1. Verse 2 contains poetic imagery that is too rich to translate in just one way. It can also be translated as "the Spirit of God brooded over the face of the deep." The image is that of a mother bird that is brooding on her nest. Keeping her eggs warm. Even after her eggs have left her body, she keeps on giving them her body’s warmth. Giving to her eggs her energy, her force of life.

I remember when my wife Melody gave birth to our daughter and then took her back to hold her close to her, to keep on giving her her body’s warmth, and then later also to nurse her and to feed her from her body.

The Holy Spirit is like a mother. As Janet has given to Elianna a portion of her own life, so the Holy Spirit promises to keep on giving to her the energy of God’s own life. We draw our life from God as from our mother’s body. And as our mothers held us close and fed us from their bodies, so the Holy Spirit feeds our souls.

And as our mothers comfort us, with sighs too deep for words, as Mary held Jesus at his birth and at his death, as Janet holds Elianna and can feel in her what Elianna can’t yet even name, the grief and the fears and the sorrows of humanity and the sweet hope of her young life, so the Holy Spirit is how God feels the deepest parts of us.

These are the promises of God that are bound up in God’s name. These are the promises we claim. These are the pledges of which baptism is the sign and seal. These promises are unilateral. They don’t depend on us. God does them anyway. All we have to do is believe them, and live our lives as we believe them. And we will see in our lives the signs and wonders of how God is keeping them. Here is a sign today that you can wonder at.

Copyright © 2008 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Update on the Elm Tree

I wrote too fast. "It ain't over till it's over."

The elm tree is still up. They didn't take it down; they removed just a few large limbs.

But it can't be healthy. I don't know if it's completely dead, but it hasn't budded like it should by this time of year. The other elms on Third Street are fully fledged with leaves. On this one the only buds I can see are way high up, but they look like winter buds.

I will keep you posted. In honor of the tree.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Sermon at a Requiem for an Elm Tree

This is a requiem for an elm tree in Park Slope.
It was such a grand tree, one of two great elm trees on Third Street. This is the one near Prospect Park West. I think the house behind contains a couple famous writers, but of the history of love I am an amateur. Ha.
I noticed last August how early it had lost its leaves. A neighbor said it did that every year, but I only half believed him, and I worried about the tree. Now I guess we know that it had been dying for a while.
This spring it barely budded at all. And so they came to take it down. Today, Thursday.
The tree surgeon was up in his bucket when I got there, but he asked me not to take his picture. As they lowered him I thought of a preacher in an old high pulpit, not least because of how loudly and confidently he was declaiming to all the people standing round, both workers and watchers. He announced that the tree had not died from Dutch elm disease. He said it died from what "someday will happen to me, and to you, and to you, and to you, and to every other living thing: old age." He knows a lot more about trees then I do, but I don't believe it died from old age. I wonder how much of what I say my parishioners do not believe?
Thank you tree, for the wonderful beauty you gave us while you lived. Thank you God for this tree. The birds thank you, and so do the bugs.
My older brother and I became tree lovers early on. As kids we spent our time in trees, and because we had the biggest backyard in our section of Bedford-Stuyvesant (we lived in a parsonage) all our friends and playmates were in our trees as well.
We were pre-teens when we first read The Lord of the Rings, and Tolkien only quickened and increased our love of trees. (One of the awful things about those movies is how little comes through of Tolkien's love of trees and flowers and birds and food. And language and poetry.) We feel like trees have personalities. There are some trees in Brooklyn I think of as my friends.
My brother especially loved elm trees. We grieved that so many had died of Dutch Elm Disease. (It's originally from Asia, but it got its name from its earlier victims in the Netherlands.) Right in the middle of downtown Sayville, Long Island, there was a majestic elm that must have been resistant, and its seedlings were growing in all the alleys and behind the stores. We transplanted two of them in our yard. They grew wonderfully. After we moved away from there, one of them was cut down, but the other one still thrives, and you can see it on Google Earth.
This elm on Third Street was five stories tall. Its cloven trunk was wonderfully vertical, in the manner of a deep forest tree. Urban elms more typically have great spreading limbs, torquing and twisting like great dancers in their places.
Dona eis requiem.
Et lux perpetua luceat eis.

Monday, May 12, 2008

A Little Ditty for Genesis 1

(with apologies to Richard Rodgers)
To the tune of "Do, a Deer, a Female Deer"

Let’s start at the very beginning,
a very good place to start.
When you read you begin with "ABC,"
For the world God began with "Let there be,"
Let there be.
The first three words just happen to be, "Let there be,"
Let there be.
Let there be and so it came to be!

Let there be the light and dark,
Let there be the sea and sky,
Let the dry land now appear,
let the green things multiply.

Let there be sun, moon, and stars,
Let them be that swim and fly,
Let them be that walk on land,
let the creatures multiply.

Last of all, let there be
Humankind serving me.

God said, "Yes! This is the best!
Now let’s take a day for rest."

Copyright © 2008 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Sermon for Holy Trinity from Three Years Ago

Trinity 2005
Genesis 1:1-2:4, Psalm 8, 2 Corinthians 13:11-13, Matthew 28:16-20 Daniel Meeter

The Hospitality of God: The Trinity

This is the seventh and last of my series on the Community of Jesus. Since Easter, I have been asking two questions of every set of lections: "What is the community of Jesus?" and "What is the power of the resurrection?"

Text: The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you. (2 Corinthians 13:13)

The Christian faith is more historical than philosophical. It developed from observation more than contemplation We put our hope not in a set of ideas but in a sequence of events, we look to the mighty acts of God within world history. The gospel is news, good news, headline news. It’s by telling the news that we spread the faith, by telling what happened, and what that means.

The doctrine of the Holy Trinity did not result from a group of early theologians proposing profound ideas. It evolved as the community of Jesus made sense of the news, as they worked out the implications of God’s activity.

The community put two and two together. They kept believing the earlier news from Moses: "Hear, O Israel, the Lord is God, the Lord is one." To this they added the later news, that the One Lord God of Israel raised the Messiah Jesus from the dead, and that Jesus was also Lord and God. It took a while to sort this out, but they put two and two together, and came up with Three!

Of course it wasn’t only the news but also their experience. Now experience is always unreliable, so they had to keep testing their experience The epistles of St. Paul are all about keeping the new community’s experience on track. But their experience did substantiate the news; God kept acting in their midst to vindicate the news.

And that led them also to the doctrine of the Holy Spirit—that the living God is present in a special way in the community of Jesus. They found themselves experiencing the communion of the Holy Spirit, and the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God. Their making sense of this is doctrine of the Trinity.

And they could look back at the old, old story of the God of Israel, and in it they began to see new things in it. In the way that science does—now that we know about DNA, paleontology can look back at human history and see new things in it; we can make new sense of the fossils and the archaeology. Looking back, we can see both new facts and new mysteries. Just so, looking back from the resurrection we can see new things in the God of Genesis.

Not that we try to prove the Trinity in the Old Testament, but more deeply to enjoy the God already there. And look! Community is built into a God of three persons. Look! God’s fellowship with the world comes out of God’s self, communion expresses God’s own nature.

It’s from the Trinity that we say God is love. The three persons in their eternal community are a constant fellowship of love. Yes, to love yourself is love, but to love your neighbor is lovelier, to love someone who is not you and will never be you, to love a person eternally distinct from you is the loveliest love. God the Father loves the Son, and the Son loves the Father, but they are always distinct from each other, they are always other than each other, and they delight in their mutual otherness.

Do you see how loving your neighbor as yourself is built into God if God is the Trinity? The love of God is an eternal hospitality. This is the love that God has shared with the world when God created it. God wants the world to have its own existence, God has given the world room and freedom to be itself, God is a very good neighbor, God does not want the world to merge back into God’s self. God practices eternal hospitality, for God is love.

God says, Let there be. Notice, not There must be, but Let there be. That’s very gracious on God’s part, rather polite, I would say. God is even more gracious and polite than I am with my flower garden. I have put there the flowers I want, and I classify as weeds the plants I do not want and pull them out. God is more gracious and hospitable than that.

In the news you’ve heard about the revival of Creationism by the Christian right. But isn’t evolution the very proof of God’s polite and gracious hospitality, that God allows the world to have its own existence? God says, Let there be, and then enjoys what comes to be, and calls it good, and blesses it. Don’t let fundamentalism ruin Genesis 1 for you. It is first and last a hymn, a poem, a cantata, a song of joy.

The first three days of creation are when God makes room. Out of God’s own self God makes room for others. God takes the intimate space between the three persons of the Trinity and shares it to give room and space for other beings too.

First God makes the spaces of light and dark.
Then God makes the spaces of sky and sea.
Then God makes the space of dry land, carpeted, as it were, with plants and trees. God makes room, God is extending God’s own internal hospitality.

The second three days of creation is when God makes communities to live in these spaces, and this is the extension of the community of the Trinity.

For the spaces of light and dark God makes the community of sun, moon, and stars.
For the sky and sea God makes the community of birds and fish.
And for the dry land God makes the community of animals, including us.

God looks at it all, and says it’s very good, I love it. Here is grace, here is love, here is communion.

It began with the communion of the Holy Spirit, the wind from God. Before God spoke God was breathing on the unformed world, God breathed into the otherness, God warmed it up with God’s own self, God prepared it to hear God’s voice. The communion of God’s Spirit made the otherness able to listen to God’s word, to answer God’s gracious authority by freely saying "Yes, yes, we will be. Yes, God, we will answer your word by developing and bearing fruit. Yes, God, we accept your hospitality."

God is so gracious and polite that God gave us freedom even to say No instead of Yes, God gave us room even to rebel. And God is so loving of the world as to also become a creature, to be born a little baby, accepting the burdens of having a body, suffering our rebellion, accepting our death. But with the resurrection God accepts that physical body into God’s own self. A physical body with permanent scars. A new fact and a permanent mystery.

I think that the surprising news of the resurrection is what forced the doctrine of the Trinity on the early church, that the one God had to have room enough inside God’s self to include a human body with scars. That the one God had such community within it as to accept the communion of our suffering.

So because of the resurrection, God’s own self is a community of Jesus. And because God is a community of Jesus, we are too, we are the expression in the world of God’s own self. Our mission is to express God in the world. Not to prove God or defend God but express God.

And one of the chief ways we express the character of God is by our gracious hospitality. And this sanctuary can be the symbol and expression of our hospitality, but all whom we graciously invite into it. All this room, all this space, much more than we need, right, we often feel like a small community inside it, but even when only two or three persons are here, we can be just like the community of God inside the center of a great big universe.

We often think of mission as giving, that we have something to give to the world. Can we think of it as receiving? It is generous to give, but isn’t it just as generous to receive? What is more hospitable than to accept the presence of others, especially when they are way other, and to receive their gifts, so different than our own? What gracious hospitality on God’s part to welcome a human body into the Trinity, especially a body with scars.

Look, our hospitality to Jews and Muslims in this church, without trying to convert them, is considered disloyal to Jesus by many good Christians. Well, we’re doing it because of the power of the resurrection.

Look, our openness to bless gay and lesbian Christians is even regarded as heretical. Well, Old First, you can regard yourselves as orthodox, very orthodox, capital "O" Orthodox, because the historic measure of orthodoxy is the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, and it’s the Holy Trinity we’re expressing with our hospitality.

Copyright © 2008 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Rehoboth: The Homeless Men of Old First

I have good news. Thanks to Common Ground, and the NYC Department of Homeless Services, we have found housing for our homeless men.

For Andy, for Gary, for Will, and now, finally, for Robert.

(We haven't seen Frank in many months, so I have no news on him.)

The whole new approach is "Housing First." That's what we've accomplished. God is good. Allahu akbar.

There is still so much to be addressed. Unemployment, poverty, depression, medical needs, etc. etc. Different needs for each man. You will still see them asking for your money. But they have the dignity and security of a room of their own.

"Rehoboth," said Isaac, in the Torah, which essentially means "roomy rooms." He said it when he could see that God had given him a place for home.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Sermon for May 4, Ascension Sunday

Ascension 2008, Acts 1:1-11, Psalm 47, Ephesians 1:15-23, Luke 24:44-53

Thursday was Ascension Day. Ascension Day used to be a major holiday. Now I understand the city is considering transferring the alternate-side-of-the street exemption from Ascension Day to some Muslim holiday.

Two hundred years ago, Ascension Day was about as big as Christmas, and you got off from work to go to church. That’s no longer so, and now we mark it on the Sunday following. We still mark it because the Ascension is one of the essential doctrines of the Christian faith and one of the major mysteries mentioned in the Apostles Creed.

It’s not coincidental that Ascension Day has almost disappeared while Christmas has gotten so big. The last three centuries of modernity have been about narrowing the role of religion to something only private, and Christmas is where God gets very small, while the Ascension is where Jesus gets very big.

The two events are almost opposite. At Christmas, a great God in heaven comes down to earth and enters humanity. On Ascension Day a human being goes up to heaven to enter the presence of God. The first is very touching, we all can relate to a human birth, and to animals, and visitors. The second is abstract and supernatural, and instead of animals and shepherds it’s cherubim and seraphim, and who knows what they are.

The Ascension is where the story of Jesus crosses over into what feels mythology. It departs from that very human side of Jesus that we love in the gospels, his down-to-earth emotions and affections, how he talked about human life and what human life should be upon the ground. But the ascension feels like Wotan rising up to Valhalla or like Hercules being brought up to Mount Olympus because he’s been made into a god. It’s like going from Puccini to Wagner.

The devaluation of Ascension Day tells us that its themes and applications don’t mean as much to us. We have developed modern life to make it rational, predictable, insurable. The risks of life we’ve learned to calculate and manage. We don’t depend on having one of our own on the throne of heaven who is taking care of things on our behalf.

We believe that in order to get things done it should depend on what you know, not whom you know. What we believe in most is freedom, our own freedom, and the risks that come with that. We don’t want to hold our lives and our cultures and our nations and our economies accountable to another human being, no matter how highly exalted he may be. And our lives are not such that we look for comfort there.

The main theme of the Ascension is that the Kingdom of God is now invested in the Kingdom of Jesus, that the general sovereignty and providence of God is now focused in the Lordship of Jesus the Messiah. Well, for evangelical Christians, Jesus is more like a friend. Jesus is defined as your personal Lord and Savior who is enthroned upon your heart. Jesus is kept down here and actually made quite small. For liberal Christians, Jesus is the teacher, and the kingdom of God refers to all the good things that we good people do in the world, our own good deeds and our Christian institutions. In both cases our Jesus is domesticated. So neither evangelicals nor liberals much feel the need for what the ascension means.

The Ascension means that the general power and authority of God in the world, going back before the Big Bang, is now invested in a particular way for particular purposes in the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Someone is in charge. And we to a large extent are accountable to him. And we know by his teachings and example his standards and his expectations. About the poor, about the prisoners, about the orphans and the widows, we know what his judgments are and on what basis we are judged. Not just personally, but on what basis the nations of the world are judged.

On the other hand, the Ascension means God’s power is self-limiting. God doesn’t do things now which are outside the character of Jesus. There are things God did in the Old Testament, for example, which God won’t do anymore. Earthquakes and tsunamis are simply from the laws of nature working out, they are not the judgments of God, and that’s because of the character of Jesus. Disasters like 9/11 are not God’s ideas or even messages, and that we know from Jesus.

Those are positive themes and applications of the Ascension. You can know them and be comforted by them. At the same time, the Ascension has its mysteries that we cannot understand. We are tempted to gaze up into heaven, like the disciples, trying to figure out what happened, trying to make sense of heaven from the perspective of the earth, trying to make sense of eternity from inside the boundaries of time. The angels warn them not to stand there gazing up, but to get on with it, to be future directed, for the ascension is upward in the sense that the sunrise is upward, it’s up, but more, it is ahead, and we’re approaching it.

It means that we must live content with great aspects of mystery in our lives, that there is more that’s going on than we are privy to, and that’s all right, because of who’s in charge, and we know what his character and judgments are. It means that there is much beyond our view, but also that we know enough to be secure, and comforted. And yet that we’re accountable, and that we have to answer for ourselves and for our nations, and that this is actually very good for us.

I was at a Reformed Church meeting up in Ossining this week, and for our devotions on Thursday morning, the leader played a recording of the "Hallelujah" Chorus from Handel’s Messiah. He pointed out that by its placement in the oratorio it’s clear that Handel intended it to be about the Ascension. It’s the anthem of the angels at Jesus’ coronation, it’s the answering chorus of the faithful departed at Christ’s inauguration. As Jesus ascends to heaven and takes his place upon the throne, this is the official music going on.

But when do you here it on the radio and in the concert halls? During Christmastide. This goes back to my earlier point about how Christmas is more congenial to our culture than the Ascension is. Alright, so let’s not fight it, for that’s not the character of Jesus. The character of Jesus is always to tell the whole story, tell the whole truth, and then go with what you have.

So the kingdom of Jesus is like a little mustard seed. Small and weak, but powerful in its life-potential. Or as Jesus said himself, the kingdom of Jesus is like a little child. I suppose it’s true that even with the Ascension being true, the kingdom of Jesus is like a baby in a manger. Self-limiting, humble, claiming everything, taking nothing, waiting to be held, waiting to be loved.

What better way to express it than with the baptism of a child. When the child is a little infant, the child expresses that the kingdom of Jesus is like a mustard seed, and that the power of Jesus is made perfect in weakness, and the sovereignty of God is fragile, and the power of the resurrection is like a springtime flower that is so beautiful and gives you hope and then it fades.

And when the child is a three-year-old she represents the souls of all of us, that this little bit of water may be too much for us, and that the Lordship of Jesus demands too much, as weak and small as it may seem, as ephemeral its signs be, like water on our heads.

By the grace of God we will baptize a child today. As you look at her, I want you to put your own soul in her place. Let your soul see what she sees, let your soul feel what she feels, her fears and her uncertainty. Her clinging to her father as her security who also brings her to her challenges.

On this Ascension Sunday I don’t want you gazing into heaven trying to figure it out. I want you looking at a little child to see what kind of soul this Lord Jesus wants for his warriors and accepts as his officials. He’s got enough angels around him for brilliance and perfection. What he wants from you is that you express his own humanity.

Copyright © 2008 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Sermon for April 27: Vicious Circles and Gracious Circles

Easter 6, Acts 7:22-31, Psalm 66:8-20, 1 Peter 3:13-22, John 14:15-21

What does it mean to love God? We know what love is, and we can tell the difference between the different kinds of love, like loving fried potatoes, or loving your mother, or loving your neighbor. We love best what’s close to us. How do we love a God so far away? How do we love a God who is so unknown? The saints and mystics call God the great unknown, the glorious mystery.

How do you love a mystery? If someone asked you directly if you love God, you might hesitate before you say you do. You might not have the same degree of confidence as saying that you love fried potatoes, or your spouse. You might say you want to love God, but you’re not sure you’re good at it.

How much is loving God like loving my father? Can I project the love of the unknown from what I do know? Can I project the love of God from loving my mother? Can I project the love of Jesus from how I loved my kindergarten teacher?

We know that projection is part of every love we have. To love someone, you connect to some extent with something of yourself in that someone. Or something of your mother, or father, more or less, or positive or negative; you project some part of that prior love onto this new love.

This is how we learn to love. Your first love is the love of your mother, and then your father and your siblings, and then you develop your loves by projecting some of each onto the next. But your projections can be hurtful and inappropriate if you can’t get beyond them to love a new person in herself, as she defines herself in her own right. There can be narcissism in love when we project too much of ourselves and our needs onto the persons we are trying to love in their own right.

To the Apostle Paul, the Areopagus represented this kind of projection. All the gods and goddesses were human projections. "What is god like?" Like my mother, like a human father, like the ideal warrior, like myself if I were strong and smart and beautiful.

That kind of god is one that I could know and understand, that kind of goddess I could love and serve. The commandments which that god asks of me are the commandments I would make if I were a god.

St. Paul does not preach at them with condemnation. That would be like condemnation of young people who grope their way through bad romances as a result of having grown up in bad family relationships. They are caught in vicious circles. They’re looking for love in all the wrong places, but they’re right to look for love.

Condemnation doesn’t help them if the right way is unknown to them. And you can’t tell them or explain it unless you model what they do not know. You have to a model of a different kind of love, a way of loving as yet unknown to them, of which they might even be afraid.

You offer them a love that is a gift, a gift from the outside, a gift that can’t be canceled by their inability to receive it rightly; it keeps on loving until they can receive this kind of love, and let it carry them and teach them, and having received it they can begin to practice it.

This is what we call the healing of relationships, it is a very important aspect of the power of resurrection already active in the world. It is one practical application of the forgiveness of sins, and to receive it is an aspect of repentance, to repent is to acknowledge that you need this giving love you don’t deserve and cannot earn and cannot cancel.

St. Paul offers them a gracious invitation: "Let me tell you of a god you did not know and could not know, because this God is not a product of our projections." This God is self-defining. You couldn’t come up with this God if you wanted to, not even the greatest philosopher among you. From your projections you only recognize you need this unknown God, from your projections you know there’s something more which you can’t produce, a solution you can’t deduce. The only way to know this God by accepting and learning what this God tells you about God’s self. And to learn this God, the littlest child may be your greatest philosopher.

How do you learn love? I mean at the very beginning? You learn it by receiving it, as a baby, and your mother holds you in her arms, and she loves you. Your love is first a passive love, her love is the active love. When you hold on to her, it’s because she’s holding you first. She’s the center of your universe.

Month by month, your love for your mother develops from passivity to more and more activity. You watch her, you try to copy her, you read yourself within her eyes, you learn to see yourself as she sees you, and you find out who you are. It’s the opposite of projection. She defines herself, and her self-definition is the key to your own self-definition. You become what she expects of you.

As you start to gaze around the room, and learn the look of things, you keep looking back at her. As you start to crawl around the house, you keep coming back to where she is so that you can find yourself. That’s how it is with you and God. That’s how you come to know God, that’s how you come to love God, and how to know yourself. As loving your mother makes you into a human being, so loving Jesus makes you able to keep his commandments.

"If you love me, you will keep my commandments." That’s a circular statement. The loving of Jesus is the keeping of his commandments, and the keeping of his commandments is loving him. It’s both a challenge and a comfort. It is circular, but it’s not a vicious circle.

You know what vicious circles are. Insomnia causes depression which causes insomnia. Fear causes ignorance which causes fear. Racism causes fear which causes racism. Vicious circles are hard to stop because if you fix just one side of the cycle, the other side will bring it back again.

You need a gracious circle going right next to the vicious one, moving faster and more powerful, touching and clutching it at every point, with friction and purchase, to retard it and reverse it, to convert it. That’s the power of the resurrection. That’s the function of Jesus’ commandments in our lives, the curving motions of a gracious circle.

I meet many people who say that God is the same as the spiritual energy of the universe. They tell me that they don’t think of God as personal or volitional. Maybe they are turned off by all the projections of a personal God that they have seen in human history, especially church history. So they want to keep God unknown.

When we say that our mission is to be a community of Jesus, we mean that our mission is to share the truth which the world cannot know or see on its own, from its projections of what God is like, or how to know God, or what God’s commandments probably must be. We bear witness to a gracious opposite. Not only that, our mission is to model it. We want to be known for that.

We want this congregation to be a gracious circle. We want to practice the commandments of Jesus on each other. We want to practice the love of Jesus on each other. We want this circle to grow and expand beyond the boundaries of our congregation, and touch and convert the vicious circles in which so many folks are caught.

We want to be a model. We want to give good evidence that there is a living God at work in us, nursing us and washing us and teaching us how to speak, a God who tells us who we are, a God who desires to be known and loved, and shown it so in Jesus Christ.

"Help us, O God, to know your love and to give in to it, to respond to it, to accept it and to model it, so that people might see in us that your truest name is Love."

Copyright © 2008 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Sunday, April 13, Signs and Wonders

Dear Readers, this is not the sermon. The sermon for Easter Four doesn't exist in written form, apart from some scribbled notes. So what we have instead is a reflection on the texts for Easter Four by an Old First member, Ms. Pat Caldwell.

Acts 2:14, 26-41, Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19, 1 Peter 1:17-23, Luke 24:13-35

“I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and earth. I believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord… I believe in the Holy Spirit…”

I say these words often, and I mean them. Yet last Sunday’s Scripture readings and sermon left me with the realization that I have a lot of work to do before I can claim that my beliefs drive my day-to-day life in the way I would like them to. What first stopped me in my tracks was the idea of “signs and wonders.” Do my actions serve as a sign to others, pointing the way to faith? Do they make people wonder what the driving force behind my actions is?

I do more service now than I’ve ever done before, in various capacities within Old First. I don’t discount that commitment, but I’d like to exhibit more wide-spread evidence of my faith, having it more directly color my responses to people and situations. Could I be more patient with others, more understanding and tolerant of their differences, instead of only relating well to those who are most like me? Could I learn to shrug off minor annoyances, and consider the possibility that people who do things I don’t like aren’t actually doing them specifically to annoy me? Do I have to be the main focus of everything in my life?

I’m embarrassed to admit how many days go by where I hardly think about Jesus, or God, at all. I’ll get to the end of the day, and realize that I haven’t uttered or thought a single word of prayer all day. Why is that, I wonder? I know that when I do keep Him more in my thoughts and heart, my day goes better, and I feel more grounded, more centered, more patient, more contented, more serene…

Listening, every week, to the testimony from various members of the congregation about what Jesus means to them, I realize that I really don’t have a clear idea of what He means to me.

Sure, He’s the guy in the picture on my grandmother’s wall – the one with the wavy, light brown hair, whose upturned face seems to glow from within. He’s the subject of many fantastic stories, and He’s had a lot of really beautiful music written about Him. But surely there’s more to Him than that. Figuring this out is part of the work I need to do.

Perhaps the work starts with finding out more about Him. I’m not nearly as familiar with the Bible as I would like to be, so studying the Bible seems like a good place to start. I’ve always been an avid reader, and reading about Him seems to bring Him closer to me. (Well, actually, I’m sure He’s always close to me. What I really mean is that it makes me more aware of His presence.)

I recently started reading St. Augustine’s Confessions, and discovered that it strengthened my awareness of faith, and the role it plays in my life, even as I sat there reading on the subway. (Fancy that – God’s on the C train!) Simply put, I need to set aside time, every day, to devote to nurturing and deepening my faith. Now that I think about it, that's not such an onerous task, after all!

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Sermon for April 20: The Way, the Truth, and the Life

Easter 5, Acts 7:55-60, Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16, 1 Peter 2:2-10, John 1:1-14

Note: No sermon was posted for last week. I had one written, but on Sunday morning it didn't feel right, so I preached a different sermon, mostly extemporaneously, from a few handwritten scribbles. Sorry.

Jesus said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life." This statement is cited so frequently, and just as frequently misused. This statement is not about who gets saved, or who goes to heaven. It’s not about the exclusivity of Christianity. This statement is about a new development in the experience of God, a new development that Jesus was introducing to humanity, and introducing first to his disciples.

It wasn’t a new God he was showing them, but a new kind of intimacy with this very same God that they had always known, but now they would be so much closer, and they would now begin to experience the God of Israel as God as Father. That’s what this statement of Jesus is about, that in order to experience the One God as Father, Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. That if you take Jesus for God, you also get the Father.

This experience of God is distinctive to Christianity and characteristic of Christianity. When Christians pray to God in the way that Jesus taught us to, we say, "Our Father." Do you understand how much of an innovation that was, that Jesus was introducing them to? So when you hear Jesus saying, "I am the way, the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me," the point you should take is not the exclusivity of Christianity, but the opportunity.

Let’s remember this in these days of interfaith dialogue and interfaith conflict. When we read in Acts 7 that they picked up stones to throw at Stephen, we can make the connection to modern Jerusalem, where Palestinians pick up those same stones to throw at Israeli soldiers and police.

We can think of the great stones in the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, the last remains of the temple, recovered by Israeli soldiers in the Six-Day War, so precious to the Jews, when we read that prophecy from Isaiah which is quoted in 1 Peter 2, "See, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious." The stones in that wall are stones of contention and violence between the Jews and the Muslims, and Christians too.

Muslims do not allow Jews and Christians even to look at the Black Stone of Mecca, the Kaaba, to which they make their pilgrimage. We know the way, but we cannot go there.

The New Testament teaches that the temple of Jesus is the congregation, a temple not made with hands, constructed of the souls of our fellow believers. Our holy city is the New Jerusalem in heaven with God. And yet we Christians acted otherwise with the Crusades, and the sign of the cross became a symbol of holy war instead of reconciliation. We forced the Muslims out, and we excluded Jews from living in Jerusalem. It took the Muslims later on to let the Jews come back.

Our story from Acts 7 reports the beginning of the animosity between Jews and Christians. At first, as we saw last week, the early Christians had the good will of all the people of Jerusalem. How quickly that kind of thing can change. After the stoning of Stephen began the persecution, and the Christians were driven out of Jerusalem. Of course it needs be said that this very short period of Jews persecuting Christians is nothing compared to centuries of Christians persecuting Jews to levels beyond our comprehension.

And so it was a wonderful thing that happened this past Thursday, in Greenwood Cemetery, in the Old First section of Greenwood Cemetery. We laid to rest the remains the beloved uncle and guardian of Mark Wingerson, Bryan Sterling. He was a Jew (a refugee from the Holocaust), and so his internment was conducted by Rabbi Andy Bachman of Congregation Beth Elohim, and he did a wonderful job. When Rabbi Bachman speaks of God I know him as a brother, it’s the same God that we love.

This Tuesday I will be at Columbia University in the company of the chief imam of Turkey (the Muslim equivalent of the Archbishop of Canterbury). I will be the guest of Dr. Gazi Erdem, the imam who stood right here last September and prayed with us. We were praying to the same God. I know Dr. Erdem as a brother, and it’s the same God that we love.

But what about Jesus saying that no one comes to the Father except through him? I am not fundamentalist, but I am orthodox, and I want to know what Jesus means.

Three years ago, at the Mosque of the Crimean Turks, the imam invited me to join them in the evening prayer. I was with my Muslim son-in-law. He took his place with the other men, kneeling on the line, and I knelt down on the side. As they prayed, I prayed along. And it gave me great comfort and joy to see upon the face and body of my son-in-law the worship of the one true God.

But then it hit me. Not once in their prayers do they address Allah as Father. Of the 99 beautiful names of God, the Father is not one of them. I asked about this, and it was confirmed to me, that Muslims do not experience God as Father. Just about the same is true for Jews. A very few times the metaphor of father is applied to God, but hardly so often as the metaphor of a rock, as in our Psalm. And that will have been true for Jesus’ disciples as well.

So here is Jesus, who keeps talking about God as his Father, and that he is going to be with him, and so his disciples ask him, show us how to get there too, show us the Father. That’s what this gospel passage is about. It’s not about only Christians going to heaven or only Christians getting saved. It’s about how this One God of Abraham is revealed by Jesus to be his Father in a special way, and that this special relationship that Jesus has with God is made available to us as well, that is, when it's in Jesus that we come to God.

Now there will be some Jews, like in Acts 7, who find them’s fightin’ words, and there will be some Muslims who are just as offended. But we also know from our experiences that we can find ways to love this One God together side by side, and leave the sorting out of things to the only who has is competent to judge between us, and that isn’t anyone of us, but God.

Jesus is the way. He is the path of your lifelong pilgrimage. He is the exodus out of your sin and the approach toward your mecca. He is the entrance into the household of your Father.

Jesus is the truth. He is the pledge of your Father’s faithfulness and constancy, he is the guarantee of the love of God which is as straight and true as a fatther’s love should be and as deep and unchanging as a mother’s love should be.

Jesus is the life. Because God is the source of life, and in the circle of God’s holy Trinity is the original energy of life, and through Jesus you may share the life that starts and ends with God.

These words of Jesus are meant to be a welcome in, not a closing out, and so when you enter in to drink and eat and receive from this source of life, you can come back out with overflowing joy and you are ready to receive the generous hospitality of all the others who worship this One God.

Copyright © 2008 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.