Sunday, February 24, 2008

Sermon 5 on Spiritual Formation: Conversation and Conversion

Lent 3, February 24, 2008
Exodus 17:1-7, Psalm 95, Romans 5:1-11, John 4:5-42

Heidelberg Catechism 88-90
Q88: What is involved in genuine repentance or conversion?
A: Two things: the dying-away of the old self, and the coming-to-life of the new.
Q89: What is the dying-away of the old self?
A: It is to be genuinely sorry for sin, to hate it more and more, and to run away from it.
Q90: What is the coming-to-life of the new self?
A: It is wholehearted joy in God through Christ, and a delight to do every kind of good as God wants us to.

The lection from the Gospel of John is one of the most remarkable in the Bible and it’s the subject of one of our Tiffany windows in the sanctuary, the Woman at the Well. The story is so rich I could make ten sermons out of it, and if I were an old-fashioned Calvinist I might. One of my previous sermons on this lection is posted on my blog. Today I’m taking it a different way.

We take a step back first. Way back, to the beginning of the Bible, the first verse of Genesis. "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. And the earth was without form and void, and the Spirit of God brooded upon the face to the deep. And God said, Let there be light, and there was light."

The way that God created was by speaking. God spoke and it came to be. God said, "Let this be," and the world answered, "We’ll be that." The world was formed by answering God’s speech. The formation of the world was a response to God’s Word.

Genesis 1:1 is quoted by the prologue to the Gospel of John. The prologue is the famous passage we read on Christmas Eve. "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."

Over the centuries the Christian tradition has tended to hear this verse in terms of philosophical theology, where the Word means an Idea, an Idea that takes Form. God created by having an Idea and then commanding the world to take the Form of that Idea, like Michelangelo with a block of marble, only God did not use hands but words.

Well, yes, but this morning I want to take it differently, as connected to the rest of the Gospel, as with our lection this morning, as meaning something like this, "In the beginning was the Talk, and the Talk was with God, and the Talk was God.

You know when it means when a boss says this to an employee: "A word!" That’s going to be a short conversation with a lot of weight, a little talk that had better make a difference.

In the beginning was the Word. In the beginning was the Talk. In the beginning was the Conversation. The prologue is suggesting something about God, something which Jesus expresses in chapters 14-17 in his long soliloquy in the Upper Room, that there’s a conversation between the Father, Son, and Spirit, a private conversation, which Jesus brings us into and which the Holy Spirit carries back out to us, and our audacious sharing in the inner conversation of the Holy Trinity is what starts to form us as a community, a spiritual community. And we Christians dare to think that as our little community of Jesus is being formed by our sharing in the Talk of God, in some small measure we even begin to know the Mind of God.

The prologue is also suggesting something about humanity, and about our place in the world. It was at the creation of the world that God first made public the Trinity’s private conversation. Creation is not commanding speech and dumb obedience, it’s life-giving conversation. As God speaks the world into being, more and more it’s able to answer, until the appearance of human kind, who are able to talk back to God, on behalf of the other creatures. Our connection to God is not just for ourselves, but for us to speak with God for the rest of the world.

The Gospel of John is the gospel of conversations. Like Matthew it has sermons, like Mark it has actions, like Luke it has metaphorical soliloquies, but distinctive to John is an emphasis on conversation. And the longest conversation with any individual is with the woman at the well.

This conversation broke the rules and crossed the proper boundaries. The Samaritans and the Jews were like the Sunnis and the Shiites or the Serbs and the Croatians, their differences were theological and political and hateful. Jesus crossed those boundaries. He crossed the boundary of kosher. Her water jug will have been unclean, and drinking from it he’ll make himself unclean.

He crossed the boundaries of sex. He will have to put his lips on her vessel. And this is at a well which is dedicated to the patriarch Jacob who met Rachel at a well and fell in love with her at first sight. The woman has to wonder is like Bill Clinton or JFK. He’s certainly not like Huckabee! His disciples show up worried that he’s like McCain.

But he never touches her. He doesn’t play with her or use her. He can see through her, but he does not disrobe her, he lets her speak for herself, he lets her lead the conversation, though his responses are not what she expects. This story is all about the conversation. And the conversation is the means of her conversion.

This is not an ordinary conversation at a well. That happened in the morning, when all the other women came to get their water. And their conversation might have been about her, and why such a woman as she was trouble for the rest of them and trouble for herself. And they would be right. We have those kinds of conversations all the time about each other. But such conversations don’t help conversion, and such kind of talk is not for spiritual formation.

This one is. By the process of what they say to each other she comes to the truth about herself. He offers her a few Biblical metaphors by which she can suddenly make sense of her life and everything she ever did. By what he says to her she can judge herself, but not that she should condemn herself—he hasn’t been sent to the world to condemn to world—he judges her not to condemn her but to justify her, not by any prior good performance, but simply by her receiving his gracious gift.

And his gift is a challenge, every word he says to her challenges her, which she might take defensively, but she answers his challenges, even as she ducks and parries, and in her answering him her new nature is coming to life, in her conversing with him she’s going through spiritual formation, just as in Genesis 1 the formation of the world was from the Talk of God.

The Word of God comes to us in several ways: in Proclamation, like Jesus’ sermons and soliloquies, in Demonstration, like Jesus’ miracles and symbolic actions, and in Conversation. A congregation that is vital has to do all three. Proclamation in the preaching and the teaching. Demonstration in the sacraments and our outreach ministries. And Conversation. The sharing of ourselves in prayer and with each other as we respond together to the Word of God.

In this conversation, Jesus shares himself. He says to her, and for the first time in the Gospel, "I am he." He opens himself. And she believes him. And note that we never get from her some long confession, we never hear some cathartic story of how she got this way and how bad she feels, etc. This conversation is not psychotherapy, and as I said, she keeps her clothes on. This conversation keeps quiet and reserved and most of it goes on inside her head.

The point of conversion is to start converting your old nature to the new one, to let your spirit start giving formation to your flesh. And so we watch her go back to her village but in a whole new way of dealing with her neighbors, and we can see the new and living water rising up within her.

There is direction here for our spiritual formation groups. And there is direction here for how summarily the Reformed church does our Lenten repentance, how concisely and condensed. We just repeat God’s word about us back to God, we just tell God that what God says about us must be right.

Yes, there are times for detailed self-examination and an inventory of your shortcomings, but your new creation is simply to believe the summary of what God says about you. When you confess that you agree, when you answer back to God, then you are already living in that new nature, and you can enjoy the delights that God offers you.

Copyright © 2008 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Birds and Planets

My morning prayer window looks out over Prospect Park Southwest.

Friday morning I heard my first robin of 2008, cheerfully chirping its morning song. Today I heard a lot of them as I walked through the Park, but they haven't started grazing yet.

Today as I walked down Second Street, from the Park to Eighth Ave, the stoops were all green! Brownstone and limestone with green highlights. Still in winger! From the damp? The warmth?

I've been watching a planet in the pre-dawn sky, over Ditmas Park :). I can't tell if it's Jupiter or Mercury. It's low enough to be seen between the branches of the taller trees. It's my current morning star.

Wie schoen leuchtet der Morgenstern.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Sermon 4 on Spiritual Formation: Conversion

Lent 2
Genesis 12:1-4, Psalm 121, Romans 4:1-5, 13-17, John 3:1-17

Heidelberg Catechism 88-90
Q88: What is involved in genuine repentance or conversion?
A: Two things: the dying-away of the old self, and the coming-to-life of the new.
Q89: What is the dying-away of the old self?
A: It is to be genuinely sorry for sin, to hate it more and more, and to run away from it.
Q90: What is the coming-to-life of the new self?
A: It is wholehearted joy in God through Christ, and a delight to do every kind of good as God wants us to.

You know the reputation of the Marines and how they do basic training: they break you down. You might have individual courage and initiative, but they break you down. You might be an American citizen with civil rights and an instinct for democracy, but they break you down. After they break you down, they build you up, but different—as a Marine.

They have do this because your natural human instinct is to preserve your own life. When you see gunfire coming at you, your natural instinct is to get away from it. But a Marine has to keep going toward it. It is unnatural to be a Marine. To be a Marine you have to born again, if you know what I mean.

Did you know that in the first centuries of the early Christian church, one of the most productive mission fields was the Roman army? Look, these soldiers had been born as Germans and Gauls and Celts and Thracians and they had had to be converted into Romans, loyal to Caesar, who claimed the titles of Savior and Lord. The analogies were there, to convert again, and be loyal to the Prince of Peace, especially if you knew first hand the real truth of war.

The centrality of conversion is a distinction of Christianity, compared to other religions. Judaism has conversion, but Judaism is not an expanding faith, and if you ask to convert to Judaism, the first response of the rabbi is to discourage you.

Islam is an expanding faith, but its pattern is submission, not conversion. It has nothing in it of being "born again." Indeed, Muslims call Islam the "natural religion of mankind." To be "born again" is actually a very Jewish metaphor, and if you convert to Judaism, you are accepting a new ethnicity. You convert to a whole new life. This Jewish pattern of conversion was made expansive by the gospel, and the first response was to encourage you.

Conversion is so central to Christianity it’s also for people who are already born and raised in the faith. At least that is what Protestants say, and we get that from scripture lessons like the epistle and gospel today. We preach to both pagans and our own congregations that "you must be born again." So if somebody asks me if our church is a "born again" church, I rub my nose and scratch my head and hem and haw and then I say, "Well, yeah, kinda sorta."

However, what people mean today by "born-again" is not the original teaching of the first Protestant churches, the Lutherans and the Reformed. The current notion is that everyone has a definable and even datable conversion experience, that there is a linear break between your old self and your new self, a before and an after, that you start out unsaved, and you accept Jesus into your heart, and then you are saved.

And they mean that if you grow up as a Christian you have to do this the same as any pagan. "Once I was lost, but now I am found. Once I was a sinner, but now I am saved." For many modern Protestants the main point of Christianity is getting saved by being born again. Contrast the Greek and Russian Orthodox, for whom the whole point of Christianity is giving praise and glory to the Holy Trinity.

But the original Protestant doctrine is what you see in our Heidelberg Catechism from A.D. 1563. The old self and the new self are not so much before and after but always both and simultaneous, like a double-decker bus. Conversion is not what happens once, dramatically, but what happens daily, in very small pieces, as you choose again and again to ride the upper deck, despite the rain. And conversion doesn’t mean you weren’t less a Christian the day before. Even the holiest saints go through new conversions every day.

In 1989, after we had immigrated to Canada. I was on an two-day bicycle trip to Camp Shalom with Boyd de Waard and Pim de Koning. As we were coming back through the Six Nations Reserve, a dog came out and chased us and got real close to me. I reached down for my air pump as a club to defend myself, but we outraced the dog. Then Pim laughed and said, "You act like an American." "Why?" "Because you could have broken your air pump and you’d have to buy a new one, but if the dog had bitten you the health care would be free."

When you immigrate you have to convert. It’s a daily thing, and it’s a million small things. Converting miles to kilometers and Fahrenheit to Celsius and habits and attitudes and social norms, converting expectations and expressions. Canada is relatively easy, though the differences are far more than Americans expect. Most immigrants have to convert to whole new languages and their new life gets harder and harder to explain back home.

Immigration is the other image of conversion. We get it from our Genesis lesson. God told Abram, "Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to a the land that I will show you," and isn’t that like being born again.

I am a dual citizen, both Canadian and American. But the deal is that when I’m in America I am legally only an American so I have to behave like an American. When I’m in Canada I am legally only a Canadian so I have to behave like a Canadian. All Christians are dual citizens as well. Your other citizenship is the Kingdom of God. But with this the deal is different. When you’re in America you have to behave like you belong to the Kingdom of God. Well, to do that requires a constant daily conversion.

Christians have to think of themselves as double. You have two natures in you, the old one and the new. At your death, the old dies off and the new one lives on. Until then, you starve the first and feed the second. That’s conversion.

Christianity gets this kind of double-thinking from Judaism. Islam doesn’t do this; the very power of Islam comes from its unitary thinking. But Judaism always balances the opposites and the apparent contradictions. Not either-or but both-and. And now I have yet another one, and it’s about spiritual formation.

Spiritual formation is both growth and not-growth. Spiritual formation is both natural and unnatural. Spiritual formation is both coming-to-life and dying-away.

Last week I said that spiritual formation is as natural as children growing up. They can’t help it if you just give them security and good food. But the opposite is also true. Spiritual formation is like pruning and weeding and pulling up and cutting off. It has repentance in it, and remorse and pain, and discipline.

Conversion and growth are the alternating current of spiritual formation, the negative current and the positive current, and we can’t reduce it to the one or the other. It’s both.

Next week our lessons have something to tell us about how this kind of conversion can take place in a small group context. This week it’s Jesus and Nicodemus. Next week it’s Jesus and the woman at the well. This week Nicodemus drops out of the conversation, next week she stays in. And even though she’s the sinner of the two, she gets empowered at the end. Nicodemus just falls away.

But John 19 tells us that after the crucifixion it was Nicodemus who bought a hundred pounds of spices for Jesus’ body, and who lovingly wrapped his body for burial and laid it in the tomb. I guess he had been riding the bus by standing on the stairs to the upper deck, and now he was willing to be seen up on top. Imagine his joy after the Resurrection when he could tell the gospel writer the story of his secret meeting with Jesus. In Nicodemus there is hope for us. It just always takes a while.

Copyright © 2008 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Sermon 3 On Spiritual Formation: Clothing and Community

Lent 1, February 10, 2008
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7, Psalm 32, Romans 5:12-19, Matthew 4:1-11

Let me remind you what we’re doing in this series of sermons. The Consistory has put a priority on the development in our congregation of "holistic small groups." We are calling these Spiritual Formation Groups. And I am going to our scripture lessons each week and listening to what they might tell us about Spiritual Formation Groups. This week I can hear two messages in the lessons. First from Genesis, and second from the gospel.

In 1967 a book called The Naked Ape was published by Desmond Morris. The author tried to explain human beings in strictly zoological terms as animals among other animals, as apes among other apes, without any reference to such factors as ethics or aesthetics or spirituality. Many people were delighted and many were offended.
The title of the book was brilliant for marketing, but hokey as science. All apes are naked. A title more scientifically accurate would have been, "The Ape that Feels Naked," but that would give credence to the very ethical and spiritual factors that the author was ruling out.

The fact that we are the apes who feel our nakedness tells us that narrow zoological categories do not suffice for human behavior. We do things that other animals don’t do. When animals feel vulnerable, they hide or they run or they attack. They don’t put clothes on.

Adam and Eve felt naked. Their nakedness was shame to them. They felt shame because of their guilt. We are the animals that feel shame and guilt. We are the animals that have something to feel shameful and guilty about. We are the animals that feel naked when we are naked.

The Christian hope is not a return to primal nakedness. Our vision for the future is not that we will reach a pristine state of nudity. It’s rather that we will be clothed, clothed in our right minds, dressed in righteousness, decked out in gladness, robed in light, walking in beauty. Our Christian hope is not a return to nature, but an advance to a new nature. And that advancement means formation.

And so our Spiritual Formation Groups are not about exposure. You will keep your clothes on. Your nakedness is reserved for only one relationship, with your spouse who loves you intimately, quite literally warts and all. Well, your doctor, too, the specialist trained to heal you. And I won’t condemn you if this summer you go skinny-dipping with your friends, but I won’t join you.

Our Spiritual Formation Groups are not for confessing your sins. Neither are they for therapy or for treating our dysfunctions. You won’t be rehearsing all that stuff from your childhood about your siblings and your parents. (If you need to, I can refer you to a therapist.) Our business will be our present fellowship, engaging each other in the clothes that we are wearing now.

We’re going to do this because you need to do this, for spiritual formation. Your spirit needs to get close to other spirits, and stay close for a while. Not too close. Not so much intimacy as fellowship. Our spirits will dance square dances, not slow dances. There are some aspects of spiritual formation that you can only do on your own, or with a spiritual director, or in silence, but other kinds you have to do in fellowship with other spirits.

What your group will talk about is not yourselves so much as the Word of God in your lives. You will help each other hear the Word of God. You will support each other as you reflect on the Word of God, reflecting forward into your future, and reflecting backward into your past. Yes, there will be sharing, that’s so much of the pleasure and encouragement, but what you share is your response to the Word of God in the real life terms of your own life.

We believe that God talks to us. We believe that God is alive and active and interested in us and that God talks to us. We believe that God has specific and dependable ways of talking to us. We believe that God talks to us through scripture. By means of the Bible.

The Bible is the greatest treasure of the Christian faith and one of its chief frustrations. People tell me that they try to read the Bible and they just can’t make sense of it. Well, of course not, it’s a daunting combination of Paradise Lost and Beowulf and the Canterbury Tales and Hammurabi’s Code.

Protestants make a big deal about everybody being able to read the Bible. But then one group says it means this and another group says that, and anyone can make it say anything. When Jesus was tempted by Satan, his answer to the first temptation was this, "Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God." And so Satan says, "Hey, no problem, for my next temptation I will just quote scripture!"

It’s a Protestant problem. Roman Catholics don’t have the same problem. Catholicism says that the Roman Church’s official interpretation of the Bible has the same authority as the Bible itself. To be fair, it’s a Protestant myth that the Roman Catholic Church was against laypeople reading the Bible. What it was against was the private interpretation of the Bible. It wanted to avoid the Protestant problem of who knows what the Bible means.

The solution to this Protestant problem is not Roman Catholic but catholic in the larger sense, and in understanding the Holy Catholic Church not as a hierarchy but as a community. And that means that we read the Bible in community, in the communion of saints. We read the Bible within the community of people across the centuries and the continents, who lived in the time of St. Augustine and St. Jerome and Luther and Calvin and who live today in Guatemala and South Africa. We read the Bible within the community of our own fellowship. Among the other spirits who are in close contact to yours. We read the Bible in spiritual community. We listen for the Word of God in a spirit of love.

In Jesus’ ministry, he almost always talked to groups. He gave his word to people in groups. I can think of only two cases of Jesus conversing one-on-one: with the woman at the well and with Nicodemus, both of which we’ll read this month. We all have need for times like that. But most of our listening to the Word of God is best done in community.
That’s how I learned to hear God’s Word. In the small group of our family dinner table growing up. Every night, after dessert, we read the Bible at the table. Sometimes a special children’s bible, sometimes the real thing, and then we might talk about it. Over the years, that builds up.

Spiritual formation is a lot like physical formation. With the right conditions it happens quite naturally, almost automatically. The child has a genetic code inside, and if you offer the child a safe, secure, and happy home, and you feed the child the food it needs, the child grows up, she can’t help it, the child’s formation takes its course.
So too with your spiritual formation. It’s not so much that you have to work on it. God offers it to you. God feeds you with God’s word within the fellowship of your small group. No sudden revelations, but it does build up.

I guess the original holistic small group is the Christian vision of God. The Holy Trinity. I suppose that what the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit share in their timeless eternality is their fellowship and their Word. And that God also offers us.

Copyright © 2008 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Our New Homeless Ministry at Old First

God is good.
All the time.

In just a few months, God has taken Old First from a place of frustation to a place of joy and satisfaction.

Thanks to the notorious Three Homeless Men of Old First,
thanks to Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn,
thanks to Rabbi Andy Bachman,
thanks to the Department of Homeless Services, NYC,
thanks to Common Ground,
thanks to the interest of our own congregation,
thanks to the new Park Slope Coalition for the Homeless,
and thanks to God,
"Our shelter from the stormy blast
and our eternal home,"

we were able to rejoice two weeks ago (January 22) in being able to help begin to solve the homeless problem one person at a time. We were able to host, at Old First, the "Home Team" event, which, among other things, found homes for 28 people.

See the Common Ground link, and check out the "more photos" link. I love it that this was going on in our sanctuary. Makes the place kind of holy, don't you think?

That's our own Pat Caldwell, one of the volunteers, who was able to give real help, long lasting help, to someone she's been giving quarters to for years.

We hope to do more of these.

God is good,
all the time.