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.