Saturday, December 13, 2014

December 14, Advent 3, The Mission #4, "God's Way"

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11, Psalm 126, 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24, John 1:6-8, 19-28

My topic today is the convergence of God’s great mission with your personal religious needs, how God’s divine and sovereign purposes in the world converge with your own purposes to come to church. These two things are not the same, God’s mission on the one hand and your religious needs on the other, but their convergence is a happy one, a joyful one, although of course a challenging one. You come here for your reasons, and you want to leave here with God’s reasons.

Why are you here today? What are your reasons for practicing religion, your personal motivation, your consumer purposes for going to church?

You want some God in your life, you want to be close to God, you want to find some greater meaning than you can generate on your own, you want that greater perspective to help you make sense of the world and where it’s going, or how to rescue the world from the human effects of violence and destruction, or to help you with the facts in your own life, your own disease or disappointments, your own desires and delights. 

You believe there is a God, and you want to have a positive relationship with God, and the Christian religion is the most familiar and available.

Maybe you’re not sure there is a God but you want to explore the possibility.

You want some religious instruction for your kids. You want some company, some community, to help you maintain your spiritual life.

You want to confess your sins and get told you are forgiven.

You want to pray, and pray along with other people.

You want to praise God with music, and it’s not right to do that all alone.

You want to practice love, and love in the larger sense, a love beyond what is available in humanism.

You want some recharging of your morality, some inspiration for your ethics.

You come for inspiration and information in some combination with reconciliation.

If these are your reasons they are good and right, these are your positive consumer purposes.

So you come here today, and you hear me telling you that God is on a mission distinct from your own needs and purposes. God is on a mission to reclaim the world from our rebellion, and to repair the world from our damage and our violence, and to restore the world to God’s original intention, only this time better. God is on a mission to make the world fit for God finally to come into the world, that the world itself may be God’s temple, God’s mansion, God’s city, God’s kingdom, as completely as heaven is already.

God is on a mission to come into the world right now, if partially, in order to include you in God’s mission, to pardon you and save you and reclaim you and repair you and restore you and make you fit to share in the great life of that kingdom when it full comes, that city when it opens up, that mansion, that temple, so that you share in it when God comes into it, so that God’s final coming will be your own coming into it as well.

God’s great mission in the world is far greater than your personal consumer motivation for religion. But they are not opposed. The greater may satisfy the lesser without the lesser constraining the greater. So do come with your consumer motivations, do come with your demands, but then also welcome the transformation of your demands the great demands of God, which are for your good. You get that. You can see that. That’s why you keep coming back.

You get it that this relationship of God’s mission and your religious needs is unequal. It is not an equal partnership, it’s not like a marriage. But it is like the Incarnation, that special convergence of God and humanity that came true in the birth of Jesus, the son of Mary, when God Almighty poured God’s self into an infant boy — not that God’s nature be reduced, but that human nature be taken up into God — two natures, and yet one person, one heart, one soul, one Jesus, son of Mary and Son of God, the mystery of the Incarnation. In Jesus we have seen God’s way.

Just so, you have one heart, one soul, and one experience, but in your single experience the Holy Spirit converges God’s great, high mission with your personal consumer interest in religion. God’s way is to invest God’s great universal work of salvation in the present reality of your personal need, although of course, the Holy Spirit uses that convergence to transform your personal interest to fit God’s greater plan. And because Jesus was a little boy who looked and smelled like any other little boy while God was fully in him, just so your consumer agenda for religion can look anybody else’s in Brooklyn and yet be full of God’s mission, without limiting God’s mission or restricting it.

This is God’s way. You can see God’s way in the metaphors of Isaiah’s prophecy: the God who liberates captives and releases prisoners, the God who builds up ancient ruins and raises up the former devastations, the God who repairs the ruined cities and replants the devastated forests, that God also decks you out, puts new clothes on you, and jewelry, and puts a robe of righteousness on you.

The reason you are here today is because you want to believe that it is real in your own life, although you know there must be more to come. You want to believe that the Kingdom of God has truly come into the world, but you know from the agony of the world that it has not come yet as it is in heaven, and you find ourselves impatient for its coming. This impatience is the message of the Advent season, that you must wait for it, but in your waiting also to prepare for it.

The metaphors from Isaiah give you hope but also give you discontent. When we who live in New York City hear of proclaiming liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners, how can we not think of Rikers Island and all the penitentiaries upstate? How can we not think of the mass incarceration of a whole generation of young black men, which we have allowed ourselves to pay no attention to, which we should have known about, the alienation and the deep frustration that finally is breaking out?

You cannot separate the larger issues of this city from your personal need of being set free from your own inner bondages and liberated from your sins and miseries. God addresses with a single promise both your personal spiritual health and welfare and the health and welfare of this nation, especially those people who do not share it. All those lovely metaphors will become literally true in our vision for God’s great mission in the world.

Between God’s great mission in the world and your need for religion is the church, and this church in particular. This church is a religious corporation registered in the State of New York in order to serve your spiritual needs. First you came here first as a religious consumer to receive its services, and then you enter the community of Jesus, and then you begin to see the larger mission which takes up into it your own religious needs, and you are challenged to join in the larger mission of the church, and then you discover that the challenge is fulfilling because your religious needs are more than you knew, your religious need is to give as much as to be given to, to forgive as much as to be forgiven, and to love as much as to be loved. You begin to experience this church as your church, and then you go further, and you begin to experience your church as God’s church.

This building is our building according to the laws of New York but this building is really God’s building for God’s mission. That sanctuary out there is God’s sanctuary for God’s mission. That pipe organ out there is God’s pipe organ for God’s glory. And if you rebuild that ancient ruin on the other side of that wall you’re doing an incarnation of God rebuilding ancient ruins and building up the former devastations, and there is no separation between God’s mission and your fulfillment.

We end with the Thessalonians. We can hardly imagine their personal religious needs. Why would these people want to meet those needs by signing up with this impossible new religion, which will bring them persecution just for signing up? Yet St. Paul tells them to rejoice always and to pray without ceasing and to give thanks in all circumstances. How in the world shall they do that?

You can rejoice in the vision of God’s promise for the whole known world. You keep your mind upon that promise by praying without ceasing. You can give thanks for the small and passing but also real and quietly powerful incarnations of that promise in your own lives right now. And you can rejoice with the angels and the shepherds who have seen God’s way, that God has come into the world as one of us, Immanuel, God with us.

Copyright © 2014 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Friday, December 05, 2014

December 7, Advent 2, The Mission 3: Why is God Coming?

Isaiah 40:1-11, Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13, 2 Peter 3:8-15a, Mark 1:1-8

I do like opera, but Wagner is not my favorite, especially not his later operas with the characters just posing there singing their interminable arias. The soprano Birgit Nilsson used to sing those arias magnificently, and once she was asked what was the secret of her great success, and she famously answered, “Comfortable shoes. If you’re singing Isolde you have to have comfortable shoes.”

“Comfort ye, comfort ye my people.” That’s the first voice you hear in Handel’s Messiah, the tenor plaintively singing it, and you will hear it sung this Thursday night. And then the aria, “Every valley shall be exalted, every mountain and hill made low, the crooked straight, and the rough places plain.” Road-building and comfort. A strange combination.

John the Baptist is a strange one for comfort. He’s wearing scratchy clothes and he sleeps on the ground and he doesn’t eat comfort food. His message is a rough one too. He’s comes at you like a bulldozer, he scrapes you level like an excavator. He is a wire-brush, he roughs you up to smooth you down. And this is for comfort? Only if comfort comes through penitence.

Comfort is a big deal in Reformed theology. Our tradition is the only one which raises comfort to a doctrine, as in the opening question of our Heidelberg Catechism, “What is your only comfort in life and in death?”

What does comfort suggest to you? Something comfy and soft, like cushions or your slippers, or a comfortable income, or a mother comforting her crying child. But sometimes a hard chair is more comfortable, and if you’re working on your feet all day your comfortable shoes will not be slippers. Comfort can have firmness and strength in it. The second syllable is “fort” as in “fortress” and “force.” To “aid and comfort to the enemy” is to enhance the power of the enemy.

You know it is a military metaphor, the building of a road. That was done back then by armies, great imperial armies, for invasion, and then for the occupation by connecting the forts. Military force. Com-fort. The comfort of Isaiah has some judgment in it. You cannot separate the comfort from the judgment. On the highway comes the emperor, who clears away rebellion and resistance and orders all things and sets all things to rights. This comfort is not very cushy.

In the epistle you get metaphysical metaphors, which are no less imperial. These metaphors are notoriously difficult to translate, because we see the natural world so differently than they did back then. For example, the word “elements” does not mean oxygen and iron and lead, as in the periodic table of the elements, but rather the fundamental powers of the world as celebrated in Greek mythology and as delineated in the Hellenistic philosophy, both of them supporting the Roman Empire in its power and its culture and its way of life. That’s the society that this epistle was written into.

The epistle is difficult because it mixes Hellenistic metaphysical metaphors with Hebrew prophetic metaphors. In the prophets, fire is a metaphor of the personal wrath of God, the heat of God’s personality and the blaze of God’s judgment. This fire is never for torture, or roasting, but for burning things off and burning things away and for purgation and purification.

If you blend these metaphors you get God coming in judgment, excavating, blasting, breaking, burning, clearing things away, exposing what was closed, revealing what was hidden, making things  transparent. The systems in place and the powers in control cannot resist the judgment of our God, and this for you is comfort. Not for just the end of time, but for now, as the Word of God comes in to challenge our systems and to judge our cultures and our cultural assumptions, and to free us from the iron laws of our presuppositions and all that we have to take as self-evident and elementary.

For now, God’s coming is powerful but partial. We acknowledge this in prayer, especially in the Lord’s Prayer. We know that God’s will is done on earth, but not as it is done in heaven. We believe that God’s kingdom has come on earth, but not yet as it in heaven, not without resistance and rebellion. We pray that it will fully come; and that Our Lord will come and stay for good.

We confess the mystery of the faith that "Christ will come again," and I am telling you that the gospel promise is he will come and stay for good. The metaphors mean that God is clearing out things and opening up things in the world in order fully and peacefully to inhabit it.

It may take another few thousand years, or in God’s time, another few days, but right now this is the Day of the Lord, and the Lord, by means of his word, is judging and ordering and clarifying things. God is on a mission to reclaim the world and fully to inhabit it, and to share it with us, God’s people.

But God comes in stages, not all at once. First the preparation, and then the full arrival. As John the Baptist was for the Messiah at his first coming, so the church is now for Our Lord before his second coming, with a similar mission of preparing by proclaiming and baptizing.

Not that you yourselves as individuals proclaim. In Isaiah 40 the proclamation is a conversation among several voices, and it includes their questions.
The church proclaims by the collective sound of your thick and complex conversation with this God you are daring to believe in.
The church proclaims by acting out what you believe in, and by how you typically participate in the ordinary world which God is coming into.
The church proclaims by the sum total of your lives of testimony and confession.
The church proclaims by how you confess your own sins without judging others, and by how you share your real experience of reconciliation and acceptance and inclusion. And the church baptizes when you welcome others into this acceptance and reconciliation.

This is how God has seen fit for us to prepare for that full and final coming. “Okay, God, if that’s how you want it, we can do that.” Now maybe if you were God you might have designed it differently, and you might have decided not to wait, but apparently God has determined that it’s important for us to get used to God’s patience, and even to see that patience as salvation

t would seem that God wants a very, very large population to share the world with, and that this population shall not be naively innocent like the angels, or Adam and Eve at first, but shall have been through fire and water and have had first-hand experience of the deeper love of grief and reconciliation.

One of my personal campaigns has been to counter the conventional belief that when Jesus comes again, it will be for just one short last visit, and then he’ll go back to heaven for good and abandon the created earth forever, and he’ll take us all with him to heaven for eternity.

If this is so, then Satan wins, even despite his own destruction. I get it why this is actually easier to believe, because right now Satan does not seem to be losing. Yes, there has been great progress in the world on account of the gospel—just ask any woman who can vote—but the progress in good seems to be at least matched by progress in evil.

So let me return to the Lord’s Prayer. When we pray, “deliver us from evil,” we do not mean deliver us from the world God created us for life in. When we pray, “lead us not into temptation,” we include the temptation to despair over how slow and ineffective God seems in putting the world to rights, and the temptation to conclude that Satan is not losing, and to surrender to no greater hope  than a cushy forever in heaven.

But for us to keep believing in this impossible promise that God’s kingdom will come for good on earth in fullness as it is in heaven, we need some comfort. Not just some soothing consolation, but some fortifying and strengthening.

The comfort I offer you today is your own awareness of your forgiveness and reconciliation, that when you confess your sins, you are aware that you really are forgiven. You can believe in the truth and reality of your own experience of the love of God towards you.

When you do this what you are believing in is the work of the Holy Spirit within you. You have been baptized with the Holy Spirit. God really has come into your life. That’s a fact that does not depend upon your inner verification. You believe it first, and then you begin to sense it and verify it after the fact. God’s present coming into you is the comfort to keep you hoping for God’s ultimate coming into the world. God is patient with the world as much as God is patient with you. And this patience of God with you is not of endurance but of love. Finally it’s not even patience. God just plain loves to hang out in you.

Copyright © 2014 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

On the Death of Young Mohammad Uddin

This is a guest-post by a member of my Old First congregation, Ms. Cynthia Ponce. All she did was what Our Lord said he is looking for: "I was a stranger and you visited me." And the sheep shall say, "Lord, when did I see you as a stranger and visit you?" And the king shall say, "As surely as you did to the least of these, ye have done it unto me." May God rest the soul of Mohammad Uddin.

At about 5:00 pm on Thursday, November 20, 2014, fourteen-year-old Mohammad Uddin was struck by a car while crossing the street.

It was at the corner of Caton Ave. and East 7th Street in Kensington, Brooklyn. He was rushed to Maimonides Hospital, where he died of trauma to the head and body. The driver, a 78- year old woman, was found and arrested that evening for leaving the scene of an accident.

According to an NBC interview of the boy’s uncle, “Uddin, a ninth-grader at Brooklyn Tech, one of the nation’s top high schools, moved to the U.S. with his family 10 years ago from Bangladesh and dreamed of becoming a medical specialist.” Mohammed’s uncle described him as a very, very gentle boy.

I got the news moments after the accident occurred. I was running errands on the same corner as the accident. As I was stepping out of my building, my neighbors, a young expecting couple, told me that something terrible had happened outside. My neighbors were troubled that this tragedy may have involved a child.

Just minutes after the accident, the police had closed off the corner in both directions. The news reporters were right there. One reporter confirmed for me what had happened. Other neighbors were now outside, and there was a general sense of disbelief and grief. I think we all felt contempt for that oddly-angled street corner. Drivers seem to be in such hurry all the time, even when the pedestrians have the “right of way” in the crosswalk.

There is a garden center on that corner, with beautiful seasonal decorations. I know I have been guilty of crossing the street and letting my eyes focus on the fall-colored potted-flowers, pumpkins, and lovely things outside. I know my 10-year old step-daughter finds these things attractive too. I think the whole neighborhood felt appalled that something like this should have happened there. 

A neighborhood is sad.  A neighborhood was suddenly taking form and becoming a body, something real, a community where people know each other, maybe like in a small town, with a feeling that’s almost impossible in dynamic and overcrowded New York City. I didn't know Mohammed personally, but my heart went out to him and his family. I wondered if I had met him or his family before. They live only a few houses down. I am often outside walking my dog, and passed in front of his home many times on my way to the Park or to the hardware store. I was hit with a sense of finality that death brings, but also of longing. I began to think of the family. Could his mother be one of the women I often overhear greeting one another with “As-salamu alaykum” (peace be with you). Maybe we were not strangers.

The depths of despair. I cannot imagine what that family is going through, but I wanted them to know that they are part of me, of the community, and that they are not forgotten. After reaching out to Pastor Meeter for prayer, it turns out other people had reached out to him also. There was a lot going on in the community in remembrance of Mohammad, but I was unable to make it to the wake or funeral. I was torn by this, so Pastor Meeter advised me on how to approach the family in this time of need.

I was meaning to write a letter, but before I knew it was Thanksgiving. So I posted a sympathy card in our lobby with a letter and a pen, encouraging the tenants of my building to write words of comfort, as Thanksgiving Day mark a week since Mohammad’s death. I was moved by how many people cared.

The next day, I went to deliver the card with my step-daughter. I had intended to leave it in the mailbox or hand it to someone if anyone was home. There was plenty of movement in the house, so we knocked. Young people opened the door. I explained why we were there, and tried to hand them the card, but they invited us upstairs to meet the Uddins and give them the card directly. We went up.

I was worried I would not know what to say and that I might not know the proper protocol and do something offensive. But I needn’t have worried, for when I met Mr. and Mrs. Uddin, their warmth, graciousness, and gratitude for our visit was so sincere, even in their grief. I felt a deep desire to comfort them, to take away their pain. We were simply fellow people, communicating words and feelings from the heart. They invited us to sit and visit. I shyly leaned on the sofa, but Mr. Uddin gently insisted I sit down. My step-daughter shyly sat down too. The family served us grapes and sliced apples and made us feel at home. The family worried about us and our comfort. I looked in Mrs. Uddin’s eyes, as she sat right across from me, and tears began to stream down her face. I hugged her and I did not let her go. Then we all sat again. 

We spoke of the impact this has had on the entire community, that Mohammad will always be remembered and that we all feel his loss, the loss of one of our children of our community. I spoke of being a Christian, and that Kailey and I pray to God –to Allah – and that we pray for their healing and peace and for Mohammad. One of the family said, "Yes, God — Allah. He hears all our prayers,” in response to my mentioning Christianity. We nodded in agreement.

It was a beautiful moment; we understood each other and our shared human experience; we are all God’s children. It felt real, and life-changing to have experienced something so intimate and raw with this family. They were welcoming to us and open to what we had to say. I was moved that we could mention Christ and Allah and it felt natural and comforting and safe to say. Our hearts were open to one another. I won’t forget it.

There were moments of silence, as we sat together in sadness. The children sparked conversation with my step-daughter, asking her what school she goes to and what grade she is in. I am still astounded by the loveliness and grace of these children and young people, looking carefully after their guests. I met Mohammad's 5-year old brother, a happy child who smiled at us often from behind his mom and sister’s dresses. I also met Mohammad's older sister. We stayed a few more minutes. On our way out, they invited us to a walk and vigil to be held Monday, December 1st.

The walk and vigil began at PS 130, and we walked to the Uddin's home. We paused, in silence, where the accident occurred. It was cold and raining, which felt appropriate. The turnout was great.  At the end of the vigil, Mohammad’s sister spoke from the home, and she tearfully expressed her gratitude on behalf of herself and Mrs. Uddin, who was overcome by emotion. She thanked us for showing her family that "Our community has lost one of our own children, and you are helping us to get through this by showing us that we are not alone."

In retrospect, I can see how a small gesture, like purchasing a card at the store, and posting it by the lobby elevator with a simple message, became empowered by the heart of community. The gesture helped moved grief beyond desolation. It gave me the courage to approach the family and let them know we cared—despite my timidity and my fear of saying the wrong thing. I saw our common humanity, and my timidity evaporated. I saw how we are interconnected, and I could see that we are not alone or independent of one another.  We really are a family meant to care for and lift up one another, and share with each other those things that make us human.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

November 30, Advent 1: The Mission #2, God's Coming

 Isaiah 64:1-9, Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18, 1 Corinthians 1:3-9, Mark 13:24-37

Today is Advent Sunday number 1, which means it’s the beginning of the new Church Year, which means we switch to a new gospel for the year, from Matthew to Mark. We take up in Mark where we ended with Matthew, at the end of Our Lord’s last speech on the last day of his public ministry before his passion. Here too, as in Matthew last week, Our Lord is speaking of his Ascension. Matthew had him describe it in the form of the parable of the sheep and the goats, derived from the prophet Ezekiel

 Mark has him describe it just as metaphorically, but metaphysically, with cosmological images derived from the prophets Isaiah and Daniel: the Son of Man, a human being, will rise upon the clouds of heaven to enter the glory of God and take the throne of God, to govern all things and to judge the nations and to gather his people from the ends of the earth.

This was a daring prediction to make, and troubling to his disciples, for if the Son of Man is the Messiah, and if the Messiah gets enthroned in heaven, not Jerusalem, then Jerusalem will lose its special status as God’s capital. This would be a huge shakeup, the disciples’ world turned upside down, but Jesus said it would begin to happen in their own lifetime, and, from the later church’s point of view, it did indeed.

The metaphysical images can confuse us, because we understand astronomy so differently, so let me restate it: The sun, moon, and stars represent the powers of heaven authorized to govern the times and seasons, and these cosmic powers will witness a human being, a Son of Man, ascending past them on the clouds of heaven, rising to a status above them, where flesh and blood do not belong, and his elevation is such a shock and a shaking of nature that their lights go out and the stars fall. They witness a human being upon the throne of God.

How far can we push these metaphors? What are the realities behind them? How shall we today imagine heaven? Like in the Harry Potter books, an alternate reality coterminous with our own but impervious to us ordinary muggles? No, that will not do, for the world of wizards is just as evil as our own, while the Biblical heaven is where righteousness dwells and where God’s will is always done. 
“Thy will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven.”

I prefer the metaphor of an aquarium, in which we are the fish, and we cannot see out. When we fish look at the glass walls around us we can only see our own reflections. But what’s on the outside can look right in. I imagine our reality as a great terrarium set within the vastly greater living room of heaven. All metaphors have their limits, but can you imagine that the coming of God into the world is not so much a traveling of God as the revealing of God, the unveiling of God — drawing back the curtains of a cold dark room to let the light in from the great outside. What separates us from heaven is not God’s distance but our mental limits and our blindness and our darkness.

“Oh, that you would tear open the heavens and come down.” We have this strange longing for God to come into our world. We have this season of Advent designed to celebrate and stimulate this longing. It is not a given in religion. Muslims do not long for God to come into the world; to think that Allah should come into the world is an offense his nature. In other religions, as in Hinduism, the gods are already part of the world, for the world itself is divine. But we Jews and Christian have this strange desire that the God who freely created the world, and who therefore is not part of it, should in any case come into it, not just to enjoy it, but to rescue us, to save us, to restore us.

Why, what’s wrong? Do we really need restoration or rescuing? And what is the saving? Is it the saving of our souls from hell at the end? Does God come into the world like a lifeguard, pulling us out of the world and bringing us to heaven, because we really don’t belong in this world anyway? Or does God mean to save the world as well?

God comes into the world more like a marine biologist coming to rescue a whale that’s entangled in a net, and cutting the net away, and saving us back into the world we were created for. We are to long for what Our Lord instructed us to pray for, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Since God’s will is already done on earth, but not as in heaven, and since God’s kingdom has come on earth, but not as in heaven, this is a prayer for God's final goal on earth. Our prayer is that God restore the earth to the full and righteous fellowship of heaven, when we will be able to see beyond our own reflections.

The word Advent means approach, and we are longing for God’s approach. We talk about the presence of God. We believe that God is present with us. But Advent reminds us that God could come a little closer, or more apparently, or more powerfully. “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.” Get closer God, the world is incomplete — your presence may be real, but it’s not enough. We’re in bondage, our prayers are unanswered, the bad guys are winning, the houses are burning, the stores are being looted, the young Black men despair.

Advent is penitential season, like Lent, but its emphasis is different. Lent is when you do self-examination. It has grief in it. Advent is more about awareness. It has longing in it. Your awareness of the world in all its brokenness and emptiness and need is your longing for its restoration in the great reality outside. Your discontent is not disavowal — what is to come, comes into what is now.

As God came in. As Jesus Christ was born, and as he will come again. I have said that God is on mission, that the mission of God is to come into the world to renew and restore the world. And between his coming once as a child and his coming again as Lord he comes now in many ways, in hidden ways, by his Spirit, and in open ways, by his Word, and in real though passing and partial ways in us, the church, which is his body. And that gives us our mission too, in this time in between.

You have a mission yourself. Your mission is to begin with your own penitence, your own confession of your sin, your own awareness of yourself, and then also to be aware of your experience of God’s grace to you, your own forgiveness, your own sense of reconciliation and the renewal of your hope and love. But you do this as mission, for your awareness of the larger world and for the experience of other people, who themselves need to experience the passage of guilt and grace and gratitude. Your Advent awareness of yourself with God is not least for your awareness of the larger world and God. You don’t do this for yourself alone. When you pray the prayer of confession today you are doing it beyond yourself, and that is the beginning of your mission.

The Epistle speaks of the spiritual gifts of speech and knowledge. This is for your mission. So let me give you an example of knowledge and awareness. My friends in Canada asked me why the people of Ferguson, Missouri expressed their legitimate complaint in such negative acts of violence and destruction. A fair question. But there are answers, not to excuse but to understand, and understood for the sake of reconciliation and restoration.

Thirteen years ago, in Pasadena, I heard a sermon from a remarkable Anglican priest from South Africa. Both of hands were hooks, because he had been anti-apartheid activist, and one day he had opened a letter which actually was bomb. He said that, even coming from South Africa, he was distressed at the racial alienation in America. He said that for healing to happen, it wasn’t enough to tell your story. It’s only when your story is believed that begins the reconciliation.

That’s why you are given the spiritual gift of knowledge, that you go from the awareness of yourself to the awareness of other people, bypassing the bombast and recriminations, but in that special Advent combination of penitence and hope to bear witness to how God comes into the world, just as God has come into your own life. You are given the spiritual gift of speech to tell your story too. You may believe today that telling the spiritual story of your life is a great part of your mission. People don’t want to hear why what you think is right and what they think is wrong — what people want to hear is your story.

So I call you to a deep awareness of your own story for the sake of the stories of others. And this is not for guilt, it’s for love. It’s like Mary becoming aware of this baby she’s holding. The penitence of Advent is not about sorrow but all about love.

Copyright © 2014 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Friday, November 21, 2014

November 23, Ingathering Sunday: The Mission 1: What Is Jesus Up To?

 Ezekiel 34::11-16, 20-24, Psalm 100, Ephesians 1:15-23, Matthew 25:31-46

Today we can say that the Reformed Dutch Church of the Town of Brooklyn, a.k.a. “Old First,” is 360 years old. Probably. The early history of our congregation is a mixture of facts and mysteries.

It is a fact that our church was established in October of 1654 by Peter Stuyvesant, the governor of New Netherland. But we don’t know exactly when our congregation first met together. It’s reported  that a few months later Dominee Polhemus had been preaching here, and that two years later a consistory was already organized, but the rest is cloaked in mystery.

So the parish of Old First is older than the congregation. What I mean by parish is the public church, established by the government, intended for every inhabitant in the village of Breukelen, and supported by taxation. No one was forced to attend, but no one was excused from the church tax either.

What I mean by congregation is the community of Jesus gathering for worship, the people drawn by the call of God to get up early and stoke the fire and feed the cow and walk through the woods to gather in a barn, to hear the Word of God preached and sing the Psalms and pray the prayers and celebrate Holy Baptism and Holy Communion. And where they put the animals we do not know.

There on the table is a fact, a solid fact, hammered out of silver 330 years ago. The inscription on that communion beaker says that it was given to our church by Maria Badia on October 3, 1684. Was it given to mark our church’s 30th anniversary? Another mystery. It’s one of a pair. For safety we keep them on display at the New-York Historical Society.

Last week one of you asked me if we could use that beaker again for Holy Communion. I answered, quite stiffly, “No, because our consultants have told us how extremely carefully we must handle it to preserve it. No contact with human skin.” Afterward I realized that the stiffness of my answer was a cover for my deep desire for that very thing, that we could all drink together from that common up again. That’s what it wants, right?

There it sits as a cold fact, but it’s like the string on the kite of a great mystery, the mystery of the Blood of Christ. How many generations of believers have tasted the mystery in that cup? We don’t know. Dutch farmers, French Huguenots, Africans both free and enslaved, Canarsie Indians, English soldiers, all drinking in turn from that cup of salvation. I would love it if our nine new members today, Anna, Jessica, Paul, Gordon, Suzy, Cynthia, Gabe, Danny, and Jabe, could drink from that same cup. That we can’t does not negate the mystery that these nine share in that same community of Jesus reaching back across 360 years, a sea of faces now lost to us but once reflected in the silver of this cup and still quite visible to God.

The beaker is a symbol of our church as a community of Jesus, a congregation, and our building is a symbol of our church as a public institution, a parish. We were instituted as a parish which had to generate a congregation. Today we are a congregation which maintains a parish, and the parish includes far more people than our congregation and many more activities than our communion.

Our congregants now number about 200, including confessing members, the baptized children of confessing members, and adherents. Our adherents are participants who have not taken legal membership but who are fully members of the community of Jesus. This community of Jesus is not static. Its boundaries are a mystery to us, it breathes in and it breathes out, it gathers in for communion and then goes out into the parish and the world.

And who knows how many people belong to our parish. I could read a long list, but let’s just take James, who sleeps on our stoop. He spends more hours per week at Old First than any of you do. I pray with him. He belongs to the parish of Old First.

Parish and congregation, building and beaker, mission and communion, expanding circles of community and circles moving in, some people quick and some people slow, some children excited just to be here, some people standing up for membership, some people just trying to hang on and believe.

I’m talking about our mission here, the mission of Old First to be a congregation which serves our parish, a community of Jesus which hosts a sacred space for all the folks around us. Today I am starting a sermon series I’m calling “The Mission.” As we try to discern what we should do about our sanctuary, we should try to discern what God would have us do, which means: What is the mission that God has given us. No church exists for itself, but for the mission God has given it. “The church is for mission as a fire is for burning.” (Brunner)

The mission begins with God. God is on a mission. Think of Advent and Christmas as God going on a mission trip. The Father sends the Son down as a missionary, but first he has to learn the language, from his mother Mary. His mission trip ends with his death and resurrection, and forty days later his Ascension back to heaven, not only as the Son of God but now as well the Son of Man, and as God and Man to take the throne of heaven. And what is he up to on the throne?

He gave his disciples a parable for this, his very last parable on his last day of teaching, a day or so before he was arrested. The parable show him doing two things in the world. He is gathering and he is judging. Gathering and judging. If we interpret the parable by the Epistle to the Ephesians, he does this not just at the end, as is often thought, but now, in history, in the course of human events.

He gathered you all here today. You heard his call somewhere inside your mind and his Holy Spirit within you moved you to answer it. You didn’t have to stoke the fire or feed the cow, but you gathered here from various places in the parish to become again today a congregation, and again today the worship service converts you into a community of Jesus who commune with him.

He gathers you to himself. You enter your inheritance. Already. You share in the Kingdom of God. You share in the light. You inherit what Ephesians calls the immeasurable greatness of his power for you who believe, although Our Lord is so contrary to the usual measures of power that he keeps expressing his greatness in such small things as visiting prisoners and caring for the sick and feeding hungry people.

Your grocery bags connect to something much larger. It’s like when I was a kid on Herkimer Street we used to see these wispy seeds that floated in the air. Like dandelion seeds, only finer. We called them “money-mans.” We didn’t know where they came from or what they would grow into — that was a mystery to us. Your grocery bags are the floating seeds, little hard facts, floating between your giving and someone whom you don’t know receiving. They carry in them the greater mystery of what the Lord Jesus is doing in the world. God is gathering every little act that you do into that great goal that he told us to pray for, “that his Kingdom come, on earth, as it is in heaven.”

He is also judging. Not just at the end; this parable is about what he’s up to right now. It’s not about who is going to heaven or hell, it’s about this king and what he looks for, and what kind of deeds you do to express the standards of his kingdom and his judgment. His standards are published very clearly in his Word, and as we respond to his Word we actually judge ourselves. The peoples and the nations judge themselves.

I will say more about this judgment in future sermons, but today I will say that the history of the world since Our Lord’s ascension is like one great trial, of which the verdict is still out, and in which all of you are witnesses. I don’t mean witnesses that stand up on a soapbox or hand out tracts. I mean witnesses by how you feed and clothe and care and visit, by how you talk about yourself and what you value and how you tell the story of your life in very ordinary ways. When you stand up and say, “Yeah, I guess I believe that too.” When you all stand up to repeat the Apostles Creed you witness to each other and you encourage each other to believe this strange and humanly impossible combination of facts and mysteries which is the Christian faith.

The witnessing? That’s what the parish is for. The gathering? That’s the congregation. These two aspects of the church are both important, and they overlap and together they express the fullness of the mission of Our Lord. The building and the beaker. Outside and inside. The facts and the mystery. It’s a mystery why Our Lord has allowed this church to survive for 360 years when others have not.

But the fact is here you are. And the fact and mystery is that nine of you who will stand up today and then kneel down, and that will encourage the rest of us and remind us of God’s love for us.

Copyright © 2014 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Friday, November 14, 2014

November 16, Proper 28: Transformations 10: Your Worldview

The Parable of the Talents Window, by Tiffany, at Old First.

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

Weeping and gnashing of teeth. That means grief with anger. You’re hurt and you’re mad too. Yeah, you blew it, but it was a set up, it was unfair to begin with. You blew it, but you feel it’s really their fault.

This is a timeless parable. It’s about venture capitalism, it’s about start-ups, you could set the parable in Silicon Valley. A story in last week’s Sunday Business section of the Times reported that “30 to 40 percent of venture-backed start-ups blow through all or most of their investor’s money, and 70 to 80 percent do not deliver their projected return on investment.” I think the third slave must have read this article.

A "talent" is a lot of money, say a million dollars. The master left $5 million with the first slave, $2 million with the second, and $1 million with the last. He gave them the gifts of both responsibility and freedom. “Here’s a lot of money, now you do something with it.” The master was investing here, he was investing in his slaves, and his investments had a high exposure to risk. But he was setting an example to his slaves. “You do with my money as I have done with you. Invest and expose yourself to risk as I have done with you. I put my faith in you.”

How do you respond when you’re given the honor of responsibility? Do you shrink from it? How do you respond to the terrible gift of freedom—do you see it as an opportunity or do you fear it? The first two slaves took the risk of betting on their master’s graciousness if their investments didn’t pan out. They counted on him to be decent. They bet that when he came back, he would value it that they dared to trust in him.

Their investment of his money was even more their investment in their own future with their master. There was risk in what they did — they had no proof of either result, that their money would double, or that their master would honor their attempt, but they took those risks. Jesus says that this is what it’s like with the reign of God.

The third slave did not dare the risk of his master’s graciousness. By his prudence he covered his fear. His fear prevented his chance for joy. Not just at the end, but all along. The joy which the first two entered as their reward was the expansion of the excitement of the daring marketing and commerce they’d been conducting all along.

To live in joy and creativity, you’ve got to work your faith. It is a life of risky vulnerability, but it is an open life. If you don’t invest your faith, if you live all closed, if you don’t risk your relationships, if you don’t venture on the good will of your Lord, then you end up living fearfully and defensively. Jesus said that this is what it’s like with the reign of God.

Poor third slave, cast out into darkness. How harsh the punishment. Well, it’s a parable, and isn’t the outer darkness the expansion of the inner darkness inside him all along, before his master came back, isn’t the darkness the expression of the fear and alienation that was in him already?

But still, why wasn’t the master merciful? After all, the third slave hadn’t lost him any money. The master seems to prove the third slave’s fear that his master was a harsh and greedy man.

As I work this parable, it seems to me that it’s not mainly about the talents, or the slaves, but about the master. The parable makes obvious easy points about investment, and the risk of faith, and such, but deeper inside the parable is a sharper point, and the stinger is this: that to the first two slaves, the master is gracious and generous, but to the third slave, he’s harsh and greedy. Can Jesus really be saying that this is what God is like?

What is God like? How true is it to say that God is what you make of God? Do you find God giving you what you expect God to give you? Do you find God acting as you expect God to act? Don’t get me wrong — of course God is greater than our projections, God transcends our experience of God, but at the same time, paradoxically, you will experience God as much you dare to believe God is.

If you believe your God is great and generous and gracious, you will find God so. If you believe that God is small or harsh or cruel, you will find God so. Therefore take the risk, venture that God is the infinitely magnificent personality that Jesus says God is, invest in a future with that kind of God, and already you’ll be entering into joy, even before your Lord comes back.

Isn’t that what you all want to do, the way you want to live, creatively and joyfully? So what causes you to be immobilized? How do you lose your creativity, how do you cease to grow? Each one of us has something in us that makes us retreat into defensiveness. Guilt. Shame. Plain weakness. The disempowering effects of sin, the self-defeating condition of our alienation from God. And we become fearful like the third slave. You fear both the unknown and the known.

So what do you do? You have to go right through your fear. Faith is not fearlessness, faith has fear in it, faith is not blind faith, but what faith does is look beyond what you can’t know and look beyond even what you can know and venture on the character of your Lord.

Fear and money. Jesus brings them together in this parable. Both of them are powerful, they make you nervous, they touch your vulnerability. You keep them private, both of them, and your money becomes an occasion for your fear. You need to have a certain amount of both, and you tend to want more of the one and less of the other. They tend to control your behavior, more than you admit to yourself. From the power of both of them Jesus calls you to his freedom, and this freedom comes from setting the course of your life by your vision of God.

Is this another sermon about tithing? No it’s not, but tithing does express the issue here at hand. Is this another sermon about stewardship? No, it’s not, but it could have been. This sermon is about what God is like. You will discover a God who will be as great and as gracious as you depend on God to be. How big is your God, how magnificent, how gracious? How much are you willing to invest, in spite of all the valid reasons for your fear? How will you handle your stewardship of your life and your livelihood and all that portion of the world which God has put into your hands?

Is this another sermon about repairing our sanctuary? No, although the sanctuary expresses what is at stake, because the repair touches our money and our fear. It should not surprise us that we feel our fear at the very same time that we are really vital as a congregation,

with a new a members class of nine people whom we will recognize next week,

with increasing levels of financial stewardship,

with our congregation sounding like a trained choir when it sings,

with deacons and elders taking on new responsibilities and challenges,

with a Sunday School staff of ten teachers,

with the awarding of a Landmarks grant as we start getting ahead on our building maintenance,

with a 2nd Mission Team at work envisioning a new level of adult education,

with all the offerings of the 4th Mission team,

with our seasonal ministries to the homeless and the hungry,

all this vitality, and right here is where we should expect to feel our fear!

We feel like the third slave even when we’re hard at work like the first and second slaves. We can see the vision, we accept from God our daring mission, we get excited and we invest ourselves in it, and then we feel our exposure to our risks, and so we are quite naturally tempted to safeguard, hold back, hold in, or we may lose it all.

This sermon is partly about your worldview and the transformation of your worldview. See the world as a world belonging to God, and everything in it, not only the salvation of your soul but also the spheres of economics and politics and ecology and social justice. When you see the world as God’s world, that changes your values within it. The problem with religious worldviews is that they so often end up in fundamentalisms and religious wars.

So the deeper question is your God-view: what is God like, and what does God expect of human life and human institutions.

I invite you to the same God-view that our Lord Jesus ventured on. You have been given so much. Do not hide it, do not defend it, do not protect it, rather dare it, expose it, risk it, just as Our Lord Jesus did with his own sweet life. Because this is a God who reaps where he did not sow, and gathers where he did not scatter seed, and this is a good thing! Outside there may be darkness, but when the light from God shines in you see that what the darkness was trying to hide is a world of great resource and boundless return. You can always tell when its proper investment and risking by when it feels like love, just as God has risked so much investment in you precisely out of God’s inexhaustible love for you.

Copyright © 2014 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Ordination of Rev. Liz Niehoff, Bronxville, November 9: "I Pledge My Life"

Philippians 3:7-14

I want to thank the Bronxville Reformed Church for the hospitality of your pulpit, and I thank the Classis of Rockland-Westchester for the privilege of the floor, and Liz Niehoff, I thank you for having invited me here.

In just a few moments you will read out the Declaration for Ministers, that third Formulary in the Book of Church Order of the Reformed Church in America, and then you will sign your name to it in the register of the Classis. The Declaration is one the treasures of the RCA and the best part of the BCO, and we don’t even know who wrote it — the church wrote it. The words are sacred and the Classis will rise to its feet to hear you read it, as your witnesses, as the trustees of your sacred vow. And when you sign it, you will have made this RCA thing, this BCO thing — for the rest of your life you will have made this Declaration a Liz Niehoff thing.

You will declare these words: “Trusting in the Lord Jesus Christ for strength, I pledge my life to preach and teach the good news of salvation in Christ, to build up and equip the church for mission in the world, to free the enslaved, to relieve the oppressed, to comfort the afflicted, and to walk humbly with God.” You pledge your life. What else have you got, finally — your precious life that you have fought so hard to keep alive, and you’re going to pledge that to the gospel. It’s a vow that’s more extravagant than a wedding vow. I pledge my life. If I were to ask any one of you ministers here if you had a personal mission statement, you could just repeat these words.

I did not understand this thirty-four years ago when I first declared it for myself. I remember other things about my ordination, but not that I pledged my life. Probably because I really hadn’t. I was pledging a part of my life. I wasn’t lying, but I wasn’t declaring the whole truth. I wanted to do something else with my life, and I was doing the ministry thing until I could do what I was supposed to do. I would do this ministry thing until I could get my Ph.D. and then my teaching job, which I thought I knew I was meant to do.

Was I a fraud? Was I an imposter? No, I think not, because despite my not having given my life to it, the gospel was taking it. I got my degree and kept getting turned down by our seminaries and I was angry and bitter and then, about twelve years in, one day I noticed that I had been happy for the last three months, as a pastor. How Dutch is that, not to notice you’re happy till afterwards? So I decided to become a pastor. When people ask me when I decided to go into the ministry, I tell them it was about twelve years after my ordination.

Something else happened at the same time. I was up in Ontario on a pastor’s retreat, six of us in my friend’s cottage, a spring morning, bright sunlight, and Andrew, a minister from Ottawa, read these verses from Philippians 3, “I want to know Christ, and the power of his resurrection, and the sharing of his sufferings, being conformed to his death, that I might somehow attain the resurrection of the dead.” I heard these verses as if for the first time. I heard them as a direct revelation, like I was Muhammed listening to the angel Jabreel. These angelic verses called me. I needed to find out what they meant. I needed to know what they meant for my life.

I was always someone who wanted to know. I was lousy at sports but I was good at knowing things. At Trivial Pursuit it used to be me against my relatives. I was competitive at wanting to know things and I wanted to know what you knew better than you did. I wanted to know all the birds and all the trees. I wanted to know how to speak Dutch with my grandparents and then how to read Greek and I wanted to know Reformed theology and I wanted to know church history, I wanted to know it all and I ended up a know-it-all.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not criticizing the intellectual pursuit. Pastors should be lovers of learning and by no means avoid God’s mission to the public intellect. But what I am saying is that I discovered, more like, it hit me, I discovered it like you discover the piano that’s been dropped on your head, that now that I was willing to give my life to the gospel, I had to convert what I wanted to know. I needed to know Christ.

So if your personal mission statement is in the Declaration for Ministers, then your personal vision statement is Philippians 3:10-11. If you’re pledging your life to preach and teach the good news of salvation then you’re going want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings, conforming to his death to attain somehow the resurrection from the dead.

When I say “wanting to know Christ” I don’t mean wanting to be friends with Jesus, and I mean much more than knowing the Christ of history or even the second person of the Trinity. What St. Paul most certainly means is that in Christ you get to know the whole of God, for in him the fulness of God has come to dwell.

You want to know how, in the person of Jesus, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit actually entered and engaged and identified with humanity in real time in a real place as a real person. You want to explore this, you want to share in the suffering side of it and know the resurrection side of it. You want to know Christ because you want to know about this real connection God made with us by having a real mother named Mary and a real ethnicity named Jewish.

You want to know about God’s experience of us. You want to know what humanity feels like to God, you want to know what suffering feels like to God, and that you know in Christ. Closer than most of us, you have been like him in his death, and more than most of us, you have shared in suffering, but your own suffering can tell you only so much. How does suffering feel to this man Jesus, who caused no suffering to anyone else, who asked no sympathy, and who never complained?

You want the sharing of his sufferings. You don’t want the suffering itself, but the sharing of suffering. The word “suffer” comes from the Latin subfero which means under-carrying, undergoing, undergirding, undertaking, understanding. But you want to do that not on your own but in the power of his resurrection, and there where in your life and ministry you suffer most the likeness of his death is where you will learn to discover the power of his resurrection.

God is the one who frees the enslaved, it is God who relieves the oppressed, and God is the one who comforts the afflicted, but God has seen fit do that through the media of Word and Sacrament, and these media require human mediums. You pledge your life to be a medium. God is active in your mediation, God does business through your ministry. And in that business that you do, you want to know where Christ is, and keep yourself there.

You want to keep reading the encyclopedia of the power of his resurrection, you want to rehearse and rehearse the music of his suffering, you want to drill yourself in the dance-moves and in the verb-forms of his death, and you want to spend hours in the laboratory of the resurrection of the dead. You want to know Christ, you pledge your life to exploring God’s coming into the world, and reporting on God’s coming and taking people with you into God’s presence and no less meeting people who are already there and meeting up with God who is already there and waits for you in love.

St. Paul writes that he counts as rubbish all that he had gained. Should you? Should any of you? I have had a few losses in my life, but I’ve had much more privilege than loss. Should I count it as rubbish? This church is used to privilege; should you regard it all as rubbish? Well, yes, but only in comparison to the surpassing value of knowing Christ. Our candidate knows many things. She deserves to know them: she is an excellent student who studies hard, and she has paid very dearly for much of what she knows. And all that knowledge and experience increases the value of that young life of hers which she is pledging to the gospel today.

But she knows more than most of us the relative value of all that, compared to the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus as her Lord. She even counts all her losses as rubbish. I like to get some sympathy for my losses. Not her. She reminds me of St. Paul. Verse 13: “But this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press onward toward the goal of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” Her call is all she really knows about herself and her future. But she chose this text, so we know what else and whom else she wants to know. And so we commend her to churches, in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Copyright © 2014 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.