Friday, April 27, 2018

April 29, Easter 5, The Power of God #3: To Love

Acts 8:26-40, Psalm 22:24-30, 1 John 4:7-21, John 15:1-8

You want to bear fruit, right? You don’t want to just hang on. You want to abide, but not just abide, not just take up space, you want to be productive, you want to produce something, offer something, contribute something, make some difference in the world. You want to bear fruit.

I’ve never grown grapes, but I have had roses. I learned to prune them. The vital power in the plant is called its “virtue,” and whenever a branch lost its virtue, and shriveled, I trimmed it, but I also pruned some green and vital branches for the sake of the whole. I did the same with the rosebuds—I would disbud some of them to give more virtue to the remaining ones.

Which God does with you, according to Jesus. With your fruit, your virtue, your power—and to get pruned hurts. “Why have you taken that away from me?” “Because the fruitfulness that I want from you is love.” And love is that power of God that we are talking about today.

The English word “love” translates three different Greek words in the Bible: eros, philia, and agape. These three kinds of love overlap, but we can say that eros is sexual love, erotic love, a kind of love with lots of power. Philia is fraternal love, brotherly love, sisterly love, family love and tribal love, and that has power too.

These two loves are natural and necessary. They both require possessing as much as sharing—not selfishness but some essential payback to yourself. There are limits to freedom in these loves: your lover owes you obligations, and so do your children and your parents. Both loves have abiding power: the two lovers become one flesh, and siblings share their genetics and their memories. They eat at the same table and live in the same abode. But if siblings no longer can abide each other, if lovers no longer abide each other, that power gets negative and nasty.

The third kind of love is agape. In the ancient Greek vocabulary of Homer, what this word meant was to welcome, to entertain a guest, even an enemy, and show respect. Essential to your welcome was the freedom of your guest from your own interest.

This word was chosen by the Jewish translators of the Hebrew Bible into Greek for the love of the Lord your God and the love of your neighbor as yourself. The Lord Jesus used this word in his teaching, as did his followers in their epistles.

Agape is the word for love that evokes the distinctive Christian ethic and the distinctive Christian mission. Radical welcome, sharing without possessing, giving without payback, honoring the other with freedom for the other. It is making room without making distance, it’s making space not to keep you off but invite you in. It’s a mistake to call it selfless—the Bible doesn’t make that mistake—you are to love your neighbor as yourself, not instead of yourself. Agape-love is sacrificial without being self-destructive, and to show respect is useless if you don’t respect yourself.

Agape-love is not absent from erotic love and filial love. Lovers welcome the differences in each other to be happy in love, and happy siblings give each other room and rejoice in their differences. Close friends have to respect each other and trust each other with freedom. I can easily love my cousins when we share so many tribal traits, but when Jesus calls me to love my enemies, that goes against the instincts of filial love. Agape-love does not have any physical or emotional reinforcements, so its abiding power has constantly to be renewed. Jesus says, you won’t be able to sustain it unless “you abide in me and in my love.” You have to be in communion with Jesus.

Old First is a community of Jesus. We are not changing that part of our mission statement. But the Consistory is revising the second part. It’s going from this: “we welcome persons of every ethnicity, race, and orientation to worship, serve, and love God, and love our neighbors as ourselves,” to this: “offering a space of unconditional welcome.” In fewer words we get precisely at the practice of agape-love, offering unconditional welcome, and how we sustain this is as a communion of Jesus, drinking from the power and virtue of his vine.

The way that this power of love flows from Jesus into us is not in some supernatural ether or some invisible gamma ray of love sent down from heaven. You get it from the ordinary weekly means of grace, the preaching of the Word and the sacraments. God quite simply uses your sharing in the hearing and thinking of the congregation around the Word, and your sharing in the singing and the eating of the Communion, to keep you abiding in Jesus and also to stimulate and empower and sustain your practice of love as mission to the world. God does it quite down-to-earth!

Now let me direct your common mind to the story of the Ethiopian eunuch. The Holy Spirit pushed the deacon Philip to offer unconditional welcome to this eunuch. It wasn’t automatic, and the deacon took a risk. It was not a rhetorical question when the eunuch pointedly asked Philip, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?”

“Well, for one, we baptize into community, and you’re going back alone. Second, you’re a Gentile, we’re not baptizing Gentiles yet. And third, you’re half-transsexual, you’re Queer. The Book of Deuteronomy specifically prohibits people like from the congregation. I’d like to baptize you, but I have these conditions to consider!”

Of course it so happens that the eunuch was reading the prophet Isaiah, who prophesied, three chapters later, that a eunuch shall no longer call himself a dry branch, and a faggot for the fire, but he too will have a place in God’s house and he shall never be cut off. Hmm! Isaiah or Deuteronomy?

So Philip has to make a decision. Can he interpret one part of scripture by another, the part that excludes by the part that includes, the part that cuts off by the part that welcomes, and can he do this on the spot without the approval of the apostles? But did the Holy Spirit plunk him down into this chariot to tell this queer guy No? He baptizes him. He loves him, agape-love, in terms of an action. He gives him unconditional welcome. And freedom too, he lets him go with no obligations.

There’s something else here. The power to love is the power to interpret–to interpret scripture. To interpret scripture in a spirit of welcome and freedom. God puts scripture in our hands, not as law to be defended but as gospel to be expanded. The power to love is to welcome into scripture new guests and new experiences. Our interpretation of the Bible is never settled and complete, it is living and growing and bears new fruit, and it is rooted in the vital, expanding love of Jesus Christ.

This power of love is the power of God, because God is love. When we say that God is love, we must be careful, we are not saying that love is God. We do not start from our human experience and understanding of love and magnify that as God. We work the other way around, we observe the lift and death and resurrection of Jesus and what he said and whom he touched and welcomed and we say, O, that’s what God is like, and then we contemplate this God and the stories of God from Genesis to Revelation and we say, O, that’s what love is like. Rich, complex, constant, open, weak in the eyes of the powers of the world, but as powerful as the force of life in the body of a little bird.

When we say that God is love, we do not say that all God is, is love. There is more to God than love. But there is nothing in God that is not also love. All that God is, is loving, and all that God does, is loving.

When we say that God is love, we say that God welcomes you, God rejoices in your otherness, God gives you space and room, not for distance but for your inclusion precisely as you.

When we say that God is love, we say that God gives you freedom, that God loves you unconditionally. Yes, God has conditions for your life, for holiness and righteousness, for justice and fairness, but those conditions for your life are not conditions on God’s love for you.

When we say that God is love, we do not say that God is the energy of love or essentially the power of love, as if God were a what. God is a who, and God is free, and God is the creator of love and the sustainer of love. God is love because God is a lover—the great lover, the original lover, the great respecter, the universal welcomer. You can know this God and learn this love and abide in this love and share this love. Once again I invite you to share with your world the love God has for you.

Copyright © 2018, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

April 22, Easter 4, The Power of God #2: To Lay Down Your life

Acts 4:5-12, Psalm 23, 1 John 3:16-24, John 10:11-18

This morning's sermon is in two parts. For the first part, I am telling the Beulah Land version of the Good Shepherd story, on flannel-board, before the congregation. After that I am giving this short message:

We have two references to power. The Lord Jesus said that he had the power to lay down his life, and the power to take it up again. The Apostle Peter said that the name of Jesus had to power to save the crippled man. Is this the same power, the same power of God, in two different expressions?

We are taught that we are saved, that is, made safe, somehow by the voluntary death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, kept safe like sheep within a sheepfold, that his laying down and taking up his life is powerful to secure us for God and to give us such security that you also may lay down your life in love for anyone in need.

Laying down does not have to mean dying, it’s like laying some cash down on the table or chips in the game, it means depositing and investing. For us it’s mostly not dying but living, and investing your life and livelihood in others who are in need. The point is that you risk your good living for those in need—not from general humanistic motivation, though we should not be critical of those who do so—but in the power of the name of Jesus of Nazareth.

How does the name of Jesus have power? It’s not an abracadabra, it’s not a spell or formula. It’s a pole star, a North Star, magnetic North, a compass, a gyroscope, to balance you and guide you. His name means his person and his life and reputation, what he stood for. Recently another pastor was worshiping with us and she said there was a lot more Jesus here than in her church. Indeed. It’s in the name of Jesus Christ that we want our church to find our power and where to keep our power centered.

Not narrowly, not simplistically, but broadly and richly, with sufficient intellect without the pride of intellect, with all the sophistication of the Christian faith, and all that comes under his name, which means the teachings of Jesus at his most comforting and at his most challenging, and his laying down his life on our behalf and taking it up to secure us—all that is in his name, and our church has no business looking for our power under any other name.

My second point is about the sheepfold and security. I’m glad for Social Security, which in three years I will be living on, but at the same time security has become an idolatry, that is, a natural good to which we surrender power and authority and made an idol of. For example, national security. Security has become through out the world, and in our nation too, an excuse for constant war, for authoritarian regimes, for the curtailment of human rights, for the oppression of refugees, for the policing of daily life, and for the constriction of our freedom to venture without insurance and to play without regulations. Security. Under the name of security shall we be safe, under the name of security shall we be saved.

Look, we can’t avoid realities. Bad guys are out there. But to believe in the power of the name of the Lord Jesus requires us to examine what we want to be saved from and to be kept safe from. Where do we look for our security and what do we want from it, and what security can we expect from God?

If you want to keep your good living, if you want to hold on to what you have as long as possible, if you want to secure your goods and your possessions, go ahead, but it is not the name of Jesus that will help you, not for that kind of savings and security.

But if, while being responsible to your social and economic obligations, while being responsible for the interests of your family and your own self-care, if then you also try to invest your life and livelihood in some real action of sharing with the oppressed and needy, your time, your money, your wealth, your efforts for justice, and then, when your conscience convicts you that you could do more, and the world needs more, and does it really make a difference, and you wonder whether you’re still being too tight and too careful about your own financial security, whenever your heart condemns you, his name has the power to reassure your heart, and to free your conscience from the guilt of having to live within the compromising entanglement of the world.

The power of his name is not that you lay down your life to die but that you lay down your life to live. The power of his name is that you can abide, and abide in his love exactly in this real world, and that his love abides in you.

Copyright © 2018, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Friday, April 13, 2018

April 15, Easter 3, The Power of God #1: Healing

Acts 3:12-19, Psalm 4, 1 John 3:1-7, Luke 24:36-48

For the next few weeks we will talk about the power of God. This Easter Season we will talk about the power of the resurrection, the power of the Holy Spirit, God’s power that empowers us, and what that power is for. I chose power as the theme for this sermons series when I surveyed the lessons for the Easter Season, where the word and its synonyms keep coming up.

If you can lift a block of concrete weighing 550 pounds one foot high in one second’s time, then you have as much power as one horse—you have one horsepower. Power is for lifting and raising and pushing and pulling and even for throwing. Power moves things, it changes the position and the condition of things. Power does work, be that muscle power for physical work, or brainpower for mental work, or economic power and political power and even spiritual power for cultural work.

We speak about empowerment. If you are created in God’s image, if God designed you for freedom and for creativity, then you need some power to exercise your freedom and do the work that satisfies you and benefits others. Parents empower their children. Teachers empower their students. Bosses empower their employees. People work hard if they can exercise their freedom and creativity. You need empowerment if you’re powerless. If you’re oppressed or suppressed or depressed or just pressed down, you need some power to raise you up. Like maybe the power of the resurrection.

People want power. Individuals want power. Groups of people want power for their groups. Recently on PBS Newshour I heard David Brooks say that liberals have the cultural power while conservatives have the political power, and now conservatives are using their political power to gain cultural power.

Last week I read about a Bible study among some members of the Cabinet. Every week Betsy De Vos and Mike Pompeo and Jeff Sessions meet to study the Bible. They believe that God used Donald Trump to give them the power to change the culture of the United States. They want to serve the Lordship of Jesus Christ, not only in their own private lives, but also in public, for the good of the world. How much should you want the same, and in what way?

What kind of power do you want for yourself? Not superpower, but just the power to be successful, to achieve your goals, to reach your potential, to keep your resolutions, to solve your problems and rise above your troubles and get yourself through hard times.

You know why thousands of people fill the megachurch of Joel Osteen every week and millions more tune in to him. He interprets the Christian gospel for his message of personal empowerment, that you can have the power to meet your full potential. Every sermon is a variation on that message and he packs them in. That’s what Robert Schuller preached. So did Norman Vincent Peale. I figure if I preach on this every week I can make Old First a megachurch. Soon the sanctuary will be too small and we’ll to move into the Armory. It’s too bad I waited till I was 64 to figure this out.

Of course, some power is negative. Consider the first lesson. The Apostle Peter accused his fellow Jews of killing the Author of life, even though they had to get the Romans to do it for them, because they did not have the legal power of execution. Even the powerless can use their negative power and manipulate the law to overpower someone else. Our second lesson calls this lawlessness, when it says that sin is lawlessness. Sin is the Christian term for power in the negative. And the sin we commit gains power over us who commit it, and sin confines us in its power even when we tell ourselves that we are free. This is not just in the Bible—all of world literature tells the tragic tale of this, the stories of one character after another trapped within the faulty choices they have made.

But the message of power that I have for you today is that you don’t have to stay trapped, you can be liberated from this tragedy. That’s the greater message of Peter to the crowds. He’s telling them that although you people killed the Author of Life, you don’t have to be trapped within the negative power of your sin, because God raised your victim from the dead.

His message to that crowd can be expanded as the gospel’s larger message for every human generation, that the resurrection of Our Lord has power to overcome the negative power of human sin. And you access this power simply by your repentance and belief. Your repentance and belief can break the bondage of sin and death and set you free to live as God intended you to live.

Let me take a step back here. The back story of Peter’s preaching was the healing miracle that he and John had just performed, the very first miracle of healing by the early church. They had healed a lame man who was begging at the entrance of the Temple. Peter had taken him by the hand, and in the name of Jesus raised him up. His rising expressed the resurrection. That’s what healings are in the New Testament—temporary evidences in our real embodied lives of Our Lord’s resurrection in the body and his own eternal life, which will be for us as well.

In our Gospel lesson, St. Luke shows us that the resurrection of Jesus was nothing if it was only spiritual, for then the Lord Jesus would be nothing but a very important ghost. His body changed, to pass through doors, but it’s a real body, who can eat fish (which I’m happy to say was broiled instead of fried and thus more healthy), and though his body will never die again, it’s the same body, with the marks of the nails in his hands and feet.

That’s what healing means in the Bible, that even though every one of our healings is temporary, because we first must die before we can be raised again into eternal life, yet our very physical and biological bodies can share in the power of the resurrection.

Healing is real, but it’s always outside of our control. There are faith-healers on TV, but you notice they only work in their own arenas, they never work in hospitals. How come faith-healers don’t work the hospitals? Because the people who do work in hospitals are the real faith-healers, healers who work by faithfulness, by patient hospitality, by long-term care, by hard work, scientific work, mental work, creative work, with the God-given power of medicine. Healing is real.

In the Book of Acts the healing of the lame man was good in itself, but its larger good was to lead to the preaching, and the purpose of the preaching was repentance and reconciliation. That’s the greater healing. Repentance breaks you from the grip and bondage of your sin and reconciliation repairs the damage of the sin and opens you up for the healing of your relationships and the healing of the world. Repentance is a fearful thing, you put yourself at risk when you admit you did wrong, but the power of the resurrection gives you the power to repent and to convert your fears to peace.

When Jesus appeared to his disciples they were terrified. He tells them to look right at his hands and feet, with the marks of shame and pain and cruelty still on them. If we’re afraid to look straight on the awful evidence of sin, the healing cannot start. Every week at Holy Communion, for us to eat the Bread of Life and drink the Cup of Salvation, I first have to say these words: “On the night he was betrayed.” Don’t hide the pain, don’t cover up the sin, don’t be afraid of the awful truth of what we have done with the power God has given us. The greater power of healing is the empowerment to do the hard work of facing the truth about yourselves, and confess it, and the power to raise yourself up from your knees, and the power to move your reconciliation, and then to spread your arms wide and claim your freedom to be creative and do your good work in the world. You have that power.

Every healing is temporary. But everything else is temporary too. You have the power to plant the seeds of transformation that will grow up beyond your own control and bear fruit beyond your knowing. The second reading says that we are still like children, who don’t know yet what we will be. But you have the power to hold on and be faithful without fully knowing and the power to keep believing until it is revealed what we shall be. You have the power to reconcile all the passing realities of life with the promise of resurrection and the world to come. And you have the power to share this with your friends here in Brooklyn.

Copyright © 2018, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.