Friday, May 27, 2011

Sermon for May 29, Easter 6: The Sign of Love

Acts 17:22-21, Psalm 66:8-20, 1 Peter 3:13-22, John 14:15-21
I had not planned to say anything at all about this Harold Camping “end-of-the-world” thing on Family Radio. I haven’t felt the need to address it since none of our congregation have asked me any questions or expressed any concern about it. The simple response to the whole fiasco is that Our Lord said very clearly that the time of his second coming would not be known to anyone.

But today in our first lesson we have some verses which are depended on by Mr. Camping and others of his ilk. Acts 17:30-31: “While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” Mr. Camping would say that this is what he meant, that the day has been fixed, and that he figured out it was May 21, and if we think the whole thing is a joke, then the joke’s on us. And there is judgment on us too.

I have three friends from college who were members of the church where Harold Camping was an elder forty years ago, the Christian Reformed Church in Alameda, California. That church belongs to a denomination which seceded from the Reformed Church 150 years ago, and in that denomination some of us have relatives. Mr. Camping is not a pastor, but a civil engineer. He reads the Bible mechanically, like it’s engineering specs. He has no emotional intelligence. They say that talking to him is like trying to talk to a computer. He left that church in 1988 because the other members would not agree with him. He belongs to no church now, he says no church is good, that no church has the gospel, and that God has left the church. Just like Mr Camping did. Mr. Camping projects a god who is a lot like himself. (Don't we all?)

It would be funnier if he did not play on the hopes and fears of vulnerable people. One of my cousins figured he’d be raptured, so he went off on a spending spree in Europe, and now he’s got nothing left. He’s got to hope the world will end in October, or else he’s going on welfare, or whatever’s left of welfare.

To be fair to Mr. Camping, the media mistook what he was saying. He never said that May 21 would be the end of the world. He always said that the end of the world will be October 21. He said that May 21 was judgement day, the beginning of the end, with physical signs and manifestations, like earthquakes and suffering and the rapture. Last Tuesday he admitted he was wrong on only that. He says he was mistaken on the signs and manifestations, that they are not physical, but spiritual. There’s a dodge! Ah, the “spiritual” card. He still says that judgement day did happen on May 21, so that if you did not already repent by then, too bad, it’s over, there is no more chance for repentance. You can repent all you want till October 21, but it’s too late baby now, it’s too late. Family Radio is still in business, but they’re just comforting the true believers for another five months of spiritual tribulations. So what will they broadcast on October 22? The Mets in the World Series. That would comfort us true believers in our spiritual tribulations.

Harold Camping is just an extreme version of so much current Christianity, especially on the right. They claim to speak for Jesus, and they quote some of his words, but they distort the gospel as they shout it. They stoke our anger and they stroke our fears. They turn love of country into lust, and freedom into greed, and independence into self-indulgence. If St. Paul were to visit America today he’d say how extremely religious we are, and also how many idols we have. American idols. The projections of what we want for our ourselves. Not just of talent and good looks and greed, but also of military power and economic power and materialism, and of the loss of power, the idols of fear and anger, which we are indulging in America today. But our epistle tells us, “Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord.”

I wish my cousin had prepared for his being raptured by selling all his possessions and giving the proceeds to the poor. He’d still be disappointed by May 21, but he wouldn’t be ashamed. I wish Harold Camping had told all of his listeners to do the same. He’d still be wrong, but we would all honor him anyway. As our epistle says, “do it with gentleness and fear, so that when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame.”

Yes, we certainly do believe that Our Lord will come again, and we say so in our Creeds. We say that he is seated at the right hand of his Father and so we certainly believe that he is the righteous judge of all the world. But here’s the difference from the distortion. His judgment is not just at the end, he has been doing it all through human history since his resurrection. He does it by his Word and Spirit, as his Word is pronounced among us and as we obey him in the Spirit. He doesn’t do it by sending earthquakes or disasters, but only and always openly, that we may love him and keep his commandments. He doesn’t do it by starting wars and rumors of wars, those are always all our fault. He only and always judges lovingly—that’s how we know it’s him.

His judgement is right now, and active—active in the world, as the words of his gospel take effect within our lives individually and in our cultures corporately. Look at the desire for freedom and democracy in Libya and Yemen, that is the long term fruit of the seed of his gospel and the impact of his judgments. He chooses justice not only for those who believe in him, but for all the offspring of his Father, Christian or Muslim or Jew or Hindu or pagan. He is Lord not only of those who believe in him. He is Lord of all, no matter whether they know him; in him “they live and move and have their being.” His judgment is for life and being. It’s not for the destruction of the world but for the saving of the world.

So now let me give a better translation of our text: While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he summons everyone to turn from their ignorance, because he has fixed a day by which is intending to judge the civilized world in justice, by a man whom he appointed, offering assurance to all by having raised him from the dead.

We have a great mission, bringing the justice and righteousness of Jesus Christ to all of human civilization, the love of him, and the doing of his commandments. I don’t know how long we have, I really don’t care. I don’t know how long we have before he comes again, it wouldn’t matter to me if it were 10,000 years, or at least long enough to let us change our ways enough to cool the globe back down a few degrees and bring back to life the coral reefs. We have a lot of sins to own up to and confess, and a lot of righteousness to learn. I have an idea that Jesus tends to take his time.

The self-giving love of Jesus is the judgment of the world. Whenever you follow him in that love, you judge the world. And this is a judgment that does not condemn the world, but saves it. To have Jesus as your Lord will give you some success, some real success, but it will also be the cause of suffering. With Jesus as your Lord, you can expect to be misunderstood, you can expect to be doubted, you can expect to be abused, if not physically or even mentally, then socially, you may be called foolish or naive, quixotic or unrealistic, disloyal or unpatriotic, whatever.

Look, everybody suffers. Americans have to suffer too, and we ought not increase the suffering of others in order to decrease our own. To accept the suffering of the world with love is what Jesus has commanded us, and if that’s the command that we obey, then we love him too. We love him because he first loved us. I don’t know what’s going to happen to the future of the world, but I can certainly rule out a lot of options and hope for some others when I consider these two things: the resurrection of Our Lord Jesus, and how much God loves us.

Copyright © 2011 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Sermon for May 22, Easter 5, by Rachel Daley

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

I’ve been a seminary graduate for less than 24 hours, but as I’ve prepared and planned and packed up my belongings, I’ve had plenty of time to think about my journey over the last few years. I’ve thought a lot about Old First, the excitement and trepidation I carried as I visited and began my involvement. I began full of vocational goals and had a plan for how to accomplish them. I was right to be afraid. Being in community, especially this community, I began to perceive that God was leading me to imagine a future that was different than what I thought I wanted.

The greatest blessing at Old First was finding that there was so much space for me. As a worshipper I experienced that there was room for my questions and space for the mysteries that transcend our understanding. I experienced a commitment that whatever we do in God’s name should not only be true, but should also be good and beautiful. As a seminarian I found a place to explore my call in freedom and in safety, receiving in turn words of encouragement and words of challenge. When I put on this robe, I still feel like a kid playing dress-up. This playful quality of my work here has been a wonderful gift, allowing me to take tentative, sometimes faltering steps toward that office called “Minister of Word and Sacrament.” As happens so often in life, I found myself on a path long before I knew why, or where it would lead me. For this and so many other gifts, I give wholehearted thanks.

But this really isn’t a story about me, nor is it really a story about you. It’s a story about an entire people and especially about the God to whom they belong. This is a God who acts in unexpected ways, and with unexpected people. A God who is sometimes distant from the obvious places but present among those who are easily overlooked. Maybe not in magnificent buildings, but among the poor and downcast. This is a God who goes before our plans and intentions and makes of us something that we did not believe possible. While we are hard at work, we realize that God is creating something else entirely. What God builds may be different than what humans want to build. What God is up to might be different than what our religious institutions are doing.

This was part of the witness of Stephen. We don’t really see this because the reading from Acts dips in only at the end of Stephen’s story. We miss the whole sequence of events leading up to his death. We glimpse this final scene: an angry mob set against Stephen, who remains spiritual and serene. Stephen is an exemplar for all who will face martyrdom or persecution because he faces his end with grace and faithfulness. Cutting the reading short leaves unanswered questions. For one: Why did Stephen die? What was his crime? He did not transgress a legal code. But he did – and quite deliberately I think – provoke some very powerful people. To hear his story, we’ll need to back up and listen also to the words that got Stephen killed.

So here’s a bit of back-story: Stephen was one of the early Christians who went around Jerusalem preaching and performing signs. He was arrested on false charges and called to defend himself. Stephen the defendant immediately sets to preaching - a sweeping, somewhat revisionist account of ancient Israelite history. Then he gives the whole thing a theological spin that attacks cherished institutions, shocking and offending his audience. Among several other contentious points, Stephen sets up a polemic against the temple built by Solomon. He argues, “the Most High does not dwell in houses made with human hands” (7.48). What would be a fitting place for God to dwell, who has already shaped every stone, formed all metals and planted every tree? Surely the God who inhabits all of heaven and earth will not be contained by human works, however extravagant or skillfully constructed. Stephen’s point is the utter contrast between the works of God and of humans. Human projects cannot limit God’s presence, control God’s activity, or manage the exercise of God’s power.

But Stephen doesn’t intend this to be a teaching moment. Instead he wraps things up by recasting himself as judge. He calls his accusers faithless and disobedient; he names them as betrayers and murderers. The angry reaction isn’t really a surprise. The message had a bitter taste for Stephen’s audience. They’re not the usual hooligans you would expect to find in a bit of a skirmish outside the city limits. Stephen did not address criminals or soldiers, but a council composed of religious leaders. They are elders and priests; upstanding members of their communities. As protectors of the temple and of religious life, they do not react warmly to Stephen’s remarks.

The story spins in unexpected directions. The council was the best of human intellect and religiosity. Stephen accuses them of being frauds. By the time we drop in to glimpse Stephen’s death, the pretense of moral superiority is revealed as a sham. The judicial proceedings inexplicably gave way to mob violence and the death of Stephen. It’s a bizarre twist: maybe like a supreme court judge being caught exercising a bit of vigilante justice. These respected individuals are just ordinary people who respond to a threat with violence and anger.

The council and the temple are two symbols of human accomplishment. If God were to dwell anywhere on earth, it would certainly be within a costly, beautiful, and well-protected temple. If the wisdom of God were to be found anywhere, it would be among the members of the council: well-educated, religious, good. But the most ornate building is not able to contain the Most High God. Even the most just and most wise ruler can take the place of God who reigns from heaven.

This is a stumbling block. We’re used to the idea that God has a problem with the worst of what humans have done. God came to save the criminals, the fanatics, the broken and damaged. What are the “worst” human achievements? Maybe war, waste, racism. It’s because of all these bad things that we need God, and from all of this bad stuff that God comes to save us. God has a problem with my sin and my shadows and failures, but all the good stuff - like charitable deeds and religious devotion - those things can remain more or less intact.

The story of Stephen reveals a different truth. God rejects the best of what humans have to offer. It’s not just because of the fiascos of human history, but because our best is not enough for a perfectly righteous God. Even the great achievements in architecture: the pyramids of Egypt, China’s great wall, Machu Picchu, even these were hewn of rocks that God made. Even political and social advancements like democracy and human rights fall short. Even cherished institutions- churches, well-run schools, and centers of learning- even these are not adequate to mediate God’s presence on earth.

What humans build may not be what God is building; human plans may not be God’s plans. Here the reading from 1 Peter stands as a counterpoint to the story of Stephen. If not the temple, what will be the site of God’s presence on earth? The letter commends the churches, “Let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” The new temple is built of living stones, living, breathing people who have come to Christ and have tasted that God is good. But their role is passive. Stones themselves cannot build; they must be built. Stones are nothing until they taken in hand by an architect or an artisan. They are chosen and then cut, ground, trimmed until they are the right size and shape and can be useful for building.

1 Peter lets us in on another secret: God does not build like you might expect. What would make a stone a good candidate for a building project? Human builders will aim for strength and uniformity. A builder will covet materials that retain their strength and appearance and resist decay over time. Aesthetic qualities are important, like color, texture, and pattern, so that the many pieces will cohere into a unified whole.

God’s new project starts with unlikely materials. Christ, rejected by humans, becomes the cornerstone. This surprising pick becomes the rule for all that follows. When God builds, many of the pieces will be unremarkable. Some are not particularly strong or resilient. Many will not be beautiful. What they are, is chosen and precious in God’s sight. It is not by their properties, but by God’s choice that they are worthy of inclusion. God’s aesthetic vision is transformative, working a masterpiece out of stones that others passed over. The new temple is the entirety of those whom God gathers together. We are those stones; being joined to Christ, we are joined also to one another. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s own people.

What this means is that no one finds their way here on accident. However disjointed or ill-matched we may feel we are for one another, each has been gathered for a purpose. Even if the paint peels, cracks widen, and in spite of dissension within and opposition without, still God gathers and builds. Even if we are embarrassed by or enraged at the actions of other’s who call themselves God’s followers- none of us get to make judgments about who is in and who is out. And if the walls of the God’s house should ever crumble, it may be because we are prone to constructing walls in all the wrong places. In the Easter season, we’ve heard that Easter is not church property, that the signs are not church property. As it turns out, not even the church is church property.

What is the difference between building and being built by God? They might look indistinguishable from the outside. Being built means that our plans are always provisional, our ways of doing things always open to revision. To be built by God is continually to ask ourselves the question: How do I best align with what God is about in this world?

Maybe you first came to church thinking how God might fit in your plans. I want God to help me carry out my goals and ideals. What we encounter is something far better - that God draws all of us into a project that spans across generations and across continents…swept up in something greater than what we could accomplish or imagine.

This “chosenness” is not simply a status. It is a vocation. Whenever Peter tells the churches who they are in Christ, he also tells them what to do about it. They’re not builders, because their action is always derivative of God’s action. Rather they are commissioned as a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Christ. They proclaim the mighty acts of God who has drawn us from darkness into light.

Many offer seemingly insignificant sacrifices: sleepy prayers, homework assignments, food for families, getting out of bed in the morning, a good effort at a job you hate, swallowing hateful words. Yet God is able to build anything out of these small offerings. None of us can see what God will make of our gifts. No work of human hands can house the God of heaven and earth. But when God builds, every act performed with love is a spiritual sacrifice and a taste of God’s goodness. When God builds, even the most ordinary and humble materials become a window to God’s light.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Installation Sermon for Rev Dr Linden De Bie, May 22, at the Community Church of Douglaston (RCA)

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

If I were to produce the Gospel of John as a stage play, I would make all the scenery to be temple scenery, for all three acts. The backdrops and furniture would suggest the temple for every scene of the play. I would suggest how every action of Jesus in this Gospel is a temple action, even when it happens out on a hillside, feeding five thousand; or at the cross, which is an altar of sacrifice, an altar outside the temple. I would suggest that Jesus himself is the temple, in whom God’s Glory dwells, wherever he is upon the stage; he is the tabernacle, he is the moving location where the living God is fully present to God’s people. Wherever he is, he is his Father’s House.

You know the temple of Solomon had twenty upper rooms built up against the walls of the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies. These were the chambers where the priests would go to eat their portions of the sacrifices, where they had their meals with God, where they were close to God. Well, I would use the scenery to suggest one of these rooms as the setting for our gospel for today. The upper room in which the disciples ate the Passover was a substitute temple room. On the backdrop I would mount some large painting of the visionary temple of Ezekiel, the temple of the future, which had many more such rooms, almost a hundred, all around the temple courts. That’s what Jesus refers to when he says, “In my Father’s House are many rooms, where I am going to prepare a place for you,” where you can commune with God as intimately as I do; you can be as close to God as a child with a Father.

But how shall we get there? He’s the way there. If you want to know the God of Israel as Father, he’s the way to the Father, and the truth of the Father, and the life of the Father. And you can know this now, and you’ll need to know it for your life hereon as my disciples. When he says that’s he’s the way, the truth, and the life, he’s not talking here about who gets to go to heaven when they die, he doesn’t say here, “no one gets to heaven but by me,” he’s not speaking of boundaries, he’s speaking of entrances, of access and intimacy, of opening the curtain and the outside going in and the inside going out, of getting close to God not by getting away from the world, but in the world in order to take on all the trouble and suffering and misery of the world. John 14:6 is certainly for mission, but not a mission of exclusivity, rather a mission of welcome and hospitality and healing the world.

In the chapters of John which follow, Jesus lays out how his disciples themselves will be the temple. How their community will succeed him as the location of God’s real and faithful presence in the world, how the community of believers will be a living temple in which God’s glory dwells for the salvation of the world. And for once, St. Peter paid attention, and in our epistle lesson he repeats the image which Jesus had given them that night in the upper room, and he makes it more concrete. Of necessity, because the early Christian congregations to which he wrote his epistle had no churches, no shrines, no temples, no altars, none of the ordinary places where ordinary people go to get close to the gods, to say their prayers, to make their sacrifices and enjoy them. The early Christians were considered to be atheists by their pagan neighbors. What kind of a strange religion is this gospel anyway, what can you offer us concretely where we can find your God? What locations do you offer for ordinary people to get close to God?

The location is the community of believers in its life together. Your congregation is the house of God. Your congregation is more than an association of like-minded people. In your congregations’ life together, God is really present, especially when you break bread. It is a humble sort of presence on God’s part, to be fully present in people like us who gather here, it is a humble sort of glory to be seated upon the singing of the children’s choir, and to accept the sacrifices that we make when we happen to be home on the weekend and have money to spare. But God has deemed it satisfactory to be present in the world through us. My goodness. Not only us, but certainly us, and faithfully us. Why aren’t we trembling when we come to church?

The Lord Jesus has deemed us so acceptable that he tells us, “I will do whatever you ask in my name.” Now that’s the kind of thing we like to hear. That’s what people have always wanted from their gods. They visited their temples to ask their gods for rain and sun and health and wealth and victory in war. He says it again. “If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.” You like to hear it, but then you reflect how often he doesn’t seem to do what you ask him, even if you ask in his name. Does he really mean this? Or should you just stop asking so as not to be disappointed?

You have called your pastor here to lead you in prayers. Your pastor is required by the Reformed Church’s constitution “to call on the name of the Lord on behalf of the whole congregation.” This is the ministry of prayer, which is no less important than the ministries of preaching and teaching and counseling and visiting and governing the church. Prayer is what goes on inside a temple, and if you together as a congregation are a living temple, then what happens among you should be a lot of prayer, and he is installed among you as a leader of your prayers. He leads the prayers among you when you gather, and he prays for you in private when he is alone. When you don’t feel like praying, he leads you anyway. When you don’t know what to ask, he teaches you. When your answer doesn’t come and your hope flags and your faith fails, he counsels you and prays on your behalf. He is responsible to help you reconcile your not getting what you ask for with the promise of Jesus here that he will do it.

(If I’m honest I confess that for professional reasons, I wish Our Lord had not promised that. I wish he had said something like, I will do just about 22% of what you ask, depending on the wars and weather. But he ups the ante, he seems to mean 100%. So when you pastor reconciles you to that I wish one of you would call me up and repeat his explanation so that I could use it too.)

You have called your pastor to be an architect. An architect of the temple that you are called to build inside this structure called the Community Church of Douglaston. He is the architect who will instruct you and show you and help you construct the living temple of your congregation. The prophet Moses gave the plans for the Tabernacle at Mount Sinai, King Solomon gave the blueprint for the Temple in Jerusalem, and the priest Ezekiel had the vision of the Temple of the future. Your pastor, by his preaching and teaching, will give your congregation the plan and the blueprint and the vision. I ask you to be receptive to his vision, and do not stone him like they did to Stephen. Do not stumble over the stones he lays by disobeying the Word of God. Receive how he shows you your temple inside this sanctuary, and in the Sunday School rooms, in the church kitchen and the parlor and the parking lot, and outside in the village, wherever you walk upon the stage of Douglaston, even in your homes. Receive his ministry, and you will discover how close is God to you.

Nine years ago I said a few words at a dinner on Wall Street, and a lawyer came up to me and said, “You know, I am a Catholic, but I have great respect for your denomination. I’m from Douglaston, and some friends of ours, not church members, had a tragic accident, and it was the pastor of the Community Church who ministered to them.” Well, I know that’s what Dr. De Bie would do too. When I heard that he might come here, I knew right away that he was God’s choice to show you and help you become what God intends for you to be. Yes, in past years you have done great work here in Douglaston, but you will do greater works than these. Listen to verse 12 of our Gospel: “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, because I am going to the Father, you will do greater works that these.”

Copyright © 2011 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Sermon for May 15, Easter 4: Wonder Bread and Wonder Girl

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

On the baptism of Evelyn Elizabeth Cribbs

Our Epistle lesson, from First Peter, was particularly addressed to the slaves who belonged to the early Christian congregations. They were usually house slaves, not field slaves, and not abused as badly as our slaves in America, and they did not suffer the added cruelty of racism, but they still were slaves, and they had no right to their own lives. They could be punished by their masters with impunity, with no regard for innocence or guilt. They had no rights at all, and loving Jesus gave them not advantages but extra disadvantages. So how should they carry their suffering?

The problem extends to all of us. All of us have to carry suffering. Some of our suffering comes from doing right, when the right thing is not welcome in the world. Some of our suffering comes from doing wrong. Sometimes the difference is irrelevant, and our suffering just comes, it comes from having bodies and bones and skin and blood, and living on a watery planet with seismic activity. So much of our lives is out of our control, even if we are not slaves. The problem is for all of us.

First Peter calls us to follow Christ as an example. The Christ who was willing to go all the way to his death on the cross. We should not walk away from suffering, but enter into it with love. Because if you walk in love you will get extra suffering. Not only from the opposition of the powers of the world, which fear the law of love as a threat to their equilibrium, but because living in love will develop in you extra sensitivities, and the suffering of others will touch you too. The call of First Peter is a call to action, not passivity. But you can’t free others from suffering without having to suffer some yourself. You can’t free others from abuse without it costing you. I believe you know this, and yet you want to live this way.

But Christ is more than an example. The cross leads to the resurrection, and he lives. He’s also actively the shepherd and guardian of your souls. What First Peter means by “soul” is not some disembodied spirit, but your personality, your mind, your emotions, your breath, your life itself. He is the living guardian of all that. As your shepherd and guardian he does not spare you from suffering, but he gets you through each next valley of the shadow of death. He doesn’t say you don’t have enemies, but he sets a table before you in the presence of your enemies. Because he is our guardian, our enemies have no power to compel us not to love. Death is real, but his love is stronger than death, because he is the shepherd who has beaten death.

Last week I said that we are not given proofs of the resurrection, but signs of it. I said that a proof is the ending of a process of an argument, and it settles things, but a sign keeps things moving because it points to something else. A proof concludes and a sign suggests. You have to work a sign. The more you work a sign the more you it tells you.

Last week we saw that Our Lord designed the “breaking the bread” to be the chief sign of his resurrection. We work this sign each week in Holy Communion. I said it isn’t obvious what breaking bread might have to do with his resurrection, but the more we work the sign the more we get from it. We need to embrace the sign with our hearts and minds and our imaginations.

We have to wonder at the sign. Our Lord designed the sign to appeal to our sense of wonder. We should call it wonder bread! The sign suggests so many things. It means his broken body and his poured out blood. It means his presence among us as the true host at the table. It means that he feeds us with his risen body just as certainly as we eat the bread. It means that he pours his life into us just as certainly as we drink the cup. It is a wonder and a miracle, a small and weekly miracle. We do miracles in church. Or I should say that God does miracles among us, in the signs and wonders that we do each week by his design.

We have another wonder today, another sign of his design, and that is Holy Baptism. He told us to do it, and so we do it. He told us to do it in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, so that is what we say when we do it. It is a sign of something which God does real in us, and we work the sign by wondering at all God does in us. You are baptized just once, but as certainly as you were washed with that water, so the Holy Spirit works in you your whole life long, and you can embrace the sign of your baptism with your life, your heart, your mind and your imagination.

To our eyes it looks so simple. So un-miraculous. Just water on the skin. What people do everywhere, since time immemorial. It’s a sign so ordinary, so basic, as basic as bread. The signs make use of actions as common as eating and washing. We have to wonder at Our Lord’s design. We have to wonder at the world God made, we have to wonder at our lives, with a wonder that is not just free fantasy, but of obedience and humility, reading the signs as God designed them, working the signs to get from them the wonders of God’s love, the wonders of God’s love, a love so basic and natural that even a child can know this love.

This morning you will see that second sign. You will see me putting water on a baby. You will hear me say her name: “Evelyn Elizabeth,” and then you’ll hear me say the name of God: “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Now, she’s certainly been washed before, and called by name before, but today for the first time we will do those two very ordinary things together before the congregation, and under the name of God. So simple, but the more you see in it the more it opens up. That has to be true for Evelyn herself as well. As she opens up her life in coming years, she can open up the promise in her baptism. She can apply it to her needs in all the stages of her life, she can apply it to the calling of her life, the work she does, the words she speaks, all that her name will come to stand for in the world, for all of her life she can work the sign of her own baptism.

The Christian community is charged to give her what she needs to work that sign. For the first few years, her parents are the agents of the church, but early on the rest of us have obligations too. In just three year’s time she will be welcomed into our program we call Godly Play. She will hear the story of the Good Shepherd. She will play with that story.

We tell that story several ways. We tell it flat, with paper characters on felt, and we tell it three-dimensional, with little wooden figures, as you see right there. It’s the central story of our program, and we tell it to the children several times, and they can play with it as often as they like, in order to inspire their imaginations. So it will be with Evelyn. She will imagine herself as a sheep in the shepherd’s care. She will imagine living in the sheepfold, where the shepherd keeps her safe. She will imagine going out and coming in. She will imagine going out to pasture where the shepherd watches over her to keep her safe. She will imagine him calling her by her name, because he knows her name and likes to say her name. We will teach her this and she will play with it, and we will invite her to wonder at what all it means.

We want to help her get this deep in her. She’ll need to remember it when her sufferings come. She’ll need to remember this when she has to face a choice of doing the right thing or the easy thing, the costly choice or the safe choice, the loving choice or the self-preserving choice. I think you cannot really love your neighbor, it is too risky and difficult, unless you can believe that you have a loving shepherd and a powerful guardian into whose care you can place your life. But she can remember that she is baptized, that she belongs to him, that she’s marked with a brand on her forehead which even after it evaporates he can still see.

God will help her remember. The Holy Spirit will remind her. The Holy Spirit is the one who is most active here today, doing signs and wonders. You cannot see the Holy Spirit, not directly, but you can see the Spirit’s sign and seal. And you can see the signs of love, which is the chief work of the Spirit. All the love that you see going on here today among us is a sign which points to the love of God.

Copyright © 2011 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Sermon for May 8, Easter 3, Working the Signs

Acts 2:14a, 36-41, Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19, 1 Peter 1:17-23, Luke 24:13-35

My text is from our epistle, First Peter 1:17, If you invoke as Father the one who judges all people impartially according to their deeds, live in reverent fear during the time of your exile. "The time of your exile." Do you feel like an exile? A resident alien? How are you exiles? And why?

Some of you say that you like how Old First is so rooted and grounded in the history and geography of Brooklyn. The names of our members are on the streets: Polhemus Place, Boerum Place, Bergen Street, DeGraw, Hoyt, Schermerhorn, Joralemon, Hicks, Middagh, Varick, Suydam, Dikeman, Rapelye, Wyckoff, Classon, Conover, Cortelyou, Remsen, Gerritsen, Lott, Schenk, Van Brunt, Van Dyke, Van Voorhees. All these names belonged to our church, and now one of them is back. To the other five new members today, I cannot offer to name a street after you, so you’ll have to be content with a spot in Greenwood Cemetery, which is another way of being rooted and grounded in Brooklyn’s history and geography.

When the Hoyts and the Schermerhorns first settled here they were like exiles in the wilderness, but they soon became the establishment, and our church was founded as an established church, supported by taxation. When we put up this building, 120 years ago, we obviously wanted to express our sense of establishment. When we begin to raise the millions of dollars we’ll need to renovate our stained-glass windows, we’ll have to be pleasing to the establishment.

So are we establishment or exiles? If you’re a Christian, how are you an outsider and how are you at home — a resident or an alien or both? How much can you fit in to even where you are at home? The exiles addressed by St. Peter were not foreigners. Some were Jews and some were Gentiles, but they were native to where they lived. And yet they were exiles socially, politically, and economically, because of their loyalty to Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah and the Lord. The Jews among them no longer could share in their family celebrations. The Gentiles no longer could join the local festivals. The slaves among them had to fit in with their masters against their consciences, and the wives of non-believers faced a similar dilemma. All of them would be regarded by their neighbors as more or less disloyal, kill-joys, spoil-sports, worthy of discrimination and distrust.

They need encouragement. They need advice. How to navigate their lives. How in their predicament to be loving, not bitter, to be joyful, not resentful, to be generous, not defensive. How to be loyal to Jesus as Lord, and also honor the Emperor, as St. Peter advises them in chapter 2. There’s a needle to thread!

On Monday afternoon, one of you wrote me this email: “Daniel, Is it just me, or are you weirded out over all the rejoicing over bin Laden’s death? I mean, I get it – this guy is something of a modern-day Hitler – but . . . I just find it hard to be excited about anyone’s killing.” That’s the feeling, the feeling that First Peter 1:17 is getting at. “If you invoke as Father the one who judges all people impartially according to their deeds, live in reverent fear during the time of your exile.” We pray to a God who judges us no less than anybody else. So we want to live our lives in reverent fear. Not in fear as anxiety, but fear in knowing our limits, our fragility, our humility and our dependence, how much we daily need of grace and mercy. The great surprise about this reverent fear is that it results in joy and love, both counter-intuitively and counter-culturally.

The opposite is what St. Peter calls “futility”. The good thing about our predicament is that we are exiles also to futility, although we can sometimes feel like kill-joys. Futility could mean the fifteen minutes of fame. The shallow celebrations. The easy revelry. The superficial prosperity. The facile patriotism. The ideology of individualism. The economy of consumption. The idolatry of violence. We may stand outside of these.

But we do not stand outside the world. We stay within the world and for the world, because the resurrection of Jesus is both the judgment of the world and the affirmation of the world. It’s a judgment on the flesh but an affirmation of embodiment. It’s a foretaste of the future for the sake of life right now, right here and now. The resurrection is against the world and for the world, as both a judgment and a blessing, the future against the futility, the dawn against the darkness.

We are not given proofs of it, but we are given signs of it. As I said last week, the proof was given only to the apostles, in order to credit them as witnesses. To us are given signs. A proof is for a verdict and a resolution, and you can say, “That settles that.” A sign is something that points beyond itself, to get you moving there; you have to follow a sign, you have to use a sign, you have to work it. We are given signs, not proofs, of Jesus’s resurrection. The signs won’t tell you anything unless you use them, unless you work them. The more you work them, the more you get from them. One of the signs we’re given is the breaking of the bread. It isn’t obvious what this might have to do with the resurrection. Until you start using it. Until you use it more and more, and let it unfold itself to you, the more it shows you Jesus and confirms his life in you.

The signs are free for all. The signs are not church property. The other way around — they make the church. The signs are gifts of God to us. You don’t have to be a church member to enjoy them. That’s why we are indiscriminate, intentionally so. You are free to take the signs for free. But six of you are standing up today to say you want to work the signs. You want to put more into them to get more out of them. You commit to learn them and share them and take responsibility for them. You commit to the body that is broken in the bread. You commit to working God’s designs to see what they reveal.

You commit as well to our own secondary signs, the signs of our design. Like the organization of Old First, and our own particular missions and traditions and programs, which have their passing place as secondary signs of resurrection. Like the public water fountain. Like the respite shelter.

Like that painting. The Empty Tomb. That sign was commissioned by the Cortelyous and Suydams and Schenks to express what they believed. It’s remarkable. They were so Calvinist that the sanctuary they gave us has no crucifix – the only cross is faintly in that window over there – and yet they gave this lavish painting, by a Catholic Italian, a pride above place above the pulpit. Perfectly fitting in one way and contradictory in another. And a sign of Jesus’ resurrection is wonderfully offered all year round to anyone who walks into this sanctuary. You six are committing to maintain such signs, such secondary signs in all the contradictions of our culture and establishment.

The sign of the painting, the sign of the table, and the signs of your own lives. A third kind of sign, just as passing and enculturated, just as contradictory, and just there in your brokenness and how you deal with it and share it. Working the contradictions of being both a resident and an alien, of feeling both at home and in exile, and working your contradictions not in frustration but in love, that’s how you exhibit in your own life the signs of resurrection. The rest of us here are encouraged and inspired that you six want to this, and we want to bless you for it.

We need you and you need us, because you cannot work the signs on your own, not if you want to work them in love. St. Peter counsels “mutual love.” That’s a combination of all three kinds of signs, the love in your own life, the love within the organization of the church, and the love which Jesus gives us in the breaking of the bread. It’s a love regarded as unrealistic by the world, but that’s only because the world keeps failing to work it. It’s a love completely natural, it’s the love which is the primal energy of this present universe, and just as much the energy of the new creation. We work these signs together, the signs of resurrection and the signs of love. That you’re here is a sign of God’s love to all of us.

Copyright © 2011 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.