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.