Thursday, May 18, 2017

May 21, Easter 6, Volunteer Sunday: Eager to Do Good


1 Peter 3:13-22, John 14:15-21


If you love me, you will keep my commandments. A well-known statement of Jesus to his disciples the night before he died. Less well known is that opening statement from the First Epistle of Peter: Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? The two statements in combination are my topic today.

But first let me thank The Stone House Singers for helping us celebrate our volunteering. Now you singers are not paid, correct? You are all volunteers, right? Not me. I get paid for this. How do you like it that I who am preaching the sermon on volunteering am also the one person in the room who isn’t doing it?

Do you consider the Lord Jesus a volunteer? Did he get paid for being Messiah? We know that St. Paul was a volunteer—he earned his keep by making tents. St. Peter seems to have gotten a stipend when he got promoted from disciple to apostle, but I’m guessing the readers of his epistle were volunteers. Like you all. So let me thank you, today especially Phil, Michael, Jenn, Dave, Jessica, Pete, Karen, and all of you, all of you because you are here today voluntarily.

The Christian faith, at its heart, is voluntary. Because it appeals to belief it requires freedom, not compulsion. It’s based on choice, not coercion. On attraction, not fear. The church has no police. Our only form of penalty is to keep you from communion, which most people do without anyway, so what use is that? The church assumes free will, volition, from the Latin voluntas, voluntatis, voluntate, voluntarily. Every Sunday is a volunteer Sunday. To keep you all volunteering is what I get paid for.

Which does take some doing, even though you all know that what you get back from your volunteering more than compensates for what you put into it.  And even though you understand the fulfillment and the satisfaction of having done something that costs you, it does cost you. Maybe time away from your family. Time away from your own pursuits that no one else looks after but yourself. Time away from your own self-care.

In our modern democratic culture the cost of your religion is rarely other than an opportunity cost. Your choosing for one thing reduces your opportunity to do something else as well. But you know there have been many times when your religion might cost you life and limb and many places where to support a church results in discrimination and even persecution. Your voluntary choice for church is also a choice for suffering, not suffering as a desirable but suffering as inevitable.

For us, supporting the church has cultural advantages and is regarded as respectable. It offers good programs and I don’t have to list them. But in the time of St. Peter’s epistle, the church had no programs besides its weekly gathering, and in the surrounding culture it was not respectable and it brought you disadvantages and social penalties.

So it’s a real question that the epistle opens with, it’s not rhetorical. Let me translate it extremely literally: “Now who is the one who will be harming you if you are zealous for the good?” Because you will be harmed! Maybe not in a religiously neutral situation like our own, but in a situation when your religion is not respectable, or even illegal, you will be harmed for doing good, especially when the good you do is to counter the prevailing power that maintains its power by doing harm. All governments are violent, all of them. Some less than others, but all of them. All governments lie, some less than others. Yet even when they lie, you be eager to tell the truth. Even when they are violent, you be eager to wage peace. And when they do harm, you be eager to do good.

One of the ways of doing good is the contribution of your voluntary time to the alternative community of the church. Now there are many free-will communities in the culture for you to contribute your voluntary time to. They have their value. Choirs. The Park Slope Civic Council. Alumni associations. Sports clubs. I’m on the board of my housing co-op. But there is only one kind of voluntary association that I know of the only purpose of which is goodness itself, the source of goodness, the extension of goodness, and the maintenance of goodness against evil.

There is only one voluntary association I know of that trains you to head towards suffering, be that your own or someone else’s. There is only one voluntary association I know of for training in transforming love, transcendent love. This training in transcendent love makes use of many different exercises and fitness routines, and these are the volunteer jobs in a church, all the various kinds of service, all different aspects and expressions that woven together make up the complexity of love. That is what you are volunteering for, from coffee to counting money to serving communion, to train yourself in practical love and to contribute to a community witnessing to transcendent love.



If you love me you will keep my commandments. As typical in John’s gospel it can be taken different  ways. The verb forms allow all of indicative, subjunctive, and imperative, yielding an if-then condition either present-imperative or future-probable or maybe intentionally both. If ye love me, keep my commandments. If you are loving me you will be keeping my commandments.

I confess that loving Jesus has always felt awkward to me. I have no difficulty in loving God simply as God, but loving Jesus means also loving God as a human being, and loving a human being implies affection, but how can I feel affection for a human being at such a great remove in time and space? God as God I feel so close to, and my love of God is not about affection. So how do I love Jesus? If not by affection, then by action? By keeping his commandments? Okay, and what are his commandments? That we love. It’s circular, which is also typical of John. We love by keeping his commandments and we keep his commandments by loving.



My granddaughter is old enough now to be done with singing that Barney song, “I love you, you love me, we’re a happy family.” It isn’t just any love that you practice here. I call it transcendent love because it is the love between God the Father and God the Son, and I call it transforming love that God took on our suffering in Jesus-being-eager to do good to those who harmed him, and I call it voluntary love because you do it in freedom. You choose for that love voluntarily behind its various manifestations in the down-to-earth realities of the congregation. You are eager for this love. You are eager to do good precisely against all the harm being done in the world. You are eager for love.

Copyright © 2017 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

May 14, Easter 5, Believing Is Living on the Boundary


Acts 7:55-60, Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16, 1 Peter 2:2-10, John 14:1-14

“If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.” That’s quite a promise. Do you believe him? It’s from that promise that Christians typically end our prayers with such phrases as “in Jesus’ name” and “for Jesus’ sake.” It’s a promise we keep acting on, even when we do not see the proof of it or even an outcome. It’s a challenge as much as it’s a promise, isn’t it, to ask beyond our comprehension.

We Christians are expected to believe what we cannot comprehend. We are expected to talk about what we do not understand. We are challenged to know what we cannot explain. We are invited to go where we do not know the way, and even to want to go to we-don’t-know-where. All of this is included in believing. This is what agnostics feel they cannot do, at least for themselves, and what atheists feel no one should do, and we are fools for doing so.

Being a believer keeps you living right up against a boundary, a boundary on your knowledge and your certainty, a boundary of which there is another side. On this side of the boundary is our general common knowledge, with the predictability of nature and the availability of contentment and the reward of ease, provided you are privileged and lucky. Ease of knowledge, ease of proof, ease of self-examination, ease of contentment, ease is the ideal and possession is the proof, as long as your luck holds out. A non-believer is someone who believes the boundary is absolute, that there is nothing on the other side.

A believer lives on both sides of the boundary. We are firmly on this side in body and in soul, but we also traffic on the other side, the uneasy side, the side you can’t possess, the side of promises and visions and ethical challenges. Here are the things we don’t understand but talk about, here is what we can’t explain but yet we know, here is what we can’t comprehend but still believe, here is where we go though we do not know the way, and where we are welcome without possessing it.

The other side of the boundary is not an escape. It’s not an other-world, it’s not just heaven, the heaven that Stephen could suddenly see into as he approached the boundary of his death. Unless it’s the heaven not of mythology but of the Bible—heaven as the unseen reality pressing down upon us, heaven starting just above the ground and then heaven all the way up and all the way down again. The boundary is not across space or time but through the will, and the open welcome of the heart.

The other side of the boundary is not some other world but the spirituality of this world, it’s the transcendence of the very ground we live on. The promises and visions and ethical challenges on the other side are for this side to open up. Those promises and visions both confirm and challenge our possession and contentment on this side, whether for healing or revolution or both. What on this side you think of as firm and solid as rock is seen from the other side as living stones, appointed for praise beyond themselves. If you’re a believer you live on both sides of the boundary. And what on the other side you cannot possess is what gives you hope beyond hope for the ground on this side.

The boundary is through your heart, and your heart may be troubled, like the disciples in the gospel story. They felt that the Lord Jesus had drawn them up to the boundary, and now he’s going to cross it and leave them behind. “Where you going? We don’t know the way!” Can’t you just once right here show us The Father, and we shall be satisfied! The gospel writer had us in mind when he wrote this, for the absence of Jesus that they feared is the absence of Jesus in our ordinary experience.

There is a purpose to his absence though. The purpose is that we look back at ourselves, that we engage ourselves on this side of the boundary, that our belief about the other side affects how we perceive ourselves right here. We are invited to believe that we stand for Jesus as God’s presence in the world. Not that we are now the savior, not that we are God incarnate now, certainly not that we are the Lord, but that we are the living presence of God in the world. Where God was present in a person God is now present in a people. And now we are God’s people!

The Lord Jesus tells us, through the disciples, that he’s crossed the boundary to empower our lives on this side of it, and we need to come to terms with ourselves, and our status and powers and prerogatives and responsibilities. “Ask anything in my name. Greater works will you do.” 

Extravagant entitlements, and rightfully doubtful to critique from on this side, and doubtful to ourselves, unless we judge ourselves by what he tells us about ourselves from the other side. We have to believe about ourselves what he tells us about ourselves, and then let him make it of us.

Most religions provide some certainties and monuments on this side of the boundary. Temples are built for the gods to be accessible to visitors, with their images and sacrifices and oracles, priests and priestesses inhabiting monuments of polished stone. But what a strange new faith was this one, whose converts had no such things, and why the Romans considered them atheists.

The church had no priests and they possessed no buildings of their own. Their only sacrifices were ethical, their only oracles were their intercessions, and their only images were love. To the Romans it looked like just an exalted view of ordinary life, plus all the improbables these people believed.

St. Peter in his epistle appeals to this temple language to teach the scattered little congregations in Asia Minor to see themselves as more than just gatherings of exiles and outsiders, but actually as the location of God’s saving presence in the world. That just as the Spirit of God came down upon the Temple of Solomon, and just as the Holy Spirit rested upon the Lord Jesus, so the Holy Spirit of God, not just a third of God but the soul of God, the full and inner self of God, the vitality of God, the Holy Spirit of God rests upon this congregation to be fully present in the world.

We might rather have God present in the world in a fashion less ambiguous, less tainted by our human weakness and less compromised by the sins of the church. More miraculous, more distinct from human experience, more impressive to the world, and sufficiently discernible from this side of the boundary without belief.

That would be the way of prestige and possession, but not be the way of sacrifice and love. That would not be the way of the God whose greatest work in all the world was to yield to us upon the cross, to yield to us at our very worst. It’s a remarkable extension of that same radical love that God should submit to us to be present in the world.

This has meaning for our congregation of Old First. Our mission is to be a community of Jesus, to worship God, to love God and our neighbors. But also our mission is to exhibit the presence of God within the world, to display it and declare it, by our doing and our saying and our singing, and even by just our believing.

You know people who are content to stay within the boundary and have no interest of the other side. But you know people who feel the pressure of the boundary and its restriction, and they long for openness and something more, for comfort and for challenge, for revolution, for healing, for hope beyond hope within this life.

Tell them, tell them what you believe. You don’t have to prove it, you can’t prove it, don’t bother. Just report to them what you hope for and what you sing about, because just within your simple believing God is present in the world, and just in your telling, the love of God is flowing through you out to them. You are how God has chosen to love the world.

Copyright © 2017 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

Guest Post: Why I Volunteer, by Phil Alexander










I was asked to serve on the 2nd Mission Committee by Pastor Meeter. That committee, as you may know, is dedicated to creating adult education programs for the congregation and the community.
Well, I don't know if it was kismet or fate or the Holy Spirit, but I told Pastor Meeter, “You don't know how perfect I am for this job.” He didn't know at the time I had a lot of professional experience creating professional development programs for adults.
On the committee, I got the chance to work with a few members of the congregation, and develop friendships, pray together, and to find a new way to put faith in action.
But I'm not here to speak about the benefits that I experienced while volunteering. I want to look at the topic of talent. Last time, Jessica Stockton Bagnulo spoke about us giving of our treasure, time, and talents to the church. I found that because my volunteering aligned so easily with my talents, it was easy to give of my time.
So, I'd like you to think about what talents you have that you can contribute to the congregation. What are the things that you can do that might help this church move forward? Do you have specific skills in writing, or numbers, or organization that might be of use? Or, are there any under-developed talents that you're looking to grow?

I'm sure there are enough jobs to do that a place could be found for you. And if you focus on what your talents are, you might just have as a rewarding experience as I've had. Thank you.

Monday, May 08, 2017

Guest Post: Why I Volunteer, by Michael Bagnulo


I have been asked to speak about why I volunteer at Old First, keeping in mind the theme of Volunteer Sunday: “Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good?” (! Peter 3:13)

Let me start by describing what I do as a volunteer. I am one of the many volunteers that support our summer shelter program. For several years now, Old First has served as a summer respite shelter for homeless men. 

During the summer months, when the city is certain that leaving folks unsheltered will not lead to freezing deaths and bad press, a significant portion of the city shelter system shuts down. Civilian organizations, like Old First and the non-profit organization CAMBA, step up to fill this gap in service.

For a few months, we provide dinners and beds for homeless men currently working their way through CAMBA’s housing program. We do this every weeknight, throughout the season. We get somewhere between seven and fourteen men each night. Volunteers greet them, feed them, keep them safe through the night, and see them off again in the morning.

We do this with the generous support of other congregations and non-religiously affiliated volunteers. The volunteer crew has included artists and bankers, cooks and scholars, religious leaders and atheists, grandparents and school children. The shelter clients range from their early 20s to nearly 80. They include construction workers and shop clerks, custodians and the unemployed, parents and runaways, and at least one painter.

My short path to working for the respite shelter began with an experiment in charity. I won’t go into the Biblical and personal inspirations for the particular experiment, but a few years back I decided that I would always carry change in my pocket and I would, without hesitation or consideration, give money to anybody who asked for it. I would not judge the stories I was given. I would not turn away people who, given the circumstances, were certainly lying to me. I would not attempt to evaluate the legitimacy of the need of the person asking. I would just say yes. I would just give them some of what I had.

Obviously, this small experiment has not ended poverty and want in the city. I have no idea – no way of even guessing – what impact this has had on the people who have asked me for money. I will say, however, that it has had an impact on me. Essayist Erik Reece writes that the critical impulse is a byproduct of the Fall. He states that, before the Fall, Adam and Eve engaged the world around them through creative giving. Mirroring the Creator who gave life to everything, Adam and Eve gave names to everything. It was only after eating the forbidden fruit that they began to understand aspects of the world around them as good or evil. That’s much too philosophical for me to unpack, but I do take this away: We were fully human and giving before we ever got into the business of judging. I decided that, to the best of my ability, I’d try to commit to a relationship of giving and charity as my default position. I’d commit to giving and could work out the details later.

I was well into this experiment, when I was approached by Cynthia and Daniel to help with the shelter. I was hesitant at first. There was a valid political criticism of the summer shelter program: it could be argued that, by covering the gap in shelter coverage, we were enabling the government to shirk what should be their year-round responsibility to shelter these men. I was also sympathetic to those who envisioned that we would be turning our sanctuary into some Dickensian holding tank for the hopeless.

I discovered that the reality of the program in no way matches this Jacob Riisian nightmare – but how would you know at first, if you’d never seen the shelter program in action? Finally, there’s the obvious jealousy I think we all feel about whatever sliver of time is left to us when every other demand takes its cut. I’ve never met a person who actually suffers from having too much time on their hands.

But, in keeping with the personal experiment that I was already running, I decided that I would commit to volunteering first and worry about the details later. A year later, as we look at another season, I’ve re-committed to volunteering again.

Why? First, if there’s something liberating about embracing the logic of the gift in your approach to others. There’s a freedom in not having to play the judge. This feeling is strengthened in me when the focus of the relationship is food and shelter. Every Sunday, we are asked to give money as a symbol of our bodies, our labor. And it is good and right to do so. But I can’t help but feel that there’s something pure about taking the symbolism out of the equation. Give food to a hungry person. Give a tired wanderer a safe place to rest. And do it solely because they showed up at your door hungry and tired. So little of my work-a-day week makes that much sense. The simplicity of it is truly a blessing.

Second, it serves as a strong bond to my faith. Participating in this shelter program was a lesson in God’s love, Jesus’s love. It isn’t an accident that feasts and food feature so prominently in the Bible, are an aspect of so many divine miracles. Brecht writes, “First bread, then morals.” Any of the shelter clients and the shelter volunteers can tell you that the playwright is making an unnecessary and erroneous distinction. Feeding the hungry is always a moral exercise. A slice of bread is a moral fact. A clean bed is a concrete statement of how you value your fellow man.

This is, I think, the explanation for why, strangely, Old First’s shelter has a curious reputation for being the gourmet client’s shelter of choice. Our food here is, I’m told, unusually good, as far as the shelters go. I submit that this is because it is reflection of us at our best.

Which leads us to my third and final reason for volunteering. Free food. And its usually pretty good. Last year, we had at least one professional chef on the team. So that’s some no-joke good food. Just saying.

I volunteer because it is where I put to test the proposition that a loving God made a good world and find, again and again, the proposition holds. I thank Cynthia and Daniel for the invitation to this experience. I thank the other volunteers who have kept the program going. I thank Jabe, who is leading the effort this coming summer. And I give thanks to everybody at Old First who supported this wonderful thing we do.


This is not necessarily my pitch for why you should join us on the shelter team - though you should, we’d love to have you. What I do recommend, from my own experience, is putting the adopting a attitude of giving towards the world. Commit to volunteer before you sweat the details. Volunteer, and see where it leads you.

Thursday, May 04, 2017

May 7, Easter 4: Believing Is Suffering As Action


Acts 2:42-47, Psalm 23, 1 Peter 2:19-25, John 10:1-10

Last Sunday I said that when St. Peter gave his speech to the crowd in Jerusalem, about the injustice done to Jesus and their implication in its evil, they were “cut to the heart,” and they called out, “What shall we do?” 

So think about speeches to the crowds in history, by Mark Antony or Robespierre or Mussolini or a recent presidential candidate, when the crowd gets angry and even violent. “Lock her up,” throw them out, rise up against Pontius Pilate, overturn the Temple. But this time, instead of an angry mob, we get a new community of mutual welcome and radical hospitality.

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” Fellowship. The Greek word is koinonia, which you can also translate as communion, community, commonality. This first community of Jesus was very communal: they “had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” Radical hospitality, a way of life expressing the sort of believing that is welcoming, a believing that opens your heart as much as your mind. This practice of radical hospitality is what believing in Jesus should look like.

 Their primitive communism was a wonder and a sign. It was not meant as a law for all of us for all of time. It was a special sign and wonder to recapitulate the temporary communism of the Children of Israel when they were gathered at Mount Sinai, even while the promise of the Torah was that in the Promised Land everyone would enjoy their own private property.

So the apostles did not enjoin this temporary communism on their later congregations. How could they, when their converts were often women who had no right to property and slaves who had no right to themselves! The most they could share was their presence at worship, if they could risk getting away for a couple hours once a week at night. Their inability to contribute any more than that was part of their suffering.

Even for that first church in Jerusalem the suffering began soon enough. Chapter 5 reports that some people lied about their donations. Then the apostles were imprisoned and flogged. Chapter 6 reports dissension in the congregation over who got more food, and then with the stoning of Stephen the rest of the city rose up in rage against them, and the Christians had to flee Jerusalem, and the new sign and wonder was holding up in peace and love while under persecution.

So in his first epistle, when St. Peter wrote about enduring pain while suffering for doing good, he knew of what he wrote. Otherwise it’s unattractive what he wrote, and it’s been taken to suggest passivity and surrender in the face of trouble. Like sheep. And if Jesus is such a good shepherd, then why am I suffering? And frankly I do not want to endure pain while suffering unjustly. Neither do you. Either you want to ease the pain or stand up and fight back against the injustice.

But in fact the epistle is describing something active. It was addressed to women who had no legal rights against their unbelieving husbands and were forced to submit to things against their will. It was addressed to the converts who were slaves, of which there were some number. They were not field slaves, and not abused as badly as our American slaves, nor did they suffer the added cruelty of racism, but they still were slaves, with no right to their own lives. And their love of Jesus gave them no advantages, only disadvantages.

So just their living as Christians as best they could was not passivity but daring activity, even just going to church. The pain and suffering that St. Peter addresses is the by-product of doing the right thing in a tough spot, of voluntarily doing the right thing with no hope of reward or recognition but maybe punishment. This takes moral courage, especially to not fight back, to not retaliate in kind, unless you consider it fighting back when you just keep doing the right thing time and time again.

First Peter calls us to follow Christ as an example—the Christ who was willing to go all the way to his death on the cross. It’s not that our suffering is good or redemptive. Suffering is bad, yet we should not walk away from suffering, but enter into it with freedom and purpose and love.

Because if you walk in love you will get extra suffering. If you walk in love you will eventually meet the resistance and opposition of the powers of the world, because their power is built on possession, not on love. And if you walk in love, you will develop extra sensitivities, and the suffering of others will touch you more and more.

The call of First Peter is a call to action, not passivity. But you can’t free others from suffering without having to suffer some yourself. You can’t free others from abuse without it costing you. I believe you know this, and yet you want to live this way anyway. You want to live this way because this is what you believe.

Christ is the example but more than an example. He went through the doorway of this cross to his resurrection, and he lives. He is actively the shepherd and guardian of your souls. What First Peter means by “soul” is not a disembodied spirit, but your personality, your mind, your emotions, your vitality, your breath, your life itself. He is the living guardian of your life and your vitality.

As your shepherd and guardian he does not spare you from suffering, because death is real, and the shadow of death is scary, but his love is stronger than death, and he gets you through each next valley of the shadow of death, partly by his Holy Spirit in you and partly by means of your belief, by your just being aware of him, and that awareness can sustain you. 

He doesn’t spare you from enemies, but he sets a table before you in the presence of your enemies, and the power of your enemies does not extend to forcing you not to love. We prefer to share our table among other nice believers like ourselves, like in that first church in Jerusalem, in mutual hospitality, but we are called to extend a table to people who want to be your enemies, in radical hospitality and supernatural welcome.

This model of fellowship is a vision not just for the church but for how human beings should be behaving in the world. Of course it is opposed by the powerful, and it takes belief to do it, because there is so much history to suggest that the way to power and success is consumption, aggression, defensiveness, possession, and legitimated violence, and so much expert analysis to back it up. You have to endure all that to still believe, you have to suffer all that to still believe and still to love.

Last week I said that believing begins in your heart before it gets to your head. It begins in your heart and it rises into your head and then it shines out of your eyes when you look at other people and you believe in them. I said that because believing is from your heart it is a kind of welcoming, when you welcome the testimony of a witness or welcome the good news. And then I said that because believing is from your heart it desires action. 

Well, then, is it any wonder that the very first action of the Christian community was welcome, hospitality, fellowship, sharing bread, distributing your wealth as all have need? Yes it is a wonder, it is a wonder and a sign of what God is like and how God behaves in the world. When you share in this community of Jesus you are sharing in the acted-out testimony of God’s love for the world and God’s great and unfailing love for you.

Copyright © 2017 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.