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.