Thursday, May 05, 2011

Sermon for May 8, Easter 3, Working the Signs

Acts 2:14a, 36-41, Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19, 1 Peter 1:17-23, Luke 24:13-35

My text is from our epistle, First Peter 1:17, If you invoke as Father the one who judges all people impartially according to their deeds, live in reverent fear during the time of your exile. "The time of your exile." Do you feel like an exile? A resident alien? How are you exiles? And why?

Some of you say that you like how Old First is so rooted and grounded in the history and geography of Brooklyn. The names of our members are on the streets: Polhemus Place, Boerum Place, Bergen Street, DeGraw, Hoyt, Schermerhorn, Joralemon, Hicks, Middagh, Varick, Suydam, Dikeman, Rapelye, Wyckoff, Classon, Conover, Cortelyou, Remsen, Gerritsen, Lott, Schenk, Van Brunt, Van Dyke, Van Voorhees. All these names belonged to our church, and now one of them is back. To the other five new members today, I cannot offer to name a street after you, so you’ll have to be content with a spot in Greenwood Cemetery, which is another way of being rooted and grounded in Brooklyn’s history and geography.

When the Hoyts and the Schermerhorns first settled here they were like exiles in the wilderness, but they soon became the establishment, and our church was founded as an established church, supported by taxation. When we put up this building, 120 years ago, we obviously wanted to express our sense of establishment. When we begin to raise the millions of dollars we’ll need to renovate our stained-glass windows, we’ll have to be pleasing to the establishment.

So are we establishment or exiles? If you’re a Christian, how are you an outsider and how are you at home — a resident or an alien or both? How much can you fit in to even where you are at home? The exiles addressed by St. Peter were not foreigners. Some were Jews and some were Gentiles, but they were native to where they lived. And yet they were exiles socially, politically, and economically, because of their loyalty to Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah and the Lord. The Jews among them no longer could share in their family celebrations. The Gentiles no longer could join the local festivals. The slaves among them had to fit in with their masters against their consciences, and the wives of non-believers faced a similar dilemma. All of them would be regarded by their neighbors as more or less disloyal, kill-joys, spoil-sports, worthy of discrimination and distrust.

They need encouragement. They need advice. How to navigate their lives. How in their predicament to be loving, not bitter, to be joyful, not resentful, to be generous, not defensive. How to be loyal to Jesus as Lord, and also honor the Emperor, as St. Peter advises them in chapter 2. There’s a needle to thread!

On Monday afternoon, one of you wrote me this email: “Daniel, Is it just me, or are you weirded out over all the rejoicing over bin Laden’s death? I mean, I get it – this guy is something of a modern-day Hitler – but . . . I just find it hard to be excited about anyone’s killing.” That’s the feeling, the feeling that First Peter 1:17 is getting at. “If you invoke as Father the one who judges all people impartially according to their deeds, live in reverent fear during the time of your exile.” We pray to a God who judges us no less than anybody else. So we want to live our lives in reverent fear. Not in fear as anxiety, but fear in knowing our limits, our fragility, our humility and our dependence, how much we daily need of grace and mercy. The great surprise about this reverent fear is that it results in joy and love, both counter-intuitively and counter-culturally.

The opposite is what St. Peter calls “futility”. The good thing about our predicament is that we are exiles also to futility, although we can sometimes feel like kill-joys. Futility could mean the fifteen minutes of fame. The shallow celebrations. The easy revelry. The superficial prosperity. The facile patriotism. The ideology of individualism. The economy of consumption. The idolatry of violence. We may stand outside of these.

But we do not stand outside the world. We stay within the world and for the world, because the resurrection of Jesus is both the judgment of the world and the affirmation of the world. It’s a judgment on the flesh but an affirmation of embodiment. It’s a foretaste of the future for the sake of life right now, right here and now. The resurrection is against the world and for the world, as both a judgment and a blessing, the future against the futility, the dawn against the darkness.

We are not given proofs of it, but we are given signs of it. As I said last week, the proof was given only to the apostles, in order to credit them as witnesses. To us are given signs. A proof is for a verdict and a resolution, and you can say, “That settles that.” A sign is something that points beyond itself, to get you moving there; you have to follow a sign, you have to use a sign, you have to work it. We are given signs, not proofs, of Jesus’s resurrection. The signs won’t tell you anything unless you use them, unless you work them. The more you work them, the more you get from them. One of the signs we’re given is the breaking of the bread. It isn’t obvious what this might have to do with the resurrection. Until you start using it. Until you use it more and more, and let it unfold itself to you, the more it shows you Jesus and confirms his life in you.

The signs are free for all. The signs are not church property. The other way around — they make the church. The signs are gifts of God to us. You don’t have to be a church member to enjoy them. That’s why we are indiscriminate, intentionally so. You are free to take the signs for free. But six of you are standing up today to say you want to work the signs. You want to put more into them to get more out of them. You commit to learn them and share them and take responsibility for them. You commit to the body that is broken in the bread. You commit to working God’s designs to see what they reveal.

You commit as well to our own secondary signs, the signs of our design. Like the organization of Old First, and our own particular missions and traditions and programs, which have their passing place as secondary signs of resurrection. Like the public water fountain. Like the respite shelter.

Like that painting. The Empty Tomb. That sign was commissioned by the Cortelyous and Suydams and Schenks to express what they believed. It’s remarkable. They were so Calvinist that the sanctuary they gave us has no crucifix – the only cross is faintly in that window over there – and yet they gave this lavish painting, by a Catholic Italian, a pride above place above the pulpit. Perfectly fitting in one way and contradictory in another. And a sign of Jesus’ resurrection is wonderfully offered all year round to anyone who walks into this sanctuary. You six are committing to maintain such signs, such secondary signs in all the contradictions of our culture and establishment.

The sign of the painting, the sign of the table, and the signs of your own lives. A third kind of sign, just as passing and enculturated, just as contradictory, and just there in your brokenness and how you deal with it and share it. Working the contradictions of being both a resident and an alien, of feeling both at home and in exile, and working your contradictions not in frustration but in love, that’s how you exhibit in your own life the signs of resurrection. The rest of us here are encouraged and inspired that you six want to this, and we want to bless you for it.

We need you and you need us, because you cannot work the signs on your own, not if you want to work them in love. St. Peter counsels “mutual love.” That’s a combination of all three kinds of signs, the love in your own life, the love within the organization of the church, and the love which Jesus gives us in the breaking of the bread. It’s a love regarded as unrealistic by the world, but that’s only because the world keeps failing to work it. It’s a love completely natural, it’s the love which is the primal energy of this present universe, and just as much the energy of the new creation. We work these signs together, the signs of resurrection and the signs of love. That you’re here is a sign of God’s love to all of us.

Copyright © 2011 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

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