Wednesday, December 26, 2012
Note: There were 28 memorial candles on our Communion Table, behind the Advent Wreath.
(Here follows the Homily at the beginning of our Service of Lessons and Carols.)
Good evening, and welcome, I’m glad you are here tonight. Whoever you are, wherever you come from, Christian or Jewish or something else or nothing, whatever, we welcome you to celebrate with us the Incarnation of Our Lord.
He comes to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found. (You know the line, from Joy to the World.) The blessing and the curse. The blessing overflows the curse. The light shines in the darkness. The goodness overcomes the evil. The goodness does not compare in measure to the evil. You cannot measure the light by the darkness that it shines into. You cannot reckon the blessing by the power of the curse. They are all unequal, they are not equivalents.
Evil has no being in itself, it’s only the corruption of the good. Darkness is not something in itself, it’s only the absence of light, and one small beam can break its power. The grip of evil can be loosened by very small actions of the good. One little blessing can break the compulsion of a curse.
We need to hear this news again, because we feel accursed right now, especially in these last eleven days since that slaughter of the innocents. We feel the evil in our world, the murder and the malice and the misery. The darkness weighs on us. We find ourselves weeping and grieving. All the resolve and positivity that we generated since November by our service to the victims of Sandy is overshadowed by the horror and the grief of Sandy Hook. The shadow of death is on our land. We are walking in its darkness.
In just a few minutes you will hear a voice read out, “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light; they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.” You will hear that within the story we repeat tonight, that story we need to hear again each year. It’s the story of the light in the darkness and the blessing over the curse. The light does not replace the darkness, it shines within it, indeed the darkness is its very medium, but it’s enough to show you how to go. The blessing does not displace the curse, but it is real enough that you can choose it. The blessing will not compel you. It is your choice.
We know of people who surrender to the darkness and the curse—out of fear, perhaps, or pride, or anger, or anger and fear together, as they reckon the compulsion of the curse and the thickness of the dark. But tonight we will dispel that darkness with just a little bit of light.
Jews and Christians claim that evil is not built into the world, that evil is unnatural in God’s world and that evil is in the world only as the result of human sin. So we begin the story with Adam and Eve because we believe that it is our disobedience which lets loose the evil in the world, which curses us, and which we are powerless to overcome. The story moves quickly to the blessing, in the voice of the angel, to Abraham, in the Akida, which we will hear in Hebrew once again.
The story propels the blessing with promises from Isaiah, of the child who shall be called Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace, and of the blessing so close upon the curse, and yet immune to it, as the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the cockatrice’s den.
The story raises our hopes, and the music rises in us with the hope. The darkness deepens but the light gets more intense, and focused on the savior, who himself is light and is the source of the light: God-with-us. And then, upon the hillside, the angel counts us worthy, as crooked and grimy and guilty as we may be, to go and greet the savior of the world. A great God in a little space. A holy God in humble flesh, a body in which this God could be killed and cursed and die. That’s the part beyond the story for tonight, which the angels don’t yet see, but God does, and what God knows is that though this single life is very small, it cannot be extinguished. It is too good for that, too blessed. Such a little thing, this baby, and such vast power for hope and healing is concentrated in him. All the good hopes of God’s own self.
This little story is so important in these days. So I thank all these persons who have come to read it to you tonight. And I thank all the musicians who have come to help us feel the wonder and the joy that’s in this story for tonight, the soloists and players up there like some angels in the air. And I thank all of you for coming to share in the hearing of this story once again. You were right to come here tonight. And may God bless you one and all.
Copyright © 2012 by Daniel Meeter, All Rights Reserved.
Thursday, December 06, 2012
Malachi 3:1-4, Benedictus, Philippians 1:1-1, Luke 3:1-6
All flesh shall see the salvation of God.
"All flesh" includes the high priests Annas and Caiaphas, those puppets of the Roman government, plus Herod and his brother Philip, who plotted against each other and slept with each other’s wives, plus Pontius Pilate, who governed the province of Judea so ineffectively that he was recalled to Rome and there committed suicide. Yes, Annas and Caiaphas did see that salvation in the person of Jesus when they had him on trial in the Sanhedrin and condemned it, and Herod and Philip heard of that salvation and ignored it, and Pontius Pilate examined that salvation face to face in the Praetoreum and then he executed it. Salvation is not compulsory, you can reject it. It is a gift, but maybe you might not desire it.
To desire salvation is to desire different things in the different religions. The salvation which a Buddhist desires is different from what a Hindu desires. Christians want more from it than Jews or Muslims do. The Song of Zechariah defines salvation as to be set free from the hands of our enemies, free to worship God without fear. Salvation is liberation for the sake of service, for the sake of service to God. Interesting: from servitude to service! Let me say it comprehensively: Your salvation is your getting the benefits of God’s activity in the world, your participation in God’s purposes, your share in God’s investments, particularly in that very personal investment of God’s self in first-born son of the Virgin Mary. To have a piece of him is your salvation!
Salvation is often treated as something merely individual, it’s often mistaken as getting into heaven when you die, and the world itself can go to hell. The attraction of this is that the afterlife cannot be disproven, while it is difficult to prove that salvation makes any real difference in the known world. Yes, salvation is personal and individual. But it’s also global. It is for you, but it’s also for all flesh, and that includes the institutions of the flesh, the cultures and the nations. It’s not for nothing that the gospel of St. Luke paints John the Baptist as framed by the figures of the rulers in power in that day, because it’s for the known world that salvation comes.
The largest figure in the painting is Tiberius Caesar. His image was everywhere back then, on the coins and in the temples. Everyone knew about Tiberius. In his childhood, his mother Livia was surrendered by his father to be the wife of Caesar Augustus, and Tiberius became Caesar’s stepson and a brother to Caesar’s daughter Julia. Tiberius led the legions from Spain to Germany to Armenia, putting kings on their thrones and crowns on their heads. Caesar never liked him, but he adopted him as his heir, and he made him divorce the wife he loved in order to marry his sister Julia, beautiful and cruel and shamelessly profligate. In the year A.D. 14, Augustus died, and Tiberius became Caesar, and arguably the most powerful man in the history of the world.
It’s fifteen years later that he’s in our picture. He is still in power but he’s living on the isle of Capri in self-imposed exile. He hates the city of Rome, he hates the Senate and populace, he hates his officials, he hates Caligula who will succeed him, he hates his wife, he hates his life, and everybody hates him back. He is the greatest man in the world, he is declared a future god, and he’s ending his life in isolated bitterness. He never sees the salvation of God.
Opening with Tiberius is how St. Luke conveys that salvation is both personal and global, individual and imperial. To desire a salvation of escaping from the world, like Tiberius escaping to Capri, entails that evil wins, and that Tiberius was right in his bitterness. The salvation of God is better, though it’s a judgment on Tiberius and the choices that he made. Salvation frees you from the world to bring you back to the world as God’s desires the world to be. Salvation is a liberation, but not from your physicality, not from our humanity, not from your sexuality or ethnicity or enculturation or orientation nor from your social and civic obligations, but from the power of sin in all those things.
The tragedy of Tiberius is that he could not make sense of his life or the world, except for his pragmatic nihilism. Well, you see the same sad world that he did, a world that is both good and bad, and maybe even worse than how he saw it, but you can see it in terms of salvation. You can experience your own life as being saved, your life as being listed on under the category of salvation. You need to, or else your life will make little sense except for distraction or despair.
To be saved is to be rescued from the power of sin and the authority of guilt in order to live under the sovereignty of God and share in the economy of grace. It’s not escaping the world but investing the world with a different loyalty. It means finding in God’s authority a liberation from those powers and compulsions which dominated Caiaphas and Herod and Pontius Pilate. Which they desired. They did not desire the freedom which Jesus offered because it involved surrender.
You surrender by taking the world on God’s terms instead of your own terms. Your world, your known world, the world as you know it. You let God judge that. Salvation entails a judgment on your world, so in one sense salvation is a No, but this judgment is not to condemn the world but to save the world and invest in the world, and in that sense salvation is a Yes. The investment is on God’s terms and not the world’s own terms. To take the world on God’s terms instead of your own is called "repentance." For you to repent is simply for you to desire salvation on God’s terms instead of your terms. You accept God’s No in order to receive God’s Yes.
You can hear the "No" in our reading from Malachi: "But who can endure the day of his coming? For he is like a refiners’s fire." And you can hear the "Yes" in Philippians: "I am confident that the one who began a good work in you will bring it to completion in the Day of Jesus Christ." Salvation is the long slow process of God’s work in you. Even when it’s uncomfortable, even painful, it’s always a Yes. God invests in you, it is your liberation from the world for the world, and from yourself for yourself, but for yourself according to God’s purposes.
I have been saying of late that one purpose of the church is to cultivate and guide your right desires. We cultivate your faith, and we guide your spirituality, but we also cultivate your desires. I told you to desire the Kingdom of God. I told you to desire righteousness. I’m telling you to desire salvation, and we cultivate this desire in you having your practice your repentance within the liturgy. During Advent we emphasize repentance with a longer and heavier prayer of confession and a three times longer Kyrie. We cultivate your desire for the forgiveness of your sins.
You know your sins are all forgiven already. To get your sins forgiven is not why you confess them. All of your sins were all forgiven already on the cross. You confess them to in order to desire what God desires. You confess them to claim the reality of your salvation. The forgiveness of sins is by no means the whole of salvation nor the goal of salvation. But it is salvation’s pilot light. It is salvation’s indicator light, by which you can tell that your salvation is present and going on. We learn this from the last few verses of the Song of Zechariah, which you might consider a mission statement for every one of your Christians in your known world:
And you, my child, shall be called a prophet of the Most High. For you will go before the Lord to prepare his way, to give his people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins. In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.
Copyright © 2012, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.
Wednesday, December 05, 2012
I had previously posted a sermon for November 25, but I ended up not preaching it. I preached something else (an expansion of the last point of the aforementioned posted sermon). I preached that ex tempore. You can listen to it or even download it by going to this link: Grace to You and Peace.
I must give credit here to my sister-in-law, Rev. Dr. Renée Sue House, who reminded me of an important theme from a book by James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom.
This is one artist's rendering of our first church building from the 1680's. All we know for sure is that it was "a small and ugly little church standing in the middle of the road." It stood in the middle of Fulton Street, in front of what now is Macy's. The congregation was established in October, 1654, by order of Governor Pieter Stuyvesant, but we don't know exactly when the first service was held.
This sermon is not written. I preached it ex tempore, but it is on the Lectionary texts for the week: Daiel 12:1-3, Psalm 16, Hebrews10:11-25, Mark 13:1-8. And, I'm grateful to say, it was recorded. You can listen to it, or download it, by going to this website:
Let Us Hold Fast