Monday, April 28, 2014

Rabbi Andy Bachman: An Ethical Missionary

(Reprinted from The Twelve: Reformed, Done Daily )

The charismatic rabbi of the most dynamic synagogue in Brooklyn announced his resignation a few weeks ago, and this made the papers in both New York City and Israel. People were “shocked” and “stunned.” I was only momentarily surprised, and that was at the timing. I had figured it was coming. I know this rabbi very well, and I know him to be a missionary, and missionaries move on.
My friend Andy Bachman has been the senior rabbi at Congregation Beth Elohim (CBE), the largest Reform synagogue in Brooklyn, since 2006. Under his leadership, the synagogue has doubled in size to 1000 families. Andy has welcomed many young Jews back to the faith. The CBE synagogue has gained a national reputation for revitalized worship, innovative education, expansive cultural programming, progressive Zionism, and social witness. After Hurricane Sandy the synagogue began feeding thousands of the storm’s victims, and then “CBE Feeds” morphed into an ongoing ministry for the poor of New York. On Sundays, a Christian church meets in the main sanctuary. Hundreds of people pass through the doors of Beth Elohim every day, and only a majority of them are Jews. It’s the cathedral of Park Slope. Rabbi Andy Bachman has led all this.
So, yes, it was big news when at the end of March, Andy announced that he would not be renewing his contract next year. (In the Reform movement, rabbis have to give a year’s notice.) He’s not retiring---he’s only fifty years old. He hasn’t taken another position---he doesn’t know yet what he’ll be doing, although it will be public service to the wider community. People were asking how someone so successful and who gained such prestige for himself and his congregation could just put it all behind him---for what?
To me it makes all the sense in the world. Andy is a missionary. He’s an ethical missionary. I don’t mean that he’s a missionary of the Christian type, with the motivation to convert people. He’s a missionary of the Jewish type: he is a witness for the Jewish contribution for the healing of the world.
It was Andy’s missionary passion and vision which inspired in the synagogue’s dramatic growth. CBE had always been remarkably hospitable; I had already experienced that from the former rabbi, who was also a good friend and confidant. But under Andy that hospitality began to pour out of the synagogue into the streets and everybody’s lives.
Jews have good reason to be careful and probably they’ve earned to right even to be defensive, but this synagogue is acting defenseless and taking risks in welcome and witness. It got both more spiritual and more political. It is expressing a new and vintage Judaism, affirming worship and devoted to the Torah as God’s gift to the world. These Jews are Jewish for the sake of the world, and not just for protecting Judaism.  Andy has been leading them in that.
This would be true even apart from all the collaboration between Andy and me and between our two congregations. We are known and recognized for this in Brooklyn. We’ve been in the news together, we’ve been on stage together, we’ve led in prayer together, our congregations have worshipped in each other’s houses, we make music together, and we house the homeless together. We talk. We kvetch. We joke. (One Good Friday morning he called me up to wish me a “good Good Friday,” and then he said, “I just want you to know it was all a mistake!”) I know about Andy’s prayers. About the same time every morning we pray in our apartments, with only Prospect Park between us. So I was not shocked or stunned. It was coming. You can fill a cup with only so much wine, and then it has to go somewhere. Andy has felt the call. He doesn’t know in what new direction or endeavor he’ll be going in, but what I know is that he’ll be going as an ethical missionary.
People love Andy for his bar mitzvahs, bat mitzvahs, and his funerals. In Christian terms, he’s a caring pastor and an inspiring preacher. He’s a great rabbi, but being a rabbi is not his first love. What he really loves is being a Jew. Yep. Being a Jew. No small thing. That’s the great burden and the greater privilege, to be one more Jew who stands between the world and Adonai. Andy will be resigning his rabbinate in order to be a Jew. For the world, for Adonai.

Friday, April 25, 2014

April 27, Easter 2: A Community of Jesus #1

 Acts 2:14a, 22-32, Psalm 16, 1 Peter 1:3-9, John 20:91-31

Please look with me at our Heidelberg Catechism Question and Answer 55: What do you understand by "the communion of saints"? First, that believers one and all, as members of this community [of the church], share in Christ and in all his treasures and gifts. Second, that each member consider it a duty to use these gifts readily and cheerfully for the service and enrichment of the other members.

Last Sunday was a wonderful worship service, and it was made so by many unseen gifts. For example, Aleeza Meir had to arrange and rewrite all the hymns and all the other music for our soloists and our little orchestra. Not one moment could she just plunk down some ready score in front of the musicians; all of it had to be re-scored, and some of it new-composed. I wonder how many folks last week realized how much a gift they were being given.

A second example was the behind-the-scenes activity of our consistory. A few months ago one deacon offered to manage the details of the service and the seating and the ushering and the other elders and deacons and the breakfast and the other volunteers, to let the rest of us enjoy it all, including myself. I want to thank them now on your behalf.

After the service, as Melody and I were on our way out, and headed for our car to go to our cottage for a couple days, one of you handed me an unexpected gift: some excellent cookies, some excellent chocolate, and a very excellent bottle of Riesling.

As we drove away I thought about how this person was thinking about us in the days before Easter, and imagining what we would like or need or delight in. That’s one of the great thing about giving gifts — the joy and pleasure of the planning and imagining beforehand.

This kind of thoughtfulness is hard for me. I am not a good gift-giver. I come from a family of poor gift-givers. My father was wonderful, but he never gave me an ordinary present in my life. My mother does give presents but still, it’s a Meeter family defect and my children can testify that I have it too.

Not Melody; she’s a gift-giver. Whenever she shops, or is on a trip, she’s thinking about other people and what she might get for them. I’m thinking about how to get myself out of there as fast as possible. Some of you in the congregation bring me presents when you come back from traveling, and I am always both grateful and a little guilty, because I never remember to do the same.

What about the Lord Jesus? When he had risen from the dead, wouldn’t he be thinking about his friends and about what gifts to give them? Wouldn’t it give him joy and pleasure to imagine what his friends would need and profit from?

Let’s not assume that after his resurrection the Lord Jesus wasn’t thinking and being creative and original. Don’t assume he was just following some script: "Better check my schedule. Oh, it’s six pm. I’m supposed to go forgive the disciples now." No, he was up to things and things were up to him. All authority in heaven and earth had been given him. He had to sort out what to do next and say next. He had no precedent, no one had ever been in his shoes before.

Of course he was in concert with his Father and the Spirit, but he did not lose his human ego, his "I". He was no less desiring than before to love his neighbors as himself. He will love to think about his friends, and to imagine them, and what gifts he will give to them to lift them up.

He decides to show up among them with three gifts: his peace, his breath, and his authority.

Peace first, and he gives it twice. They were doubly afraid. They feared the Judeans wanting to round them up and arrest them too. And they feared one Jew in particular — him! whom they had abandoned and denied, and shouldn’t he be angry? But he says Peace, which means he reconciles them, he forgives them.

Second, his breath, his Spirit, a share in the Spirit, the extension of the inner life of God and the power of the living God.

They will need this living power for the third gift, which is a share in his authority, the authority to forgive the sins of others on behalf of God, just as he had just forgiven them. No doubt that implied in this authority is the responsibility as well: I’m giving you the power and authority to do it so that you do it.

To for-give is to give. You notice that the one word is built upon the other. You give somebody something when you forgive somebody something. It’s true in other languages as well, in Dutch and German, and in French: pardonner est donner. It’s the first gift of the resurrection, this combination of forgiveness, peace, and power — it’s the first gift to the church. We get many gifts from the Lord Jesus as the benefits of his resurrection, but Our Lord decided to give us as his first gift that peace we get from forgiveness, and the power for us to give that gift as well.

What do you believe? You say that you "believe in the Holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sin, the resurrection of the body." Church-communion-forgiveness-resurrection. Through these four words there runs a dynamic current, from church to communion to forgiveness to resurrection. The church is a community which gives the gift of forgiveness which is the first fruit of the resurrection.

Now think with me about our church’s Mission Statement. I repeat the first part of it every week at the welcome, and beginning today I’m using the first phrase for a sermon series, "A Community of Jesus." What will our weekly scriptures tell us about Old First being "a community of Jesus"?

First, of Jesus, that admirable teacher who lived so long ago, and was executed for what he said and did, whom we, like Thomas, recognize as Our Lord and Our God. You admire him and learn from him but you also worship him and believe in him and you get your life from God through him.

Second, this community is a communion. We are more than a free association of individuals with a common interest; we share a communion with Jesus. We’re in this together because of Jesus, and Jesus defines and determines how we’re in it together. Jesus is an historical person we remember together, but also a living personality with influence and power and determination, and by giving us his Holy Spirit he is constantly making our community of communion of saints.

Third, you share the gifts and treasures that he gives you. And the first gift he has given you is the power of peace from reconciliation. In your own life, no matter what troubles you from your errors and your failures and your history, every week you are clean again. In your relationships with others in the church, and in your relationships with others in the world.

How do we share this gift of forgiveness with the world around us? Could we set up a booth on Seventh Avenue and offer confession and absolution to anybody walking by? Well, actually we do express this gift of peace and reconciliation in the third and fourth missions that we list in our Mission Statement: the gift of sanctuary to anyone seeking spirituality and hope, and the gift of hospitality to community groups and the arts. More subtly we express it even in our fifth mission, to care for the gifts we have been given in our Reformed Church heritage, including our historic sanctuary.

As to that fifth mission we’re looking at some major decisions in the next few months. How much should we repair and renovate that sanctuary, and how much should we spend on it, and with what partners? The consistory is shaping a season and process of discernment for that decision, and no matter what we decide, for that process to be edifying for the congregation, we’ll have to keep expressing among each other this gift and treasure of active peace and reconciliation.

Church, communion, forgiveness, resurrection. I can restate it as Old First, community of Jesus, peacemaking, renovation. The process behind the process. We will do our business together to express the gifts we share with each other from the treasure of Our Lord’s resurrection, and the greatest of these is love. If you track the Lord Jesus in the New Testament, he is present, then absent, then present, then absent, and yet he’s always at the center, and what’s always present is his love. Look for his love, and look for how to express it.

Our congregation is just one more congregation, and our building is just another building, and yet both of them are gifts which have been given to you in love, with lots of thought behind them, and imagination. Receive them as gifts of love to you, and receive each other as gifts of love to you, and as living treasures of the love of God for you.

Copyright © 2014 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Easter 2014: "I Know that You Are Looking for Jesus Who Was Crucified"

Acts 10:34-43, Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24, Colossians 3:1-4, Matthew 28:1-10

Welcome to Easter, welcome to the celebration of the resurrection of Our Lord. Members and friends, visitors and seekers, whatever your religion, whatever your belief or unbelief, it’s good that you are here. Easter is a public day, Easter is not church property — it is but our privilege to host the celebration of it for the world.

What brought you here today? Are you like the women in the story? Are you looking for the Jesus who was crucified? You came here to get close to God, you came here for the worship and the celebration, you came here for the music and the prayers, you came for the metaphors and mysteries. Or you came here out of curiosity, or from your desire for faith and hope and love that go beyond the hardness of the world.

The resurrection is a window to the Great Beyond, so that when we speak of Jesus rising from the dead we have to speak of things we do not know the meaning of. Yet some of its meanings are discernible.

It means the vindication of Jesus as the Messiah, in spite of his public failure the Friday before.

It means the affirmation of the long experience of Israel, and the lasting importance of that people for all the rest of us.

It means the victory of goodness over evil in the universe, but from the inside out.

It means that grace is stronger than sin and forgiveness is stronger than guilt.

It means that justice beats injustice, not by force of arms but by the force of love.

It means that life is stronger than death — the life that comes from God.

It means that the promises of God hold true, even at great cost — especially at great cost.

It means that our species Homo sapiens has a strange and blessed future which remains a mystery hidden with Christ in God, and of which we can only catch some glimpses and some intimations. His risen body is the window, the doorway, the gateway, the wardrobe, the wormhole, the conduit into the future of God already impinging on us now.

And yet there is something so primitive and old-fashioned about it, that it centers on the revival of a physical body, which physical body will have an endless life. As if the physical body is so important. Aren’t spiritual things the most important things? Isn’t truth eternal anyway?

But isn’t it so that your physical body is the intersection of all that’s important in your world? Your emotions, your affections, what you love, whom you love, where you sleep, where you dream, where you work, what you do, how you feel, your fears, your griefs, your pain, your exultation? Your body is both spiritual and physical, where what is eternal encounters what is seasonal, where heavenly realities hit the dirt, where good and evil, and holiness and depravity, are jostling each other side by side. Your body is the stage on which the universal drama gets played out. Your body is the seat of your strengths and weaknesses and the vehicle of your enjoyment and your suffering.

So if God loves you, then God loves your body too, and God’s great salvation will include your body. The resurrection of Jesus is an affirmation of the flesh-and-blood existence of humanity. That is a continuity. But as the angel says, he is not here. That is a discontinuity. Easter gives us both.

This is a problem. The resurrection is the hardest doctrine to believe.
Humanism tries to solve it by denying its reality and his divinity. Gnosticism tries to solve it by denying his flesh-and-blood humanity. For both of them it ends up all within your mind.

All four gospels claim that Our Lord arose in flesh-and-blood. You can read in this the promise of some continuity between your bodily existence and your eternal life. But there is discontinuity in how hard it is to pin him down. He comes and goes, he appears and disappears, you can touch him and then you can’t. He presents himself to his disciples but most of the time he’s in absentia. "Jesus, come back, where are you going? Can’t you just stay put, and not go off again?" The great discontinuity is that the angel’s proof of the resurrection to the women is that his body is not there!

So he is real but also beyond us. His risen body is the intersection of time and eternity. He is where we will go but can’t go yet. We have to die first. We have to disconnect. His resurrection life is real in us, but only partially, and mixed with the corruption that remains in us. We live at the intersection of time and eternity as well.

This means something for yourself. It means that your eternal life is not the mere extension of your current life right now, and it’s certainly not the simple immortality of your soul. It’s rather the transformation of your life, the transformation of your body and your soul. It will be you, not by the extension of you, but by an extrapolation from him within the form of your own particulars.

And because of this discontinuity, you cannot see yet what you will be. As our epistle says, your life is hidden with Christ in God, hidden even from yourself. Hidden for safe-keeping. Preserved, protected, guaranteed, and incorruptible even by your failures or your sins or doubts or unbelief. Which is a great relief. You can let go of yourself. You can die to yourself. Do not be afraid.

This also means something for Christian social justice in the world: the continuity of his body tells us that we can share the ethos of humanists and progressives for the greater humanization of the world, and for the progress of liberty, fraternity, and equality. But the discontinuity, as well as the fact that this most perfectly humanitarian person who had ever lived was innocently crucified, is the judgment upon the secular faith in the positive power of humanity to achieve the progress we desire. We can receive it only by our transformation, upon repentance and in our dying to ourselves, in union with the Jesus who was crucified.

But do not be afraid. By raising this particular crucified person from the dead, the Lord of history has raised a banner in time and space against tyranny, injustice, discrimination, disease, poverty, suffering, oppression, greed, and war. That is where God stands, and to that social transformation we bear witness, even in our fear and trembling. So of course the women left the empty tomb in fear and in great joy.

Somebody who’s here today needs to be encouraged. Somebody who’s here today needs to be inspired. Somebody needs to see this vision once again. Somebody needs to be relieved.

Somebody here is trying to be good and noble on your own, and no matter whether that makes you hard and critical or soft and mushy, you need to hear the message that you must look for Jesus who was crucified, and die to yourself and even to your noble aspirations, and do not achieve but receive, and for your goodness you aspire to a life of gratitude and humble generosity.

Somebody here is afraid, afraid of the future of the world and for the children being born today. You need to hear the message that yes, the world is truly self-destructive and is judged by God, but also the promise that God so loves the world, and God has future plans for it, and for its good, and for its healing and its peace.

Somebody here is angry, angry at the failure of love in your life, and you are tested and tempted by the power of hatred and hardness and self-preservation, and you need to hear the message to get you through this temptation, even if sweating drops of blood, and believe that love is costly but love wins.

Somebody here is grieving, grieving at the loss of someone you loved, or for the loss of what you had hoped for, or at the imminence of your own death, and you need to hear the message that death is a boundary which has another side, and that while you are not fully shown the geography of that other side, you can know that there is reconciliation, and satisfaction, and joy and peace.

Somebody here is in pain, or you are sick in body or in soul, and you need to hear the message that God loves your body more than you do, even in its connection to infection and pollution and its susceptibility to aging and decline, and God will take it from you, and give it back to you in some new version, as yet unseen, without spot or wrinkle, and fit for bearing light.

Somebody here today is guilty and feels ashamed, and you need to hear the message that your value and your goodness is securely held by God and not by you, and is preserved by God against your failure and your foolishness and faltering.

Somebody needs permission to believe this mystery. Somebody needs encouragement to believe that the green and yellow metaphors of Easter are backed up in reality, though that reality be hidden from the present in the past and in the future. That reality is opened in the promises and prophecies, and reasoned out in the epistles and enacted in the gospels and emoted in our music.

The love and joy you feel today is passing and partial, but there is reality behind it, more real than all the other incidents and accidents you call reality. Whatever you are looking for today, I invite you to believe the enduring and cosmic reality of the love of God for you.

Copyright © 2014, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.