Thursday, December 02, 2010

On Singleness

My friend and colleague, Rev. Dr. Chuck DeGroat, of the City Church of San Francisco, posted this on his blog, The New Exodus. He calls it "The Missional Position: Myths and Musings on Being Single." We were discussing singleness in an Old First small group last night, and how most of us at Old First (certainly not all of us) participate as "singles," even when we're married, while most churches seem to regard "married couples" as the norm.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Thoughts On Mitigated Hell

I'm finishing up my manuscript,
"Why Be A Christian (If No One Goes to Hell)". I am claiming the Biblical case that we take St. Paul literally, that "the wages of sin is death," not hell. I am claiming that no one goes to hell, certainly not in the way that people think of it today.

This summer I discussed this with a pastor friend of mine. He disagreed with me. He said that he agrees with C. S. Lewis, as he pictures in The Great Divorce (a book I certainly love), that some people will spend eternity in a total separation from God, even if it's a total separation of their own design and prejudices.

I imagine that the damp and chilly hell of C. S. Lewis is not as horrible as the torturing hell of Dante, so maybe it's more attractive to Christians. Well, maybe it's not as cruel in terms of pain, but I think it's no less cruel in terms of God.

As I understand it, the only way fully to be separated from God is to not exist at all. To imagine hell as a somehow less cruel eternal separation from God does not hold up. Psalm 139 says, "Though I make my bed in Sheol, thou art there." Now I know that's a poetic statement, and not to be forced, either theologically or philosophically, but it confirms something about God, and the impossibility of any existing thing being "separated" from God.

C. S. Lewis' hell is a passive aggressive hell, more hypocritical, I think, for being cooler. You spend eternity in God's cold anger, God's distant anger, and it's not eternal separation from God (because that is not possible with this God), it's eternal suspension in the chill of a jealous God. The hot hell is actually more honest (if wrong), because at least it's an honest anger.

But to not exist---that and only that is eternal separation from God.
Yes, yes, I most certainly believe in eternal life. I believe in the "resurrection of the body and the life everlasting." I don't believe in the immortality of the soul. Neither did the Apostles.

So I take the Apostle Paul literally: "The wages of sin is death." That's it. You're dead. Dead dead. It's over. No hell. No eternal punishment.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

November 17, Proper 27, Stepping Up in Prayer

Haggai 1:15b-2:9, Psalm 145:1-5, 17-21, 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17, Luke 20:27-38
Next Sunday is Consecration Sunday. Our guest preacher next week will be our new missionary in Oman, in the Persian Gulf. I think you will enjoy him very much. And on this Sunday beforehand, it’s always my job to preach a sermon about tithing. So let’s dig into it.

Tithing in the strict sense is taking the first ten percent of your income and giving that back to God, before you spend a penny on anything else. In the broader sense the size of the percentage is less important, as long as it’s off the top and not the bottom. Tithing is both mathematical and spiritual, both economical and ethical. It is a financial expression of a spiritual reality.

Tithing in the broadest sense is the Christian discipline of money. It’s the Christian practice that helps you deal with all of your money in general. Tithing is good for you in general, it gives you an attitude toward all your money which benefits you in the totality of your economic life. Yes, tithing helps you give the proper value to your money in general, tithing helps to free you from the power of money by helping to give you power over your money. Tithing is one way to sanctify the whole of your economic life. You set aside the top percent to sanctify the rest of it. The many benefits of tithing, however, are not immediate, while the cost of tithing is immediate, so the practice of tithing has to be an exercise of faith.

It means testing God. Sort of like in the gospel lesson, where the Sadducees tested Jesus. He did not spurn the test, he accepted their testing him, and he passed the test beyond their expectation. You can test God. And God will test you back. Tithing is a mutual testing of God and you.

The goal of tithing is the top ten percent. This amount comes from the Torah, from the Law of Moses. But if you are new to tithing, better to start with two percent or three percent, as long as it’s the top two or three percent. You might find even that to be a challenge. It’s meant to be a challenge. If it’s easy, it isn’t tithing yet. It’s a discipline. It means you have to push yourself to do it. It means you’re touching the limit of what you can afford, it means you’re at the boundary of risk, and if you’re not risking, it isn’t tithing yet. But to do so does empower you, financially and spiritually.

Tithing is about your need to give. Not the need of the church to receive. God doesn’t need the money. How much do you need your money? How much of a hold does your money have on you? How free are you of the money that you have? How free are you with your money? Can you be both free and responsible? Usually, you exercise your freedom with your money by spending it on your pleasures. Eating out, seeing a show, buying an extravagance. That’s fine, go ahead. But even greater is the freedom and empowerment that comes from giving it away, and giving it to the service of God? It is paradoxical. The service of God is freedom and empowerment.

So where are you right now? From one percent to ten percent? The challenge is the same, to take a step, one step up, one step more challenging, one step more risky Now if you are suddenly unemployed, or you’ve lost your empowerment, maybe you need to go two steps down, and even that is still risky. But what about the rest of us? Are you tithing at two percent? Well, this year try to make it three. Are you tithing at five percent? Step up one to six. Are you already tithing at ten percent? Then come to me and offer an hour a week to pray for every member of the church, or offer to me administer the Sunday School. Wherever you are, one step up. It is the staircase of risk and challenge and commitment, and the climb is freedom and service and empowerment.

If you’re going to do it, do it in prayer. Prayer is the bridge between faith and action. You cannot go directly from faith to action or from action to faith. In either case you will be disappointed. Your Christians actions themselves will never be as wonderful as you had hoped. Your Christian actions will never accomplish your ideals. Your Christian actions, in themselves, will always disappoint. Christian action is never enough, and it will never satisfy. In the time of the prophet Haggai, after the remnant had returned from exile to Jerusalem, they rebuilt the temple, but how sorry and shoddy it looked compared to the glory of the prior one. How disappointed they were, and they were tempted to give up their labors. So Haggai calls them to faith, faith in the future of the promise, faith that what humble actions they were doing now would have a future benefit, a benefit beyond what they could see, their actions had value only by their faith.

You have to connect the two by prayer. You do your Christian actions in an attitude of prayer. That means the benefits of your actions are not up to you. You leave the benefits of your actions up to God. You don’t have to see the fruit of what you do, you might not see any benefit from what you’ve done, but you do it as a prayer. You say to God, "Here God, I give it to you what I have done, I trust you with the fruit of it, I trust you with the difference it might make in the world, I give my work to you, I’m just thankful I could do it." If you pray this, you are free. Your prayer is your connection between your actions and your faith.

Now yes, there is a clear and immediate benefit to your tithing. You get to have this church. You get to have our Sunday School. You get to have our children’s choirs. You get to have our organ music and our hymn-singing. You get to have my preaching and my pastoring and my support of you. You get to be part of a congregation that is committed to our community, you get to offer hospitality to community groups and to the arts, you get to offer sanctuary to anyone seeking spirituality and hope, you get to keep vibrant one of the oldest churches in America, you get to praise God every week, you get to pray for each other every week, you get to take communion every week, you get many immediate benefits from your tithing, and it’s the duty of this church’s leadership to make this congregation always worthy of your tithes.

But even if this church were not here, you still should tithe. As a Christian action, as an act of faith, and as an act of prayer. As a Christian action, putting your money where your soul is. As an act of faith, investing in whatever use that God may make of it. Investing in the proclamation of the gospel in this neighborhood, investing in the teaching the traditions to the next generation, investing in holding fast to goodness and joy no matter how much shaking the world is going through, investing in the promise of the resurrection, when we shall be changed and our social relationships will no longer be having power over each other, but we will be completely free, your tithing is an act of faith in all of that.

It has to be an act of prayer. Because of the risk you know it means for you. Because of the commitment you know it will cost you. It takes prayer to tithe. Use your praying to convey your tithe. "O God, I am praying with my money now. I am offering my money as a gift to you, I am praying with my money now." And use your tithing ignite your prayer. "I’m going to need your help with this, O God. I’m going to need you to hold me up, and make me able to do this. I’m going to trust you God, be good to me and bless me." My testimony to you is that God does.

Copyright © 2010, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

October 30, Proper 26, Prayer Up A Tree

Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4, Psalm 119:137-144, 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12, Luke 19:1-10
This is the last of my sermons on prayer. I’ve been asking the scripture lessons what they might have to tell us about prayer. In our lessons this morning I count five different kinds of prayer. Two from Habakkuk, two from 2 Thessalonians, and one from the Gospel of Luke.

The first one from Habakkuk is the cry for help. "O Lord, how long shall I cry for help." It is a most basic kind of prayer—it is known to all religions. I talked about this a few weeks ago.

The second one from Habakkuk is "keeping watch." Prayer can be like keeping watch. Like just patiently paying attention to God. It takes patience and it takes faith. We want help now, we feel our situation now, but God’s time is not our time. There’s a gap between God’s eternal perspective and our immediate perspective which we can only bridge by keeping watch, by waiting on God. We get this kind of prayer from Judaism, where it is particularly strong. In other religions you can get the gods to help you by certain rituals and spiritual techniques. But not the God of Abraham. You can’t get God to do anything. Israel learned that. You have to trust God’s promises and God’s faithfulness. And that means watching and waiting.

The Lubavitchers seem not to get this. They are the Jews who ask you on the street if you are Jewish. They believe that if they can get enough Jews to perform certain Jewish actions all at the same time, they can get the Messiah to come. It’s a formula thing. It’s a sliding back into a pagan view of God. Many Christians also share this pagan view of God, that if you just pray the right things in the right ways, you can get the help from God you’re asking for. And, if you aren’t getting what you ask for, you aren’t praying right. That is a pagan view of prayer.

Prayer means watching God. You start in your certainty of your need and leap the gap onto the certainty of God, and to make that leap you have to keep your eyes on God. That’s the sense of prayer you get in the Psalm today. The Psalm gives words to your review of God, to your vision of God: "Oh yes, God, I recognize you, I behold your character and your temperament, I will keep waiting on you in this long gap between my experience and your fulfillment." You can’t keep waiting without praying. Prayer is the only way to keep waiting without losing heart.

The third kind of prayer is in the Second Epistle to the Thessalonians, and it’s the prayer of thanksgiving. I talked about thanksgiving a couple weeks ago. You need to pray thanksgiving, always. You have to practice it, and even learn it as a discipline for the times when you don’t feel it. One reason we practice holy communion every week is because it is the great thanksgiving of the community.
And it’s not just being thankful for creation, for food and drink and lovely sunset and the colors of the fall, but also being thankful for other people. You can pray for other people even when they don’t need help. You pray for them by giving thanks for them. Why don’t you try that this week. Take home the bulletin, and every name on the prayer list, and anywhere else in the bulletin, thank God for them—even if you don’t know them, even if you don’t like them. You can even pray for dead people in this way. Especially on All Saints Day. Mention them name by name to God, giving thanks for them.

The fourth kind of prayer is intercession, praying for other people in their need. We do it frequently. It’s part of what e mean by "the communion of saints" in the Apostles Creed. It’s how we watch out for each other across the boundaries of time and space. You can intercede for people far away as easily as close by. And I believe you can intercede for people in the past and in the future. Because God’s time is not our time. You always have to remember that when you pray. And learning to pray is learning to not be confined or confounded by the length of time.

The fifth kind of prayer is what Zacchaeus does in the Gospel of Luke, the prayer that is vow or a pledge of a commitment. It’s when you say, "This is what I want to do, O God." There are times you need to do this. Don’t do it too often, or else you’ll get discouraged by your failures. Don’t make any more vows than you have to, because you’re going to fall short. It’s best to not vow too much, it’s best to rest in the work that God is doing in you, but there are times when you do need to make your commitments and your vows to God.

The conversation between Zacchaeus and Jesus reminds us that prayer is a conversation between yourself and God. It is a two-way thing. In order for you to keep talking to God, you need to have the talking of God to you, which you get by listening to scripture. You cannot keep this life of prayer alive unless you feed it with the words of scripture. Scripture needs prayer, and prayer needs scripture. It’s the only way that both of them can be the conversation that you want.

Let me end this series with an image of prayer as a tree. The roots of the tree are your simple prayers for mercy, as I said last week. "Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy." The trunk of the tree is your prayer for yourself, your prayers for help. Where it breaks out of the ground is your prayer of confession, confessing your sins, and asking for the help of forgiveness. The rising of the trunk is your petitions for the other kinds of help you are in need of every day. The branches of the tree are you intercessions for other people. They carry you out from yourself, out into the larger world. The leaves of the tree are your prayers of thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is not optional, it does the photosynthesis of prayer. Your thanksgivings catch the light of God and breathe the Spirit of God, and they give life back to all your prayer. The blossoms on the tree are your prayers of praise—the glory of the tree, its color and its beauty, the praise of God.
It’s from this tree that you can see Jesus. It’s from this tree that you can come down to meet him. That’s the interpretation of Zacchaeus that one of our elders gave to me this week. When you are in the tree of prayer, then God calls to you in the name of Jesus. God says, I want to be with you. I want you to be with me. And you can come to him. You might be afraid to, you might feel guilty, it may take some courage on your part, so as you slide down the trunk of petition you can pray for faith and hope. But when you stand on your ground before him you can be rooted in your prayers for mercy, and you can believe that God not only accepts you but wants to sit and eat with you.

And like Zacchaeus you can offer yourself back to God. You can call it accepting Jesus as your Lord, you can think of it as your commitment to help the poor or to recompense to people what you might owe to them, you can think of it simply as committing again and again to love your neighbor as yourself and love God most of all, there are different ways to describe whatever it is you want to say when you get down from that tree.

It is a very pushy invitation Jesus makes. He doesn’t invite you to his house, he invites himself to your house. Accept his backwards invitation. That is the most important commitment you can make. Nothing you can do, but accepting what he does. That is what we do here every week. That is why you came here, and just by being here today you are doing it. You have him in your life. All you are doing is coming down from your sycamore and standing with all the other sinners and enjoying the presence of God in your life. All of us, every week.

Copyright © 2010, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Sermon for October 24, Proper 5: Prayer is Acting Justified by Faith

Joel 2:23-32, Psalm 65, 2 Timothy 4:6-18, Luke 18:9-14

Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 60

60 Q. How are you right with God?
A. Only by true faith in Jesus Christ. Even though my conscience accuses me of having grievously sinned against all God’s commandments and of never having kept any of them,
and even though I am still inclined toward all evil, nevertheless, without my deserving it at all, out of sheer grace, God grants and credits to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ, as if I had never sinned nor been a sinner, as if I had been as perfectly obedient as Christ was obedient for me. All I need to do is to accept this gift of God with a believing heart.

Next Sunday is Reformation Sunday, the Sunday just before All Saints. But we are treating today as Reformation Sunday because our gospel lesson this week is a perfect Reformation gospel.

The Reformation began in 1517 in Wittenberg, Germany, when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses on the door of the Castle Church, which was the billboard of the town. He was simply announcing a public debate. Martin Luther never intended to divide the church; he only wanted to reform it according to the gospel. He never wanted to leave the Roman Catholic church, he was kicked out of it by the Roman authorities. His sympathizers protested his treatment and they were kicked out too. These "protestants" kept on having church. They called their churches evangelisch ("evangelical"), after the Latin word for "gospel." It was all for the sake of the gospel.

The Protestant movement was messy and disorganized. It was eventually given system and structure by John Calvin. Calvin carried the Reformation further than Luther, and only half of Luther’s followers would go that far. In the Netherlands they did. In the Netherlands, the whole Catholic church was reformed, top to bottom, and it was called the "Reformed Dutch church." Our own congregation was founded as "the Reformed Dutch Church of the Town of Brooklyn". "Old First" is just our nickname. Our official name contains a history. A "reformed" church belongs to the historic Holy Catholic Church, reformed according to the Word of God.

The catalyst of the Reformation was the doctrine of justification by grace through faith. And justification by grace through faith is loud and clear in our gospel lesson for today. The publican went home justified. Not because of anything good he did or said to deserve it, but because of the grace of God, the sheer grace of God, which the publican hung on to, which he desperately hung on to, and this hanging on to grace is what we mean by faith.

What did Jesus mean by the publican being "justified"? Let’s say two different people are applying for green cards. The one person says, I am a good businessman, I already have a bank account with half a million dollars, I speak English very well, and you can imagine I’ll make a good American. The other one says, I can’t speak English, I have no bank account, and some of my friends are terrorists. I cannot demonstrate I’d make a good American. Have mercy on me. And Jesus says that the second one gets the green card.

Who will be a citizen of the Kingdom of God? The main message of Jesus was the coming of the Kingdom of God, on earth as it is in heaven. This kingdom has standards. If you are judged to fit those standards, you are "justified." To be justified is to be given approval by the judge, to be judged as deserving to be a citizen of the Kingdom of God. And what kind of person is deserving? The answer is the paradox of grace. The deserving do not deserve it, for no one deserves it, it’s not about deserving it, it’s all about the grace of God. As if the only requirement for a green card were your absolute need of it. As if above the door of every US immigration office were the words from the Statue of Liberty, "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore, send these, the homeless, tempest-tost, to me." Jesus stands and lifts his lamp beside the golden door of the Kingdom of God.

I am preaching a series on prayer. I’m asking every gospel lesson what it might tell us about prayer. This parable has two prayers in it. The first is the thankful prayer of the righteous man. He was righteous. His being a Pharisee doesn’t make him a bad guy, he was a good guy, and that is the point. His own goodness was the source of his prayer, his own success with righteousness.

The Publican was a bad guy. He was a collaborator and a traitor and an extortioner. He had no righteousness to speak of. All he could pray was "God be merciful to me, a sinner." What he needed was what Martin Luther called "alien" righteousness—"alien" meaning from another place, an outside righteousness, a righteousness not his own, but freely given to him by the sheer grace of God without his deserving it at all. Which God does freely give. The righteousness of Christ, which God grants and credits to you as if you had never sinned nor been a sinner. You can believe it. Take it on faith. God offers it unconditionally, without regard for anything in us at all.

Have you noticed how often the prayers of the gospel are prayers for mercy? The prayer for mercy is the fundamental prayer; your prayer for mercy is the root of all your other prayers, even your prayers of thanksgiving. You always have to start with mercy. To pray for mercy is the purest practice of your faith. Because to keep on praying for mercy, again and again and again, means that you have no grounds to ask upon except for the unconditional promise of God.

Jesus does not tell us that the publican went home and changed his life. We hope he does, he needs to, but even if he doesn’t, he can still keep coming back for mercy. If he doesn’t, the elders may have to exclude from membership for the sake of the rest of the congregation, but he can still keep coming back to God another million times, and keep on being justified. It doesn’t depend on him, it never depends on us, it depends on God, and God does not give up. Ever, ever.

I notice how often I preach about mercy and grace. I have preacher friends whose sermons are more practical, like on how to live the successful Christian life. I do try to preach more of that, but then the gospel keeps dragging me back to this fundamental of grace. So maybe it’s the message that God has called me to repeat. Maybe. I also have to admit that my personal instincts are more catholic than Protestant; not Roman Catholic, but catholic like for tradition and ritual and liturgy. But what keeps me Protestant is this message of free grace that comes to us every week again as news, impossible good news, that we are justified by grace alone through faith.

It doesn’t depend on your living it right, it doesn’t depend on your getting it right or praying it right or believing it right, it doesn’t matter if you’re Protestant or Catholic or even a baptized Christian.

Begin your prayers each day with "Lord have mercy."
That’s my practical message for you today.
Begin your prayers each day with "Lord have mercy," and then maybe "Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy."

God never gets tired of hearing that. Every time God hears it, it’s always like the first time.

Make it the preface to all your other prayers. Because when you do, you’re beginning to pray purely out of faith alone, and from nothing that you have yourself. You are planting yourself down on the deepest bedrock of religion, on God’s own self and nothing else. God invites you there. Again and again, endlessly, unconditionally, God promises to always take you. And when you’re there, you really don’t have to say anything else but "O God, here I am again." And God says,"Yes, you are."

Copyright © 2010, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Sermon for October 10, Proper 23, Prayer is Praising God In This World

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7, Psalm 66:1-12, 2 Timothy 2:8-15, Luke 17:11-19
Note: My intepretation turns on the correct translation of "foreigner" as "allogenes" meaning "other born" (used only here in the whole NT), meaning for Luke something like "born again," and also of the last phrase, "your faith has saved you," not "your faith has made you well." All ten were made well, but not all were saved, and what "saved" means is at issue here.

The disease of leprosy was incurable and a long, slow death. It was contagious, so it made you untouchable. You were cast out of your village and dead to your family; you were dead to the people of God and you could not worship; you were subhuman. And notice that while healthy Jews and Samaritans did not associate, but these ten lepers were together in their misery, for what did it matter now? They live outside the boundaries, they are dead to the world.

Jesus commanded them back to life, a resurrection of their bodies. They were not healed standing there, they had to go as he had said, they had to obey his command, and in their obedience they are made clean. They scattered, no doubt, each one to his own village priest for the ritual certification of being clean again. All ten of them were made well through their faith.

So what is it about this one? The other nine were doing what Jesus had told them, they kept on going to their priests. They figured the Messiah had done his job for them, he had restored them to Israel, they could go back to their normal lives now, they could "build their houses and live in them, they could plant their gardens and eat the produce, they could take their wives again and have their sons and daughters once again." (Jeremiah) They were back, they had returned to normalcy.

The nine were not so wrong, but the one was so right. What made him turn around was more than simple gratitude. He was praising God as he came back. And he came right up close to Jesus instead of keeping his distance as before. He has not yet been certified, but he acts as if he’s already been restored. What does this mean? Jesus was not authorized to certify him clean, but he recognized that Jesus was certainly authorized to make him clean. He read God into it.

So the difference seems to be while he is still on his way to the priest, he realizes that the real thing is not in front of him, but back there behind him. "Back there with that man Jesus is where God came into my life, God was there in Jesus, so I will go back there where Jesus is to thank both him and God." Now I am not saying that at this point the Samaritan believed in the Divinity of Christ, but he seems to have known by faith that God had come to him in Jesus.

And the other nine seem to have missed the remarkable surprise. They went right back to
religion as usual. They did accept the miracle, they did believe what Jesus said, but they missed the full meaning of what had been done to them. Who can blame them for being so eager to get back to their normal lives. But they miss a close encounter with God.

All ten had faith. All ten believed the first command of Jesus and acted on it. But faith has to become more than just believing that God's word is true. Faith is also vision and insight. Faith sees more than observation can. Faith can hear the word of God in the voice of a human being. Faith can see the hand of God in ordinary things. And this one out of ten had a faith that could see that though there was a village priest in front of him, there was a greater priest behind him.

I can imagine the other nine not turning around for fear that if they did so they might not be fully healed. The tenth one actually disobeyed what Jesus said. Doubtless he did go on to the priest eventually, but he interrupted his obedience. For praise and thanksgiving. As if praise and thanksgiving are the whole point of obedience. As if he’s already been restored to his full humanity before his return to his normal life in the village. As if returning to his normal life is not even really the point, but returning in praise and thanksgiving is the point.

So what does it mean to be a human being? To build houses and plant gardens and take our spouses and have children. What people do. The normal things. Or is that not enough? Is that only sub-human too. Not the miserable sub-humanity of the living death of leprosy, but the cheerful sub-humanity of houses and gardens and families and that’s all. Those things are all good, and what God wants for us, but to be a fully human being is to know when to turn from all of that and return to God in praise and thanksgiving.
That’s a fully human being. To be saved is to be made a fully human being. When your faith has saved you, that does mean healing and cleansing, it does mean restoration to the world, but it also means orientation to God. It’s only by your turning to God in praise and thanksgiving that you get the fulness of the world.

In this series of sermons on prayer, I am asking what each of the lessons might tell us about prayer. Well, in this passage there are three kinds of prayer. It opens with all ten of them praying for mercy, just as we do every week. "Jesus, Master, have mercy upon us." (We could sing it.) It is the prayer we pray from out of our misery, from our uncleanness, from our alienation from each other, from the world, and from God.

And it closes with a prayer of praise to God and then a prayer of thanksgiving to Jesus. What praises might he have shouted? "Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah. Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in splendor, doing great wonders? O praise the Lord." What might he have said to Jesus? "Thank you Jesus, thank you for cleansing me, thank you for restoring me to life. Thank you Jesus, thank you Lord."

There are many reasons that we pray, there are many things to pray for. The reason to pray that I put to you today is that we pray in order to be fully realized human beings. It’s not enough just to have houses and gather food and make love and have children to be fully realized human beings. Animals do all that too. But to be a fully realized human being is to be an animal who prays. Who consciously praises God with memory and understanding. Who consciously praises in the middle of both mercy and thanksgiving.
It isn’t enough just to praise God just for the normal things of life, but to see your life in terms of needing mercy and needing to return your thanks, that’s where you have to go in praise to God, and that’s what makes you a fully realized human being. Why do you come to church, why do you worship? To be a fully realized human being, you come to church to pray together with other human beings, you come to church to do together these three things, mercy, thanksgiving, and praise.
Praise is at the center, and mercy and thanksgiving are the frames. Mercy and thanksgiving are about yourself, mercy for your need, and thanksgiving for what you have received, and then praise is not about yourself, but all about God, and how you forget yourself. And the great thing is that this is how you become a fully human being. By losing yourself in praise.

But how can you praise God when the world is so full of sickness and suffering and cruelty and sin? And when you daily find yourself unclean? This is the sober truth of normalcy. But Jesus saves you from normalcy by making you a foreigner to normalcy. By saving you for God, Jesus saves you from the world but also for the world and so Jesus saves the world for you. It has to begin with receiving his mercy. And in his mercy you can enter the world and return from the world in thanksgiving. It is by praying every day for mercy, and by every day returning thanks that you are able to praise God, and that you are able to be a fully realized human being.

It might sound a little foreign, it doesn’t sound normal, but it’s a message of the gospel today. By your faith in Jesus you are saved to be a fully human being, which means to praise God in this real world. So then beloved, pray these things every day. Pray for mercy. Return your thanks. And then you can start to speak of the wonder and greatness of God.

Copyright © 2010, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Sermon for October 3, Proper 22, Prayer is Projecting Anger

Lamentations 1:1-6, Psalm 137, 2 Timothy 1:1-14, Luke 17:5-10
The little parable of the mustard seed is meant to be funny. To command a mulberry tree to do something so unbeneficial, and to make that work of faith. Why not command the mulberry tree to bear more berries, or even why not command the Roman soldiers to "Get pulled out and get lost at sea?" But why something so useless as a work of faith?
And it’s also meant to be funny that Jesus calls for a faith that is smaller when the disciples ask for faith that is greater. They say, "Increase our faith!" He says, "Get it small!" It doesn’t matter how great your faith is. What matters is what your faith is in.

It’s tempting to use the weakness of our faith as an excuse. It’s too hard for me, it’s too hard to believe all this. But is that really the problem? It really comes down to facing the right thing, just the right thing, and just doing it.

Thirty years ago an elder from Massachusetts invited me to come up to his church as a guest preacher. I said, "Well, it’s hard, I’d have to find a substitute preacher for my own church, and I’d have to leave Melody alone with Nick, and I’ve got my doctorate to work on," and then he said, "You want to do it or not?"

There’s a preacher whose blog I follow and on his profile he writes that he "struggles to follow Jesus." Well, I know what he means, and I’ve said that too, but it feels a little self-indulgent, like "Look at me, I’m trying to follow Jesus but it’s so hard." Well, is it the right thing or not? If I’m following Jesus, that’s no big credit for me, it’s what we’re supposed to do.

We think, "O God, please make some allowances for the weakness of my faith." And then I say to myself, "Who do I think I am, that doing the right thing requires so much faith on my part? Of course the right thing is the hard thing. What did I expect? Do am I going to do it or not?"

We have to face our obligations, our obligations as human beings. This is hard for us modern Americans, who see our lives so much in terms of freedom and personal self-fulfillment. Well, yes, the gospel certainly offers us freedom and self-fulfillment, but that comes with obligations.
We need to learn our obligations. It’s one of the most important parts of learning morality. We teach our children their obligations, that they must do them not for applause or reward or even recognition, but simply because they’re the right things to do. For example, I do not think we should applaud our children’s choir after they sing in worship. Not according to Jesus’ parable here. For our children to serve God in worship with their music is their obligation as human beings, and we should distract them from God by our applause. We should just shout "Amen."

This matter of facing our obligations is in the reading from the Lamentations. The writer laments the suffering of Judah at the hands of the Babylonians. So much loss and misery. But the writer knows that their suffering is the result of their own transgressions. For centuries they had not kept up their obligations as God’s chosen people, and finally God said, "Enough, enough indulgence of your self-indulgence, we’re done here." God was hard on them but not unfair.

They figured they deserved their punishment. They believed that God was right to be angry. And they were angry too. You can feel the anger in the passage, in their weeping bitterly. They were angry at their enemies but mostly at themselves. Their anger was mixed with grief. And that is what leads to depression, according to psychologists. It’s a problem many people have. And that’s why in Psalm 137 the singers refused to sing. Anger mixed with grief.

You have to pray it out. You have to pray your anger out. You have to pray out your grief. That’s easier, it’s more acceptable, to pray your grief. But to pray out your anger is harder, maybe because you yourself are partly responsible for what it is you’re angry about. You blew your obligations. So you are angry at yourself. But you look at other people who have blown their obligations and they don’t seem to be suffering as much as you are. So the unfairness comes in the comparison. And that’s the anger and the grief. You have to pray it out. Like in the ending of the Psalm, one of the most difficult passages in the Bible, with its words of hatred and revenge. The Christian church has found those words embarrassing. Can you admit to those very same feelings deep inside you? Can you dare to pray those feelings out to God? You need to.

How much is your anger justified? Of course you think it’s very justified, and maybe at one level it is, like if you were the servant coming in from the field all tired and then you still had to make dinner for your master. You have reasons for your anger and they are real. But then how long will you stand on your reasons and keep yourself angry? Soon your anger starts to empower you. Soon your anger starts to be a pleasure. Soon your anger makes you feel more righteous. Eventually you won’t need to live by faith any more. You have your certainty. You know what’s wrong, and what’s been done wrong to you, and you stand by it.

You have to give your anger up. I mean literally, giving it up. Up to God, giving it in prayer. You cannot give it unless you acknowledge it. Feel your frustration and your grief, your jealousy and your disillusionment, it all feels so damn unfair, you lousy God, what a lousy life I have, what a lousy world you made. "Here God, I give you my anger. You take it, I don’t want it." That’s what faith does. It finds the right target. The right point. A point no bigger than a mustard seed, but the right point, right at God. You plant your prayer in God, and you let God have it, you give it up to God, and you let go of it. Because you don’t want to stay in it, you don’t want that kind of power and that kind of pleasure, because it corrupts you, and besides, who do you think you are to have the privilege of dwelling in your anger?

Commit your anger to God. So you can return to your obligations of serving God and serving other people and living joyfully in the world. It is your obligation to live joyfully in the world, not because you’re so special but because it’s the right thing to do.

When I was a child my parents had family devotions at the dinner table every night, and we read the Bible and we prayed and we had to sing. They considered it our obligation. One of the songs the taught us was from our epistle. "But I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I’ve committed unto him against that day." I learned the melody and the alto and the tenor and finally the bass, but I had no idea what it meant. I doubt my parents understood it in terms of committing to God our anger, that Jesus is able to keep the anger we’ve committed to him against that day.
I think what St. Paul meant is that your own life is too much for me ultimately to understand or even control, so you commit your life to God for God to hold on to it.
Your own future is beyond your ability to manage, so you commit your future to God, for God to hold onto till that final day.
Your part of the world, that little part of the world that’s within your control, you do your best with it, but you admit you haven’t done what you should have done with it, you haven’t lived up to it, but you give it all up to God for God to keep it until God makes good of it.
Your obligations, in which you’ve fallen short, your service to others, so half-hearted and self-serving, you commit it all to God, as a sort of surrender, and there is a little grief in that, which grief is the feeling of the crucifixion, but that’s how you let go of your sovereign self-fulfillment. Not because your faith is so great, but simply because who God is, and it’s the right thing. What freedom that gives you. Most of all, the freedom from yourself.

Copyright © 2010, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Ratner Admits He Has No Plans To Build Affordable Housing

Brooklyn, New York—For his Atlantic Yards project Bruce Ratner promised a grandiose "urban room” and a tax generating office tower at the gridlocked Atlantic and Flatbush intersection at the heart of Brooklyn. He also promised to build "affordable housing.”

None of that is going to happen.

Instead, today the developer unveiled designs for an outdoor "public plaza” where the tower and atrium structure were promised, and told reporters at a press conference that his firm has no plans to build 15 of the 16 towers he promised to build, which would include nearly all of the "affordable” housing Ratner used to sell his plans to Mayor Bloomberg, Governor Paterson and a long list of other politicians.

"Ratner's not-so-pretty drawings of a barricaded, exhaust-enveloped plaza—including the absurd rendered fantasy of a traffic-less Atlantic and Flatbush intersection—is not the Atlantic Yards news of the day. The news of day, which is not surprising but is very troubling, is that Bruce Ratner admitted that he has no plans whatsoever to build the affordable housing he promised or the office tower he promised. It is crystal clear that Atlantic Yards is nothing but a scam, a money-losing arena, surrounded by massive parking lots, in the middle of a housing and unemployment crisis,” said Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn co-founder Daniel Goldstein.

"Bruce Ratner has broken every promise he has made to the public—Mayor Bloomberg, Governors Paterson, Pataki and Spitzer, Marty Markowitz, Senator Schumer, and all the politicians who rammed this debacle down Brooklyn's throat, owe the public a big explanation, and need to take this land back from Ratner since he is not going to meet any of his promises.”

There is one outstanding lawsuit challenging Atlantic Yards. The suit awaits a ruling from a Manhattan State Supreme Court judge. The case made by DDDB and its 21 community co-plaintiffs, is further bolstered by today's admission by Ratner that Atlantic Yards needs a new environmental review as it is not the project that received a rubberstamp environmental approval in 2006. The case was argued on June 30th.

Friday, September 24, 2010

An Albino Gray Squirrel in Prospect Park

Photo taken just north of the Picnic House, September 13, 2010

Sermon for September 26, Proper 21: Prayer is Asking for Help

You can't always get what you want.
You can't always get what you want.
You can't always get what you want.
Buf if you try sometime, you find
You get what you need.
(The Glitter Twins)
Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15, Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16, 1 Timothy 6:6-19, Luke 16:19-31
This is the only parable in which Jesus gives a character a name, so the name of the beggar is a key to the parable. What "Lazarus" means is "God helps."
At the beginning of the parable the rich man doesn’t think he needs God’s help, because his life is just fine. At the end of the parable he’s asking Lazarus to be sent back to help his brothers who are just like he was. Abraham answers that sending him back will not help them. They want to be blind. They want to be deaf to the words of Moses. They want to be self-indulgent and self-satisfied.

The parable has play in it—the rich man was being helped by Lazarus all along, just by lying at his door, just by his painful presence, he was offering the rich man a chance to be caring and kindly and generous. He was giving the rich man the chance to practice what Moses said about helping the needy and the poor. Lazarus was helping the rich man to be righteous and godly and faithful and loving and patient and gentle. But the rich man refused the help.
(You know we’ve been praying in this church for passionate spirituality. I wonder if God has answered our prayer by sending us Joe and Lacey. We cannot help them except by practicing passionate spirituality.)

What kind of help do you want from God? What kind of help do you pray for? It is right for you to ask for ordinary kinds of help. Jesus tells you this, in the Lord’s Prayer—you pray for your daily bread and you pray that God will save you from the time of trial. And when you pray Psalm 91, you pray for rescue and deliverance, you pray for safety in time of trouble. And in the Psalm God promises that, "When they call to me I will answer them."

People have been praying for help to the gods and goddesses since our evolution from the other primates. Help us when we hunt for meat. Help us when we plant our crops and harvest them. Help us in childbirth, help us in sickness, and help us when we die. The prayer for help is the most basic kind of prayer there is. You should do it. And the kind of help you pray for depends on the kinds of gods or goddesses you believe in.

The God we believe in is the God of Israel. The God we believe in is a covenantal God. A covenantal God is a God of faithful relationships, a God of promises, a God who talks to us, to everyone of us. The talk of God is recorded in the Bible, for the purpose that everyone of us can know what God says equally and publically. And what God has said is how God helps us. God helps us in many subtle ways, but the basic way God helps us is by what God has said.
That’s how God was helping the rich man, by what God said through Moses. God was helping the rich man to be a righteous man, but the rich man refused that help by ignoring what God had said.

God does not help us like the other gods and goddesses were thought to, by special favors here and there, by special preferences depending on how they like us. I know that many believers have this view of God today. "God help me with this, God give me that." Now I am not saying you should not pray like that. You should. "God help me get this a job. God help me with this task. God give us success, God bless our crops and industry, God heal me from this illness, God save me from death." Yes, pray that way. But you must pray this way by faith in God.

Whatever help you ask from God, you also need to say, "And let your will be done." Whatever particulars you ask of God, you also need to trust God’s providence. You need to trust that the providence of God for you may differ from the help you’re asking for. I know it personally. For many years I prayed for help in one thing and what God helped me with was something else, which now I’m very grateful for. But I still pray for help in terms of what I can see right now.

You see the dynamic with Jeremiah. Jeremiah was in jail and Jerusalem was under siege. The help that they were asking for was different than the help that God would give them. God would not free them now, because the siege was from God’s judgment. But God would give them back their future. They could count on it. You can invest in it, even if it’s right now under evil occupation. The help God gave to Jeremiah was help for his faith and for his hope.

This is the second sermon in my series on prayer. This week I’m saying that prayer is asking for help. Last week I said that prayer is managing the contradictions of our lives. These two aspects work together. Because as soon as you ask for help, you deal with the contradiction of your predicament against God’s promises. This disconnect, this gap, this chasm sometimes, this evident contradiction is what drives you to live by faith and hope and love. But God helps you with your faith and your hope by giving you all these wonderful words that feed your faith. You needs these words to keep believing, there are so many contradictions in the Christian life that if you don’t keep repeating the words of God your faith will fail.

But God helps you with another gift as well, the gift of the Holy Spirit, inside you, which you must believe is given to you without your having to feel it. This is the gift of God’s own power and personality inside you to help you understand God’s word that you can believe it, and the fire of God inside you to give you the hope you need to cross the disconnect, and the love of God inside you to give you the love you need to manage the contradictions in your life.

So what is the help that you should pray for? Let me repeat that you should keep on praying for the usual kinds of help. You should pray for help in time of need, in time of birth or illness or death, help to get that job, help to get that house, help to make ends meet, help for daily bread and help in time of trial and temptation. The typical particulars.

But you should also pray for the special help of the God of Israel, which is the help of God’s word and God’s spirit. Help me with your word, O God, and help me with your spirit, and then help me with these other things as well. You can keep on praying for the typical particulars if you also pray for the help of God’s word and God’s spirit.

But now let me exhort you to some atypical particulars, some unusual kinds of help to pray for. They’re in the epistle, chapter 6:11: "pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness." The way that I suggest you pursue them is to pray for them. Pray for help in getting that job, and also pray for help in righteousness. Pray for help in doing your job, and also pray for help in godliness. Pray for help in your finances, and also pray for help in living by your faith. Pray for help in dealing with your family, and also pray for help in love. Pray for help in healing your sickness, and also pray for help with endurance. Pray for help in having success in your life, pray for help in achieving your dreams and purposes, pray for help in making a difference in the world, and also pray for help with gentleness. Not just for yourself, but for our witness.

Our nation needs it desperately right now. Our nation is being ruined by the love of money, which is the opposite of godliness. All the evils that our nation is facing today have entangled roots, but at least one root of all of them is the love of money. And Christians who love money cannot be godly in their Christianity and cannot be gentle in their way of life. The religion that is needed by America is one of gentleness. Not a godliness of wars or violence or opposition or of burning books, but a godliness of gentleness. Not from weakness, but gentle from the strength of our endurance, gentle from the long endurance of our love, gentle from the toughness of our faith in God, gentle from our desire for righteousness.

God help us to be righteous and godly and gentle. God help us with your spirit and help us with your word. And having helped us with these first, then help us with everything else as well.

Copyright © 2010, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Ordeal of the Sermon

Click right here for a link to my short essay on preaching which was just published in Perspectives: A Journal of Reformed Thought.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Sermon for September 19, Proper 20: Prayer is How To Manage Contradictions

Jeremiah 8:18-9:1, Psalm 79:1-9, 1 Timothy 2:1-7, Luke 16:1-13

Some of Jesus’ parables are difficult. Like this one. Does Jesus really approve of a the dishon­est manager? Is Jesus really advocating kickbacks? Doesn’t this contradict morality?

Remember that a parable is a story told on a curve. Jesus throws it like a curve ball. The pitch comes at you looking straight, and then at the plate it suddenly drops, and it moves inside and outside, where you don't expect it. A parable has play in it, it teases you, it resists you, it offends you, it judges you, and you have to let yourself be judged. To get it you have to give in to it. You can't stay standing in your normal stance. Your ideals of the good fall short of the actual reality of the world, the fallen world, the world which God loves but which is also under judgment.

A couple details. Verse 9: “Eternal homes” is literally, “pavilions of the age,” the pavilions of the kingdom that is coming. Think of great big party tents, pavilions of public feasting in the age to come, after the final judgment. To be part of that celebration then suggests you live right now in contradiction to including yourself among the best and the brightest. And you will be a lonely person in the kingdom of God if you try to stand on the goodness and the rightness of your mor­al­ity and your mind. Give that up. Be accepted for the silly reality of what you are.

The word “wealth” is “mammon.” It doesn’t mean great wealth, but the common wealth of common people, your ordinary capital, your ordinary equity, your share in the economy of ordi­nary life. “Dishonest wealth” is a better translation than “unrighteous wealth.” Unclean wealth, unkosher wealth, crooked wealth. Like Jesus’ people having to use the Roman coinage with Cae­sar’s image on it, a constant violation of the second commandment. Just to participate in the eco­nomy was to keep breaking the commandment, making all their wealth unrighteous, no matter how honest their dealings or innocent their intentions.

Like our own participation in a world economy with its capitalist concen­tra­tion of economic power, in a glo­b­al system which increases the wealth of the wealthy and the poverty of the poor, exhausting our natural resources, and polluting the planet. We enjoy its benefits, but if we hold to the stance that our economic life is morally respectable or acceptable or even neutral, then this parable whizzes right by us, and we strike out. This parable has judged us. We are trying to serve two masters. We want to serve God, but we want to preserve our economic loyalties. So we all of us have to let ourselves be judged in order to face the reality of the contradictions of our life in this world every day. None of us can claim the stance of having solved it or of gotten it right. The wisdom here is for each of you to admit that whatever wealth you have is somewhat crooked.

The manager in the parable solved his problem by giving kickbacks. But the real point is that he did not try to defend himself or even plead his case. He just faced his own unrighteousness. You do the same, don’t stand on your innocence, just come to terms with your unrighteous­ness, be as shrewd in your own predicament as the manager was in his. Accept the judgment of God, don’t argue it or deny it. Accept yourself as contradictory. Don’t try to show the rightness of your mind or your morality. Don’t keep swinging. Just take the four balls. Get on base with a walk. Forget about your batting average. Live by grace, God=s grace, live by undeserved grace.

This sermon is the first in a series on prayer. Each week I’ll be asking the scripture lessons what they might tell us about prayer. This morning I’m saying that prayer is how we manage the contradictions of the world and the contradiction of our own selves. Look at the prayer which is Psalm 79. The Psalm comes to God with a problem. O God, we are supposed to be your chosen people, but look at our predicament. “The heathen have conquered the promised land, the temple is defiled, and Jerusalem is a ruin.” What happened to your promises, what hap­pened to your faithfulness? “The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved. How long, O Lord, will you be angry forever? Help us, deliver us, and forgive our sins, for your name’ sake.”

The prayers of Israel hold up the contradictions. The prayers of Israel are not idealistic, they do not smooth things over, they do not try to solve the contradictions or make things all add up. The prayers of Israel manage the contradictions just by holding them up to God. “Here is the situ­ation, we cannot solve it or resolve it, we will not pretend we understand it, we will not pretend that we are in the right, we will only say that we need you desperately, and your forgiveness.”

The spirituality that is popular today prefers an idealistic unity. You know, everything comes together as one, and it all makes sense. But organized religion confronts us with contradictions. The liturgy in church gives words to the contradictions you live with every day, not least the contradiction of yourself. They way you manage your contradictions is by holding them up to God, by trusting in God=s mysterious responsibility, and kneeling down in your mind and body.

In St. Paul’s day, the greatest contradiction was to be the citizen of an empire that would kill you if it really understood what you believed. There was no separation of church and state, and Caesar claimed to be Savior, Lord, and Son of a God. When St. Paul made that very same claim for Jesus, he was being seditious. To be a Christian in the Roman Empire was to be in constant contradiction. The eventual persecution was inevitable, once the authorities figured it out. And yet St. Paul exhorted Timothy to keep praying for God to bless the authorities.
We do that too. We pray together, we hold up to God this world of contradictions and conflict, and we hold up to God the predicament of our own inescapable unrighteousness. Prayer is not a solution, it’s not a resolution, but it is an engagement, and an action, and an active reconciliation. And it’s the only way to live in love within the midst of all the frustration and the anger and the hatred.

I have told you this story once before, and it’s not a parable, so I’m telling it to you straight. I know a woman named “Deborah”, from Chile, in South America. She is a jeweler, but she was also a political activist, and she had worked in opposition to the dictator General Pinochet. She got ar­rested and interrogated by the CIA and tortured. They broke her fingers and her hands were soft like rags. One of the torturers demanded that she maker her a ring like the one they had taken from her. How could she do this? With her hands like this? For her tor­tur­er? She said she would do it if she could also make something special for herself. The torturer shouted, “Nothing political.” Deborah answered, “No, I want to make a Star of David. I am a Jew.”

It took her five days to make that piece of jewelry. As she made it she could feel her fingers heal and her hands made whole. She told me that the whole time she was making it, she could sense the Sheki­nah of God—the glorious presence of God—right there in the prison with her.

You can believe this story. It is true. Her making that jewelry was a kind of prayer. You can do the same thing when you pray, if not so extreme. If you want to pray, begin by choosing one of the psalms of contradiction, giving words to the contradiction of yourself and of the world. Pray that same psalm over every day. The solution will not come to you in the logic of philoso­phy or science or even theology. And it will not come to you in your feelings but in your faith. Your solution is the humble silence of the knowledge of God, the knowledge of the mystery of God and the grace of God.
Yes, you can start your praying with the Psalms of Israel. And I can offer you real hope, from my own experience and the experience of many other people, that if you keep on praying the Psalms, you will make yourself be present to God and God will be present to you. The hope you have is not a feeling but a being. God’s own person is your hope.
Copyright © 2010, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.
Please note: the piece of jewelry at the top of this posting is the actual piece of jewelry that Deborah made in prison.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Sermon for September 12, Proper 19, Nine Years After Nine Eleven

Photos courtesy of Jane Barber
Jeremiah 4:11-12, Psalm 14, 1 Timothy 1:12-17, Luke 16:1-13

Jesus poses these two parables as questions. “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep,” and then, “What woman, having ten silver coins.” To the second one the answer is obvious: “Any woman would.” But to the first one the answer is the opposite: “No one would.” No one would stupidly risk the ninety-nine for the sake of the one. You would simply write off that last sheep as normal business management. What’s a one percent loss, when standard depreciation is ten percent?

The answers are opposite, but Jesus combines these two parables. He means that your answer to the second question makes you go back again to the first question and answer it contradictorily.
Not “No one would,” but “Anyone of us should risk the ninety-nine to save the one.” Jesus is saying, “Maybe you wouldn’t do it, but I would.” The Messiah would. The Messiah would because God does. To God, every lost person is of inestimable worth, the most despicable, the least acceptable, the most unfit. To bring such a one is what God rejoices in.

It’s what the cops and firemen and rescue workers did, nine years ago, while the buildings were still burning, and then in the first days after the attack. They counted every last lost person to be of inestimable value, no matter who it was. Even at the cost of their own lives. Which one of you would do the same?

You know that my coming here as your pastor was bound up with 9/11. Nine years ago, on the Sunday after the attack, I preached my candidating sermon, and on these same scripture lessons. They were remarkably relevant, especially the Jeremiah text, which gave words to the disaster. First, God speaking:“A hot wind comes from me out of the desert, toward my poor people, not to winnow or to cleanse, a wind too strong for that. Now it is I who speak in judgment against them.” Then the prophet reporting, “I looked on the earth, and it was waste and void, and to the heavens, but they had no light. I looked, and the birds had fled, I looked, and the cities were laid in ruins before the Lord, before his fierce anger.”

Nine years ago some fundamentalist preachers interpreted the terrorist attack as the judgment of God on America, for this sin or for that. They were wrong. I can tell you that God does not use such violent means to judge us. Our Reformed tradition teaches that all such violent kinds of judgment came to a definite and discernible ending at the death of Christ. God’s judgments are simply and cleanly offered in the words of the scriptures, God’s judgments are freely and earnestly offered for your reading and your understanding. God does not communicate with us by sending us sickness or loss or terror, God does not use violence of any kind to judge us. God judges us graciously in the words of Jesus and the apostles, God judges us faithfully in words of the law and the prophets. We read and mark and learn these words, we inwardly digest them, and by God’s grace we judge ourselves.

9/11 was not a judgment sent from God, but it was certainly an incentive and opportunity for our self-examination. Not to excuse the terrorists, but for us to fall to our own knees for mercy. To return to the Gospel, to judge ourselves by the Law of God again, because it’s always our privilege to be judged by God. Yes, it is our privilege to judge ourselves by the Word of God.

Those preachers were wrong to say that God had sent those terrorists as a judgment on America, but I prefer that mistake to so many of the later co-options of 9/11, as we are seeing now again. To stir up anger against the rest of the world and to respond to the violence with our own violence and our own Christian holy war. As if America had the right to righteous anger, as if we are a special sacred Christian nation about to be profaned by the knees of Muslim men at prayer. As if it were God’s job only to bless America and not to judge us. As if our society does not stand in constant need of mercy. And losing our conviction of needing mercy, our nation is losing our capacity for joy.

The gospel reveals the truer legacy of 9/11, that of the shepherd risking everything for that one sheep, the firemen in the stairwells giving their lives to save the lost, and then digging in the rubble for one more survivor or their last remains, the legacy that every single person, no matter what race or religion, is a silver coin of absolute value. We Christians stand for a society which spares no effort in the rescue of every victim—the victims of terrorists, but also the forgotten victims of our ordinary way of life, the unnoticed victims of the underside of our economy and those who live in the shadows of our great society. We Christians stand for an America that is rich in reconciliation and most powerful in mercy.

Our scripture lessons speak of judgment and of joy. These two words are joined by the hinge of mercy. Mercy is rich. Mercy is grace and generosity. Mercy is self-giving and self-sacrifice. We stand in mercy, we can stand up straight in mercy when we have bowed down low in receiving mercy from a righteous God who judges us in love and reconciliation. We accept the privilege of being judged by God, we come to know ourselves in terms of mercy, and what that yields in us is joy. From judgment through mercy to joy. We Christians and Jews and Muslims are alive to the mysteries of mercy, and we stand for a society which God blesses by judging, not by violence but in God’s word, which calls us out to joy. Not this anger that we see today, not this hatred, this bitterness, this self-righteousness, this fear. But judgment and mercy and joy.

I don’t remember what I said in that sermon I preached nine years ago. I don’t remember having noticed that I preached it on the twenty-first anniversary of my ordination. As Abraham Lincoln said, “the world will little note nor long remember what we say here.” I don’t expect you to long remember what I tell you on my thirtieth anniversary. But I offer you my testimony, which echoes the testimony of the Apostle Paul in our second lesson.

I can tell you without reserve that I have never been so joyful in my life. Oh yes, I have my burdens and frustrations, I have my own share of grief that I live with, but these are only the sandbars in the daily river of my joy. When I came back from Canada I found myself joyful to get back to work. It gives me so much joy to be the pastor of this church, that I should be here now, with you.

It gives me so much joy to have you people in my life, with all your personalities and your talents and your interests and your desires and your trouble. It gives me joy to face the challenges we share. It gives me joy to have the privilege of leading you, of preaching to you and teaching you, of interpreting the Bible for you—that I get to study the Bible on your behalf, that I get to pray for you and be prayed for by you. Who am I? That I should serve a church that has welcomed an imam to pray here? That I should serve a church that hosts a synagogue for High Holy Days? That I can worship with Jews right here in our own sanctuary is a high point in my ministry. That I should serve a Reformed church that celebrates holy communion every week, that I serve a church that welcomes everyone no matter what their sexuality, that I serve church that welcomes me, that I should serve a congregation 356 years old—O brave old church, that has such people in it.

But most of all it gives me such great joy that I have been the recipient of so much mercy. Mercy from my children, mercy from my family and my friends, mercy from the consistory, mercy from the classis, mercy from those who love me and mercy from those who don’t. I accept all of your judgments of me as true. And I thank you for your mercy. Especially the mercy of my wife, my companion and my lover and the chief joy my life. But most of all, the mercy of God. New every morning, I stand in mercy every day, and that’s what generates my joy.

Look at that stained glass window there, the triptych in the north wall. Notice all the colors in it, the joyful colors in it, the signs of the bread and the wine, the banquet of our joy. And look Jesus and the sheep. That’s where I see myself today. The Lord Jesus there, he daily comes to find me in his mercy. He counts me worthy to stand next to him, and he carries me when I need carrying. He is the savior who saves me and brings me safe to God, and I am joyful to serve him as my Lord.

Copyright © 2010, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Sermon for September 5, Proper 18, "The Unbearable Lightness of Being"

(Painting by Sir Stanley Spencer) Jeremiah 18:1-11, Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18, Philemon 1-21, Luke 14:25-33

Why was Jesus so extreme, that you have to give up all your possessions? Does it even work? Wouldn’t you just be dependent on someone else who has possessions? Like a Buddhist monk? ike St. Francis of Assisi and Mother Teresa? Or let’s say you have small children—there’s a lot of plastic toys you could give up, but all your possessions would be irresponsible. Now I don’t like to resort to not taking Jesus literally. His words are clear. But how do we obey him and still have a realistic life?

Jesus is on his campaign toward Jerusalem. The crowds keep increasing. They think that Jesus is leading a regime change, and they want to be on his side when it happens. They’re excited, his kingdom is at hand. So Jesus gives them fair warning. "I want you under no illusions. What I will deliver is not what you’re expecting. It may cost you everything. Whatever you value, let go of it now, or do not follow me."

That was the message for them. What’s the message for us? Does God mean to scare us off? You want to get close to God, that’s why you’re here, you are drawn to Jesus, you want him to make a difference in your life, but when you get close to him, he turns around and talks like this, to renounce all your substance and your relationships and all that you hold precious.

We should not soften this hard saying of Jesus. "To follow me you must give up all your possessions." Let’s keep it as something hard and challenging, something to reckon with. If you have a place on your refrigerator for nice sayings, add a place for hard sayings, and put this one there. Jesus presents us with a problem we cannot solve, or make to go away. He gives you a problem to live with all your life. You have to keep coming back to this and measuring yourself against it, examine yourself, judge yourself. Always question the reasons by which you convince yourself that you need this thing, or that connection, or this arrangement.

God places no value on your affluence. God has no interest in protecting your possessions for you, or of getting you more of them. That’s not what God does for you. God’s opinion about your possessions is right here in Luke 14. We have to keep coming back to that. We keep returning to the sober realization that the Christian life is as often a life of loss as it is of gain. It will cost you. Especially when you’re aiming for justice and righteousness in a world that is bent towards injustice and ungodliness, then you will often feel like you are losing, not winning. In this world, to accomplish any real kind of moral change requires that you must sacrifice, maybe even your life.

That’s the meaning of carrying your cross. When Jesus said these words to the crowd, the cross was not yet the religious symbol of Christianity. When Jesus said these words to the crowd the cross was a symbol of Roman domination. Rome had occupied their country, they were a subject people, they had no civil rights, even in their own land they were not citizens. The punishment of crucifixion was one of the things that kept them in line. It was a slow and painful death in the full view of the public, to keep the people down. When they saw you carrying your cross, you were a dead man walking. Unfairly or not, you were a goner.

"Jesus, is that what you’re saying, that we should live as losers to the power of the world, surrendering to injustice? Can’t we be winners, can’t we be heroes? Are you saying not to arm ourselves against oppression, not to stand with courage and fight it, risking death with pride? You mean to surrender to it, like losers with our crosses on our shoulders?"

No. It’s precisely because Jesus did not surrender that they killed him. It’s because he kept saying exactly what he wanted and did exactly as he willed. In that sense they had no power over him. He was free to the end, but he knew it would cost him. How much do you want to be free?

If you are carrying your cross, you cannot carry a sword. When will the world ever learn this? That the only way to accomplish any justice and progress in the world is not by carrying weapons but by carrying the cross. Every movement, and every nation, must return to this.

Notice that Jesus says, "Your own cross." Not the Roman cross. Three times he says it, "one’s own cross." The Romans may seem to be the problem, and while it is true that they are unfair, the real problem is always yourself. It also means that it’s not your possessions themselves that are your problem, but you who possesses them. It’s your possessing that you have to renounce and let go of—the world you build around yourself, how you define yourself, what you’re invested in. Your problem is not what you have but your having. Your enemy is you.

I once had a parishioner whose husband treated her badly. She put up with it, and always said, "He is my cross to bear." No he’s not. That’s not right. She was bearing her husband’s cross instead of her own. As long as she was bearing his, he didn’t have to, and she was kept from bearing her own. The possession she had to give up was her marriage to that man. But had she done that, all her family would have reviled her. Her husband’s family, yes, but her own family too. They would have accused her of disloyalty and selfishness.

That’s what Jesus means when he says you have to hate your father and mother, he doesn’t mean the internal emotion, he means the external reputation, that your family accuses you of not considering them, or of not loving them enough. They act all offended at you, and sometimes that’s the cost of discipleship. They may cut you off from their good graces and their sympathy; and that’s when you realize that you have begun to carry your cross. "If you follow me to Jerusalem, these are the issues and trials and temptations you will face. Are you ready for it?"

Discipleship is a stretch. Christians have to stretch towards obedience and devotion. Yet your discipleship is the most important thing in your life, even worth dying for. Not as a hero—heroes don’t get crucified, they win. No, in the far less glamorous service of ordinary life, of family life, the way you deal with your parents or your spouse or your kids or your own siblings, that’s where discipleship is costly. And in ordinary economic life, the things you buy and sell, the things you own, what you take care of. Everything counts. We’re always counting the cost of discipleship.

The crowd got bigger anyway, even as he entered Jerusalem. But when the pressure got too high they deserted him. He cost too much. Finally even the twelve disciples deserted him. They didn’t want to get near any crosses. So on the basis of what he says here, did that mean that they could no longer be his disciples? Does this mean that none of us can be his disciples?

You know, ironically, Jesus didn’t carry his own cross even though he died on it. An African named Simon of Cyrene carried it for him. There’s a mystical exchange in the gospel. Jesus did the dying so that you don’t have to. Jesus does the dying but not the carrying, You do the carrying but not the dying. His death has virtue for you, to free you from the domination of death. If you carry your cross, you will die not on it, but in peace. You are not carrying it towards the crucifixion but away from it.

There is a mystery of exchange and substitution here, of ransom and replacement. Your cross is for yourself, your reminder of the challenges of Jesus in terms of the life ahead, very down-to-earth. You measure yourself only by his words, and that gives you freedom. You discover that the cross is light. It looks terribly heavy until you shoulder it, and then it’s light. When you have given up everything, in the way that Jesus says, you discover that the unbearable lightness of your being is not unbearable but joyful. You carry your cross away from the crucifixion, you carry it lightly, as a testimony of your gratitude and thanksgiving.

Copyright © 2010, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Two Poems from 1984

Both are by my wife, Melody Takken Meeter, and originally published in the Reformed Journal.

Easter Sermon

The Pastor’s hands rise lightly as petals
above the lilies massed around the pulpit.

My eyes challenge him:
this week I read some theology, a book by Pannenberg,
and held my breath to watch him coolly discarding miracles
like the first drafts of the early church.
Virgin birth, angel chorus, healed lepers, Cana wine, demon swine,
none passed through his literary ordeals.

But at the Resurrection Pannenberg paused,
like an amazed reporter watching the unknown runner
win the big race.
He saw the body,
running secretly through the long years,
Body that rising burned its shroud
and burned its way through history home to us.

Today I challenge you, Pastor,
to spare us the pastel prose
delivered with eyes averted
as from His own naked body:
if Christ died for good, two thousand years ago,
then I confess nothing but that
a rose is not a rose
and those lovely lilies smell like death.

A nurse brings our new daughter
plus the new Time magazine
from its cover stares a child
whose tiny cranium curved toward death
forms a bony question mark
whose ribs like razors
pierce the sweet skin from the inside out
to underline the question:
Where is God?
while my daughter, placid as a frog,
sucks abundant life from me
center of her universe.
I dream about a demon
a charred face bloody face
calls me from a doorway calls
my name
His robe of pleated light
fans in and out like gills
in each fold I read my fear
in fear I follow
down stairs that fall forever into black
I fall but reaching wildly out
the only solid thing I touch is terror
I cry and shake myself awake
certain that my daughter died in sleep.
Drops of water on my daughter make her frown
buried in water down she goes
down to the hell that Jesus knows
down to the blackness in my dream
down in the darkness to get clean.
Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, here’s our daughter,
be pleased to make the most of her.
Open her instinctive fists,
like ours, ready to protest
any lowered standard of living
or one pinch more than a tenth of giving.
We give her, with misgivings, to the One
who sometimes like a demon comes
and takes us down to sight-see hell
where starving children wait in cells.
Daughter, receive your dripping crown
with its dubious title to travel down
shouldering your pain and everyone else’s;
gloria in excelsis.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Thanks for the Time Off

Dear Friends:

1. My previous sermon I had posted on July 2, but I considerably revised it in the preaching, and that version is now posted in its place.

2. On Thursday, Melody and I will leave for a couple weeks' vacation at Bobs Lake, Ontario. After Melody comes back to Brooklyn to work, I will stay at Bobs Lake for a week of reading (Kiergekaard, among others) and then two weeks of writing. Thank you, Old First, for your wonderful support.

3. One of our young church members, Derek Keire, said a wonderful thing to me yesterday morning. He's only six, but this is what he said: "Pastor Meeter, I still get thrilled every time I get to go to church."

Do you see how I have the best job in the world?

Love, Daniel

Thursday, July 01, 2010

July 4, Proper 9, The Kingdom of God Is Near (revised July 5)

2 Kings 5:1-14, Psalm 30, Galatians 6:1-16, Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

The kingdom of God, the kingdom of God, the kingdom of God. It’s the key to understanding Jesus in the gospels, what he said and what he did. It’s also the key to understanding the Pharisees, who were trying to earn their version Kingdom of God, and the Sadducees too, who were trying to hang on to their version of the Kingdom of God. They had a three-way debate about the Kingdom of God.

What does it mean, the Kingdom of God? The reign of God, the dominion of God, the sovereignty of God, the Lordship of God, the government of God, the policies of God, the laws of God, the economy of God, the Gross Domestic Product of God, the commonwealth of God, the realm of God, the nation of God, the population of God. A kingdom is political, but it is also more personal than a republic, because a kingdom has a single person at its center, who is the object of your loyalty.

In our gospel story Jesus is acting like he’s the king of the kingdom of God. In a double way. First, he’s acting like his ancestor David in his approach to the city of Jerusalem. While in previous years he had come to Jerusalem as a rabbi, this year his approach is a campaign. Second, his appointment of the Seventy is a recapitulation of what God had told Moses, in Numbers 11, as the campaign of the Israelites approached to occupy the Promised Land, liberating it from the demons who were worshiped by the Canaanites. At that time the only King of Israel was the Lord God, so here in Luke, Jesus is not only acting like David and but even acting like God. It was a daring thing for a man like Jesus to act like the God of Israel—who does he think he is. Well, the Lord!

The Kingdom of God, the Lordship of Jesus is approaching, and to every town and village his seventy reps are announcing he is coming. The people will be nervous. What does it mean he’s coming, with his kingdom? Will it mean judgment? Yes. But it also means peace, and healing, and liberation from the demonic powers of the world. You might call it counter-insurgency, you might compare it to NATO moving through the villages of Afghanistan to liberate the people from the power of the Taliban, or you might avoid that comparison, because the strategy of Jesus is the epitome of peace. The only weapon of Jesus is the power of his Word—the good news of his Lordship and that all that he taught and did these last three years are true.

Now let me make this personal. What does it mean for you to be a Christian? In functional terms, for most of us, it means we go to church. Which is good, and necessary. Now I suppose you don’t absolutely have to go to church to be a Christian, but that’s like saying you don’t have to eat vegetables to be a human being. Going to church is the vegetables of being a Christian. But the church is not the goal of being a Christian. The church is the means, the necessary means, a means ordained by God and even expected of us by God, but it’s still a means and not an end.

So, while in functional terms, to go to church is what it means to be a Christian, in Biblical terms it means to live within the kingdom of God. To live within the realm of God and the sovereignty of God, in the economy of God and among the population of God. We do church in order to be gathered into this kingdom and protected within this kingdom and to learn and to practice this kingdom’s policies and economy and ecology—the policies of peace and the economy of reconciliation and the ecology of love.

The kingdom of God is the favorite theme of Jesus in the gospels. In Matthew, Jesus calls it "the kingdom of heaven", because heaven is its capital, and because the kingdom arches over everything. In John, Jesus calls it "life" and "abundant life" and "eternal life." St. Paul’s phrase for the kingdom of God is "the power of the resurrection." When the Book of Acts talks about "salvation," it means being rescued from the power of sin and empire of death and preserved for the life of the Lordship of Christ. Salvation is not just a private and personal thing, it’s a whole campaign, it’s a movement, a movement of history, in the principalities and powers of the world. It must be as large as a new creation, considering who the Lord is at the center of this sovereignty.

But it is personal. It is for you. The kingdom of God is for you in your particular personality and circumstance. You can see it in this wonderful story in our first lesson, from the book of Second Kings. I love this story for its charm and irony and gentle humor.

Look, why didn’t God just heal Naaman from his leprosy right there in Damascus, directly, without any prophetic intervention? God could have done so, which we know because God had given Naaman his victories in battle with the Kingdom of Israel, directly, without any prophetic intervention. But that’s not what God did, because this story is about the Kingdom of God and its affect on Naaman, and how he entered it.

At that time the Kingdom of of God had a particular manifestation in the Kingdom of Israel, with its capital in Samaria. And because of its idolatry and its disobedience to the Torah, God was judging it, and using Naaman’s victories to do so, though without Naaman’s recognition. Naaman must have regarded the God of Israel a very weak god indeed, unable to defend his people from their enemies. But the Sovereignty of God is never limited to its particular manifestations.
Indeed, in Israel, the Kingdom of God was not bound to the pretenders in the capital, but represented by the loyal opposition, the community of the prophet Elisha; humble, and without an army, and comparatively powerless, but loyal to the name of God.

Naaman has to come here to be healed, to the hidden realm of God within the Kingdom of Israel. And once he gets here, yes, the prophet could have come out and waved his hand and ordered the leprosy to go away, but there’s a reason that he’s commanded to wash in the Jordan River. He has to pass through the waters. The Children of Israel had to pass through the Red Sea on their way out of Egypt, out of the empire of their bondage, and they had to pass through the Jordan River on their entrance into the promised land, the realm of God. The water is a boundary, a kingdom boundary. You have to enter the kingdom to be healed. Even Naaman has to enter the kingdom to be healed. And his entering the kingdom is the same thing as his healing.

The story tells us he was tempted by his pride. Just the thought of standing naked on the river bank before his retinue—in Middle Eastern culture it is a shameful thing to show your nakedness. And even more shameful they all would see his leprous skin. But I guess he was a brave man to begin with, and I guess that "for the sake of the hope that was set before him he could despise the shame."

And I am guess that he was tempted by his fear. For what if it didn’t work, and all this self-exposure was for nothing? Suddenly I love this man, this Naaman, not only for taking the advice of his little slave girl, but also for taking the admonitions of his servants, how truly brave was that (the greatest bravery is to be humble and to admit your mistake), and so desperate to be clean.

Sympathize with him, going in once, and coming back out still leprous. Going back in and coming back out, still leprous. A and all his retinue are watching, and hiding their eyes, and counting, four, five, six, seven, and then the relief, and the joy, and the vindication of the name of God, that this God of Israel really does have power to save, and that the power of God’s judgment, if you just accept God’s promises, is very much the power to save. You, yes, you in your particular personality and circumstance.

You can be saved from yourself, from your pride and from your fear. You can have power to despise your shame, though that requires going through some salutary humiliation. You have to let yourself be washed, and that requires some exposure, and humility, for it’s like the elderly in nursing homes. But your retinue is on your side. We are your retinue, this congregation.

So is the reason to be a Christian. This what it means for the kingdom of God to come near you. That a sovereign God does this with you, personally, but not narrowly, as if it’s for yourself, but for your full participation in the people of God and policies and plans of God. You don’t have to rise to it, it has come near you, just keep coming every week and believe the words you hear and accept the forgiveness of your sins and eat with everyone else the food that is set out before you.

Every Sunday, when you confess your sins and accept the absolution—this is not just a merely personal thing, a self-help thing. This is a kingdom thing, this is your renewal of your citizenship, you reclaim your loyalty to your sovereign and your freedom from other bondages. And when you pass the peace, that’s not just a "nice hello," it’s a kingdom thing, because this is the peaceable kingdom. You are doing what the Seventy did in every town and village.

Some last words about the playfulness in this story, and the irony. The prophet Elisha doesn’t want to leave his crossword puzzle just to see Naaman, so he sends his servant out, which Naaman takes as an insult. You know, the gospel is that matter of fact, it’s nothing magical, it’s almost too simple for us to believe. And then the servants of Naaman are wiser than he is, as the little exiled slave girl was smarter and more confident than the king of Israel.

I think the irony expresses our real experience of the Kingdom of God in this world, how often weak it seems, and powerless, and how silly the church can be, and how halting our efforts at righteousness, and often other religions are ahead of us on some good things and other charities outperform us on healing the world. Take some comfort in the irony, and get used to it as good and Biblical. The irony is a judgment on us and on all our personal pretensions, but the playfulness is a sign of how good and gracious and peaceful is the result, and the laughter we hear from heaven is not mockery but the joyful laughter of recognition and love.

Copyright © 2010, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.