Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Christmas Eve 2012, Blessings Flow Far as the Curse is Found

Note: There were 28 memorial candles on our Communion Table, behind the Advent Wreath.

(Here follows the Homily at the beginning of our Service of Lessons and Carols.)

Good evening, and welcome, I’m glad you are here tonight. Whoever you are, wherever you come from, Christian or Jewish or something else or nothing, whatever, we welcome you to celebrate with us the Incarnation of Our Lord.

He comes to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found. (You know the line, from Joy to the World.) The blessing and the curse. The blessing overflows the curse. The light shines in the darkness. The goodness overcomes the evil. The goodness does not compare in measure to the evil. You cannot measure the light by the darkness that it shines into. You cannot reckon the blessing by the power of the curse. They are all unequal, they are not equivalents.

Evil has no being in itself, it’s only the corruption of the good. Darkness is not something in itself, it’s only the absence of light, and one small beam can break its power. The grip of evil can be loosened by very small actions of the good. One little blessing can break the compulsion of a curse.

We need to hear this news again, because we feel accursed right now, especially in these last eleven days since that slaughter of the innocents. We feel the evil in our world, the murder and the malice and the misery. The darkness weighs on us. We find ourselves weeping and grieving. All the resolve and positivity that we generated since November by our service to the victims of Sandy is overshadowed by the horror and the grief of Sandy Hook. The shadow of death is on our land. We are walking in its darkness.

In just a few minutes you will hear a voice read out, “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light; they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.” You will hear that within the story we repeat tonight, that story we need to hear again each year. It’s the story of the light in the darkness and the blessing over the curse. The light does not replace the darkness, it shines within it, indeed the darkness is its very medium, but it’s enough to show you how to go. The blessing does not displace the curse, but it is real enough that you can choose it. The blessing will not compel you. It is your choice.

We know of people who surrender to the darkness and the curse—out of fear, perhaps, or pride, or anger, or anger and fear together, as they reckon the compulsion of the curse and the thickness of the dark. But tonight we will dispel that darkness with just a little bit of light.

Jews and Christians claim that evil is not built into the world, that evil is unnatural in God’s world and that evil is in the world only as the result of human sin. So we begin the story with Adam and Eve because we believe that it is our disobedience which lets loose the evil in the world, which curses us, and which we are powerless to overcome. The story moves quickly to the blessing, in the voice of the angel, to Abraham, in the Akida, which we will hear in Hebrew once again.

The story propels the blessing with promises from Isaiah, of the child who shall be called Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace, and of the blessing so close upon the curse, and yet immune to it, as the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the cockatrice’s den.

The story raises our hopes, and the music rises in us with the hope. The darkness deepens but the light gets more intense, and focused on the savior, who himself is light and is the source of the light: God-with-us. And then, upon the hillside, the angel counts us worthy, as crooked and grimy and guilty as we may be, to go and greet the savior of the world. A great God in a little space. A holy God in humble flesh, a body in which this God could be killed and cursed and die. That’s the part beyond the story for tonight, which the angels don’t yet see, but God does, and what God knows is that though this single life is very small, it cannot be extinguished. It is too good for that, too blessed. Such a little thing, this baby, and such vast power for hope and healing is concentrated in him. All the good hopes of God’s own self.

This little story is so important in these days. So I thank all these persons who have come to read it to you tonight. And I thank all the musicians who have come to help us feel the wonder and the joy that’s in this story for tonight, the soloists and players up there like some angels in the air. And I thank all of you for coming to share in the hearing of this story once again. You were right to come here tonight. And may God bless you one and all.

Copyright © 2012 by Daniel Meeter, All Rights Reserved.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

December 2: Advent 1: Adonai Tsidkeinu

This is Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands, who my grandfather loved, even though he was a passionate socialist.

My sermon for Advent 1 was preached ex tempore. You can listen to it here: Adonai Tsidkeinu.

November 25: Proper 29: Desiring the Kingdom

This is Robert Royster. He's a pan-handler who belongs to the community of Old First. He longs for the Kingdom of God.

I had previously posted a sermon for November 25, but I ended up not preaching it. I preached something else (an expansion of the last point of the aforementioned posted sermon). I preached that ex tempore. You can listen to it or even download it by going to this link: Grace to You and Peace.

I  must give credit here to my sister-in-law, Rev. Dr. Renée Sue House, who reminded me of an important theme from a book by James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom.

November 18, Proper 28: "Hold Fast": A 358th Anniversary Sermon,

This is one artist's rendering of our first church building from the 1680's. All we know for sure is that it was "a small and ugly little church standing in the middle of the road." It stood in the middle of Fulton Street, in front of what now is Macy's. The congregation was established in October, 1654, by order of Governor Pieter Stuyvesant, but we don't know exactly when the first service was held.

This sermon is not written. I preached it ex tempore, but it is on the Lectionary texts for the week: Daiel 12:1-3, Psalm 16, Hebrews10:11-25, Mark 13:1-8. And, I'm grateful to say, it was recorded. You can listen to it, or download it, by going to this website:
Let Us Hold Fast

Monday, November 26, 2012

November 25, Proper 29, Grace to You and Peace

Note: I did not preach this sermon. I wrote it, and had it ready, but I ended up preaching something else, ex tempore, which was recorded and eventually will be posted on the Old First Church website. Let me also say that I agree with N T Wright that Ascension Day is a much better Feast of Christ the King than this reactionary holiday invented by Pius XI in 1925. So many sacrifices do we make for both ecumenism and tradition (which, on the whole, I believe are worth it.)

Daniel 7:9-10, Psalm 93, Revelation 1:4b-8, John 18:33-37

 The Epistle lesson which we just read, from the Book of the Revelation, is usually interpreted as referring to the Second Coming of Christ. You know, what we confess in the Apostles Creed, that "He shall come again to judge the living and the dead," and what we sing in the Mystery of the Faith, "Christ shall come again." Yes, you can believe that, but that’s not what the Revelation lesson is not about. It’s about the Ascension of Jesus, which has already happened.

The imagery comes from our Old Testament lesson, Daniel 7, the vision of "one like a son of man" coming up on the clouds into the presence of God, and this man being given dominion and glory and kingship. This prophecy was believed by the apostles to have been fulfilled when Jesus "ascended into heaven to sit at the right hand of God, the Father." Forty days after Easter.

The Ascension is reported in Acts 1. It’s reported historically—how the disciples saw it from the ground, on a Thursday of a given week, in real time, within the sequence of history, as it could be reported in a newspaper. The Ascension is reported in a very different way in the prophecies of Daniel and the Revelation—as from the viewpoint of heaven, on no day, in no week, outside of time, outside the sequence of history, as it could be reported in a vision. So we have it reported as a fact and we have it reported as a mystery, which makes sense, because it is both a fact and a mystery. As a fact it happened on a specific day in a specific week in a specific year, and as a mystery it happens in the eternal now, in the eternal present of the presence of God. It was and is and is to be. And if God is eternal, and outside of time (just as the author of a book lives outside the time-sequence within the book), then the past and the present and the future are all one moment in the sight of God.

We are invited to believe this. We are invited to believe that Jesus of Nazareth, a "son of man," i.e., the representative child of humanity, was killed, rose from the dead, ascended into heaven, and is seated on the right hand of God the Father. We are invited to believe that this one special human being has been placed in the exalted position of the rulership of the world, and that all peoples and nations and languages and cultures serve him, and not as slaves, but as loyal subjects and as citizens advancing his causes and designs. We are invited to believe this as both a fact and a mystery.

It’s easier to take as a mystery than as a fact, considering the other facts around us. By any standard of effective government, Jesus must be a very weak ruler. What he says he wants, he doesn’t get. Many peoples and nations and languages do not serve him, and those peoples and nations who do claim to serve him, serve him poorly. The powers which are under his authority do not honor his authority. His enemies do what they want and his opponents take what they please. By normal standards, he has not consolidated his government. The Jewish philosopher Martin Buber said that he liked Jesus very much but he couldn’t accept him as the Messiah because he had failed to accomplish the universal peace and justice the Messiah was supposed to bring.

I suspect this is partly why so many Christians have applied our morning’s prophecies to the Second Coming instead of the Ascension. The prophecies seem unfulfilled, the facts don’t support the mystery, they can’t be about the present, they must be about the future. And that interpretation affects their Christian behavior, especially on the Religious Right. As if the Lord is supposed to be in charge, but is not in charge, so we have to put him back in charge in every way we can. As if the Lord Jesus needs our protection, like a quarterback before his throw, as if his kingdom is like an egg in a carton and needs defending from his enemies who might destroy it. And the best defense is a good offense. This Christian behavior is defensive and aggressive and it’s based on fear.

We are invited not to behave that way. We may rather live our lives in terms of grace and peace, and that’s not just from sloth or laziness. It is from hearing what Jesus says to us, and he says, "Grace and peace." We are to live as gracefully and peacefully as he does. Those are to be the facts of our lives, the facts of our lives which should be bearing witness to the mystery of his sovereignty. This grace and peace should be the facts of our lives which we hold up against the other facts of turmoil and injustice and rebellion and warfare around us.

We are invited to believe the vision. We are invited to be human beings, and human beings are the creatures who, for better or worse, have evolved to live our lives in terms of visions. So we try to believe the vision of Jesus’ sovereignty. And if our ordinary perception of the world could show us final evidence of Jesus’ sovereignty, then we wouldn’t need the vision. I know that’s circular, and no proof, but I make it as an appeal to your conscience. We live our lives in terms of visions, to some extent at least, because we are spiritual. We agree to find our reference point in what we cannot see, we gather our bearings from what we cannot learn by ordinary means, it has to be revealed to us, and we have to believe it. This doesn’t mean to deny the importance of what we can see, and it’s not that we deny the facts. We live by the interplay of facts and mysteries, and we are invited to let the mysteries tell us the meaning of our facts.

Does his kingdom look ineffective? Don’t employ the usual standards of accomplishment. It wins its victories not by violence but by sacrifice. That’s why Pontius Pilate couldn’t believe it. He knew from his facts that the Roman Empire was built on massively effective violence and that it was maintained by a monopoly on violence, and that no matter what the truth might be of Jesus’ innocence, he would condemn him anyway in order to keep control of the violence, which was the only truth he knew. But Jesus offers a different kind of power. Not the power of domination or defensiveness but the power of reconciliation. He does not ask his followers to be soldiers but to be priests. He regards you as a kingdom of priests. Which means you have no opponents and no enemies. This strategy requires of course a greater strength, a tougher tenacity, a greater force of will, and a deeper kind of leadership. You wouldn’t choose this strategy if you hadn’t been given the very long range view, if you hadn’t been offered the mystery of the universe, too big for understanding, but full of light and of the heat of love and all the colors of God’s joy.

Why does the Christian faith invite us to believe in such an antiquated and even discredited concept as kingship? We believe in democracy. Canadians maintain the status of the status of Queen Elizabeth only because she has no real power. So let us remember that to say that Jesus is a king is but a metaphor. In ways, he’s like a king. He’s not actually a king, he is God, and if he’s truly God, then he certainly doesn’t need to be a king. And it’s only a relative metaphor, in neither one of the Creeds is Jesus called a king. So why do we keep on saying it?

We all understand that the church is a place for cultivating our beliefs. We repeat them and rehearse them and test them and even question them in order to strengthen and refine them. But it’s also a place for cultivating our desires. It’s not a natural desire to love your enemies. It’s not a natural desire to forgive your debtors. These desires have to be learned and reinforced. We learn to desire reconciliation instead of retaliation, we learn to desire sacrifice instead of domination.

We learn to desire a power higher than ourselves, whose power does not derive from us, we learn to desire a higher power whose authority does not arise from us. We cultivate a desire for a higher power which is not just a "What" in the world, but the "Who" of the world. A higher power with intentions and visions and desires and plans and purposes, a higher power with who can love, a higher power who loves mercy and has made it so, a higher power who loves justice and will make it so. We use this antiquated language to say that the central power of the universe is a Who whom we can serve, before whom we should kneel, to whom we can be loyal, and the only power in existence which is worthy of our honor and the only power which is worthy of our love. The mystery of this power is love. Only by the vision could you know this. You are invited to be believe it as a fact that this central power of the universe knows you and loves you. And invites you to live your own life by the vision of this love.

Copyright © 2012, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Sandy and the White House, a report from New York.

This article is reprinted by permission from the Christian Courier ( and it appears in The 12 blog.  Sandy and the White House: A Report from New York City

Monday, November 12, 2012

November 11, Proper 27, Risky Living -- Loose Giving

A Guest Sermon by Rev. Dr. Renée Sue House, for Consecration Sunday at Old First

Risky Living—Loose Giving
I Kings 12:8-16; Ps. 146; Hebrews 9:24-28; Mark 12:38-44

A devastating hurricane.  A tense presidential election.  A discombobulating nor’easter. And in the wake of all this, Consecration Sunday. If nothing else, we come to this day newly mindful of the contingency, the fragility, the riskiness of being human. Here today. Gone tomorrow.  Boats splintered on driveways.  Houses lost to fire and water. Subways and hospitals submerged.  Hearts shattered by death.  Physically, emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, it is risky business to be flesh and blood.  Risky to be, risky to have, to hold, to love, to give, to lose.  

It seems always to happen.  In the face of other’s losses, we recognize sharply how blessed we are, how rich in things, and people, and love, and spirit.  Crises can create an open-heartedness and open-handedness in us.  In days like these we don’t have time to count the cost and calculate the risk.

On Thursday night I was here with some of you and could see you responding to the losses of your neighbors with heart, mind, and strength.  Offering your prayers, your church building, your time, energy, money--offering yourselves to make sure that people living in shelters have food to eat, clothes to wear, and hope for tomorrow.  You have responded to the risks of human living with your love. And in this you risk something too in this less protected living.  I think this puts you in a good place to choose how you will consecrate your money to the love of God and neighbor in the year ahead, because  I think it puts you less guardedly into the very mind and heart—into the very life of God.

Last week Rev. Meeter said it is risky to tithe.  It is risky to set aside the first ten percent of our incomes out of love for God and neighbor.  Financial planners would advise that we invest these moneys more realistically.  There is the fiscal cliff and the threat of recession.  There are children to feed and clothe, college and pension funds to build and safeguard.  And, the reality is, it just ain’t cheap to live in Brooklyn

Tithes and offerings rub against the grain. It takes faith in God’s own faithfulness and generosity to live generously. Faith in God is the way to respond to the daily risks of just being human, and to the risks of giving when we cannot know what tomorrow holds.  Trust in God’s provision and promises leads to risky living and loose giving!

When we talk about giving, we usually talk about dedicating the first ten percent, the first fruits of our labors. But this morning, the word of God stretches us.  We meet two widows who offer their very last fruits—they give away all they have to live on. 

You’ve got to wonder what God was thinking in chosing the widow of Zarephath to be the one to feed the prophet Elijah.  She lives outside of the people of Israel. She is vulnerable.  Of all the folk who may have offered Elijah hospitality, why her?  It’s like asking a single mom who is now living in the armory to give food for the consecration luncheon today.  The widow of Zarephath responds plainly to Elijah’s demand.  “As the Lord your God liveth, I don’t have anything to give you,” she says.  Apparently, the widow knows about Elijah’s God, but she doesn’t know this God as her own.  She doesn’t know Psalm 146, that “the Lord upholds the widow and the orphan and keeps faith forever.” 

And I wonder too, what might Elijah be thinking when she says, “sorry guy, my cupboard is almost bare.  I am going to make a small cake for my son and I, then we will eat it and die?”  God sent him here, and now she has no food?  I know, we imagine he is a pious, perfect prophet.  Always full of faith and trust in God.  Never questioning.  But in truth, Elijah struggles with God.  He loses hope.  Despairs of his life and sometimes hates his vocation.

As told, this story moves and resolves quickly.  But these two are human beings like us. I believe there is very pregnant pause in which both Elijah and the widow feel nothing but risk.  Nothing but fear.  Their lives are completely contingent on God.  Trusting God to keep God’s promise is the only way to find rest in the risk. So this widow opens her hand to give.  Her first act of consecration.  Her first experience of loose giving.  Her first encounter with this God who provides, creates communities of love, and keeps faith forever!

Jesus is watching as the people place their offerings in the temple treasury.  A poor widow puts in two small copper coins, worth a penny. She has been coming to the temple her whole life.  Even after her husband died and her financial resources dwindled, she brought her offerings--a sign of her trust in the living God.  She knows that what Jesus has said is true.  The temple scribes play at piety, parade their pride, and devour widow’s houses.  If she were more shrewd, she would protect herself.  If she were less foolish, she would hold onto her last fruits.  But a lifetime of trust in God’s promise and provision leads her to risky living and loose giving.  God upholds the widow and the orphan.  God keeps faith forever.  This widow believes that faith in God’s faithfulness is the only risk worth taking, the only leap worth making.

If Jesus has not been watching, we would not know this story.  When he calls the disciples over and points out what has just happened, Jesus is restrained.  These are the facts.  The rich have put in large sums of money.  The widow has put in her last two coins—all that she has to live on.  Jesus doesn’t criticize the rich folk who put in large sums of money.  He doesn’t accuse them of withholding from God.  But he does do some “new” math by calculating that she has given more than anyone else because she has literally risked her life.  

So we are left to sit with the disciples and ponder what this might mean.  Is Jesus suggesting that every one of us ought to engage in this kind of sacrificial, trust-full giving?  Is he changing the rules, saying indirectly, “You have heard it said that you should give a tenth of what you have to God, but I say, give it all?”  Is Jesus hoping that we with the disciples will be disturbed that there should be in the community a woman so poor while others enjoy great wealth?  Is he praising her faith and generosity, or criticizing the scribes and Pharisees who exploit faithful widows rather than care for them?  Jesus doesn’t tell us what to do here, just creates a pregnant pause in the action and invites us to see, and hear, and respond. 

But there is more to see, and hear and respond to than the widow’s offering.  As Mark’s gospel unfolds, we cannot miss the connection between the widow who gives all that she has, and Jesus who is on his way to the cross. Jesus knows the risks of being flesh and blood.  In birth, in life, and in death, Jesus gives up everything to flood the world with God’s perfect love.  As the writer of Hebrews says: Jesus appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself. Once and for all. Risky living and loose, lavish redemptive self-giving. 

And there it is.  The heart of the matter.  Here is it, the deep structure and source of our own desire to give without counting the cost or calculating the risk.  We live, and move, and have our being in the living God whose love knows no ending, who keeps faith forever!  Now unto him who loves us and freed us from our sins with his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion, forever, and ever!

Copyright © 2012, by Renée Sue House, all rights reserved.

Friday, November 02, 2012

November 4, Proper 26, Organized Love, Organized Religion

Deuteronomy 6:1-9, Psalm 119:1-8, Hebrews 9:11-14, Mark 12:28-34

Next week is Consecration Sunday. Which means that this week my job is to preach my annual sermon on tithing. Let me begin prosaically, with five principles of tithing: It’s intentional, it’s challenging, it’s a priority, it’s an investment, and it’s risky.

It’s intentional. Tithing is a discipline. Tithing is not charity, it is not a response to someone else’s need. Tithing is not responding to the needs of your neighbor or the needs of the church. Tithing isn’t even done at church— you do it at home, when you sit down to do your budgeting in general, when you budget your cost of housing and your Verizon plan and how nice a vacation you can take this year. Tithing doesn’t come from feelings but from sober intentionality.

Second, it’s challenging. Tithing is meant to cost you, just like your housing and your groceries. If the money you tithe does not cut into what you might spend on other things, it isn’t tithing yet. The ideal tithe is ten percent. That seems high if you are new to tithing. Okay, tithing is not a law, it’s a freely chosen discipline, so start at three or four percent or whatever challenge you can reach. And then next year, challenge yourself one step higher. The point is the challenge.

Third, it’s a priority. It’s from the top. Whatever percentage you choose, it’s the first portion of your budget, it’s the top percentage of your income. You budget your tithe before your housing or your cable or whatever else is in your budget. It’s the top.  Because your soul is the dearest thing about you. Because your money should serve your soul and not the other way around. Tithing is the tool you use to prioritize the economic by the spiritual.

Fourth, it’s an investment. It’s not a response to current need, it’s your investment in the long term work of God in the world. It’s also an investment in yourself, in your spiritual power over the money you have, instead of your money having power over you. You know that in our culture money means power, and money has more power over every one of us than any one of us admits to. Money demands of us that we take care of it and protect it and secure it. Tithing is how you claim some freedom from the power of money. Tithing is how you accept the power of money but reject what it demands of you. Tithing is an investment in your own empowerment.

Fifth, it’s risky. Every investment has some risk in it. You will ask yourself if you can really do this. Your certified financial planner would advise you to invest that top percentage of your money more realistically. To tithe is a risk and it requires faith. You can tithe as a way of managing your risk by means of the faithfulness of God, by believing that God is providential.

Those are the principles of tithing. The motives of tithing are two. Gratitude and love. You heard about gratitude form Jeff Chu last week and from Lance Gangemi the week before. The week before that you heard about love from Kelly Greene. I want to take up love again, because of the scripture lessons we heard today.

So Jesus, tell us, which commandment is the first of all? There are 613 commandments in the Torah, 613 mitzvoth, which mitzvah is the first? If Jesus had been a Christian, he’d have gone to the first of the ten commandments from Exodus, “thou shalt have no other God before me.”  But Jesus was a Jew, so he went to Deuteronomy, to the first mitzvah he repeated every morning in his prayers, after he repeated the Shema. And then, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” Translate “might” as “strength” or as “power”. And if money is power, could you say that “You shall love the Lord your God with all your money?” Well, that’s at least the motivation. Tithing is from love.

Then Jesus adds another commandment, another mitzvah, from Leviticus, “You must love your neighbor as yourself.” Very close to the first one, but subtly different. You must love God totally, but you must love your neighbor equally. The command to love God is unlimited but the command to love your neighbor is measured with proportion. You need to love God with limitless extravagance, but you need to love your neighbor in balance with loving yourself. You love God with everything, and that’s why tithing is the top part of your spending, thereby giving the proper meaning to everything else you spend. You love your neighbor in equal proportion to yourself, and that’s why tithing is the percentage that you determine according to the measure of the cost of your life and your family’s life. You measure the cost of love, in real, practical terms.

You don’t have to do this if you want to be spiritual but not religious. You don’t have to do this if you don’t want to participate in organized religion. You can just go off by yourself to the beach and see God in the sunrise. You won’t have to think about anyone else. You won’t have to share with them or forgive them or be forgiven by them. You can have your spirituality without any risk or challenge or investment. You won’t have to do the work of love as part of spirituality.

Love is not love unless there is an object to your love, someone or something that you love. If tithing is an act of love, you give your tithe to a whole community of people whom you love, not so much depending on how you like them, for these are the people you try to practice your love upon, and in real terms. Your tithe makes possible the object of your tithe. It’s circular. It’s a circle of love. When you tithe to this community you help to build a community in which to practice love — indeed, a community which requires love in order just to operate. You contribute to a fellowship of intentionality in which to organize your sacrifices. You contribute to a culture which recites these commandments to your children and talks about them when you are at home.

A community of Jesus means that the love of God is at its center and we express that love towards each other in concrete terms. That’s hard work. That means care and visitation, the habits of reconciliation, and the work of peace. It means organization and institution and paying insurance and hiring staff and buying Sunday School curriculum. You may invest your tithes in this community as a way of loving your neighbors in real time, expressing the love of God with all your strength, because you want to love God with all your soul.

You tithe because you’re thankful for that love. As was said by Lance and Jeff. The love you get from the other people here. Not always such great love, and never perfect love, but real and practical attempts at love. Most of all you’re thankful for the love you get from God. You have heard that God is love, and you believe that God is love, and occasionally you see that Love within the world, and not just in the sunrise on the beach, but in the lives of other people, and now and then you recognize that Love of God in your own life. And you remind yourself that this is the greatest motivation for any risk and any investment and intention, this is indeed the priority of your life, to give thanks for the love of God.

Copyright © 2012, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

October 28, Proper 25, Blind Bartimaeus

Jeremiah 31:7-9, Psalm 126, Hebrews 7:23-28, Mark 10:46-52 

The story is the last healing story in Mark’s gospel. It happens just before Palm Sunday. It happens in Jericho, deep in the Jordan valley, the last stop before the steep road up to Jerusalem, a 15 mile climb into the mountains. The road is full of pilgrims going up to celebrate the Passover. The road is being watched by the Roman soldiers of the garrison in Jericho. The Roman soldiers would keep their eyes on someone called the Son of David, potentially the leader of an uprising.

Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me. Well, of course many sternly ordered him to be quiet, "Hey, keep still!" but he cried out even more loudly, Son of David, have mercy on me. What kind of mercy was Bartimaeus looking for? An extra special handout? That’s why he always sat there at the city gate, so the pilgrims could do a good deed of charity on their way to worship.

Bartimaeus will not go up himself. As a blind man, he is not allowed inside the temple. And by his name, we surmise his father was a Greek. He is unkosher and unclean. He has reason to be worried about his fate if this Son of David sets up a new Kingdom of God with stricter standards of holiness and perfection. Son of David, please be merciful to an outcast like myself.

Jesus calls for him. Jesus is no longer hiding his identity. When the crowd sees this they let go of their circumspection. "He’s calling you." He jumps up. He leaves his cloak behind. That’s huge. Have you ever tried to separate a homeless man from his coat? His cloak is his security, it’s all he has for warmth and it’s where the pilgrims throw their alms. He’s risking all he has. Right off that’s an act of faith in the Messiah, even if it’s faith as desperation.

Jesus says, "What do you want me to do for you?" A simple question, but a challenge to the beggar’s professional habit of guarding the truth about himself. What a beggar asks for is what he thinks he can get, not what he really wants. So Bartimaeus will use his beggar’s skill to estimate what the Son of David can offer, but he must reject his beggar’s habit of guarding the truth about himself. It’s a great step in faith to confess the deepest truth about yourself. "All right, my rabbi, let me actually ask for it. To see again."

What do you want Jesus to do for you, you who have come to church today? Right now? Or tomorrow morning, when you sit alone, and if you pray? If Jesus does live on somewhere somehow and engages in the world and in your life with love and power, what answer would you give, what do you want Jesus to do for you?

What do you want the president to do for you? What should he offer you, an ordinary citizen? Isn’t that how the two campaigns are pitched — you’re being asked to vote on the basis of what you want the president to do for you. It’s a great disappointment to me that both of these campaigns are appealing to us as consumers, not as citizens. Maybe that’s to be expected, considering how thoroughly consumerist our culture is. The great gifts we enjoy of freedom and democracy we exercise chiefly in consumption. What do I want? What do we want? Goods and services? What I want Jesus to do for us as Americans is for his law and his gospel to teach us how to be citizens instead of consumers, with a vision of liberty and justice and the common good.

What do you want Jesus to do for you? Is it enough that he allows you to see again? Of course there are many things you want from him. Forgiveness of your sins, blessing on your life, healing of your body or your soul, the things you pray about, the answers to your prayers. But today we are invited to ask him just to see again. Some sight, some vision of what is ahead, some clear sight of reality before us. Glasses from Jesus, contact lenses from Jesus.

If Jesus corrects our vision and clears our sight, then what can we see? The Kingdom of God. Hidden in plain sight, on earth, as it is in heaven. The world, the world unblurred, the world in terms of God. We see other people but we see them as God sees them. We get glimpses of God, quick and comprehensive glimpses of the whole combination of God and other people and the world and the Kingdom of God within the world.

Last week I was asked a very good question. "Why do we have to have Jesus? Why not just God? I believe in God, I like it there’s a God, but we do we have to have Jesus?" This question always deserves an answer, even if we’ve answered it before, because it’s always worth asking again and again. So then, which god? Any god, a general god, a least-common-denominator god, the god of the Enlightenment, the god of the Deists, the god of "God bless America," or the god of Captain Ahab in Moby Dick, "inscrutable, featureless, indifferent." Which god, whose god? The Muslim and the Hindu visions of god are mutually exclusive. If not Jesus, then what god?

If Jesus of Nazareth was in fact the Son of David, then the God he shows us is the God of the Jews, the God of Israel. Which means that this God is the self-defining God, and not the god of the philosophers or the Enlightenment or the Deists or of Captain Ahab, but the God who enters into history with love, and takes on all the suffering of love. He shows us more, that this very God is in him, in a special way, uniquely so, and fully so, and he showed us this, unexpectedly and paradoxically, in his death and resurrection. If it the crucified Jesus of Nazareth did rise from the dead on the third day, that holds a vision of God, and how God loves the world, and how God relates to the Gentiles, how God relates to power — political power, but also the power of guilt and sin and death and evil in the world, how God addresses all those things and addresses us as human beings who are in the middle of those things, the way God loves the world, the contours of God’s love, and the kind of love that God requires of us.

So it’s true that you don’t need Jesus in order to have a god, some god, somebody’s kind of god, but if you go with Jesus he becomes the living telescope through whom you see the vision of this God. In the way he interacts with people, how he talks to them, the way he dies, and how he lives beyond his resurrection, you can see the character of God, the habits of God, of a specific God, but a God for all the world.

Jesus does not show us the details of the future, neither the course of your own life nor the outcome of the economic policies of whomever we elect next month, he doesn’t show you the future course of your own life. What he shows you is the attitude of God to all these things, which you have to trust in, you have to trust the commitment of God to the world and to its future and in God’s commitment to your own future. What saves you for your living in this uncertain world, for being an active citizen of the Kingdom of God instead of just a consumer of your life, is not your knowing the future, for you to control it and be safe, and get your way, what saves you is your faith in the character of the God who is demonstrated in Jesus.

It’s the human condition that our choices and actions lead to unintended consequences which are irreversible and which bind us. Our sins and shortcomings keep rising against us, and we feel trapped by the past and by our flaws and our failures and our weaknesses. And we cannot see any hope for transformation in our futures. But this great High Priest has made single and eternal and permanent and irreversible atonement for all our sins, and the bondage of your past is broken open, the wheel of karma is reversed, he has for all time cancelled the claims of vengeance and payment and retribution. See the world as he does. See yourself as he does. Cast your cloak behind you, like Bartimaeus, rise up and follow Jesus into the future which you do not have to see, as long as you have faith in the God who fills this future with God’s love.

Copyright © 2012, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

October 14, Proper 23: How Hard It Will Be

Amos 5:6-7, 10-15, Hebrews 4:12-16, Mark 10:17-31

This sermon I preached without a manuscript. So I cannot post it here as usual. But it was recorded, and that recording is available at this website: Live Sermon Recordings at Old First

You'll find the sermon for October 14, as well as the spoken version (always different from the manuscript version) of the sermon for October 21.

Friday, October 19, 2012

October 21, Proper 24, Perfecting Perfection

Isaiah 53:4-12, Psalm 91:9-16, Hebrews 5:1-10, Mark 10:35-45

The Greek word for baptism, in verse 38, is the same as the word for bathing, for taking a bath, and in the Roman Empire, bathing was usually done socially. Not by the lower classes, who didn’t take baths, and not by most Jews and Arabs, who considered it shameful to be naked, but by Romans, and by strivers affecting Roman ways, like King Herod and the other local tyrants of the Roman world. And so to be invited into the king’s bath, and at the banquet afterward to drink the wine from his cup, was the proof that you were a person of privilege and power.

The gospel lesson takes place just before Palm Sunday on the road up to Jerusalem. For three years the disciples have followed Jesus, so they’re invested in his messianic destiny and they want to share his power. The inner circle was Peter, James, and John, and Peter had blown and was rebuked by Jesus, so James and John see their chance. The other ten find out and are angry, not because they wouldn’t do the same, but because the two have cut ahead in line. Jesus is not angry. He doesn’t rebuke them for desiring to be powerful. He only says, "As long as you take what comes with it." Be careful what you ask for!

Can you really take my bath with me? Can you be washed over by the waves of suffering? Can you be overwhelmed by the floods of injustice? Can you be sprayed on by fire hoses and rained on by rubber bullets? Can you lose your job when the guy above you was unfair? Can you be passed over because of discrimination? Can you fail in your dream because they denied you the chance? Can you not get what you need because they’re giving it to someone else? Can you fail to advance your career because you’re caring for your kids? Can you miss the dance because you’re caring for your parents? Can you drop out of school because you’ve got to pay the bills? Can you watch the suffering of someone you love? Can you lose your child, or watch him die, or watch her dissolve in drugs? Can you be tried and tested and tempted with despair? Can you wade right into this water and be overwhelmed, lose your footing, lose your breath, and maybe even drown? I will not spare you this suffering, if you are with me.

That the suffering of Jesus is what taught him obedience is the message from the epistle to the Hebrews. Jesus learned obedience through suffering. This is not the usual stained-glass picture of Jesus, perfectly serene, unflappable, like a Buddha, avoiding desire to avoid the suffering. He was rather a man of passions and desires, who entered the water of suffering and thereby learned obedience. He perfected his obedience by staying with the suffering he did not deserve, but entered into anyway. It is a subtle message here, that by keeping obedient through suffering, he who was sinless perfected his perfection.

I am drawn to the image of Jesus praying with loud cries and tears. It’s not the familiar view of Jesus kneeling at the rock, calm and composed, with folded hands, and his long hair nice and neat. The epistle gives a different picture, less attractive, more troubling, with Jesus groaning and shouting and writhing on the ground, sweating bullets, calling out to the Father who is able to save him from death, but will not. The message is that the prayers of Jesus have room in them for fear and frustration, and even anger is allowed in them. We can hardly imagine a Jesus with anger and anxiety and fear and frustration who still is perfect.

His perfection is not static but dynamic. His obedience is not an avoidance of doing wrong, but an obedience of relationship, an obedience of tenacious engagement with God, wrestling with God, not backing off, not backing down, not stifling himself, but staying with God, despite the conspiracy against him for following God’s call on him. His remarkable righteousness was to stay faithful to the God who was able to save him from death but did not. He stayed faithful to the powerful God who did not use that power on his behalf. Though he was a Son, his Father did not rescue him. When God abandoned him he did not abandon God. He was at least as righteous as God. He perfected perfection beyond the original divine perfection.

If Jesus is the medium of God, and if the medium is the message, then this message of Jesus is a message about God, and what God is like. The very God of very God. We Christians may not imagine some static perfect God up there, but a God whose perfections are the perfections of active love, a God who drinks from our dirty cups and gets in our dirty water. How can a good and loving God allow the suffering of the world? It’s the classic question, for which we do not have a final answer. But the question is adjusted by what you mean when you say God within the question. The question is different when God has gone down deeper than us into the suffering that we complain about. The answer to the question is not an explanation or a proof, but a relationship, and a calling, and a challenge. The answer of God is that if you really do care about the suffering of the world, then can you join God down there under it, not liking it, but loving it.

Allow me to switch the focus now, and get more practical, and talk about the message for our congregation of Old First. The sanctuary ceiling disaster is a kind of suffering for our church. It has challenged us. I’m very proud of you, because I’ve been asking a lot of you of late, and you are stepping up. You are daring to take on new responsibilities and you are willing to make some sacrifices for what you believe in. But in order to be productive we need some power. To have some success and fulfillment you need to exercise your talents and your gifts, and you need some power and some recognition and even some status among us. Jesus does not deny us that. We are going to need some leaders here, some officers, some elders and deacons, some chairpersons, and we want our leaders to be strong leaders, with visions and ideas, and we want to empower them.

This sanctuary ceiling disaster can be a blessing for our church. I’m not suggesting that God caused it, nor that we should have asked for it, but this crisis can better for us than comfortable complacency. This time of trial and testing can call us to new obedience and new patterns of love for each other and new investment in each other. If all we do is fix the ceiling, we’re wasting an opportunity. We’d only be taking a shower, instead of getting in the bath. We’ve got to get down deep into our situation, and sit in it and soak in it. Here we are. What can it all mean? What new leadership, what new mission, what new outreach, what new daring, what new risk, what new furniture, what new levels of spirituality? Let’s not gulp this down, let’s sip it slowly to bring out every flavor we can taste in it. How much could we dare to renovate? How much money could we dare to raise? A congregation that lives by its faith should never waste a crisis to its faith.

So if you are stepping up to be a leader now, we want you to lead, and we will support you. If you have a vision, we will try to see what you can see. Take us with you, be strong, and also be strong in love, for Jesus said that everyone who is great must be a slave of all. Your leadership is for the sake of love, for loving the last one in line. You will have to explain it again and again, you will have to suffer us, our slowness to see and our weakness in action. This can be a kind of suffering for leaders. But really we have all the time we need. The only real crisis we’re facing is not the ceiling but the challenge to the practice of mutual love among us and to our obedience in relationships. The cup we drink is the cup of love. It’s a pledge and foretaste of that feast of love of which we shall partake when his kingdom has fully come. We can do this, because God has already done it. We can love each other, because God has first loved us.

Copyright © 2012, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Saturday, October 06, 2012

Octover 7, Proper 22, Between the Angels and the Animals

 Genesis 2:18-24, Psalm 8, Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12, Mark 10:2-16

So that’s why we bless little children in our church. It’s a gospel thing. We do it on behalf of the Lord Jesus himself. When I bless your child I’m channeling the blessing of Our Lord.

Why are little children special to the Lord? Why does he make them examples for us? Well, first off, I don’t think it’s coincidental that, in the Greek original, all of Jesus’ words for children are in the neuter gender, neither masculine or feminine. You get this in other languages too, that their sexuality is undeveloped yet. There is something in this about the Kingdom of God, that our sexuality as individuals is not the most important thing about us, and that behind our gender is our more essential unity as human beings. You certainly see that in the Genesis story, how sexuality is relative, not absolute. Jesus draws the point out later in a debate with the Sadducees, in saying that in the Resurrection there will be no giving or taking in marriage, and that we will be single, like the angels of heaven. Which anticipates our freedom from the sociology of sex.

Which means that your marriage is temporary, it’s not eternal; it’s for this life, not for the life of the world to come. The Mormons get this wrong, with their doctrine of celestial marriage. Mr and Mrs Romney expect to be married forever and ever and ever, while Mr and Mrs Obama are only married till death do them part. (I’m just saying!) So while marriage is a wonderful gift and mystery of God, it is not absolute, it’s relative. It’s for our lives here in between, in between this creation and the new creation, for existing in between the angels and the animals.

No wonder the Lord Jesus did not get married. You know that his not being married will have kept him from being perfect among the Jews. But consider that he knew on that he was born to die, which would be unfair to any wife and children he might have. More than that, he was the Adam of the future, the Adam of the new creation, and in that new creation, to be single is not to be alone. How this will be remains a mystery, for then what about the remaining sexual characteristics of our resurrected bodies? We don’t know. The difficulty of this mystery led to later speculations, like that fourth century Coptic papyrus recently in the news, that Jesus must have been married. The Orthodox went the other way, to underplay his sexuality and his full humanity. The challenge is to aim down the middle, in between the sacredness of marriage on one side and its relativity on the other, the challenge is to live between the angels and the animals.

This gospel takes us right down the interlocking boundary of comfort and of pain. It’s a comfort that Jesus blesses the children. And yet his words about divorce have been painful to many people. O Jesus please don’t make it any harder, the breakdown of a marriage is pain enough. The shame in losing what you promised, the guilt you feel when you are judged. Even a good marriage has its painful spots, and it’s even more painful to have to divorce, and then Our Lord is calling me an adulterer if I find love the second time around? Is it really sinful to remarry?

I can’t make it nice what Jesus said, and, dare I say it, I wish he hadn’t said it like that. Never once in my counseling of struggling couples did I say that if they didn’t stay married, neither of them could marry again or else be an adulterer. Yes, Roman Catholics believe that, but it just doesn’t jive with the rest of the Gospel. Think of Jesus and the woman at the well. She’d been married five times and now was living with her lover. Jesus challenges her but neither condemns nor tells her to break up with him. Jesus actually calls the guy her husband, and tells her to come back with him.

The painful thing that Jesus says here was actually for some protection of the wife. He said it in the context of women having no rights in marriage. The choice of her husband was not for her, but her father, and the choice for a divorce was not for her, but for her husband, no matter what she wanted in the matter. He needed only to write out a bill of divorcement and tell her to get out. And then who would take her in? There was no alimony then, and she could not contest the property because women did not own property. How could she support herself? Sell herself? Find some other guy to take her in as a concubine or at best a second wife? Did you see the NPR special Half the Sky the other night? That’s the context we are talking about.

Jesus is making a judgment on the rights of husbands, that the legal permission they got from Moses, in Deuteronomy, was only a concession to what they were doing already. But the prior teaching of Moses, from Genesis, is that a woman is equal to a man, and not his property. So who are you to treat your marriage like a contract under your control? It is a gift of God and a mystery of God which you owe to God. You have to love your wife as much as you love yourself.

Jesus was single but he had a higher view of marriage than the Pharisees. They saw marriage as absolute and cheap. He saw it as relative and precious. So it would be just as wrong for us to make an absolute of either divorce or adultery. Both of them are just as relative, or even more relative than marriage is. Just last Sunday Jesus told us that to cut off your hand if it leads you to sin. If your marriage becomes unloving or hateful or abusive, you may have to cut it off. You may be scarred for life, but you are not unforgivable or barred from trying it again. There is no death which Jesus cannot bring again to life, no pain which Jesus cannot comfort. We can’t avoid the pain in what Jesus says, but he does not say it as his new heavy law against remarriage.

The issue is hard-heartedness. That’s what binds these two stories together, as the stories always interplay in Mark. The hardness of the righteous Pharisees, the hardness of the disciples who push the children away. That hardness is a defense against the pain of living in between, in between the hope and the reality, the future and the present, the angels and the animals, all the losses and the pains that come with having bodies and affections, all the incompleteness, which the angels do not know. The hardness can also come from trying to be righteous, from being strong and steadfast in obedience, from avoidance of the weakness and the pain. That hardness of heart can come from good intentions and better purposes, from trying to achieve the Kingdom of God. But we cannot achieve it, we should not even try, we can not build it or advance it or extend it, we can only receive it, like little children, and to be so totally receptive of the Kingdom of God is the second reason, the main reason, why Jesus tells us to be like little children.

To be so receptive and so open and so defenseless and soft-hearted is so very risky when you consider our position between the animals and angels and our consequent predicament of bodily pain and spiritual suffering. But God has taken this very risk as well, as we are reminded in our second reading, the epistle to the Hebrews. In the person of Jesus, God took human flesh, lower than the angels, and all the risk and pain and suffering. In the person of Jesus, God became a single, lonely, abused and abandoned human being, betrayed and denied though he was innocent as a little child. He did this to atone for us, but also to lead us and encourage us, that we ourselves can make our way right down that middle way between the pain and the comfort, between the suffering and the glory, and the losing and the love.

His personal history is the pledge that you can make your way through it with him, and with the rest of us who follow him as well, and that he is with us as we go that way, it is precisely where he meets us, there, right in the middle of it all, which is what you would do yourself, because you know what love is. And you know what love is because he first loved us. That is the air you breathe as you go this way, the air that is the love of God for you.

Copyright © 2012, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

September 30, Proper 21: Melons, Maggots, Garlic, and Hell

Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29, Psalm 19:7-14, James 5:13-20, Mark 9:38-50

Dina was a member of my second congregation, in Ontario. She was in her 70s and she had immigrated from the Netherlands, from the island of Overflakkee, and she had that Flakkee personality: cool, dry, and laconic. She had gotten sick, and then her leg got gangrene, and they had to amputate. She told me that the next day she was lying in her hospital bed, and she could see out the window the hospital’s smokestack, and suddenly she saw it release a puff of smoke, and she said out loud, "Dere goes my lek."

Our lesson from the Gospel of Mark is a string of seeming non sequiturs and a cacophony of metaphors. Amputation, maggots, fire, and salt. The string is cleansing versus corruption, purification versus putrefaction. You sacrifice your limb to save your life. Salt stings, salt smarts, but it seasons and preserves. Fire is painful and deadly, fire consumes, but it refines and purifies.

The very first garbage dump I ever saw was up in the Catskills, in the woods, when I was a child. My dad was the chaplain at a summer camp, and at the end of a trail behind our cabin was the dump. It had that rotten smell, and bugs on it, and vapor rising from the decomposition. It wasn’t big, and it had no smoldering fire in it, but I was a city kid and it fascinated me.

The garbage dump of Jerusalem was a valley called Gehenna. It had fires that smoldered endlessly. Gehenna was symbolic for the prophets, who wrote that after the battle to liberate Jerusalem, the bodies of their enemies would be cast into Gehenna, instead of buried, which meant great shame, and so would the bodies of the unrighteous Jews. They would not be buried in good kosher graveyards, their bones would ever be unkosher and unclean, and that would exclude them from the final resurrection of the Jewish nation, and exclude them from Kingdom of God and from the life of the world to come. Their exclusion would be their non-existence.

But not an eternity in hell. It’s unfortunate our Bibles routinely use the word "hell" to translate the word "Gehenna". The fires of Gehenna were not for unending torture but for burning up, for consumption, for destruction unto non-existence. As I argue in my recent book, the conventional view of hell today is a blend of mythology and post-Biblical theology which gets read back into the Bible. But it’s certainly not what Jesus is talking about here.

Let me restate the string of metaphors prosaically. The kingdom of God includes the justice of God. Right. The justice of God requires the judgment of God. Right. The judgments of God are good, but if we are guilty, those judgments smart and sting like salt. Alright. The judgments of God also season society to improve it, and they preserve society from our tendency towards corruption and going bad. God’s judgments are strong and salty, so they do smart and sting.

And you should be salty in yourselves. You can cheerfully internalize the judgments of God, you can learn to judge yourself, and practice self-awareness and cultivate a lively conscience, not in a morbid condemnation of yourself, but in a healthy and joyful humility, with the attitude of exercise and self-discipline, practicing self-examination as a habit and a way of life. You can be salty in yourself, not waiting for others to force it or for God to have to do it. Your motivation is that you are the salt of the earth, you are salty for the greater good of the world.

The metaphor suggests that what’s unclean in us might have been good to begin with. When you say you "have to wash the dirty dishes," what you’re calling "dirt" was just a few minutes earlier healthy gourmet food. So what’s bad in your soul is the corruption of what was good. Did you hang on to it too long, did you desire it too much, has it begun to foul and fester? Keep salt then in yourselves. Be disciplined in your self-cleansing.

But if you do not maintain your own self-cleansing, if God has to do it for you, you’re in for a purging more drastic. Like amputation. Like burning up a leg. If God has to do it on you, it will feel more like fire than like salt. It won’t just sting, it will burn. And it won’t preserve you, it will rather refine you, which means burning away what is unclean. It might expose you as it cleanses you. You might lose your reputation. Some people might not forgive you and you will lose their love and that will be a penalty. You can get through it, but as through fire. Such can be the fiery judgment of our God, but you can comprehend that purest of Loves might be like this.

Notice that we are to be salty in ourselves but not fiery in ourselves. The fire is reserved for God. We are the salt of the earth but not the fire of the earth. The strongest of the judgments are not ours to exercise. It is not for us to judge the deeds of those who are not with us. Yes, we will have enemies, but we are not competent to judge them or condemn them. We are to love them, and give them water when they thirst, and be at peace with one another.

One of the reasons you love your enemies is because of what they offer you. It’s they who often do the most for you. Their opposing you can help you learn about yourself. Your enemies are the scouring pads of your soul, the ammonia, the sandpaper. In moral terms, you can learn more from your enemies than from your friends. Consider what your enemy has against you, and confess that too, which can be liberating from defensive self-righteousness. Use the opposition of your enemy to relax yourself before the judgments of God.

The alternative is delusion. Not neutral ignorance, but actual self-delusion. The example is in our first lesson, from the Book of Numbers, where the Children of Israel, in their discontent with God, began to delude themselves about their prior condition as slaves in Egypt. "The melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic." (I can understand the garlic.) Well, what about the cruelty, the misery, the beatings and the whippings. We delude ourselves with the pleasures of our bondage as against the responsibilities of our freedom. The escape from delusion is in the searching word of the judgments of God within our lives.

The judgments of God are challenging but not impossible. They are not cloaked in mysteries or communicated by disasters; they are publically set out in the scriptures for all of us to see, and the community of Jesus is given the capacity to read, mark, learn and understand them. In the community is how we understand them. We can satisfy the desire of Moses that we all of us are prophets, when together in community we understand what God desires and what God wants. The kind of community conversations that get us to that understanding are described in our epistle, the kind of talk that is clean and the interactions that are redemptive. When we are suffering — not blaming or complaining, but praying together. When we’re cheerful, we make music together. When we’re sick, we minister to each other and touch each other with oil and balm. We confess our sins to one another, in ways which are safe and healthy and not manipulative; we forgive each other, we pray for one another, we heal each other. We counsel each other and bring each other back. This sort of conversation is cleansing, this kind of interaction is healing. It takes discipline, it takes self-correction, but it demonstrates the loving judgments of the Lord.

God be in our eyes, and in our hands, and in our feet, lest we pluck them out or cut them off. God direct our seeing and our handling and our walking. God direct our looking and desiring and what we think about. God direct our touching and our doing and our contribution to the world. God direct our going out and our coming in, God direct our lifelong journey and our pilgrimage, some of us leaping but most of us limping, God bring us safe into the life of the world to come, into that last full measure of your love for us.

Copyright © 2012, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

September 16, Proper 19, The Brand of the Cross, for the baptism of Gretta

(by Sir Stanley Spencer)

Isaiah 50:4-9a, Psalm 116:1-8, James 3:1-12, Mark 8:27-38

So Peter had come to understand that Jesus was the Messiah. Not just a prophet, like Elijah, but also royalty, of the line of David, and thus the long-expected King of the Jews who would achieve the final golden age. And Peter expected this Messiah to be a great success. With all his power and authority — if he could cast out demons, casting out the Romans should be easy. God was on his side and heaven was behind him. There was no reason for defeat, nor for suffering or death.

That would be the Muslim view as well. Muslims honor Jesus highly as a prophet. They believe in his Virgin Birth, and that he will come again, but they won’t believe that Jesus died nor that he could suffer the shame of death on a cross. Such shame is not the lot of the righteous one. If you are righteous, you should not surrender to the unrighteous ones. You must not take up a cross. If God is with you, it’s your enemies who should lose their lives for the sake of the truth. That’s the understanding of Simon Peter and Islam, and of American civil religion, both liberal and Religious Right, not to mention of Benjamin Netanyahu and of al-Qaeda and Hezbollah.

Simon Peter represents common sense, of course, but more than that, he represents religion, normal religion, civilized religion, which is so normal and so natural it must have strongly tempted Jesus, which is why he addresses Peter as a “satan”, that is, the tempting voice of reason, the voice of political science and natural morality.

So Jesus has to get that behind him to clear the way in front of him, but he graciously invites the tempter to get behind him too, to keep up with him and go down with him and on that night to fully experience and confront his denial of his dear Messiah, and in grief and shame and loss of himself to be converted, and be saved.

One of my attractions to Islam is the elegant simplicity of its rituals. It has no sacraments. You can think of Islam as essentially the sanctification of secular life. So if you convert to Islam, the ritual is simply to stand before your fellow worshipers in the mosque at the Friday prayers and repeat in your own voice the simple Muslim creed, “La ilaha illa I-Lah, Muhammadur rasulu I-Lah.” That’s it. That’s all. You are not joining a congregation or a communion or a chosen people, you are just acknowledging the banner of proper humanity within the world.

So they don’t have anything like baptism. But it is lovely what they do for infants. As soon as possible after the child is born, whether at home or in the hospital, the imam comes to whisper in the baby’s ear. He whispers verses from the Holy Koran, so that the words of the prophet are the first words that the baby listens to. Now you listen again to the prophet Isaiah: “God wakens my ear to listen. . . . The Lord God has opened my ear.”

Christians believe that too, that God speaks to little children, we believe that God uses the verses and stories of the Bible to talk directly to our children. This conviction is the foundation of our Children in Worship program that we are starting up again today.

But Christians take it long step further (thanks to the wonderful mystery of the Holy Trinity). We believe that God enters the little children, shamelessly so, in the person of the Holy Spirit. We baptize children to claim that the Holy Spirit enters their souls already in their infancy, to quicken and inspire them. We believe that God establishes an intimate and personal relationship with children before they are aware of it and long before they have the words for it.

Already God has fellowship with them, already they can worship God. That is why we have the Young Children in Worship upstairs right now. That’s why we bless your children at Holy Communion. It’s not so much what we do as what God does, to which we’re only giving our words and our expression. We make visible the invisible mystery of God-with-them already.

We claim these convictions as promises whenever we celebrate a baptism. And we will claim that again today for Gretta Adams. This is the positive significance of baptism, the warmth and loveliness of it. But we also have to face the negative significance in it, the sign of the cross we put upon her, the suggestion of her suffering and the designation of her death. The water we put on Gretta signifies the Flood from the story of Noah’s ark, which was a deadly flood, and it signifies the Red Sea, which drowned the Pharaoh of Egypt and his cavalry. And yes, the negative is purgative, it cleanses and it purifies, but it is still a negative.

The mystery in this negative is that the negative sign is put upon the innocent, just as Jesus himself was innocent. It was the innocent who bore the penalty for the guilty, the righteous one of the unrighteous one. Which means that the cross is for you to take upon yourself, and not for you to hang your enemy upon. The judgment is not revenge because your enemy is you.

And this is not what Simon Peter wanted, nor what King David had done, nor what was taught by the prophet Mohammed, nor is it the expectation of civil religion and political science, nor the strategy of the Religious Right, nor even of common sense, but the baptism today will remind you that you do believe it, you recognize that it is true, which is why you are, you believe that this impossible is possible, that to lose your life is actually to gain your life, to lose your self-control, your self-defense, your self-determination, your dignity, your destiny, to surrender all this actually to gain the world.

You recognize it as the gospel, as good news, but it’s news you need to hear again each week to clear away the louder voices that fill the air. You have confessed this news last week, but it is so counter-valent that you need remind yourself again. And you are here because the Holy Spirit moved you here. The Holy Spirit within you has inspired you to believe this negative as a positive and show you the joy in the sign of the cross and the life revealed in Jesus’ death and the hope revealed in Jesus’ suffering. The Holy Spirit gives you this hope and life and joy.

Today we visibly will signify what the Holy Spirit does invisibly in Gretta. We will claim the business that God does with her on God’s own without our aid. It does not depend upon our faith, but yet we have a part to play. It’s for this congregation to represent a community who believe that this impossible news is true, and thereby to encourage her. It’s for this congregation to teach her the stories of scripture which show her how it works, which is why our Sunday School teachers all deserve your support and gratitude. It’s for Wayne and Beth to be the church for her within her infant life, to whisper in her ears the words which the Holy Spirit uses to develop faith in her. It’s for Jeff and Tristan to show her they believe this too, that this cross of Jesus is the way of life for individuals and the path of peace for the nations and the hope of healing for the planet. It’s for us, by our words and example and encouragement, to give her all the categories she will need to be able to say, with Peter, that Jesus is the Messiah, and further, the categories she will need to be able to get behind this Jesus and follow him through life and death to life.

But the greater part in this is for God, whose Spirit resides in her and applies to her the benefit of Jesus’ death and resurrection. When she can lose her life with him, it’s because God is already raising her new life in her. The positive precedes the negative. God is in, with, and behind her, and God wants her to live, because God loves her. She belongs to God, she is branded with the mark of God. The promise is for you as well. Let the truth of your own baptism remind you that you belong to God, and claim that promise that God wants you to live, because God loves you.

Copyright © 2012, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

September 9, Proper 18: The Woman's Daughter and the Man Who Could Not Hear or Speak

Isaiah 35:4-7a, Psalm 146, James 2:1-17, Mark 7:24-37
They were Gentiles, and they were living outside the Promised Land, this deaf and dumb man and the woman and her daughter. They were not to be counted among God’s people, nor reckoned among the citizens of the Kingdom of God, which the Messiah was supposed to bring. They were not part of the Messiah’s mission plan. Yes, in the long range plan the Gentiles had a place, but only after all the Jews were in, only after the restoration of Israel and its elevation to the primacy among the nations. That restoration of Israel was the mission of the Messiah, not the healing of Gentiles here and there.

Mark has juxtaposed their stories in the commonality of their being Gentiles, but also for the dramatic difference in the manner of their healings. This is the sharp adjacency of contrast which is typical of Mark and of the Hebrew mind. The man is silent, the woman is a talker. The man can’t hear what Jesus says, the woman hears him and debates him. The man’s healing is described in graphic detail, while the daughter is off-stage and never do we glimpse her. Her healing is distant, abstract, and the narrative is theological. It’s all about the conversation. His healing is tactile, physical, and emotional, and it’s all about the bodily contact. The one is a process in the mind of Jesus, and the other is a process in his gut. They are juxtaposed for us, and I think it’s to show us a process in Jesus’ own experience.

Jesus has taken a vacation. The opposition against him has been mounting, the resistance against him has been hardening, and Mark has shown us that Jesus could get disheartened and exhausted. To get away from his own people he heads up north to a bed-and-breakfast in the Gentile region of Tyre. To protect himself he puts a boundary around himself, and his first response to the woman is to protect his boundary. He tells her it’s not her place, it’s not her time. He is following a plan, a stated plan of God. He’s like a hyper-Calvinist. Your people have not been chosen, you are not part of the elect.

She does not disagree, she accepts his terms, but on his terms comes back at him. "I will take your insult and you can keep to your plan but you can help me anyway." Well. I think she triggers a little bit of a conversion in Our Lord. She teaches him a thing or two. That he learns from her does not detract from our belief in his divinity. We must rather convert our notion of his divinity. It’s a divinity we could not conceive of, with attributes that look illogical.

One the one hand, God is sovereign with a sovereign plan. God has chosen a certain pattern and elected a certain people, God prepares us and predestines us, God has purposes and God has freedom to pursue God’s purposes in spite of us. At the same time, God responds to us and our immediate requests. God says, Okay, if that’s what you are asking for. God listens to your prayers and responds to your initiatives and God is moved by you.

This sovereign God is moved by you. That this is true may seem illogical and paradoxical. But we may not use our patterns of intelligence and logic to set a boundary around the sovereignty of God and the freedom of God. There is a benefit to us in this. There is a take-home here for you. You can pray to God from your immediate experience, you can call on God from the needs of your impending circumstance, you can assume your own free will, and God listens and responds to you. Because your own free will and your initiative is part of God’s own plan and purposes, your own individual experience is one of the goals of God’s election and effective sovereignty. Your freedom is part of God’s plan. You can expect God to be moved by you, and you can depend on God to be constant and faithful and sovereign in the universe.

There is a theme of freedom here. The woman is very free with Jesus, and then her daughter gets liberated from the demon, which Jesus does freely without touching her or even seeing her. Jesus takes her freedom into his own mission plan, so he goes home through the Decapolis, outside the boundary of God’s people, which opens him to still more Gentile persons.

He uses his freedom for even closer engagement, as we see with the deaf and dumb man. He doesn’t just touch him, he connects with him. He puts his fingers in his ears and channels the groaning of his lifelong misery. The translation in our text is weak. He didn’t just "sigh", he groaned, a groan too deep for words. All the groaning of the Gentile peoples, the groaning of all the pagans outside the blessings of the Torah and the covenants, the misery of the nations to whom the God of Moses had been silent, the millions of humans outside the boundary of God’s people, Jesus channels the timeless groaning of their souls and raises it to God.

"Be opened," Jesus says in Aramaic, which is the same as Syriac, not Hebrew. Give voice, let your sound come out and your experience, your misery, your rebellion, your idolatries, your sins, your bondages, your warfare, your violence, your self-defeat, your cutting yourself, your burning of your children, your fears, your dreams, your hopes, your best, your worst, your need for the living God, be opened, be healed, begin to hear, begin to speak, begin to hear the voice of God, begin to learn the love of God, begin to speak the praise of God. Jesus channeling us and God.

Scholars are not sure why Jesus spits. Even in his humanity he is something of a mystery. Who is this Jesus whom we had thought we knew? So physical, so emotional, so biological, so wrapped up bodily experience. Why did we ever think that the purpose of his salvation was to get our souls up to heaven? How did we miss that his purpose is the salvation of this world, the healing of the earth, the resurrection of our bodies, the reconciliation of real-live human history, and the redemption of real-live human experience?

Look at Jesus, and in his physical humanity see the fullness of God’s divinity. God’s fingers in your ears, God’s spit upon your forehead, God groaning for the groaning of all humanity. What can it sound like, the groaning of God? It sounds like us. When you talk to God, God does more than hear it, God repeats it. When you cry to God, God echoes it and cries along.

Yes, this sovereign God, this majestic God, this holy God. God does it not only for God’s people, but for everyone who ever lived, no matter when they lived or where or under into what religion they were born, all the groaning of all the nations of the world are heard by God and voiced by God through the physical body of this Lord Jesus.

Yes, God had a sovereign plan through Israel, God is faithful to the church and calls us to the church, but do not assume thereby that God is not busy and loving and faithful and gracious with all the millions and billions of the nations who are outside the church. God does not tell us how because it is beyond our boundary. The sovereignty of God is not bounded by our expectations and our obligations. And that’s fine, we have lots of our own business to attend to. The theme is freedom here. The freedom of God, which is freedom for us and for our mission.

There is one more take-home. From the Epistle of James. The little congregations he wrote to were suffering discrimination and exclusion, as I said last week. So whenever a Roman bigwig was kind enough to come by and show them some respect, they would naturally respond with gratitude and seat the Borough President right up front. And show him their homeless people sitting in the back, to prove how positively civic-minded we all are. That’s what I would do. Our little congregation needs all the legitimacy we can get. But we can be free of all that. We need only trust the sovereignty of God, that we are in God’s plan, that God protects us and preserves us, and that our church is loved by God with the love God has for every one of you.

Copyright © 2012, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

"Being gay is not a sin." - Matthew Vines

"Being gay is not a sin." - Matthew Vines. This video, of a young man who spoke at Marble Collegiate, is well worth the hour watching. Clear, calm, compelling, Christ-centered, respectful, passionate, Biblical, faithful. His exegesis of the Romans, First Corinthians, and First Timonty passages is excellent. His presentation supports the stated position of Old First Reformed Church.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

June 10, Proper 5: The Authentic Self of Jesus

Genesis 3:8-15, Psalm 130, 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1, Mark 3:20-35

“Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” Okay, that’s a nice thing for the Lord Jesus to say to the people around him inside the house. But outside the house, where Jesus’ mother was, when she found out what he said she will have felt embarrassed and ashamed. She will have felt dishonored. I can imagine his siblings retorting that to do the will of God is to honor your father and your mother, like it says in the Torah. I can imagine this only confirming their belief that their big brother was over the edge, and should be stopped for his own good. Not to mention for the reputation of their family.
The opposition to Jesus has begun. Already in the third chapter of the Gospel of Mark. The mounting opposition is the shadow of the good news. You can understand the motives of the opposition. The Middle East has always been a powder keg, and no less then. The situation for the Jews of Galilee was not much different from the situation of Jews and Christians of modern Syria and Lebanon. Everyday life was always in the balance. Naturally the leaders felt they had to keep control. And Jesus was threatening the balance. They did not understand what he was up to and they couldn’t predict what he’d do next.

This committee of legal experts on the Torah has come up from Jerusalem to investigate and issue an opinion. They decide he is a sorcerer, that he has real power, but it’s the unclean power of the enemy. Of this opinion Jesus is unforgiving. “You can slander me,” he says, “and I can forgive you. But you cannot slander the Holy God and ever get away with it. You guys have not just denied God, you have disreputed God, you have equated God and Satan.” So the parable has an innermost meaning which is a terrible judgment. It is they themselves who are in the power of Satan. Their own house is divided and it will not stand, nor will their kingdom stand. Jesus predicts the very destruction of Jerusalem which they were trying to prevent, just forty years later.

Why doesn’t Jesus work with them? Why doesn’t he meet them half way? I would have. He doesn’t. With him it’s all or nothing. Take him or leave him. One of you told me this week that St. Mark’s gospel is the most radical of the gospels, and it’s true. Jesus says, “Here I am. Just me.” No deals, no complications, no family obligations, just God, the Holy God, the Spirit of God, the God of freedom, and Jesus in his radical freedom.

He doesn’t say it, in just those words, “here I am,” but he models it. It’s what we talked about last week. It’s what his mother had said just thirty years earlier to the angel Gabriel. “Here I am,” hineini. Isaiah said it when he saw the Lord within the temple, as we saw last week. Moses had said it, Abraham had said it, it’s what you say when you realize you’re in the presence of God.

Eve and Adam did not say it, in our lesson from Genesis. I heard a magnificent sermon on this once by a rabbi from Argentina. He said that when Adam was hiding from God in the trees of the garden, that meant he had lost his true humanity and could not say, “Here I am,” which is nothing less than what it means to be a human being. They thought that they were being free, when they ate of the forbidden fruit, free from having to do the will of God, but instead they were in bondage to their guilt and their shame. That’s the power of Satan in our lives, the guilt that makes the fear of God a negative fear, the shame that takes away our freedom.

And in that bondage, they became inauthentic human beings. In their answers to God’s questions they dissembled. Adam blamed Eve and Eve blamed the serpent. Even after they come out of the trees they still keep hiding behind their words. They could not say, “Here I am.” They had lost their both their authenticity and their freedom when they chose to be disobedient to God.

You might know that my son is an artist, and when I was with him in Germany a couple weeks ago he asked to read an essay which he told me had inspired him. It was an essay on creativity by the famous American psychologist Carl Rogers. It was a very good essay. It talked about how creativity must be grounded in the authentic self. There can be creativity which is negative and destructive, and that’s when it arises from a self which is not truly authentic, from a self which is damaged, dis-eased, corrupted, abused, in bondage, and not “true”. What Christians might call an unclean spirit, or even the power of Satan, which is guilt and shame. The awful creativity of Adolf Hitler comes to mind. But positive and productive creativity arises from the authentic self.

This gets close to what we see in Jesus here, and what the Lord Jesus offers us. Here’s a take-home: It is an obligation for us Christians to do the work required to be authentic in ourselves. To do the self-examination, to learn the self-awareness and discretion, to practice the self-control of sanctification and humility, to study the lessons of our losses and be candid with our suffering. It is not a shameful thing for you to seek professional counseling and therapy to work on this, because our culture today is so confusing and confused. But to do this work is also to notice your encouragements, the love and the support you get from other people, and their challenges to you. You want to stop excusing yourself and hiding behind your explanations and placing the blame on others. Your goal is to just say, “Here I am.” It is a position of marvelous freedom. It’s the freedom that we see in Jesus.

This freedom can be dangerous. We all know people who refuse to be accountable. We all know people who take this freedom for self-indulgence. And yet the abuse of it does not deny the use of it, abusus non tollit usus. The fact that Picasso was such a philanderer and that Van Gogh committed suicide does not deny the value of their freedom or their creativity, nor the truth of the lesson of inner authenticity.

This freedom is most dangerous when we make of it an idol, which we do so frequently in America (and in other ways in the rest of the world as well). We make our freedom an absolute and a value in itself. But our freedom is not for ourselves, that we shall do within the garden whatever the hell we want to do, but a freedom for coming out of the trees to stand before the Lord with honest authenticity and without calculation.

But who can be this free? We all have obligations. You are not free not to pay your Income Tax. You are not free from your body or your blood pressure. My father is not free from his cancer nor are we, his family. And I don’t want to be free from my vows to my wife, or from my obligations to my children. I want to be authentic in my obligations and my relationships because my authenticity is not for myself but for my God and what God calls me to.

The freedom of Jesus was clearly a freedom in community. He did not say that he had no mother or brothers; what he said was the people right in front of him were his mother and brothers. When you say it to God, “Here I am,” you also have to be saying it to the people who are right in front of you. Your authenticity is not for yourself, but for community, for fellowship, for creating fellowship and community with those people you find in front of you. It’s so that you can say to me, “Here I am.” And not just “take me or leave me,” but “you take me, and I take you.”

You have to be careful with this. You are not Jesus. You cannot be as radical as he was. You can start on this with people whom you trust are dedicated to the will of God. They may not do God’s will of God the same as you. They may be Jewish and do God’s will by the Torah. They may be Muslim and do God’s will by the Holy Koran. I have learned that I can have this kind of Godly authentic brotherhood with Jews and Muslims. But I’m guessing that easiest for you will be other Christians who do God’s will by watching Jesus in the gospels. But you see it is for love. You grant the person before you the freedom you need for yourself. And in that mutual freedom you can practice love. This freedom is for love. Our goal is always love, because our goal is always God.

Copyright © 2012, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.