Dressed casually in black jeans and a shirt sans clerical collar, the Rev. Keller delivered a 30-minute meditation on the main Scripture reading of the day, Isaiah 56:1–8. He explained that this passage is about the twofold “justice”—mishpat and tzedakah, in transliterated Hebrew—to be brought about in the believing community by the “Suffering Servant.” Although developed with occasional levity to suit the causal atmosphere, Keller’s themes were as profound as the passage calls for. Mishpat, or “putting things right” for widows, orphans, immigrants, and the poor (the “quarter of the vulnerable”), is the fruit of tzedakah—primary justice, or “living righteously.” Thus, “the just” are those who “disadvantage themselves to advantage the community,” whereas “the wicked” are those who “disadvantage the community to advantage themselves.” The eventual triumph of the Suffering Servant, whom, of course, Keller identified with Jesus Christ, is to widen the believing community to include all peoples who would relate to one another on equal terms and in justice so understood.
The Rev. Keller explicitly brought contemporary churches in America to task for failing to embody that ideal. We tend, he said, to think of our resources as what we deserve for our hard work and not as divine gifts to be shared with the community that makes their development possible. He also faulted churches for coalescing around distinctions of class, race, education, and economic status rather than welcoming outcasts—represented in the biblical passage by “foreigners” and “eunuchs”—on equal terms with ourselves as children of God. Deftly citing Luke 4, in which Jesus’ townsfolk in Nazareth are said to want to kill him for suggesting that Gentiles are to be graced by God as much as Jews, Keller quipped that he couldn’t be that good a preacher since nobody had yet tried to kill him.
The praise music was tasteful, given the usual standard of such services, but the liturgy “leader,” a young man deputed for the task, was too casual. Among other things, he stumbled twice over the names of the small group of people he was baptizing at the service. And Redeemer will only benefit when it escapes from the almost garish atmosphere of a college auditorium / performance space.
Interestingly, freshly recorded CDs of the Rev. Keller’s sermon were available almost immediately after the service for a quite-reasonable $4 fee.
City: New York
Address: 1359 Broadway, 4th Floor (church offices)
Phone: (212) 808-4460
Main Service: 6 p.m., Sundays, Hunter College Auditorium, 695 Park Avenue
Pastor: Rev. Timothy Keller