Sunday, January 31, 2016
Jeremiah 1:4-10, Psalm 71:1-6, 1 Corinthians 13:1-13, Luke 4:21-30
What an exceptional thing is human speech. We are told that chimpanzees share 99% of our DNA, yet they do not talk, and it seems they cannot talk. They have no use for words. Neither does any primate or any other mammal. A few birds can mimic human speech, but they don’t use that speech for their own birdy lives. Those animals that can understand some of our speech are those we have domesticated, and our words to them are instruments of their domestication.
Animals, of course, raise their young without speaking to them. They communicate without words. But we humans talk to our babies constantly, and we have to, not only to develop their brains, but also to fashion their relationships. For the human species, words are not just information but how we do relationships.
And we do this without any special physical organ for speech. We just make use of the same mouth structures that we share with other primates. Our tongues, lips, and teeth evolved for eating food, and these eating structures are what we use to shape our sounds. With your teeth you make dental consonants, and with your tongue linguals, and labials with your lips, be they aspirated, liquid, fricative or plosive, and for vowels you adjust the opening of your mouth, so that you can produce an infinity of sounds that serve an infinity of meanings for a subtle complexity of mind.
The human mind has many purposes. The Christian claim is that the greatest purpose of your mind is for you to know the God who is behind the universe, as much as this God can be known by you, and that depends on what God reveals to us. Yes, your mind is your own, and for being human in the world, but to be a human in the world brings with it that your mind is ultimately for God.
If you can you know God and the things of God, then you should not keep silent about what you know. What you know of God is not yours to keep for yourself. You are to give voice to what you know of God, and with your mouth make those sounds in patterns that other human beings can recognize as confession and praise and thanksgiving. To make these sounds along with other people is a very human thing to do, and so the worship service helps you function as a human being.
I know that many times it’s better to keep silent. I tend to speak up. That’s my calling. I believe it’s a calling laid on me by God since my youth, like Jeremiah, and because you recognize my calling you employ me here and you listen to me speak. I’m a speaker, and in my gift is my usual sin. With me, it’s things I say that I regret the most. Many people err by keeping silent when they should speak, but my errors are from speaking when I should be quiet. Many times it’s better to keep silent. And yet that does not excuse you from God’s call on you to speak up when it’s needed and costly.
Last Monday I sat behind a mike at the Brooklyn Paper Radio Hour. It’s a weekly comedic commentary on Brooklyn news, and I was asked to come in as “A man of God and our moral compass.” The two hosts of the show are quick, sharp, funny, and aggressive. I found myself trying to just keep up, and stay in, and maybe score a point or two. I’d get asked sudden questions, and have to give an answer quick on complex issues. I made it through, I think without embarrassing Old First or shaming Our Lord, but I won’t go back. This kind of talking may entertain, but what does it serve? And this kind of talking dominates our public culture.
Here’s the first take home. With the glut of talk in radio and media, one of our Christian missions is to offer an alternate culture of how we talk, of disciplined speech, loving speech, especially about other people. It’s not political correctness, it’s calling people what they ask to be called. It’s respecting them. The loving discipline of speech starts with yourselves and what you repeat and what you say about each other. You also discipline what you say to each other. My mentor once told me that I was required to say something difficult to somebody only if that person was able to hear it.
Was that the problem in the synagogue of Nazareth? Were they simply unable to hear what the Lord Jesus had to say? They were so stuck in their pressing problems and so oppressed and victimized that they could not imagine a salvation from that did not first relieve their presenting problems. How could they welcome a salvation that would benefit their oppressors as much as themselves?
Was Jesus sounding like a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal? He may have spoken with the tongue of an angel, but what he said did not sound very loving. You have to wonder at his pushing them, why he wasn’t more gradual with them, and more considerate of their feelings.
Or was he done with their feelings after thirty years? Doubtless every word he said to them he had heard them saying to each other ad nauseum, and he knew exactly who would say what and who would chime in or nod their heads. And their feelings are not the object of his love.
The salvation of God is not directed at our feelings. It’s not even really directed at what we’d first bring up with God. We are not just saved, we are converted. And our conversion converts our expectations of what God does for us. And whatever God does for us does not spare our feelings.
That tells us something about love, and also about why God deals with us first and foremost through speech and words. These two things are connected. First about love. We use the English word “love” to translate three different Greek words, eros, philia and agape. The natural loves are eros and philia: erotic love and family love. Erotic love is for spouses, and family love is for all your other relationships: sibling, parental, love of country, love of learning, etc., even your love of yourself. These two kinds of love are based on feelings specific to certain relationships, and you do not owe them to everybody. Other species of animals incipiently practice these two loves in their own ways.
But agape is the love that St. Paul writes about in First Corinthians. This is the love that comes to you from God, and that you owe back to God, and also your neighbors, indeed to everyone, and that includes your enemies. This is the love that the church must practice and demonstrate to the world. This love is based not on feelings but on words. On promises. On invitations. On prophecies and projections of the future. This love is not evident in nature, and it may go against your feelings. The truth of this love and even the existence of this love you have to take on God’s word.
This is not to say that the love of God is intellectual. No, little children can grasp it as easily as any philosopher. But the reason that God has chosen to relate to us through the medium of words, that is, God’s Word, which is directed to our minds and to our hearts—God’s reason is so that your relationship to God might be conversational, like this: “I hear you God, I hear your call and invitation, and I will answer you.” That’s the kind of relationship God has with you. As the Blessed Virgin Mary said, “Here I am, let it be with me as you have said.” For you I will do it. That love.
So this is why our species has evolved the special facility of words and speech. It is that we may be a species that can freely enter into the special love that is from God. And this why you have your voice. Yes, you should sing love songs to your lover, and patriotic songs about your country and folk songs of your people, and the beauty of nature and the tragedy of life within the world. But fully to be a human being is to come together in worship to raise your voice and sing along with other people of the love divine, all loves all excelling, joy of heaven to earth come down.
Copyright © 2016, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.
Saturday, January 23, 2016
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10, Psalm 19, 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a, Luke 4:14-21
When I used to visit nursing homes, my elderly congregants would typically say, “Well, at least I have my mind.” Even if they were frail or disabled, they would say, “At least I have my mind.” To lose your mind is a fearful thing: dementia, mental illness. Scientifically speaking, we have not yet defined the mind, or its exact relation to the brain, but it is apparent that the human brain has evolved such that it requires a mind to inhabit it for the general health of the body as a whole.
The human mind is a great achievement in evolution. Some secular scientists say that the human mind is the universe’s strategy for beholding itself. Other animals seem to have minds, they are obviously aware, but the human mind raises consciousness to the level of self-awareness, of abstraction, and of imagination, and imagination is necessary for freedom.
No other animals operate with such freedom in the world. Lions always act like lions and apes always act like apes. It’s only humans who can choose to act with inhumanity. And so the human mind is also the laboratory of so much evil in the world. Some folks think that the animals are better off for not having minds.
Melody and I are watching the HBO series True Detective. It stars Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey as two compromised detectives in Louisiana. If the story is gruesome, the dialogue is brilliant. They often talk in the car, and McConaughey’s character tells Harrelson’s character that humanity is a great biological mistake.
He says: “I think human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution. We became too self-aware, nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself, we are creatures that should not exist by natural law. We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self; an accretion of sensory experience and feeling, programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody, when in fact everybody is nobody. Maybe the honorable thing for our species to do is deny our programming, stop reproducing, walk hand in hand into extinction, one last midnight — brothers and sisters opting out of a raw deal.”
That’s close to the notorious Calvinist doctrine of Total Depravity, only it’s Calvinism absent God. Well, Jean-Paul Sartre recognized eighty years ago this is where atheism ends up if you take it to its full conclusion, or else you end up like Harrelson’s character, submitting your freedom to the comfort and pleasures of materialism as long as you can hold off your frailty or death or dementia.
The Christian claim is that the human mind has evolved for God and for beholding God. Yes, our minds are for our own freedom and imaginations, but ultimately we have them to enable us to receive the Word of God. John Calvin taught that human beings need a double knowledge: the knowledge of God and the knowledge of your selves, and you get the true knowledge of your selves from your ongoing conversation with God, and from the Word of God you gain the right use of your freedom and imaginations, and the right employment and enjoyment of your minds.
We cannot separate the evolution of the mind from the evolution of language. We are told that chimpanzees share almost 99% of our DNA, and yet they cannot talk. They don’t come close. On their own they have no use for words. Neither does any primate or any other mammal. It’s only parrots who mimic human speech, but no parrot has ever taught a human to talk. That we humans are able to make a very few animals in limited ways share in human language does not counter the reality that speech and words and language are remarkably distinct to our own species in all the world.
I am told that in Morocco, among Muslims, at the birth of a newborn, the imam comes to the house and whispers this into the baby’s ear: “La ilaha illallah, Muhammadur rasulallah.” It’s the Muslim creed: “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is God’s prophet.” The whispering is to plant that early in the baby’s mind.
Muslims agree with Jews and Christians that while your mind is good for many things, your ultimate good is to know God. Muslim agree with Jews and Christians that while the dealings of God with us are many and varied, God prefers to deal with us through speech, the Word, the conversation, in your understanding, and so, your mind is for God.
All religions have talking gods, and all religions have holy books, but Jews, Christians, and Muslims agree that the Torah and the Bible and the Qur’an are designed for reading aloud to the gathered community as public truth. Private reading is good, but the public reading is primary. Just our hearing it together converts us from a crowd into a community.
You see this in our first reading, from Nehemiah. The public listening to the Torah turned the crowd into what they were supposed to be, the human beings of God. By it they knew God and also themselves, their story, their calling and their destiny, their failures and their hopes, who they really were, and it’s no wonder that they wept.
The Word of God is not just information, but also emotion, encouragement, inspiration, and imagination, and there are promises embedded in every line that you hear. Jews and Christians agree that God is a promise-maker, and promises require words. These promises are the object of your faith, and so faith requires understanding.
God deals with you in this way for two purposes: to keep you in relationship with God and also to set you free to be creative in yourself, for you to use your gifts and to add your own contributions to the world, and for you to enrich the world and open up its latent possibilities. Your mind is for God so that your mind may be for the world with God.
Nehemiah illustrates what we take for granted, that the reading and hearing of the Word of God is an act of worship. It’s worship because we try to believe that we are hearing together is not just words about God, but the Word of God. God is present in the words. God comes among us in the words. Into the temple of your understanding God comes to you and God is present with you.
Now here is where Christians depart from Jews, and Muslims too — in our gospel lesson. Here is where Jesus of Nazareth says that all the promises which God made to Israel have been fulfilled in him, which means that all the conversations between God and humanity are now anchored in this one man. In the synagogue he reads God’s Word from Isaiah, and he says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” If you read the following verses you learn that at first they all admire him but by the end of the scene they try to bump him off, literally over a cliff, but he escapes.
Who does he think he is? Jesus seems to hijack the whole conversation of God with Israel. Jesus comes onto the Jewish scene like Donald Trump among the Republicans, upsetting all their plans, and the establishment fears he will ruin them all. Some of you might rather I compared him to Bernie Sanders against the Democratic establishment, but Bernie Sanders doesn’t go around saying, “It is I, I’m the one, follow me” like Jesus did. Jesus does this very strange thing of putting himself in the middle of the ancient conversation of the Word of God.
There is so much to say about this. But my point today is that the goal of the great conversation is not the information but your relationship with that holy person at the center of the conversation. You have a mind for understanding and what your understanding serves is the fullness of your love. You can never understand God completely, but you can understand enough of God, and you can be certain that God loves to be known by your mind, and also that in loving God your mind can know yourself, and your mind can behold with joy the universe that God made, for God is love.
Copyright © 2016, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.
Saturday, January 16, 2016
The Wedding at Cana: Water into Wine
Worship services are the last places in American life where ordinary people regularly sing together. This very basic human practice would be otherwise lost to us. And worship services are the last occasions of ordinary people regularly gathering to hear a speaker speak. Human beings used to do this all the time.
Your body tells you that human beings need to sing together and listen to speakers speak. You have these marvelous vocal cords unique among the mammals for their musical capacity, and the location of your ears and eyes upon your heads is perfect for communal listening to a speaker. Two weeks I said that one of the reasons you come to church is in order to be human beings. And if you come to church to talk with God, back and forth, that too makes you human beings.
You know that you come to church for God, to worship God and praise God and thank God. And you know that you come to church for yourself, to be comforted and reconciled and convicted and encouraged and directed. I’m asking you to consider that you come to church to be fully human beings. I’m not going to force the syllogism that not coming to church keeps you from being fully human, but I will say that one great purpose of Christianity is to make you a proper human being.
This claim cannot be proven, and to secular ears it sounds preposterous. Do Christians think you are more human than the rest of us? But it is hard to be a human being. The great Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, before he died, said that his goal in life was to “be a human being.” Wasn’t he one already? It is hard to be a human being.
Note the awful messes that our species keeps making in the world. We’re the only animal to which the word “sin” applies. No other creature adds so much evil to the world. Look how hard it is to be humane. Not only among violent men, but even when you’re just trying to defend yourself, and you get caught in the fear and the reaction, and you get less humane. We are the only species that comes short of being what we are.
The Christian claim is that to be a human being means that you are made for God. That’s what people are for, and that’s why we’re so horribly destructive, whenever we don’t live for our true purpose. That’s also the key to the differences between our species and the other species. That’s why you have that special mix of physical traits that distinguish you from other animals: your vocal cords, your opposable thumb, your bipedal legs and feet, your remarkable brain, your memory, your mind, your self-awareness, your ability to abstract, your reason, and your soul. The Christian claim is that these special traits of our species serve our purpose of being made for God.
But hold it, we weren’t made, we evolved. We were not designed by God in some laboratory in a garden East of Eden—we evolved out of prior species just like every other animal. Very true. But if this confuses you, let me commend to you the very readable book by the great evolutionary biologist Francis S. Collins, The Language of God (2006), which demonstrates that there is no real contradiction between the theory of evolution and the Christian claim that we are made for God.
Does this mean we are not for the world? Some folks teach that to be for God, we must turn away from the world. If we are meant for heaven we must forsake the earth. But our lessons today tell the opposite: that we are for God so that God may be in the world, even on the ground.
Isaiah says, “You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate, but you shall be called Hephzibah, My Delight is in You, and your land shall be called Beulah, Married; for the Lord delights in you, and your land shall be married.” The prophecy proclaims the marriage of heaven and earth against their great divorce and the restoration of the desolation, and you may hope for the great reconciliation and the greater restoration. You are meant for God so that God may be present in the world in a wonderful way through you, because God actually inhabits you.
God is moving. That’s the general story of the Bible. It raises many philosophical problems, and the facts of the case set up mysteries, but it seems to be the case that God is moving from residence in heaven to residence on earth.
It’s gradual. It’s in stages. In the beginning, God created heaven for God’s self and the earth for us among the creatures. The Bible tells stories of God visiting the earth, but only visiting. Then in Jesus, God actually moved in, if only a while, in the second person of the Trinity. When he ascended back to heaven he took his body with him, not just as a souvenir of the earth, but as a pledge, a key, an investment in a future habitation, when he shall come again, and when, in the vision of the last two chapters in the Bible, in the Revelation, God will fully, all-in-all, move in, as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, all three persons of the Trinity, and God “will be all in all.”
In the meantime, until then, and since the day of Pentecost, in the person of the Holy Spirit, God really has moved in for good, though only partially. God inhabits the world in us. We are God’s house, God’s dwelling place. There has been a real advance within God’s story. God is moving in.
That’s what people are for. That’s why we are made for God. So that in us, God can inhabit the world. God does this not to possess us but in partnership with us. Not to lessen us and overwhelm us, but to magnify us and give us more abundant life. God enters our water and turns us into wine.
This is how to understand your spiritual gifts from the Holy Spirit. They are as diverse and as varied as you all are. And they are yours, but they also manifest the Spirit of God who is in you, and in you for the common good. You cannot separate the Spirit’s share in what you do from your own share. You cannot ever say, “Oh this here is the Holy Spirit and this here is me.” What the Spirit does is always in, with, and under what you do. That’s the great advance in how God is moving in. God is making of us and God a complex unity, an absolute community, a fellowship, and a full communion. It’s not that God must increase and you decrease, but that you magnify God in your own magnification.
You may have been taught to think of spiritual gifts as supernatural, and I suppose they are, but this does not mean unnatural or anti-natural. Your spiritual gifts are in, with, and under your natural talents and faculties and aptitudes. The Spirit needs your water to make God’s wine. To be gifted by the Holy Spirit is not to lessen your hard work of learning and study and down-to-earth organizing and even institution building, but to inspire these things with the hidden flame of heavenly love.
So then we as a congregation have the mission of sharing in God’s movement into the world. That means we’re not just a community of Jesus in Brooklyn, but a community of Jesus for Brooklyn. Our mission is not to keep our historic congregation going against the odds, nor even to bring the community into the church, but to serve God’s moving into Brooklyn for its reconciliation and renewal, by our witness and our service. Our church building is a wonderful and necessary symbol and center for this, like when tomorrow night we will bring the presence of God into the civic issues of American life. If you just come to that prayer service, just show up and pray, you’re bearing witness to what kind of world our God is moving into and your witness to what God is like.
Because the moving-in of God is not all peaches and cream. The mystery of evil is real, and the facts of human sin are real. The water turned into wine is the water of cleansing and purification. Your gifts of the Spirit have to engage your tears and crying and lament. The new creation is not just evolution and enhancement but also judgment and repentance and healing and repair. Humans are bent and the world is broken. The glorious body of our resurrected Lord still bears the scars of crucifixion. And whenever we celebrate Holy Communion we first remind ourselves that the Lord Jesus instituted it on the night he was betrayed, among his friends who would deny him and desert him. We have to die before we reach the new creation. God’s final moving in will not be simple evolution.
This is the most wonderful advance. When God moves in, it is not into a world pristine and pure and innocent, but a world repaired and revived, with the signs still on it of loss and grief and of reconciliation and of hope against hope.
In the meantime, what the Holy Spirit inhabits in you is not your perfections but your imperfections, as much your weaknesses as your strengths, as much your mistakes as your successes, as much your tears as your laughter. What the Holy Spirit inhabits in you is all of you, and by this the Spirit illustrates that the greatest of the Spirit’s gifts is love. God’s love.
Copyright © 2016, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.
Sunday, January 10, 2016
Isaiah 43:1-7, Psalm 29, Acts 8:14-17, Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
I’ve changed my title to “What Are Christians For?” This is the first in a sermon series I’m calling “Worldview.” You know what a worldview is: how you explain the world. Like, does your existence have any meaning or purpose, or is the world just all coincidence, or happenstance, or luck? Can you explain people? Why is our species so different from other creatures on the planet?
Or like, what’s wrong with the world? Why our species is so frequently horrible and violent and destructive? Why are we humans, compared to other creatures, so restless and inventive and creative, and why do we even think the world might be explained? Maybe it all just only is, and there is no larger explanation, and nothing’s wrong, just inconvenient or uncomfortable, so just have a nice life if you can.
The most familiar Christian worldview is the one derived from St. Augustine. About 6020 years ago God created the world, and God did it in six days, and it was very good. God created every animal, and God made one pair of animals special by giving them immortal souls. But this pair blew it, and brought sin and evil into the world. They infected all their descendants, the whole human race, with their sin and evil, so that when they died, their immortal souls all went to hell to suffer unendingly.
But God was gracious to a very small group of people, and their souls got to go to heaven after death. Then God became incarnate in Jesus Christ, and he died on the cross, so that everyone who believes in him can be saved from their sin and go to heaven when they die.
According this worldview, your job as Christians is to tell this news to as many people as you can so that they don’t have to keep on going to hell, and also lead better lives while you are still here. But soon the world will be destroyed with fire, and you’re all going to end up either in heaven or hell, so this world is not your home, it’s just a temporary testing ground for your ultimate destination. So the gospel is your great escape.
That worldview is cohesive and compelling and it offers to explain a lot. It’s led to lots of good bluegrass music. But what if you want to accept the evidence that the world is very much older than six thousand years, and life has been evolving on earth for a good four billion years?
What if it does not make sense to you that, on one hand, while “God so loves the world,” and “God’s eye is on the sparrow,” yet all of human culture and history and literature and art and architecture from ancient China till today is ultimately of no real interest to God, and maybe even a distraction from the only thing that really counts, the saving of your soul? Wouldn’t you rather be a sparrow than a human being?
Can it be that a God who supposedly loves the world really doesn’t care one bit about whole pre-Christian civilizations because of just one thing, that they did not know Jesus?
What if you can’t believe that a loving God would be content to torture millions of human beings in hell forever and ever? I know the principle that ignorance is no excuse, but if that ignorance of the pagans was God’s design, and God kept them in ignorance until the missionaries came, and then punishes them for the ignorance God kept them in, shouldn’t it be God who is punished? Or at least not believed in any more?
I believe there is a worldview that is actually more Biblical. Let’s keep on confessing that Jesus is Lord, and let’s not stop singing the mystery of our faith, that “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again,” and let’s believe in all the claims and promises of the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed, even of "the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come," but let’s apply it all very differently. It’s not about reward or punishment in heaven or in hell. Yes it’s about heaven, but about God’s "kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven." Yes it’s about your soul, but about your soul for the resurrection of your body, something like Our Lord’s own resurrection. It’s not about escaping the world or condemning the world but saving the world, restoring the world, renewing the world, and your mission is to join in God’s renewal of the world.
I offer you this worldview, even if it leaves some things unexplained. Like, if the human species did evolve from other animals, then at what point did sin and evil enter in? Don’t know.
Or like, if the all pre-Christian pagans did not go to hell, then what happened to them after death? Don’t know.
Or, if eternal life will be as much embodied as spiritual, and somehow still on earth, how’s that going to work? Don’t know, but something like the risen Lord Jesus.
Or, if God’s purpose is to renew and save this world, how come things are getting worse, and when is God ever going to turn it around? Don’t know.
Or, how long before Jesus returns? Don’t know, but if God patiently waited four billion years for humans to evolve, then another few thousand years won’t really be so long!
Some people think the purpose of religious faith is to clear up the world’s mysteries. It clears up some, but it usually adds more. That also goes for science. Science does not so much prove what we know as more often discount what we thought we knew, and science keeps adding more mysteries than we had before. No wonder, because modern science arose from inside Christendom. You have to chose your mysteries. As Christians, you can believe in both real knowledge and real mysteries, and the interplay of knowledge and mystery is a sign of the freedom that God gives you.
God gives freedom to the world even as God is on a mission to save the world and renew it and transform it. The way that God does this is to gather a people within the world to join with God in this, and God gathers this people by invitation. As the prophecy from Isaiah says, God calls you from the ends of all the earth.
And as you answer to God’s call, God comes with you, so that “when you pass through the waters you will not be overwhelmed,” and “the flame shall not hurt you, but your dross consume and your gold refine.”
And as our reading from Acts makes evident, God comes with you so close as to get inside you, as the Holy Spirit, who is the essence of God, not only for your comfort and healing, but also to empower you to do your own free share in the renewal of the world.
At the head of this new people stands the Lord Jesus Christ. There at his baptism, the Beloved, the firstborn of the new creation. There at his baptism, God in a man for the transformation of humanity, and God in the flesh for the renewal of the earth, and the Holy Spirit in the body of a dove for the sign of peace and hope and joy. Into this new humanity you too are baptized. “God has redeemed you, do not fear.” You are called to share in this peaceful transformation and joyful renewal.
That’s the worldview, that’s the vision. That’s a vision for your own life that you live within the world. That’s a vision for why you go to church. It’s not only to get close to God. Sometimes that is all you can handle and precisely what you need. Sometimes you just need refuge and some sanctuary. But that’s not all. God also calls you to follow Jesus back out of church into the world, and to make use of your personal gifts and your talents and your work and your own personal share in ministry for the renewal of the world.
There is so much more to say about these things over the coming weeks. But how about today if I say that God loves Brooklyn, and our church’s mission is to serve God’s renewal of Brooklyn? Not just to be a community of Jesus for ourselves, but for us to contribute our own personal activities and witness to God’s renewal of this part of the world? Here’s my take home, it’s for us as a community.
I think there may be an omission in the mission statement of our church. And I wrote that mission statement. I came to this realization just this week while I was on retreat this week in California. It’s right for us to be “a community of Jesus, and to welcome persons of every ethnicity, race, and orientation to worship, serve, and love God, and to love our neighbors as ourselves,” but to end there is the omission, because it keeps directed inward.
Shouldn’t we say that “we invite you and equip you to share in God’s renewal of Brooklyn.” Something like that.
That’s why we’re going to fix that sanctuary. Not just for us, but for our mission to Brooklyn. That’s why we should do everything we do, because we want to see the Kingdom of God here in our own neighborhood and the neighborhoods around. That’s why we love our church and volunteer for it and even sacrifice for it, because we serve the love of God for the city, and for its streets and its life and its culture and its people, rich and poor. They all count. They all count for God. God loves the city. This is what we mean when we say God is love.
Copyright © 2016, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.
Saturday, January 02, 2016
Jeremiah 31:7-14, Psalm 84, Ephesians 1:3-6, 15-19a, Luke 2:41-52
We read that Mary, right in front of all those rabbis, lays a guilt trip on her wayward son, as we parents will do when our love gets occupied by fear. You can tell by how he answers her that he does not accept the guilt, though twenty years later he will take on all the guilt in the world. Here he protests his innocence, and like any twelve-year old, he’s been oblivious to the effects on his loved ones of his acting on his impulse.
He’s still a kid. There’s so much doesn’t know. I would say that he doesn’t know yet that he’s somehow God in the flesh. What he does know is that he already has a special story, a story he’s trying to figure out, and, like any twelve-year old, he’s trying to understand his place in the world.
This story is our only glimpse of Jesus’ youth. These two sentences are his first recorded speech: “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” His words were remembered by Mary, as we parents will do, especially with emotional events. We can assume that Mary reported these words to Luke when he interviewed her during his research for his gospel.
Luke’s gospel is both carefully historical and artfully crafted. The gospels of Matthew and Mark were already available when Luke wrote his, and Luke made use of both of them. Luke can assume that his readers already know the end of the story, and that God is Jesus’ Father in a unique way, of which this story is an intimation, but Luke is also showing us Jesus’ full and typical humanity.
To bring out the natural humanity of Jesus is one of Luke’s authorial interests. Luke wrote for mostly Gentile converts, and he had to show them that Jesus as God incarnate was not like one of the Greekish gods they were used to, say Apollo or Dionysios, who might temporarily take on human form, but were human only in appearance. Luke always shows us a thoroughly human Jesus.
That’s the great mystery of the Incarnation, that Jesus was fully God and fully man, not half and half, and not a superhuman, but rather God emptying Godself into human life and limitations.
The burden of the New Testament is not just to introduce us to a new vision of God. It’s also to introduce us to a new vision of humanity, especially the writings of St. Luke and of St. Paul, who were co-workers and sympaticos.
This was in contrast to the vision of humanity in the aspirations of the Roman Empire. What kind of man was the ideal man—Hercules, Hector, Achilles, Aeneas, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Caesar Augustus—and what could an empire hope for—power, wealth, prestige, the protection of commerce, effective military control of the foreign interests of the homeland, especially cheap food, the preservation of cheap labor, and the management of the poor by sports and entertainment.
Sound familiar? That vision of the ideal person and the great society is the one that we keep generating in countless versions around the world throughout the centuries.
The New Testament keeps offering an alternate vision of how to be a human being and what to hope for in the world. You get this, for example, in Ephesians, from which our second lesson is excerpted, where St. Paul writes that the all-too familiar vision of humanity and society was tolerated by God for countless ages, but now there is revealed, in Jesus Christ, a whole new vision of human life within the world, and not only that, also the power to live that life, even against the opposition of the empire.
This Jesus is the firstborn of this new humanity. This Jesus is not just for God, this Jesus is for us. He’s like another Adam. He’s the beginning of new humanity. We want to be part of this humanity. We love it that he’s a fully human being, and not some uber-mensch.
A thoroughly human Jesus has human limitations. As a twelve-year old kid he had not figured on how his actions would affect his parents. So while Jesus is remarkable in his Biblical insight for a twelve-year-old kid, as a human he’s only human. That’s the point. He’s shown to us as the true type of what a human being is supposed to be: a creature designed for loving God and for knowing God.
He is what every twelve-year old Jew is supposed to be: a “bar mitzvah,” a son of the commandment. Now the actual Bar Mitzvah ritual had not developed yet. But what that ritual would be all about had grabbed him here. He embraces his identity as a Jew, he embraces a life devoted to the God of the covenant. He realizes, “This is who I am. All right, this is for me. I’m in.”
For eight days he was absorbing the rich activity of the Passover, and it bathed his emotions and quickened his imagination. He watched the sacrificial ritual and the slaughter of the animals. He was breathing in the incense that rose up with the prayers. He listened to the singing of the psalms, the music by the orchestra of Levites, and most of all, the reading of the Torah to the gathered crowds. The lector sang it out, in the tones already ancient.
In all of that he heard the voice of his Father. The traditions, the rituals, the hopes and fears of all the years of Israel. And then every afternoon, the rabbis gathered in the temple courts to offer public commentary on the Torah and the liturgy.
Their teaching drew him in. It is unfortunate that our tradition treats this as Jesus’ critical disputation with the rabbis. That’s misleading, because the disputing was positive. Disputation was the rabbinic form of elucidation and debate was the medium of education. He was learning, and finding himself in the Jewish traditions of the Torah and the Temple.
Even twenty years later, when Jesus started teaching on his own, it’s not that he was against the Torah and the Temple; he was against the crust around the Torah and the uses of the Temple. What got him into trouble, twenty years later, was how he took the words of the Torah, and even applied them to himself, and that he acted in the temple as if he owned the place.
It’s like he saw the whole story as specially for him. You see the hint of that already here. And if that caused anxiety in his parents, imagine, twenty years later, the anxiety of the Jerusalem establishment, with the Roman Eagle looking on.
But not yet. Here he is still a student, learning from the rabbis, asking questions for his own enlightenment, respectfully answering the problems they pose him in their rabbinic style. In learning of God he is finding himself. This is natural, and, like any twelve-year-old, he figures his own experience is normal. So of course he’s surprised when Mary rebukes him. “Isn’t this where I’m supposed to be? Don’t we sing in Psalm 84 that 'a day in thy courts is better than a thousand in my own room?'”
The Jews knew very well that God was everywhere, and not just in the Temple. But here was a concentration of God’s presence. Here was the venue of God’s regular meetings with Israel. Here the presence of God, normally so hidden in the world, was brought to full expression, and everything earthly was displayed in terms of its heavenly significance. This was where eternity touched reality and time stood still. Three days, was I here? Why not three years, why not thirty?
This is where you find yourself. This is why you come to church. Of course God is present in all the world, and in the woods and concert hall and such, and in your own private room. But all of these have other purposes as well; the church is the only earthly organization with the overriding purpose of paying attention to God. The worship service is the only public business meeting of human beings where the agenda is set by God, and God sets the agenda for your sake.
The Sunday morning service is meant to be impractical in human terms, except for the practicality of simply your being human beings as you are meant to be. To be a human being is to be responsible to praise God together, to unite your minds and your voices in praise. You come together in worship in order to be human beings together. You find yourselves within your praise to God, and praising God is how you form yourselves and recreate yourselves each week.
The worship service is what God uses to teach you and convert you. The liturgy, the lessons, the prayers, the psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, the sermon and the sacraments, these are the means that God uses to do business with you. And so you come to church in order to be worked on by God. You pay attention to God, and just doing that is what makes you into truly human beings.
It’s a slow process, but week by week God is forming you into that new humanity of which Jesus is the vision. That’s why we keep him at the center, for in him we are satisfied with both humanity and God.
Copyright © 2016, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.
Thursday, December 24, 2015
Good evening, and welcome; I’m happy to welcome you here tonight. Whoever you are, wherever you come from, Christian or Jewish or something else, no matter what your belief or unbelief, whether you worship Christ or simply admire him, we are glad that you came here tonight.
I want to thank our musicians and singers and readers ahead of time. I want especially to welcome my colleague Rabbi Marc Katz for coming from Congregation Beth Elohim to read the second lesson and sing the Akeda. This is part of our tradition now, and may it speak volumes that we do this mutual embrace. Let me also acknowledge our music director Aleeza Meir, our kapellmeisterin, who turns us ordinary people into singing angels.
I’m sorry that you don’t get your own candle, but it’s for your safety, considering the staircases and the narrow exits. You’ll get your own candle again when we return this service to our sanctuary. Later in the service it will get darker in here. I’m instructing you to not turn on your cell-phone lights. Please just enjoy the candlelight. If you can’t make out all the lyrics in the bulletin, then just sing what you can from memory. Most of the words will come to you. So would you kindly turn off all your mobile devices right now and keep them off?
The image that I’m compelled by tonight is of a young woman desperately trying to find a place to have her baby in the darkness. A safe place, halfway decent. With her husband, in a strange town. We sing, “all is calm, all is bright,” but I wonder how frantic they might have been. Where were they when her water broke? Was she having contractions while Joseph was pleading with the innkeeper?
There is a subtext in this lovely story of the stable and the manger. Her husband had to be her midwife in the dark. Not her sisters, nor her cousins, nor her aunties. Why had they all let her go? And to come to this! It’s actually not a pretty picture, to give birth among the animals. Maybe the darkness was welcome.
It’s old news, but the relevance is obvious. If you are a refugee on the run, where do you go to have your baby? If you’re fleeing from Syria and crossing into Turkey, what do you do if your contractions start? Or if it’s while you’re waiting for the flimsy boat to take you into Greece? Do you head out into the fields and hide in a barn? How about if you’re trying to cross the border from Mexico into the US? Maybe you have your baby in the back of a truck, and God forbid you might need a doctor because then you’re also going to get arrested and sent back. No room for you here. But it’s here that God was to be found, so says the primal story of the Christian faith.
In a way it’s all old news. People have been fleeing from one disaster or another for all of human history. And wealthy nations have been refusing them for just as long, erecting fences and fortresses. Don’t disturb us, go away. And our temples inside our fortresses. The very first Dutch Reformed church in North America was built inside the fort at the tip of Manhattan, and because it was in the fort, certain people were not welcome there. But the Christmas story tells you that at this most critical moment of the Incarnation, your God is found outside the welcome and out beyond the light and at the margins of secure society.
And then out there in the dark, beyond the walls, the angel goes to tell the tidings to shepherds. Why not to the innkeeper? Why did the angels not perform their concert to the travelers gathered in the great room of the inn? Why lavish this most glorious music on the very lowest class of men? Another example of God among the marginalized.
It’s old news that we need to hear again and again. In a single stroke God both embraces our humanity and repudiates our human pretensions. God is pleased to inhabit our weakest and most vulnerable humanity, fully so and without interruption or impediment, which is the meaning of the Incarnation, but simultaneously repudiates our human power and the walls we build and the violence we use to secure our power. You need to keep hearing this old news against all the other newer news that you hear today, the news that pretends to be the truth about the world.
This old news is good news because this repudiation has no ill will. Tonight there is no guilt nor condemnation. From God’s side it is only peace on earth, and all good will towards humankind. This old news is offered to you as tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people, even for those behind their walls. Oh yes, these tidings might well embarrass us, and shake up our contrivances for our comfort and security, but that’s a gift that every one of you can welcome.
When you hear it you are glad. You recognize that it’s better this way. In your heart, you know God’s right. Of course you may well doubt there is a God, and I don’t blame you, because the jury is still out, but is this the kind of God you could believe in? Who acts like this, who talks like this, who offers to be found among the outcast and the poor, a God whose greatness is willingly made very small and whose power is among the weak?
The lessons that follow tell you where to look for God and what kind of God to look for. As for peace on earth, let the lessons remind you of what God stands for and where God goes, with gracious hospitality and good will. For joy, let the music and the carols carry you. And for comfort, take it from the company of your fellow travelers around you. For comfort and joy, for peace and for God, you were right to come here tonight. God bless you one and all.
Copyright © 2015 by Daniel Meeter, All Rights Reserved.
Thursday, December 17, 2015
Micah 5:2-5a, Song of Mary, Hebrews 10:5-10, Luke 1:39-55
Our gospel story today is called The Visitation. It follows on the story of The Annunciation. That’s when the angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she would conceive the Messiah in her womb. She replied, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel told her that the Holy Spirit would come upon her, and then added the news that her elderly cousin Elizabeth–she who had been barren–was sixth months pregnant. And that extra news is what sets up our story for today, The Visitation.
Mary races to visit Elizabeth. You can imagine why she wants to. She needs some confirmation. She’s a young woman of faith and even daring, but of course she still needs some confirmation. And you can imagine what will happen to her reputation: pregnant and unmarried. A sinner, a slut, or just a victim, but traditional cultures blame the victims in such cases. I’m guessing that Mary could sense from the start what she would be against to carry this child, so she races to visit Elizabeth.
Elizabeth will be showing at six months, while Mary is just a week or two pregnant. But she does not have to show for Elizabeth to know, because of her own baby who leaps inside her. He will be John the Baptist. He’s a prophet already—a messenger, a herald, an announcer. The Holy Spirit makes his mother prophetic too, in what she says to Mary. Prophecy is as often about the present as the future, when you can tell out what is unseen in front of you. Both of these women speak prophetically. Their two sons take after their mothers.
I love the emphasis on women in Luke’s gospel. Elizabeth gets to speak while her husband Zechariah has been silenced from his lack of faith. Let me remind you. He will get to speak again when his boy is born, and he will sing his song, the Benedictus, but that won’t happen till three months after this Visitation, so his wife here is ahead of him. And so the old priest’s song is not the first of the four songs in the Gospel of Luke. That honor goes to Mary, with her Magnificat.
In Latin: Magnificat anima mea dominum. In Greek: Μεγαλύνει ἡ ψυχή μου τὸν κύριον. Literally, “Magnifies my soul the Lord.” The Greek original and the Latin translation are both terse and compact, but the modern English translations tend to be wordy and diffuse, and they underplay the femininity and the sexuality. In the last line, she doesn’t say “descendants.” What she says is “seed,” as in “σπερμα,” and if you can’t figure that out I’m not going to tell you. She’s singing about her body no less than about her soul. She is singing about her womanhood. She is young and pregnant, and she’s got some God inside her uterus.
The song is feminine, but it’s for all of us. Because in Greek, your soul is feminine, no matter your sex or gender or orientation. It’s for all of you, especially at prayer. You can repeat this Song of Mary everyday, if you follow the church’s traditions of prayer, especially at Evening Prayer. I repeat it every day. The Magnificat is part of my prayer life every day. It never gets boring, I always look forward to repeating it, for it to change my mind from me to her, and to give her voice to my soul. My soul gets to speak like this young woman every day, this pregnant young woman.
She magnifies God. That’s daring talk for a girl. She acknowledges that God’s done great by her, and she magnifies God right back. As if a human being could increase God’s greatness. Who does she think she is! That’s the wonderful thing about this canticle, compared to say, the Benedictus, it’s as much about herself as it is about God. She gets empowered by her obedience to God.
She says, “All generations will bless me.” Yes, we will, because of what God has done in her, but isn’t it presumptuous of her to claim it? Maybe in certain religions and for certain Biblical authors, but not for Luke. She needs to claim her own experience as a demonstration of all the rest that she’s singing of. God casting down and raising up. God filling and emptying. And when God gets done with all of this, especially with her, then God is even greater than God was before, if not philosophically, then at least historically. God is great in her, she is the Blessed Virgin Mary, essential to our Faith.
The very last line of the canticle has a spring in it, something paradoxical. She says that God has remembered the promise God made to Abraham, “to Abraham and his seed forever.” But there was no seed of Abraham in her. She conceived the child as a virgin. And the mystery of the virgin birth was even more impossible back then than it is for us, for they believed that the whole life of the fetus was in the seed that came from the man, and the woman’s part was merely to be a fertile garden.
She has no seed inside her, so the seed of Abraham that she mentions is herself. She, and not some man, is the inheritor and carrier of God’s promises. This was daring and presumptuous. Who does she think she is! So greatly does she conceive herself. And this is for you too. When you repeat her words and you praise God in her voice, you are claiming a greatness and a status that is daring. You are great, because of God in you.
Your greatness is not in the conventional categories of the world, for in the eyes of the world you may remain a nobody, and even a scandal, like an unwed mother or a child who is illegitimate. But you are great in your own personal portion of obedience, and great in your embrace of what God is doing among the lowly and the hungry.
This is a revolutionary song. “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones.” Well, that word thrones was famously changed to seats in the official King James Version of the Bible, by order of the British Crown. It’s a revolutionary song.
Yes, there is some Cinderella in it, the lowly handmaiden made the consort of the king. There is in it some “I Feel Pretty” from West Side Story, a girl exulting in herself even in the midst of looming tragedy. But it isn’t Katy Perry singing “Hear Me Roar,” or a woman warrior like Katniss Everdeen. It’s more like Rosa Parks on the bus, or like first-grader Ruby Bridges walking into that school every day by the power of her prayer.
Mary has no weapons, she does no violence, even for the cause of good. She’s pregnant, and all the drive within her is for life, for the preservation of life and the protection of life. She works no vengeance, and she is full of grace. Her only weapon is her little infant needing love. This revolution is of grace and love.
I love the Blessed Virgin Mary. Her devotion to do God’s will cost her greatly but it means no declension or diminution of herself. She is our model. We are made greater when we make God great. How much God asks of you. And yet how much you get back from giving what God asks of you.
And Mary was a model for her son as well. She who gave him birth also taught him his religion and his identity. And what she taught him was what she herself had done, for he must do that too. When he offers himself, when he says, “See, I have come to do your will,” what is he doing but repeating what his mother had done? Mary must have taught him that his revolution must be one of love.
We come back to Elizabeth. It’s thanks to her, I think, that Mary can say these things. It’s thanks to her affirmation and confirmation and her confidence that Mary can open up and sing her song. Mary has a secret, and must have her doubts and second thoughts. She knows her own experience but who would believe her? Elizabeth does. So what we have in this story of two women with their two unborn babies in their wombs is the first four members of the Community of Jesus.
You in this Community of Jesus do for each other what Elizabeth did for Mary. You encourage each other, you believe in each other, even when you have your secrets. You relate to each other prophetically. "I can see the presence of God in you. It will cost you, yes, within the world, but it will not cost you me. If you come to me in need, I will bless you and bless whatever is inside of you, so that you can stand up and sing your song and make God great."
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior, for he has regarded his handmaiden’s lowliness. And look, from now on all generations will bless me. For the mighty one has done great by me, and holy is his name. His mercy is on them who fear him in every generation. He’s shown strength with his arm, and scattered the proud in their designs. He’s cast down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. He’s filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He came to help his servant Israel, remembering his mercy, his promise to our fathers, to Abraham and his seed forever.
Copyright © 2015, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.