Friday, December 30, 2011

January 1, The Holy Name, and the Circumcision of Jesus

Numbers 6:22-27, Psalm 8, Galatians 4:4-7, Luke 2:15-21

Did you know that New Year’s Day was not always January 1? It used to be March 25. The first day of the year has varied in different times and places, but in the British colony of New York, as late as 1751, the new year was reckoned to start on March 25. But our congregation held worship on January 1 anyway, and it was not for New Years. It was the Feast of the Circumcision of Jesus.

Now this may strike you as an awkward thing to celebrate. The awkwardness of it is partly why the ecumenical church prefers to call it the Feast of the Holy Name, which is the title in our lectionary. And after all, the gospel lesson does report the announcement of his name. But in Biblical terms, the circumcision is more important than the naming. Just ask any Jew.

You know that Jewish boys are required to be circumcised eight days after they’re born. The ritual is called a bris. After the bris the family has a party, which traditionally had been a feast for the whole community. Circumcision was a cause for joy. But Christians find the whole idea a bit embarrassing and even controversial, especially because of its medical implications and how it pains a little child. The circumcision of girls is a matter of human rights and sexual oppression. At least the Bible never allows for female circumcision. It’s only for males, and that means that it’s another of God’s judgments on masculinity.

Circumcision is the mark which means a Jew belongs to God. It is the sign that he is not his own. He is branded as God’s property, and so are all his offspring, as you can interpret by the location of the sign upon his body. The sign is both a judgment and a promise.

In Genesis 17, God required Abraham to circumcise himself and all the males of his household as the sign of the covenant God made with him. Four hundred years later, in Exodus 12, at the first Passover, when God renewed the covenant with the whole people of Israel, circumcision was confirmed as the mark of Jewish identity. It has often been a costly mark. In 168 BC, the Seleucid emperor who was ruling over Palestine wanted to force the Jews to live like Greeks, and he made circumcision illegal at the pain of death. That led to the revolt of the Maccabees, and the affirmation of circumcision as a badge worth dying for. It has always cost a lot to be a Jew. To be an heir to the covenant with God is both a blessing and a burden, though the burden is worth it.

And so our Lord was circumcised — to be fully a Jew, to be one with his people, to bear the costs they have to bear, and to be an heir to the covenant and its obligations. So were his twelve disciples, and all the first Christians. But what about the Gentiles who started to convert? Should they be circumcised? The early church debated this, as you can read about in the Book of Acts and in Galatians, from which our second lesson comes. Some voices argued that the inclusiveness of the gospel should not change the obligations of the covenant. They felt that to be a Christian you also had to be more or less a Jew. The debate was settled when the council of the apostles unanimously agreed that Christians can be equally Jewish or Gentile and remain that way, and that circumcision is indifferent, neither required nor prohibited, and simply a personal choice.

The Circumcision of Jesus was not celebrated as a Christian feast until the Sixth Century. It took a two-step process to establish it. First, in the Fourth Century, the church was officially established in the Roman Empire. Soon the 25th of December was quite arbitrarily chosen as the legal holiday to celebrate the nativity. Eight days later is January 1, which began to be observed, and then that was also made a legal holiday. But the establishment of the church also resulted in in evolving anti-Semitism, and over the succeeding centuries the Jewishness of Jesus began to be devalued. The Roman Church began to emphasize the naming of Jesus over his circumcision, and the title got changed to the Feast of the Holy Name.

Ultimately, in 1442, the practice of circumcision was officially prohibited by the Roman Catholic Church and made a mortal sin. This automatically condemned every Jew in Europe to hell, and the Biblical badge was made a cause of fear and shame and a mark of discrimination and anti-Semitic cruelty.

The Reformation made a change in this. The Reformed Church reaffirmed the Jewishness of Jesus and the Jewishness of the Bible, and it reaffirmed the celebration of the Circumcision of our Lord. And the Dutch Reformed Church celebrated it here in America for many years. When our congregation stopped it, I don’t know, we don’t have the records. Did we get embarrassed? Were we getting too refined? When did we start using our religion to avoid the things of fear and shame instead of using it to face them? Jesus did not avoid the suffering of his people or their oppression by the Romans. He was crucified because he was a Jew. He was mocked by the Roman soldiers because he was a Jew. He would have been discriminated against by many Christians throughout history, and in America as well. He would have been murdered in the Holocaust.

What we mark today is that for our salvation, God became a Jew. On Christmas, the Feast of the Incarnation, we mark that God became a human being, and today we mark that God became a Jew. As Galatians puts it, “born of a woman, born under the law.” The Jewishness of Jesus is not incidental. But his Jewishness is not just a matter of ethnicity. He already had that at his birth, just by having a Jewish mother. His Jewishness was a matter of Jewish faith and observance, and that is what began for him at his circumcision.

So what does this all mean for us today? Well, I'm not sure. It’s an open question for me, and I’m not sure what it all means. But it must affect the way that we imagine God. Look, if we say that Our Lord Jesus was bodily resurrected from the dead, in the flesh, and then that he ascended into heaven at the right hand of his Father, whatever that means, it does mean that there is a Jew at the right hand of his Father. I believe that that requires us Christians to have a special honor for Jews and for Judaism.

Not that we should avoid our differences and disagreements. For example, ironically, Jews do not believe that one of them is a member of the Holy Trinity and we do. To worship the Triune God paradoxically requires us to embrace the Judaism of Jesus. Not that we become Jewish ourselves. He was circumcised for us, not us for him. But to honor God, we need to honor God’s real history in the world, God’s commitments and God’s covenants and God’s associations. We Christians are adopted into a way of life with God which Jews are born into. We are in this not from birthright but from grace. And that must affect our view of ourselves as much as it affects our view of God.

Second, we have to embrace the suffering of Jesus for the sake of our salvation. He began to pay the cost for us already on the eighth day of his life. We embrace more than his teaching and example. To learn the Christian faith we need to learn the costs he had to bear and why had to bear them. And because Jesus is God incarnate, that means that God was circumcised, and that God’s own self was bearing that cost. Can you imagine God this way. Not just the child, not just Jesus, but God in heaven, God accepting the mark of commitment and the badge of discrimination upon God’s self. God taking our bleeding and our shame and fear into God’s own self. This is the God we can love, a God who can feel how much it costs to love, and a God who knows how much it costs us to love God back. It is a cost worth paying, it is blood worth giving, it is a name worth wearing, an adoption worth accepting, and a blessing worth receiving.

Copyright © 2012 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Christmas Eve 2011: God's Latest Masterpiece

Hans Memling's Nativity

The following homily is not based on any one scripture text. The Christmas Eve homily at Old First comes very early in the service, and is always a general welcome and introduction to the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols which follows it.

 Good evening, and welcome, I’m happy to welcome you here tonight. Whoever you are, wherever you come from, whatever your belief or unbelief, we’re glad you came to celebrate with us the Incarnation of Our Lord.

This is the first time, I think, that we at Old First have celebrated Christmas Eve with the use of a harpsichord. There it is, up there in the balcony, and Aleeza will be using it to accompany our singing as well as to accompany all her musicians and soloists which she has gathered for tonight. This not the first time, however, that we have celebrated Christmas here in this Upper Hall. We did it back in 1890 and 1891 when we were using this space as our church because the main sanctuary was still under construction.

We are sorry that we cannot offer you this service in our glorious sanctuary. We cannot offer you the majesty of the organ or the magic of the chandelier. You cannot enjoy the glimmer of the candlelight in the lofty vaulting of the ceiling. Because that ceiling is not safe. The engineers tell us that all the plaster ribs in the ceiling are loosening and compromised. It isn’t from water damage — it’s a structural problem of the original design, which has recently begun to fail.

So thank you for climbing those stairs. We are meeting up here because there is no room for you all in the Lower Hall. Yesterday a group of volunteers had to go up and down those stairs for hours in order to bring in everything and make this humble place a worthy church, and I thank them. And last night, I was the last one here, doing final odds and ends, and in the quiet I looked around at what they had done, and I saw that it was good, that it was very good.

Soon you will listen to the nine lessons which trace the tale of our salvation, from Adam and Eve to faithful Abraham to the prophets of Israel to the angels and shepherds to the climax of the Incarnation. The great mystery of the Incarnation is that the Lord God, the creator of the universe, took on human life and human flesh, without thereby becoming any less God or any less human.

Why would God do such a thing, why did God become incarnate? “For us and for our salvation,” says the Creed. It was for salvation that they named Jesus, which means “savior”, for he is born to save us from our sin. The Incarnation is not because God is so impressed with us and wants to be one of us; it’s because we’re sinners who need salvation. And so the wood of the manger foreshadows the wood of the cross, and the swaddling clothes his funeral shroud, and his virgin birth his resurrection. For us and for our salvation.

But I do think God also did it for God’s own joy — this creative God, this artistic God, this musical God. The Incarnation is God’s Mona Lisa, it is God’s Magic Flute. which God delights in. I will not claim this is God’s single masterpiece, considering the vast expanse of inter-stellar space and the glory of the galaxies and the infinite bounty of the stars.

Who knows what other planets there may be with life, with creatures like us who are spiritual and moral. Who knows what miracles the angels sang upon those planets. Maybe those creatures did not sin, and all of them are Unitarians. Maybe on one planet absolutely everyone is Jewish. (Maybe there’s a planet which is a total swamp and everyone is Dutch Reformed.) But on this one planet God allowed for creatures to rebel and sin in order to require the Incarnation. Which God was waiting for. And after ten billion years, suddenly, like out of nowhere, God said to the angels, “Watch this.”

Like an artist God allowed this planet to evolve, and our history to develop, and this tale to unfold, until the stage was set, and the Romans took their census, and the inn was full, and the stable open, and the shepherds ready on the hillside. The girl gave birth. God pointed to that one angel, and the angel walked in among the shepherds. God cued the chorus of the heavenly host, and they sang, and God’s new opera rang out. The music of glory within humility, the universe into poverty, holiness into squalor, divinity into flesh, and justice kissing peace. Dichotomies are reconciled, colors are conjoined, and sounds are conceived that till now even the angels regarded as impossible. But they loved it and maybe they enjoyed their bucolic audience.

My spirit tells me that God rejoiced in this, that God rejoiced in this new work, and all the stars of heaven sang for joy before the Lord. The Lord God looked on this new masterpiece, and God saw that it was very, very good.

The Incarnation, the Incarnation for God’s pleasure and delight, and God takes special pleasure in sharing it with you as a gift for you and your salvation. So it was good of you to climb those stairs tonight. You were right to come up here to share the joy of God, and to sing for the delight of God, and to know God’s pleasure and God’s love.

Copyright © 2011 by Daniel Meeter, All Rights Reserved.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

December 18, Advent 4, "Hail, Mary, Full of Grace"

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16, Magnificat, Romans 16:25-27, Luke 1:26-38

(NB: This sermon draws from Heidelberg Catechism 88-90 and the Canons of Dort III/IV 10-13.)

You could take the story of the Virgin Mary as a fairy tale, a Cinderella tale. A lowly servant girl gets lifted up to royalty. Cinderella has a fairy godmother, Mary has an angel. Could this one fairy tale be true? St. Luke reports it as history and invites you to believe that it is true.

Many Christians have doubted it. They believe that it’s a made up story, and they don’t believe the miracle that’s at the center of the story, they don’t believe that a virgin can conceive, that a woman can generate a child in her womb without the sexual participation of a man. Well, Mary didn’t believe it either. She said, “How can this be, if I’m a virgin?”

If it’s hard for us to believe today, it was even harder to believe back then — it was less conceivable. In Bible times they did not understand what we take for granted in reproduction. We know that conception requires the contributions of both a father and a mother: the sperm cells from the father and the egg cell from the mother. They didn’t know that. They knew about the seed from the father, but they did not understand that a woman has eggs in her ovary. They believed that the woman was like the soil in a garden, and only the passive receiver of the seed from the man planted in her.

Today we also understand that the majority of living organisms reproduce asexually. But not the so-called higher animals. Certainly not mammals. But recently biologists have discovered that the “whiptail” lizards of the Southwest desert have only females. There are no males. The females generate new lives inside their ovaries without the need for males. So, from what we now know about biology, we can conceive of a virgin birth easier than Mary could.

But we are not lizards, and conceiving it is not necessarily believing it. It remains a miracle. It took the power of the Holy Spirit to conceive a life in her, and it was unique. It did not happen again to Mary. The younger brothers of Jesus were conceived in the normal way, with Joseph as their father. It did not happen to Elizabeth. Her miracle was different, because she and her husband still were lovers, even in their old age.

Conceiving it also needs believing it. Believing it depends on how you take the promises of God. Can you trust the promises of God even when those promises seem impossible? How big is your God, how powerful? How active is your God in the world, how passionate, how loving, how present, how personally invested? Mary was able to believe it. First she doubted it, but then she believed, and I think that was only because the Holy Spirit conceived belief in her. The Spirit conceived belief in her no less than it conceived the child in her. Her believing opened her conceiving.

Not that it was ever easy to believe. Once she believed, there were whole new difficulties. Her belief would cost her very much. Oh yes, she recognized the privilege of bearing the future King of Israel, but she would also recognize how much she’d have to sacrifice to bear this blessing. Her right to her own body, her right to her own life, her sweet young life. Her right to her husband Joseph, and his right to her. She would never have a normal life. If we find it difficult to believe in the Virgin Birth, it was especially difficult for Mary.

Why should we even try to believe in it? What’s the point of it, what does it mean for us, what promise does it carry? It has both a negative and a positive.

The negative is the contradiction of the rights of man and the power of man. I use the word “man” advisedly, for mankind and for manhood. Everything masculine is excluded. This miracle is feminist!  No thanks to anything we celebrate in manliness. No thanks to strength or to authority, no thanks to honor or mastery or leadership, no thanks to the courage of David or the wisdom of Solomon. What a relief, what a gift, what a turn in human history this contradiction is, and it’s taking millennia to embrace it.

The contradiction of manhood is the symbol of the more inclusive contradiction of mankind, of humankind, including women, a contradiction of the rights of man, and human self-reliance, and on all our efforts to solve the deepest problems of the world, whether those problems are public or private, from the international to the personal. The Virgin Birth is the contradiction of our power to achieve salvation, from the salvation of our banking system to the salvation of our culture to the salvation of our souls.

But there also is a positive, and the positive is an invitation, and the invitation to comfort and to joy. The positive promise is that the Holy Spirit does conceive in you the salvation that you cannot generate yourself. The Holy Spirit does it working silently inside you as you listen to the spoken Word of God outside you. You believe the promise of God, and as you believe it the Holy Spirit conceives it. Indeed, you won’t believe it unless the Holy Spirit first conceives the seed of faith within you. It’s the Spirit’s gift of your salvation, from the salvation of your soul to the salvation of your mind for what you have to do next week to the salvation of your emotions to be able to love your loved ones. It’s an invitation to comfort and to joy. And it’s an invitation to hope.

I was talking to a Christian friend this week who was discouraged in his life. Let’s call him Kevin. Kevin asked me if he would ever be truly happy. “Why am I always so critical of other people? Why do I so seem to get people mad at me? Why are friendships hard for me? Why am I afraid? Why can’t I get over this?” He was feeling powerless to solve the problems of his personality.

I found myself saying to him,“But I can see the New Kevin in you. I have been seeing the New Kevin inside you for a long time now. Yeah, you’re down right now because you’re feeling your Old Kevin so much. Well, sorry, you’ll never be free of that Old Kevin till you die. That’s how it works, that’s why we have to die. But death is a relief, because when you die you slough off your our old nature and what’s left is only your new nature. And I can see that New Kevin in you now.”

  I told him not to try to conquer his old nature or try to master it. I told him that the joyful way was rather keep his mind on his new nature. I told him to imagine his own virgin birth, that his old self was always giving birth to his new self, the new self which the Holy Spirit had conceived in him. I encouraged him to believe that it was true. I encouraged him to believe it about himself, by believing in the promises of God, maybe not as spoken by an angel privately, but as spoken in the congregation every week.

And you have to hear it again each week, like news, because there is cost and sacrifice along the way, and because of the noisy gossip of your old nature, you have to hear the real news again each week. You need to keep listening to God’s promises and challenges in order to imagine your new nature, in order to conceive of the growth and development and even the education of the child of your new self. So I told him to keep believing in the child of his new self, instead of trying to master his old nature. And his believing would be conceiving. They’re both a receiving of the gift, the gift of the Spirit within you, the gift of the love of God. I told him all this to give him hope, and comfort, and point to the way of joy instead of mastery.

So when you hear it said that people cannot really change, that we really cannot change our personalities, that once a drunk always a drunk, that really changing your personality is a fairy tale, you can agree. We can’t. We are powerless. But there is another fairy tale that’s true, and it’s tidings of comfort and joy, and it’s meant to give you hope.

This is why we love the Virgin Mary. She is you, you are she. You are a Virgin Mary. The Holy Spirit has come upon you, and the power of the Most High has overshadowed you, and the new you born in you is holy, and you will be called the Child of God. For nothing is impossible with God. And every week you say, “Here am I, the handmaid of the Lord, let it be to me according to your word.”

Copyright © 2011 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

December 11, Advent 3: "I Am Not the Messiah"

A guest sermon by our seminarian, Mr. Arin Fisher.

John 1:6-8, 19-28 

1:6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.

1:7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.

1:8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.

1:19 This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?”

1:20 He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.”

1:21 And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.”

1:22 Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”

1:23 He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’” as the prophet Isaiah said.

1:24 Now they had been sent from the Pharisees.

1:25 They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?”

1:26 John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know,

1:27 the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.”

1:28 This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.

The text from John today fits ideally into the Advent schedule: it features John the Baptizer leading the way for the initial coming of Christ. Though, to be sure, no one has any idea who John is when he arrives on the scene. The text from parallel gospels says that John eats locusts and wild honey. I think that, if he had been born in America, we would be more socially inclined to link him to one of the Georgian hillbillies from Deliverance than to a prophetic version of Christopher McCandless or Wendell Berry. He was, quite simply, wholly other.

And he was doing something that the Pharisees hadn’t sanctioned: he was baptizing. So, naturally, they had questions: they wanted to know who he was and by whose authority he was baptizing. And he confessed that he was not the Messiah, not Elijah, and not the prophet. And finally he identifies himself in the words of an other, the prophet Isaiah, as a “voice in the wilderness.” John says to the Pharisees, Christ is already among you and I’m not worthy to untie his sandals.

Kenosis. Kenosis is a Greek word that means emptiness, but theologically it’s a self-emptying so as to be completely receptive to God. So John self-emptied, making himself available and receptive to God’s calling. In the text we encounter John already having undergone a kenotic self-emptying. He was a vessel, a prophetic voice. But I doubt he had always been that receptive to God’s calling. Maybe he was a troubled youth at some point—or maybe he had constructed some kind of life plan that he thought sounded neat. We don’t know about John’s ambitions—he never wrote a memoir—but we know what he did: he emptied himself of his own will and received God’s instead. Then he ate locusts in the wilderness while baptizing people.

I imagine it would have been intimidating to be approached by the priests and Levites, skeptical of his credentials and connections. Regardless of whether he was intimidated, he did his bit: he proclaimed that Christ was soon coming. That’s where the text leaves us. John was completely receptive to his calling. John surrendered himself to God’s will. This does not mean that kenosis requires losing yourself. On the contrary, kenosis means making room for God to call you to use your gifts, to call you to be in the world as John was: as a sign of Christ, which we do best when we’re ourselves rather than some contrived street preacher.

So before John could even find his identity in his calling, he had to empty himself of his previous less satisfying identities and simultaneously recognize his actual calling. Some might call John foolish, perhaps, for resisting. And some might call me na├»ve for advocating for identity crises. But the truth is that we live in a country obsessed with self-creation. We hear things like, “Oh, he’s a self-made man.” Or: “Oprah! She built what she has from nothing.” Granted, that is more than true. There is, however, a price to be paid for fabricating around us a society as artificial and mechanized as our own, and the price is that we can exist in it only on the condition that we adapt ourselves to it and play the game

This is our punishment—the social form we have adopted cuts our consciousness to fit its needs. Its imperatives tailor our experience. The social form says that, at any cost, we must be passionless, unemotional, and docile, merging our identity with our need for success and with our careers, rather than molding our success and careers to our affections, spontaneity, and heart. And it is not only our emotional world that dies in this form: the world of our creative imagination and intelligence is also impoverished. Humans can create the most sublime art, and humans can at the same time create the most depraved systems of oppression. Our kenosis begins here. We are called to be ourselves, not the selves that social form would have us be, but the selves that God has been calling us to be. The trick lies in recognizing God’s calling through all the noisy identities that social form have thrust upon us.

I remember how nervous I once was before a date, and my roommate told me: Just be yourself. I appreciated his advice, but if there’s anything less helpful in the world than being told to be yourself, I don’t know what it is. We instantly become self-conscious when we’re told to be ourselves. We analyze our walk, our smile, our inflections, our gestures—nothing feels natural. But if John the Baptizer is any help, I’d say we are to be ourselves, but with careful attention to what we know God is not calling us to be, and then with special attention to what God is calling us to be. When we can isolate what we know we aren’t called to be, we have begun to live into kenosis, because we start to make more room for what God will finally call us to be.

In the season of Advent we are called to be in anticipation of Christ. One way we can be in anticipation of Christ is to begin kenosis and recognize, as John recognized, that we are not Christ, and so we have something to hope for. I think we have all heard of or know people who forget they’re not Jesus: people who suffer from a Messiah Complex. These people, while well-intentioned, try desperately to absorb the world’s suffering. Which is impossible. And self-destructive. I can hardly take care of myself, much less the world. I’m happy to release any hyper-ambitious universal responsibility—I don’t want to be Jesus, is what I’m trying to say. But, at the same time, we’re called to be in the world, not as saviors, but as we are, using our gifts, doing the things we love, and even doing things we don’t love but that need to be done. So when we are given the amazing freedom not to be Christ for the world, we are freer to be more authentically ourselves.

In undergrad, I had trouble remembering that I was not my parents. It’s perhaps true that if you ever saw me in a shoulder-length wig and in sensible heels, you might mistake me for my mother. I have her ironic eyes, her severe jaw, and her hefty teeth and charming smile. It’s a pity I never inherited her social grace and Midwestern modesty. If you met my father, you’d recognize me in his self-conscious smirk and his inability to lose graciously when playing chess. But, alas, I am not my mother, nor my father, though they are both a part of me, and I bear signs of them, like my teeth. So I can say that because I am not Christ, nor my mom, nor my dad, I came to know part of who I am: I am a gay seminarian, a closeted poet, and a hippy-dippy Christian. And the world needs me to be a gay seminarian, a closeted poet, and a hippy-dippy Christian. And the world needs you to be who you are, not who the world would prefer you to be.

I say that I know part of who I am because frequently we learn much about who we are from what others tell us about ourselves. Without the devastating but honest reality check from my poet mentor, I would still be deluding myself, believing I am, as I actually once claimed to be, the reincarnation of Walt Whitman. It took someone else to tell me that I’m not who I thought I was because who I thought I was was a fantasy­self I constructed to avoid the reality of the gifts I had but desperately did not want to recognize. The gifts we have more often than not lead us to know who we are and what God is calling us to. For me, I was being called into seminary and the church, though I’m still learning who I’m called to be in the church as I hone the gifts I have. I am not a charismatic preacher—I can’t sweat, and spit, and cry, and use theatrical movements to bring you closer to God—so in that lack of a gift—in that empty space—I trust that the gifts I do have will compensate for my dry temples, and together we will find an identity in anticipation of Christ, who was, and is, and is still to come.

We have a couple weeks left before Christmas, which means we have a couple weeks left of Advent. This is a season of great joy and, at times, greater anxiety. Between last-minute shopping and work and family and travel and the cold, how can we remember that this is precisely the time to be living into kenosis? This is the time to release those things that you’re not called to because when you cling too tightly, it’s much harder to be a sign of Christ in the world. So we have a couple weeks left to emulate John and release something, to create some empty space. It is precisely that space we have yet to empty that Christ will fill. And there, in that empty space, is precisely where we will begin to bear the sign of Christ, and what was once our proudest witness to the world of our own greatness will soon become our testimony to the world of the greatness of God.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

December 4, Advent 2, Giving Aid and Comfort to Park Slope

Photos by Jane Barber of JaneBarberDesign

Isaiah 40:1-11, Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13, 2 Peter 3:8-15a, Mark 1:1-8

Our second reading is from the Second Epistle of St. Peter to the little congregations in what now is Turkey. It is frequently and easily misunderstood. For example, the meaning of the word “elements” is not the modern scientific sense as in chemistry and physics, like the elements of hydrogen and oxygen, but the ancient philosophic sense of the principles and powers which dominate our lives. The modern examples would be the so-called “iron laws” of politics and economics, like the iron law of wages or the iron law of population, or the laws of the market.

Today these elements take form in ideologies that dominate our life and limb, like terrorism or Communism or fascism or apartheid or nationalism or free-market capitalism. In St. Peter’s time they took form in gods and goddesses and the mythical power of the Rome Empire. That the early Christians did not believe in these things did not exempt them from the Roman power over them.

The Roman authorities regarded Christians as seditious and atheistic: seditious for allegiance to a Jewish king instead of Caesar, and atheistic for not honoring the Roman gods. They tolerated this as long as they were mostly Jews, but as the proportion of Gentiles increased they were seen as a threat to the Roman way of life, and the persecution started. How should the little congregations deal with this? Submission? Isn’t that appeasement? Resistance? Armed resistance, like in the Books of Maccabees? Revolution? Be patient, writes St. Peter, be at peace, be comforted by what you cannot see but what the Lord is truly doing in the world. Trust the revolution, the one that’s happening behind the scenes, beyond the boundaries of human expertise.

That cosmic imagery in the epistle is standard metaphor for revolution. You know that when we won the American Revolution we called ourselves “a new constellation in the heavens,” and we put a circle of stars in our flag. When the British surrendered at Yorktown, their musicians played the song, The World Turned Upside Down. For the recent revolution in Libya, the metaphors of St. Peter are almost literal. The loud noise of the bombs, fire dissolving the elements of Qaddafi’s power, the earth beneath his fortresses exposed and everything done in them disclosed. These are the metaphors for revolutions of magnitude and power over everybody’s life and death, and Second Peter’s extra metaphors express the coming of the Kingdom which has already come, is coming, and will come.

The little Christian congregations were truly revolutionary—the Romans were right about that—but not to take up arms. Neither fight nor flight. They need not fear the fearful things they faced if they held to the vision that the Kingdom of Heaven was all around them, invisible but not distant, as close as oxygen, as present and as powerful and as invisible as daylight. Courage, don’t give in, be patient enough to be at peace, trust the long-term revolution of the Son of God.

The way that Isaiah said it all was “Comfort, comfort my people.” It was a message for a time of crisis and stress and loss. He didn’t mean the comfort of pillows and easy-chairs. He meant the old meaning of comfort as in “giving aid and comfort to the enemy.” Com-fort, fort, fortress, fortification, fortify. Comfort is both the strength you need to stay with God has given you, and the softness of holding an infant in your arms.

The Reformed Church is unique among denominations in having made a doctrine out of comfort. That’s because the Heidelberg Catechism of 1563 opens with this question, “What is your only comfort in life and death?” The answer is, “My only comfort is that I am not my own, but I belong, body and soul, in life and in death, to my faithful savior Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and set me free from the tyranny of the devil.” Etc.

Comfort and freedom. Comfort from belonging to Jesus, and therefore not belonging to myself nor any other element nor any system of the world. Freedom from the tyranny of the devil and freedom from the tyranny of myself and freedom from the dominion of every system or element or ideology of the world. A freedom more revolutionary than any yet produced by political revolutions, which always go to seed towards some new form of tyranny, because all flesh is grass. This is the freedom of the love of God, the love that is the power of the Kingdom of Heaven, the Kingdom of Heaven which surrounds us and envelopes us and comforts us.

The Reformed Church was born within the persecution of the Holy Roman Empire and it flowered within the tyranny of Spain and it won the revolution of the Netherlands and then it got the power and the wealth and they began to interpret their comfort materialistically. They made an empire of their own to satisfy their appetites, and they came to North America to make a buck. The people of our congregation who eventually supported the American Revolution did it not for love of liberty but for free trade, and you can look it up. Our church has never been known for public stands on issues of the day. People have been asking me if our church is out there giving aid and comfort to Occupy Wall Street, and I tell them that it’s not the kind of thing we do. Now yes, the Lordship of Jesus makes very great claims upon the issues of wealth and equity, which we may not sidestep, but I believe the special mission of Old First is a different kind of comfort.

This Sunday marks ten years of my preaching here. I knew when I came that we had building issues facing us, major multi-million dollar building issues, but we never expected it to be the sanctuary ceiling falling down. So now we’re in a time of stress and loss and crisis. Last August I was making some plans for the next couple years of my life, and those plans did not include the ceiling. Who of us ever really gets to pick our issues? Our issues pick us. Don’t you find it true yourself? How few of the things that you are dealing with right now did you anticipate two years ago. You know so little as you move through life. That’s why you need the gift of freedom, if only in order to improvise, and it’s also why you have to find your comfort not in your own control or in the offerings of the systems of the world but in the gospel’s cosmic truth about the world—that Jesus is Lord and you belong to him. You have so little to go on to decide so much, so you have to believe that God has confidence in you.

So after some time of inner stress and crisis, I have committed the next couple years of my life to leading you in fixing the ceiling of our sanctuary. It’s not what I expected to be doing, and I don’t know how to do it, but I believe that this congregation can do it, even though none of us know how yet either, and I believe that we should do it for the sake of our peculiar mission as Old First. Not for a mission of restoring an historic building, but for the mission of offering to our community a sacred space, a sacred place where homeless men are welcome home, a sacred place of sufficient beauty to uplift the soul of anyone who is seeking spirituality and hope. A place where the voice of Zion is lifted up with strength to say to this neighborhood, “Here is your God.

Every valley shall be lifted up and every hill made low, the crooked straight and the rough places plain. That’s what we’re going to do in there, only with plaster and ribs and gypsum instead of hills and valleys, but we will be preparing the way of the Lord. We love to worship in this Lower Hall, it has a wonderful intimacy that we do not get out there, this is our private space and that sanctuary is a public space, and that’s because it is for mission, for the voice to cry with good tidings. Here is your God. Here is the truth about the world, and to know the truth will set you free, and to know who is behind the truth will comfort you.

This will challenge us. We don’t suffer the challenge of persecution, but this will challenge us. That’s one proof that it’s our mission. We’ll have to get even more spiritual. We will have to explore the freedom we have from fear and from want of money, and the freedom to believe and the freedom to speak. We’ll have to trust each other more and pray with each other more and go deeper with each other, and we’ll have to triple our involvement in small groups. This will challenge us but the payoff will be great. In the meantime, we have the comfort of this Lower Hall which is far more like a church than the barn we worshiped in from 1654 to 1662 our first six years. We have the comfort of each other and our voices. We’re up against different challenges than those little congregations to whom St. Peter wrote his letter, but we have the same promise, and we can have the same patience, and the same determination, because we know what we can’t see, that the globe of this planet is surrounded by the cosmic Kingdom of the Love of God.

Copyright © 2011 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.