Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Proper 9, July 6, The Story of Rebekah: How Do You Know When It's a God Thing?

Genesis 24:35-38, 42-49, 58-67, Psalm 45:10-17, Romans 7:15-25, Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

[We have to read verses 50-57, or we miss the force of Rebekah’s answer in verse 58.]

Rebekah says, “I will.” I will, I want to. Her bold answer is the key to her story. She decides to go right away, to leave home right away, and that’s a leap of faith.

She had the right to stay home ten days. Those ten days would have been lucrative for her, days for collecting many gifts from all the neighbors, in her new status as the fiancé of a sheik. She gives that up when she says, “I will.” That’s the choice she makes, and it’s the only choice she’s given here.

Consider how little she had to say. Her marriage was arranged by her father and brother with the servant of Abraham. Nobody asked her for her opinion. It was not done. She was not part of the negotiations. Nobody asked her, “Do you, Rebekah, take Isaac, to be your wedded husband?” She never gets to say, “I do.” But then, against the odds, she says, “I will.”

She goes against her family. They assumed she would say, “Of course not.” That’s the little game they played against the servant of Abraham. They expected her to want to stay ten days, in order to honor them. The ten days were for the honor of the family, and for the family getting many gifts as well. But her choice denies them their fair share of the customary loot, and what will be their compensation for never seeing her again? What was she thinking, that she said, “I will”? This is to live by faith, to be a stranger to your family, to be an alien in the world.

Rebekah goes against the social laws of her day, and St. Paul writes, But I see in myself another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells within me. And yet Rebekah chose not to be captive to the social laws of her day, she chose for freedom, but at what great risk, for what did she really know was ahead for her?

Think of Rebekah in the midst of her family when Jesus says, But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, “We played the flute for you and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.”  She did not dance and she did not mourn, she set her eyes forward and looked to the promise she could hardly see. This is to live by your faith. You live in the future, you live for the promise, with its freedom and its loss.

In all these Abraham stories, Rebekah is the character most like him. Like him she left her home behind to go to an unknown land. Yet her choice cost her more than Abraham’s did, for she risked her family’s loyalty. She did it anyway. Which is what Jesus did. Jesus is like Rebekah.

Take Rebekah as your mother. I invite you to say, against the odds, “I will”. Choose for the future, choose for the promise, accept that you may be a stranger and a pilgrim in the world, that you go against the conventions and assumptions and expectations, that you be charged with disloyalty, and disappoint your loved ones. It might mean neither eating nor drinking, and being criticized for that, or eating and drinking, and being called a glutton and drunkard and friend of sinners.

Yes, you do want to live your life like this, you do want Rebekah as your mother, you do want, every day, to say, against the odds, “I will.” You do want to keep stepping out into God’s promise.

Your experience will be more like Rebekah’s than like Abraham’s. Her experience is closer to your own. The call of Abraham came directly from God. What Abraham heard was the voice of God and no one else. And God kept talking to him throughout his pilgrimage. But God never talked to Rebekah. Her call to faith came through the invitation of another human being, in the voice of the servant of Abraham. Her call was not direct but indirect, like your own.

So her response was riskier than Abraham’s. How could she say this was God’s will? Isn’t it much easier to be able to say, “I’m doing this because God told me too,” than to have to say, “I’m doing this because I wanted to, and I’m risking that it’s right.” You meet some pious people who explain their decisions by saying that they’re doing what God told them to do. They’re afraid to say, “I want.” You might think you have to say the same. It would sound more pious. Well, you can be too pious for the Bible. You don’t have to speak like that. You don’t have to say, “God told me so.” You can say, “I want to.” I will go. I choose what I choose, and I trust God.

God wants us to say, “I will,” God wants us to say, “I want.” Only not in terms of the flesh, but rather in terms of God’s promises. Typically we say “I want” in terms of our flesh, as an expression of desire, or lust, or greed, or for our fair share, or to satisfy an appetite, or in conformity with the laws of society and with the rules and conventions of the world.

That’s what Paul means by his term, the flesh in Romans 7. He doesn’t narrowly mean your physical body, but all of your life as you stand apart from God, both body and soul as you resist God’s Spirit, human culture in resistance to God’s Word. Your flesh commands your wanting and your willing. Like Rebekah’s family, who lived conventionally, but apart from the promises to Abraham, and independent of the providence of God, and all the risks involved. The point is to convert your willing and wanting from resistance to trust, from gratification into faith, from satisfaction into hope, and from possession into love. I know you do want this.

How often you find yourself discouraged in your wanting and willing by the resistance and confusion inside you. How often you find yourself choosing the very opposite of what you really want. You choose poorly, and you see it only afterwards. “Why did I choose this, what was I thinking?”

St. Paul describes your condition with compassion.  I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. . . . I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. It’s easier for non-believers, because if you stay within the flesh at least you are unified, but as a Christian you always feel like there are two of you: your life in God’s Spirit and your life in the flesh. Should you turn the other cheek or should you fight for justice? Should you accept your suffering or work for change? Should you tithe or pay down your mortgage? It never ends. You get frustrated and discouraged. How do you know that what you want is from God? How do you know that the Holy Spirit is in you? You know it precisely from the struggle in you, from the doubleness of you, from your unsettling duplicity. That you want the God thing, that you want to say “I will,” and that is what God hears.

The whole family of Rebekah is inside you, Bethuel her father, Milcah her mother, Laban her brother. They are always with you, and you will always be drawn to their interests, and to the social laws they represent, and the laws of the flesh, and your appetites. You will be giving in. And you will keep returning to God in confession and humility and grief and deeper longing.

But at the same time more deeply in you is Rebekah, your mother, the distant matriarch of Jesus, she is real in you, she is the deepest part of you, and that’s the you that God keeps looking on. Midst the clamor of the voices of the family system inside you, God can hear your voice, God knows what you really want, God knows what is your deepest will, even in those many times that you can’t see it through, God knows it, and recognizes it, and reckons it to you as perfection. God believes you when you say, “I want to,” even when you have a very hard time believing it yourself. God believes in you more than you believe in yourself, because God love you even more than you love yourself.

Copyright © 2014 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

June 22, Proper 7: Hagar and Abraham, Choose Between Your Fears

Genesis 21:8-21, Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17, Romans 6:1-11, Matthew 10:24-39

Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 88-90.

Our story from Genesis doesn’t make Abraham look so good. Abraham was in a fix, but the story is on Hagar’s side. In a prior story, God had promised Abraham that he would be the father of nations, and that his descendants would posses the promised land. Such promises depend on your having children, of course, but Abraham had none. So finally his wife Sarah proposed that Abraham sleep with her lovely young slave-girl Hagar, and if Hagar had a son, Sarah could take him as her own, for him to inherit their riches and the promises. This plan Abraham did not protest!

When slavery was legal in America, Black girls were taken all the time by their White masters. According to the ordinary ethics of ancient times, Abraham did nothing wrong. Hagar had no rights. But according to the standards of the Torah this was adultery. More subtly, Abraham insulted God, because he took God’s promises into his own hands. Abraham feared for his future, so he took the ordinary ethic of his day and the standard sexual privilege of powerful men.

Hagar had no rights. Abraham had the power of life-and-death among his household. He had the right to sex with his slave-girl, and Sarah had the right to give her to him, and also to take the slave-girl’s child as her own, even though Hagar would nurse him and do all the work of raising him. Abraham had the right to disinherit the boy whenever he was inconvenient. He also had the right to free his slaves. As he did with Hagar.

But even in freedom Hagar had no rights. Her freedom was no benefit to her. In those days, every woman had to be under the protection of a man, lest any other man might have his way with her. Every town or village would be dangerous for Hagar and her boy, and so she took her chances on the desert. Of all that Abraham did to Hagar, setting her free was the worst.

By the standards of the day he does nothing wrong, but the story depicts it as dishonorable. He does it in the dark, before the dawn, by himself, surreptitiously, and he packs her provisions, which is a servant’s job, and he does it on the cheap, with just some bread and water. He who had hosted a lavish feast to honor little Isaac. He puts the skin of water on her shoulder, touching her body, which once he had loved. She submits to him again. This is how he treats the mother of his son, his firstborn son, for some years his only son: dishonorably and shamefully.

We are troubled by God’s complicity. God tells Abraham to do what Sarah said to do. True enough, God was not complicit in the use and abuse of Hagar in the first place, and it was from Abraham doubting God that this shameful outcome resulted. True, God promises Abraham that Hagar and Ishmael will survive and someday flourish, but imagine him trying to tell her that as he casts her out in the dark. She’d need to have even greater faith than Abraham exhibited.

God rescues her, but it’s not pretty. Why does God allow her to suffer first? And why is it the crying of her boy that God responds to? Does she count for nothing? God watches her suffering from heaven, and only saves her at the last resort. Okay, so God prefers to wait till other hopes are gone. Or do we say that God is always just in time? And that we have to learn the hard way that the right time is not our time? You can’t get around the mysteries of faith.

I do not think that the opposite of faith is doubt. Not most deeply, most existentially. I think the opposite of faith is fear. It’s fear that drives your doubt. You fear that God will not come through. You fear that God will be unfair, or that God will not deliver on God’s promises. You fear that even if God is real, and good, and true, and loving, still God is an ideal, whose promises are ideal, and not to be banked on, so you just have to make do with the darkness of things.

Sarah was operating out of fear for her little boy Isaac, and so to protect him from what she feared she let Hagar and Ishmael suffer. Abraham was also operating out of fear. It specifically says he was distressed. He was afraid of Sarah’s anger, and afraid of dissension in his house, and maybe afraid of his slave-girl and their son, which is why he treated them so shamefully.

Not all fear is bad. Fear has its place. There is such a thing as healthy fear, and the Bible is firm on fearing God. When you plan your future, you have to build in healthy fear of certain things. And you have to choose among your fears. Which do you fear more? Global warming or a weakened economy? Terrorism or state security? Freedom from fear is one of the famous Four Freedoms, but that’s impossible. Freedom means only that you get to choose among your fears.

So often God’s promises run counter to the world’s expectations, so how are you supposed to apply them to the secular world where these promises have no self-evidence nor privilege? It’s natural for you to fear that God will not deliver on God’s promises, and so you yield to the conventional standards of the world.

This fear is addressed by Jesus in our Gospel: Jesus tells his disciples not to be afraid, precisely because following him will bring you new things to be afraid of, and because God’s promises so raise your expectations of the world that you will have more opportunities for doubt than those who do not know God’s promises. Jesus calls you, not to have no fear, but to face your fears and choose between them.

The standard dynamic is that your fear turns back your faith, but I am inviting you to let your faith prioritize your fears and help you choose among your fears: That fearing God you do not fear death. That you fear love, and that you fear love so much that you do not do anything that is not love. That you fear justice, so much that you do not do injustice, even to preserve yourself. That you fear truth and hope, even if your family is against you. That you learn to fear with love and to love what you fear. The great goal of following Jesus is to fear only that which you must love. Fear what you love above fearing anything else.

The Lord Jesus says he came to bring a sword. That sword is not for you to use against someone else, but on yourself, your own worst enemy. St. Paul says it differently in our Epistle. He tells you that you are two of you, simultaneously, the old self always dying, and the new self always rising. As certainly as you are baptized, your old you has been crucified with Christ and your new you has been born again in you. You both live on in you, your you who is enslaved to sin and death and your you who can already breathe the freedom that Jesus had. Your conversion is a daily thing, converting your old you to your new you, and every day you convert yourself again. And when you die, at last you will be only one of you. Your old you will be dead for good, and only your new you will have a future, when you attain your resurrection from the dead.

Slavery and freedom. Which Hagar was better off, the Hagar who was hated by her mistress but who enjoyed the warm security of slavery, or the Hagar who was free, and therefore in danger and at great risk? That’s a tough call. Hagar had figured out how not be afraid of Sarah, but now she has to be afraid of what she does not know and can’t control. Which is more fearful: slavery or freedom? Both of them have much to fear; we see nation after nation backing away from the chance for democracy and choosing the slavery of security.

The freedom of Christ means new things to be afraid of. The light of his love exposes you and you want to hide. His stubborn, quixotic honoring of you makes you feel ashamed. He even loves your old and sinful self, and you should too, but when you want to defend it and explain it he just forgives it and wants it peacefully to die, so that only you live on. You will fear until you die. But perfect love will cast out all your fear. Fear only this, the absolute love of God for you.

Copyright © 2014 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved. 

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

June 8, Pentecost: Community of Jesus #6: Wind, Fire, Earth, Water, and Wine

Acts 2:1-21, Psalm 104:25-35, 37, 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13, John 7:37-39, 20:19-23

All the Jewish pilgrims were gathered in Jerusalem because Pentecost is a major Jewish feast — one of the three great feasts of the Torah, the feast of Shavuoth, the feast of sevens, the feast of weeks, seven weeks, seven times seven, 49 days plus 1 after the Passover.

It is a double feast: it’s the feast of the first-fruits from the gardens and the fields, plus the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, where the congregation of Israel stood as one beneath the mountain where God came down in wind and fire and spoke to them, 50 days after the first Passover.

After the last Passover of Jesus, 49 days plus 1 after his first Easter, the signs and wonders at Mount Sinai are recapitulated in the wind and fire. The God that spoke to Israel at Mount Sinai now speaks to the pilgrim who represent, like delegates, the Jews of all the world. But this is new: from now on God will speak in human voices and in every language, whatever it takes for all of you to get the message. The Holy Spirit loves diversity and multiplicity. In Jesus you get the unique and once-for-all, the only-begotten, and in the Spirit you get ever-unfolding variety and experiment.

It’s the feast of the first-fruits. If Israel is the first-fruits of humanity, and if the first-fruits are now brought in, then it’s time to start working the fuller crops, and for all the other nations and ethnicities and orientations of humanity to be spoken to, and become God’s people too, and receive the Holy Spirit, and bring their gifts to God, the fruits of their own languages and music and traditions and cultures and histories.

This is what the Holy Spirit has been up to ever since that Pentecost. It’s not just your souls that are of interest. It’s not just your souls that belong to the Kingdom of God. It’s also your bodies and your voices and your accents and your dances and your fiddles and your pencils and your poems and your fishing poles.

This outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon all flesh is the greatest benefit and application of the Ascension that we marked last week. The Lord Jesus, in his human flesh, is not among us, he is not in the world in the ordinary way, because he is somehow, in some unexplained way, representing us before the face of God. But in his divinity he is with us in a greater way than before: he pours out on us a double portion of his Spirit. The Holy Spirit is a power and energy, for sure, but more than that, the Holy Spirit is another person of the Trinity, the person of the three who is the soul of God, the peculiar self of God, the who-ness of God. And that God comes among us and inside us.

Jesus had told his disciples that it would be better for us if he left us than if he remained with us, because while he was with us in the flesh, God was dwelling among us in only one particular person, taking up one small space, and all eyes were on him. But he has left, and sent his Spirit, and now God is spread out among you all, in all of your locations and your persons, and all eyes are on us.

With Jesus it’s the One, and with the Spirit it’s you the many; the result of Pentecost is that the story of Jesus is succeeded by the story of you. What Jesus has accomplished by his once-for-all death and resurrection is that God is in you, delighting in all your various particulars and personalities, God enjoying and employing all your various aptitudes and gifts. Jesus couldn’t speak English; you can.

From our lessons today we get four images: wind, fire, earth, water, and wine. The first four are the four elements of ancient times. We will take them in that order: air, fire, earth, water, and wine.

The first one, wind, is also breath. The Holy Spirit is the wind of God and the breath of God. The breath of God is the soul of God, God’s inner self, which God breathes into us. Not the animal soul that you’re born with, but the uncreated and transcendent soul, the soul more powerful than death and sin and guilt, the soul who never tires nor fatigues, who never is exhausted or expired, a soul who is pure love and faithfulness even inside your unlovely infidelities, this breath who forgives your sins and inspires you to forgive each other too.

You can’t see the wind, but you can see what’s moved by it, and you can feel it only indirectly, by pressure on your skin. Don’t be dismayed that you don’t feel the Holy Spirit inside you. What you feel in yourself is the pressure and movement of the Spirit against the rougher surfaces of your personality. The Holy Spirit makes you grieve until your grief is done, it rubs against the guilt in you until your guilt is cleaned away, and it erodes your selfishness until your self is made smooth. Slowly you begin to feel yourself softening and flexing and expanding in capacity and love, as the Spirit inflates you and inspires you until it so perfectly fills your inner spaces that you won’t feel it at all.

Not just in you but also in the world. The Holy Spirit is the wind of God that is loose in the world. We name a wind by whence it comes but where it will go we can only guess. God is in the world to inspire the world and quicken it, and God is opening new ways in the world.

The second element is fire, and the fire is the presence of God. The burning bush, the flame upon Mount Sinai, the pillar of fire by night, and the tongues of fire on their heads. The fire is another sign of God’s own self. The Holy Spirit is both God’s energy and God’s own personality. God’s person is dangerous. God burns you in judgment. But the fire of God will also comfort you and warm you up and keep you safe against the cold and dark malicious dangers of the world.

The third element is the earth, and that’s for you and your embodiment. God made you from the dust of the earth and God loves the earth. You see that in Psalm 104: "God’s Spirit renews the face of the earth." Don’t be misled by the notion that to be spiritual is to be unearthly. God rejoices in the earth and all of its creatures. God’s Spirit hardens the rocks, and spices the air, and browns the earth, and salts the sea, and freshens the rivers. God makes you a garden, that you produce the fruits of the new creation in your life. God enjoys the flowers of your personality and God takes pleasure in your work. The Holy Spirit is in you to come out of you for the unfolding of the world. The Holy Spirit is given to the church to come out of the church for the healing of the nations.

And fourth, water; the Holy Spirt is the living water who satisfies your thirst and brings life to your dry dust. The Spirit is the river that rises in you and flows out of you. The image that Jesus offers in the gospel comes from Genesis 2 verse 10. God planted a garden in the East called Eden, and out of the Garden four rives flowed to water all the earth. Just so your own spirit rises out of you into the life you make, into what you do and into your relationships. And the Holy Spirit mixes God’s water with yours to overcome your pollution and keep your river running fresh.

The Holy Spirit is pure water. But of course there is no such thing as pure wine. Every wine is a different mixture, from its particular variety of grape, and its particular soil, and its vintage and its pressing and barreling and bottling and aging. Our Lord turns water into wine. Our Lord turns the water of the Holy Spirit into the particular varietal of your peculiar life. The gospel wonderfully transforms the purity of the Spirit into the manifold diversity of all your lives. The Holy Spirit loves diversity, even while in the One Lord Jesus we find our unity. The Lord Jesus is perfect and unique, and the works of the Spirit are passing and provisional and mixed and broken, but even for that they are no less the realities of God’s salvation in the world. The water of Jesus is the wine of the Spirit.

And that is you, Old First. You are one of God’s realities of salvation in the world, and you must believe in yourself as the work of God. You can believe in yourself, Old First, despite how mixed and broken and provisional ou are, because, as you repeat in the Creed says, you believe in the Holy Spirit, and thus you believe in the Holy Catholic Church.

I take great pleasure in the diversity of this congregation, even in small compass, your variety of ethnicity, race, and orientation, which variety we celebrate today with the recognition of Timothy and Zoë as new members, two new crew-members on this old boat that sails before the wind. We know where the wind came from but where it’s going we can’t see until we get there. Our course has slightly changed again because they are now on board, with their peculiar histories and gifts. But you rejoice in these adjustments because you want to love them, and you want to love them because they are loved so much by Our Lord.

Copyright © 2014 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

June 1, Easter 7, Community of Jesus #5: Cloud-Based Believing

 Acts 1:6-14, Psalm 68:1-10, 33-36, 1 Peter 4:12-14, John 17:1-11

We’re going to have a baptism today, but I’m not going to do it, because it’s for my granddaughter and I want to stay out of the way. I didn’t baptize her mother either, or my son. I wanted to just be the father, and now I want to be just one of the grandparents, the four of us. The minister who’s doing it is Rev. Howard Major, who for 28 years was the pastor of our sister congregation in New Paltz, so he’s had lots of practice.

As for this sermon, well, it’s never wise to preach to your daughter, and neither to your son-in-law. So momentarily I will regard them not as family but as the member and adherent of this congregation that they are, who have rightly brought their child to the water. So it’s true that this is a nice day for our tribe, but only coincidentally.

This baptism is not about biology, it’s about mission. The place that Dave and Anni have within the liturgy is as officers of the church, officers with a mission in the life of this little girl. They represent the church within her life. For the next few years they are her surrogate Sunday School teachers, her surrogate elders and deacons, and her pastor by proxy. For her they are the Community of Jesus. The three of them are a small Community of Jesus, in an apartment, with a dog.

And all of you are surrogates as well. You today, who are this congregation, you represent an entity greater than yourselves. You represent the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. That’s the church into which this little girl is being baptized. Yes, her name is written in the register book as a baptized member of Old First church, because it’s in the form and matter of local congregations that the universal church exists, but this particular Community of Jesus is the surrogate for the great Community of Jesus extending around the globe and reaching far into the future and stretching back through time to that first small gathering in Jerusalem on Ascension Day.

So the register of names is a very long one, from the Book of Old First stretching back to the Book of Acts. At this end, Naomi Beatrice Eppley, and at the other end, going backwards: Jesus’ brothers, and his mother Mary, and then Judas Jameson, and Simon, James ben-Alphaeus, Matthew, Bartholomew, Thomas, Philip, Andrew, James at number 3, John at number 2, and Peter number 1. I wonder what your number is, Naomi, in that great list? I wonder how many other names today are being added to that register in other congregations, from the ends of the earth back to Jerusalem? God knows their number. God calls them each by name.

Let’s talk about that Ascension Day. How high up into heaven did Jesus go before the cloud removed him from their sight? Was it a low cloud, like the cloud upon Mount Sinai in the Exodus and the cloud upon Mount Hermon at Our Lord’s transfiguration, or like the cloud in South Africa at Cape Town which covers the long flat top of Table Mountain like a Tablecloth? Was the cloud that low? I believe we are to take it so. The point is not that the Lord Jesus went so far away as that he passed into the unseen reality all around above us.

How far up is heaven? I have spoken to you of this before. We assume it is way up. But in the Bible, heaven was felt as close. It started just above the ground, and then it was heaven all the way up. Mountains were thought of as poking into heaven, and thus the mountain-top experience—in the realm of light and air, where birds and spirits lived beyond the grip of gravity, the realm of freedom. The point of heaven isn’t altitude but attitude. It’s not far away, it’s all around, but invisible to us, unless it opens up to us somehow.

Right now this room is full of radio waves at different frequencies. Only few of them are visible. There are in here microwaves and short-waves and AM waves and FM waves, and they are carrying a million messages of information and conversation. You can’t sense them unless you have a receiver of some kind. Some of these waves can travel great distances and bounce around the atmosphere. Once I was driving in Canada at sundown and I picked up the broadcast of a Mets game. On short-wave radio you can communicate with anyone around the world. But if you lack the device or the power to run the device you are senseless of this conversation, no matter how real it is.

This is what heaven is like, the heaven which Jesus entered on Ascension Day. It’s the great and living conversation all around above us, the reality beyond the grip of gravity, unbound by time and space, but powerful, and present to the world, and the earthly world is very much within its interest. The radiation in it is the power of Our Ascended Lord, and the information in it is his living Word. And when you also enter that conversation, that is what we call prayer. When we raise up a child in the Christian faith, we teach the child how to tune in to the wavelength of that great conversation already going on. That’s why prayer is just as much about listening as it is speaking.

There’s a story about a man who was exhausted and discouraged. His friend was a person of prayer, and he asked her what her secret was. She said, "I have no secret, I just pray." He said, "I pray too, but I don’t think my prayers even reach the ceiling." She said, "They don’t have to go that far." When we read in our Gospel Lesson of Jesus praying in the Upper Room for his disciples on the night before he died, that he lifted up his eyes to heaven, what he saw with his eyes was the ceiling. And the prayer that he was praying then for his disciples is what he’s praying in heaven for you now.

The Heidelberg Catechism says that you can find comfort in the doctrine of the Ascension because it means that Jesus intercedes for you in the presence of his Father. He knows exactly what it’s like to have a body, to be hungry, to be hated, to be beaten and abused, to be a refugee, to be a little child bundled about. And because Jesus knows, God knows. When Jesus prays in heaven for this little girl it’s not at a distance but here among us, under this ceiling, in our midst.

Now what about that cloud in the story? In the Bible the cloud is the sign of the presence of God which also hides God from your sight. Is God really there or not? What is God up to in there? This past week I just started to do some cloud-based computing. It’s a little scary, not having my files securely on my hard drive. Not even my programs. They’re out of my possession. I really don’t know where those files are, but I can always get at them.

Dearly beloved, you are called to practice cloud-based believing. Your knowledge is not with you but with Jesus in the cloud. The programs you operate are not with you but with Jesus in the cloud. That’s a hard lesson, but it’s for the best.

The disciples had to face this now. The disciples had not foreseen that Jesus would be leaving them. They liked having him back, back from the dead in flesh and blood, standing right there with them, ready to do some politics, but then he left them. Now they have to deal with a cloudy new reality which is not clear to them but into which they must project their belief.

So much is not defined. Like how it works, that he still has a real live Jewish human body with hair and nails and such, and exist somehow the way he does. What space and time can hold him? And who are these two men? Where did they come from? They are not angels, they are men, with bodies too. Did they come here from the future? Is that where Jesus is? My best answer is Yes, and my message to you today is that from the future he is bending our history towards his kingdom of righteousness and peace as we slowly come to him.

You can’t see the future of this little girl. You can’t define what lies ahead for her or what kind of choices she will make. But you can project your belief into the future of her life, her future which the Lord Jesus is bending towards his final righteousness and peace, because he is already there, and at the same time he is also here with her, under this ceiling.

You know, Our Lord is the real guy doing the baptism, and as certainly as Rev. Major pours the water on her head so certainly does the Lord Jesus pour his Spirit into her heart. When Rev. Major repeats her name so certainly does Our Lord repeat it too, and announce it to his Father, and the Father delights to say her name and love her. And when you all witness it, be reminded that God knows your name as well, and delights to say your name, because of how much God loves you.

Copyright © 2014 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Friday, May 23, 2014

May 25, Easter 6, Community of Jesus #4: Conscience

Acts 17:22-31, Psalm 66:7-18, 1 Peter 3:13-22, John 14:15-21 

I can say that I’m a competent Biblical scholar, especially on the Gospels. I’m not an academic, but I do spend more time in the technical study of the Gospels than many other pastors do. Of course my conscience troubles me that my sermons are too scholarly and not practical enough, and I worry that my preaching drives away as many people as it draws. Every week I feel I’ve fallen short. So I have to make peace within myself, and honor the core commitment of my job to the serious study and teaching of scripture, and I thank you for supporting me in that and wanting that.

After years of study I have come to the not uncommon conclusion that the Gospel of John was the last of the four gospels to be written, and that it was written by someone who had a copy of the Gospel of Matthew, and maybe also Mark and Luke. It makes sense to me that it really was written by St. John, the best friend of Our Lord, an eyewitness, but more, an intimate who knew the mind and thought of Jesus. It also makes sense that he wrote it late in life, decades after it all happened.

So what you get with St. John’s Gospel is this remarkable simultaneous closeness and distance, Jesus here and Jesus gone, presence and absence, immediacy and abstraction, and also a wonderful simultaneous simplicity and subtlety. The author obviously rewrote and refitted what Jesus said and did, rearranging, repackaging, and distilling, but at the same time he manages to get you closer to Jesus than the other gospels do, closer to Jesus as a man but also closer to Jesus as God, so close that you come to know his voice. In the writing of St. John, you hear the voice of Jesus.

The Lord Jesus himself wrote nothing down. We know his voice only second-hand. But we know first-hand the voice of St. Paul, from the letters that he wrote himself, and his personality comes through. Compared to Jesus, St. Paul is more emotional, more confessional, more self-critical, more modern, more cosmopolitan, and closer to us than Jesus was, in terms of culture and philosophy.

You notice it in our first lesson, with St. Paul in Athens and preaching to the philosophers. He could be speaking to people today, people who go at spirituality like educated consumers, who design their own religions from the many options available, especially the exotic ones, people who like to regard themselves as open and who also do not like to make commitments.

We get the voice of St. Paul second-hand in the book of Acts, in which are recorded five of his speeches. Two of them are sermons, and this one is the second one. It was not a rousing success, if you count the conversions after it, compared to the sermons of St. Peter.

But the voice of St. Paul that we know from his letters is in this sermon: measured, articulate, adept in the classical liberal arts, and ambitious to engage philosophy and poetry. St. Paul was not one of the disciples nor an eyewitness like St. Peter nor an intimate of Jesus like St. John. The only Jesus that he knew personally was the Risen Lord, and seated at the right hand of the Father. St. Paul was the public herald of this new Lord across the empire, while St. John was the close friend who brought you to him. You get a wonderful complexity of voices in the Bible. The New Testament is a Community of Jesus in print.

The voice of St. Peter is different. In modern terms his writing is less articulate. It’s jammed and jumbled; he mixes metaphors and makes weird combinations. He writes in the fluid and pulsing rabbinic style that you can still hear in some synagogues in Brooklyn.

In our lesson today he zips through some obscure Jewish mythology, about the spirits in prison in the time of Noah. In Jewish legend these were the souls of the children of those angels who had made love to human women. So it seems that St. Peter was writing his letter to the little congregations of converted Jews in Asia Minor, who suffered trouble from both sides, Jewish relatives and Roman neighbors, and who had much to be afraid of.

St. Peter is just the one to address their fear. He’s the Cowardly Lion. St. Paul is the Scarecrow, and St. John is the Tin Man, and St. Peter is the Cowardly Lion. St. Paul had the brains, and St. John had the love, and St. Peter had the courage. Or not!

Remember his story. He was an intimate of Jesus, but not as close as St. John was. He was the loud guy, the strong guy, the impulsive guy, who stoutly promised Jesus to defend him to the death, and then, of course, famously didn’t, and in fear denied him, and then hid himself in shame. After Pentecost the Holy Spirit converted his courage, and freed him from the fear of death and suffering.

Yet even then, some years later, at the Council of Antioch, St. Peter was challenged by St. Paul for betraying his own convictions from fear of the criticism of the conservatives. For the most part, the greater part, he was faithful, for the 99% part, but we know him for his failure as much for his fidelity because every year on every Good Friday his denial is retold again.

Every Good Friday St. Peter has to get his conscience clear by trusting in the gracious promise of the love of Jesus. And he’s writing to little communities of Jesus with cloudy consciences. They love Jesus and they want to keep his commandments, but they are always compromised. Christian wives have to obey their non-Christian husbands and Christian slaves have to obey their pagan owners. They don’t have power over their own lives, and in a civilization which does not value freedom they have much to fear and much to feel guilty about.

He tells them that the way you clear your conscience is to trust the promise of your baptism. "I still belong to you, O God, not by right of my own righteousness but because you put your brand upon my head. I am compromised but I am baptized, so I will climb aboard that ark, as unclean as I am."

My conscience accuses me. I can be the Scarecrow and the Tin-man but far too often the Cowardly Lion. If you were to research the roster of people who have passed through this church in the last ten years, some of them have left because of me. Every time I only think of the names of certain people I can feel my face flush with embarrassment. "Why did I say that to him? Why didn’t I say this to her? Why didn’t I make that call? Just one more visit? Why am I so fearful all the time? Not for life and limb, but afraid of certain people and afraid of what people might think of me?"

You have to clear your conscience. To live the Christian life, with all of your compromises on the inside and the outside, you have to clarify your cloudy conscience. Just one drop is all it takes, just the promise that you are baptized. Just that thought, and hold that thought. It feels like your own thought, and it is, but it’s also the silent voice of your inner Advocate who is not you, your inner Counselor, your Comforter, the Holy Spirit, quietly dwelling in your own thoughts.

The silent voice of Jesus is in the writing of St. John, and it says, "If you love me, you will keep my commandments." He doesn’t mean, "If you love me, maybe you’ll keep my commandments," and maybe not. I can tell you from my technical study of this verse that the "Condition" is "More Probable" than that. It means this, "If you love me, you will be keeping my commandments." It’s a promise, it’s a conscience cleanser. It’s not about your performance but your groping and desire, even if only from desperation. It’s not about how good or true your love is, because the love that you love Jesus with is not your own love but the love that God has put inside you, so that it’s not up to you and your cannot compromise it even by your failure and fear and infidelity.

I’ve been saying all this to you as individuals. But as I said last week, the verbs and pronouns in the promises of Jesus here are plural: "you" plural. You have to comfort each other and believe in each other and honor each other in the midst of all your compromising for the love of Christ among you. When you are baptized it’s not just for yourself, for you are baptized into a community. The job of the Community of Jesus is to hold up each other’s consciences.

We’re all in the same boat, but it’s not sinking, it’s an ark, in which we’re being saved. You’re safe with each other. You hold each other up within this very compromising world. You believe in each other. A great part of practicing love within the Community of Jesus is to believe in each other. Not quixotically, not pollyannishly, and with maturity, but still to see that every last person among you is the object of God’s fanatical love. And God has that same fanatical love for you.

Copyright © 2014 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

May 18, Easter 5, Community of Jesus #3: RSVP

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

"If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it." Why does Jesus make this invitation? It sort of discredits him. C’mon, Jesus, not really. How many things that we’ve prayed for in his name are still not done. His promise contradicts what our experience tells us. He could have qualified it with just a few more words, like, "I will do it–if I think it is a good idea," or I will do it–as may best for you," both of which would make it fully credible. But he didn’t. He says it unqualified and absolute.

Why did the author record him saying this? The author was his best friend John, who wrote this down some decades after the fact. During those years the Apostle John will have had his own experience of unfulfilled requests. He could have suppressed this promise as something not helpful.

That he did not suppress it, you may take as a sign of the author’s trustworthiness. He reported even those things which seem to discredit his hero. Not only things back then which are hard to believe, like the miracles and the resurrection, but also things which would touch your own experience today, like this promise. It’s harder to believe that Jesus is faithfully present and active in your life than it is to believe that those events might have happened. It’s harder to believe that Jesus will keep his promise to do anything you ask in his name than to believe that he rose from the dead.

Jesus gives this promise as an invitation. But we rarely return the RSVP. From fear of disappointment? From only half-believing? Because we’ve learned to take a lot of our promises with a grain of salt? From not expecting much from God?

Pentecostals and Charismatics return the RSVP a lot. They take the invitation at face value, and they keep on asking, and with specifics and details. If Jesus doesn’t do what they ask for, they blame themselves and their lack of faith or holiness. This has the effect of saving Jesus’ reputation. But to end up blaming yourself is not why Jesus offered this invitation. He offered it for comfort and encouragement and precisely to take you out of blaming yourself. He opens by saying, "Let not your hearts be troubled." This invitation is meant to encourage you and comfort you.

Should you filter what you ask for? No. Ask for anything. Even Jesus, praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, asked his Father to spare him the cup of suffering. But then he added these words too: "Nevertheless, not my will but your will."

The Apostle Paul tells us that he kept asking the Lord for the removal of his so-called "thorn in the flesh," but finally he got the message back, "My grace is sufficient for you;" in other words, "Okay, dear Paul, that’s enough."

So do you have to give up asking? No and Yes. I would say only when you get a clear enough message back; but to be able to perceive and accept such messages you have to develop your spiritual maturity.

Do you have to adjust what you ask for? Yes, because the Lord Jesus is adjusting you, in terms of your gradual conversion and transformation, like with Paul, and because the world keeps moving, and your circumstance. In the case of Stephen, in our first lesson, I’m sure that on the day before his martyrdom he had not been asking Jesus for what he was asking now, that the Lord Jesus would receive his spirit, and that the Lord would not hold the sin of his killers against them. You do have to adjust what you ask for.

Should you ask for less? Yes and No. Probably for fewer things, but then more passionately and daringly for those fewer things.

Should you grow in maturity in what you ask for? Yes, of course. You can ask for anything, but you want to start asking for the anything that Our Lord wants for you, for the anything that receives the coming of his kingdom in the world and in your life. That takes discipleship, and learning, and patience, and self-examination.

On Easter Sunday I said that the resurrection leads Christians to speak of things we do not know the meaning of. Of course we do know some of the meaning of what we speak, but much of the meaning we do not know, and yet we are to speak of the things beyond us with conviction. So we hold up this contradiction between the invitation and our experience. Jesus did not fear this contradiction, and the Apostle Paul did not back off from it, and the Apostle John did not suppress it in his gospel but reported it, and I guess he figured you could handle it, and that you need to handle it.

Dearly beloved, I don’t want you to back off from anything that Jesus said, or take it with a grain of salt. My best advice is that we must learn to wait on God. You must learn to wait on God. Turn the other cheek to God: I’m still here, God. I’m holding you to what you promised. Do with me what you will, break me down, batter me, judge me, keep converting and transforming me, but I believe that you love me, and that’s why I’m still here and I’m still asking. I’m waiting on you, God.

This waiting is not passivity. For just before Jesus extends his invitation he says something else remarkable: "You will do greater works than these, because I am going to my Father." Here is promise not only of invitation but also of empowerment. You are empowered to do greater works than he did because of the power he extends to you from God the Father. Jesus had his turn, and now it’s your turn. Jesus is not just promising, he’s predicting; not just that might do them, but that you will do them and that you are doing them. And we look at ourselves, and we say, "We are?" Should we take that with a grain of salt as well?

What can he mean? What does "greater" mean? Larger? More impressive? More effective? I won’t collapse it by defining it. His meaning has to keep moving and expanding. What does it mean? Let’s see what we can make it mean. It’s in our working that we will know what "greater" means.

His promise depends on the connection of working and waiting. I mean the duality of working and waiting. In much of life these two are opposites: on-time and off-time. But in Jesus’ name you have to work while you wait and wait while you work. This means that the results of your works are not within your hands. You are empowered but not for your achievement. You are empowered to surrender your greatest works. Like Stephen. It’s not just when you die that you offer to God your martyrdom, but all through your life you surrender your best works to God; you wait on God.

The benefit of this simultaneous waiting and working is to expand you. It makes room in you. It makes space in you. It opens up your hospitality. Your image for this comes from our second lesson, that you all are living stones built up together into a spiritual house. You know that the stones within the structure of a house are working while they are at rest. From an engineering point of view, the stones in a wall are not just sitting there. The stones are carrying the forces of tension and compression within them. In terms of structural engineering, a building is alive. You are living stones.

You are a community of Jesus and so you support each other in your waiting and your working, and you make a space among you for sanctuary and hospitality. You stand by each other when you work and sit with each other when you wait, you weep with each other, you sing with each other, you encourage each other, especially in seasons of unanswered prayer.

How do you live this out in practice? I’ve got four specific ways. And I need 32 of you to do them.

Twenty of those 32 I need to volunteer for working at the Respite Shelter during the first week of July. Five nights, four per night, 20 of you working for Jesus by waiting on the men. By your waiting and your working you will be building every night again a space of hospitality and sanctuary.

Two of those 32 I need to help me pray for Lacey, one of our members who is homeless and unemployed. I will forward to you his daily text messages to me, when he asks me to pray that he gets a job and a place to live and a girlfriend. For three years he’s been asking Jesus for this. Will 2 of you help me do this work and wait on God for him?

Four of those 32 I need to pray for Rev. Julia Turner. She has committed her life to the gospel and she’s seeking a pulpit of her own. Will four of you pray for her the next few months? I will help you. This kind of prayer takes working and waiting.

And I need six of you to meet with me once a month to pray for our discernment process on the sanctuary. We will have one team doing the work of the process, and I need another team to wait on God.

Don’t do these things alone. The verb-forms within the promises of Jesus are plural, not singular. They’re for the community of Jesus and they make of us community. They engender love and require love. When you balance working-on and waiting-on you engender the love you require. In the name of Jesus you wait upon and work out the unfathomable love of God for you.

Copyright © 2014 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

May 10, Easter 4, Community of Jesus #2: Sheep and Saints

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

Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 55: What do you understand by "the communion of saints"? First, that believers one and all, as members of this community, share in Christ and in all his treasures and gifts. Second, that each member consider it a duty to use these gifts readily and cheerfully for the service and enrichment of the other members.
On the other side of that wall is a great big sanctuary. We used to worship there, until some plaster from the ceiling fell.

That seems so long ago. There are church members here who have never worshiped in our sanctuary. We have members who have never heard Aleeza play the pipe organ. How long will it take us to get back in there? How much money should we spend on it? Should we just make it safe again, or make it splendid again, or maybe give it up?

We have some big decisions coming. Right now we are designing a process of discernment for the congregation. You’ll learn more about this pretty soon. We want our process to be spiritual and our decisions to be guided by our mission. Part of my job is to remind us of our mission. That’s why I am preaching this sermon series on the opening phrase of our Mission Statement, and I’m asking our scripture lessons every week what they can tell us about the Community of Jesus.

This week two things. Our first lesson describes the first community of Jesus, two months after his resurrection, right after Pentecost. We will come back to this. Our second lesson and our gospel lesson compare the community of Jesus to a flock of sheep. The gospel lesson is in two parts. The first part is a parable — a depiction of an ordinary village sheepfold, with a wall, a gate, and a gatekeeper. Every morning the shepherds all come to fetch their own flock from out of the common herd, calling them each by name, and they follow the voice of the shepherd they know.

The second part of the gospel lesson is an application of the parable. Jesus says, "I am the gate," and he expands on that. He will make two more applications in the verses which come right after our lesson for today, verses which we will read a year from now. So actually the application of the parable is threefold: I am the gate, I am the good shepherd, and I lay down my life for my sheep. In our lesson next Sunday we will hear him say something similar: "I am the way, the truth, and the life." I am the way: I am the gate. I am the truth: I am the good shepherd. I am the life: I lay down my life for my sheep.

But frankly I don’t want to be a sheep. I don’t like to think of myself as a sheep. Neither do you. You do like the shepherd side of the parable, but the sheep side not so much. Everyone loves Psalm 23, The Lord is my shepherd, and you’re fine with Jesus applying that metaphor of divinity to himself, but for your totem animal you would not choose a sheep. Isn’t a sheep a stupid animal? Isn’t the iconic innocence of lambs a function of passivity? Aren’t domesticated sheep helpless without human care? Is that the point? For you to know the truth about yourself you have to see yourself in terms of this unflattering metaphor. The insult is intended and instructive. Accept it.

There is something just as unattractive in our second lesson, in the very first sentence. Frankly I don’t want to endure pain while suffering unjustly. Neither do you. You want to fight back. You want to ease the pain. If you’re sufferin’, you want a Bufferin (Carole King). The lesson suggests passivity and surrender in the face of trouble. Like with sheep. And if he’s such a good shepherd, then why am I suffering?

But actually the lesson is describing something active. The pain and suffering are the by-product of doing the right thing in a tough spot, of voluntarily doing the right thing even when you know you will not get rewarded for the right thing, and even punished for the right thing. This takes moral courage, especially not to fight back, unless your fighting back is only to keep on doing the right thing time and time again. This also takes freedom, a deep inner freedom.

Freedom is not natural. It’s a gift and a treasure for us to shelter and nurture and honor. I was talking to one of our Sunday School teachers about the frustrations of teaching the children of Park Slope who are over-stimulated and over-obligated. The teacher said that her whole attitude changed one day when she realized, from what one kid happened to say, that that kid did not have to come to Sunday School — that that kid was perfectly allowed to stay home if he pleased, but that kid freely chose, on his own, to come to Sunday School. Wow. Precious.

Freedom is not infinite or absolute. Secular freedom has boundaries and it is properly resisted by laws and contracts, the rights of others, physical realities, scarcity, gravity, and taxes. You exercise your freedom against those resistances just as you exercise your muscles against the resistance of your elliptical machine. Christian freedom has its boundaries too, and what properly resists your Christian freedom is the community of Jesus. Freedom and community: dialectical, contradictory, inextricable. You exercise your Christian freedom into the productive and strengthening resistance of the community of Jesus.

You can keep your Christian life a private thing and individual, but then you will not gain the moral strength of it. The Christian life is a communion: a communion with God through the medium of Jesus, and then by extension from that a communion of saints. A flock of sheep, yes, but also saints. You are both of these, at the same time, from God’s point of view. The compliment is intentional and instructive. Accept it. You need to be in this communion because you are a sheep, and you have freedom within it because you are a saint.

This takes us back to our first lesson, from the Book of the Acts, about the very first community of Jesus. "They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers." Every church has to do those four things: teaching, fellowship, bread-breaking, and prayer, and do them in several combinations. Today we’re looking at the second thing, fellowship. The Greek word is koinonia, which you can also translate as communion, community, commonality. That first community of Jesus was very communal: they "had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need."

Their primitive communism was a wonder and a sign. It was not meant as a law for us, and the apostles never expected it of their later congregations. How could they, when so many of their converts were slaves who had no property and women with no right to property, and very little freedom; all they could share was themselves, if they could risk getting away for a couple hours once a week at night. That was part of their suffering.

That communism is not a law for us, but it is an enduring sign for us, a sign of both judgment and invitation, to make you wonder, always, about your own life, and your own independence, and how you exercise your freedom as a Christian, and your freedom with your treasure and your gifts. The question is not whether, but how much. How far? Do you give of your gifts and treasure to the community to risk your own financial suffering and pain? I would not. But it might mean you give enough to put at risk your independence and your pleasures.

Of course I’m talking about money, and even time, and your talents, and your skills and expertise, but more important is your personality, your personal vulnerability, the gift of your self, your history, your emotions, your troubles, your triumphs, your suffering, your story. Your story is the most important gift we want from you, and then after that, your questions, if you honor the questions of others and their stories as your own.

Your own personal story is part of the very long story of Old First, but more important, your own personal story is part of the story of Jesus in the world. Do you want us to know your story? Maybe. Are you open to learning the stories of others? "Well, okay, but can we keep it to like a dozen? What does Christian love require of me? I’m not interested in a commune. But I’m open to being challenged and expanded." I believe you are.

Why did you start coming here? Not to maintain an old historic church, and not to fix up a sanctuary. You came here to get closer to God, you came here for yourself and your own interests. But the more you are here, the more you are here for the other people who are here. It’s not all pain and suffering. It’s the slow development of love. You practice your love and you rehearse your love, both giving and receiving it. You make mistakes. You practice it again. You always start by believing that God’s first gift to you is God’s own love for you.

Copyright © 2014 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.