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.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Sermon for April 6, Easter 3

How God Comes to Meet Us

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

Easter is more than a single Sunday, Easter is a whole season of seven Sundays up through Pentecost. On the Sundays after his resurrection our Lord kept showing up to meet with his disciples.

And so the disciples kept gathering on the first day of the week to meet him as he came to them. And when he met with them he broke the bread with them. He was establishing a pattern.

Our story from Luke 24 is a paradigm for the way we meet on the first day of the week. The walk to Emmaus and the meal at the end is a pattern for the way we worship here and now. First we walk and talk, and then we bless and break and eat.

The first half of our service is our walk through the scriptures, and our teaching and our conversation. The second half we gather round the table to break the bread, and there he makes himself known to us and we recognize him. And this is the reason why the great majority of Christians celebrate communion every first day of the week.

This paradigm and pattern is God’s design for recognizing Jesus among us, and also to share his resurrection life. Well, this is a shift for us who were brought up with communion as most about the crucifixion—you wouldn’t want that every week. Communion is not only the memorial of a death, it’s even more the celebration of a life, the resurrection life, and it’s the sharing in that new and powerful life that is healing and joyful and will not end.

The disciples are not joyful as we meet them on the road. They are arguing with each other. They answer with an edge when Jesus asks them what they’re arguing about. They are disappointed and disillusioned, and they can’t believe the latest news from the women. It’s been three days now. They feel like they’d been fools. He couldn’t have been the Messiah after all, because the true Messiah would have been a winner, not a loser. A Messiah by definition would not be crucified.

The whole campaign had been an exercise in futility. Maybe this whole religion is futility. Maybe God has given up on us. Back to the real world, back home.

Futility is the word in 1 Peter 1:18. Futility is the way of the world beneath its apparent success and virtuosity. Futility is not God’s desire for us, and from futility God has ransomed us. And on the road of our frustrations, in the lengthening shadows of our weariness, here God comes to find us, and to give us meaning and direction instead futility.

We may not recognize it’s God, because it’s in a hidden presence that God comes to us, and we usually do not recognize it’s God till after the fact. God’s presence is not in the usual signs of divinity, the sounds of angels or trumpets, but rather in your communion with your companions on your road, and in the mundane breaking of our ordinary bread.

And when God comes, God teaches us. God’s teaching is more than information or advice, God is actually present in God’s word. 1 Peter 1:23 speaks of the living and enduring word of God.
"Living" and "enduring" are resurrection words, these words signify the resurrection life. In God’s word Jesus is alive, in his teaching us he is actually present among us.

Jesus takes his time with us, he does not tell us outright who he is, he walks along with us and he tends to start by asking us what is troubling us. It’s the heart that is "cut" that opens up. The broken heart can be the "burning heart".

His style of teaching is conversational, it comes through fellowship, it’s among companions who together listen to his word. He uses the scriptures to show himself to us, and also to help us find ourselves as well. He shows us why the story of us and God results in those wounds in his hands and his side, and what that says about us, and about God, and why that’s good news.

It always comes to us as news. Like the disciples we’re surprised. We think we know what we need to know. We have our questions we want answered. But he starts from the top, teaching us what we’d not thought to ask about. His teaching challenges us, it doesn’t give in to us. Yet afterward we think, "Of course, why didn’t we see it all along?"

And then he touches us. Last week I said that touching is good, seeing is better, believing is best. We are meant to live by our belief, and then our belief informs what we can see, so that our belief determines how we touch the world. Touching is not bad, it’s good.

And we need to be touched as well. So Jesus does more for us than just teaching us to help us to believe and see. He lets himself be touched by us. He makes himself known to us in the breaking of the bread. We touch his body in our hands, we taste his love upon our lips.

Never before had God felt like this. What a very strange way for God to show up. Not what any philosopher would predict, or any rabbi either, that God would show up in the breaking of the bread. How unimpressive, how not divine. How like a broken body, like the wounds in his hands and side that led Thomas to a deeper vision of divinity.

This story tells us that communion is a remembrance of his broken body but even more a celebration of his resurrection life, first, because bread is the staff of life, and he said, "I am the bread of life," and second, be cause he is not only the bread but also the bread-giver, the bread-blesser, the bread-breaker, he’s the host of the meal.

We are offered to believe that every Sunday he is present among us by his Holy Spirit, living in our community, as together we break the bread, and we are to recognize him as among us all. So while out there on the long road of our ordinary experience he chooses to keep his presence hidden, in the breaking of the bread he welcomes us to recognize his presence.

Why this way? Well, first, as this morning’s collect says, that with the eyes of faith opened, we may behold him in all his redeeming work.

Second, to show you the model of the resurrection life, which is not a life of enlightened independence, but of community and companionship, sharing side by side, building each other up and enjoying the presence of each of other and also enjoying and sharing the good gifts of the world.

And third, to show you what you cannot see but must believe, that the living Jesus not only teaches you but feeds you, and nourishes you, from his own body.

I suspect that if not for his Incarnation, the Second Person of the Trinity would not have come to this. For he learned it from his mother. There are ancient paintings of the Virgin Mary nursing the infant Jesus at her breast, and she speaks to him softly as he drinks from her body. What Jesus learned from his mother he also does for your soul, and as faithfully as his mother did for him. Because he loves you he shares his very life with you.

Copyright © 2008 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.