Thursday, December 24, 2015

Christmas Eve, 2015: Glad Tidings and Old News

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 what your belief or unbelief, whether you worship Christ or simply admire him, we are glad that you came here tonight.

I want to thank our musicians and singers and readers ahead of time. I want especially to welcome my colleague Rabbi Marc Katz for coming from Congregation Beth Elohim to read the second lesson and sing the Akeda. This is part of our tradition now, and may it speak volumes that we do this mutual embrace. Let me also acknowledge our music director Aleeza Meir, our kapellmeisterin, who turns us ordinary people into singing angels.

I’m sorry that you don’t get your own candle, but it’s for your safety, considering the staircases and the narrow exits. You’ll get your own candle again when we return this service to our sanctuary. Later in the service it will get darker in here. I’m instructing you to not turn on your cell-phone lights. Please just enjoy the candlelight. If you can’t make out all the lyrics in the bulletin, then just sing what you can from memory. Most of the words will come to you. So would you kindly turn off all your mobile devices right now and keep them off?

The image that I’m compelled by tonight is of a young woman desperately trying to find a place to have her baby in the darkness. A safe place, halfway decent. With her husband, in a strange town. We sing, “all is calm, all is bright,” but I wonder how frantic they might have been. Where were they when her water broke? Was she having contractions while Joseph was pleading with the innkeeper?

There is a subtext in this lovely story of the stable and the manger. Her husband had to be her midwife in the dark. Not her sisters, nor her cousins, nor her aunties. Why had they all let her go? And to come to this! It’s actually not a pretty picture, to give birth among the animals. Maybe the darkness was welcome.

It’s old news, but the relevance is obvious. If you are a refugee on the run, where do you go to have your baby? If you’re fleeing from Syria and crossing into Turkey, what do you do if your contractions start? Or if it’s while you’re waiting for the flimsy boat to take you into Greece? Do you head out into the fields and hide in a barn? How about if you’re trying to cross the border from Mexico into the US? Maybe you have your baby in the back of a truck, and God forbid you might need a doctor because then you’re also going to get arrested and sent back. No room for you here. But it’s here that God was to be found, so says the primal story of the Christian faith.

In a way it’s all old news. People have been fleeing from one disaster or another for all of human history. And wealthy nations have been refusing them for just as long, erecting fences and fortresses. Don’t disturb us, go away. And our temples inside our fortresses. The very first Dutch Reformed church in North America was built inside the fort at the tip of Manhattan, and because it was in the fort, certain people were not welcome there. But the Christmas story tells you that at this most critical moment of the Incarnation, your God is found outside the welcome and out beyond the light and at the margins of secure society.

And then out there in the dark, beyond the walls, the angel goes to tell the tidings to shepherds. Why not to the innkeeper? Why did the angels not perform their concert to the travelers gathered in the great room of the inn? Why lavish this most glorious music on the very lowest class of men? Another example of God among the marginalized.

It’s old news that we need to hear again and again. In a single stroke God both embraces our humanity and repudiates our human pretensions. God is pleased to inhabit our weakest and most vulnerable humanity, fully so and without interruption or impediment, which is the meaning of the Incarnation, but simultaneously repudiates our human power and the walls we build and the violence we use to secure our power. You need to keep hearing this old news against all the other newer news that you hear today, the news that pretends to be the truth about the world.

This old news is good news because this repudiation has no ill will. Tonight there is no guilt nor condemnation. From God’s side it is only peace on earth, and all good will towards humankind. This old news is offered to you as tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people, even for those behind their walls. Oh yes, these tidings might well embarrass us, and shake up our contrivances for our comfort and security, but that’s a gift that every one of you can welcome.

When you hear it you are glad. You recognize that it’s better this way. In your heart, you know God’s right. Of course you may well doubt there is a God, and I don’t blame you, because the jury is still out, but is this the kind of God you could believe in? Who acts like this, who talks like this, who offers to be found among the outcast and the poor, a God whose greatness is willingly made very small and whose power is among the weak?

The lessons that follow tell you where to look for God and what kind of God to look for. As for peace on earth, let the lessons remind you of what God stands for and where God goes, with gracious hospitality and good will. For joy, let the music and the carols carry you. And for comfort, take it from the company of your fellow travelers around you. For comfort and joy, for peace and for God, you were right to come here tonight. God bless you one and all.

Copyright © 2015 by Daniel Meeter, All Rights Reserved.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

December 20, Advent 4, The Songs of Advent #3: The Song of Mary

Micah 5:2-5a, Song of Mary, Hebrews 10:5-10, Luke 1:39-55

Our gospel story today is called The Visitation. It follows on the story of The Annunciation. That’s when the angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she would conceive the Messiah in her womb. She replied, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel told her that the Holy Spirit would come upon her, and then added the news that her elderly cousin Elizabeth–she who had been barren–was sixth months pregnant. And that extra news is what sets up our story for today, The Visitation.

Mary races to visit Elizabeth. You can imagine why she wants to. She needs some confirmation. She’s a young woman of faith and even daring, but of course she still needs some confirmation. And you can imagine what will happen to her reputation: pregnant and unmarried. A sinner, a slut, or just a victim, but traditional cultures blame the victims in such cases. I’m guessing that Mary could sense from the start what she would be against to carry this child, so she races to visit Elizabeth.

Elizabeth will be showing at six months, while Mary is just a week or two pregnant. But she does not have to show for Elizabeth to know, because of her own baby who leaps inside her. He will be John the Baptist. He’s a prophet already—a messenger, a herald, an announcer. The Holy Spirit makes his mother prophetic too, in what she says to Mary. Prophecy is as often about the present as the future, when you can tell out what is unseen in front of you. Both of these women speak prophetically. Their two sons take after their mothers.

I love the emphasis on women in Luke’s gospel. Elizabeth gets to speak while her husband Zechariah has been silenced from his lack of faith. Let me remind you. He will get to speak again when his boy is born, and he will sing his song, the Benedictus, but that won’t happen till three months after this Visitation, so his wife here is ahead of him. And so the old priest’s song is not the first of the four songs in the Gospel of Luke. That honor goes to Mary, with her Magnificat.

In Latin: Magnificat anima mea dominum. In Greek: Μεγαλύνει ἡ ψυχή μου τὸν κύριον. Literally, “Magnifies my soul the Lord.” The Greek original and the Latin translation are both terse and compact, but the modern English translations tend to be wordy and diffuse, and they underplay the femininity and the sexuality. In the last line, she doesn’t say “descendants.” What she says is “seed,” as in “σπερμα,” and if you can’t figure that out I’m not going to tell you. She’s singing about her body no less than about her soul. She is singing about her womanhood. She is young and pregnant, and she’s got some God inside her uterus.

The song is feminine, but it’s for all of us. Because in Greek, your soul is feminine, no matter your sex or gender or orientation. It’s for all of you, especially at prayer. You can repeat this Song of Mary everyday, if you follow the church’s traditions of prayer, especially at Evening Prayer. I repeat it every day. The Magnificat is part of my prayer life every day. It never gets boring, I always look forward to repeating it, for it to change my mind from me to her, and to give her voice to my soul. My soul gets to speak like this young woman every day, this pregnant young woman.

She magnifies God. That’s daring talk for a girl. She acknowledges that God’s done great by her, and she magnifies God right back. As if a human being could increase God’s greatness. Who does she think she is! That’s the wonderful thing about this canticle, compared to say, the Benedictus, it’s as much about herself as it is about God. She gets empowered by her obedience to God.

She says, “All generations will bless me.” Yes, we will, because of what God has done in her, but isn’t it presumptuous of her to claim it? Maybe in certain religions and for certain Biblical authors, but not for Luke. She needs to claim her own experience as a demonstration of all the rest that she’s singing of. God casting down and raising up. God filling and emptying. And when God gets done with all of this, especially with her, then God is even greater than God was before, if not philosophically, then at least historically. God is great in her, she is the Blessed Virgin Mary, essential to our Faith.

The very last line of the canticle has a spring in it, something paradoxical. She says that God has remembered the promise God made to Abraham, “to Abraham and his seed forever.” But there was no seed of Abraham in her. She conceived the child as a virgin. And the mystery of the virgin birth was even more impossible back then than it is for us, for they believed that the whole life of the fetus was in the seed that came from the man, and the woman’s part was merely to be a fertile garden.

She has no seed inside her, so the seed of Abraham that she mentions is herself. She, and not some man, is the inheritor and carrier of God’s promises. This was daring and presumptuous. Who does she think she is! So greatly does she conceive herself. And this is for you too. When you repeat her words and you praise God in her voice, you are claiming a greatness and a status that is daring. You are great, because of God in you.

Your greatness is not in the conventional categories of the world, for in the eyes of the world you may remain a nobody, and even a scandal, like an unwed mother or a child who is illegitimate. But you are great in your own personal portion of obedience, and great in your embrace of what God is doing among the lowly and the hungry.

This is a revolutionary song. “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones.” Well, that word thrones was famously changed to seats in the official King James Version of the Bible, by order of the British Crown. It’s a revolutionary song.

Yes, there is some Cinderella in it, the lowly handmaiden made the consort of the king. There is in it some “I Feel Pretty” from West Side Story, a girl exulting in herself even in the midst of looming tragedy. But it isn’t Katy Perry singing “Hear Me Roar,” or a woman warrior like Katniss Everdeen. It’s more like Rosa Parks on the bus, or like first-grader Ruby Bridges walking into that school every day by the power of her prayer.

Mary has no weapons, she does no violence, even for the cause of good. She’s pregnant, and all the drive within her is for life, for the preservation of life and the protection of life. She works no vengeance, and she is full of grace. Her only weapon is her little infant needing love. This revolution is of grace and love.

I love the Blessed Virgin Mary. Her devotion to do God’s will cost her greatly but it means no declension or diminution of herself. She is our model. We are made greater when we make God great. How much God asks of you. And yet how much you get back from giving what God asks of you.

And Mary was a model for her son as well. She who gave him birth also taught him his religion and his identity. And what she taught him was what she herself had done, for he must do that too. When he offers himself, when he says, “See, I have come to do your will,” what is he doing but repeating what his mother had done? Mary must have taught him that his revolution must be one of love.

We come back to Elizabeth. It’s thanks to her, I think, that Mary can say these things. It’s thanks to her affirmation and confirmation and her confidence that Mary can open up and sing her song. Mary has a secret, and must have her doubts and second thoughts. She knows her own experience but who would believe her? Elizabeth does. So what we have in this story of two women with their two unborn babies in their wombs is the first four members of the Community of Jesus.

You in this Community of Jesus do for each other what Elizabeth did for Mary. You encourage each other, you believe in each other, even when you have your secrets. You relate to each other prophetically. "I can see the presence of God in you. It will cost you, yes, within the world, but it will not cost you me. If you come to me in need, I will bless you and bless whatever is inside of you, so that you can stand up and sing your song and make God great."

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior, for he has regarded his handmaiden’s lowliness. And look, from now on all generations will bless me. For the mighty one has done great by me, and holy is his name. His mercy is on them who fear him in every generation. He’s shown strength with his arm, and scattered the proud in their designs. He’s cast down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. He’s filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He came to help his servant Israel, remembering his mercy, his promise to our fathers, to Abraham and his seed forever.

Copyright © 2015, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

December 13, Advent 3, The Songs of Advent 2, A Song of Joy

Zephanaiah 3:14-20, First Song of Isaiah, Philippians 4:4-7, Luke 3:7-18

I spent the better part of Monday as a guest of the Police Department. So did 900 other clergy from all denominations and religions. We were assembled at 1 Police Plaza in Manhattan and we heard speeches from Commissioner Bratton and from deputy commissioners and chiefs and deputy chiefs and Mayor DeBlasio we saw videos on various topics. The two main themes were how clergy could help the cops improve their relationship with the community, and how to deal with local acts of terrorism, as they kept saying, “God forbid it should happen to you.”

I learned a lot. I know the definitions of “soft target” and “active shooter.” I learned the stages of police response to an active shooter. I learned the three-point strategy of “run, hide, fight.” Did you know that Old First is a soft target which would attract an active shooter? The precinct wants to schedule a security assessment of Old First. Did you know that Congregation Beth Elohim regularly employs security guards and that we even had extra cops on hand for the Jingle Bell Jamboree?

Terrorism. Terrorists. Terror has become a thing, a cultural and political phenomenon. Donald Trump says, “Nobody knows what’s going on.” So it’s not like the fear of what you can see, like when it was Communism that we feared, which we could see, but the fear of the unknowable that is among us, hiding in plain sight, that you cannot guard against, that you can’t prevent, and certainly not reason with. And when you have terror, you have a negative condition for joy.

The Third Sunday of Advent is the Joy Sunday, so I’ve been thinking about the obstacles to joy. What prevents your joy. Terror. Misery. Depression. Grief. Worry. Rage. Resentment. Lust. Greed. Arrogance. Pride. Achievement. Great success, perhaps. Joy is not the same as pleasure, and it goes beyond happiness and feeling good. You can have pain and still have joy. One of my nieces has a debilitating illness and she’s a hero of mine because of how joyful she remains. I think you can know sorrow in your life and still have joy.

I don’t think anger is the opposite of joy. More the repression of anger, anger hidden and held. There’s open anger in the words of the prophets like John the Baptist. You’ve got to let your anger out, and feel it. But don’t let its pleasure seduce you, for if you enjoy your anger you won’t have joy.

Joy is hard to define. It’s one of those things that you know it when you feel it. Not all joy is the same. It has its textures and flavors. Joy can be sudden and unexpected, but also constant and calm. One of the experts on joy is C. S. Lewis. In his book The Great Divorce he wrote of joy as the constant state of eternal life, and that to live within it you have to surrender both your ego and your substitute satisfactions.

He also wrote that you can be Surprised by Joy. In either case, joy is something objectively outside of you. You can have it in you but yet you can never possess it as your own. You can only keep receiving it. And that’s because, according to C. S. Lewis, joy belongs to God. You can receive it but you can’t achieve it.

And yet St. Paul instructs us to rejoice. Again, I say, rejoice. Well, how can you just decide to start being joyful? You can’t. You can’t get at joy directly. If you aim for it, you will not get it. But at the same time, if you’re a Christian and you’re not joyful, then you have a problem. And you need to examine yourself for what is keeping you from joy. What are your obstacles to joy?

The paradoxical insight of the gospel is that repentance is the way to joy. That’s why we get John the Baptist on this Third Sunday of Advent, because his exhortation to repentance is the “good news of salvation!” 

Repentance is the way to joy, repentance as both negative and positive. As negative in your self-examination and acknowledgment of your sins. As positive in real actions, as bearing fruits worthy of repentance, like sharing your second coat with someone who has none, and like tax collectors taking only the cash they are due, and soldiers not using their power for gain.

Your obstacles to joy are probably your substitutes for joy. Cheaper pleasures. Pain avoidances. Mental medicines. Indulgences. Repentance is how you clear away your substitutes for joy. But repentance is not like physical exercise to make you better on your own. Repentance opens you to the joy that comes from beyond you. No matter how righteous you become, you cannot generate your own joy. The most important repentance is not your purging but your receiving.

What I’m asking you to believe today is that joy comes with God. “Joy to the world, the Lord is come.” That’s the message of the prophet Zephaniah. It is God who comes rejoicing over you. I am inviting you to believe that the God you want is a joyful God, and that your own joy comes from sharing the joy of God. But so much gets in the way. It’s not just your obstacles and substitutes that you repent of. It’s also real doubt, real distraction, real questions, real grief, real hunger, the silence of God when a declaration is needed, the silence of God when evil is racking up the points.

What I do is set myself a discipline. You know that discipline is not an obstacle to joy. Let me tell you my discipline. I repeat the canticle, every morning.

Last Sunday I was inaccurate. I told you that every morning I recite the canticle of Zechariah. Actually not so. I mix it up. On weekday mornings in the summer, instead of the song of Zechariah, I recite this first song of Isaiah. At sunrise, down by the lake, on my little wooden prayer deck. It puts me in a different place, a sanctuary of the open air.

I do it kind of sing-song.

“Surely it is God who saves me; I will trust in him and not be afraid. The Lord is my stronghold and my sure defense, and he will be my savior. Therefore you shall draw water with rejoicing from the springs of salvation, and on that day you will say, Give thanks to the Lord and call upon his name. Make his deeds known among the nations, see that they remember that his name is exalted. Sing the praises of the Lord for he has done great things, and this is known in all the world. Cry aloud, inhabitants of Zion, ring out your joy, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.”

Can I tell you that repeating this is my cognitive behavioral therapy? It forms me. It forms me from outside me. It affects my mind and how I live the day. It changes my mind and converts my soul again each day.

You know I disagree with many Protestants that the best words to pray are your own words. Yes, I do pray my own words too every morning, but most of my prayers are in the words that I receive instead of generate myself, and I receive them by reciting them. It’s a kind of listening while speaking. I find this to be a relief and a lifting of the burden of myself. It is a gift that does not depend on me. That in itself is the pattern of joy. So in the pattern of joy I pray this song of joy. You can do this. If you’re having trouble being joyful, then try this discipline.

Your joy is all about God, and that God is your stronghold and defense. It is God’s water that you draw. It’s God’s deeds that you praise, and God’s name you exalt. It’s because God is great in you that your joy rings out. So the strategy of joy is your objective praise. You repeat it and you begin to know it, you repeat and you begin to discover it, you repeat it and you begin to see it, you repeat it and you begin to feel it. Honest, that is how it works. It’s not just a reminder, it’s a retrieval.

I know you want joy to be spontaneous, to be surprised by it. Like when you get good news. But you can discipline your mind and soul to hear the news you were deaf to and to notice the spontaneity that was always all around you. The news that the Holy One of Israel is great in your midst.

It’s paradoxical. The Holy One of Israel was great in her midst by getting very small. A fetus in her body. An infant in her arms. A little child, listening to his parents to learn how to speak and how to think and how to pray. You keep hearing that as news, a distant story of what God did once, far off, once for all. But that news tells you what God is like and what to look for of God’s presence, and what your joy might feel like.

And that news helps you discern the presence of God all around you and in the stories of the people that you know. You rejoice in each other. You rejoice in what each other tells. Your broken and halting voices come together to make a song. This joy is something you can learn. Learn it. Listen to it. Desire it. Sing it or say it but keep repeating it. And the joy within it gets born in you and reveals itself to you. And you recognize the wonders of his love.

Copyright © 2015, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Saturday, December 05, 2015

December 6, Advent 2: The Songs of Advent 1: The Benedictus, A Freedom Song

Malachi 3:1-4, Song of Zechariah, Philippians 1:3-11, Luke 3:1-6

Tiberius, Pontius Pilate, Herod and Philip and Lysanias,
and Annas
and Caiaphas.

By listing those names like that, St. Luke is writing like a typical historian of the Roman Empire. St. Luke is evidently writing for a Gentile public.

And by the movement in those names from the emperor to the high priest he moves us from the global to the local, from the universal to the particular, in order to say that this particular local story has global and universal significance. And just the mention of Tiberius implies a significance is both political and personal.

You could not escape Tiberius. His face was on their coins. His life story was well known. In his childhood, his father had to surrender his mother Livia to Caesar Augustus for his new wife, and thus Tiberius became Caesar’s stepson, although they never liked each other. Tiberius led his stepfather’s legions from Spain to Germany to Armenia, putting kings on thrones and crowns on their heads. He earned the Roman titles of Lord and Savior. For dynastic reasons, Augustus made him divorce the wife he loved and marry his stepsister, Julia, beautiful and cruel and shamelessly profligate. Augustus adopted him as his heir, and Tiberius succeeded as Caesar in A.D. 14, the most powerful man in that part of the world.

Fifteen years after that, when John the Baptist stepped up, Tiberius was a famously miserable man. By this time he was living in self-imposed exile on an island – while still in power. He hated the city of Rome, he hated its Senate and its populace, he hated his officials, he hated his heir Caligula, he hated his wife, he hated his life, and everybody hated him back, even though, as he knew, they’d declare him a god posthumously. He hated that too. So powerful and yet so trapped, so bound.

Neither was Pontius Pilate free. We all know the story of how he was manipulated by the crowd. So poorly did he govern the impossible province of Judea that he got recalled to Rome and there committed suicide. As for Herod and his brother Philip, they could not get free of other, but plotted against each other and slept with each others’ wives. And the high priests Annas and Caiaphas just showed what Roman puppets they were when they told Pilate that they had no king but Caesar and denied the claims of the God they served. Bondage, both outward and inward, political and personal. The constrictions of the state and the compulsions of your soul.

Freedom. Freedom is precious and rare. What kind of freedom should you be desiring? The cue for freedom is from the Song of Zechariah, which we just read. This is the Zechariah who was the father of John the Baptist. He was a priest, and he was old. He and his wife Elizabeth had had no children. Like Abraham and Sarah. They represented the emptiness of everyone in Israel, their lives of quiet desperation.

But then Elizabeth, in her old age, like Sarah, got pregnant, and when she gave birth to John, this song came out of Zechariah’s mouth. It’s a freedom song: “God has come to set his people free, free to worship him without fear, all the days of our life.” You see, Zechariah had always to do his priestly duties under the watchful eyes of the Roman soldiers from their fortress on the Temple wall.

Today is the first in my little sermon series on the songs of Advent. I mean the songs we call the Canticles. A canticle is a hymn taken from the Bible but other than the Psalms. St. Luke gives us four of them: the Canticles of Zechariah, of Mary, of the Heavenly Host, and of Simeon. It’s like St. Luke sees the first two chapters of the Gospel as a musical, and his characters break out in song. The birth of Jesus means new songs from old men and young women and from angels too. It’s no wonder that Christmas is such a musical holiday–St. Luke started it.

I recite the Canticle of Zechariah every morning when I pray, along with many millions of other Christians who follow the great tradition of Morning Prayer. We do this because of the wonderfully contradictory thing it does: it gives us words to pray, at the same time as silencing our own thoughts and putting at rest our need to come up with our own words. It’s liberating. Already in the morning.

The canticle is in two parts, with the eyes of Zechariah heavenward, and then looking down at his son. The first half is the song of an old priest recalling the past and its promises and prophecies, as from Malachi 3, now suddenly to be fulfilled. “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel.” “Baruch Adonai Elohey Yisroel.” He’s quoting the prayer of Solomon at the dedication of the temple. He sings of freedom several times: free from our enemies, free from the hands of those who hate us, free from the hands of our enemies, free to worship without fear, free to be holy, and free to be righteous in God’s sight.

This is that outward public freedom, the political freedom from oppression, which is very much the interest of the gospel. But to attain it the gospel never offers an outward political strategy (other than the church being the church), but rather the inward freedom of your personal liberation by the forgiveness of your sins, and the dawn upon your darkness to break the shadow of your death, and to guide your feet into the way of peace. It makes the political personal.

And I love how personal it gets. “And you my child.” It’s sweeter in Spanish, “Y tu niño.” It gets that personal every morning in our prayers. Me too, God’s child, you too, this freedom is for you.

What freedom should you desire? The freedom of worship, the freedom of assembly, the freedom of speech, the freedom from want, the freedom from fear. The thousands and thousands of refugees remind us how rare and precious these freedoms are, so you dare not take them for granted. And Biblical people must desire these political freedoms for all the people of the world.

Freedom from guilt, freedom from unforgiven sin. This is offered to you for the taking, and no government can take it from you. You get this freedom through repentance. That’s the message of Advent as a penitential season, that repentance is not a burden but a liberation. You recount your sin to God as a way of giving it up to God, who takes it away from you, and replaces it with light.

I’ve been asking myself all week what is the freedom that I’m most desiring. And it came to me that what I desire is the freedom to keep believing, in spite of all the misery and violence that seems unabated in the world. The freedom to worship, not because of any restrictions by the government, but because of the noise of guns and cries of the children and the grieving of the nations. How can we still say that God is good? How can we say that Jesus is Lord? Where’s the evidence of it? The world makes no less sense if none of it is true. Some things make more sense. Not all, but some.

These things can be argued; you could argue for all the good work in the world that so many Christians do, but so do many who are not Christians, and look how much damage Christians do. Why does God allow God’s own people to be violent and racist and sexist and homophobic and Islamophobic? So what I desire is my inner freedom to still believe and our communal freedom to keep on worshiping.

Freedom from frustration, with the church and with the nation, and even frustration with myself. Freedom from the festering of anger and the cultivation of anger and being possessed by anger. Freedom from fear for the planet and fear for our future. Freedom from the darkness that thickens every morning with the news. Freedom in all of this to still believe, freedom in all of this to say that God is good, freedom to maintain that forgiveness still is right.

Freedom to trust in God. Freedom to wait on God. Freedom to worship God while waiting for God. Advent is for both repentance and waiting. Longing. Desiring.
You want to wait but not as passivity.
You want to be silent but not as denial.
You want to be still but not as dead.
You want the freedom to say Yes in all the Negation.
You want the freedom to be joyful anyway.
You want the freedom to believe that God is love, and that love wins because God wins, and it does take mental freedom to believe that. God gives you the freedom.

God waits. Love waits. That’s what love does. You have the room and the time and the space to cultivate your longing and desiring. Do it. The greater your desire for God, the more you will know God’s love.

Copyright © 2015, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Monday, November 30, 2015

November 29, Advent 1, You Can Do This #10: Coveting and Desiring

Jeremiah 33:14-16, Psalm 25:1-9, 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13, Luke 21:25-36

“Don’t covet your neighbor’s house, your neighbor’s wife, his manservant, his maidservant, his ox, his ass, or anything that is your neighbor’s.”

We come to the conclusion of my series on the Ten Commandments. I was hoping to end on a rousing finish. But I’ve had to wrestle with this one, and I told Melody that I was not finding much inspiration. And she said, “Yeah, especially since God made the last commandment the hardest.”

That feels right. Certainly on the face of it. It’s about desire, and how can you prevent your desires? The four commandments before it are about actions, and you can prevent bad actions. We all have desires we know better than to act on. We know which of our desires to cultivate and which ones not, but aren’t desires the kind of thing you can’t help having, whether you act on them or not? Feelings, impulses, attractions. So this tenth commandment seems to set us up for constant guilt.

Another thing that makes it hard is how culturally specific it is. First, unlike the other nine, it’s addressed to men. A man’s wife was considered his property, like his house and his servants and his livestock. To covet your neighbor’s wife was to offend against the husband whose property she was.

Second, the commandment mentions the kinds of property that were the basic core necessities of life. But property functions differently for us today. They did not use money. You do, and so you don’t depend on your property in the same way. For you, your property is your stuff, and you have great amounts of stuff way beyond your core necessities. You depend for your core necessities not on your property but on a whole complex of social structures and institutions, money included.

Third, we don’t relate to our neighbors in the same way. Your neighbors are not essential to your life and neither is their property. Most of us barely know our neighbors, except to say hello. When you come down to it, you don’t much occasion to covet anything that is your neighbor’s.

So we’re going to have to take this commandment symbolically and psychologically. Yes, it’s more about motivations than actions. This is apparent when you compare the tenth commandment to the ones before it. Commandments six through nine are discernible actions which can be tested in a court of law: “don’t kill, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t bear false witness,” but to covet is not actionable by law. It’s a motivation. Indeed, it’s the motivation for committing adultery and stealing. And at one remove it’s even a motivation for killing and bearing false witness. So the tenth commandment is not an addition but an intensification and a summation.

It’s the summary in negative form because the prior commandments are in negative form. But if we put it in positive form, this is what we get: You shall desire your neighbor to have what you want for yourself, even instead of yourself. That’s really “loving your neighbor as yourself.” That’s tough.

Does this require a restoration of the neighborliness we do not have anymore? Should you be knowing what your neighbor wants? Should you be involved more in your neighbor’s life, and even sharing your stuff with your neighbor? How about if what your neighbor wants is different from what you want, and there’s little you neighbor wants that you might have, and vice versa? Or is your mutual wanting what’s best for each other only going to end up with both of you desiring each other to just keep your own stuff anyway?

How about if you want very little for yourself? That’s the approach of the Buddha. He believed that the suffering in the world was basically caused by desire, so therefore stop desiring. Even stop possessing. Of course with that civilization becomes impossible, so Buddhism developed the vocation of the monk, who is the living expression of the Buddhist ideal: no possessions, no desiring, no suffering. To give alms to the monk is to honor the ideal when you yourself can’t live the ideal.

Christian monasticism appeared much later. Christian monks developed the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. The ideal of these vows was to give room to cultivate alternate desires, like the desire for prayer, the desire for study, the desire for solitude, the enjoyment of silence, the habit of gratitude, and the habit of hospitality. Monasticism was rejected by the Protestants, but they advanced a similar ideal that every ordinary Christian should cultivate those alternate desires as habits, so habitual as to be second nature, such habits strong enough to satisfy you better that the other desires and feelings and compulsions and attractions that you cannot fully silence in yourself.

You can do it. My parents did it. I am grateful to have grown up in one of those traditional Protestant families which cultivated such habits and desires and to have known such satisfactions. We did not feel the Christian disciplines as burdens. We kids sometime complained, and we could envy other kids who had possessions and freedoms we did not have. But even then we understood the alternate satisfactions and we recognized the gracious hospitality of life within our house. You know it’s true: it is disciplines that make room for hospitality.

You practice Christian disciplines because of your godly mission of obligation to your neighbors. So this commandment is both about your neighbors and yourselves. What do you desire for your neighbors, and what do you desire for yourself? With what shall you be satisfied? Now, you cannot be responsible for your neighbors’ satisfaction. That is up to them. And the good that you desire for your neighbors may differ from what they desire for themselves. So you have to measure your obligation to their good according to what you desire for yourself. What do you owe your neighbor? What you desire for yourself. So even though your neighbor is the target of the commandment, what propels it is your own sense of satisfaction in your life.

Of course we Christians are not ever supposed to be satisfied. This is where the scripture lessons for Advent speak to us. From the gospel lesson we sense that we should not be satisfied with the world as it is, and that the great Day of the Lord is still ahead of us. With the epistle lesson we can acknowledge that our faith is lacking, and that our love for each other needs to increase, and that our hearts could be strengthened more in holiness. We are not yet finished, we are incomplete, we should be unsatisfied, we should desire more. From the Old Testament we read of promises of God that are not yet fulfilled, and of justice and righteousness that are still not truly executed in the land, and that some greater measure of salvation is still to come. You’re not suppose to be satisfied.

And yet at the same time, at the same time, you can be satisfied with God. That’s the feeling I get from the Psalm. “Lord to you my soul is lifted.” You are one of these strange creatures on the planet with a soul, and the purpose of your soul is to connect you to God, and your soul will be unsatisfied until you traffic in your desire for God. It’s the coveting you’re allowed to do.

It’s not easy to be satisfied with God. There are so many distractions. And God seems so passive. God seems to let so much bad go on. God is that famous underachiever. Or else God refuses to be judged by us. Like it or not, God never proves God’s self to us, God only ever invites us. Can I really lift my soul to you, O God? To be satisfied with God takes faith, and the habits of hope, and the disciplines of love.

So this is how it works, I think: If you lift your soul to God, if you desire to love God as the proper target of your soul, then that helps you very much to love your neighbor as yourself. Lift up your soul to God as your proper dwelling place, and then love your neighbor’s house for your neighbor’s sake without coveting it. Lift your soul to God as the lover of your soul and then love your neighbor’s wife without coveting her, and the same with the husband of your neighbor. Lift your soul to God who is the servant of your weak and faltering faith, and discover that just as God submits to your faltering love, you can likewise love your neighbor as yourself.

Copyright © 2015, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

November 22, Christ the King, You Can Do This # 9, Loving the Truth

Heidelberg Catechism 112, Lord's Day 43
Revelation 1:4b-8, John 18:33-37

The Ninth Commandment:
“Don’t bear false witness against your neighbor.”

“For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” And listening to the voice of Jesus is Pontius Pilate. But not comprehending. Pilate famously retorts, “What is truth?”

For Pilate, truth is not something you can “belong to”. Truth is a tool. Truth is only accurate information or useful intelligence for purposes of power. And truth can be inconvenient and even dangerous, so you try to control it or avoid it or maybe twist it. You can even take all true words and reconfigure them so they end up as a lie. The most effective lies are mostly all true. What you want is power over the truth, you don’t want the truth to be bigger than yourself, as it would have to be if you were to “belong to” it.

The truth that you can belong to, the truth that is bigger than the world, is the kingdom of God. This kingdom is in the world and for the world but not from the world, because the seat of its authority is heaven. To see the world as under the kingdom of God is to learn the truth about the world. And to follow Jesus is to testify like he did to the truth about the world.

Jesus in on trial here. He is not a Roman citizen, and the governor is both judge and jury, but justice is not the governor’s first concern. He wants accurate information for the sake of political utility. He really does want to know if Jesus is the king of the Judeans, because that will affect how he should deal with him.

Three times Pilate asks him for information. Three times Jesus responds as not accountable to him. Neither is he nasty or defensive. He does testify, but not according to Pilate’s agenda. He testifies to his own identity and message, and he takes one more chance to bear true witness, even to Pilate, of the hope that is within him. He is a “faithful witness,” but Pilate does not get it, because he does not belong to the truth. So he will let him die, and Pilate figures that would be the end of it. He does not comprehend that his politics will allow this “faithful witness” to become “the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.” 

Now let me step back for a moment and notice the happy coincidence between the lessons for this Sunday and the resumption of my series on the Ten Commandments. The coinciding of these lessons with the Ninth Commandment has led me to interpretations of both the lessons and the commandment that I would not have come to otherwise. This has happened before. It says something about the complex richness of scripture. But also about the subtlety of the providence of God, that even coincidences are taken into God’s sovereignty. The Ninth Commandment talks about the truth of your witness, and the Gospel shows us the “faithful witness” who testifies to the truth.

What this means for how you keep the Ninth Commandment is that what makes your witness of your neighbor false or true is ultimately not a matter of your own accuracy but whether what you say about your neighbor belongs to the truth that the Lord Jesus has for the world. If you “belong to the truth,” and therefore “listen to the voice” of Jesus, then you imitate his voice when you speak about your neighbor. The truth that you want to tell is not your own truth—a truth that you think you’re in control of—but the truth of God’s kingdom that is larger than you so that you can belong to it.

If your speech about your neighbor is to belong to God’s kingdom, what that means is that your speech must be an act both of mission and of love. That means you have a positive responsibility for your neighbor’s reputation. You are not responsible for your neighbor’s character. That’s up to your neighbor. But you are responsible for your own contribution to your neighbor’s reputation. Yes, your neighbor’s reputation is your sacred trust, but even more, part of your mission in the world is to enhance your neighbor’s reputation as best you can as an act of love.

If there’s anything we humans like to do, it is to talk about each other. We are social animals, and we have the gifts of speech and memory. Our social relations are complex, and we’re always adjusting how we fit in with each other. Can I trust you? Am I safe with you, can I be candid with you, or must I take care with you? And we help each other with scouting reports about each other.

You hear things. Should you pass these things along? The commandment is clear. It doesn’t say, Don’t start false witness, it says, Don’t bear it, don’t even convey it. Not even if it might be true; that isn’t good enough. If you’re not the one who can be responsible for the truth of it, then you must not bear it.

Learning silence is a Christian discipline. Learning to be quiet. This its not because testimony is unimportant. Rather the reverse. "For this you were born, for this you came into the world, to testify to the truth.” Because your testimony is so important, you want to reserve it for when it counts. Reporting on others is not for being funny, or interesting, or smart. Reserve your witness for when it’s the truth that is at stake. Or when you know a truth about a second person that might be dangerous to a third person, and then you have to speak judiciously and faithfully. Good silence is for good speech.

You can do this. Your speech can be true and not false. Not just true as accurate, but true as in tried and true and steady and straight and faithful. What you say about your neighbor you say in faithful relationship to your neighbor, and for your neighbor’s good. Your speech contributes to the healing of the world.

Christian witnessing has a great tradition. The caricature of it is that your job is to tell other people what they need to do in order to be saved. But that’s not witnessing, that’s preaching. Witnessing is about what you yourself have seen and heard. It is to cultivate in yourself the love of the truth, the truth that is larger than yourself and larger than the world, the truth about what the world is for and how to live in it and how to treat your neighbors in the world.

The Bible often presents world history as a great, long trial of which the final verdict still awaits. Will God be vindicated, or is God false? Is Jesus Lord, or is it all made up? There is as yet no final proof for either side, and most of the evidence presented is circumstantial. The case for God most heavily depends on witnesses. That’s us, that’s you. “You shall be my witnesses,” said the Lord Jesus. And as witnesses, your character and reputation affect the value of your testimony.

When it comes to your own small trials, the reputation of your character will have everything to do with how you speak about the other people in your life, and what you say of them: your criticism and your praise, your mixture of complaints and compliments, and the credibility of your gratitude. Whether you convey your inconvenient truths in sacrifice and love. Whether your truth belongs to you, to use it as you need it, or whether you belong to the truth and you love that truth that is larger than yourself. How you express the Ninth Commandment so much affects your credibility as a Christian in this world.

You can do this. You can love the truth. And the truth that you can love is not the information of your intelligence, but the truth of Jesus Christ and his truth about the world and his truth about yourself and his truth about your neighbor. He tells you who your neighbor is: the foreigner, the stranger, the outsider, the outcast, the refugee, your enemy. You can speak about your enemy and your neighbor as a way of bearing witness that the overarching truth about the world is the love that God has for the world, and as a way of testifying that the most important truth about yourself is the love of God for you.

Copyright © 2015, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

November 15, Proper 28, 361st Anniversary: The End Is Still to Come

Hebrews 10:11-25, Mark 13:1-8

The first Dutch Reformed Church in America was founded in Manhattan in 1628. After that the colonists began to settle this end of Long Island, and they established villages in Flatbush, Flatlands, and Brooklyn. Eventually these three villages jointly sent petitions to Governor Pieter Stuyvesant for churches of their own, but he kept denying them because he had no domine available to assign to them. Their petitions always included the village of Brooklyn by name.

Then in 1654, a ship landed at Manhattan with Domine Polhemus on board; he was on his way to Holland from Brazil. Governor Stuyvesant prevailed upon him to stay here, and assigned him to Long Island, and so in October of 1654 he issued the declaration which established the Dutch Reformed churches in Long Island. Only, this one time, the document fails specifically to mention Brooklyn. Was that just an oversight?

We don’t know exactly when our first service was. We don’t know when our first consistory was elected. We do know that by 1656 our consistory was meeting and that it had been holding services. We know that in all subsequent documents Brooklyn was always included again with Flatbush and Flatlands, and no separate act of establishment was ever issued for our Brooklyn church, as if the act of 1654 included us without mentioning us. So we don’t really know when the exact date of our anniversary should be. Our birth was in the shadows. Our church began in mysteries we cannot solve.

Our subsequent history is the building up and then tearing down of one church building after another. Five times the stones went up and four times the stones came down. Our fourth building was on Joralemon Street, downtown, a great big edifice for a huge congregation, a Greek Temple, modeled on the Parthenon, but after only fifty years, and we don’t know why, that congregation dwindled drastically, so those temple stones came down, and the remnant relocated here to try and revive the old congregation, and in faith and hope they built this great gothic temple.

Hindsight tells us that they built too large, because although our congregation did revive, it never surpassed a third of the sanctuary’s capacity. Forty years ago our congregation almost closed, but once again the remnant has revived. Now our temple needs total renovation, to which we recently committed. Tomorrow evening the Consistory will affirm the roster of a steering committee for the renovation. We have labor pains ahead of us. We do this labor because the epistle calls us to “hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.”

It’s in faith and hope that we labor precisely because there is so much we cannot know. Who knows what the future holds? How long will our work endure? We make our plans but we cannot count on them. Every morning on the news we hear the predictions of Jesus always coming true. We hear of wars and rumors of wars. Nations rise against nations, and kingdoms against kingdoms, and earthquakes in various places, and famines on the increase with the warming of the globe. Yet Jesus tells us not to be alarmed.

How not be alarmed? How can we be safe? Not just from terrorists, but if our current carbon-consuming lifestyle is unsustainable on this planet, then what kind of cold, poor, hungry lives await us in the future?

He says this is the beginning of the birth pangs. He means that all this mess and uproar are the labor pains for something new, some new creation. But he said that 2000 years ago. Is that still true? Did he mean that only for his own generation, or did he see a horizon that was limitless, and still beyond us even now? He said that the end is still to come, and we can feel that God’s great work is incomplete. We feel the incompletion of the communion of saints, the unfinished forgiveness of sins, the not-yet resurrection of the body, and that the life of the world to come is still to come.

The epistle says that we can see the Day approaching. How far off is that approach? Is it like looking at the stars at night? What’s in your eyes is a light here present that was born of a light far distant, and you are seeing light that has traveled for thousands of thousands of years to approach your eyes. You can see the Day approaching across a vast horizon. So how many more years will this labor take? We do not know. Does God know? Or does God see it differently?

We celebrate our anniversaries because we are stitched into the fabric of time. God is not. God is free of time. God enters into it, as with Jesus, and time is one of God’s good gifts to us, so we make the most of it and count on it, but time is only relative. Our bodies experience time as regular and steady but actually it’s flowing and fluid. Einstein rediscovered that, but the prophets and apostles had already seen it. The prophets and apostles call us to seek our constancies behind the relativities, the constancies that regulate the relativities, and correct them and cleanse them and nourish them.

There on the table is the communion beaker from 1684. Most of the time we keep it securely with its twin in the New-York Historical Society on Central Park West. That beaker has been a constant through all our building up and tearing down. I remarked on this six years ago. We don’t know what our previous sanctuaries looked like on the inside, but they all were reflected on the silver surface of that beaker in their turn. As were the faces of the communicants who raised it to their mouths to drink the blood of Christ. The beaker’s engravings have been worn thin over the years by the thousands of hands that held it and passed it — Dutch, French, Africans both slave and free, Canarsee Indians, British soldiers, and New England transplants. Members and relatives and strangers.

Six years ago one of you told me how that beaker spoke to you. You told me how liberated you felt when you realized that no matter what happened to our building, we would still have that beaker and our congregation would survive.

Of course it’s not so much the beaker itself as the mystery that we do around that cup. We do time travel, we do space travel, and the beaker is the portal, the gate of heaven. The beaker makes a space, it makes a place, it makes a temple just by being there. Locus iste, a deo factus est. “This is the place made by God as an inestimable sacrament, beyond reproach.” (Our Gradual anthem today.)

This is the place, this is the moment, the timeless now behind the changes and relocations, the constancy behind the relativities. This is what our epistle calls the single offering perfected for all time. This is the place where you can believe the completion of the promises, when you glimpse the full communion of the saints, and you touch the forgiveness of all sins, and you can taste the resurrection of the body.

In just a few moments the choir will sing about “the light born of light, Jesu, redeemer of the world.” You could translate the Latin as “Jesu, redeemer of the age.” This present age which seems to be getting worse as much as better. The world that is too much with us late and soon. Our business is constant but incomplete. So we gather every week to pray. We are supplicants, and we dare to hope that our prayers and praises will be heard.

We come in faith and hope that they are heard, but we do not know what God will do with them. We are used to that, that even makes sense to us, we’d actually rather it not be up to us what will be done with them. That’s why we give them up to God. We are stuck in all the relativities, and we would rather leave things with the Constancy.

But we don’t come here just to lose ourselves in mystery and wonder. As the epistle says, we keep on “meeting together to consider how to provoke one another to love and to good deeds.” That’s not bad. That gets real. Especially when our fear of terror and insecurity tempts us to abandon love as unrealistic and short-sighted. Do you know of any other organization in society which meets together every week in order to provoke one another to love and good deeds? Congregations do.

We come in and we go back out. We enter the timeless Constancy in order then to engage the passing relativities. You enter the light to serve in the shadows. You drink from the cup to pour yourself back out with good deeds and love. Love breathes in and love breathes out. There is a pulsing life within the universe, a great and constant life, whom we call God, the source of life, and the breathing of this God is love.

Copyright © 2015, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

November 1, All Dead and All Saints

Isaiah 25:6-9, Psalm 24, Revelation 21:1-6a, John 11:32-44

It’s a mystery to me why the resurrection of Lazarus is not reported in the other gospels, but only in John. It’s the quintessential miracle, and it also sets in motion the arrest and death of Jesus. So, did John make it up? Is it fiction?

I mean it was impossible, from what we know of biology, and from our experience of how the world works. Of course everyone in the story presupposed that too, and the point is that Jesus is that one guy who was able to defy the impossibility and the presuppositions of our experience and call how the world works into question.

We have here the power of life versus the power of death. Death always wins in the end, right? You can hold off death, but only for so long. If only Jesus had gotten there in time. But once death happens, it’s too late, it’s irreversible, there is no coming back. Everybody knows that. The people in the story knew that. Medicare knows that. Hospitals count on it. Life insurance companies literally count on it.

The Bible knows it too. Death is normal in the Bible. Once a Biblical character dies, she’s out of the story. Only twice in the Old Testament, and four times in the New Testament, is anyone dead raised back to life, and none of these are important characters whom we read about again, and they all must die again. Not counting Jesus. For everyone else, death always finally wins.

Most of the universe is dead. I mean that most of the known universe has physics and chemistry but not biology, and is inhospitable to life. There may be other planets where life occurs, but even then the amount of life within this universe is infinitesimally small. And it would seem that for life to survive on such planets, it can’t be just present, but must take the planet over, like on our own. It must occupy the planet and overpower those non-biological forces which prevail on inhospitable planets. Life has changed our planet to suit it, creating soil out of rock, and creating an atmosphere with its weather. Life has layered this planet with an amazing biodiversity of species and a synchronicity of ecosystems and sounds and smells and colors and wonders like spider webs and hummingbirds.

And now suddenly, in this last century, that biodiversity is catastrophically dying off, and in this most recent decade we can feel the weather losing its subtle synchronicity and for the first time we know of, we can feel the power of death increasing on this planet Earth, our island home, and it’s our fault.

We didn’t mean to do it. We were just trying to make life better. We started warming the globe in the last ice age. Our whole human civilization depends on generating fires and flames and sparks and electrical currents and we always meant well but now we’ve reached diminishing returns and it’s out of hand and now death is gaining power on this planet. And we feel it and we’re afraid.

Most of the universe is dead, biologically, but metaphorically it’s stupendously alive, if you think of light as having a life of its own. This universe is full of light. It’s altogether inhospitable to us, but we love it and rejoice in it and all its wonders. And even though you know that you have to die, and that death will finally overpower your life, you find that you can believe that behind this good and terrifying universe is a good God who enters into time and space, and seeks us out in it.

Okay, so you can believe in God, but then why should you believe in eternal life? To believe in God is the classic way to reckon with the mysteries of our experience of the natural universe, but why do we add this intrinsically unnatural belief in life after death? Why should Jesus call it “the glory of God,” that a dead human body, already stinking from decomposition, should be reversed in its natural entropy and brought back to life? Against the very laws of the universe as God created it.

Is this not a sign for us? Does this not give us hope for our planet? Does not the power of the resurrection call us to Christian witness on climate change and Christian action on fossil fuels? I believe so. God has put into our hands some power of life over death, but that power is for the good only if we use it for service and healing against our immediate gain and passing comfort.

Okay, I can believe in new life again, but Lazarus will die again, so why eternal life? There is no mention of it in the Old Testament. The Old Testament is against the notion from other religions that the human soul is naturally immortal. The Lazarus story argues against the immortality of the soul, for if the immortal soul of Lazarus had now reached its goal and entered the bliss of heaven, how could it be a good thing for Jesus to command that soul to enter back into the inevitable suffering of a mortal body? In the New Testament it’s not the immortality of the soul but “the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.” But still, I can believe in God, but why believe in this?

The “why” is because of the character of the God you believe in. This is a God who knows your name, and knows it forever. This is a God who knows your own personal story and regards it with timeless significance. This is a God who invests in you. This is a God who, well, loves you.

This is the God who created time and space, and who is unbounded by time and space and thus who loves each and every one of you beyond the limits of time and space. This is the God who imagined the universe and called it into being, and this is the God who holds your personalilty in her mind and can call you back into being. Suzy Smith, come out. Albert Luthuli, rise up. Kim Dae-jung, come out.

We do not hold these truths to be self-evident. They are impossible. They are not inconceivable, and they help to make sense of other things, but they do leave questions  we can’t answer and open us to greater mysteries. What will we be like? When the City of God comes down on earth, and God will dwell on earth, what will it be like to have a human body that will not die? How like, how different? 

Isaiah says that death will be swallowed up forever. What are we going to eat? Tofu? Manna? Isaiah envisioned a feast of well-aged wines and rich food filled with marrow. Bone marrow comes from killing animals. How will this work? We are given only glimpses of the life everlasting.

“Behold, I tell you a mystery.” How should it be otherwise, for God means us to be thoroughly invested in the world as we know it now. And yet at the same time we’re invited to see this world as open-ended, and having a truth beyond us that is the best truth for us. And the best we can know about this greater life is revealed to us and displayed to us in this person of Jesus of Nazareth. It is from him and only from him that you can extrapolate the resurrection of your body and your eternal life. From what happened to him, and from what he said and what he did. Like with Lazarus, not as the final proof, for Lazarus will die again, but from Lazarus as an invitation and a pledge.

So on the basis of that pledge I will repeat the names of some of our own saints from Old First. We remember them. Some of them we remember in our stained glass windows, some we remember on our communion silver, some we remember in our street names and subway stops, and some you can remember personally:
 Margrieta Van Varick,
 Paulus Dirksen,
 Anneken Hans,
 Sarah Rappalje,
 Fijtje Adams,
 Rem Remsen,
 Jacques Cortelyou,
 Tunis Bergen,
 Maria Baddia,
 Oscar Schenk,
 Mary Jane Gaul,
 James Lott,
 Theodore Mason,
 Margaret Spence,
 James Suydam,
 Henry Van Order,
 James Kissam,
 John Montrose Morris,
 Allen Hayes,
 Dorothy Fletcher,
 Vincent Walker,
 Veronica Ayers,
 Elisabeth Ochel,
 Ruth Fitch Wallace,
 Pat Caldwell.
 We remember these.

Altogether there’s about 4000 Old First saints, and only God remembers all of them. Well, more than remembers. Holds them in thought. Blesses them through death. Looks upon them in their future. Intends to love them forever, and love them so much as to share God’s own existence with them forever, whatever that existence might mean, and who knows.

But that’s what All Saints Day is about. Not about us. But about the love of God for us, and how vast and expansive and enduring and surpassing and sustaining and reviving is God’s love for you.

Copyright © 2015 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

October 25, Proper 25, You Can Do This #8: Practicing Generosity

Heidelberg Catechism 110-11, LD 42, Psalm 34:1-8, 19-22, Hebrews 7:23-28, Mark 10:46-52

“Don’t steal.” 

This episode in the Gospel of Mark takes place right before Palm Sunday. That’s the very next thing after this. Jericho is the final stop before you make the turn for the road up to Jerusalem. When the Lord Jesus makes this turn, there’s nowhere else for him to go.

The climax is coming. The procession is gathering. His followers expect him to show himself triumphantly now as the Messiah, the Son of David, going to set up his new government in Jerusalem, and kick out the Romans, and reinstate the Kingdom of God as a real live kingdom on earth. They can taste it, they want to see it.

There are details reported in this episode that you wonder how much to read into. Like the repetition of the blind man’s name: Bar-Timaeus, the son of Timaeus. Is the emphasis on his name because the name Timaeus is a Greek name? Does this imply his father was not a Jew? Does this mean he’d be uncertain of his welcome in the Kingdom of the Messiah?

Then there’s the movement in the titles by which Bartimaeus addresses Jesus. First he calls out to him as the “Son of David,” which is the political and Messianic title, when he cries out for mercy. Like, could the candidate please display with some royal charity his grand munificence? And maybe cut him a little slack when the Kingdom comes? But then when he gets his interview, he addresses Jesus as “my rabbi.” Why the lesser title?

Does this mean that if you want the Lord Jesus to be your Messiah, your savior, you must approach him as your teacher, so that from his teaching you can learn to see the Kingdom of God? Do you want to be able to see that too? Don’t you want to see the Kingdom of God, right now, in Brooklyn, in this church, in your own life?

Jesus says, “Your faith has saved you.” (Our NRSV translation missed it.) When he says “saved,” he doesn’t mean just getting well. He means more, that Bartimaeus is fully inside the Kingdom of God, he’s gotten on the bus. His faith was in his actions, his actions of calling out loudly and then getting up and casting off his cloak, casting away his long identity, his dependence on charity, and getting on the bus that Jesus was driving. Like you did this morning to get yourself here.

You came here today to see the Kingdom of God. And when you’re looking at things from within this kingdom, you have to look again, you have to “see again,” because now everything looks different than it did. It’s like in Harry Potter, where the wizards can see so much more in the world that ordinary muggles do. It’s like Dorothy going from the familiar black-and-white of Kansas to the shocking color of Oz. And would it not be wonderful to watch the World Series in 3-D?

What it means to be saved is to get on the magic bus that Jesus drives. That bus has magic 3-D windows, and when you look at all the scenery around you, everything ordinary has a whole new look. You can see the Kingdom of God in everything.

You’ve got to be on this bus in order to get the Eighth Commandment. Well, you don’t need the Kingdom of God to tell you not to steal. The laws of secular government tell you not to steal, as the Catechism reminds us. But the Catechism also says that for Christians, we have to obey this commandment a long ways past the negative prohibition into the positive practice of sharing. You’ve got to see this commandment in 3-D, because it’s not just about the goods that belong your neighbor, that they are not for you, but about the good life of your neighbor, which does belong to you.

The Catechism draws its expansive interpretation from what the Lord Jesus said in our Gospel lesson two weeks ago. That wealthy young man proudly said that he’d kept the commandment all his life, and then the Lord Jesus told him to sell it all and give the proceeds to the poor. And that means more than charity. That’s expensive generosity. That’s sharing enough that it will cost you.

Simple charity would leave Bartimaeus still begging on the roadside. Charity leaves the economic systems as they are. We’re talking about the Kingdom of God, and that means new rules, and seeing everything differently, and re-viewing everything. It means that every economic system is judged by the Kingdom of God.

Now it’s true that the New Testament never proposes an economic system. That’s not because economics is in a different realm than religion. No, the opposite. It’s because every economic system gets judged by the Kingdom of God. Especially on how the system treats the poor. Our various systems are the bus-stops, and the Kingdom of God is the bus.

Why does the driver keep stopping? For you to take a good look at the systems. But look, the driver keeps staring at the various individuals on the sidewalk? Why does he do that? The Epistle tells us why. He is praying for each one of them. The Son of God is making his intercessions for every one of them. We had better do that too.

And as we look at them on the sidewalk through our 3-D windows, we can see them in full perspective, where they came from, and what systems have disserved them and opposed them. The Catechism calls these systems the “schemes which are made to appear legitimate.” Slavery was legal in this boro for half our congregation’s history. Colonialism was legitimate foreign policy even into my childhood. Just because something is legal does not make it moral. The very things that make me richer and more comfortable can impoverish my neighbor.

In the economic order of the world today, we who do not steal personally, and who are even very generous individually, we participate in and even benefit from systems and structures and patterns that internationally are regarded as “legitimate” but which effectively “cheat and swindle” the more vulnerable populations of the world and “squander” the resources of this planet. I’m using the language of the Catechism, but I am looking through the bus window right behind Pope Francis.

So we passengers have to turn from our windows of perception and judgment and look back at the driver, and in his name be repentant of our share in the misery. “Son of David, have mercy on me.” And he intercedes for us. We have to accept his grace in order to live within our systems, but also accept his sight to witness to our systems, so that our wealth might be a common-wealth, for the good of the disadvantaged and the poor.

You Christians need to take a ride on this bus every once in a while, just in order to see again. But let’s get off it now and walk. Let’s talk about our walk and how we address the world each day.

We’re talking about regular charity, yes, and generosity, but more than that, sharing, and sharing so generously that it costs me. That takes faith, in the providence of God, because lots of black-and-white evidence is against it. Scarcity. Violence. There is powerful evil and sin and greed in the world, and most certainly that malice will take advantage of your generosity. If you share, you will be stolen from.

You have to be clear-eyed about the malice and exploitation. You have reason to be afraid. The Christian antidote to fear is not courage but faith. The Christian practice of sharing means opposing fear. The Christian practice of generosity means opposing defensiveness.

You don’t want to see through rose-colored glasses. I do not trust a one of those panhandlers on Seventh Avenue, all of whose names and stories I know. I don’t trust them but I do love them and I pray with them and give them a bit of change and I leave the results up to Jesus. So for your actions you can put your faith in the teaching of the Son of God, and for your security you put your faith in the providence of his Father that his teaching is grounded on.

And even though your generosity is might be resentful and your sharing half-hearted, what saves it for your conscience is your sometimes desperate faith in that greater generosity of Jesus that he shares with you. And when you act out of your faith, you can see again the Kingdom of God.

Richard Wilbur famously wrote that “love calls us to the things of this world.” That same love calls you to share the things of this world, because the world belongs to God, and God is love.

Copyright © 2015, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

October 18, Proper 24, You Can Do This #7: Practicing Fidelity

Heidelberg Catechism 108-9, Psalm 104:1-9, 25, 37b, Hebrews 5:1-10, Mark 10:35-45

“Don’t commit adultery.” 

Last year ago I was asked by a respectable colleague how I could be orthodox and yet justify same-sex marriages. I told him I had a number of reasons, but my clincher was the old Reformed Church liturgy for matrimony.

It’s a very simple service. It’s basically the vows, scripture, and the prayers. In the Reformed Church, marriage is not a sacrament, but a free covenant which gets celebrated by the church and blessed by God. In the Reformed liturgy, I actually don’t marry the couple. I just “pronounce” them married and bless them. They marry each other, and that by means of their vows.

There are two sets of vows, the legal and the sacred. The first set are the “I do” vows, the legal vows of consent. The second set are the sacred vows of marriage: “I X take you Y to be my wedded wife / husband, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish till death us do part. And thereto I pledge myself, truly with all my heart.”

It is making those vows that forges the marriage, and it is living those vows that carries the marriage through the years. So what I told my colleague was that I realized that those exact vows could be said by two men to each other, or by two women, and since it’s those vows that make marriages, those vows and marriages I could celebrate and bless.

I’m not so compelled by "traditional" marriage. Traditional marriage is an exchange of a woman as a possession between two men, often for compensation, and on behalf of the clan. “Who gives this woman to be married to this man!” For centuries now marriage has been evolving among us, driven by our desire for freedom and equality. The more freedom and equality we have, the weaker the strictures of clan, or social class, or gender, and so the more important are the vows.

I tell you all this by way of illustration. Because for gospel people, especially, marriage is not about clan, or class, or property, or even really about sex. Marriage is about two people looking each other in the eye and making vows, and those vows are pledged by the whole of yourself. What that requires most of all is fidelity. And what fidelity gets expressed by is practicing chastity.

The Heidelberg Catechism is right, but only so far as it goes, and it doesn’t go far enough. It says that what the Seventh Commandment means for us is chastity, which it does, but I’m saying that even more it means fidelity. Faithfulness. Trust. Mind to mind, soul to soul.

So yes, committing adultery is unchastity, but more important is that it’s infidelity. Because it’s living your vow that makes your marriage. The sex you have is the illustration and celebration of your vow. Sex is very powerful and what makes sex safe is the safety and security of your vow. If you break your vow, you are being unfaithful in many ways, not only to your spouse in body and in soul, but also unfaithful to your children, and unfaithful to the public that witnessed your vow, and unfaithful to God, in whose name you made your vow, and unfaithful even to yourself.

Chastity is the physical expression of fidelity. Chastity in marriage expresses fidelity to your spouse. And chastity in singleness is fidelity to yourself. You can be single. You can be single and whole and complete. You can be single and have your physical integrity. You don’t need to lose yourself or try to find yourself in somebody else’s body. You can be faithful to yourself.

St. Paul wrote in First Corinthians that he wished we all were single. This was remarkable for a Jew. In Genesis, at creation, the male and female couple was the image and likeness of God. But in the new creation, in Christ, the image of God is Jesus, a single man. His being a male was for the sake of his royal inheritance. His maleness was not for the sake of his sexual expression. This is big.

If you are in Christ, your married state is temporary, “till death do you part.” Your eternal state will be as single. And this carries through into our lives now. For Christians, to be good at being married you need to be good at being single.

Those of us who got married young have had to learn this along the way. If you are not able to be single, to be by yourself, to be able to be alone, then your marriage is co-dependent. To stand on your own is to be free, and it’s from freedom that the best vows come. When you vow to your spouse out of your freedom and not of your neediness, then you can be the best helpmeet for your spouse. So this seventh commandment is for couples, but even more it’s for you as individuals.

If we’d had this commandment two weeks ago, the gospel lesson for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost would have steered this sermon toward the issues of divorce and remarriage. But our lessons for today are taking us towards how to keep faithful in relationships in general, especially when we fall in our relationships.

Jesus says to his two disciples, do you think you can drink from the same cup that I do, and take the same bath I have to take? They say, “Oh yes we can.” And of course they don’t, they will desert him, they fail the relationship, they are unfaithful. And yet Jesus promises that they will drink from his cup and bathe with him, but he means the cup of his blood and reconciliation and the baptism of his death and resurrection. He means that his faithfulness will reclaim them and restore them. Time and again. Against our failures and infidelities is the promise of God’s grace. You can live in that. And living in that, you can share that. You can do that.

The practice of fidelity means practicing putting trust in other people. It means relationships of trust. As you engage the world, as you walk your way through time, as you deal in all your relationships, you deal in trust. With some relationships fidelity, but with all relationships some trust. And what comes with trust is risk. Not only because other people are free, and they have the right to their own interests, but also because other people are as fallen as you are, and you all fall short of your best intentions and you all have your own little infidelities.

You will betray the trust of others and others will betray your trust. Now some people are so damaged or so bent that you had better not trust them at all. But your default desire is restore your trust and rebuild relationships. So it’s not so much that you’re always having to forgive each other. It’s more that you offer each other a constant state of grace. You trust each other precisely in your weaknesses and failures and disappointments. You are there for each other at your worst as much as at your best. For better, for worse is as much for your relationships in general as it is for marriages.

It’s a good thing that Christian perfection is not static but dynamic and restorative. We see this in the Lord Jesus. Our epistle lesson says that he learned perfection through his obedience. Because the obedience of Jesus was never a legal obedience of toeing the line, but an obedience of relationship, his relationship of loving his Father and serving his God.

That included risk, and silences, and God not rescuing him, and at the cross his Father turning away from him. He was tempted and tested in the relationship, and it cost him loud cries and tears and agonies. Like at times in marriage. Yet he stayed faithful.

And this is hope for your marriages and for your interpersonal relationships. You are constantly perfecting your relationships like works of art, building into their final beauty all your failures and scars and your mutual disappointments and how you rebuild your trust.

It’s a work of the Holy Spirit. In the last third of the Apostles Creed you will say that you believe in the communion of saints. And with that comes the forgiveness of sins. To have communion with each other means to practice forgiveness. But communion precedes forgiveness because the practice comes out of the reality already given to you by the Holy Spirit, the state of grace in which you stand and the habit of grace that you share with those whom you want to love.

So then, the physical and emotional expression is chastity, the discipline is fidelity, the state you are in and the space you share is grace, and the energy and goal is love, the love that the Holy Spirit brings to you from God.

Copyright © 2015, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.