November 27, 2016

A Ribbon at a Time

Our Advent journey begins with a report from Emily Dickinson. A witness to the dawn chorus, the poet wrote,
I’ll tell you how the sun rose, -

A ribbon at a time.

The steeples swam in amethyst,

The news like squirrels ran.

The hills untied their bonnets,

The bobolinks begun.

Then I said softly to myself,

"That must have been the sun!"

Of all the reasons I love Emily Dickinson, and there are numerous reasons why I love her, the simple power of her nature poems is one of the most significant. In these works, her characteristic patience and truth-telling come through clearly as she reanimates incredible scenes of beauty and drama to which lesser souls would remain blind. Spying the first robin in spring, a snake slithering through the grass, cornstalks waving in a summer breeze—her poetry does more than describe these sights, she brings them back to life.

Emily’s keen eye and open heart remind us that epic and life-changing forces are at work all around us. However, we often fail to perceive them.

If the Heavens are telling the glory of God, then the question is, “Are we listening?”

Emily was, and she was watching, too. So, just in case we missed it, she will tell us how the sun rose—“a ribbon at a time.”

If you want to understand the spiritual significance of the Advent season, then go out early in the morning and watch the sunrise.

Go out while it’s still dark, when the wind off of the water stings your face, when the chill of night hangs in the air, and look to the East. Watch the black sky give way to the deep blue hues of the pre-dawn.

Watch the first slivers of orange and red pierce the horizon.

Watch the sky explode with light as the sun finally begins its daily ascent.

Watch the city come to life, feel the warmth on your face, stand up and start the day, and remember what God said through the prophet Isaiah, “Come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!”

There’s a deep connection between sunrise and Advent because a sunrise is a daily reminder of the Prophet Isaiah’s ministry.

When God’s people felt as if their whole lives were shrouded in darkness, the prophet told them to set their focus on the horizon, to watch and see just what God would do.

A new day, Isaiah told them, was dawning—a day of justice, of reconciliation, of God’s chosen Messiah.

“People, look east,” he shouted, “the sun will rise to chase away the shadows of injustice and the chills of isolation.”

Between now and Christmas, we’ll be reading from Isaiah every Sunday morning and we’ll hear in his words some of the most cherished, exciting promises God ever made to God’s people.

We’re going to hear about the reign of an anointed leader—of a Savior—who would right all wrongs and bring peace to Creation.

Today, a reading from the second chapter of Isaiah’s book started us off.

In days to come the mountain of the LORD’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it.

Many peoples shall come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’

And what were those ways?

What might one experience when walking in the Lord’s paths?

He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. (Isaiah 2: 1-4)
Moving through Advent, Isaiah’s focus will become even clearer as he tells us more and more about “the days to come.” About those days, the prophet writes,
The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. (Isaiah 11: 6)
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom. (Isaiah 35: 1)
The eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. (Isaiah 35: 5-6)
These days will belong to the Messiah—God’s Anointed One—who will reign like no other.
The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD. His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth. (Isaiah 11: 2-4)
And his name shall be Emmanuel, which means “God with us.”

Today, we’ve gathered together to hear the Good News and give thanks that Isaiah’s faith became sight in the person of Jesus for just like the rising sun, Mary’s son brings hope and new life to people who are walking in the dark.

Schooled in the ways of justice and peace, Jesus loved outcasts and sinners, healed the sick, strengthen the weak, and cautioned the proud.

Through his life, death, and resurrection, God forgave our sins and delivered us from death.

Jesus is the light of God’s new day—a light that shined into the world’s darkness, and the darkness could not overcome it.

But there’s a reason we look to the sunrise as an image for Advent instead of high noon.

Even though we believe that Jesus’ life on earth fundamentally changed things, we still believe that there’s more to come, that his kingdom has not yet come in full, and that parts of our world and corners of our hearts are still in the shade.

The sunrise might separate the day from the night, but it only anticipates the sunlight’s life giving shine.

This season points us to a second Advent, a time when all shadows and shades, chills and suffering will be no more, when death will be no more, when mourning and crying will be no more, when the first things pass away and all things are made new in Jesus Christ.

There is a reason for people who know Jesus to still sing, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”

Our reason is hope—the hope we share that Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection are but the dawn of Creation’s bright and glorious new day with God.

We live between the Advents, and in this in-between-time God calls people of faith to be heralds of the Risen Sun.

Like Emily, our lives should bear witness to the beauty and power and drama that we have seen.

I’ll tell you how the sun rose, -

A ribbon at a time.

If you want to understand the spiritual significance of the Advent season, then go out early in the morning and watch the sunrise.

Go out while it’s still dark, when the wind off of the water stings your face, when the chill of night hangs in the air, and look to the East. Look to the East and give thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.

November 22, 2016

Like the Fruit of the Land

Find your story in God’s story and give thanks.

This call to worship cuts a course through the heart of the scripture because at several crossroads in their journey with God, God’s people received an invitation to remember where they’d been, to anticipate where they were going, and to celebrate the One who traveled with them.

When the Israelites escaped Egypt on dry land through the sea, the first thing they did on the far shore was remember God and give thanks.

When Hannah received her heart’s desire, she remembered God and gave thanks.

When King David escaped his enemies’ plots, he remembered and gave thanks.

When “the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion” and God’s people “were like those who dream,” and the nations said, “The LORD had done great things for them,” the people said, “The LORD has done great things for us,” and they rejoiced. They remembered and gave thanks.

All the along their pilgrim journey, sustained by their Everlasting Portion, faithful hearts remember where they’ve been, anticipate where they’re going, and celebrate the One with whom they travel.

They find their story in God’s story and give thanks.

Deuteronomy 26 recounts another moment in which God’s people heard this call to worship.

The people of God were nearing the Promised Land. Their exodus from slavery to freedom was almost complete.

At that time, somewhere “beyond the Jordan,” Moses—who had been their leader for forty years—assembled his road wearied and battle tested followers and “spoke to the Israelites just as the LORD had commanded him to speak to them,” including, it’s said, the passage before us this morning.

When you have come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the LORD your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the LORD your God will choose as a dwelling for his name.
As slaves they toiled for their masters, as wilderness wanderers they depended on daily manna from heaven, but in the Land of Promise, the people would work the soil and harvest its bounty for themselves. And when they gathered the first fruits of their labor, Moses instructed them to offer a portion to God in gratitude for all that they had received. Moses even told them how they should pray.

The faithful should offer a prayer of thanksgiving. This prayer, however, wasn’t just about the rain and sun that helped the harvest to grow. This prayer painted in bright colors on a great canvas the majestic story of God’s steadfast love.

When bringing in the first fruits of the land the people should lift up their hearts—beyond the annual cycle of planting and reaping—to the One whose power and faithfulness made this moment—this life of freedom and abundance—possible.

You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, “Today I declare to the LORD your God that I have come into the land that the LORD swore to our ancestors to give us.” When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the LORD your God, you shall make this response before the LORD your God: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the LORD, the God of our ancestors; the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O LORD, have given me.”
Take note of the powerful act of worship described here.

Oh yes, it’s about being thankful for work and the harvest and being able to put food of the table. Absolutely, that’s what this is about, but that’s not all.

This thankful and worshipful act was also a call to remember.

Remember where you’ve come from.

Remember what you’ve been through.

Remember the times when you went without.

Remember who heard your cry and answered your prayers.

Find your story in God’s story and give thanks.

This fall season we’ve been reading the Book of Exodus at our Bible study on Monday nights. The struggle described in that book—the pain and hope and confusion and screw ups that shaped the Exodus journey—teach us that the invitation to give thanks at the journey’s end was anything but superficial.

Like the harvest of the land’s first fruits, thanksgiving is the product of hard work and hope and grace.

Gratitude and hard work—last year when Pope Francis visited our city this was the theme of a message he delivered at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. Francis first spoke these words to a congregation of Catholic priests, nuns, and monks, but I think even a bunch of Methodists like us can hear the wisdom in them.

At Saint Patrick’s Francis preached,

Joy springs from a grateful heart. Truly, we have received much, so many graces, so many blessings, and we rejoice in this. It will do us good to think back on our lives with the grace of remembrance. Remembrance of when we were first called, remembrance of the road travelled, remembrance of graces received… and, above all, remembrance of our encounter with Jesus Christ so often along the way. Remembrance of the amazement which our encounter with Jesus Christ awakens in our hearts…Perhaps we need to ask ourselves: are we good at counting our blessings? [Or have I forgotten them?]
He continued.
A second area is the spirit of hard work. A grateful heart is spontaneously impelled to serve the Lord and to find expression in a life of commitment to our work. Once we come to realize how much God has given us, a life of self-sacrifice, of working for him and for others, becomes a privileged way of responding to his great love.
Like the harvest of the land’s first fruits, thanksgiving is the product of hard work and hope and grace.

And like the fruit of the land, our lives and our loves are meant to be shared with others.

Somewhere beyond the Jordan, Moses gave the people one final direction for their harvest celebration.

You shall set [your offering] down before the LORD your God and bow down before the LORD your God. Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the LORD your God has given to you and to your house.
Awash in God’s blessings, grateful for God’s provisions, the faithful should celebrate with their neighbors, taking care to remember “the Levites and the aliens.”

What was so special about Levites and aliens?

These were two groups of people who had no land of their own and could not, therefore, bring an offering forward. Despite their landlessness, however, they still had a place in God’s family and the faithful would have the privilege of their company at their celebrations. God's grace and the loving community God wills into being were of far greater significance than anything that the Levites and aliens lacked.

Once we come to realize how much God has given us, a life of self-sacrifice, of working for him and for others, becomes a privileged way of responding to his great love.
A call to worship cuts a course through the heart of the scripture because at several crossroads in their journey with God, God’s people received an invitation to remember where they’d been, to anticipate where they were going, and to celebrate the One who traveled with them.

Today, that invitation comes to us.

People of John Street, find your story in God’s story and give thanks.

Amen.

November 13, 2016

A Certain Kind of Fire

This Sunday, like last Sunday, a lesson from scripture invites us to engage with the fantastic worldview and images of apocalyptic thought. I wish it wasn’t so.

Reading passages like Daniel 7 and Luke 21 in the context of this bruising election season makes it difficult to overcome the temptation to equate “the other side” of the body politic with the enemies of God and the cosmic forces of evil. It’s a temptation we need to resist.

We need to resist this temptation because history and experience demonstrate that it’s a good deal easier to convince ourselves that the Scripture has lots to say about the changes the people with whom we disagree need to make, but surprisingly little to say to us. To that end, I want to be up front with you about where I’m coming from this morning.

Long before Election Day, I believe fear began exerting a powerful influence in our country across the political spectrum. From 9/11 to the Great Recession, from decades of stagnant wages to the ways in which our incredibly connected culture connects us to stories of injustice the world over, in blue states, red states, or swing states, one doesn’t need to look far to find someone who believes that something essential about themselves and their identity is under attack—their rights, their family, their livelihood, their life.

Sadly, while fear unites us, we divide ourselves by whose fears we judge to be reasonable and whose are merely the products of paranoia. As a result, we spend our time arguing about whose fears are the correct fears and whose are unfounded, when what we really should be doing is acknowledging that the fears and their consequences are real and that we care about each other’s wellbeing and security.

I also believe that the Good News of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection is fear’s antidote.

I believe that the way Jesus loves us, empowers us, and builds us into a Spirit-filled community devoted to reconciliation and peace sets us free from fear’s chains.

I believe that it is our mission as Christians, then, to serve the fearful with compassion and to expose fear mongers with love, because, as Saint John writes, “there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.”

As members of Christ’s body—the Church—we are heirs to God’s promise; we are fiercely loved by God and empowered to love one another boldly.

Now, back to those wild and apocalyptic words.

Martin Luther King Jr. preached his last sermon on April 3, 1968 at Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee. Many of you are familiar with that sermon’s dramatic conclusion, the video of which appears in practically every retrospective of the Civil Rights movement. This is the moment when, with the congregation hanging on every word, King spoke of longevity, doing God’s will, going up the mountain, and looking over.

“And I’ve seen the Promised Land,” he declared. “I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”

It’s to an earlier section in King’s historic speech to which I want to draw your attention this morning, a passage, I believe, that reveals a powerful point of contact between faithful hearts and Jesus’ words in Luke’s twenty-first chapter.

In our Gospel lesson, Jesus talked about living with courage and faith in the midst of evil’s chaos, and he made in that moment a promise to his friends.

I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.
In Memphis, Dr. King remembered how that promise nurtured and strengthened the movement he led.

At Mason Temple, Dr. King allowed his memories to take him back, one last time, to the days of struggle in Birmingham, Alabama where, just five years earlier, he’d penned his famous letter from jail, and the place where he’d come to know the vicious tactics of Bull Connor, the city’s infamous Public Safety Commissioner.

Calling to mind the abuses heaped upon those who marched for equality, King remembered how God’s promise led them through those dark days. Confident that he and his followers possessed gifts and a dignity that the world didn’t give them and that the world couldn’t take away, King spoke about how faith opened his eyes to a reality that his oppressors just couldn’t see.

“There was a certain kind of fire,” he said, “that no water could put out.”

[In Birmingham] we went before the fire hoses; we had known water. If we were Baptist…we had been immersed. If we were Methodist…we had been sprinkled, but we knew water.

That couldn’t stop us…

And every now and then we’d get in the jail, and we’d see the jailers looking through the windows being moved by our prayers, and being moved by our words and our songs. And there was power there which Bull Connor couldn’t adjust to; and so we ended up transforming Bull into a steer, and we won our struggle in Birmingham.

“There was a certain kind of fire that no water could put out.”

Jesus said, “I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.”

According to Luke, Jesus made the promise at a critical moment in his ministry—the week that would end with him alone, dead, and buried in a tomb.

It was the first Holy Week and Jesus was on a collision course with the imperial and religious establishments that would take his life and shatter his disciples’ spirits. Aware of all that was about to take place, Jesus sought to center his disciples in God’s loving presence.

“Even in a world gone mad,” Jesus seemed to say, “God will not let us go.”

When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified…Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.
But even though the heavens shake, God’s love remains a strong foundation.
I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.
Can there be any doubt that the disciples remembered these words in a new light when Jesus was raised from the dead?

Can there be any doubt that the disciples drew strength and inspiration from these words when loyalty to Jesus and his kingdom set them at odds with the principalities and powers of their own age?

Can there be any doubt that disciples who are committed to following Christ in our time will demonstrate in prayer, worship, and loving action that this promise remains Good News to people who feel that the ground beneath their feet is shaking and their world is turning upside down?

Do you know anyone who feels like that today?

Do you know anyone who felt like that at about 3:00 Wednesday morning?

Amid life’s most turbulent moments, faithful hearts still believe in and aim to see our lives shaped by Jesus’ promise.

I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.

Even though the heavens shake, God’s love remains a strong foundation.

When we are at our lowest and fear’s darkness surrounds us, God is present, God’s love endures, and God’s blessings show us the way to go.

If we revere this message as Good News, then it is our mission as Christians to serve the fearful with compassion and to expose fear mongers with love.

I believe that fear exerts a powerful influence in our country across the political spectrum. Sadly, while fear unites us, we divide ourselves by whose fears we judge to be reasonable and whose are merely the products of paranoia. As a result, we spend our time arguing about whose fears are the correct fears and whose are unfounded, when what we really should be doing is acknowledging that the fears are real and that we care about each other’s wellbeing and security.

When my son has a nightmare and is worried that there's a monster in his closet, I can explain that his fear is unreasonable, or I can let him know that he's alright and that I'm there for him.

I dont know that we ever outgrow the need to know that we're not alone.

We argue so much about whose concerns are legitimate and whose are unfounded when what we really need to do is commit ourselves to having each other's back.

When your world is spinning, I'm going to be there with you. That's the Christian response. That's a holy response.

I believe that the Good News of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection is fear’s antidote and I believe that the way Jesus loves us, empowers us, and builds us into a Spirit-filled community devoted to reconciliation and peace sets us free from fear’s chains.

Therefore, when the world shakes, the Church must hold fast to Jesus and his wisdom.

When the world shakes, the faithful believe, hope, and endure.

When the world shakes, we love (and serve, and seek justice, and practice mercy, and embrace the marginalized and outcast) because love is a certain kind of fire that no water can put out.

As members of Christ’s body—the Church—we are heirs to God’s promise; we are fiercely loved by God and empowered to love one another boldly.

Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.

November 7, 2016

Little Horn Bigmouth

God blesses those whom the world judges to be outcast, pitiable, and weak. This truth is the essence of Jesus’ life and ministry. It is a useful lens through which to view who Jesus is and what Jesus says and does. It’s also a concise summary of his most famous sermon.
Then [Jesus] looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
Despite the evidence to the contrary, Jesus declares that the poor, hungry, and weeping ones among us are blessed.

We do well to acknowledge that this wasn’t a new idea.

The sacred stories of ancient Israel repeatedly display God’s concern for and action on behalf of the dispossessed and hurting. The scripture speaks of the Holy One who heard the cries of a people enslaved in Egypt, steadied the nerves of a young shepherd named David in his showdown with a giant, and set a new path before a traumatized mother named Hagar.

This is the Holy One to whom the Psalmist prayed,

Relieve the troubles of my heart, and bring me out of my distress.

Consider my affliction and my trouble, and forgive all my sins.

From Genesis through Revelation, the Bible reveals God as the One who blesses those whom the world judges to be outcast, pitiable, and weak. The Book of Daniel underscores this point, too.

Daniel’s seventh chapter is a fantastic and mind-bending passage of scripture. In it, readers encounter a dream haunted by a series of strange beasts that rise up from the sea to torment and wreak havoc upon the people.

The description of the fourth and final beast is illustrative.

After this I saw in the visions by night a fourth beast, terrifying and dreadful and exceedingly strong. It had great iron teeth and was devouring, breaking in pieces, and stamping what was left with its feet. It was different from all the beasts that preceded it, and it had ten horns. I was considering the horns, when another horn appeared, a little one coming up among them; to make room for it, three of the earlier horns were plucked up by the roots. There were eyes like human eyes in this horn, and a mouth speaking arrogantly.
Daniel’s seventh chapter is an example of apocalyptic literature, a genre forged in times of trouble and persecution for God’s people. Unfortunately, in our time, people usually do one of two things with scriptures like these. They either ignore them completely or they twist and pull at them to give them a symbolic contemporary interpretation.

“I don’t know who the arrogant little horn with a big mouth is, but it’s obviously some politician that I don’t like,” they seem to say.

Both popular approaches leave the Church wanting.

Instead, reading the passage with the conventions of the genre in mind leads us through its oddities and strangeness to a place at which we encounter Good News, a message that meant something powerful to a put-upon and hurting people long ago and that resonates with our experience, too.

The best scholarship regarding the passage at hand tells us that its author lived in or near Jerusalem during the violent reign of King Antiochus Epiphanes of the Seleucid Empire about 170 years before the birth of Jesus. The Seleucid Empire was one of the Hellenistic states that emerged in the wake of Alexander the Great’s death and the subsequent partitioning of his Greek Empire.

The tension between Jewish and Greek values turned violent in Jerusalem during Antiochus’s corrupt reign. When Antiochus accepted a bribe to appoint a man named Menelaus to the highest religious and political position in the Judea, traditionally-minded Jews revolted.

Antiochus’s response to the revolt was savage. Not only did he restore Menelaus to power, but he outlawed Judaism.

It was termed a capital offense to worship as Jews, to have a copy of the Torah, or to circumcise one’s children. A statue of Zeus was erected in the temple, and a pig was sacrificed on the altar there! (Effird, 20-21)
This was the horrifying context in which Daniel’s author lived. To write the words we’ve read this morning was, in essence, to sign one’s order of execution, but our writer put pen to paper, nevertheless, and gave us a history lesson for the ages. That’s what we’ve read, after all, a history lesson.

Those beasts from the sea? They’re the foreign powers that had ruled over Jerusalem for centuries; Babylon, Media, Persia, and Greece.

The ten horns? Those are the kings who filled the void left by Alexander’s untimely death.

And the little horn with a big mouth? That’s Antiochus.

Using his apocalyptic tools, our writer crafts a story for a longsuffering community about the series of world powers that rose over and then fell upon them. Their religion now banned and their holiest site desecrated, all evidence pointed to more and increased suffering, but our writer didn’t see it that way at all.

He saw the God of Exodus moving through the scene; the Holy Giant-Slayer and the Divine Comforter of grieving mothers and hungry children everywhere.

In that painful moment, our writer heard an answer to prayer and took hold of an eternal promise.

He wrote,

Kings shall arise out of the earth. But the holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever—forever and ever.
Kingdoms rise and kingdoms fall, but the love of God goes on and on.

Seasons of sorrow and suffering tarry, but God’s mercies endures.

In Daniel’s seventh chapter we encounter the same truth Jesus embodies; despite the evidence to the contrary, God blesses those whom the world judges to be outcast, pitiable, and weak.

And if this is true—if the psalmists and the prophets, and Jesus and the saints saw reality more clearly than those who would exclude and harm and denigrate, then we, as people of faith, must take up our mantle to expose the lies that would fracture God’s beloved community.

“They’re poor because they’re lazy.”

“They’re suffering because they deserve it.”

“They’re inferior because of their race, stupid because of where they come from, prone to violence because of their immigration status, cruel because they’re conservative, or immoral because they’re liberal.”

Lies! These are some of the lies that we allow to have power over our hearts and in our communities. These are some of the lies that threaten to undo us; the lies that God’s Word exposes by declaring blessings, not curses, for those we would judge, cast out, and deny mercy.

God blesses those whom the world judges to be outcast, pitiable, and weak by uprooting lies with the truth of a Savior’s love.

“In all [the horrible stuff of life that we’re tempted and pressured to believe defines us] we are more than conquerors,” declares Saint Paul, “through him who loved us.”
In the introduction to the 1997 edition of his esteemed book of theology, God of the Oppressed, Dr. James Cone shares a memory from his childhood in the Jim Crow South that brings the Gospel truth home.

Remembering the liberating effect that the Gospel had on the people of his hometown, Cone writes,

[The black women and men of Bearden, Arkansas] affirmed their dignity as human beings against great odds as they held on to faith in Jesus’ cross—the belief that his suffering and death was for their salvation. For them, salvation meant that they were not defined by what whites said about them or did to them, but rather by what Jesus said about the poor in his teachings and did for them on the cross. (Cone, xvii)
God blesses those whom the world judges to be outcast, pitiable, and weak.

This is the truth, and if this is true—if the psalmists and the prophets, and Jesus and the saints saw reality more clearly than those who would exclude and harm and denigrate—then we, as people of faith, must take up our mantle to expose the lies that would fracture God’s beloved community.

We must expose the lies and rejoice in the truth.

Despite the evidence to the contrary, Jesus declares that the poor, hungry, and weeping ones among us are blessed.

This is the Good News that gives us and the Church's life.

This is the Good News for which we give thanks.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

October 26, 2016

How to Kneel

“Your love is teaching me how to kneel.”

U2’s Grammy Award winning song “Vertigo” ends with Bono repeating this line.

“Your love is teaching me how to kneel.”

Now given the fact that this is a rock-n-roll song it’s fair to say that this line could mean any number of things. On one hand, it could refer to a relationship that’s gone bad, brought you to your knees, and left you pleading that this person would mercifully just get out of your life. That’s a possibility, but since this is a line written by Bono, it’s also fair to hear this lyric as a call to consider love’s higher nature, love’s ability to humble us—to turn us away from pride and selfish ambition—to teach us, with a clean heart and a new and right spirit, how to kneel.

To be loved humbles us by reminding us that being in relationship with even those who know us best requires grace, forgiveness, and kindness. In fact, being in relationship especially with those who know us best requires grace, forgiveness, and kindness.

In a very real sense, to be loved is to be known intimately—to remove, perhaps with a bit of trepidation, the masks of pride or pretense behind which we all live and to find in that moment of vulnerability, acceptance not rejection.

Writer Andrew Sullivan tells an inspiring story about the moment when he came out of the closet as a gay man to his parents. When Sullivan’s father heard the news he immediately doubled over and, with his face in his hands, began to sob. Unsure of what exactly these tears meant, Andrew pleaded with his father to say something, to tell him why he was crying. Finally, his father lifted his head, looked his son in the eye, and said, “I’m crying because of everything you must have gone through when you were growing up, and I never did anything to help you.”

Years later, Sullivan tearfully remembers these as some of the most beautiful words ever spoken to him, a true moment of grace. And we, as people of faith, see in a father’s love for his son, an echo, an imprint of our Heavenly Father’s love for each of us, love that teaches us how to kneel.

Parents’ love for their children, the love shared among close friends, the love between a couple whose relationship has been seasoned by years of joy and sorrow—I hope that there’s someone in your life to whom you can say, “I don’t know why you put up with me, but I’m so glad you do because your love makes all the difference to me.”

As Christians, there’s a word we can use to describe loving relationships like these. We can say that they are sacramental relationships, which means that our experience of them reveals an even deeper more profound reality and truth—in this case, the reality and truth about God’s love each of us.

This morning, then, we gather together as a community of Jesus’ disciples shaped by the truth that God’s love for us—revealed perfectly in Christ’s cross—has humbled us (has taught us how to kneel), and in doing so, has shown us how to live faithfully before God and honorably among our neighbors.

A parable about prayer taken from the eighteenth chapter of Luke’s Gospel is our point of contact with this Good News today, and just in case there was any doubt regarding its meaning, Luke clears things up straightaway.
[Jesus] also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt…
Arrogant, proud, self-centered, conceited people, people who are compelled to belittle their neighbors in order to inflate their own egos—two thousand years later we feel as though we have a pretty sharp picture of the crowd to whom Jesus told a story about a religious leader and a social outcast who went to God’s Temple to pray.
Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee (that’s the religious fellow) and the other a tax-collector (an often despised profession, especially, frowned upon by many pious folks in ancient Israel because of the cooperation with the Roman Imperial government it required). The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”
Then Jesus made his point.
I tell you, this [tax-collector] went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.
Like the lyrics to a good song, there are many points that we can draw from this parable.

Here, Jesus teaches us not to presume to know the contents of our neighbor’s heart.

He warns against trusting in mere outward appearances if we’re looking for the true saints in our midst.

And he cautions us not to believe everything we’ve heard about Pharisees and tax-collectors because reputations don’t always square with reality.

Certainly these are truthful lessons we can draw from the parable, but it’s Jesus’ own concluding remarks that deserve our closest attention.
All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.
As God’s love incarnate, Jesus called for disciples who aspired to humbly bend their knees in confession and who recognized the folly of trying to lift themselves up by treading their neighbor’s dignity beneath their feet.

Said another way, C.S. Lewis wrote this on the subject.
If anyone would like to acquire humility, I can, I think, tell him the first step. The first step is to realize that one is proud. And a biggish step, too. At least, nothing whatever can be done before it. If you think you're not conceited, it means you are very conceited indeed.
“[Jesus] told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” And the truth about us is that we were in the audience.

Jesus preached a parable about a Pharisee and a tax-collector to reveal our conceit and to show us a better way.

Jesus—The Lover of our Souls—is teaching us how to kneel.

This is why what Luke says happened next is so important.
People were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them; and when the disciples saw it, they sternly ordered them not to do it. But Jesus called for them and said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’
In his time, given the prevailing attitudes regarding children, attitudes that saw them as little more than property—Jesus’ welcoming gesture was radical. Good religious leaders didn’t usually welcome children into their circle. His insistence, then, that his disciples emulate the little children was nearly scandalous. In essence, though, his actions underscored his message.

Just as Jesus invited the children to come unto him—you stand, I stand, we stand humbly before God because of the grace he has given us, not because of anything that we, in our pride, have either earned of taken from him.

God’s love is teaching us how to kneel.

Shaped by love, then, we are empowered to love in God’s name, and loving in God’s name will bring us into relationships with people like outcast tax-collectors and disenfranchised children.

Those who humbly kneel before God will get up to serve him among the world’s lonely, last, lost.

“Who is the person we are concerned about?” my beloved teacher Peter Storey once asked.
The person we exist to serve? For Jesus there was no question. In the Kingdom, the humble are lifted high and the most vulnerable have pride of place.
This morning we gather together as a community of Jesus’ disciples shaped by the truth that God’s love for us—revealed perfectly in Christ’s cross—has humbled us (has taught us how to kneel), and in doing so, has shown us how to live faithfully before God and honorably among our neighbors.

Those who humbly kneel before God will get up to serve him among the world’s lonely, last, lost and that is why we call this message of grace and acceptance, forgiveness and mercy, Good News for all people. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Image: Man in Prayer

October 17, 2016

A Reverend Sane

Something quite unexpected has happened to me in 2016. Recently, I’ve experienced something that’s been like a conversion or sorts.

I suppose that’s a strange thing to hear your pastor say from the pulpit, but it’s true.

For several months now something has been stirring inside me. This stirring has given me a new way of seeing the world—a soundtrack for both my happiness and my sorrows. It’s inspired me, brought me joy, and motivated me.

It’s a change that impacts my behavior daily.

In 2016, I’ve become a fan of David Bowie.

When our city awoke on a cold January morning to the news that Bowie had died of cancer the previous night, I knew enough about him and his music to know that this was a significant loss. I remembered well his videos from the early days of MTV, his appearance at the iconic Live Aid concert, and his set with the surviving members of Queen at the Concert for Life in 1992.

Like many people—like many of you, in the days after his death, I listened to my favorite David Bowie songs and read from the steady stream of articles and tributes that flooded my newsfeed. I went down to the Seaport one night to hear my favorite bluegrass band do some Bowie cover songs. I even built a sermon around his performance of “Under Pressure” with Annie Lennox.

I understood that his was the passing of a great artist, until I realized that I didn’t understand his greatness at all.

The stirring, I mentioned, began with two conversations. January’s calendar gave me the opportunity to spend time with some friends whose company I deeply enjoy. Both of these friends are also people with whom I often talk about music—what we’ve been listening to lately, what upcoming concerts we’re interested in attending, and the booms and busts in my efforts to start a vinyl collection.

In the course of these conversations, though, I realized that there was something going on that I just hadn’t grasped. My friends spoke about their visceral reactions to Bowie’s death. Yes, they talked about his music and various personas. Of course, they talked about talent, but they also talked about courage. They talked about how his music made them feel a little less like outsiders, like they weren’t alone in their oddities and angst, and there was an ache in their hearts that transcended the usual reactions to a celebrity’s passing.

Bowie’s death brought these hard-working New Yorkers to tears.

Confronted by this emotion, I had an overwhelming sense that I was missing out on something beautiful and amazing.

Well, the power of art is that it lives on, even after the artist is gone, so I still had the opportunity to discover Bowie for myself.

I began a steady diet of his music on Spotify and videos and interviews on YouTube. I listened to his work from the 1970s—much of it for the first time. There were concerts he recorded over the course of his career. There was the album he released just two days before he died.

And it was amazing!

Although I was embarrassed to admit to my friends that I’d made into my forties without ever listening to Aladdin Sane or the Berlin Trilogy, it was incredible to experience them now, for the first time.

And then, I found the video that sealed the deal.

It was a performance of the song “Jean Genie” recorded on BBC One’s Top of the Pops in 1973.

To me, it was rock-n-roll personified.

The clothes were in dazzling Technicolor.

The hair was crazy—and also in dazzling Technicolor.

The music was bluesy and bold and loud.

And in the center of it all was Bowie’s captivating presence at the microphone.

And in that moment, I realized that every rock band I’ve ever liked was just trying to be half as cool as David Bowie.

My conversion was complete.

I had become a fan.

While I understand that there’s a big difference between Christian discipleship and becoming a rock star’s fan, even if that rock star is David Bowie—even if it’s Bono, I’ve told this story this morning to bridge the gap between our contemporary experience and the old Methodist Love Feasts that were once a common part of life in our community.

Specifically, I’m thinking about those conversations I had with my friends and the impact that they had on me.

I’ve thought about those conversations a lot because, all kidding aside, they really did lead me to discover something wonderful, and I don’t want to take that for granted.

As my friends shared their love for this artist and his work, I felt that I was missing out on something.

Hearing my friends speak honestly and vulnerably about something that meant so much to them enticed me to discover that something for myself.

I think we can learn from that.

I think it’s remarkably enlightening of our efforts as a church to live and love in a way that invites others to claim their place of God’s table of grace.

There’s a passage from the prophet Isaiah that Saint Paul quoted in his Letter to the Romans. The passage reads,

How beautiful upon the mountains

are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,

who brings good news,

who announces salvation,

who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’

In the early history of this congregation, love feasts brought life to this scripture.

Love feasts offered our members an opportunity “to announce peace and bring good news” to one another by speaking honestly and vulnerably about their experience of God’s presence in their lives. In doing so, our members enticed and encouraged one another to seek faith’s deepest waters.

Oh yes, they prayed and sang songs at love feasts. They read the Scripture and shared something simple to eat and drink at love feasts, too. However, the true heart of the love feast was the time set aside for the testimonies of the faithful.

This was the space in which the people shared about what was going on in their lives and how they saw God at work in their circumstances.

Was there something for which they were thankful or a burden for which they needed prayer?

Did they have a story about how God brought them through a difficult situation?

Could they lift up examples from their daily lives of choosing the path of peace and the way of the cross?

Could they talk about where they saw and how they served Jesus on this city’s streets?

Answering questions like these gave testimonies their shape, and testimonies strengthened the ties that bound the congregation together.

Testimonies nourished the people with Good News and the promise of God’s abiding presence.

They were properly called love feasts, therefore, because they were, above all else, exercises in giving and receiving God’s love.

And giving and receiving God’s love are the Christian’s highest calling and most profound blessing.

“Let us love one another,” we read in First John, “because love is from God.”

“Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.”

“God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”

“We love because he first loved us.”

This morning we’re introducing some elements of an old fashioned love feast into our worship at part of John Street Church’s 250th anniversary celebration, but we’re not doing this to be quaint or to be traditional for tradition’s sake.

No, we’re doing this because loving and being loved are still the fundamental characteristics of the Christian life.

We’re doing this because we can still help each other and learn from each other.

We’re doing this because our souls still need the nourishment that beauty and peace provide.

We’re doing this because God first loved us.

In 1770, after a love feast on John Street, our pastor wrote in his journal,

[The Lord] brought us into his banquiting-house, and his banner over us was love. We felt the softening power of the holy Ghost, and our Souls were dissolved with love in the presence of the mighty God of Jacob.
Oh, that we would experience the same blessing today.

Oh, that we might know the depths of God’s love.

Thanks be to God, then, for the holy nourishment we receive and share today.

Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.

September 12, 2016

Sixty Pound Fleece

Once upon a time there was a sheep named Shrek.

Seriously, about twenty years ago there was a Merino sheep in New Zealand named after the beloved animated ogre, Shrek. Like his cartoon counterpart, Shrek the Sheep was also destined to become famous.

In the late 1990s, while waiting for his annual sheering, Shrek escaped into New Zealand’s mountainous countryside.

Hiding in caves and living off the land, that’s where he stayed and continued to avoid his haircut for six years.

In 2004, however, Shrek’s running days came to an end. His owner found him that April, but by that time, the crafty sheep needed more than a little trim.

Unlike other breeds, Merino sheep don’t naturally shed their wool each year. Shrek, therefore, had six years’ worth of fleece on his back.

His mane covered his eyes and almost touched the ground beneath his belly.

He looked like a gigantic ball of fur with a nose.

In fact, Shrek’s look was so distinctive that photos of him quickly began to circulate, his story became known, and he became something of a national celebrity. (Go ahead. Have a look for yourself.)

When he finally did go under the shears, it happened in front of a worldwide television audience. Millions tuned in to see Shrek’s 60 pound fleece removed and auctioned off for charity.

His fame enduring, Shrek’s story continued to inspire several children’s books and other merchandise and, in 2006, his next shearing was also broadcast—from an iceberg floating near the New Zealand coast.

And Shrek lived happily ever after, so the story goes.

Well, he lived for a very long time, anyway, and along the way he made a lot of people smile and he helped raise millions of dollars to help kids—so, happily ever after.

Of course, sheep and their shepherds play a prominent role in the scripture. From the altars of ancient sacrifices to the angelic proclamation of Jesus’ birth, we couldn’t tell the Bible’s story without them.

Inspired authors also repeatedly drew parallels between the wandering ways of sheep and our own.

“I have gone astray like a lost sheep,” is the Psalmist’s confession.

“[The shepherd] calls his own sheep by name and leads them out,” says the Lord. “And the sheep follow him because they know his voice.”

In fact, the idea that Jesus is the Good Shepherd is probably one of the most cherished teachings in the New Testament.

Drawing inspiration from earlier Greek art, the image of Jesus carrying a lamb on his shoulders has been the subject of Christian iconography since the Church’s beginning.

Teachings about the Good Shepherd have inspired some of our greatest songs; “He Leadeth Me, O Blessed Thought,” “Savior, Like a Shepherd, Lead Us,”

The King of love my shepherd is, whose goodness faileth never.

I nothing lack if I am his, and he is mine forever.

In troubles times and seasons of grief, the faithful draw comfort from Jesus’ words,
I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep.
Yes, the Good Shepherd and good shepherding habits are bedrock Christian teachings.

Thoughts of the Good Shepherd came to my mind this week through the reading of Luke’s 15th chapter because, in this passage, Jesus defends himself and the crowds surrounding him against charges of misbehavior by, again, shining a light on wayward sheep and the people who care for them.

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to [Jesus]. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
This parable’s point is two-fold. First, it speaks of God’s forgiving nature.

Jesus teaches us that God receives and forgives those who humbly turn to God and doesn’t hold their past against them, like some sort of spiritual blackmail.

“Sure, come take a seat at my table, but watch your step or I’ll let everyone know what you did last night!”

That’s not Good News.

No. Jesus tells us that God is extravagantly merciful and filled with joy when a sinner comes home.

Repentance isn’t the sinner’s bargain to get just enough grace out of God to get by. Instead, it is God’s good pleasure to be gracious for “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”

The parable’s second point is related to the first. If it is God’s nature to forgive, then forgiveness is a holy and sacred act in which God’s people should engage.

If God isn’t willing to let the past write the future, then neither should we.

If God desires reconciliation, then those who worship God must overcome the temptation that allows arrogance and self-righteousness to cloud our judgements, to hold others at a distance, and to restrain the Spirit that makes rebirth possible.

It shouldn’t be lost on us that this is precisely the temptation to which Jesus’ audience was succumbing. Perhaps the scribes and Pharisees regarded the sinners and tax collectors as inferior or maybe they would’ve preferred it if Jesus just made them jump through a few hoops before breaking bread with them. Whatever their motivation, their attitude lacked the commitment to reconciliation that Jesus deems fundamental.

“As far as the east is from the west,” says the Word of God, “[that’s how] far [God] removes our transgressions from us,” so who are we to shove someone’s past in their face?

This thought, or something like it, was absolutely on Jesus’ mind when he told this story to the would-be gatekeepers of proper piety and devotion.

The parable about the lost sheep is about a forgiving God.

The parable about the lost sheep is also about God’s call to the faithful to practice forgiveness.

These lessons capture the essence of Jesus’ exchange with his detractors, but a close reading of Luke shows us that, even though Jesus directed his comments at them, he might have had another audience in mind.

Remember how Luke sets the stage for us in verse 1; “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him.”

For the people closest to Jesus, then, the talk about a wandering sheep wasn’t a theological dispute or a Sunday school lesson. This was life giving Good News!

What they’d been through didn’t define them.

Their future with God wasn’t chained to the past.

And there was nothing that they’d done or left undone that was more determinative of their identity than the reality of God’s love.

Jesus might have been talking to the scribes and Pharisees, but I know that the sinners and tax collectors are the ones who really heard him.

That brings me back to Shrek the Sheep.

Why did Shrek run away?

Had he been planning a daring escape for months? I doubt it.

Something that he heard or something that he saw probably scared him and that was all it took.

I think a great many people need to hear the Good News that the same God who forgives us stands ready to receive and help us and bring healing to us when we’re ready to talk about the difficult places into which our fears have led us, too.

Lord, I never meant to hurt anybody, but I got scared and took off running and now my life is an overgrown mess—just like that famous sheep in New Zealand.

Fifteen years ago, we were afraid—there’s no shame in that—and since 2001, many of us have become well acquainted with what fear can do to us and to the people that we love.

Impaired judgment, anxiety, anger, depression, self-abuse, substance abuse, sleeping too little, sleeping too much—fear hurts us. We know this.

But the Good Shepherd knows the names if his frightened sheep, too, and he calls us home. He calls us to himself.

The King of love my shepherd is, whose goodness faileth never.

I nothing lack if I am his, and he is mine forever.

May the words we sing give voice to the faith we share, and may we always give thanks to God for the Good News of our Savior’s love.

Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.