Friday, October 21, 2011

Brooklyn charity in need after fire 9/29/11 : Currents

Brooklyn charity in need after fire 9/29/11 : Currents

October 23, Proper 25, Satisfied Characters

Deuteronomy 34, Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17, 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13, Matthew 22:34-46

Moses had to end his life with one great disappointment. He never got to enter the Promised Land, he never got to enjoy the great goal of his life. He had to be satisfied with God. The rest of the people got to have their dwelling place in the Promised Land, while his dwelling place had to be the Lord. Was his the greater satisfaction, despite his disappointment and his sacrifice?

We’ve been saying for the last few weeks that your losses and your failures serve better than your successes for developing your character. Not that success itself is bad — you need to have some success in life. You can even pray for it, as with the last line of Psalm 90: “Prosper for us the work of our hands, O prosper the work of our hands.” Prosperity is permissible, but prosperity does not build character.

Why is this so? What’s so great about failure and loss and suffering? Is it not because these things force you to learn your limits? You have to learn where you end. You have to learn that you are dust, you have to learn that your life is like the grass — in the morning you are new and fresh, and in the evening you fade and wither. Such negativity is positive for character. “The years of our life are three-score and ten, or by reason of strength fourscore, and we are soon gone, and we fly away, so teach us to number our days, that we may get us a heart of wisdom.” Teach us to learn our limits, and we will be better, and happier, and generous.

Not necessarily. We all know people whose loss and suffering make them bitter, unsavory and mean, angry and defensive, or overly competitive or overly acquisitive. They have their reasons to believe that the state of nature for human life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” and we have no choice but to live accordingly. We all know people like this.

Perhaps the difference is that to make good from your losses you need to have something outside yourself to hope for, something beyond your limits to believe in. This is why military service builds character when the soldier is fighting for what he can really believe in, but not when the whole point of the battle is uncertain, as we have discovered with our veterans of recent wars. That something beyond your limits to believe in has taken various forms in human history. In ancient Egypt it was immortality — as a compensation for human pain and suffering, to share the immortality of the gods. As pervasive as this was in Egypt, the Children of Israel left it behind them when they left Egypt. The aspiration to immortality is totally absent from the Torah and the faith of the Hebrews. There was no monument to Moses, no pyramid, no obelisk, no sarcophagus, no mummy. They grieved for him for forty days, and then they let him go. They had to be satisfied with God.

On the other side of them was Mesopotamia, and the empires of Babylon and then Assyria, which were dedicated to the accumulation and centralization of political and economic power. Power was their compensation for the pain and suffering of life. In other civilizations the aspiration has been greatness, or glory, or honor, or prestige, or fame. This was the Hellenistic aspiration, and then the Renaissance ideal, and then the Humanist ideal, and in the secular world it’s still held up. It’s what’s behind the Olympics, and it’s the assumption of our schools, especially our private ones, and it is not without its value.

But functionally this classical ideal has been replaced, in America and worldwide, by the aspirations of nationalism, on one hand, and on the other of materialistic consumerism, a double aspiration in a dangerous combination. And so people have come to believe that the primary task of our governments is to grow our economies, our own national economies in competition with those of other nations. The further problem is that because our current economic system requires our economies grow by means of consumption, we end up becoming competitive consumers. I have spoken of this before, but it bears repeating because it’s so pervasive.

  Some consumption is necessary (you need to consume food to stay alive), but we’re in a fix because our system requires us to ignore that there are limits on our wealth, and to keep our economy growing at such and such a rate requires us to keep on buying more consumer goods, and to believe that we need them, and thus keep ourselves from being satisfied. And in this whole mix, the cultivation of the qualities of good character is disincentive to success, as is revealed by the raft of recent books on all the characters of Wall Street. According to Michael Lewis’ latest book, the government of Greece started digging itself into a hole when in order to enter the Eurozone it decided to be deceptive about its national debt, and so they enlisted Goldman Sachs to help them with financial structures which were deliberately deceptive and eventually destructive, but which made a lot of money for Goldman Sachs. It’s not the economy, stupid, it’s the characters. It’s not at all simplistic to say that the political and economic problem of the world today are really ethical and spiritual.

God made the world to have enough for all, but not if we’re all competitive consumers. So for the sake of the world and for the sake of those around you and even for the sake of yourself,  one of your jobs as a Christian is to learn how to be satisfied, to cultivate the gift of satisfaction. Let me say it again, it’s a take home: One of your jobs as a Christian is to cultivate your satisfaction. To do this job requires you to learn to discipline your desires. What is that you want? What is that you think you need? These are good questions to ask yourself. If you’re having any trouble in your life, or if you’re facing some big decision, you might sit down and ask yourself all this. What do you desire? What do you require? What do you require to be happy, and what are your standards for success? Ask yourself, What are the limits in your life that you accept?

You might feel in this some resignation. Maybe some disappointment. Let me suggest you rather regard it as reconciliation. Not just with the facts of life, but reconciliation with the God who gave you life. It’s the teaching of the scriptures that you won’t be satisfied with anything unless you’re satisfied with God, and it’s the witness of believers through the ages that when you are satisfied with God, then you will become satisfied with everything else. You can believe it, and I have seen it, and I feel it in myself that even I am coming around to it.

Moses is for all of you. You can see places you can’t get to, you can see things you can’t have, you can even see promises that go to other people than yourself. But those things do not satisfy unless your soul is satisfied with God, and it’s only God that can satisfy your soul.

So here is my resolution of the problem I posed earlier, how pain and loss and suffering can enhance good character when you have something beyond your limits to hope for and believe in. For Christians that is not immortality but a living God who is faithful without limits; it is not power but a God who is righteous and seeks justice; it is not greatness or glory or honor or prestige or fame, but a God who is loving to the point of sacrifice and calls us to be servants of this love. Desiring this God is the aspiration past your limits which helps you develop a character which is fitting for the Sovereignty of God, a character characterized by satisfaction. Isn’t it lovely that when Jesus commands you to love God and to love your neighbor, he’s commanding you to do what satisfies you most. Yes, you do need to learn your limits, but you also need to recognize your gifts, and a very great gift that you have been given is the capacity to know the love of God. In order to be satisfied, let yourself be loved by God.

Copyright © 2011, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Friday, October 07, 2011

October 9, Proper 23, Kingdom Characters #3, Lovely Aspirations

image copyright © Mount Carmel Ministries, all rights reserved.

Exodus 32:1-14, Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23, Philippians 4:1-9, Matthew 22:1-14

This parable is the Monty Python parable, the Marx Brothers parable, the Three Stooges parable. Whatever is comic, whatever is confusing, whatever is vengeful, whatever is violent, whatever is impulsive, whatever is short-sighted, if there is any unfairness, if there is any impatience, that is this parable. Is this really what the Kingdom of Heaven is like?

For today I will say two things: first, the finish of this parable is not within the parable, but in your response to it, and second, the Kingdom of Heaven is offered as free for all and open to everyone and absolutely welcoming, but once you find yourself in it, the Kingdom has its expectations. Of course the poor guy had just been pulled into the party and had no chance to get a clean robe on, but what about you who hear this parable: the kingdom is near, so dress for it. Act the part, if you've been made a part of it.

It’s analogous to Exodus 32. The Children of Israel had not asked God to lead them out into the desert. They had only asked for relief from the misery of their slavery. God gave them more than they asked for, God gave them freedom from the realm of Pharaoh and then all the blessings of the realm of God. But they do not act the part. They use their freedom to indulge their fears and appetites. “Make us gods that we’re familiar with. Make us gods who will serve us and who will not challenge us. Make us gods who have no expectations.”

The Realm of God is welcoming and gracious. You find yourself within it. Maybe you started coming to church, and then you began to see the Realm of God behind you and before you. Or maybe you were baptized into it, and you grew up knowing you were in it; you grew up knowing that “The Lord is near.” However you find yourself within it, you face its challenge and its expectation that you act the part, and that you have a certain kind of character. Which might daunt you, except that its expectation is most natural. Not the kind of “natural” the flesh regards as natural, with our distractions and idolatries, with our typical indulgence of our fears and appetites, but the “natural” of God’s original intention and design, the truly human nature which we can aspire to.

This is the third sermon in a series of sermons on “character”, the kind of character that goes with being a citizen within the Realm and Sovereignty of God. Your character is the rôle that you are writing for yourself in the long-term drama of your life. Your character is not static but dynamic, and you develop your character through your choices that you make through time, each choice affecting your further choices. Your choices have momentum and a trajectory, which affect your posture and your attitude, your uprightness and your soundness as you address your life. Your choices leave a residue—your look and your smell, whether you are savory or unsavory. The combination of that residue and your attitude is the character you show the world.

My method in this series is to ask the Sunday lessons what they might tell us about character. This week is easy. “Finally beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything praiseworthy, think about these things.” A list of virtues to aspire to. Actually not so much a list as a field, because these virtues are not discrete, they overlap, they weave into each other, they blend into the fabric of the robe to wear within the Realm of God.

What’s remarkable about this list is that these words are not narrowly Biblical. St. Paul does not take them from the Torah and the Prophets. That may be because the Christians in Philippi, as indicated by their names, were not Jews but Greeks, and in Hellenistic culture, these virtues were already familiar. And so any new convert could recognize these virtues and immediately aspire to them. But I think there’s something else. These virtues are not peculiar to God’s people. They are the truly human virtues, which many cultures have aspired to. And so to live within the Realm of God is not to live apart in some utopia, it is to live within the restoration of humanity and the reclamation of human culture. The Realm of God is what the world desires even when it does not know its own desiring. You don’t have to be a believer to see the virtue of these virtues.

Whatever is true: αληθη, that is, genuine, honest, sincere, and true;
whatever is honorable: σεμνα, pious, noble, stately, and honorable;
whatever is just: δικαια, right, righteous, trustworthy, and just;
whatever is pure, ἁγνα, chaste, holy, unsullied, and pure;
whatever is pleasing, προσφιλη, lovely, winsome, and pleasing;
whatever is commendable, ευφημα, well-spoken of, reputable, commendable;
if there is any excellence, αρετη, any virtue, any excellence;
if there is anything praiseworthy, επαινος, worthy of admiration and esteem, anything praiseworthy — think about these things.

Get your mind off yourself, and get it on these aspirations. That means, paradoxically, not to focus on making yourself better, or whether you’re improving, like Mayor Koch, always asking, “How’m I doing?” Don’t worry about your own success at these or your performance. It’s not like learning the piano or the violin, where you have to think about your fingering, it’s like singing: you hear the notes, and from within you rise to them, your body is designed quite naturally to sing. And God designed your mind to think about these things and your soul to aspire to them, you were made for these virtues to be natural, you were not made to aspire to your appetites and self-indulgences or to be governed by your fears and your idolatries. Keep your eyes on the virtues and not upon yourself, and you will be joyful; when your attention is not on yourself you will rejoice and again rejoice. Choose for them. Be guided by them in your choices. Set them up as targets and keep aiming at them when you make your choices and decisions. Yes, put them up as slogans on the mirror in your bathroom. Get tee-shirts printed up with the words on them in some nice pattern, maybe shorts would be more telling. Wear these virtues like clothing, if they’re still outside you, and you can live into them.

Now these virtues are not only idealistic, only for the good times. They’re especially for the bad times, the critical times. The Epistle to the Philippian Christians is lovely and pleasing but it’s not House Beautiful magazine. Their situation was more like the Diary of Anne Frank. They were regarded by the Romans as seditious in their loyalty to Jesus as their Lord, their worship of the God of Israel was illegal in the city, so you can imagine the pressure they felt when they crowded in their little homes to break the bread. No wonder Euodia and Syntyche gave each other friction. St. Paul advises them to have a common mind: not sharing their own minds, but the mind of Christ. The mind of Christ who stood firm against the pressure of his opposition, but yet whose gentleness was known to all. The same should be the character of the congregation; that should be their reputation in the city of Philippi. These virtues are for witness and community.

Today we baptize Claire. We commit to a community in which she can learn these virtues by watching us aspire to them, by watching us make our choices and decisions in the direction of our aspirations. We commit to develop our own characters this way, and we want to populate this community of Jesus with a cast of characters in which she can take her place and add her voice and act her part. Today she is our joy and today she is our crown. Her future is what we love and long for, and as much we love her, she is even more beloved of God.

Copyright © 2011, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

October 2, Proper 22, Knowing the Law, Knowing Christ, #2 in the series, Kingdom Characters

Photo copyright © 2010, by Jane Barber,, all rights reserved.

Exodus 20:1-20, Psalm 19, Philippians 3:4b-14, Matthew 21:33-46

Last Sunday I began a series of sermons on “character”, the kind of character that goes with being a citizen of the Kingdom of God. Last week I said that your character is the rôle that you are writing for yourself in the long-term drama of your life. I said that your character is not static but dynamic, you develop your character by the choices that you make through time, each choice affecting your further choices. I said your choices have momentum and trajectory, which affect your posture and your attitude. I said your choices have a residue, and the combination of residue and attitude is your character.

My method in this series is to ask each new set of Sunday lessons what they might say about character. This week is easy. The Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments are the handy guide to character development for Jews and Christians. That’s why they’re up on the reredos in our sanctuary, because they were read out every week in the old Dutch Reformed liturgy. That’s how I learned them by heart as a child, by hearing my father read them out every Sunday morning.

Only two of the ten are stated in the positive. For special emphasis, because of how distinct they make the culture of the Israelites. The distinction of the Sabbath Day is obvious, and it has many social and economic implications, especially that laborers get a day off every week, which was unheard of and unwelcome, and had specially to be ordered by God.

But what’s distinct about honoring your parents? Well, in Egypt and all the other nations it was the nobility that you had to honor. The ordinary life of most people was regulated by social class and economic class, and you had to show honor to people of privilege: “Your majesty, my lord, your highness, your honor,” no matter how they treated you.

But God’s people are a society of radical equality and a single social class, without nobility, except— you are never the equals of your parents, and they are your nobility whom you must honor. This too has many implications, but not for today.

Eight of the ten commandments are in the negative, and that’s because they presume our freedom and initiative. You tell a slave what he must do, because he has no freedom, but your daughter has freedom and initiative, so you instruct her differently: you set limits for her, and tell her where she may not go and what she may not do. These negative commandments are like the fences of your yard. The rabbis described them as a fence, which metaphor Jesus uses in his parable, in the first verse. The fence around the vineyard is the Torah, the Law of God.

One of the most important gifts we give our children is a sense of boundaries. It’s as necessary to tell them what they may not do as what they may do. Many parents seem afraid of this, and maybe they fear the reputation of the negative. We see them give their children too much choice, too much freedom, more than they can handle, and children don’t know where to stop, and they end up with characters combining selfishness with insecurity. Maybe many parents don’t have good boundaries for themselves, and they transfer onto their kids the unchecked combination of their own fears and their own desires driving them. Adults need boundaries too, and God gives you boundaries precisely because God has also given you the gift of freedom.

Boundaries provide resistance to your freedom, and it’s resistance that helps you build your character. As with physical exercise, you only build your muscle strength with resistant exercises, so the boundaries of God’s law give resistance to your freedom for the building of your character. The judgments of God are the opposition to your ego for the cultivation of your character. But according to St. Paul, the law of God is not enough. There has to be a further energy and motivation. For him it is a passion and desire which he identifies in Philippians 3:10-11: “I want to know Christ, and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” That’s my own personal verse, by the way, my core directive, the verse I want the preacher to preach on at my funeral.

What does it mean to “know Christ”, especially in terms of cultivating character? Well, of course, there’s emulation: he’s an example and a model for you in your choices. And there’s devotion: he is your Lord, as you repeat in the Apostles Creed: “And in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.” Devotion to a Lord means service and obedience, which also guide your choices.

But St. Paul means more than that, something spiritual and transcendent. “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection.” We know him on this side of his resurrection, between his resurrection and his return again, we know him not as a close friend here with us, but as the ascended Lord, into whose person is packed the new creation of the world, the new world that is coming, which he embodies in himself. The new world is ahead of us, it’s already established and waiting for us to get there, when we ourselves will somehow attain the resurrection from the dead.

That new world is not just a dream for the future, it’s a reality already in the future, on the other side of the boundary of death, a reality made by God, with a life and a power invested backwards, sort of, from the future into the presence of Christ. You share in that power which he exercises in the world by your knowing him. By knowing him, especially in worship and in prayer, you open your life to the power of his Spirit which gives the  energy and motivation to the choices which you keep making in your life.

St. Paul also says a negative. “I want to know the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death.” Why the negative? Well, remember that I referred last week to an article from the New York Times magazine, and the title of that article is this: “What If The Secret to Success Is Failure?” Just as failing and then getting through your failure is essential for cultivating your character, so sharing the suffering of Christ and then conforming to his death gives you the resistance and the boundary you need. This sharing and conforming provide the inner opposition of which I spoke last week, the repentance and humility, the ordeal that you work through each week freely, the often painful self-awareness which leads to greater empathy and love. It’s a kind of training.

St. Paul ends with an athletic metaphor. So let’s say the commandments are the fences and foul lines and the strike zone and the bases, and let’s say that knowing Christ is the actual playing of the game. It’s only by playing that you develop your skills, the skills of character, and you can improve your skills even when you lose a game. You can risk, you can try, you can gamble and experiment, because it has already been won for us by Christ, the victory is not just a dream, it’s a reality that has power for us now, and you can make free choices with courage. You know, courage does not mean no fear, courage means going through your fear to do the right thing anyway, even if the right thing means sharing his suffering. And the point of being configured to his death is not that you be crucified, but that your natural fear of death and your natural fear of loss do not control your choices, not even the loss of honor or reputation or esteem, all of which he lost on the cross.

  The implication is that the greatest freedom of all comes when you are free from yourself, you are free from your credentials and your gains, free from your achievements and success, free from everything you think you know, free from what you’re trying to prove to other people, free from what you think you know about yourself, and that’s because what you want to know is Christ. It is so liberating to not belong to yourself, and paradoxically empowering. You are free to choose the only thing you are not free of, the only thing really demanded of you, which is to love, to love your neighbor as yourself, and to love God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind. You make your choices in order to cultivate a character of love, because you want to know God.

Copyright © 2011, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.