Thursday, November 16, 2017

November 19, Space, Practice, Vision #11: The Space of God in Time

Judges 4:1-7,
Psalm 123,
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11,
Matthew 25:14-30

Parable of the Talents
window at Old First
Reformed Church

Chapter 25 of Matthew concludes the last public speech of the Lord Jesus before he gets arrested—like a commander giving his last speech to his troops before they enter into battle and maybe die. The conclusion of this speech takes the form of three last parables.

 You heard the first one last week, the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins. Today you heard the Parable of the Talents, and next week you will hear the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats.

All three parables are about the coming of the king, however that will be, whenever that will be. “Like a thief in the night,” says St. Paul in First Thessalonians, in real human time, but not on anyone’s calendar. Like a bridegroom suddenly arriving, like a master suddenly returning. For five of the virgins it’s the wedding feast and for two of the slaves it’s the joy of their master, but for the other five virgins and the third slave it’s the outer darkness, with weeping and gnashing of teeth.

That does not mean hell or torture, but it does mean exclusion. Weeping and gnashing of teeth mean grief with anger, that you’re hurt, but you’re mad too. Yes, you blew it, but you maintain it was a set-up, that it was unfair from the start. You blew it, but you blame the other virgins who did not share their oil, or the master who you predicted would be harsh. You’re out and it’s their fault that you’re out.

This is the paradoxical experience of God that runs through the Bible. You will experience God as harsh if you see God as harsh. You might even want God to be harsh. But if you want God to be gracious you will experience God as gracious and even generous. So do so. The parable is the invitation. And if you see God in the way that Jesus does, then you need not fear what is unknown, you can handle all the great unknowns of time and space, even general and special relativity.

You don’t know the time that he is coming, so how do you act in the meantime? If you’re one of the virgins, you keep your lamps trimmed and you get spare oil, to be ready no matter how late he comes and even if you fall asleep. If you’re one of the slaves, you use the time and freedom that he gives you to buy and sell, make money, invest money, make more money, exposing yourself to risk, just as your master exposed himself to risk when he left his wealth with you!

A talent was a monetary unit like a million bucks, a fortune, really. That the master left you with five million or two million or even one million, and went a way and did not supervise you, confirms that the master understands risk. And if you can bet on him, then you can bet on his millions. If you bet on him being generous, you will find him generous. But if you presume against his generosity and expect him to be harsh, then you will find him harsh. Yes, the paradoxical experience of God.

If the slaves experienced their master so differently, I wonder how differently they experienced the passing of the time that their master was away, the long time, the weeks and months and maybe years. I know that I am risking the error of psychologizing this parable anachronistically, but I would imagine the two slaves regarding the long time of their master’s absence as positive, a good space of time, and the more time they had, the more they could risk; the more time they had, the greater their return. But for the third slave the time will have been empty and even a trial. Just reckoning for inflation, his static money would decrease in value. Worse, his time spent in passive waiting was empty time, and his time spent in fear of his master was negative time, even bad time.

There are different conceptions of time embedded in the Bible. The Egyptians and Babylonians regarded time as an endless repetition, an endless cycle of birthing and dying, like the Hindu wheel of karma. The Israelites thought of time more like a stream, a wave that we ride, a river that courses toward the goal God set for it. Like in the hymn by Isaac Watts: “Time like an ever-rolling stream bears all its sons away.”

We moderns, however, think of time in terms of space, Cartesian space like in geometry, and we draw time-lines running from left to right, all in order, date by date. Since Einstein, however, we’ve begun to think of time as relative, flexible, warped, and curved, as curved as space itself, but still very spacious.

So I want you to think about time as a kind of space of unconditional welcome that God has given to us. I want you to think about time and space as the room God makes for you within the universe for our human creativity and our cultural investment and your personal development and our congregational mission.

We are thinking about time because this is the Sunday that we choose to mark our anniversary, our 363rd trip around the sun since our church was established in 1654, thirty years before that communion beaker was given as a gift to the church. That beaker is 333 years old.

When I came here in 2001 a couple of our leaders said we had a window of only five years left before we might have to call it quits. We are much more positive about our time now. How much time do we have before us? Can this church endure in witness and mission until Our Lord returns? Maybe yes, but not by holding on. That’s the third slave. Rather by risking, investing, and expending.

First, in our programs that express our mission to our piece of the world. And if we see the world in terms of daylight and not darkness, we can discern, as Melody said last, that already the bridegroom comes among us now. Second, in our building that presents our witness and programs to the world. Third, and most of all, by risking, investing, and expanding in our relationships, as St. Paul writes in First Thessalonians, encouraging one another and building each other up, as indeed you are doing.

First Thessalonians is the earliest written epistle of St. Paul. At this point St. Paul expects the Lord Jesus to be returning soon, within his life-time. His later epistles show that he had come to terms with the delay of Our Lord’s return, and this developed appreciation for the spaciousness of God’s time went along with a developed realization of the wideness of Our Lord’s true significance.

At first the apostles saw him as the one to return the kingdom to Israel. Step by step the Holy Spirit taught them that Samaritans and Ethiopians and even Roman soldiers could have him as their Lord and Savior too. The longer the Lord delayed, the more their witness could expand. Eventually, by the epistles to the Ephesians and Colossians, St. Paul reckoned how global and cosmic the Lordship of Jesus was, so that the delay of his return was not a delay but a wonderful openness to time and space, for expansion and investment in all the nations and persons of the world, including you.

To invest in the market means lots of loss as well as gain. That’s the risk. And so this expansion and investment has never not been unopposed, resisted, and rejected. And this can be worst among those who spout the name of Jesus, from the false apostles who opposed St. Paul to Christian politicians in America today. This problem is addressed by our parable next week, when the goats will be surprised at the judgment against them and cry out, “Lord, Lord, when did we see you poor, and hungry, and in prison?” The kingdom of heaven expands and invests not by noble evolution but in weeping repentance and laughing conversion. And so too with your own personal development.

The two slaves bet on their master’s graciousness if their investments didn’t pan out. They bet that when he came back he would honor that they dared to trust in his decency. Their investment of his money was their investment in their own future with him. They had no proof of either result, that their money would double, or that their master would honor their attempt, but they took the risks of hope and faith. The Lord Jesus says that this is what it’s like with God.

The third slave did not risk his master’s decency. He felt himself prudent, but his prudence only served his fear. His fear prevented his opening to joy—at the end, but also all along. His final outer darkness was the expansion of his inner darkness all along, his distrust and his alienation. He should get himself a gun.

But the joy that the first two entered as their reward was the expansion of the excitement of the risky commerce they’d been conducting all along. You exercise your faith to live creatively in joy. It is a life of risky vulnerability, but it is an open life, a spacious life. Against your fear you wear the helmet of your hope of salvation, and to protect your vulnerability you wear the breastplate of faith and love. The Lord Jesus says that this is what it’s like with God, and that’s because your faith is the faithfulness of God and your love is the love of God for you and all the world.

Copyright © 2017 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

November 12, Consecration Sunday: Stay Woke!

Sermon by Rev. Melody Meeter

Matthew 25:1-13, and Psalm 78:1-7

“Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” How do you stay awake? How do you stay woke, as Dick Gregory, of blessed memory, comedian and political activist, would put it. If being awake is another way of saying be prepared, what does that mean?  If you see something say something? Take your handgun to church?  Issue machine guns to our deacons? Stay off the bike paths?  We suffer together the terrible absence and the deafening silence of God.

The Parable of the Ten Maidens, only in Matthew, or literally, the Ten Virgins, is told by Jesus to his disciples just days or hours before his death.  Jesus wants to prepare them for his death. But also to prepare them for his life in the world after his death.  He wants them to wake up and get ready.

This parable is inside a longer sermon or discourse by Jesus about the end times, apocalypse, the coming of the Messiah.  Chapter 24.  You could scarcely squeeze more images of violence into one short passage: fire, earthquakes, floods, torture, persecution, two people in a field, one is taken one is left, pray that you are not pregnant in those days…etc.

You see, Jesus had just said---remember he is in Jerusalem with his disciples just before the Passover---Jesus had said that the beautiful new temple would be destroyed, not one stone left on stone. Now in Jesus’ context, freedom of speech was not a thing. We have to stop imagining Jesus down at the lake with a fishing pole.  We should rather imagine Jesus in North Korea. These words, in Matthew’s telling, set in motion the events that lead to his arrest, his trial, his execution.  So his disciples simply have to ask him:  Why did you have to say that?

Through the years these texts about the end times have repelled or confused me. Why does Jesus make it seem that after his death he will be returning very shortly, like maybe before Labor Day, that his death will quickly set in motion the end of world?  Then why does he turn it upside down and say nobody knows the day or the hour, so keep awake.

The Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids, though lighter in tone than all the images of the end times, also pushes us away, continuing the theme of judgement, and leaving us with an easy moral.  Just be prepared and everything will be all right. Lazy people deserve what they get.

But this week, and this year, this time, as I read these texts, it was the morning news, the ink barely dry.  Out of this parable has come much music, from Bach to this 1928 spiritual, “Keep your lamps trimmed and burning……”  I can’t get this spiritual out of my head. When I sing it, it feels not like judgement but an invitation. A very personal invitation.

By the way, we shouldn’t judge the five maidens who don’t share their oil too harshly—first of all, in that  social context and even in some cultures today, the procession IS the wedding, it’s part of the wedding.  If the five had shared and they’d all run out of oil the wedding would have to be cancelled. Second, it’s an allegory; the fire in the lamp represents your unique-in-the-world self, which is not yours to give away.

So today, in the midst of violence and disaster, you are being asked to consider your financial pledge, to step up your commitment. In the midst of your own suffering.  Don’t discount your suffering.  I often hear people say, after they have just complained about something: First World Problem. But the truth is that suffering is suffering is suffering and there is plenty of it to go around even in Park Slope.

It’s a long list of names every week in our intercessory prayers and sometimes hidden behind those names is a whole lot of grief. In our congregation there is homelessness, the deaths of two adult children, schizophrenia, imprisonment, depression, cancer, chronic illness and deep personal betrayal. And that’s just in 2017.

There is so much suffering that money can’t fix. So why should you give to Old First?  There are so many good causes. Wouldn’t it make more sense to invest in solar energy?  The planet is in trouble and you are asking me to keep the lights on at Old First? There are so many things we could actually fix with money. What does this community fix?

Part of our suffering is deciding what cause is truly worthy of a portion of our paychecks. How much money should you spend to keep the flame of faith alive?  If a tithe is the portion of your income you are aiming for how much of a tithe should go toward something as fragile as a community of Jesus?

Eric spoke a couple of weeks ago on why he gives to Old First and mentioned that he also gives to an organization that helps people getting out of prison. Dan and I tithe but we do not tithe everything to this community.  Margaret spoke about the importance of consecration---about giving to create and maintain a holy space. Dan Silatonga spoke about giving to Old First because it means home to him, in the largest sense of that word. How do you put a monetary value on spiritual things?

More than 20 years ago, when I was in a chaplain residency at Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital,  I met a man, about  my age, who was in the hospital with some serious complications from his cancer and I had the privilege of knowing him over a couple of weeks.  He was a strong-looking handsome man and he was a little macho, you know.  He had a model of his red convertible sports car on the bedside table—this was the person he wanted people to know when they came into the room. I liked him and I daresay he liked me. I listened to him, I prayed for his healing, I prayed for his wife and children.

One day, while I was visiting, his nurse came in to tend to the wound that was on his back.  (He was on his side, I was sitting facing him.)  Unexpectedly, he asked me, “Would you like to see my wound?”  So I went around to the other side of the bed where the nurse was tending his wound.  And I saw it, in the middle of his back right next to his spine.  I won’t describe it except to say it was deep and it was wide.  I was woke.  I mean that I woke up to his suffering. He invited me into it. He was teaching me about suffering.

And then our relationship changed. I had been praying for his healing.  But now we could talk about his death and what it would mean to prepare for his death—even as we still fervently prayed for his healing. He was hoping for the best even as he prepared for the worst. And then a strange thing, a mysterious thing happened.  Joy came into the room.  And the joy was inextricably linked to the suffering. This deeper connection happens a lot in my work as a chaplain—those who are alive to their mortality are most alive in their deepest spirits.

Every week at communion we sing together “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.”  We should really translate that last phrase in a way that doesn’t make it seem that it’s some far off future.  We should sing “Christ has come again.” Or “Christ is coming again,” Or “Christ is here again.” Wake up. It’s now. So in the parable of the Wedding Feast we are not being asked to prepare for some distant future.  It’s not a 401K.  It’s preparing for a joy that could happen any minute, that does happen any minute.

This is a truth that even children know. Psalm 78 enjoins us to share the faith with our children.  Not only the glorious deeds of the Lord but even the dark sayings from of old.  Children, like all of us, can be asleep to the spiritual realities.  But they can also be wide awake.  Like at Children in Worship here. Near the end of our time together each week we pray. First we go around the circle and ask the children what they want to pray about.  And then the worship leader lifts up those prayers. And usually they say something that feels kind of rote like, I’m thankful for my Mommy and Daddy, or something that feels kind of trivial, like I’m thankful for my new socks. But if you are awake you will also hear amazing things, like the boy who said, “I’m sad because my Daddy doesn’t live in my house anymore. “  Or I think of the child who said, last spring,” I am thankful for the story.” They get it, you know?

Last week Sunday I was standing on the subway platform, waiting for the F train.  Next to me were a father and two daughters, maybe 6 and 3 or 4. Now I don’t usually interject myself into conversations overheard.   But out of nowhere the older girl said, “Daddy, when you and Mommy die…” The father interrupted her and said, “Victoria, don’t be morbid.” And I immediately said to the girl, “That wasn’t morbid, it was real!” And then the father said, not looking at me, “I’m sorry, Victoria, what were you going to say. The she said, “When you and Mommy die I will take care of my sister.”  “That’s very nice,” said the dad.

This community has kept me woke to the presence of God in the world, because I can see and feel the presence of God in you. You are Christ-bearers. This community has been a gift to me from the day I arrived here. I often feel you have given me a love I don’t deserve, that I receive much more from this community than I give back to it. I don’t know how I could have continued my work as a chaplain without this community, which constantly calls me to faith, hope and love. Which constantly reminds me to be prepared to see Christ anywhere.

Keep awake, watch for it. I’m talking about the whole thing, the worship service, the sermons, the music, the weekly circle of communion, the beauty of the building, your individual spirits.  I sometimes imagine I can see flames coming out of the tops of your heads. Every week we consecrate this space.

The invitation to the banquet arrives in the darkest times, when we ourselves and the whole world seem absolutely forsaken by God.  But when we find ourselves seated at the table in the presence of our enemies, and the presence of the Good Shepherd, not only after we die, but any minute now, we find ourselves at such a feast as mends in length.  We find ourselves truly awake.

Unto him that loved us and washed us from our sins in his own blood and has made us kings and priests unto God and his father, unto him be glory and dominion both now and forever, Amen. 

Friday, November 03, 2017

November 5, Proper 26: Space, Practice, Vision #10: Here I Am

Joshua 3:7-17, Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37, 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13, Matthew 23:1-12

St. Paul reminds the Thessalonian Christians that he was like a father to them. So then if one of these Thessalonians gratefully and respectfully refers to him as Father Paul, does that transgress the admonition of the Lord Jesus to call no man Father? I get addressed as Father out in public rather often. I don’t correct it. I’m sometimes called Padre. I accept it.

Should you call me Reverend? If you call me Pastor, I say, Here I am. But let me confess that I have always been uncomfortable with these titles, maybe a little bit because of this admonition, but more because of my inner struggle with having ended up a pastor. It was not my dream for my life.

And yet I like being called Dominee, which is the Dutch Reformed title, but that one really violates Our Lord’s admonition because it’s from the Latin for Lord. Here in Park Slope the children call their teachers by their first names, and some children in this church innocently call me Daniel, which I accept without liking it, but at least the kids are not transgressing Our Lord’s admonition!

When the Lord Jesus admonishes us like this, we have to remember that Our Lord is never about setting up a new set of rules to replace the old rules. He doesn’t do do’s-and-don’ts. Once again he is making a sweeping statement to sweep away everything, to bring everything under total judgment, even apparently good things, so that even the good things that you do, you recognize as also compromised, and that your good works have value not in themselves but because God lovingly accepts them, and that your best efforts have moral value precisely and only in your humility. If people call me Father, or Master, or Teacher, I accept it not as my prerogative but as my reminder of the necessary humility of my receiving love and needing love. Hineini, Here I am.

Today I’m talking about my peculiar position in this community of Jesus, my position as your pastor. This week our three lessons, including Joshua, combined to cause me to reflect on the importance of the ministry to a church. It struck me how even though I am never mentioned in either of our mission statements, old or new, yet my job, my role, my voice, and even my person is so important to the space and the practice and the vision of this church.

Why is that, why am I such a big deal in the church? You know, for the last 500 years, we Protestant have been waving our “priesthood of all believers” banner against the Roman Catholic hierarchy, yet here I am, with my salary and benefits costing you the largest portion of your church’s budget.

Have you noticed that the deacons never put the collection bag in front of me? We’ve never discussed it, but to not do that has been the unspoken custom in all five of my charges. In some church traditions, the pastor is the first one the deacons go to, and he visibly pulls out his wallet, and shows some cash, as he puts it in the plate. I won’t do that. But Melody and I do tithe.

By tithing I mean we put our giving money back to God into our budget, before our mortgage and our utilities and insurance. Tithing means that you budget the first percentage of your money to return to God. Your minimum should be one percent. Your target is ten percent, and every year you raise the percentage a step towards ten percent. It’s not a law, it’s not a do-or-don’t, it’s a voluntary inner exercise to practice your worship and your service. It is making space within your checkbook for unconditional welcome. It is holding up your debit card under the vision of the kingdom of heaven. Tithing isn’t charity, it’s clarity, it is purpose and intention.

“That’s easy for you to say, Pastor, or Dominee, or Daniel, whatever, it’s in your self-interest. Whatever you tithe comes back to you as salary! What a scam. What a confidence game.” Well, yes, I had better be worthy of your confidence. 

But your tithing is in your self-interest too, first, because you need to give money just to be spiritually healthy, and second, because your community of Jesus needs to do mission in real terms in the real world. Your community of Jesus does not exist for itself, but for its mission, and your tithing pays for the programs of worship and music and teaching and sanctuary and hospitality that express your mission to the public world.

Neither does your community of Jesus exist in itself, on its own, but only and always as an answer to the call of God, “Here we are.” And that call of God that brings you into being as a community takes form, according to St. Paul, from the urging and encouraging and pleading of ministers, like myself, who keep calling you to your calling. He wrote to the Thessalonians, “When you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word.”

Yes, I am your pastor, your shepherd, your teacher, your song leader, your prayer leader, your board president, your CEO, your face to the public, but my first obligation is to be always calling your community to your mission. My first job is to keep calling to your mission. That’s never done. Look, communities like equilibrium. Stasis. Comfort. To groom themselves like cats. My job is to pick you up and put you out the door. To disturb your comfort as much as comfort you.

Not with my own words, but my well-informed and thoroughly human interpretations of the Bible, which you accept as what it really is, God’s word. So even though my job is not mentioned in the mission statement, to state your mission is my job! My job is mission-statement! The reason you donate towards my salary is because St. Paul tells us that a community of Jesus needs someone working night and day to keep proclaiming to you the gospel of God.

This week I have to pre-register for Medicare. I am 64. I will be with you a couple more years, to get you back into the sanctuary, and then for a while to get you accustomed to the sanctuary, and then for a while to help you to open up the sanctuary once again for mission to the public. And then you will look for someone new. Someone with new gifts and skills and attributes that I don’t have.

You will present that person with your new mission statement, whatever its final language is. And you will tell that person: Here’s our mission, now you keep calling us to it. Be like our mother and a nurse tenderly caring for her children, but also be like a father in urging us, encouraging us, and pleading with us to lead our lives worthy of God.

We will call you reverend, not for yourself but for your Lord who uses you, we will call you pastor, and mother, and fearing the admonition of Jesus we will even call you father and teacher and instructor. We will not call you Messiah, we will not call you savior, because you cannot rescue or save us or even guarantee our future. But we will honor you by answering your call, and we will keep on saying, Here we are. Each one of you, Here I am.

One other thing not in our draft new mission statement is the word Love. I think that’s okay, because it will arise out of the interplay of unconditional welcome and service, provided you do this interplay under the vision of the Kingdom of heaven. And that’s because the constitution of that Kingdom is love, and the law of that Kingdom is love, and the atmosphere of the Heavens is love, and the nature and the name of its King is Love (Charles Wesley).

So I have faith and hope that your next pastor may love this community of Jesus as much I have, and may experience from you, as much as I have, the love of God in Jesus Christ.

Copyright © 2017 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.