Friday, December 30, 2011

January 1, The Holy Name, and the Circumcision of Jesus

Numbers 6:22-27, Psalm 8, Galatians 4:4-7, Luke 2:15-21

Did you know that New Year’s Day was not always January 1? It used to be March 25. The first day of the year has varied in different times and places, but in the British colony of New York, as late as 1751, the new year was reckoned to start on March 25. But our congregation held worship on January 1 anyway, and it was not for New Years. It was the Feast of the Circumcision of Jesus.

Now this may strike you as an awkward thing to celebrate. The awkwardness of it is partly why the ecumenical church prefers to call it the Feast of the Holy Name, which is the title in our lectionary. And after all, the gospel lesson does report the announcement of his name. But in Biblical terms, the circumcision is more important than the naming. Just ask any Jew.

You know that Jewish boys are required to be circumcised eight days after they’re born. The ritual is called a bris. After the bris the family has a party, which traditionally had been a feast for the whole community. Circumcision was a cause for joy. But Christians find the whole idea a bit embarrassing and even controversial, especially because of its medical implications and how it pains a little child. The circumcision of girls is a matter of human rights and sexual oppression. At least the Bible never allows for female circumcision. It’s only for males, and that means that it’s another of God’s judgments on masculinity.

Circumcision is the mark which means a Jew belongs to God. It is the sign that he is not his own. He is branded as God’s property, and so are all his offspring, as you can interpret by the location of the sign upon his body. The sign is both a judgment and a promise.

In Genesis 17, God required Abraham to circumcise himself and all the males of his household as the sign of the covenant God made with him. Four hundred years later, in Exodus 12, at the first Passover, when God renewed the covenant with the whole people of Israel, circumcision was confirmed as the mark of Jewish identity. It has often been a costly mark. In 168 BC, the Seleucid emperor who was ruling over Palestine wanted to force the Jews to live like Greeks, and he made circumcision illegal at the pain of death. That led to the revolt of the Maccabees, and the affirmation of circumcision as a badge worth dying for. It has always cost a lot to be a Jew. To be an heir to the covenant with God is both a blessing and a burden, though the burden is worth it.

And so our Lord was circumcised — to be fully a Jew, to be one with his people, to bear the costs they have to bear, and to be an heir to the covenant and its obligations. So were his twelve disciples, and all the first Christians. But what about the Gentiles who started to convert? Should they be circumcised? The early church debated this, as you can read about in the Book of Acts and in Galatians, from which our second lesson comes. Some voices argued that the inclusiveness of the gospel should not change the obligations of the covenant. They felt that to be a Christian you also had to be more or less a Jew. The debate was settled when the council of the apostles unanimously agreed that Christians can be equally Jewish or Gentile and remain that way, and that circumcision is indifferent, neither required nor prohibited, and simply a personal choice.

The Circumcision of Jesus was not celebrated as a Christian feast until the Sixth Century. It took a two-step process to establish it. First, in the Fourth Century, the church was officially established in the Roman Empire. Soon the 25th of December was quite arbitrarily chosen as the legal holiday to celebrate the nativity. Eight days later is January 1, which began to be observed, and then that was also made a legal holiday. But the establishment of the church also resulted in in evolving anti-Semitism, and over the succeeding centuries the Jewishness of Jesus began to be devalued. The Roman Church began to emphasize the naming of Jesus over his circumcision, and the title got changed to the Feast of the Holy Name.

Ultimately, in 1442, the practice of circumcision was officially prohibited by the Roman Catholic Church and made a mortal sin. This automatically condemned every Jew in Europe to hell, and the Biblical badge was made a cause of fear and shame and a mark of discrimination and anti-Semitic cruelty.

The Reformation made a change in this. The Reformed Church reaffirmed the Jewishness of Jesus and the Jewishness of the Bible, and it reaffirmed the celebration of the Circumcision of our Lord. And the Dutch Reformed Church celebrated it here in America for many years. When our congregation stopped it, I don’t know, we don’t have the records. Did we get embarrassed? Were we getting too refined? When did we start using our religion to avoid the things of fear and shame instead of using it to face them? Jesus did not avoid the suffering of his people or their oppression by the Romans. He was crucified because he was a Jew. He was mocked by the Roman soldiers because he was a Jew. He would have been discriminated against by many Christians throughout history, and in America as well. He would have been murdered in the Holocaust.

What we mark today is that for our salvation, God became a Jew. On Christmas, the Feast of the Incarnation, we mark that God became a human being, and today we mark that God became a Jew. As Galatians puts it, “born of a woman, born under the law.” The Jewishness of Jesus is not incidental. But his Jewishness is not just a matter of ethnicity. He already had that at his birth, just by having a Jewish mother. His Jewishness was a matter of Jewish faith and observance, and that is what began for him at his circumcision.

So what does this all mean for us today? Well, I'm not sure. It’s an open question for me, and I’m not sure what it all means. But it must affect the way that we imagine God. Look, if we say that Our Lord Jesus was bodily resurrected from the dead, in the flesh, and then that he ascended into heaven at the right hand of his Father, whatever that means, it does mean that there is a Jew at the right hand of his Father. I believe that that requires us Christians to have a special honor for Jews and for Judaism.

Not that we should avoid our differences and disagreements. For example, ironically, Jews do not believe that one of them is a member of the Holy Trinity and we do. To worship the Triune God paradoxically requires us to embrace the Judaism of Jesus. Not that we become Jewish ourselves. He was circumcised for us, not us for him. But to honor God, we need to honor God’s real history in the world, God’s commitments and God’s covenants and God’s associations. We Christians are adopted into a way of life with God which Jews are born into. We are in this not from birthright but from grace. And that must affect our view of ourselves as much as it affects our view of God.

Second, we have to embrace the suffering of Jesus for the sake of our salvation. He began to pay the cost for us already on the eighth day of his life. We embrace more than his teaching and example. To learn the Christian faith we need to learn the costs he had to bear and why had to bear them. And because Jesus is God incarnate, that means that God was circumcised, and that God’s own self was bearing that cost. Can you imagine God this way. Not just the child, not just Jesus, but God in heaven, God accepting the mark of commitment and the badge of discrimination upon God’s self. God taking our bleeding and our shame and fear into God’s own self. This is the God we can love, a God who can feel how much it costs to love, and a God who knows how much it costs us to love God back. It is a cost worth paying, it is blood worth giving, it is a name worth wearing, an adoption worth accepting, and a blessing worth receiving.

Copyright © 2012 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Christmas Eve 2011: God's Latest Masterpiece

Hans Memling's Nativity

The following homily is not based on any one scripture text. The Christmas Eve homily at Old First comes very early in the service, and is always a general welcome and introduction to the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols which follows it.

 Good evening, and welcome, I’m happy to welcome you here tonight. Whoever you are, wherever you come from, whatever your belief or unbelief, we’re glad you came to celebrate with us the Incarnation of Our Lord.

This is the first time, I think, that we at Old First have celebrated Christmas Eve with the use of a harpsichord. There it is, up there in the balcony, and Aleeza will be using it to accompany our singing as well as to accompany all her musicians and soloists which she has gathered for tonight. This not the first time, however, that we have celebrated Christmas here in this Upper Hall. We did it back in 1890 and 1891 when we were using this space as our church because the main sanctuary was still under construction.

We are sorry that we cannot offer you this service in our glorious sanctuary. We cannot offer you the majesty of the organ or the magic of the chandelier. You cannot enjoy the glimmer of the candlelight in the lofty vaulting of the ceiling. Because that ceiling is not safe. The engineers tell us that all the plaster ribs in the ceiling are loosening and compromised. It isn’t from water damage — it’s a structural problem of the original design, which has recently begun to fail.

So thank you for climbing those stairs. We are meeting up here because there is no room for you all in the Lower Hall. Yesterday a group of volunteers had to go up and down those stairs for hours in order to bring in everything and make this humble place a worthy church, and I thank them. And last night, I was the last one here, doing final odds and ends, and in the quiet I looked around at what they had done, and I saw that it was good, that it was very good.

Soon you will listen to the nine lessons which trace the tale of our salvation, from Adam and Eve to faithful Abraham to the prophets of Israel to the angels and shepherds to the climax of the Incarnation. The great mystery of the Incarnation is that the Lord God, the creator of the universe, took on human life and human flesh, without thereby becoming any less God or any less human.

Why would God do such a thing, why did God become incarnate? “For us and for our salvation,” says the Creed. It was for salvation that they named Jesus, which means “savior”, for he is born to save us from our sin. The Incarnation is not because God is so impressed with us and wants to be one of us; it’s because we’re sinners who need salvation. And so the wood of the manger foreshadows the wood of the cross, and the swaddling clothes his funeral shroud, and his virgin birth his resurrection. For us and for our salvation.

But I do think God also did it for God’s own joy — this creative God, this artistic God, this musical God. The Incarnation is God’s Mona Lisa, it is God’s Magic Flute. which God delights in. I will not claim this is God’s single masterpiece, considering the vast expanse of inter-stellar space and the glory of the galaxies and the infinite bounty of the stars.

Who knows what other planets there may be with life, with creatures like us who are spiritual and moral. Who knows what miracles the angels sang upon those planets. Maybe those creatures did not sin, and all of them are Unitarians. Maybe on one planet absolutely everyone is Jewish. (Maybe there’s a planet which is a total swamp and everyone is Dutch Reformed.) But on this one planet God allowed for creatures to rebel and sin in order to require the Incarnation. Which God was waiting for. And after ten billion years, suddenly, like out of nowhere, God said to the angels, “Watch this.”

Like an artist God allowed this planet to evolve, and our history to develop, and this tale to unfold, until the stage was set, and the Romans took their census, and the inn was full, and the stable open, and the shepherds ready on the hillside. The girl gave birth. God pointed to that one angel, and the angel walked in among the shepherds. God cued the chorus of the heavenly host, and they sang, and God’s new opera rang out. The music of glory within humility, the universe into poverty, holiness into squalor, divinity into flesh, and justice kissing peace. Dichotomies are reconciled, colors are conjoined, and sounds are conceived that till now even the angels regarded as impossible. But they loved it and maybe they enjoyed their bucolic audience.

My spirit tells me that God rejoiced in this, that God rejoiced in this new work, and all the stars of heaven sang for joy before the Lord. The Lord God looked on this new masterpiece, and God saw that it was very, very good.

The Incarnation, the Incarnation for God’s pleasure and delight, and God takes special pleasure in sharing it with you as a gift for you and your salvation. So it was good of you to climb those stairs tonight. You were right to come up here to share the joy of God, and to sing for the delight of God, and to know God’s pleasure and God’s love.

Copyright © 2011 by Daniel Meeter, All Rights Reserved.

Monday, November 28, 2011

With Apologies

Dear Friends: I have not posted a sermon for several weeks, and it will be a while before I do again, I imagine. I have been preaching my sermons differently---not from a written manuscript, but from an outline. Sorry!


Wednesday, November 02, 2011

October 30, Proper 26, True-Type Characters (#5 in the Character series)

Joshua 3:7-17, Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37, 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13, Matthew 23:1-12

I’ve been a pastor for thirty-one years, and I still hesitate to call myself Reverend Meeter. It’s not the formality of the title that bothers me, or that I doubt that I deserve it (any less than anyone else), but I do feel ambiguous about it, and this gospel lesson is partly why.

I have always found it easier when the title was not in English. In my first parish in central Jersey I was Tiszteletes, which is Hungarian. In Ontario, I was Dominee, which is Dutch. In Hoboken I was called Padre sahib, which is Gujarati. When the youth group there wanted to call me something else, I asked them how they addressed their teachers, so they decided to call me Doc. In Grand Rapids it was often Dominee again. These titles all mean the same as “master” or “rabbi” or “father,” so they violate what Jesus says. But they’re foreign, and thus a little counter-cultural, and I feel them as less about status and more about affection and aspiration. I feel those especially in “Dominee.”

When I came here ten years ago, I said it didn’t matter much what people called me, except, again, the children should do as they did with their teachers. It had not occurred to me that the kids would address their teachers by their first names. That was unthinkable to those Gujarati kids in Hoboken, and it’s still uncomfortable to me, but it does not violate what Jesus says. We call him by his first name when we pray to him, and he’s the Son of God for heaven’s sake. Though he did let people call him “rabbi” and accepted Thomas calling him “Lord”.

I have never felt ambiguous about wearing a collar in public or vestments here in church. I have a special role in church, I have been appointed to an office, and as an officer I wear a uniform. Like a cop. My uniform makes me publically available. If I’m wearing my collar on the subway, very often someone asks to talk to me and I end up praying with them on the train.

Jewish men wear these phylacteries when they say their morning prayers. Inside the leather cases are fragments of the Torah, because when they put these on, they enter into their role as brides of the Torah. I can imagine the affection and the aspiration these things develop. It’s like dressing for your wedding or putting on jewelry for your lover. You’re entering a special activity, you’re going to play a role, you dress the part, like wearing the proper robe at a wedding feast, as we saw in Jesus’ parable just three weeks ago. You have been graciously welcomes into God’s sovereignty, so play the part.

There’s a little boy who lives in the apartment beneath us who has been shy of me till now, but this morning he held the front door open and he said to me, “I’m strong,” and he showed me the green plastic ring on his hand and he opened his coat and I saw his costume and he proudly announced, “I’m Green Lantern.” That's the power of aspiration.

In this series of sermons I’ve been using a theatrical metaphor for character development. You can think of your character as the role that you are writing for yourself in the unfolding drama of your life. There’s theatrical language in our gospel for today. In verse 5, Jesus says, “they do all their deeds to be seen by others,” and his term for “being seen”, θεαομαι, from which we get “theater,” suggests they’re putting on a show. But they would say, “That’s right, we are, we are being symbolic, in order to remind the people.” Doesn’t Jesus say himself, “Let your light so shine before men, that they might see your good works, and give praise to your Father in heaven.”

In the following chapter Jesus calls them “hypocrites”, and that too is theatrical, and not originally a negative. A υποκριτης was an actor or a player on a stage. You played a character, and your character was someone different than yourself, of course. In certain theaters you would even wear a mask. So when Jesus calls them hypocrites, he’s saying that they hide behind their pious masks, they’re putting on a show, they’re just acting. Sort of like Willem Dafoe playing Jesus in a movie — listen to what he says on-screen, don’t do what he does off-screen.

The point of course is your integrity of character. Your integrity. Your public face and your private soul. What you present and what you protect. Your “purity”, in the sense of being a single substance through and through. Can I be true to myself no matter what role I’m playing at the moment, or do I show different faces in different situations?  Does it help to have a special costume underneath your clothes, and a secret ring upon your hand?

So, for example, if I wear collar, that suggests I am a man of prayer. But do I look like a man of prayer no matter what I wear? In social situations or at meetings, does my body language display that special mix of both energy and rest that comes with spending time in prayer? When I talk to people, does my manner display that special mix of courage and humility that comes with talking to God? How about you? Does your body language express your citizenship in the sovereignty of God?

We all aspire to be persons of such integrity. You are here because you want to have integrity through and through. You are hear because you want the way you act to be the way you are. You don’t want to wear a mask. And yet you sometimes feel like you have to, that if people really knew some things about you, then what would they think, and you might lose your position, or their esteem. You feel like you’re always having to compromise yourself to get through life. You don’t think of yourself as a hypocrite, but you feel like they make you wear a mask sometimes, and you have to be careful not to let too much out. Maybe your situation keeps you from being too much out, maybe you have to hide yourself, and this can take a toll on you. When I was a pastor in Ontario, we saw frequently that men who had been in the Dutch underground in World War II had major family problems afterward. They had learned too well to dissemble. Your own situation is probably not that bad, but the human condition is that we all need mercy when it comes to integrity of character.

Is the challenge a burden? Yes, a heavy burden, when you look at it. But when you accept it, and start to carry it, you discover this burden is light. This is that special burden that when you carry it, it holds you up. It’s not a dead burden, it has lift to it, it’s full of the Holy Spirit’s life and energy. It’s the special burden of the gospel, the burden of the Word of God, which both challenges you and comforts you, the Word of God. As St. Paul says in our epistle, these words that we read out and repeat and echo here each week, they are human words, but they carry the Word of God which is at work in you. You can trust that the Word of God is at work in you to carry you from your private to your public, to help you get into your role, to put your soul into your face, and to teach your body language to express your deep convictions.

This is why you learn the Bible stories. Not so much to study them, but to get them into your head, for God to use them to help you make those choices by which you develop your character, and also for God to use to comfort you when your frustrated in your choices and integrity. Yes, you should study the Bible too, but let me suggest you do that in a small group, where it’s less of a burden, like we offer here at Old First. But don’t ever read it too hard or too heavy — read it lightly, trust the repetition and enjoyment, simply to get familiar with the Word of God so that God can use it in your head, and God will.

Here’s what I can promise you: coming to know the character of Jesus will help you with the gradual integrity of your own character. And more, to learn the character of Jesus is to learn the character of God. And as the face of Jesus is inside your imagination, so much more the Spirit of God in alive inside you to develop you. The burden of your integrity is not on you. The burden of your integrity is on the love of God for you. So you may feel ambiguous about yourself, just as I feel ambiguous about being called “reverend,” but you can find your comfort and your certainly in the love of God for you. I can tell you that the way to have integrity of character, in and out, through and through, is to let yourself believe the loving Word of God.

Copyright © 2011, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Brooklyn charity in need after fire 9/29/11 : Currents

Brooklyn charity in need after fire 9/29/11 : Currents

October 23, Proper 25, Satisfied Characters

Deuteronomy 34, Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17, 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13, Matthew 22:34-46

Moses had to end his life with one great disappointment. He never got to enter the Promised Land, he never got to enjoy the great goal of his life. He had to be satisfied with God. The rest of the people got to have their dwelling place in the Promised Land, while his dwelling place had to be the Lord. Was his the greater satisfaction, despite his disappointment and his sacrifice?

We’ve been saying for the last few weeks that your losses and your failures serve better than your successes for developing your character. Not that success itself is bad — you need to have some success in life. You can even pray for it, as with the last line of Psalm 90: “Prosper for us the work of our hands, O prosper the work of our hands.” Prosperity is permissible, but prosperity does not build character.

Why is this so? What’s so great about failure and loss and suffering? Is it not because these things force you to learn your limits? You have to learn where you end. You have to learn that you are dust, you have to learn that your life is like the grass — in the morning you are new and fresh, and in the evening you fade and wither. Such negativity is positive for character. “The years of our life are three-score and ten, or by reason of strength fourscore, and we are soon gone, and we fly away, so teach us to number our days, that we may get us a heart of wisdom.” Teach us to learn our limits, and we will be better, and happier, and generous.

Not necessarily. We all know people whose loss and suffering make them bitter, unsavory and mean, angry and defensive, or overly competitive or overly acquisitive. They have their reasons to believe that the state of nature for human life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” and we have no choice but to live accordingly. We all know people like this.

Perhaps the difference is that to make good from your losses you need to have something outside yourself to hope for, something beyond your limits to believe in. This is why military service builds character when the soldier is fighting for what he can really believe in, but not when the whole point of the battle is uncertain, as we have discovered with our veterans of recent wars. That something beyond your limits to believe in has taken various forms in human history. In ancient Egypt it was immortality — as a compensation for human pain and suffering, to share the immortality of the gods. As pervasive as this was in Egypt, the Children of Israel left it behind them when they left Egypt. The aspiration to immortality is totally absent from the Torah and the faith of the Hebrews. There was no monument to Moses, no pyramid, no obelisk, no sarcophagus, no mummy. They grieved for him for forty days, and then they let him go. They had to be satisfied with God.

On the other side of them was Mesopotamia, and the empires of Babylon and then Assyria, which were dedicated to the accumulation and centralization of political and economic power. Power was their compensation for the pain and suffering of life. In other civilizations the aspiration has been greatness, or glory, or honor, or prestige, or fame. This was the Hellenistic aspiration, and then the Renaissance ideal, and then the Humanist ideal, and in the secular world it’s still held up. It’s what’s behind the Olympics, and it’s the assumption of our schools, especially our private ones, and it is not without its value.

But functionally this classical ideal has been replaced, in America and worldwide, by the aspirations of nationalism, on one hand, and on the other of materialistic consumerism, a double aspiration in a dangerous combination. And so people have come to believe that the primary task of our governments is to grow our economies, our own national economies in competition with those of other nations. The further problem is that because our current economic system requires our economies grow by means of consumption, we end up becoming competitive consumers. I have spoken of this before, but it bears repeating because it’s so pervasive.

  Some consumption is necessary (you need to consume food to stay alive), but we’re in a fix because our system requires us to ignore that there are limits on our wealth, and to keep our economy growing at such and such a rate requires us to keep on buying more consumer goods, and to believe that we need them, and thus keep ourselves from being satisfied. And in this whole mix, the cultivation of the qualities of good character is disincentive to success, as is revealed by the raft of recent books on all the characters of Wall Street. According to Michael Lewis’ latest book, the government of Greece started digging itself into a hole when in order to enter the Eurozone it decided to be deceptive about its national debt, and so they enlisted Goldman Sachs to help them with financial structures which were deliberately deceptive and eventually destructive, but which made a lot of money for Goldman Sachs. It’s not the economy, stupid, it’s the characters. It’s not at all simplistic to say that the political and economic problem of the world today are really ethical and spiritual.

God made the world to have enough for all, but not if we’re all competitive consumers. So for the sake of the world and for the sake of those around you and even for the sake of yourself,  one of your jobs as a Christian is to learn how to be satisfied, to cultivate the gift of satisfaction. Let me say it again, it’s a take home: One of your jobs as a Christian is to cultivate your satisfaction. To do this job requires you to learn to discipline your desires. What is that you want? What is that you think you need? These are good questions to ask yourself. If you’re having any trouble in your life, or if you’re facing some big decision, you might sit down and ask yourself all this. What do you desire? What do you require? What do you require to be happy, and what are your standards for success? Ask yourself, What are the limits in your life that you accept?

You might feel in this some resignation. Maybe some disappointment. Let me suggest you rather regard it as reconciliation. Not just with the facts of life, but reconciliation with the God who gave you life. It’s the teaching of the scriptures that you won’t be satisfied with anything unless you’re satisfied with God, and it’s the witness of believers through the ages that when you are satisfied with God, then you will become satisfied with everything else. You can believe it, and I have seen it, and I feel it in myself that even I am coming around to it.

Moses is for all of you. You can see places you can’t get to, you can see things you can’t have, you can even see promises that go to other people than yourself. But those things do not satisfy unless your soul is satisfied with God, and it’s only God that can satisfy your soul.

So here is my resolution of the problem I posed earlier, how pain and loss and suffering can enhance good character when you have something beyond your limits to hope for and believe in. For Christians that is not immortality but a living God who is faithful without limits; it is not power but a God who is righteous and seeks justice; it is not greatness or glory or honor or prestige or fame, but a God who is loving to the point of sacrifice and calls us to be servants of this love. Desiring this God is the aspiration past your limits which helps you develop a character which is fitting for the Sovereignty of God, a character characterized by satisfaction. Isn’t it lovely that when Jesus commands you to love God and to love your neighbor, he’s commanding you to do what satisfies you most. Yes, you do need to learn your limits, but you also need to recognize your gifts, and a very great gift that you have been given is the capacity to know the love of God. In order to be satisfied, let yourself be loved by God.

Copyright © 2011, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Friday, October 07, 2011

October 9, Proper 23, Kingdom Characters #3, Lovely Aspirations

image copyright © Mount Carmel Ministries, all rights reserved.

Exodus 32:1-14, Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23, Philippians 4:1-9, Matthew 22:1-14

This parable is the Monty Python parable, the Marx Brothers parable, the Three Stooges parable. Whatever is comic, whatever is confusing, whatever is vengeful, whatever is violent, whatever is impulsive, whatever is short-sighted, if there is any unfairness, if there is any impatience, that is this parable. Is this really what the Kingdom of Heaven is like?

For today I will say two things: first, the finish of this parable is not within the parable, but in your response to it, and second, the Kingdom of Heaven is offered as free for all and open to everyone and absolutely welcoming, but once you find yourself in it, the Kingdom has its expectations. Of course the poor guy had just been pulled into the party and had no chance to get a clean robe on, but what about you who hear this parable: the kingdom is near, so dress for it. Act the part, if you've been made a part of it.

It’s analogous to Exodus 32. The Children of Israel had not asked God to lead them out into the desert. They had only asked for relief from the misery of their slavery. God gave them more than they asked for, God gave them freedom from the realm of Pharaoh and then all the blessings of the realm of God. But they do not act the part. They use their freedom to indulge their fears and appetites. “Make us gods that we’re familiar with. Make us gods who will serve us and who will not challenge us. Make us gods who have no expectations.”

The Realm of God is welcoming and gracious. You find yourself within it. Maybe you started coming to church, and then you began to see the Realm of God behind you and before you. Or maybe you were baptized into it, and you grew up knowing you were in it; you grew up knowing that “The Lord is near.” However you find yourself within it, you face its challenge and its expectation that you act the part, and that you have a certain kind of character. Which might daunt you, except that its expectation is most natural. Not the kind of “natural” the flesh regards as natural, with our distractions and idolatries, with our typical indulgence of our fears and appetites, but the “natural” of God’s original intention and design, the truly human nature which we can aspire to.

This is the third sermon in a series of sermons on “character”, the kind of character that goes with being a citizen within the Realm and Sovereignty of God. Your character is the rôle that you are writing for yourself in the long-term drama of your life. Your character is not static but dynamic, and you develop your character through your choices that you make through time, each choice affecting your further choices. Your choices have momentum and a trajectory, which affect your posture and your attitude, your uprightness and your soundness as you address your life. Your choices leave a residue—your look and your smell, whether you are savory or unsavory. The combination of that residue and your attitude is the character you show the world.

My method in this series is to ask the Sunday lessons what they might tell us about character. This week is easy. “Finally beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything praiseworthy, think about these things.” A list of virtues to aspire to. Actually not so much a list as a field, because these virtues are not discrete, they overlap, they weave into each other, they blend into the fabric of the robe to wear within the Realm of God.

What’s remarkable about this list is that these words are not narrowly Biblical. St. Paul does not take them from the Torah and the Prophets. That may be because the Christians in Philippi, as indicated by their names, were not Jews but Greeks, and in Hellenistic culture, these virtues were already familiar. And so any new convert could recognize these virtues and immediately aspire to them. But I think there’s something else. These virtues are not peculiar to God’s people. They are the truly human virtues, which many cultures have aspired to. And so to live within the Realm of God is not to live apart in some utopia, it is to live within the restoration of humanity and the reclamation of human culture. The Realm of God is what the world desires even when it does not know its own desiring. You don’t have to be a believer to see the virtue of these virtues.

Whatever is true: αληθη, that is, genuine, honest, sincere, and true;
whatever is honorable: σεμνα, pious, noble, stately, and honorable;
whatever is just: δικαια, right, righteous, trustworthy, and just;
whatever is pure, ἁγνα, chaste, holy, unsullied, and pure;
whatever is pleasing, προσφιλη, lovely, winsome, and pleasing;
whatever is commendable, ευφημα, well-spoken of, reputable, commendable;
if there is any excellence, αρετη, any virtue, any excellence;
if there is anything praiseworthy, επαινος, worthy of admiration and esteem, anything praiseworthy — think about these things.

Get your mind off yourself, and get it on these aspirations. That means, paradoxically, not to focus on making yourself better, or whether you’re improving, like Mayor Koch, always asking, “How’m I doing?” Don’t worry about your own success at these or your performance. It’s not like learning the piano or the violin, where you have to think about your fingering, it’s like singing: you hear the notes, and from within you rise to them, your body is designed quite naturally to sing. And God designed your mind to think about these things and your soul to aspire to them, you were made for these virtues to be natural, you were not made to aspire to your appetites and self-indulgences or to be governed by your fears and your idolatries. Keep your eyes on the virtues and not upon yourself, and you will be joyful; when your attention is not on yourself you will rejoice and again rejoice. Choose for them. Be guided by them in your choices. Set them up as targets and keep aiming at them when you make your choices and decisions. Yes, put them up as slogans on the mirror in your bathroom. Get tee-shirts printed up with the words on them in some nice pattern, maybe shorts would be more telling. Wear these virtues like clothing, if they’re still outside you, and you can live into them.

Now these virtues are not only idealistic, only for the good times. They’re especially for the bad times, the critical times. The Epistle to the Philippian Christians is lovely and pleasing but it’s not House Beautiful magazine. Their situation was more like the Diary of Anne Frank. They were regarded by the Romans as seditious in their loyalty to Jesus as their Lord, their worship of the God of Israel was illegal in the city, so you can imagine the pressure they felt when they crowded in their little homes to break the bread. No wonder Euodia and Syntyche gave each other friction. St. Paul advises them to have a common mind: not sharing their own minds, but the mind of Christ. The mind of Christ who stood firm against the pressure of his opposition, but yet whose gentleness was known to all. The same should be the character of the congregation; that should be their reputation in the city of Philippi. These virtues are for witness and community.

Today we baptize Claire. We commit to a community in which she can learn these virtues by watching us aspire to them, by watching us make our choices and decisions in the direction of our aspirations. We commit to develop our own characters this way, and we want to populate this community of Jesus with a cast of characters in which she can take her place and add her voice and act her part. Today she is our joy and today she is our crown. Her future is what we love and long for, and as much we love her, she is even more beloved of God.

Copyright © 2011, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

October 2, Proper 22, Knowing the Law, Knowing Christ, #2 in the series, Kingdom Characters

Photo copyright © 2010, by Jane Barber,, all rights reserved.

Exodus 20:1-20, Psalm 19, Philippians 3:4b-14, Matthew 21:33-46

Last Sunday I began a series of sermons on “character”, the kind of character that goes with being a citizen of the Kingdom of God. Last week I said that your character is the rôle that you are writing for yourself in the long-term drama of your life. I said that your character is not static but dynamic, you develop your character by the choices that you make through time, each choice affecting your further choices. I said your choices have momentum and trajectory, which affect your posture and your attitude. I said your choices have a residue, and the combination of residue and attitude is your character.

My method in this series is to ask each new set of Sunday lessons what they might say about character. This week is easy. The Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments are the handy guide to character development for Jews and Christians. That’s why they’re up on the reredos in our sanctuary, because they were read out every week in the old Dutch Reformed liturgy. That’s how I learned them by heart as a child, by hearing my father read them out every Sunday morning.

Only two of the ten are stated in the positive. For special emphasis, because of how distinct they make the culture of the Israelites. The distinction of the Sabbath Day is obvious, and it has many social and economic implications, especially that laborers get a day off every week, which was unheard of and unwelcome, and had specially to be ordered by God.

But what’s distinct about honoring your parents? Well, in Egypt and all the other nations it was the nobility that you had to honor. The ordinary life of most people was regulated by social class and economic class, and you had to show honor to people of privilege: “Your majesty, my lord, your highness, your honor,” no matter how they treated you.

But God’s people are a society of radical equality and a single social class, without nobility, except— you are never the equals of your parents, and they are your nobility whom you must honor. This too has many implications, but not for today.

Eight of the ten commandments are in the negative, and that’s because they presume our freedom and initiative. You tell a slave what he must do, because he has no freedom, but your daughter has freedom and initiative, so you instruct her differently: you set limits for her, and tell her where she may not go and what she may not do. These negative commandments are like the fences of your yard. The rabbis described them as a fence, which metaphor Jesus uses in his parable, in the first verse. The fence around the vineyard is the Torah, the Law of God.

One of the most important gifts we give our children is a sense of boundaries. It’s as necessary to tell them what they may not do as what they may do. Many parents seem afraid of this, and maybe they fear the reputation of the negative. We see them give their children too much choice, too much freedom, more than they can handle, and children don’t know where to stop, and they end up with characters combining selfishness with insecurity. Maybe many parents don’t have good boundaries for themselves, and they transfer onto their kids the unchecked combination of their own fears and their own desires driving them. Adults need boundaries too, and God gives you boundaries precisely because God has also given you the gift of freedom.

Boundaries provide resistance to your freedom, and it’s resistance that helps you build your character. As with physical exercise, you only build your muscle strength with resistant exercises, so the boundaries of God’s law give resistance to your freedom for the building of your character. The judgments of God are the opposition to your ego for the cultivation of your character. But according to St. Paul, the law of God is not enough. There has to be a further energy and motivation. For him it is a passion and desire which he identifies in Philippians 3:10-11: “I want to know Christ, and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” That’s my own personal verse, by the way, my core directive, the verse I want the preacher to preach on at my funeral.

What does it mean to “know Christ”, especially in terms of cultivating character? Well, of course, there’s emulation: he’s an example and a model for you in your choices. And there’s devotion: he is your Lord, as you repeat in the Apostles Creed: “And in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.” Devotion to a Lord means service and obedience, which also guide your choices.

But St. Paul means more than that, something spiritual and transcendent. “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection.” We know him on this side of his resurrection, between his resurrection and his return again, we know him not as a close friend here with us, but as the ascended Lord, into whose person is packed the new creation of the world, the new world that is coming, which he embodies in himself. The new world is ahead of us, it’s already established and waiting for us to get there, when we ourselves will somehow attain the resurrection from the dead.

That new world is not just a dream for the future, it’s a reality already in the future, on the other side of the boundary of death, a reality made by God, with a life and a power invested backwards, sort of, from the future into the presence of Christ. You share in that power which he exercises in the world by your knowing him. By knowing him, especially in worship and in prayer, you open your life to the power of his Spirit which gives the  energy and motivation to the choices which you keep making in your life.

St. Paul also says a negative. “I want to know the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death.” Why the negative? Well, remember that I referred last week to an article from the New York Times magazine, and the title of that article is this: “What If The Secret to Success Is Failure?” Just as failing and then getting through your failure is essential for cultivating your character, so sharing the suffering of Christ and then conforming to his death gives you the resistance and the boundary you need. This sharing and conforming provide the inner opposition of which I spoke last week, the repentance and humility, the ordeal that you work through each week freely, the often painful self-awareness which leads to greater empathy and love. It’s a kind of training.

St. Paul ends with an athletic metaphor. So let’s say the commandments are the fences and foul lines and the strike zone and the bases, and let’s say that knowing Christ is the actual playing of the game. It’s only by playing that you develop your skills, the skills of character, and you can improve your skills even when you lose a game. You can risk, you can try, you can gamble and experiment, because it has already been won for us by Christ, the victory is not just a dream, it’s a reality that has power for us now, and you can make free choices with courage. You know, courage does not mean no fear, courage means going through your fear to do the right thing anyway, even if the right thing means sharing his suffering. And the point of being configured to his death is not that you be crucified, but that your natural fear of death and your natural fear of loss do not control your choices, not even the loss of honor or reputation or esteem, all of which he lost on the cross.

  The implication is that the greatest freedom of all comes when you are free from yourself, you are free from your credentials and your gains, free from your achievements and success, free from everything you think you know, free from what you’re trying to prove to other people, free from what you think you know about yourself, and that’s because what you want to know is Christ. It is so liberating to not belong to yourself, and paradoxically empowering. You are free to choose the only thing you are not free of, the only thing really demanded of you, which is to love, to love your neighbor as yourself, and to love God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind. You make your choices in order to cultivate a character of love, because you want to know God.

Copyright © 2011, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

September 25, Proper 21: When Bad Things Happen to a Good Messiah; # 1 in a series, Kingdom Characters

Exodus 17:1-17, Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16, Philippians 2:1-13, Matthew 21:23-32

Last winter and spring I preached a series of sermons on the Kingdom of God, because the Kingdom of God is the great theme of the Gospel of Matthew. What is the Kingdom, what does it include, what life is like within it, how do we see it, how do we seek it, how do we receive it. Today I’m starting another series, more about us, the citizens of that Kingdom, and what the Kingdom offers us, who seek it, and what it expects of us, who receive it. I will focus this series on the word “character”: Christian character, godly character, Kingdom character.

This focus was given to me by one of you, this past week, when you wrote me in response to my sermon last Sunday. You felt a connection with an article in the Sunday New York Times magazine, describing how two schools in New York City are trying to teach good character. An educator friend of mine sent me a copy of that article the next day. The issue of “character” is in the air. So my plan for the coming Sundays is to ask one question of every set of our scripture lessons: “What do these lessons have to tell us about Christian character?” I don’t know yet what the answers will be. The title for this series is “Kingdom Characters,” in the plural, because we’re not expected to be all the same.

But in our epistle lesson St. Paul challenges us to have the same mind and to be of one mind. Of course he does not mean that we conform our minds to each other, that you conform your mind to my mind or I to yours, but that we all aspire to the mind of Christ—which is a challenge to us all. Character needs challenges. You develop character by working out your challenges, especially suffering, pain, and loss. It was true for Jesus too. He was not an angel, he was a human being, he had to develop his character, especially through the challenge of his loss and suffering, and the shame of the crucifixion.

We can observe the mind of Christ, the mind that we aspire to, when he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, yes, who for the sake of his mission did not defend his honor as the rightful prince of Judea, nor did he hang on to his position as the legitimate Son of David, or grasp the rights of his position as the lawful Messiah of Israel.

To not hold onto your position is something rulers just don’t do. I heard Jimmy Carter tell Charlie Rose that he considered his presidency a failure, simply because he did not get reelected. How much of what Barack Obama does is driven by his natural desire to get reelected; it is what rulers do, they want to hold on to their positions. Not Jesus, though. What he held to was his mission, even at the cost of his position, trusting that the God who had commissioned him would see him through the fear and trembling to work it through. This was so unusual his opponents didn’t know what to make of him and so they were afraid of him. And that too was part of his suffering, that he was feared and opposed by those he came to save.

Look at the gospel lesson. It takes place the day after Palm Sunday, when Jesus entered the city like a prince, and cleansed the temple like he owned it, throwing out the money-changers who no doubt had to give a cut to the temple authorities. Of course the authorities want to know what right Jesus has to do such things, and what are his credentials. His question back to their question is right on point, because the answer to his question is the same as the answer to their question. And they do have an answer, but they will not say it, because they fear the people and they want to protect their position. They can’t be certain that the people will rise against them, but to people in power every potential threat is a real threat, as Dick Cheney has written.

They weren’t bad people, the chief priests and the elders. Jesus was pushing all their buttons. They were in a tough position, between the Romans and an unruly populace, and so to keep things under control they hang on tight to their position, and they back off from the right choice, the risky choice, the courageous choice.

Stanley Hauerwas has written that your choices and the succession of your choices are what determine your character. Your character is not static but dynamic, you work it out by the choices that you make. And the choices you make today both open up and close off the further choices of tomorrow. Your choices have momentum and a trajectory, they position your inclinations and your leanings and your posture and your attitudes as you address your life. Your choices also leave with you a residue, with things like compassion and sympathy and with what that magazine article called “grit”, and with other things like shame and guilt. The composite of these attitudes and aptitudes you can call your character, the role that you have written for yourself in the ongoing drama of your life.

In the ancient Greek dramas of Aeschylus and Sophocles, the characters are always in bondage to the choices of their past. This bondage is compounded by the grip of Fortune, with a capital F, and by the selfish ambition of the gods and goddesses. You get the same thing in the Iliad and Odyssey, which is what the Philippians will have been educated in.

  So they must have found it liberating, and maybe a little scary, to learn from the Gospel that neither Fortune nor the gods have any such power, and that the Lord Jesus offers freedom from the bondage of your past. You are always free to choose what’s right, even when it’s difficult. Jesus offers that freedom to the chief priests and elders, they still have the choice to heed the parable and let go of their position and be welcomed into the Kingdom. With the Lord Jesus, every judgment is an invitation and every challenge is a welcome. But for you to receive his freedom he requires of you a transformation instead of just an adjustment in your trajectory, and that transformation risks the loss of your position, and so you regard his challenge as an obstacle.
How you handle obstacles and opposition is the real test of your character. If you aspire to the mind of Christ, you will face opposition from the outside, certainly, but the more critical opposition is from inside yourself, when you oppose yourself by means of repentance, or with that long term character trait of “humility”. That’s a challenge if you want to get ahead. The only way to get to be Caesar, for example, was by selfish ambition. But by humility I don’t mean softness, and by repentance I don’t mean groveling. I mean resting from your momentum, not pushing your trajectory, risking your position. Emptying of everything but yourself. That is the mind of Christ.

Which has its benefits. It means you do not have to defend yourself or prove yourself. Jesus did not defend himself to the priests and elders, he knew who he was. He did not have to assert his authority or fight for his position, because both his authority and his position were grounded in his character. You can have that freedom too by being grounded in your character when your character is a Kingdom character, sharing the mind of Christ.

He emptied himself. He did not grasp at the rights of either his earthly royalty or his heavenly divinity. He emptied himself because that is God’s character anyway, this is the God who bends towards us—who yields to us, who yielded, for example, to the complaining of the Israelites. That is the character of God, and Jesus kept choosing for that kind of character his whole life, even to the loss of everything he had. And so his Father gave it all back to him as a gift, a greater position, and the name above every name, the name of “the Lord”, Adonai. We Christians believe that Jesus is rightly called the Lord God because he had in him the fullness of God’s character. When you aspire to the mind of Christ you are aspiring to the mind of God.

I close with a paraphrase of that final verse in our epistle: “Work out your Kingdom character in fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to desire and to choose for God’s good pleasure.” And God’s good pleasure is nothing other than Love. God’s love is built into God’s character, so that I can even say that God can’t help it, loving you. And that certainty of God’s love is the position in which you stand.

Copyright © 2011, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

September 18, Proper 20: When Good Things Happen to Bad People

(photo by Jane Barber)

Exodus 16:2-15, Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45, Philippians 1:21-30, Matthew 20:1-16

Our gospel lesson is called the Parable of the Vineyard. The Parable of the Vineyard is pictured in the stained glass window on the north wall, in the right-hand panel. You see the figure of a worker standing at a grapevine, and before him is the inscription from Matthew 20:4, “Go ye also into the vineyard.”

I have never seen this subject in a stained-glass window in any other church, and I would love to know why this subject was chosen, and if it was chosen by the Lott family, the old Brooklyn family who gave it. In 2002 the window took on new meaning for us after the accidental death of Alan Q. Hayes, an elder here. The bookmark in his Bible was at this parable, so that’s what I preached on at his funeral. His death was unfair. And the parable is about when our feeling of unfairness affects our belief in God.

A vineyard is harvested as quickly as possible, so that the grapes can be pressed all at once. As the day wears on, and if the crew is running late, you hire more hands. That’s expected, and you can pay the later workers less. But this owner didn’t pay them less—he was generous with them, which the early ones felt as unfairness instead of generosity. But it was fair, objectively, because the owner paid them what he promised them. But we resent the gifts that other people get when we don’t get them too.

In this parable Jesus does a couple things. He pictures how we are with the grace of God when we see it lavished on other people than ourselves. And he illustrates his own ministry, and why so many good people among the Jews found him offensive. It’s not that he was not loving and gracious with them. It’s that he was no less as loving and gracious to bad people as he was to good people. He is generous to everyone, not as they deserve it, but as they need it. Jesus does not give out points for good behavior. That means there is no point to be good, except just to be good. Being good has to be its own reward. And being good will not exempt you from suffering and sorrow.

Twenty years ago, Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote that best-selling book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. I was always troubled by the book’s implicit assumption, that it’s okay when bad things happen to bad people. Jesus turns this upside-down. If Jesus wrote a book he’d call it, When Good Things Happen to Bad People. There’s a take-home for today: What is the distinctive message of Jesus among all the religions of the world? Answer: “When Good Things Happen to Bad People.”

The way of Jesus was the way of God in Israel. You see it in the story of the manna from Exodus. He that gathered much had nothing over, and he that gathered little had no lack. God blessed them as they needed it, not as they deserved it. God provides, God does not reward. You can’t impress God, you can’t win God, you can’t control God, you can only receive from God.

The children of Israel hardly knew this God. They’ll have been much more familiar with the gods and goddesses of Egypt than with this god of their distant ancestors, who had been silent for 400 years, this god, for all they knew, whose kingdom was the desert and whose palace was a mountain, where they have to go to meet him. Well, they were now his guests, in his realm, and as his guests they felt he was obliged to feed them. It was only proper hospitality that God should gave them manna. Moreover, they were purchased by blood from slavery to the pharaoh, by the blood of the Passover lamb, and now they belong to this god, and as his servants they have the right to proper rations. God is obliged to give them their rations as long as they’re on the march.

I think Moses is upset because of the way they asked for it, not asking in faith, but as complaining, insulting God, slandering the liberation God won for them. Ingrates! Well, they’re afraid. They are free, but they don’t know what freedom means, and freedom is scary. They don’t know what to expect from this god, and their years of slavery had trained them in distrust and resistance. Through the whole of the Exodus they are passive-aggressive, defensive, untrusting, unbelieving, always acting in victim mode.

People prefer the misery they know to the freedom they can’t predict. They would not have left Egypt voluntarily, despite their suffering there. The plagues were designed to force them out as much as to make Egypt let them go. The Red Sea was a barrier not only to Pharaoh’s armies but also against their going back. They were resistant to God’s grace and generosity. They are a microcosm of the human race. They are us. We all experience God’s generosity as unfairness.

The manna is a gift designed to train them in receiving grace. We need to be trained in receiving grace, because we are unable to receive it even when we need it and crave it, so God helps and trains us in receptivity. God was teaching Israel the discipline of receptivity by sending the manna six days out of seven, with double on the sixth day, and none on the seventh. It was an exercise in trusting and obeying, a training in receiving.

Why do we resist God’s grace? Maybe we sense how much it challenges us. Either, like the Israelites, we’re trained to be victims, or like the vineyard workers, we have a notion of  our own deserving and we don’t like to be treated out of generosity. Both of these are selfishness, the one developed as a survival strategy and the other the natural compulsion of self-regard. In either case, God trains us to get out of ourselves. God challenges the Israelites to look up, to look out into the desert, and there they see the glory of the Lord. They had to look up into what they were afraid of.

God trains us also in the patterns of receptivity. One of the reasons that Our Lord instructed us to celebrate Holy Communion frequently is because it is a very physical enactment and reminder of our need for receptivity. We have to come up to the table, and hold our hands out to receive, worthy or unworthy. You’re worthy only if you’re willing to be counted among the unworthy. It’s a gift to teach us the reception of God’s gifts. It’s another gracious circle. The gifts of God in particular are designed to teach us how to receive the gifts of God in general. We are willful people, and proud, and fearful, and the world is unkind and unfair, so we are reminded and rehearsed in the disciplines of receptivity.

A take-home here is that progress in the Christian life is not about getting better and better at being good. That way lies the temptation of merit and deserving. Progress in the Christian life is getting more and more receptive to God’s grace. It is learning to say “Thank you, God, thank you for your mercy.” Even while walking through the desert, and risking hunger and thirst. Do you want to be a better Christian? Don’t work on your performance. Work on your receptivity and gratitude.

It’s hard to say thank you when you feel like you’ve been suffering. It was suffering for the vineyard workers who had worked all day, and were hot and thirsty and exhausted, to stand on line for their wages, and watch the other workers get paid the same for much less work. Your suffering is watching others get a break when you don’t, and when, time after time, you get what you have coming to you, but they get more. Your suffering is to accept God’s providence which never provides you with what you deserve. Your suffering is to accept that merit is irrelevant. But so is faith. Your suffering is to accept with open hands your life as you are dealt it. And that’s what faith is too.

Your suffering is a worthy investment. It yields a life of confidence and joy. St. Paul says that it’s a privilege to suffer for Christ. St. Paul suffered double, as a Jew among the Romans and as a Christian among the Jews. He wrote Philippians from jail. The Philippians suffered by an allegiance to Jesus as Lord, which was illegal in a Roman military town, and they could be rounded up at any time. The privilege is not to seek out suffering, but to recognize the fact of it, and rightly to interpret it, and to regard it not as victimization but as a privilege. That’s what love does. You can clean toilets as a victim, or you can clean them out of love.

You suffer by living in-between, between the great huge gift way ahead of you, and the many small gifts behind you, and right before you the unfair, broken world which God has promised to save but hasn’t yet. You stay within it and you bear your part of it. Your suffering is in your receptivity, your awareness of incompletion, that things are not how they’re supposed to be, and you still believe, you believe in the goodness you have seen in your own life and in the gifts you have received, passing as they may have been, or as mixed with pain and grief, or as ordinary to the eyes as bread, but seeing it as bread from heaven with your eyes of faith and hope and love. The love of God trains us to receive the love of God.

Copyright © 2011, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Sermon for 9/11, Proper 19, What You Did Ten Years Ago

(photos by Hugh Crawford)

See Louise Crawford's Park Slope Patch report on the service.
Exodus 14:19-31, Exodus 15:1b-11, 20-21, Romans 14:1-12, Matthew 18:21-35

Let me tell you what you did ten years ago, Old First, let me tell you and remind you. Ten years ago, on that Tuesday morning, when the smoke was over Brooklyn and the paper raining down, some of you knew right away that you had to open the doors of the church for sanctuary and shelter. You kept the doors open all week, every day, until the following Sunday afternoon. You did this for everyone, no matter what religion or no religion. And the people came, they sat in here in shock and grief and many came to pray. You hosted them, you gave them music for their souls. You hung up sheets of newsprint, and you put out markers, and people wrote their thoughts and prayers. The people responded with gratitude.

The sheets are up there on the walls and in the narthex. You should read them. They are part of you. Even if you were not here then, if you only came here recently, they are now a part of you, of this community of soul on soul and spirit touching spirit back through three-and-a-half centuries, you today are still the hosts and the stewards of these real prayers of real people in their time of need.

Some of the prayers were written on that first afternoon, for people known to be working on the 73th floor of building 2, for example, or in the Windows On The World. It was not yet known how many had been killed. There are prayers from later in the day, from survivors just come home, prayers of thanksgiving for having gotten out alive, but also prayers for the cops and the firemen, for Squad One, name by name, as the rumors came that they were lost. There are prayers from Wednesday and Thursday, prayers for those still missing, prayers for those who were trapped in the rubble and for those who were toiling on it, prayers of hope and prayers of grief, many statements of love and a couple words of hate, prayers by Christians and Jews and Muslims and Hindus. Prayers in French and Spanish and Hebrew and Hindi and Japanese. Prayers for the President and prayers for peace, very many prayers for peace, prayers for an end to the cycle of violence and prayers for no more war—which in the next ten years we did not listen to.

Few of the prayers are signed. But we don’t have to know the names of those who wrote them, because they prayed for all of us, not only for you who lived here then, but also for us who lived beyond New York, around the world. These prayers were personal at first, but over the decade they have become more universal, and when we read them now they blend into a great, thick prayer, a single prayer of many different voices.

A couple years ago these sheets were damaged. We had stored them up in the steeple, and then the tornado blew a window in, and it threw these sheets around and some of them got soaking wet, and the ink and colors ran together and the words were blurred. They look like abstract water color paintings, with random broken phrases legible. It seems right somehow, and fitting, that the thoughts and prayers have blended into each other, and have blended into the choruses of heaven.

On that first Friday evening, I came here too, with Melody. We had just driven here from Michigan. We saw the people sitting in the narthex and in the sanctuary, with their candles and their flowers, sitting in small groups or alone, and we saw all these sheets, still new and fresh. We walked down Seventh Avenue, and every other church was closed up tight. But you were open. You had discovered your mission to offer sanctuary to anyone seeking spirituality and hope. That’s why you are being blessed by God, Old First, even in your struggles and your weaknesses.

None of those sheets have prayers of victory, like in our reading this morning from Exodus 15. Maybe the members of Al Qaeda were praying like that, but no one here was praying like that. It might have been different if the pillars of smoke and fire were pillars of salvation, like for the Israelites at the Red Sea, but the fiery pillars here were of destruction and of loss. In Exodus 14:31 it says that the Israelites saw the great work that God had done, and “they feared the Lord and believed in the Lord.” Well, those prayer sheets reveal that many Brooklynites who saw the great evil those terrorists had done were able still to fear the Lord and believe in the Lord. The record is there, and we are the witnesses.

So now what? At least two things. First, you have to keep on doing what you did then, Old First, this mission given you by God, to offer sanctuary to anyone seeking spirituality and hope. You did it this summer too with the respite shelter. You can learn new ways to practice this, with our building, with our small groups, and in your personal relationships.

Second, you have to make another kind of sanctuary in the midst of human sin and violence, and you do this by forgiveness. Forgiveness not just as a single act, but forgiveness as a system, a cycle, which goes the opposite direction of the cycle of vengeance and violence. Violence generates further violence, and you oppose that cycle with the cycle of forgiveness generating more forgiveness. That’s what Jesus means when he says that his Father will not forgive us if we don’t forgive others. It’s not that God is punishing for not forgiving, it’s that God has built the world this way, that forgiveness is a cycle which you have to enter into in order to receive from it.

Forgiveness is not easy, especially the ones who wronged you don’t deserve forgiveness and and they don’t repent. This takes work. When the Lord Jesus says seventy-seven times, he means a single evil that someone does to you can be so hurtful and destructive that every day you have to forgive him all over again. You did forgive him yesterday, but then today you see how much your life is still affected by his sin, and you have to forgive him once again. It’s about remembering and forgiving, not forgiving and forgetting. It’s not even about accepting. And forgiving might include non-violent resistance. Seventy-seven times, remembering and forgiving again.

You need to remember what they did ten years ago, and tell the awful truth of it, for another sixty-seven years, and then forgive them, for, as Jesus said upon the cross, they didn’t know what they were doing. To forgive means to be free of it, to not let your freedom and your future be determined by their sin. You make a space of freedom in the world of human misery and suffering, you make a space of love and justice in the world of human violence, you make a sanctuary of peace.

This is what you did, Old First, and this is what you are called to do, in partnership with all your friends in the community. And you can do it because you love God who first loved you.

Copyright © 2011, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Friday, September 02, 2011

September 4, Proper 18: The Costly Method of Reconciliation

(photo © jane barber:

Exodus 12:1-14, Psalm 149, Romans 13:8-14, Matthew 18:15-20

The take-home for today is right up front, the gospel lesson, the method of Matthew 18, the three-step process of reconciliation, the discipline of making peace. Learn this pattern, take it home, start to practice it. The point is not that you have to say something every time someone offends you. Good grief, we’re all sinners, we’re all clumsy, we bump each other all the time, and ordinary life is a contact sport. You can’t call every violation. But, when you do have to call a violation, when you do have to say something, this is how you have to do it.

First you have to go alone, in private. This is to protect your offender, to keep him from public embarrassment. You see, this step expresses love and it requires love. It’s hard. It’s so much easier to complain about him to other people, and to undermine his reputation. But it’s love to go to him in private. Especially when you have cause to be angry at him. This love is not love as a feeling but love as ethical action. It is hard, it is a sacrifice, to consider his interest in spite of his offending you.

The second step is to take a couple witnesses. If the first step was to protect the offender, this step is to protect you. If she hasn’t accepted your sacrifice, now you are vulnerable and open, and you need to protect yourself. Love does not require you to make yourself a victim. It is not a bloody sacrifice you make, but a sacrifice of thanksgiving. You need to honor yourself as much as you have honored her. This is a hard step too, because it’s getting complicated, and you’re bringing other people in, and having to explain it without prejudice. You might decide to let the whole thing drop. Jesus does not require you to go the second step. But if you feel you cannot let it drop, then this is the only second step that you may take.

How do you know whether to drop it or not? Well, will you be tempted to resentment, will it fester, will you get bitter, will you act victimized, which becomes its own offense? Just by bringing in those witnesses you are refusing to be victimized. You do have the right to go the second step, because you opened with an act of love and in good faith, and you deserve to not let the refusal of the offender to be last word. This is not just self-respect, this is about the importance of truth in the world, the ethical importance of the true story, the version of the story which is true. There is more to community than just our feelings and relationships—there also is integrity. Words have power, stories have power, and the truth itself deserves a hearing. You owe it to the world that some fair measure of the truth is stated and confirmed by witnesses.

And if he still doesn’t listen, then you have to consult with the witnesses whether to go the third step. And their vote should count more than your own. They may encourage you to take it to the church. For Roman Catholics, that means the hierarchy, who deal with it. For Mennonites you do the opposite, you bring it to the congregation as a whole. The Reformed Church takes it down the middle, you bring it to the board of elders, the officers in whom the congregation has invested its discretion and authority. The pastor chairs the board of elders, but the pastor has no vote. The elders have to follow some very strict rules for doing this, rules that go back to 1586, stringent disciplines that really protect the offender, and which keep requiring attempts at counsel and reconciliation all along the way. In my thirty years of ministry I’ve watched elders do this several times, and it’s always painful for everyone involved, the elders too.

No elder likes to do it. We wonder what right we have, who do we think are we, we have our own failings too. But Jesus says that even in our weak and stumbling efforts, God in heaven will back us up. He’s saying that headquarters will back us up if a few of us do it in his name, and by implication, according to his standards. We don’t have to be perfect. We just have to keep loving.

What does it mean to treat him as a “Gentile and publican”? It can’t mean to shun him and have nothing to do with him. In Jesus’ time that was impossible anyway. It doesn’t mean stop loving him. The author of this gospel was a publican whom Jesus loved. Jesus ate and drank with publicans and sinners. He’s talking here about the special sacred meal of the Passover. Gentiles were not circumcised, and publicans, to do their jobs, had willfully to keep themselves unclean, so they could not share the sacred meal. And that’s the sanction of the elders, the only sanction they have, to ask the offender not to take communion (which no elder wants to do). The suspension is temporary, unless the offender keeps being adamant, and only then the excommunication.

My own grandfather, because of his adultery, was suspended from communion by the elders of the Third Christian Reformed Church in Paterson, New Jersey. It was just months before I was to be baptized there, and that’s why I’m not named for him, it would have really hurt my grandmother. But my parents did not shun him, they kept loving him, and eventually he came to live with us here in Brooklyn, and he and I got very close, and that’s why I speak Dutch. Eventually he repented to my grandmother, and she took him back, and the elders in Paterson reinstated him; they had never excommunicated him. They waited years for him to come around, which eventually he did. And my little brother got named for him.

Go back to the first step, of going to meet with your offender one on one. Who wants to do this kind of thing. Keep your distance and protect yourself. Have good boundaries. Let people do what they do. Everyone is fallen, everyone has weaknesses and makes mistakes. Just get over it. Go to church, worship God, go home, and be responsible for your own life. People have to figure out their own mistakes, and people who won’t, well, they’re not going to listen to you anyway. Oh, I know.

Here’s why we go through with it. First, because we owe it to our offenders, it is our obligation (Romans 13:8). The translation of Matthew 18:15 is misleading. What Jesus actually says is this: “If your brother sins against you.” Not “another church member” but your brother, your sister. You can choose what church to be a member of but you can’t choose who your siblings are. They are given to you without your choice at all. And you have obligations to them no matter how you might feel about them. It’s organic. The church is not just some voluntary associations, it’s mystical and spiritual, it has a reality beyond ourselves, it’s the body of Christ, and how you behave in it as how you behave for Jesus Christ. You owe it to others because they belong to Jesus Christ.

Second, it’s so much needed by the world. The world has so much need of reconciliation. And the church is called to model it. The church does not belong to us. It belongs to Our Lord, and it is his chosen instrument for the healing of the world. If we belong to the church we do not have the right to say “No” to the mission Our Lord has given us. Maybe we should add it to our Old First mission statement. We are witnesses, not that everyone is nice and good, but that ordinary fallen people can work reconciliation. That it can be done and should be done. Of course there will always be some persons who will not reconcile, whom we just have to hand over to the hidden work of God, but we can practice it enough for it to be believed in as a realistic way of living in the world.

Third, we do it for the sake of love. The revolutionary love of Our Lord is always misunderstood and resisted and defended against, and if the best defense is a good offense, then offences will come against the works of love. To live within this kind of love requires you to see it through.

And fourth, you do it to reflect what God has done for you. We go in private to our offender because God sought us out in private. We sacrifice our ease and comfort remembering what great sacrifice Our Lord has done to reconcile ourselves to God, the sacrifice of his own life, which he did for love. “O Lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the world, have mercy upon us. O Lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the world, grant us thy peace.”

Copyright © 2011, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

June 26: Guest Sermon by Kelvin Spooner

Praising God in Times of Distress  
On Psalm 13

Note: Elder Kelvin Spooner is our Seminary Intern this summer. He is also Vice President of the historic Elmendorf Reformed Church of Harlem. Kelvin will be preaching most Sundays this summer.
Giving honor to God who is the head of my life; to Pastor Meeter, the shepherd of this flock in the Body of Christ; to the Consistory and Great Consistory of Old First; to all the members and guests gathered here today: Thank you for the opportunity to worship and fellowship with you this summer.  Standing in front of you in this cathedral-like setting felt a bit overwhelming the first time I walked through the doors, but the words of welcome and encouragement that I have received from you has decreased some of my anxiety and I look forward to working with you this summer.
As you know, I am a seminarian at the New Brunswick Theological Seminary and your pastor, Dr. Meeter, is one of my professors and now he is one of my mentors. I know that I will learn much from his vast experience and knowledge.  Preaching every week this summer is a new experience for me, but by the grace of God, He will give me a Word to share with you that reveal the glorious wonders of our heavenly Father, the grace and mercy of the Son, Jesus Christ; and the movement of the blessed Holy Spirit in our lives.  I pray we will learn and grow in spirit and truth together as we take this journey side by side over the next two months.
Prayer - God of grace and truth, without you I can do nothing as I ought.  Clothe me with your Sprit, that with joy and reverence I may lead the worship of your people and worthily proclaim the gospel of your love to the glory of your name; through Jesus Christ my Lord.  Amen.
This morning I want to speak on the topic: Praising God During Times of Distress based on Psalm 13.  Distress is a human emotion that all of us experience during the course of our lives.  When we are distressed we are at a low place in our lives.  When we are distressed we sense, feel, and experience grief, suffering, pain, anguish, agony, and misery.  We hear and read about, on a daily basis, of how people are distressed. I can only imagine the distress of the families who lost their loved ones in the pharmacy store massacre in Medford L.I.; or the distress of the families of the young man killed recently right here in Brooklyn for bumping in to another person at a party.  Most, if not all, of us have experienced distress over the loss of a loved one.  But distress occurs not only when we experience the pain of death, but in many other situations in our lives.  The tough economic times we are in has caused many people to lose their jobs and left wondering how they will make ends meet (I was one that lost my job because of it, but thank God, I was able to find another one); broken relationships in marriages and in families, and sickness (both physical and mental), are just a few of the areas that can cause much distress. When we look biblically, the story of Job is a heartfelt story of a person in great distress that suffered tremendous personal tragedy. (If you are unfamiliar with the story of Job, I encourage you to read it. It is a fascinating book in the Old Testament). And our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ experienced the greatest distress of all by allowing himself to be nailed to a cross for our sake.
It is during these times of distress that we may wonder: How do we pray when our hearts are broken?  When the events of our lives have turned us upside down and God has done nothing to prevent it?  How can we pray when we are angry with God?  When the One in whom we’ve put our trust no longer seems trustworthy?  These questions have been raised for centuries and to find some answers we can look to the Psalms.  I have heard it said, Dr. Meeter, I think I might have heard it from you, that the Psalms is the hymn book of the Bible.  The Psalms are the voice of the people collected over several centuries, of ancient Israel.  It is the poetry of the Hebrew people and it vividly expresses individual and collective thoughts, emotions, and feelings in their living, in their worship, and in their relationship with God.  And their voices may certainly apply to our thoughts, emotions and feelings in our living, in our worship, and in our relationship with God today. 
In this hymn book of the Bible there are many different kinds of songs, there are songs of praise, there are songs of thanksgiving, there are wisdom psalms, liturgical psalms, and royal psalms.  But the type of psalm we will examine today is the song or prayer of lament, which Psalm 13 belongs to.  A lament is a complaint, an objection, and a protest of what God is, or is not doing in our lives.  During times of distress we question or get angry with God.  I remember a couple of years ago, a dear friend of mine passed away.  He was a person I knew since high school and we are/were about the same age.  He was a devout and mature Christian who was an inspiration to me.  He thought he had the flu but was diagnosed with cancer in February of that year.  By December of the same year he was gone.  Why did God take away this devoted husband this ambassador for Christ?  It did not make sense to me and for a while I became angry with God for taking my brother in Christ away.
The psalmist in Psalm 13 was experiencing his own anguish and this psalm reveals three themes to us of how we can praise God during our times of distress.  The first theme contained in (vs. 1, 2) reveals to us and allows us to know that during times of distress we can show our disillusionment and disappointment to God (We can let God know how hurt, upset, angry we may be).  The psalmist asks God four times, “How long?” How long will you forget me?  How long will you hide  your face from me?  How long must I bear this pain?  How long will my enemy be exalted over me?  Each successive complaint becomes more harsh and intense.  The psalmist is crying out to God from the depths of his soul.  No holds, barred; no holding back.  No hiding how he truly feel.  In our times of distress we must open our hearts and be completely honest with God with what is on our hearts and what we are feeling.
The psalmist in (vs. 3, 4) calls on God to answer him.  It is not a passive petition but an active one.  We do not know the problem or situation that the psalmist is facing but he is not asking God to resolve the problem, he is expecting God to fix the situation. When we are open and completely honest with God we may petition Him for a response. Psalms 5 says it best, “Give ear to my words O Lord, consider my sighing.  Listen to my cry for help my King and my God, for to you I pray. In the morning, O Lord, you hear my voice; in the morning I lay my requests before you and wait in expectation.”  In our times of distress, we can make our requests known to God, lay them before His throne of grace and wait in expectation, in anticipation, knowing He will respond.
In (vs. 5, 6), the psalmist suddenly shifts from anguish to praise.  His attitude changes from complaining to God to complimenting God; he moves from the language of protesting to the language of praise.  The text does not reveal if the psalmist’s particular problem is solved, but the text does reveal a number of aspects about the psalmist’s relationship with God.  First, the psalmist trusts God.  Trust is all about being dependable, trust is about being reliable, trust is about having confidence in, and the psalmist is confident in God. He knows that he can depend on God. Second, the psalmist knows that God’s love is steadfast. Steadfast love is God’s unchanging love, steadfast love is God’s unconditional love, steadfast love is God’s unending love, and steadfast love is God’s everlasting love.  Third, God has saved the psalmist and God has rescued him, which is a cause for celebration. The thing about distress is that it happens not once, not twice, but several times over the course of our lives. Fourth, the psalmist knows that God has been good to him in the past and God will always be good to him. Fifth, the psalmist understands who he is and who he belongs to. He addresses God personally by calling him “my God”. They have a relationship. They have history. They talk to one another. And we have that same opportunity. I love the way our Heidelburg Catechism, in its first question, What is your only comfort, in life and in death, frames for us to whom we belong: That I belong-body and soul, in life and in death-not to myself but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ, who at the cost of his own blood has fully paid for all my sins and has completely freed me from the dominion of the devil; that he protects me so well that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, that everything must fit his purpose for my salvation.  Therefore, by his Holy Spirit, he also assures me of eternal life, and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.
In our times of distress, we can praise God because He desires for us to be totally open and honest with Him; we can lay our requests before Him and wait in expectation; because of His steadfast, unchanging and unconditional love for us, we can be confident that He will respond, rescue, remain at our side no matter what pain, suffering or anguish we may be experiencing; and we can go to God because we belong to Him, in body and in soul, in life and in death.
To Him who loves us and freed us from our sins by His blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. (Rev. 1:5-6).