Thursday, February 21, 2013

February 17, Lent 1: WWGD

I preached the sermon ex tempore. I don't have an actual manuscript. But these are the rough notes:

Lent 01 2013, Deuteronomy 26:1-11, Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16, Romans 10:8b-13, Luke 4::1-13 Daniel Meeter

Brooklyn, 02/17/13

What is Salvation? Series: #1, WWGD

Romans 10:9-10: what’s salvation?

Many versions of salvation, both sacred and secular. Here is one powerful secular version which is in vogue today: "The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun." Another one is: "Fix the economy."

In Paul’s day, the Roman Empire offered salvation, and Caesar was the savior. Yes, literally so. Caesar claimed to be Dominus et Salvator, Kyrios kai Soter, Lord and Savior, even a god and a son of god. So for the Christians who lived in Rome, the question was very much close to home: what kind of salvation could this Jewish Messiah offer that was better than Caesar’s, and what kind of salvation could this obscure Jewish God offer that was better than that of Jupiter or Mars with their temples of victory on the glorious hills of Rome?

(Romans 10: 9: a technical formula to get you into heaven, like a password?)

Salvation is not just eternal life, but already this life, a continuity

Rescued like by a lifeguard, or out of the ruins, set aside like money, preserved for the future.

What do you want from salvation? What do you want from God?

If you were God, what would you do for people, for the world?

If you wore, not a WWJD bracelet, but a WWGD? "What would God do?"

Well, that’s what Jesus had to do. He had to sort it ou. Consider options. Temptations. WWGD.

We assume that he was tempted in his humanity: he was, but also in his divinity.

Can God be tempted? Original Greek, "thou shalt not tempt the Lord your God."

The devil is the Satan of the Book of Job, living above the landscape, an angelic power out of whack, buddies with Jupiter and Wotan and Shiva. He represents to Jesus the kinds of salvation practiced by normal gods and goddesses, the salvations we humans project onto the gods we imagine, and the salvations that you would consider if you were god.

Well, how about if everyone had enough to eat. The eradication of hunger. Not only Third World hunger, but Park Slope hunger, foodie hunger. Judging by the volume of content in the media, our consumption of food is far more important than praying. But of course it’s not just food. It’s health-care in general, welfare in general. We would consider it salvation if Jesus had given himself to that. We all would be more satisfied with God if God would pay better attention to our physical health and well-being.

For us who have enough to eat I think it would be health-care. Mind you, I'm the first to pray for healing, for my niece Ragan for example. She's got the advantage of one of the best children's hospitals in America. But when we were in Grand Rapids last week, and drove up Michigan Avenue past the huge expansion of health care facilities in the last decade, and realized that health care is now the number one industry in Grand Rapids, more than automotive or furniture, I considered the great expense we spend on health care, I think what we would suggest to Jesus is to solve our health-care problems.

The second temptation is power in the world. That Jesus would save us by taking ordinary power in the world and using his power for good. We ask for this all the time. Why did God allow the Nazis to get away with it, and Stalin, and al Qaida, take your pick. We would consider salvation if the Messiah would take some power in the world to take out the bad guys and set things right. This is a great mistake of the Religious Right. But to be fair, the theocratic stance was part of Christendom for most of our history. Our own congregation was established by the hand of government. Could Luke have imagined this? And would he say that the price of this privilege has been that the church has not been serving only God, but also serving the interests of the other regnant powers of society? We will discover that whenever, in the name of Jesus, we take real power in the world, we will be compromised and corrupted.

The third temptation is for God to get us out of trouble. To rescue us, to be a great lifeguard. Well, that is an obvious meaning of salvation. Praying for just this kind of thing is normal and appropriate. The scripture is full of passages that ask for this, including Psalm 91 which we just read and which the devil quotes. And if God would just keep doing this kind of thing we would be largely satisfied. If God would rescue us, that would just about be a proof of God.

All these things are what gods do. In all religions. So what kind of God shall this God be? What kind of salvation can we expect from the Lord Jesus Christ when we call upon his name?

Not these. Of course all of these from time to time are done by God, and you may ask for them in prayer, but, on the other hand, for example, if you live in Park Slope, your not having anything to eat might actually tend toward your salvation. And dare I say it, if you are living the life of pleasure and consumption which is advertised in our magazines, and if your terminal illness is what it takes to save you, God may well not heal you, no matter what you pray.

The salvation he offers is what he demonstrates. The salvation he offers is two things here: freedom and wisdom. Freedom needs wisdom, or it devolves to license and chaos. Jesus claims his freedom here, and he does it by means of his wisdom. That’s the salvation he demonstrates.

The freedom here is freedom amidst temptation. Freedom in the temptations of nature in its neutrality, in the forms of hunger and pain and such, and freedom in the temptations of humanity in its rebellion, in the forms of money, sex, and power. Freedom to say No, in order to say Yes. Not freedom from temptation, no, temptations will never end, and they may increase in your discipleship. The freedom is from the compulsion of temptation. And freedom from your guilt, which is what forces you into complicity with the temptations of the world.

The core of the wisdom is Romans 10:9-10: "Jesus is Lord and God raised him from the dead."

a motto, a powerfully functioning slogan, like "Don’t tread on me, (the Tea Party) or "Liberty, fraternity, equality" (the French Revolution) or "the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun" (NRA) or "For king and country" (the Brits in the War) or "Be Prepared" (the Boy Scouts) or some other motto that keeps guiding your behavior through life. It’s an algorithm like in your GPS direction finder, no matter which way you turn it keeps find your route for your destination.

If you believe that and keep telling yourself that— "Jesus is Lord and God raised him from the dead"— that motto is enough to keep saving you through every situation and get you to your destination.

Copyright © 2013, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

February 24, Lent 2: Herod the Fox and Jesus the Hen

Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18, Psalm 27, Philippians 3:17-4:1, Luke 13:31-35

Herod is a fox and Jesus is a hen, and in Exodus, the Lord God is something like a barbecue grill floating above the ground. Such images. What do these images have to do with our salvation? That’s our theme for Lent: What is salvation? What is the sum total of what you want from God? What should God should do for you? "What would God do?" That was the question of Jesus. He had to represent what God would do, and offer the kind of salvation God would offer us.

What kind of salvation did God offer to Abram? Not heaven or hell. Never once in the Old Testament is salvation ever that you go to heaven instead of hell. For 97% of the Old Testament it’s not even about eternal life. The Israelites rejected that when they exited out of Egypt. Think about it. The Egyptians were fixated on immortality. They built their whole economy around it, as the pyramids still give witness. By contrast the Torah and the Prophets are absolutely silent on immortality, and it’s just not part of salvation which God offers in the Old Testament.

Salvation, for Abram, is a son and a place, a son to call his own and place to call his home. He was a resident alien in the land where he was living. He didn’t even have a green card. Yes, he had great wealth, but as for real estate, he didn’t own, he didn’t even rent, he was a guest. He had no piece of ground to leave to his descendants for their security. But that was immaterial as long as he had no descendants. Not one son. This was his humiliation. No child of his own to inherit his wealth, no grandchildren to miss him after he died or to name their own kids after him.

That was the Israelite version of eternal life. To live on through your descendants, through your seed, just like an oak tree, just like in the nature they observed around them. Your life lives on as your seed keeps cycling on through each generation after you. But Abram was a dry branch, an oak tree without acorns, magnificent maybe, but at an end.

Salvation means not just descendants, but descendants living securely in a land of their own. A permanent piece of private property. God promises the land to Abram’s seed. That’s why we call it the Promised Land. The land of the promise was the promise of salvation.

Of course he questions it, both parts of it. Somebody else owns all it already. And I still don’t have a son. Notice that God does not repudiate his questioning. Faith is allowed to question God. As a Dutch hymn says, Nooit kan ’t geloof te veel verwachten, Faith cannot do too much expecting. Your faith can have high expectations, even impossible expectations, so of course your faith will question God, but then you’ll have to accept God’s answer which usually is not much more than this: "You just have to trust me." O God, that again.

What was God’s answer to Abram? In the dream. If I don’t do this you can cut me up and kill me. In other words, "Cross my heart and hope to die." Now how is Abram ever going to cut up and kill God? Well, just by saying that God is dead to him. By not believing any more. Which God allows. All the time. Some God. Some God who does not stand up for himself or defend his honor. Some chicken of a God. Intolerable to Islam. Also inconvenient for the Christian Right.

What’s salvation for the Christians in Philippi? On first glance you might think it’s going to heaven when you die. Well, yes, the New Testament certainly offers eternal life. But it’s not up in heaven with immortal souls. It’s our souls and bodies in the recreated earth, when the Lord’s Prayer is finally fully answered, when "thy kingdom comes on earth, as it is in heaven." Our eternal life is our personal share in God’s eternal kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.

The city of Philippi was a Roman military colony, which means a couple things. It means that Caesar was honored in Philippi quite literally as its Savior and its Lord, in those specific words, but more than that, in Philippi Caesar was even worshiped as a god and a son of a god. It also means that some of the Philippians will have been Roman citizens. Not that they lived in Rome, nor that they wanted to end up there, but that their citizenship was vested there, which had implications for their life in Philippi, for their privileges and their protection. Their citizenship carried the protection of the power of the person of Caesar. St. Paul had invoked this for himself when he was put on trial back in Palestine. The fact of their citizenship in Rome had great benefit for their lives in Philippi. It gave them security, a status, and salvation from bodily humiliation.

Many of the Christians in Philippi were not Roman citizens. Like Lydia, the founder of the church. But they knew the system. So St. Paul can encourage them when he writes that their citizenship is in heaven instead of Rome, so that not Caesar but Jesus is their Savior and their Lord. It is a jump, it requires a leap of faith. It is for this life already and also for eternal life. Not for up in heaven but for here within the world today, and also for the world to come. "Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven" both for now and in eternity. It means that salvation is for the world but not of the world. It is this-worldly but it’s not by being worldly that you achieve it, you receive it by the gift of God and in God’s time, when the Lord Jesus "transforms the body of our humiliation to conformity with the body of his glory by his power by which he is able to subject all things to himself." You share his subjection in the salvation of your body and your soul.

The down side is that if you do not live by faith, if you just live to satisfy your appetites, like animals, your end is destruction, both body and soul; you will die just like an animal. St. Paul does not mention punishment in hell, for he did not believe in that. St. Paul is quite clear that "the wages of sin is death," not hell. But still he grieves, he is in tears, he would not have anyone reject this hope and opportunity, those who live as enemies of the cross, who do not desire the promises of God and who do not yearn for the salvation of God. And yet God will not force us. God accepts our rejection. All the time. God does not defend himself. A chicken God.

Jesus is a hen and Herod is a fox. Herod does not want the salvation of Jesus, because he has his own agenda. He wants to be the King of the Jews himself, and if Jesus has a better claim to it he needs him out of the way. But Jesus knows that Herod is a fox, and smart enough to realize that he doesn’t have to take him out himself, because the powers of Jerusalem will do it for him. They will kill him and cook him in their pot. None of them in Jerusalem wanted his brand of salvation either. The erectors of the cross are the enemies of the cross.

The first response of humanity towards God is distrust. And there is no real proof of the salvation of God, not within the world. If you live by your smarts you will not trust it. But to be like a chicken is the point of Lent. As much of a chicken as Jesus was. You do not defend yourself and you suffer your dishonor. You do not protest to be called a miserable offender. No self-respect, no self-defense. Like a chicken in a pot and like God on a cross. Can you accept this kind of God? Please do, because then you can accept the kind of salvation that this God brings.

Why did Jesus do it? Like a hen with her chicks, for passionate love. But to live by such love, without defense, makes you a sitting duck. How did Jesus do it? By his faith. He lived by his faith too. He had to keep believing those same two things I said last week. He had to believe that he himself was the Lord, and he had to believe that God would raise him from the dead. Those two things: Jesus is Lord, and God raised him from the dead. That believe is not a password to admit you into heaven when you die, it’s rather your motto, your wisdom, your algorithm which that keeps saving you through your life, day by day, week by week, and through your death, as it did for Jesus, saving you to keep on living within God’s love.

Copyright © 2013, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Monday, February 04, 2013

February 3, Epiphany 4, "In A Mirror, Dimly: The Ordination of Elders and Deacons"

Jeremiah 1:1-4, Psalm 71:1-6, 1 Corinthians 13:1-13, Luke 4:21-30

The name which we give to our church’s board of trustees is “the consistory”. It’s about the equivalent to a vestry or a parish council or a Presbyterian “session”. Today we are going to install four new members into the consistory. But first we have to ordain them. We ordain them and lay our hands on them — we ordain them into sacred ministries.

The elders have the ministry of spiritual care and oversight. The deacons have the ministry of mercy and mission. We ordain them to signify that they hold sacred offices, offices no less sacred than my office as a pastor. They are sacred because they represent the living presence of the Lord Jesus. The elders and deacons represent Our Lord within the church, which is why we make them the trustees. You might think that because you elected them they represent you, which they do only coincidentally. Their real job is to represent the Lord Jesus to you.

As far as I know, it’s only the Reformed Church that does this, and we’ve been doing it since the 1550’s in Europe, and since the 1650’s in Breukelen. Most churches have pastors, many churches have deacons, and some have elders, but the Reformed Church has all three, and we ordain all three. We ordain our elders and deacons because we regard their offices and ministries not merely as useful for the church’s functioning but as essential to the church’s mission and spirituality. And I think it’s because we ordain them that the consistory is such a stable institution. Do you know of any other committee in Brooklyn which has been meeting continuously for 355 years? With minutes?

God has a Word for us today, in what we’re doing today, and to our four ordinands. Well, six words — two by three and three by two. Two words from each of our three lessons, and the first three words for your persons and the second three are for your ministries.

First, from Isaiah. It was God who called you, even though God’s calling was hidden within a pragmatic process of a committee doing a mailing and tallying returns and drafting a list with alternates and sending emails and making phone calls. Do you believe that this is how God calls you? We will ask you if you believe this, just before we ordain you. It’s hard to believe. But isn’t it true that God works this way, by means of many small and subtle miracles, hidden in such ordinary things as bread and wine and water? Your calling and our ordination of you is a sign and a wonder. The sign of our hands upon their heads is a sign of God’s presence and activity for us to wonder at. We wonder if there even is a God, but if there is, then the world should be full of wonders, and and all of us should wonder at our own lives.

Second, also from Isaiah, it was God who called you before you were ready. No one who gets asked to be a deacon or elder is ready for the job. If you thought you were ready, it was your own desire and self-regard that was calling you. If the office is sacred, then by definition you should have a healthy fear of it. And your healthy fear of it will make you a better elder or deacon, just as will facing your unreadiness, and seeking your power outside of yourself, from God.

Third, from First Corinthians. “For now we see in a mirror, dimly.” You don’t know where God will take you when God calls you. Your calling has uncertainty built in. You don’t know what bearing your office will do to you. You have to feel your uncertainty and even welcome it, and accept the freedom that comes with it, because your uncertainty is the very medium of your freedom. And you do have a say in how you get to where God calls you to.

You must lead the church to what you can see only dimly. You lead this church to places beyond the horizon of our sight. A hundred years ago, two hundred years ago, three hundred years ago, our elders and deacons were making choices and decisions that have all worked out to bring us here today, but they could never have imagined what we are today. Only God could see what they were choosing for and what they were investing in. So it must be for you. Within that continuity, within our long and patient evolution, you must keep leading this church to new obedience to the Lordship of Christ, and to new manifestations of God’s presence, and to ever new signs of the City of God and newer wonders of God’s love.

How do you know if you are leading the church correctly? You won’t know for sure, you can’t have that certainty, because you’re “seeing in a mirror dimly,” and because the judgment of God on what you are doing comes with the blessing of God on every move you make. But you can have a good idea by checking for love. Yes, you have to test the spirits and trust the scriptures for guidance and instruction, but mostly you have to keep gauging the love in the congregation. You lead by faith and with hope, but the greatest of these is love.

So, Fourth, also from First Corinthians, the first job of elders and deacons is to love the congregation. We have been given gifts and talents to equip us for our ministries, but if we do not have love, our ministries are nothing. We have been given skills and aptitudes to equip us for our leadership, but without love, our leadership gains nothing. Love is simple in its conception, textured in its expression, and complex in its application. You have to learn the arts and sciences of love, and when fear and pride and honor are in the way, elders and deacons have to pay the price of love and make the sacrifices which love demands, which end up wonderful and fulfilling, but yet are sacrifices.

Fifth, from the Gospel, love can be tough love, challenging love, which your people might not feel as love. I suspect the congregation of Nazareth experienced Jesus as a noisy gong and a clanging cymbal. They might not have called him envious or boastful, but they would have called him arrogant and rude, which made them irritable and resentful. Yes, love may be simple in its conception, but it is textured in expression and complex in application. And it falls to the elders and deacons, and no one else, to do the hardest works of love within the congregation, most easily misunderstood, which cannot be defended or explained. They do it in fear and trembling to represent the Lord Jesus within the church, for the church to better represent the Lord Jesus in the world. Which is why you, the congregation, must honor them.

Sixth, from the Gospel, what enraged the congregation of Nazareth was Jesus saying that God was just as good and loving to their opponents and oppressors as God was to them. God loved their enemies as much as them, so they should be as open as God is. Well, Old First has its own ways of being closed and defensive and irritable and resentful, we must confess it. But it truly is our historic heritage to be an open church. For a hundred years we were the only church in the town of Breukelen and we welcomed everyone.  We were founded by the state church of Holland, for the enjoyment of everyone. Over the centuries there were secessions from our denomination by people who thought it was too easy-going. The conservatives called it a “hotel church”, meaning anyone could walk right in.

Well, let’s affirm that we are a hotel church, and rejoice in it. You’ll see what I mean if you come here during the week. We’ve got a hotel kitchen over there, we’ve got beds here in the summer, and on any given Sunday our worship includes as many non-members as members. Great. Our church has a porous boundary with the world. But how do we keep it in the world but not of the world? How do we keep it from being only a train-station church?

Our strategy is concentric circles of intentional community with Jesus Christ. And the innermost community of Jesus is the consistory. It’s not just a committee, it’s a small intentional community, modeling community to the next concentric circle of the congregation, and so on outward through the intentionally increasingly fuzzy concentric circles which the world identifies with Old First. And so the consistory is essential to the mission of this church, by its leadership, but also by its modeling a community of churchly love.  Elders and deacons, God calls you to be a community of Jesus Christ within Old First so that Old First may be a community of Jesus Christ in Brooklyn which welcomes persons of every ethnicity, race, and orientation to worship, serve, and love God, and love our neighbors as ourselves.

Copyright © 2013, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.