Saturday, December 28, 2013

December 29, Christmas 1, Children of Light 5: Born of God

Isaiah 61:10—62:3, Psalm 147, Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7, John 1:1-18

Our gospel lesson for this morning is also the ninth and final reading in our Christmas Eve service. I’m the one who gets to read it, for which there is precedence, but I admit my self-interest. It’s the moment when Christmas finally arrives for me. To that point my Christmas Eve is all about liturgical management and people management, and I am not a first-class manager. But all the details and distractions are pretty much done with by the time we get to the ninth lesson, and I get to stand up in the darkness and read it: “St. John unfolds the great mystery of the Incarnation.”

The Incarnation is claimed in verse 14: “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we have beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” I’m not going to preach on that today, but on the previous two verses, which are about you, and how you are children of God: “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” That’s you. You were born of God.

It’s remarkable that the birth which St. John presents in the opening of his Gospel is not the birth of Jesus but the birth of you! You, believer, are a child of God because you were born of God.

No you weren’t! You were born from your mother. You are the child of your parents. So this is a metaphor, but it’s a very basic metaphor of Christianity. Remember the song that Michael sang for us: “If anybody ask you who I am, who I am, who I am, if anybody ask you who I am, tell them I’m a child of God.”

Judaism does not typically speak this way. Jews regard themselves as Children of Israel, of the guy who was the grandson of Abraham, and for Jews it’s more literal than metaphorical. The Torah never calls God “our Father,” and the psalms and prophets do so only rarely. Islam never, ever calls God a father, and Muslims don’t call themselves the children of God; indeed, the very word “muslim” means a willing servant who submits to God.

This “children of God” language of the Gospel circles back to the natural religions and the mythologies which claim that we’re descended from the gods. But we’re not! We are descended from the same primitive primates as the monkeys are. And so was Jesus — at least within his human nature, which was a fully human nature. And yet uniquely he was the son of God, the only begotten child of God. His unique identity as the Son of God is the stone cast into the water, and your identity as God’s children is the expanding ripples on the water.

Let’s explore the metaphor. A first point of the metaphor is that you belong. To be a child is to belong, and to belong to someone other than yourself, but with a belonging which is different than ownership and being owned. It is a belonging which is not contractual, it’s not even covenantal, it’s a belonging which you cannot break. Yes, you can be at odds with God, as children can be at odds with their parents, and yet they have a connection which is deep and tough and physical and emotional and is broken only by violence against nature.

You belong to God in a way which was not your choice any more than being born was your own choice. So that you can have that easy sense of belonging, that sense of security, which children have within their families if their parents do their job. So you can presume the security and the comfort of having been born of God.

Galatians puts it differently. What St. Paul writes is that we are children of God by adoption, not by birth. How different does that make it? Adoption can be a dicey thing. My youngest sister and brother are adopted. It took some time for them to feel like they belonged. And it wasn’t easy. They didn’t have that physical connection with my parents that we older ones had, that genetic connection which reinforces the belonging.

And yet somehow, over the years, my adopted brother connected with my father in many ways more powerfully than did the rest of us, and it was he who gave the eulogy at my father’s funeral. Perhaps it was more powerful because there had been some choice in their relationship, some moving toward each other. Those two had a friendship that the rest of us did not have. Adoption can be a stronger connection than natural descent. And what my brother emphasized in his eulogy was the Christian faith that my father had bequeathed him, which he felt he would not have inherited had he not been adopted.

The point that St. Paul is making is that childhood means inheritance. Not genetic inheritance so much as cultural and legal inheritance. You are God’s children, even by adoption, in that you inherit things from God. In many genetic ways I am like my mother. But my inheritance from my dad is very great.

Think of it. He was a Reformed Church pastor from Paterson, New Jersey, who was serving a church in Brooklyn, New York. I should change my name to Marvin Meeter Jr. (Probably the name “Marvin” is hip again somewhere in Williamsburg.) Some of my siblings miss my father more than I do. I feel like I’m reliving him in many ways.

And that’s another meaning of the metaphor. If you are God’s child, then God is living on in you. God’s eternal life is in your life right now. God is always present with you. You’re not much different from other people, except that there’s always some small feeling or something of God just under your awareness, just beneath the surface, and all it takes is a bump for you to feel it and a scratch for it to come out.

You also inherit the world. Your being a child of God is not to disconnect you from the world but to get you at home in the world, as it is God’s world. It’s not that you belong to the world, but that the world belongs to God. God created it and God is saving it. That salvation is for creation is very strong in both Isaiah and Psalm 147.

It is not coincidental that St. John’s Gospel opens by quoting from Genesis: “In the beginning.” The great mystery of the Incarnation is that the miracle of Salvation comes into the naturalness of Creation for the revival and renewal of Creation. Your salvation is not to free you from the world but to give you freedom in the world. You are not a slave to the world, but you are as free in the world as the child of the owner of the world can be.

It is such a status you have. But your childhood means that you have both status and the appropriate dependency and humility of children. You are not the measure of your world. You are not the final cause of your own existence. Your existence is a gift to you; you are the steward of your existence on behalf of the Giver. This is counter-cultural. This goes against the reigning values of modernity.

We have come to assume that that which is most basic to you is your “self”. The core of you is your “self”. Self-improvement, self-help, self-maximization. We used to speak differently. We used to say that that which is most basic to you is your “soul”. The core of you is not your “self” but your “soul”. And your soul is that most inner core of you that seeks beyond yourself and reaches out beyond yourself. That you are a soul means that you are never in business for yourself.

When I say “soul” I don’t mean that separate spiritual essence of Platonic philosophy and of so much Christian tradition and of new-age spirituality. I mean that less familiar but more Biblical idea of soul, which is the unity of life and mind feeling within the body, and which has the special sensitivity to mysteries beyond our natural sensations. As your eye is sensitive to light, and your ear is sensitive to sound, so your soul is sensitive to God’s spirit and to the gifts of God’s spirit — the good, the true, and the beautiful.

You are given your soul for you to be sensitive to God’s light in the world. You are given your soul for you to pick up God’s meaning in the world. You are given your soul for you to be free within the world. You are given your soul for God to be present in you and live through you. You are given your soul for you to receive all the gifts of God’s inheritance for you. You are given your soul for you to receive God’s love and know it as God’s love.

You are a child of God. You have a status more intimate with God than servants do. Yes, we do speak rightly of being the servants of God, but today Galatians wants me to say that you are not God’s servant — God does not own you, you do not owe to God your service, you do not owe God anything but your love, and everything which comes from love. That is what God wants from you, you who were born of God — what God wants from you is your love.

Copyright © 2013 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

December 24, Christmas Eve: "The Akedah: The Binding of Isaac, and of Jesus"

Good evening, and welcome, I’m happy to welcome you here tonight. Whoever you are, wherever you come from, Christian or Jewish or something else, no matter your belief or unbelief, we are glad that you are here to celebrate the Incarnation of Our Lord.

Tonight you will hear the nine lessons that are read in thousands of churches throughout the world. Here at Old First, perhaps uniquely, you will hear the second lesson chanted in Hebrew, our Christmas present from Congregation Beth Elohim, given tonight by Miss Allie Roth. You will hear God promise Abraham that "in his seed would all the nations of the earth be blessed."

Why so? “Because thou hast done this thing.”

What thing? That he sacrificed his son, his only son. How awful. That in obedience to God’s voice he held a knife to Isaac and was about to kill him. At the very last moment God told him to stop and to kill instead the substitutionary ram that was in the bushes, so technically he was innocent, but in the intention was the deed. Why this on Christmas Eve?

The story of the Binding of Isaac is crucial in the Bible. It is mysterious and monstrous and dark and light. Theologians both Jewish and Christian have wrestled with it through the centuries (see James Goodman's recent book, But Where is the Lamb?), and questioned Abraham: “How couldst thou have done this thing?” And questioned God: “How couldst thou have done this thing?” One particular theologian, a controversial one, a divisive one, will have asked this question too. I mean Jesus of Nazareth. He seems to have taken this story personally, and learned about himself from it.

How much did Jesus know, and when did he know it? The doctrine of the Incarnation is not that he carried a God-sized mind in his brain. He was a newborn, an infant, a toddler, a little boy, an adolescent, a young man. He had to learn his Aleph, Beth, Gimmels like everybody else.

His parents will eventually have told him the mysteries of his birth, and that the angels had called him the Son of God, and what did that mean?

His cousin John the Baptist addressed him as the Lamb of God, and what did that mean — that he would be a substitutionary sacrifice?

You can well imagine that as both the son and the sacrifice, he will have identified with both Isaac and the ram, and asked himself the very question that is asked by one of our songs tonight: “And am I born to die?” The story was binding on him, it was Torah to him, and a law for him, requiring his obedience. How much would that obedience cost him?

He learned more welcome things from our third and fourth lessons, of the peace and healing he should bring as the Messiah and the hope of Israel, and of the Gentiles too. He heard them say, “God with us,” and he took that very far, he dared to speak for God and act for God as if God inhabited him. So much so that when he was born, God was fully in humanity, God was in humility, God was in poverty, in mortality, in society, in festivity, in joviality, and in full complicity. So that God lived through him and even died through him.

So that in the Binding of Isaac, God inhabits all four characters: God in heaven, the father, the son, and even the substitutionary sheep. God is both sacrificed and rescued, God is both guilty and innocent, God takes it all on; God has to, if God is fully with us. I suspect it was this story by which Jesus most deeply understood the reason for his Incarnation: not only that he might save us, but also that he might save God for us.

And so tonight we say it back to God, “because thou hast done this thing.” What thing? This nine-step investment of our God in us. The Incarnation is God’s self-sacrifice for us. It is God’s great Yes to us and our humanity. It is God’s great Yes to you and to your life.

“Yes, Yes, my beloved creatures, Yes, Yes, Yes, my fragile human beings, of whom I have been one,” and you sing your Yesses back with your songs and your carols. So Yes to all of you who came here tonight to listen and to sing. Yes, Yes, to the eight of you who came to read, and Yes, Yes, Yes to the multitude of musicians up there like the heavenly host upon the hillside. It is good and right for all of you to enjoy this thing that God has done in peace and in good will. God bless you one and all.

Copyright © 2013 by Daniel Meeter, All Rights Reserved.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

December 22, Advent 4, Children of the Light: Joseph's Dream-light

Isaiah 7:10-16, Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18, Romans 1:1-7, Matthew 1:18-25

Today I’m going to talk about your conscience. Your conscience. You prayed about it in our opening collect, when you said, “Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation.” Your conscience is your inner voice to help you “refuse the evil and choose the good” (Isaiah). It is your inner moral feedback loop, your gyroscope. You develop it as you grow up. An infant doesn’t have one yet, but as you grow up you gradually replace the voice of your parents with the voice of your conscience, an authority external by an authority internal, from obeying your mom to obeying your convictions.

I’m also going to talk about your imagination. Your imagination is the childlike part of you that your growing up should not diminish. It’s often discounted, because it’s so close to dreaming. But it is not the opposite of knowledge, or even of science. Think of Einstein, and Galileo, or Crick and Watson imagining DNA, think about Jefferson and Madison imagining a republic. Think of St. Paul and St. John imagining the desire of God, and of Our Lord Jesus, who had to imagine himself beyond where any human being had ever gone before.

Last week I told you to develop your “moral imagination,” as Nelson Mandela did, developing your innocence through suffering to love. Today I’m calling you to the imagination of belief, the imagination of faith. You need your imagination to believe this gospel, and to project your Christian life ahead of you.

Our first lesson shows you a failure of imagination, the failure of King Ahaz. Isaiah offered him a sign, any sign, and he refused to take it. He needed one, because he was in trouble. Jerusalem was under siege, surrounded by enemy armies, and the people were starving. King Ahaz was invited to ask for any sign he could think of, no matter how dramatic or supernatural. But he wanted to look strong. To ask for a sign would be to look weak, as if he were uncertain.

So God gives him a sign that is very natural, as simple as a young girl giving birth. Such a sign is easily discounted by the skeptical. You have to imagine an ordinary childbirth as the presence of God, Immanuel, God with us. You need the imagination of belief even to regard it as a sign!

In our gospel lesson, Joseph does better. But don’t think it was easy or automatic. The sign that Joseph got was very hard to believe. Who of you takes your dreams literally? Who of you would not recognize your dream as a projection of your wishful thinking? This dream just added to his uncertainties. His first uncertainty had been the character of his fiancé. How could she have done this to him?

And now he had the second uncertainty of whether to credit his dream, whether to believe that his dream had really given him some trustworthy information from God.

And most difficult of all was his third uncertainty, what his dream implied, which was a virginal conception of the baby inside Mary.

You realize that with their notions of biology, the idea of a virginal conception was even more preposterous back then. They did not know about the ovum, the egg that the mother contributes. They thought that the whole life of the baby came from the seed of the father, and that the womb of the mother was passive, like the soil of a garden in which the seed is planted.

You could maybe dream a virginal conception, you could even imagine it, but to depend on that, to take that as a sign from God that you should take this fallen woman as your wife, while it took very little imagine to consider pre-marital sex with someone else — Joseph, you’re dreaming.

How long did he lay there on his bed? Such ordinary things, a pregnant girl, and a crazy dream, that he should take as signs from God? That’s the imagination of belief. It doesn’t make things easier; it often makes things harder. It doesn’t reduce uncertainties, it usually adds uncertainties.

It’s that way with science too. Scientific advances settle some uncertainties and then present new ones, and it takes imagination to keep the advances going. Just so, your Christian faith is how you get at the truth of the world and the truth about yourself. But you will also find that getting at the truth can add to your uncertainties. Which calls for your conscience as well your imagination.

Joseph was a conscientious man. Consider his context. It would not have been illegal back then to have Mary stoned to death. More likely he would have demanded a financial compensation from her father, because marriage back then was still a contract between two men, and the woman was the property exchanged. But he had decided to take a step in charity, to divorce her quietly, that is, without any contest or compensation, so that she could just get married to the father of her child. He is a generous and conscientious man. He is indeed a righteous man.

But as he lies on his bed he can imagine what will happen to his reputation if he believes his dream. Instead of shame on her, shame on you, Joseph, dishonor to your reputation that you had your way with her before you were married. Dishonor to your whole family.

I wonder if he considered his own name: Joseph — that he had the same name as the dreamer of Genesis. That Joseph’s dreaming was the means by which salvation eventually happened to his brothers and his father Jacob, but his dreaming also caused him pain and suffering along the way. Oh my, what are you in for if you believe your dream?

Joseph gets up from bed and decides to believe it all. He steps forward into the unknown, like Noah stepping into the ark, like Moses stepping into the Red Sea, like Peter stepping out of the boat onto the water. You have to go with your imagination. But that’s not all; you also have your conscience to go on. You see it with Joseph when he takes Mary as his wife but does not take his marital rights with her, he holds off from having her. Which is remarkable: he does not treat her as his property.

This becomes the first modern marriage in all of human history, where his wife is not his property. Imagine that. It will take many centuries for mankind to imagine that. Thank you Jesus! You’re not even born yet and already you’re bringing new salvation to human relationships!

Now I can imagine Joseph sometimes thinking: “Why me? Why my wife? Why us? Why couldn’t we have a normal life like other people? Why can’t I have a first-born of my own like other men?” And then he had to depend upon his conscience, his conscience that was formed and developed in his own youth by all the best traditions of Jewish piety, and the daily meditation on the law and the prophets. If you are a righteous Jew, that is how you purify your conscience, that is the daily visitation of God, re-reading and rehearing and re-imagining each day the call of God and promises of God. That is what purifies your conscience and helps you get on with being generous and loving.

If you put these two things together, your conscience and your imagination, you get what St. Paul in our Epistle has called “the obedience of faith.” The obedience of faith is a way of describing the necessary interplay of your conscience and your imagination. The obedience is the conscience part, and the faith is the imagination part. Your faith is necessary so that the internal authority of your conscience depends upon the external promises of God in which you put your faith. Your imagination is necessary so that your conscience can be creative instead of static or frozen or fearful, so that you can get out of bed, like Joseph, and step out into uncertainty with love and generosity. So that you can walk as a child of the light.

All the world is dark around you, but do not be afraid to walk into it, because your light is shining out from you. The light shining out from you is the light of the Spirit of God inside you, “Immanuel, God with you,” God within you, for you are a “mansion” for God. A stable. A manger. You are a manger for God’s birth, and a mansion for the richness of God’s love.

The story of Joseph and Mary is a love story. Not a typical one. But love that conquers fear and shame. Love that enters your uncertainty and empowers you to enter the unknown. This is the love story of God for humanity. This is the story of God’s love for you.

Copyright © 2013 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

December 15, Advent 3, Children of Light 3: From Innocence to Love

Isaiah 35:1-10, Magnificat, James 5:7-10, Matthew 11:2-11

Why do we get this gospel lesson on December 15? We’re ready for the manger. Why do we get John the Baptist on the day of our Children’s Pageant? We’re on the way to Bethlehem. A better fit with our calendars is the Isaiah lesson, rejoicing at the coming of God. Rejoicing is the proper theme of the Third Sunday of Advent, called Gaudete Sunday, from the Latin verb for “Rejoice.” Gáudete, gáudete, gáudete. Why distract us with John the Baptist?

But the lesson from the Epistle says, Patience. Don’t rush things. James says, Be patient until the coming of the Lord. There is reason to wait. There is reason for the season of penitence, because you can get Jesus wrong. You can welcome Jesus, and delight in his coming, but get him wrong. As John the Baptist did. As you can’t help but do. And that’s okay, it’s to be expected, which is why you should be patient and penitent.

John the Baptist had to be patient but he was not in a penitentiary. Imprisonment in those days was different. It was not the punishment itself, as we do it. It was holding you in custody until your punishment was decided, which could be exile, execution, or exoneration. To delay your decision was in the interest of the sovereign, so that your people might generate, you know, some cash. So you were allowed a good deal of contact with your people. So John was kept up on the news.

John was disappointed with Jesus. You remember from last Sunday what he’d expected from the Messiah. Fire. Wind. A winnowing fork. An ax laid at the roots. Stringent justice. Smashing heads. “So Jesus, no offense, but when are you going ‘to come with vengeance,’ as Isaiah said, ‘with terrible recompense, to come and save us,’ including me? And, no offense, what you’re doing is very good, and keep it up, but maybe should I be expecting someone else?”

Jesus does not defend himself. Nor does he answer directly. “Go back and tell him what you hear and see: the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor get good news, and blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” That’s a tough response. From John’s point of view, that response just begs the question. John already knows all that. That’s his point. Doing that stuff is fine, but that’s not the job of the Messiah.

The message that Jesus sends back is a challenge: “Look again, my cousin, look again at the same stuff you have been seeing. The problem is not my evidence, but what you want for the solution. The signs are all there, but you want directions to a different place. Step back from it, John. Your issue with me is your expectations. Which means your issue with me is actually yourself.”

John the Baptist had that peculiar problem of the perfectly pure in heart. It’s the problem with innocence, and why you have to get beyond your innocence. I know that last Sunday I told you that the Advent season calls you into your place of innocence, and in that place to find an inner child, who is God as a child, and I told you to take yourself in there, to restore your wonder and to revive your hope. Today I’m complicating that. I’m telling you to get beyond your innocence.

The problem with innocence is indignation. Like John the Baptist’s. You have always done the right thing, the hard thing, all the way, and at great cost to yourself. You gave your life to the job you were given, you never considered your comfort or convenience, you never complained, even in prison you don’t complain, but now your successor is taking the easy way. Your innocence yields to indignation, and impatience, and sometimes even to intolerance.

Jesus was not disappointed in John! He took no offense at his questioning. Because it had not been given to John to see the something new afoot. No one had yet imagined it but Jesus himself, and no one else would see it until after his death and resurrection, the whole new radical way of being the Messiah. So Jesus doesn’t hold it against his cousin that he has not imagined him.

You can love Jesus and want him to come, and still get him wrong. You do it yourself, you can’t help it — your soul is blind and deaf, you are spiritually disabled. So you need his light and his voice. So every year you need to step back and ask yourself what you expect from him. You need to ask yourself what it is about yourself that makes you expect this. Who do you think you are? Where do you get it from, how God should come into your life? Like John the Baptist, “C’mon, Jesus, don’t you owe me something here? Don’t I have a right to some expectations?”

Innocence says this: "Okay, I’m, say, third in line, and I’ll be happy to get whatever is coming to me as third in line." But the Epistle of James says, "Don’t take your turn, wait, be patient, go to the back of the line!" And now innocence has to learn something new: Love for all the others in line ahead of you.

Innocence has to develop into love. Not childlike love, not natural love nor innocent love, but sacrificial love, generous love, love of neighbor as yourself. John the Baptist, you did what you did because you were certain you were right, and you were. But when the Kingdom comes, you will do what you do for love, and not because you’re right. And only by patience will you learn that.

They are saying that it was his twenty-seven years in prison that allowed Nelson Mandela to develop his moral imagination. So that when he came out, he was not indignant nor intolerant, but able to love his enemies. They are rarely saying that his Christian faith had everything to do with that. He had to wait — he waited on God, with patient endurance, with no control, like a farmer waiting for the rain (James).

And so do you, if you want to develop your moral imagination beyond the privilege of innocence into the sacrifice of sympathy. From the burning purity of the desert into the messy swamp of love (Isaiah). Advent calls you to let God lead you on the road from innocence to love.

Isaiah sings about the healing of your disabilities within the larger transformation of creation. There are crocuses and blossoms that need to come to life in you. And though you value a flower for the beauty it gives you right now, from the flower’s point of view, whatever it is, is for the future, for the seed it will generate; a flower is for the future.

You must be eagerly patient in your life for what God is doing with you still, what God in God’s own time is slowly bringing forth to life in you. And it will go beyond what you expect within yourself. If you could expect it, you would not need God to do it. You must admit your moral disability, and it will offend you — it must at first.

What do you want for Christmas? It’s okay to ask that. We are not so indignant for the sacred mystery that we must be intolerant of the secular festivity. But I will ask you this: What do you want from Christmas? What do you want from God’s coming into the world, and into your own life?

Here is a take-home. For this next year, open yourself to one new way to follow Jesus beyond where you are now, and into an area where you have not yet trusted him. Not a New Year’s resolution but an Advent absolution.

You might try it in an area of society, wherein what Jesus says is just too radical: say, about non-violence, or peace, or wealth and poverty. Open yourself to another patient look at that, keep open to it longer than you have before.

You might try it in an area of your inner life. What do you believe God owes you here? In what have you been disappointed when it comes to God? Pick one thing, and enter that place of drought with God, and water it with God’s Word and Spirit and with the love of, say, two fellow members of the community of Jesus.

You might try it with how you budget your time, or in your dealings with your children.

You might open yourself to a new activity, with a work of joy you have not dared yet: learn the trombone, or cook for the poor.

Just one way. Open to God coming into you there. I can tell you this: no matter what you try, it will also mean a growth in love. Your love will increase. Whether you do it in terms of society or your inner life or your active expression, the sign of it will be more love. Because it’s more of Jesus, and when it’s more of Jesus, it’s more of God.

Copyright © 2013 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

December 8, Advent 2, Children of Light 2: A Little Child

Isaiah 11:1-10, Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19, Romans 15:4-13, Matthew 3:1-12

You get quite a menagerie today. You get a wolf, a leopard, a lion, a bear, and another lion. You get a lamb, a kid, a calf, a veal-calf, a cow, and an ox. You get three kinds of poisonous snakes: the asp and the adder and a whole brood of vipers. You get camel’s hair and three leather belts and sandals. You get locusts, and honey, and wheat, and the chaff of the wheat, and straw. You get a tree stump, a shoot, a branch, and roots, and a root again in Romans. You get an ax on the roots, and trees chopped down and burned. You get fire, twice, and water, and wind. You get sea water, and rain, and showers, and mown fields, and little hills, and mountains. You get stones, and their children, and children of Abraham. You get a little child, and a nursing child, and a weaned child.

I love all the animals, because the season of Advent is for children in the way that Lent is for adults. In Lent you get ready for a death, but in Advent you get ready for a birth. Both Lent and Advent are penitential seasons, but the penance in them differs.  Lent is for self-examination, while Advent is for hope and expectation. In Lent you look for your guilt and in Advent you look for your innocence. In Lent you locate all your guilt inside yourself, and you register your guilt, and process it. In Advent you have find inside yourself your place of innocence. That’s the childlike part — that unstained innocence, that wide-eyed innocence of little children.

You have that space of innocence inside you. An open space, a little room of receptivity, of unreflecting eagerness, of easy hope and easy joy. Can you still find that place in you?

Experience is the enemy of innocence. The little child will lose her innocence as she gains in her experience. The experience of snake-bite, the experience of poison and of pain, the experience of betrayal by your friends and denial by your intimates. Your hopes dashed, your native joy corrupted. You learn the habits of not trusting, and also not revealing. You learn to judge what you see and decide what you hear, and you have be quick about it and maintain a good defense. You have developed your skills in how to deal with a vicious and malicious world. You learn to take some pleasure in your skills, in the thrust and parry of your sword, in the subtlety of your attack, in the sharpness of your sight, in how deft is your defense, in your shrewdness and your cunning. Yes, you are a decent person, and you keep yourself from extra guilt, but you’ve too much experience ever fully to enjoy again your innocence.

The gift of Advent is that doesn’t have to be this way. The penance of Advent is to recreate within yourself your place of innocence, a pocket of light and air inside you that is free of dust and dirt and sticky webs. Because when you go in there it isn’t free and clear. Your guilt is there. Your shame. The record of your betrayals and denials is all there, and the residue of what’s been done against you and unfairly.

In Lent you are the one who cleans it out. Lent is your own spring cleaning. In Advent you just let him in. Don’t register what’s there, you don’t have to examine what is there, just let him in and he cleans it for himself to make it ready for himself. He makes your place of innocence empty of everything but his gentle, joyful self. You don’t have to clear away your darkness first to let the light shine in. It is the light itself that clears away the darkness in you.

The Advent way to find again that place of innocence inside you is to embrace with your mind the Lord Jesus as a little child. Give yourself to that image, trust that God’s behind it. He will clear away your skillfulness, and the lessons of your experience. He has to clear away your smarts, your shrewdness, and the pleasures you have learned. You let him in as a child pure and innocent, and you become again a child with him. Of course you doubt it, from the poison of the snake, but this child is immune to the poison of the snake, and with his mouth he sucks the poison out of you.

God as a child. Or God within the child. That’s how Christians have taken this prophecy of Isaiah, and taken it beyond how Isaiah had foreseen it. Let me draw you briefly away from your personal place of innocence to do some history (but I will bring you back to it). The prophet Isaiah was predicting the return and revival of the ruined, cut-off dynasty of King David.

You know that King David’s father was named Jesse, and so the family tree of King David is often called the Jesse Tree. The Jesse Tree is called a tree-stump by Isaiah as a metaphor of the dynasty of David’s descendants being cut down by the empires of Assyria and Babylon. The hard thing that the prophets said was that God was behind this cutting down, that the ruthless empires of Assyria and Babylon were the instruments of the Lord God in punishing the House of David for its faithlessness.

But God would still be faithful. God would cause a new shoot to grow up from the stump of the Jesse Tree. We’d guess that Isaiah would anticipate a normal king again, but very good and very powerful, and not afraid to smash some heads. He would be vigorous and even merciless in the working of his justice. Justice, justice, justice. The fruit of his justice would be the peace that we see in the fellowship of the wolf and the lamb, the lion and the calf, and a little child leading them.

In the subsequent history of Israel we don’t find any fulfillment of this prophecy in the way that Isaiah might have anticipated it. There would be no political revival of the dynasty of David. The Jesse Tree scattered many seeds, and there were many descendants of David among the Jews, but none of them ever was king again. Except the son of Mary.

The remarkable thing that Christians claim is that this prophecy was very much fulfilled, but in a surprising way beyond anticipation, and with a doubling of intensity. First, that the little child in the peace part of the prophecy is the very branch of Jesse in the justice part. The child of peace is the captain of justice. And second, that this captain of justice will be God’s own self, that God will just come down and do it God’s own self. Which means, if you complete the circuit, that God is in the little child, and it’s as a little child that God desires to come into your life. The peace that he gives you is how you get your justice and your righteousness. Let him into your imagination and he will do your penance for you. Let him into your place of innocence and he will give you innocence.

What that innocence allows for is wonder, the wide-eyed wonder of a child. You want that. You want to forsake the suspicions you’ve developed in your life. You want to welcome the gifts of the world and the colors of other people and be open to what they do all day. There is so much good reason not to do this, so much good reason to judge the world ahead of time, but for your soul to be joyful you need to be in your place innocence in order to look out wonder. You want to practice the wonder which God intended to be normal for human beings.

One more thing. When you go into your place of innocence with the Lord Jesus, then in there you will also find your hope. Even after all of your experience. Hope is not optimism, hope is what you depend on precisely when your experience is bad. You have to have the hope. Because you’re not a child, because you have experienced the loss and grief and pain. When you have hope, then you know that you are in the place of innocence and wonder. Whenever you struggle to have that hope, then go back to the promises of God in Jesus Christ for your encouragement. Your hope depends upon the Word of God, and your hope is energized by the Spirit of God.

Do you suppose it’s true for you? Does God not love you? Does God not understand you, and also understand the world in all its good and bad even better than you do? Has God not entered the world to bring joy to you and peace? I close with the blessing of St. Paul: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

Copyright © 2013 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Sunday, December 01, 2013

December 1, Advent 1, Children of Light 1: Walking

Isaiah 2:1-5, Psalm 122, Romans 13:11-14, Matthew 24:36-44

The image of Light is an important image in the Bible. The Bible employs the image of light in a great variety of usages. We will explore those images in the next four weeks. My sermon series is called “Children of Light,” for that is what you are. So let’s explore and enjoy the images of light.

But first, about Advent. Advent is a penitential season, like Lent. Advent was originally a season of fasting and sober self-examination, four weeks of it. There was no feasting until Christmas morning, and then twelve days of what feasting you could afford.

This sober observance of Advent has is now virtually impossible with the secularization and commercialization of Christmas. Unless we emphasized the contradiction: we could say that Advent contradicts the holiday season, and that the repentance of our souls in here contradicts the indulgence of our flesh out there.

But in this case, “contradiction” is not as good as “poignancy”. You can experience the holiday season with positive poignancy. Poignancy like pregnancy. There’s pain in it, there’s risk in it, and sometimes loss, but the relief of it is new life. A birth. The Word becoming flesh. The Incarnation means some affirmation of the flesh. Which is a mercy, because you cannot help but live within your flesh, and live among your flesh and blood. Your children deserve your gifts, your spouse deserves your gifts, your lover waits upon your gift, your boss expects you at the party, and your voice is needed when people are gathering to sing. You can participate.

These things do satisfy, they do, but not completely, these things are not enough, you long for something more. God has planted in you the desire for something more, the something more that all these things are pointing to beyond themselves, if you stop and look and notice it. That beyondness, that incompletion, that longing, is the poignancy you feel. And that feeling can be by turns desiring and despairing. You are longing for something you cannot attain. You can’t achieve your completion on your own. Advent reminds you to desire it as a gift from God, in some partial measure now, but in fullness only after you have died, when you receive your final salvation.

All the world is longing for the completion and summation which is promised with the coming of the Lord; that is, the Second Coming of the Lord; which is the opening theme of Advent, as you have noticed in the collect we prayed: “that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal.” We open the season with his Second Coming in majesty and then we close the season with his First Coming in humility, as an infant.

The season develops backwards: we begin it at the ending and we end it at the beginning. It serves the poignancy. His first coming, though in the flesh, creates within you the desire for something more than flesh, and lest your desire be overcome by the despair of your flesh, his first coming comforts you. You are comforted at the end of the season, and you are challenged at the beginning, now. Today.

We are living in the darkness, the darkness before the dawn. There is some light for us, and that light comes from the morning star, just above the horizon. “How brightly shines the morning star.” Let me explain that the morning star is always a planet, usually Venus. Science has taught us what the Bible writers did not know, that the light that it shines with is a borrowed light. It is light reflected from the sun before the sunrise. The sunrise will be his Second Coming, the great and final dawn, and his First Coming is as the Morning Star, to give us joy and hope and light before the dawn. You cannot look directly at the sun, for its light is burning and blinding, but you can gaze upon the Morning Star, and rejoice in it, and it both satisfies and heightens your desire.

And it gives light enough for you to walk by it. You can walk forward in this light, even before the dawn. Enough is illuminated. Enough is enlightened. In other religions, enlightenment is what you attain inside yourself. In Biblical religion it’s different. You see it in Isaiah. Your enlightenment is around you: it is the light of God upon the world, illuminating it. And Biblical enlightenment is for walking in, not sitting in.

In Isaiah the light is from the Torah, which is the living Word of God, for Israel, and for all the world. In the gospel this living Word of God gets personified in Jesus, who is your Morning Star. He shines the light in which you walk. He illuminates the world before you. The world itself is dark and dangerous, and you have reason to be fearful. There is chaos there, and evils both natural and malicious, and you have your own handicaps and disabilities. But he gives you light enough that you can safely find your way across the landscape of your life that is before you.

Rise up and walk. Wake up, get up out of bed. Change your clothes, take off your nightgown, put on your day clothes, put on the armor of light. There’s an image! From Romans 13, “the armor of light.” Instead of wearing chain mail or heavy metal plates, you are wearing light itself, like a force-field around you, and you are protected by the light upon you, the light of Christ on you that you are absorbing but also reflecting, and as it shines back off of you it clears away the danger that is lurking in the darkness before you. It’s a defense designed for movement and freedom and joy and peace.

Your light is not a burning light, but a softer gleaming light, the light on you of Christ who is the hope and healing for the world, even in its darkness. You have put on Christ, you wear him like a robe of light, and that is healing for your own flesh, which frees you from the compulsions of your flesh, so you now can pay attention to what God is doing and what God gives you.

All this means that you live in the same world as everyone else, but you see the world differently.

It means that your illumination is not some private thing inside you, it’s rather very public, as public as the gospel, freely given, and freely shared with other people like yourself.

It means that you don’t have to solve the mysteries of the world in order to make your way in the world, or even the mysteries of your own life, to live life well.

It means there’s only so much you have to know and only so much you have to understand, and still you’re able to see your way. You don’t know when your Lord is coming back, but you know what it means that he is coming back, with a greater light, but he is coming to you now with the light of his Holy Spirit.

You long for some light in your life. Some solving of a mystery you live with, some illumination to manage your obstacles, or navigate your uncertainties, or just get through the week, or just get through the pain. You need the world illuminated, or just that one small piece of the world which is this week. The light is always there, but it’s also always a surprise.

You have seen it. Maybe only once or twice, but that’s enough. The brief shining moment, the flash in the sky. You can stretch that moment across your life, you can keep on walking in it. That is what religion is: it’s how you stretch that one brief shining moment across the whole course of your life as you go forward.

You don’t have to be passive, you can be active. You can be doing those things you can do now which anticipate the better things you can’t do yet, but you will do when your completion comes.

Keep awake. Pay attention. You have taken off the compulsions of your flesh so that you can pay attention in your flesh. The good news here is that the power of your attention is not in your own self, but in the light that’s given to you. All you have to do is walk. Don’t worry about getting it all correct, don’t worry about your stumbling or your mistakes. Be like a little child, just learning how to walk.

Walking is the image of the Christian life. It’s one of the most basic things that human beings do, and it is God’s metaphor for life. It’s meant to both relieve you and empower you.

And you are walking with your head up. Looking toward the dawning glow on the horizon. Because the day is still to come. You don’t know when it will come, but you know what it means that it will come. It is up to God, and it is from God, and God will do it.

Copyright © 2013 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

November 24, Reign of Christ: Contradictions 12: Executions in Paradise

Jeremiah 23:1-6, Psalm 46, Colossians 1:11-20, Luke 23:33-43

What did Jesus mean by “the paradise”? Why did he use this specific word, for the only time in the gospels? Why didn’t he just say ‘heaven”? Because he didn’t mean “heaven”. When he said “paradise,” the term was more specific than it is today. A paradise was a royal park, a palace garden and menagerie, like the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, like the Garden of Eden, a private park for an emperor’s enjoyment, where he might take his special guests to walk and talk with him, and where to be invited was a privilege of honor.

Which means (if we respect the metaphor) that Jesus was giving this criminal more than he had asked for. He only dared ask to be remembered in the kingdom, but Jesus brings him into the royal garden. The criminal had asked for some carnations on his grave, but Jesus puts a rose in his tuxedo.

What a strange exchange these two have upon their crosses. What things to be saying when you are dying in defeat. Has their pain made them delirious? “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.” What possible kingdom? The Kingdom of Judea? What does the inscription say above his head? “This Guy is the King of the Judeans”? But that is meant for mockery. What it really meant was, “This is what we Romans do to Jewish royalty!” To prevent his kingdom is precisely why he was being killed.

Does this criminal believe that Jesus could die his death and still get his kingdom in the future, that God will bring him back alive for some new liberation beyond the miracles of the Maccabees? If so, then what he’s asking is this: “When that time comes, pardon me; I was with you; don't forget me; don’t let my name be blotted out.”

The answer is unexpected: “Today.” Not in the future, but today. That is, “I am remembering you now, I am already acting as the king. The inscription above me is right. I am the king, today, and when I say, “Amen, today,” this is my royal proclamation. I am doing what kings do in giving you a pardon. But even more I invite you to my royal garden for you to be with me. You are in my kingdom now.”

Jesus has done him better. The criminal believed that Jesus’ kingdom would come after the crucifixion, but Jesus believed that his kingdom was established by the crucifixion; that when the soldiers put him on the cross, they put him on his throne; that in crucifying him, his enemies were giving him his kingdom; and that Pontius Pilate, in mocking him with that inscription, was actually nominating him, which was his official duty anyway. The prophecy of Jeremiah has come true. The Son of David has begun to reign upon the cross, and the pardoning of this criminal is the first act of the new administration.

So Jesus’ kingship doesn’t wait till after his ascension into heaven. He is already executing justice and righteousness. He’s already gathering the lost sheep of Israel, as Jeremiah had prophesied. And the criminal, in the words of Colossians, has been “rescued from the power of darkness and transferred into the kingdom of the beloved Son, in whom he has redemption, the forgiveness of his sins.”

All the other characters are in his kingdom too, all the other watchers and mockers, but they don’t know it. They are bound within the guilt and fear and hostility which are normal in the world. Jesus has asked his Father to pardon them as well. But it’s only this one thief who has welcomed it. Not only by putting his trust in Jesus, but also by acknowledging the truth about his guilt and his predicament. He is the only one in this whole scene who has a good sense of himself, who is open about himself, and therefore open to the Lord.

Unlike Adam hiding in the Garden, unlike Eve hiding in the trees. So yes, this is a paradise, a second Garden of Eden, the beginning of the new creation, and Jesus is the firstborn of the new humanity, and the criminal is with him.

The gospel writer Luke is remarkably silent on Jesus’ suffering and agony. What Luke has given us is another painting, a moment made eternal extending into time and space, let’s say in the style of Breugel or Velazquez. In the foreground are ranged the watchers and the witnesses. On the right, the leaders of the people. They represent religion. They taunt Jesus for his inability to see his reformation through; he is unconvincing and uncompelling and he cannot save a thing. On the left, the soldiers represent the world. They mock him for his folly and his failure and for his being a Jew. Up on that one cross is the criminal who represents our guilt. He is deriding Jesus for the hopelessness of grace. All of these are trapped in bondage to the powers of the world.

Only Jesus and the second criminal are free. Jesus is free from anger and reprisal and from his burden of the past three years. The criminal is freed from his past and freed from his guilt and free to offer honor and respect and hospitality. He has the freedom of the Kingdom of God.

This painting is God’s message to you today. It is your invitation; you are invited to this freedom. He died like a slave so that you might be free from the guilt of your sins and free from bondage to the jealous powers of the world. God wants you to be free. Again: free from your guilt, and free from the compulsions of the world. It is God’s gift to you. Freedom to construct your life. Freedom to develop your character. Freedom to be open to others and free to love. Freedom to be creative and experiment and make mistakes and fall and fail, but without the burden of your guilt. The freedom of the Kingdom of God. But we know that freedom is a problem, too.

Last Sunday I said that the grand strategy of God’s sovereignty was to go through communities of Jesus. Okay. But it’s from the constrictions of communities that we so often feel the need to free ourselves. You had to leave home in order to be free, you had to leave your home town or your family. The contradiction of freedom and community finds a constant reconciliation in a church. Our mission is to practice the constant pardoning of each other’s trespasses against us, and also to practice hospitality to each other’s strengths and weaknesses and warts and goiters and gifts and talents. The hospitality follows on the pardoning, just as Jesus gave both to the criminal.

A second contradiction is between your freedom and the sovereignty of God. If God is in control, if God chooses and predestines, then how can you be free? God has a plan, God has a goal in mind and an end in sight, so what choice do you have? Well, the sovereignty of God is not a pushy one. God does not push God’s plan from the start and forward into time. It’s rather that God is already at the end and gathering us all home. God is gathering all our freely chosen creativities and God is making good out of all of our mistakes and converting our failures and carrying our sufferings and shaping salvation out of it all of it. Let your life flow as you want it, and God gathers the stream of your life into God’s great river. Or as Jeremiah says, God is the shepherd who gathers your wandering on the mountains so wonderfully that you arrive at home.

Amen, Today, says Jesus from the cross. It’s not just a man talking, it is God talking, for as Colossians says, “in him all the fullness of God is pleased to dwell, and through him God is pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether in heaven and on earth, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” So here is reconciliation of all our contradictions. It is the fullness of this holy and eternal love which is exposed upon the cross. The reconciliation of God’s righteousness and God’s mercy. The reconciliation of our judgment and our peace. The reconciliation of God’s power and your freedom, the reconciliation of God’s sovereignty and your freedom, all of this is gathered into that great hospitality of God’s love. God is doing the gathering. It is for you to let God gather you and for you to love God back.

Copyright © 2013 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Monday, November 18, 2013

November 17 revised, Proper 28; Contradiction 11: The Worst of Times and the Best of Times

Malachi 4:1-2a,
Psalm 98,
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13,
Luke 21:5-19

Live recording of the sermon

The Lord Jesus says this during the last week of his life, a few days after Palm Sunday. He’s teaching in the Temple in Jerusalem. The Temple is busy with pilgrims arriving to celebrate the Passover.

The Temple is a grand complex of buildings and courtyards; it’s a combination cathedral, White House, and Capitol Building. The Temple has been under construction for fifty years, since 19 BC, in a long-term project of expansion and lavish aggrandizement, with the general backing of the Roman government, and it’s being paid for by taxes and donations. It won’t be finished for another thirty years, in AD 64, and then only six years after that, in AD 70, the whole thing will be burned and demolished by the Roman army of Titus Caesar.

The Lord Jesus was predicting it. He was not speaking here about the end of the world, despite how many Christians keep on reading it this way. He was speaking to his own context. He was predicting the impending catastrophe of Israel. The demolition of the temple. The destruction of Jerusalem. The expulsion of the Jewish population from their own capital city. The exile once again. All of this at the hands of the Romans.

The Lord Jesus could see it coming. He wasn’t the only one. The Jewish leaders feared this too — they who had to manage the Roman occupiers from the underside and keep the lid on their own turbulent people and their aspirations for independence. Over six decades, Jesus was just one of some fifteen patriotic agitators claiming to be “messiah”. Most of them were open to using violence (just as we did in 1776). In the name of God their followers ambushed Roman soldiers and terrorized Samaritans and murdered each other, and finally the Romans had enough, destroying the Temple just forty years after Our Lord’s prediction.

I leave it to your own judgment whether Jesus predicted this out of clear-headed political insight or from some miraculous vision, or both. Biblical prophecy is always both literal and metaphorical, always both political and spiritual, local and global, historical and eternal. In that sense it was the end of the world. Jesus was speaking of a catastrophic adjustment in the religion of the Bible.

He was non-violent, but he was a revolutionary, and he caused a global change: from a religion that was centered geographically and focused politically and defined by ethnicity to a world-embracing and supra-political movement claiming universality, addressing every nation and the life on earth of every human being. It was a whole new way of serving the God of the Bible, and a whole new way of living in this world.

What I do not leave to your own judgment is whether this trouble for Jerusalem was the result of God’s manipulation of historical events or the predictable result of human politics — that is, the cause and effect of what happens when subject peoples act in certain ways against their brutal overlords. It was the latter.

The only manipulation of historical events was God’s incarnation in the Son of Mary and Joseph, and his teaching, and his crucifixion and his bodily resurrection. That was enough for God to do.

That one great singularity has been quite enough for God to insert into the ordinary course of human events in order to catalyze the long-term judgment of the world. So that the nations judge themselves. The principalities and powers expose themselves. The living Word of the Lord Jesus is the once-for-all and perfectly sufficient catalyst by which the truth keeps coming out about the world, and about the pretensions of our empires and our self-destructions and our devices and desires, and about our simple daily hopes and fears.

In this judgment of the world we are given a critical part to play, and that is by means of a very strange strategy: little communities of Jesus scattered through the empire. Little congregations, fragile, powerless, like in Thessalonika. What a contradictory strategy for the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, by which to exercise his Lordship and dominion over all the earth. I mean the Thessalonian Board of Deacons needs instruction on whom they can give free food to and whom not, and the Thessalonian Board of Elders needs advice on what do with those freeloaders and busybodies that every church attracts, and is this the strategy of God for overcoming the world?

Yes, our little communities of Jesus are the squadrons and battalions in the army of the Lord of Hosts. But our only weapon is our witness, our only strategy is our testimony to the Word of God. We’re like United Nations peacekeepers, we’re like the Canadian army, we have to have the same instinct for world domination as Canadians do. Hah!

This strategy of witness is not based on the testimony of individuals, despite the emphasis of evangelicalism, but on the testimony of congregations, even little congregations; and that not by their public statements or pronouncements, but by their life together — how their mutual behavior with each other gives form and shape and character to the Words of God which they rehearse. We are the witnesses. That’s all. We are not the judges, nor the juries, nor prosecutors nor public defenders, we are just the witnesses. That’s enough. And because it’s from our life together more than from what we say, that’s a lot. 

I know for myself that often I just want to go to church and worship God and then go home. No coffee hour, thank you, no gossip, no nervous conversations, no membership, no committee work, all the stuff that comes with congregations, pledging, tithing, obligations, weeknight meetings, it’s like one more co-op to go with the food co-op and the building I live in.

That’s why I always go to church when I’m on vacation, because that’s when I can just walk in and worship God and walk right out again. I don’t have to do all this other stuff. Do you wish for that when you come here? You’re allowed to. We give you room for that, as long as you need it. We will not judge you, because we are not your judges.

But you know you can’t love God if you don’t love your neighbor, and being forgiven of your trespasses means you forgive those who trespass against you, especially church members, and the worship of God requires ethics, so you practice your ethics on your fellow worshipers. And thus a group of worshipers who practice their ethics on their fellow worshipers is what you would call a community of Jesus.

That’s why we do this, Old First, this community of Jesus within the community of Brooklyn: contradictory but not antagonistic, contradictory but not fearful, contradictory but not angry, not defensive, not different, not even distinctive, but fully engaged in the same life of the world with everybody else, in the same schools and the same soccer leagues and the same restaurants — but then also by our life together as a fragile congregation bearing witness to the foolishness of the Cross and the impossibility of the Sovereignty of God.

It is the best of times and the worst of the times. We live with the great contradiction of the absolute sovereignty of God on the one hand, and on the other, the freedom and success of pride and prejudice and vengeance and violence and hatred and destruction in the world. The obvious temptation is for us to live defensively in anger and in fear, as if our Christian duty in our culture is to defend a better past, or preserve a Christian nation or Christian civilization, or protect our Christian values. Many Christians feel the need to do that in America, but that is like fighting to defend the temple in Jerusalem. As Jesus says, “Do not go after them.”

Of course America is under judgment, but not by us. We are not the judges nor the jury, for every nation must now judge itself against the standards of the gospel, exposing to itself its violence, exposing to itself its greed, exposing to itself its disregarding of the poor. Of the contradictory patterns of healing and generosity and love we are witnesses. Even in our weakness, especially in our weakness, for then it is Jesus who is exposed in us and in our common life.

The whole point of this sermon is to encourage you, congregation of Old First, so that you “not be weary in doing what is right.” You are tempted by our weakness and by your experience of suffering which contradict the promises of God. And even the promises can be contradictory. Jesus says, “Some of you they will put to death, but not a hair of your head will perish.” So, you’ll die but with a full head of hair? Of course, prophetic language is never not both literal and metaphorical. How about this: “Old First, you will be betrayed by your colleagues and even hated because of the name of Jesus, but not a rib from your sanctuary ceiling will ever fall.”

But of course it’s how we deal with the falling of our ceiling that is our chance to witness. We bear witness by the priorities that we set for our community in such a trying situation, where we put our energy and love. Because as our preacher (Rev. Dr. Steve Pierce) said to us last week, Old First, you are not your building. You are not your pastor, you are not your history, you are not your program. You are your community of Jesus within the community of Brooklyn welcoming persons of every race, ethnicity, and orientation to worship, serve, and love God and to love your neighbors as yourselves. You just do this, and you let God take care of judging the world and saving it. It is God who loves it, after all, and more than you do!

Copyright © 2013 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Friday, November 01, 2013

November 3, Proper 26: Contradictions 10: Zacchaeus

Isaiah 1:10-18, Psalm 32:1-8, 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12, Luke 19:1-10

One of our elders was in the Midwest at one of our Christian colleges, and a professor there who is an acquaintance of mine introduced herself to him. He told me that she said that she wanted to meet him because Daniel was always boasting about Old First. She meant it well, but when I heard this I thought to myself, “Oh dear, I do go on, I must be such a bore.” So I was comforted by the epistle for this week, 2nd Thessalonians 1:4, where St. Paul writes: “Therefore we ourselves boast of you among the churches of God.”

I do boast of you. I know there is significant self-interest in my doing so, it makes me look good, so please forgive me, but I celebrate the possibility of a real and vital Christian congregation. You exhibit what St. Paul writes: “Your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of everyone of you for one another is increasing.” Yet, while it’s true that Old First is facing some daunting challenges, we cannot really say that our church has to endure persecutions and afflictions, not compared to what churches endure in Syria and Egypt and Indonesia. Still, as individuals many of you are enduring great afflictions and even some persecutions, and yet you remain steadfast and faithful. And yes, we could always do better, and yes, we must always be praying that God will make us worthy of his call, but you can believe that God will continue to fulfill by his power every good resolve that you make, and every work of faith that you attempt, that the name of Jesus may be glorified in you, Old First. Oh yes, I boast of you.

You as a congregation are evidence that the Christian faith is not just an ideal, and it’s more solid than a mystery up in the air. It’s a real live thing for real life in the real world, and you give it shape and space within the structures and systems of the world.

True enough, our churchly structures and systems are always compromised, and always at least a bit complicit in the corrupted systems of the world, and we always fall short of the glory of God. As I said last week, the gospel both calls you to religion and also tells you that your religion never measures up. That ongoing contradiction we heard again this morning in Isaiah’s condemnation of the very sacramental practices which the Law of God ordained.

Of course the problem was that the sacramental practices were not accompanied by the more costly practices of seeking justice and rescuing the oppressed and caring for the poor. But then immediately the prophet offers cleansing and absolution if they confess the truth about themselves. That confession and absolution is what I’m going to call today a “feedback-loop”.

We can say that even though our practice of the Christian faith is never pure and that it never reaches its own ideal, it has built within it a number of effective feedback-loops for repentance and reconciliation and revival, which make the whole thing very doable in real time. It is doable and you are doing it. Yes, there are contradictions built into the Christian faith, as we have seen for ten weeks now, but those contradictions are not discrediting—they are rather honest to God and to our experience, and they are not deadening but generative and creative, and we can work them out in real terms in real life. It’s doable.

Which brings me to our gospel lesson, the story of Zacchaeus. I will offer an interpretation that contradicts the common one, including all my previous sermons on this passage. Until today I have always followed Calvin and other interpreters in assuming that Zacchaeus was converted here, that his encounter with the Lord had turned him from being a bad guy tax-collector to a penitential tax-collector. This common interpretation is what you would expect from our English translation (NRSV) of verse 8: “Look, half of my possessions I will give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anything to anyone I will give it back fourfold.” Notice the verbs in the future tense, “I will give to the poor, I will give it back fourfold.”

But this past week I noticed that the Greek verbs are in the present tense. The Greek original reads thus: “Look, half of my income I give to the poor, and from whomever I have wrongfully exacted anything, I give it back fourfold.” He’s already doing it. Do you believe that such is possible of a government official? I don’t think the crowd does. I don’t think the Pharisee would from the parable last week.

But he’s rich! Jesus just accepting him would contradict what Jesus said in Luke chapter 6, “Woe to you who are rich now,” and what Jesus said in chapter 18, that “it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” But at the same time, how about if the rich man has built in a feedback loop, by giving the half of his income to the poor? Remember from last month the parable of the Crooked Steward, when Jesus said, “Make friends for yourselves with unrighteous mammon, so that when it runs out, you will be welcomed into the eternal habitations.” Isn’t that what Zacchaeus is doing?

Okay, he’s not perfect, indeed, he is complicit in a corrupting system, but who of you are not? (This is the true meaning of the doctrine of Total Depravity---we're all corrupted.) Look, the Romans would demand those taxes be collected anyway, so why not do it in such a way to benefit the poor? And if it also makes him rich, is there anything good that anyone of you does without some small measure of self-interest? Like when I boast of you?

You will ask why he wrongfully exacted anything from anyone to begin with. Well, that will have been inevitable, the way the system worked. As I said last week, the Roman system of taxation required some level of legalized extortion. But Zacchaeus, to his credit, had a feedback-loop, and the fourfold repayment was generous compensation for the trouble the system had caused. And so in complicated and complicit circumstances, Zacchaeus manages to find a way to demonstrate the economic values of the kingdom of God. I think this must have encouraged Jesus the week before he died.

So then why are the people grumbling? Are they’re jealous that he’s rich? Or that, even for all the good he does, he’s still complicit with the Romans, and he’s unkosher from handling unclean money? It’s really Jesus they are grumbling at, because he contradicts their expectations of whom the Lord accepts. They grumble at the sovereignty and freedom of the grace of God.

But the free and sovereign grace of God is very great comfort when you face the truth that everything that you do in your Christian life has some fault or flaw within it and always some complicity. Nothing you do is pure. Even every good thing that you do has some small measure in it of self-interest. And so you have to repent and be reconciled, and build into your life some realistic feedback-loops, some actions of selflessness and sacrifice. Not because God needs your sacrifice, but because you do. Not just to keep you humble, but to keep you tuned in to the grace of God. You have to build some contradictions into your own life in order to keep yourself on the homing signal of God’s free and sovereign love.

Tithing is one such thing. Because to be a Christian in the real world, in real time, with real things, must include your money. Tithing is a feedback-loop. It’s how you contradict the constant whispering of your evident self-interest, and how you set real limits on yourself. It’s a combination spiritual and economic exercise you need to do to keep in tune.

What we mean by tithing is that you give back to God the top percentage of your income. The Biblical goal is the top ten percent, but you can start with one percent if it is new to you, as long as it’s the top one percent of your budget, before you budget for anything else. And then every year you try to raise yourself by one percent again, till you reach ten. And yes, there is self-interest in your tithing, because of the services the church gives back to you. You get community, you get the Word of God in real terms, you get the means of repenting of your sins and reconciling yourself to God. You get music and education Look, you get back from what you give.

It goes without saying that teaching you to tithe is in the obvious self-interest of the church. Like, “you should tithe, and give it to us.” Which is why we build in many feedback-loops in the systems of Old First. But at the same time, it’s a realistic part of your participation in the Kingdom of God, because it’s in the form of congregations, like the Thessalonians, like the Park Slopians, like the Israelites, like the Brooklynites, it’s in the form of churches that the Christian faith takes real form in the real world. Old First is a "salvation-reality."

A church is not an end in itself, it must always look beyond itself and find its meaning in the larger scope and larger purposes of the Kingdom of God, and yet the Lord has made the church the necessary witness and first-fruit of the Kingdom of God. Your congregation makes the Christian faith something more solid than a mystery up in the air. Your congregation makes the Christian faith a real live thing for real life in the real world, and you give it shape and space within the structures and patterns of the world.

This shape and space deserve your participation. Every Sunday the Lord Jesus says to you, “You come down, because I’m going to your house today. And you are happy to welcome him. Today salvation has come into this house.”

Copyright © 2013 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

October 27, Proper 25: Contradictions 9: The Gospel Contradicts Religion

Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22, Psalm 84:1-6, 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18, Luke 18:9-14

The Pharisee and the tax collector. The patriot and the collaborator. The Pharisee wants the Kingdom of God, literally and politically, and the tax collector works for the Empire of the Romans.

The Pharisee keeps himself clean and pure to be qualified for the Kingdom of God when it comes. The tax collector’s employment makes him unclean, handling unclean Roman coins, stamped with that idolatrous image of Caesar, which makes him a traitor to his own nation, and which makes of him a constant thief, in the eyes the people, as he earns his living by his surcharge on the tax, a sort of legalized extortion.

The older translations of the Bible styled the tax collector a “Publican,” so this is called the Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican, and despite our dislike of the Pharisees, this Publican would not have been your friend.

We miss the force of this parable if we read as if their prayers were Protestant private prayers. So let me give you its original context. There was only one temple in Israel, the one in Jerusalem. There were many synagogues, in all the towns. You could pray in synagogues, every week, on the Sabbath, as still is done, of course. But in the temple the prayers were offered every day, and not led by rabbis but by Levites and priests. Plus, the prayers in the temple were centered on the daily sacrifices, sacrifices of animals, of lambs — one at dawn and one at the ninth hour, say 3:00 pm, the sacrifices which made atonement for the sins of Israel. Once their sins were covered by the blood of the lamb,  they were permitted to make their prayers to God. The Levites ignited the incense, and as the smoke of the incense rose, the prayers rose up, from the Levites around the altar of the sacrifice, making supplication for the whole of Israel, from the people in attendance, making their own supplications and intercessions.

Also praying is this Pharisee. He’s not interceding or supplicating, he is lifting up his hands in thanksgiving. He’s off to the side so that he won’t get touched by anyone who might contaminate his purity. He is strict and more than strict, fasting more often than the Torah mandated, and tithing more completely than the Torah required. So we would love this guy to be a member of Old First, even if we’re irritated by his self-righteousness in thanking God that he’s such a righteous guy.

Also praying is that Publican, far off in the back, and quite unwelcome. He’s a bad man. Maybe he’s the guy who was giving all the trouble to that poor widow from the parable last week! He knows he’s bad. So he’s praying with his head down, and he’s beating his breast, like we did last month in the synagogue on the night of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. He prays, not just “God be merciful to me, a sinner,” but more literally and specifically, “God, let the Atonement be for me, the sinner.” He’s guilty, and he knows he has no right to talk to God apart from the bloody sacrifice which is offered to cover his sins.

And that’s why he’s the one who’s justified. That’s why he is rectified and qualified to enter the Kingdom of God. That’s the contradiction, that the righteous guy is reckoned as unqualified, and the unrighteous guy is reckoned as qualified. This is the gospel’s contradiction to religion, this is the paradox preached by Martin Luther, this is the antithesis instituted by John Calvin, this is the quite contrary doctrine of the Reformation, and because it is contrary we need reminding of it every week, we need to hear it every Sunday as the morning news.

It’s not that God prefers the Publican to the Pharisee. God would just as soon justify the good guy as the bad guy. But the Pharisee has not offered up himself. The Publican did. It was his bad self that he offered, but it was his true self. My wife put it this way: the Publican knows his life is a dirty business. The Pharisee doesn’t know that being human is a dirty business. The Pharisee doesn’t admit, not even to himself, that he’s just as needy of God’s grace as the Publican. It’s that tragedy of unawareness that I spoke about three weeks ago.

The Publican is aware of himself. And all the Publican has to offer to God is his own sinful self. The only gift he has to give to God is his need of God, and his need of God giving freely and indiscriminately back to him, without regard for his deserving it. The Lord Jesus does not say that the Publican went home to make amends, or try to be better to show how sorry he truly was. We’d like him to do that, we’d like him to stop extorting money from the people, but that would miss the point of the parable, that the grace of God is not conditioned by our proving it in our behavior.

Both of them are in us all the time. Don’t say, “Oh, I’m like the one and not the other.” You are always both. You have both in you. You have the contradiction running in you all the time. You compare yourself to others, and you justify yourself. You also know your guilt and you bow your head in shame. The gospel both judges you and comforts you. It resurrects you to new life but first it lays you dead. The gospel calls you to religion and it tells you your religion cannot measure up. The contradiction between religion and the gospel is one you recapitulate each week.

So what do you do? Take a clue from the epistle, from what St. Paul wrote to Timothy. He sounds a little like the Pharisee, almost like he’s boasting. “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race,” I’m not a loser, I’m a winner, “I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day.” Well, St. Paul, aren’t you special.

Of course, considering the fact that he’s got prison chains on him while he writes this, he’s sort of got the right to speak like this. And he does not exalt himself by degrading other people. He does admit that other people did him wrong, that they did not support him, that they deserted him, but he asks that it not be counted against them. He wants grace for them too. He forgives them. He has to keep on forgiving them in his own mind, no doubt, because in his prison cell he’s reminded of their desertion every day again. His reason to forgive them is not in them, and not in himself, but in God, and the love and the grace of God, which is what he wants to be true to. 

So yes, take this clue from the epistle. Thank God for where you are, and what God has done for you, and then also love your enemies, and pray God’s grace and favor on those persons who have done you wrong. Be thankful to God, and reckon yourself among the Publicans who know their need of God. What God loves to see in you is your desire for God.

Today we will baptize Ronald, who has acted upon the desire of his life for God. We heard his testimony here last Spring, and he told us that from his childhood he believed in God, but that when in his youth he requested baptism, he was refused. He was not welcome in the Temple, so to speak, he was not welcome at the sacrifice or in the prayers. But like St. Paul, he kept his faith. That’s the remarkable gift of grace that Our Lord Jesus was working in him through the years, that Ronald did not reject his faith because of his rejection by the church. As St. Paul wrote, “no one came to my defense, but all deserted me.” But then, “May it not be counted against them,” which he has demonstrated today by seeking out the church again. He fought the good fight, he is finishing the race, he is keeping the faith, and the water and oil we will put upon his head will be his crown of righteousness.

His baptism is a gift of God for him but also for the rest of you. You are to see in the sacrament today a story of requited love. Not unrequited love, but requited love. It is the love of God that touches the contradictions in our lives to comfort them. This is the love of God which converts the tragedy of your unawareness to the comedy of your acknowledgment and the feast of your recognition. Look up, you belong here. Look up, there is love coming here. Look up, receive the little gift, behind the little gift is the boundless and inexhaustible love of God for you.

Copyright © 2013 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.