Monday, January 28, 2008

Study Week

Today I begin a study week. I am very grateful to my congregation, which sees fit to give me a nice amount of time each year for study and reading and writing.

This week my two best buddies are coming down from Canada to join me. We three will take rooms at the St. Hilda's House, a convent and retreat center of the (very high and spiky) Episcopal Sisters of the Holy Spirit up in Morningside Heights.

We have been given library privileges at Union Theological Seminary.

In case you want to know, my companions will be Rev. Dr. Orville James, of Wellington Square United Church, Burlington, Ontario, and Rev. Robert Ripley, of Metropolitan United Church, London, Ontario. Not bad company, what.

Orville will bring a bunch of books. Rip will bring his materials to move ahead on his doctorate from Fuller.

I will bring my books for the course I'm teaching on Reformed Church History and Missions.

I will also bring the very lovely cigar I was given as a Christmas present by my favorite druid, one Jack Gavin, of Park Slope.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Sermon # 2 on Spiritual Formation: No Affinity

Epiphany 3, January 27, 2008

Isaiah 9:1-4, Psalm 27, 1 Corinthians 1:10-18, Matthew 4:12-23

This is the second sermon in a series on Spiritual Formation Groups. Let me review the purpose of this series, for those of you who were not here last week.

As you know, the governing body of our church is called the “consistory”, and the consistory has been working a long-term program called NCD, for Natural Church Development. NCD offers tools to improve our collective spiritual health as a congregation. We took a diagnostic test last June, which revealed that we are weakest in “holistic small groups.” Not just groups, not just small groups, but holistic small groups.

So the consistory made this our priority, and we established a Church Health Team to work on it. One of the Church Health Team’s decisions is to sharpen the focus to “Spiritual Formation Groups.” Spiritual Formation Groups. So in this series of sermons, I am asking our weekly scripture lessons what they might have to say about Spiritual Formation Groups, and then I’m telling you what they tell me.

Maybe you’ve heard this story (and it may be apocryphal) about what happened once in the Special Olympics. They were running the 100-yard dash, and the runner out in front suddenly noticed that one of the other runners had fallen down, so he turned around and helped him get back up and they crossed the finished line together, sharing last place.

Can I say that Christianity is the Special Olympics among religions? When you compare the religion we practice to other religions it can seem like that. In other religions, there is a greater emphasis on the spiritual advancement of particular individuals. When do you hear Christians really talk about enlightenment? We tend not to get that close to God, we tend to be pedestrian in our spirituality.

Even compared to Psalm 27, which says, “Your face, Lord, do I seek.” I know it’s a metaphor, even for Psalm 27, but for who among us is it driving metaphor? How many among us got up this Sunday morning with the driving thought, I want to go today and seek God’s face?

I don’t think in other religions they even have committees. I know Buddhism doesn’t have committees. Christianity is less about individual spiritual advancement and more about your neighbor. It’s about the group. It’s not that you don’t want the face of God, it’s not that you don’t want to advance in spirituality, but for most of us it’s more about belonging to a community.

But that is also the wonderful thing about Christianity. It’s the formation of new and even apparently unnatural communities. What I mean by “unnatural” communities is not that they’re unhealthy or artificial, but that but that they’re not the ordinary anthropological groups in which we find ourselves.

Contrast us to Judaism. The positive power of Judaism is in how it sanctifies those very basic anthropological groups we call the family, the tribe, and the nation. Judaism assumes ethnicity.

Islam, in principle, is the opposite, its vision is for humanity as a single whole, a universal unity. And so its strategy is to superimpose a single authority and discipline above the various ethnicities and tribes and nations which both submit and also maintain themselves.

Hinduism gives spiritual meaning to social class, it gives religious virtue to the separation of people into upper and lower castes and theological justification for prejudice and poverty. Now what this acceptance of organic human groupings seems to allow for is that within it, individuals can concentrate on their own private spiritual advancement. While we Christians are so busy on committees.

Christianity, according to its founder, is meant be the religion of love, love of God and love of neighbor. That you can’t love God unless you love your neighbor as yourself, and that means crossing the lines of caste and class and color and family and tribe and nation, to establish new communities hitherto unthinkable, side by side and face to face.

Oh yes, the post-Biblical systems of Christianity have well developed strategies for affirming such groups as family, tribe, and nation. And yes, Christianity has certainly found ways to keep intact the stratification of social class and the preservation of prejudice and poverty. You’ve heard that 11 AM on Sunday morning is called the most segregated hour of the week. But this is how Christianity also keeps on crucifying its founder.

What Jesus taught and modeled and what St. Paul practiced in the expansion of the church was calling people out of their natural groupings into new communities based on no affinity at all but their common commitment to Jesus the Messiah. Jews and Greeks, slaves and free, male and female, Roman soldiers and Jewish patriots, meeting each other face to face, eating from each other’s hands and drinking from a common cup. That’s tough. That feels unnatural. Birds of a feather flock together.

That’s why Jesus compared it to fishing, which for fish, is, well, if not unnatural, certainly not healthy. When Jesus saw Peter and Andrew fishing, they were removing the fish from their native environment (and I might add, without the consent of the fished). He told them he’d make them do the same for people (though generally with a different attitude towards their consent).

So even today, when we gather into the community of Jesus, we are consenting, that what counts here is not our normal native paradigms of family and color and class, but we are all of us just a mess of fish.

Of course the church tends to fall back into affinity groups, and we’ll invent new divisions if we have to. As in Corinth: “I’m in Paul’s group, I follow Apollos, I go with Peter.” The guy who says, “I follow Jesus,” pretends to be above it all but is really the most resistant to community of any sort.

It’s natural for us to associate with people with similar backgrounds and experience because we feel cozy and at home with them, they understand us. Singles with singles, parents with other parents, gay folks with gay folks, and me with those very few other people who like both opera and baseball.

We call these natural groups and interest groups affinity groups, and look, it’s okay to have affinity groups. But those kind of groups are not what are most challenging for Spiritual Formation. If you think about it, Spiritual Formation should feel as cozy and natural as walking on water.

Jesus says, “Follow me,” to James and John, and he doesn’t tell them where. Spiritual Formation means territory new and unfamiliar, and seeing our own experience in a whole new light. It’s not about your background and where you’ve come from but where you are going.

So now here’s my special message today for Spiritual Formation Groups: Let’s expect that they shall have no more affinity than who can meet on Tuesday and who can meet on Thursday, etc. In principle, at random, with no identity but a common approach to Jesus. Some of you might be flounders and some of you porgies and some of you bluefish, but now you’ll all be lying side by side on the ice. Let me challenge us to try it. What a challenge that will be for me. Do I have to be in a Spiritual Formation Group myself?

The Old First congregation is a coalition. Our backgrounds are diverse: Methodist, Lutheran, Catholic, etc. We are black and white, rich and poor, straight and gay, young and old, conservative and liberal. So St. Paul challenges us like he challenged the Old First Church in Corinth, to be of the same mind and the same purpose.

Don’t get him wrong. He doesn’t mean the mind at rest but the mind in motion. It’s not about agreement but purpose. It’s about moving together and seeking the face of God. Side by side and face to face.

Will you seek the face of God with me? I will seek the face of God with you, and I will see God’s face reflected on your own, whatever color and share you face may be.

Can you and I step together into this same light? I was sitting in my own private darkness and you were sitting in your own, and when we step together into this it might shine on different things in you than what gets seen in me, but I’m willing to walk into this light with you. I’m willing to judge myself by the same criteria by which you judge yourself. We don’t know where this is going to take us, but isn’t that the point? Doesn’t that always happen when what you are doing is for love?

Copyright © 2008 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Sermon # 1 On Spiritual Formation: Small Groups

January 20, 2008, Ephiphany 2
Isaiah 49:1-7, Psalm 40, 1 Corinthians 1:1-9, John 1:29-42, 01/20/08

Spiritual Formation 1: Small Groups

Some sermons are public proclamations, but this sermon is what I call pastoral speech. It’s for this particular congregation right now. I need to guide you into something outward and then into something inward. Going out and coming in. Like breathing. First, the outward.

We have two big days ahead of us. Three big things in just two days. Martin Luther King, the Home Team homeless fair, and the Jim Wallis book event. Boom, boom, boom. I’m still looking for a few more volunteers for each of them. You have the chance for doing real service in the name of God. If you can’t volunteer, then please come anyway and participate.

These three events are excellent expressions of our outreach, and they bear witness to what we believe the Kingdom of God is like. These events express our Mission Statement, specifically Missions number Three and Four. Our Third Mission is sanctuary for anyone seeking spirituality and hope. Our Fourth Mission is hospitality to community groups and the arts.

A church is called to be God’s servant in the world, to be a light to the nations. You heard those words in the reading from Isaiah. "You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified."

Well, how does that apply to us? We’re not Israel, we’re the church. But look at the Isaiah reading, and see that the servant is double: first, the whole nation of Israel, and second, the Messiah. The Messiah is needed because Israel had failed in its mission. Israel laments that it labored in vain, and spent itself in nothingness and vanity. The Messiah is the servant who restores Israel to its mission to be a light to the nations, that God’s salvation might reach the ends of the earth.

The Messiah, the servant who would do all that, was introduced by John the Baptist. And we, the church, are in the Messiah’s fellowship, according to First Corinthians. That means we share his servanthood, and we let Isaiah speak to us. We repeat the words of Psalm 40, "Here I am, in the scroll of the book it is written of me. I delight to do your will, O my God." I hope that you can say this too, and that tomorrow and Tuesday you can delight to do God’s will.

Tuesday evening we’re partnering with the Community Bookstore and hosting Jim Wallis, with his new book, The Great Awakening. We’re the second stop in the national tour. Jim Wallis proposes a positive relationship of faith and politics for a secular nation, appropriate to the separation of church and state. He’s talking about the Kingdom of God in real live terms. I need two more volunteers to be ushers and helpers. If you could show up at 6:30, that would be nice.

Tuesday morning we’re partnering with city’s Department of Homeless Services and the Common Ground agency for the "Home Team" event. It’s like a farmer’s market of services for the homeless. We’ll have breakfast and medicine and health care and house-keys and room-keys. Our goal is twenty-five homeless people walking out of our sanctuary with keys to housing in their hands, and it’s a wonderful thing. This is what the Kingdom of God is like.

It can be scary for the homeless folks, so we need volunteers to act as their buddies and their guides. We still need some volunteers. Plan to say two hours. If you could show up at 7:00, that would be great, but you can come later, and we need a couple to help clean up from noon to 1:00 pm.

Tomorrow we’re partnering with Spoke the Hub to host all kinds of peacemaking activities in honor of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This building will be full of groups and classes doing all sorts of things. I’ll be leading a group in the morning and so will Jenny Burrill. Then, in the afternoon, in the sanctuary, we’ll have six different chapels for six religions, for silent prayer, all of us praying quietly for peace. We’re still looking for some volunteers to help serve the meal at 6 pm and to do dishes afterwards. I also need some volunteers to come and pray.

Don’t think of yourselves as volunteers. Think of yourselves as servants. It’s paradoxical how that might help. For this is what the servants hear God telling them: "I will send you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth." Only we’re bringing the nations into our building, so you don’t have to go to very far.

Now let me address the inward, and our souls, our congregation, breathing in.

The consistory has been working a program we call NCD, for Natural Church Development. NCD offers us tools to improve our congregation’s health, and the healthier we are, the better we grow. We got started with a diagnostic test last June. The test revealed that one of our weaknesses is the area of holistic small groups. Not just any groups, not just any small groups, but holistic small groups.

So our consistory has made this our priority this coming year. You’ll be hearing more about it. A committee called the Church Health Team bas been working on it. One of the Church Health Team’s decisions has been to focus the terminology on Spiritual Formation Groups. Spiritual Formation Groups. And the next seven sermons, I will ask our scripture lessons about Spiritual Formation Groups, and we’ll listen to what our scripture lessons tell us.

Today it’s rather obvious. According to John’s Gospel, after Jesus’ baptism, the first thing he does is gather a small group. Four guys. They spend the evening at his house with him, and drink their tea, and talk. Jesus is beginning to work on their spiritual formation.

This is basic to Christianity, especially when you compare it to its sister religions. In Judaism the basic group is the family. Not a group of individuals. In Islam the basic group is the whole public, the whole population. But if you look at both the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles, it’s almost always small groups of voluntary individuals. As Jesus said, "Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them."

This small group emphasis is not just pragmatic. It’s the inevitable implication of the Incarnation of God for us in Jesus Christ. Because in Jesus God comes very close, very close indeed, even uncomfortably close. Religions prefer to keep God at some distance, up in heaven, which lets us keep our space. But if God really gets so close, that means personal interaction, and that means transformation.

When those first two disciples started to follow Jesus, he turned around and said, "What are you looking for?" Well, that’s rather direct. They back off a bit. They don’t reveal what they are looking for, that they’re looking for the Messiah, they parry with a question of their own. "Rabbi, where are you staying." Calling him Rabbi means they're holding back their cards.

There is reason to be hesitant. Look what happened to Simon. When they brought him close to Jesus, Jesus gave him a new name. I’ll bet that shook him up a bit, altering his identity. "What’s wrong with what my mother called me?" That’s not what Simon bargained for.

You see, if you get this close, you get more than you bargained for, and there are costs and benefits. When you get involved in spiritual formation, that also means transformation. Transformation can be scary.

On Tuesday morning, you might get close to a homeless person as they get some help. Janet Phillips volunteered for this last time, and she told us she found it a little scary, but she wants very much to do it again. Tomorrow, you might get close to a Hindu or a Buddhist as they pray. If you find it a little uncomfortable you’ll also find it transformational. You’ll be doing this as God’s servant. The servant is called to do God’s will. And the servant can expect God’s faithfulness and God’s love. You will discover the depths of God’s faithfulness and love only when you test them and require them.

I can promise you all of this. And I invite you to this all, in the Spiritual Formation Groups in the months ahead, and in the outreach activities in the next two days. You will recover the truth of the old morning prayer, that the service of God is perfect freedom.

Copyright © 2008 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008


Watching the New Hampshire debate on Sunday night, I thought, how true to type they are.

Hillary Clinton stands for actions, not words.

Barack Obama stands for the power of words.

It's fitting that Hillary is a Methodist (UMC), and that Obama is Reformed (UCC).

The Methodists are the great pragmatists of Protestantism, the quintessential pragmatic traditionalists. The Reformed are all about the Word, sometimes even obstinately so.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Jim Wallis at Old First

Jim Wallis is the author of the book God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It, and most recently of The Great Awakening: Reviving Faith and Politics in a Post-Religious Right America.

Thanks to Wallis' organization Sojourners, and Park Slope's own Community Bookstore, Wallis will be reading from The Great Awakening at Old First on Tuesday, January 22, at 7:30 PM.

Click here for more information about the event, and for the opportunity to RSVP. It's important to RSVP as a large crowd is expected. There will be a permanent link in the sidebar of this blog for RSVPs as well.