April 3, 2017

Hateful Zombies and the Greatest German

Ezekiel’s vision of a valley covered in dry and lifeless human remains is the image of his community’s complete devastation. This was a vision of war’s aftermath, a war that left Ezekiel’s community, the ancient Kingdom of Judah, in ruin and made of its people, including Ezekiel, exiles—strangers in a strange land called Babylon.

Ezekiel came into his own around the year 600BC, during Judah’s last days. Judah was the southern remnant of a much larger kingdom once governed by King David, he of Goliath slaying fame. By 600, however, centuries of domestic problems and international follies had reduced the kingdom to a shell of its former self.

Vestiges of David’s reign were few and far between during Ezekiel’s youth. These included David’s capital city—Jerusalem, the Temple David’s son Solomon built there, and his descendants who—although they lacked their ancestor’s skill and devotion to God—still sat on the throne.

Ezekiel would live to see all of these—the capital, temple, and royal house—reduced to ruin.

Like historians who debate the events surrounding the Fall of Rome, it’s difficult for us to pinpoint the moment when Judah reached the point of no return. Prophets had been calling for a change of heart and a change of policy for decades prior to Ezekiel’s emergence on the scene. One king, Josiah—who happened to be the ruler when Ezekiel was born—even gave those prophets a fair hearing and tried to put their wisdom into action.

But the nation’s hopes seemed to die with Josiah. His heirs shunned their father’s plans and put all their hopes in a military alliance with Egypt, one of the region’s two super-powers.

Unfortunately, in the race for regional supremacy among those super-powers, Josiah’s sons bet Judah’s fortunes on the wrong horse.

Babylon, not Egypt, would write the next chapter in Mid-East history.

Ezekiel was a young priest ministering in the Temple when Babylon’s army savagely descended upon Judah. Babylon’s king waged and won a brutal campaign.

The invaders sacked the capital, looted God’s House, and carried off into exile most of the people.

These are a cataclysmic events that shaped Ezekiel’s life and ministry, a ministry distinguished by disturbing visions and fantastic proclamations.

Ezekiel lived in an uncertain time and his ministry was unlike any prophet’s that had gone before him.

While he was living in exile in Babylon, Ezekiel experienced his most enduring vision, the vision set before us this morning.

And Ezekiel testified,

The hand of the LORD came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the LORD and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry.
After reading Ezekiel’s 37th chapter this week, I began to search out scenes from more recent history that would prove somewhat analogous to the prophet’s experience. I wanted to find other examples, be they good or bad examples, of leaders addressing a defeated people, their own defeated community, at war’s end. I thought about the American South circa 1865, about Japan after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Germany after Hitler’s defeat. This search ultimately led me to the rather remarkable political career of Konrad Adenauer.

Adenauer was the first Chancellor of West Germany, the capitalist and democratic country formed from Germany’s post-World War II division. Holding that position from 1949 to 1963, Adenauer’s commitment to democracy and a unified Europe, as well as successfully piloting his nation’s post-war economy, earned him lasting respect. A poll in 2003 named him the “Greatest German of All-Time,” no mean feat considering Bach and Einstein only scored top ten finishes and Martin Luther was the runner up.

Before he was Chancellor, though, immediately after the war ended in Germany, Adenauer became mayor of Cologne, a city located on the banks of the Rhine River that dated back to the days of the Roman Empire. Cologne was Adenauer’s hometown and he had served successfully as its mayor after the First World War. This political experience and his consistent opposition to the Nazi Party made Adenauer a logical choice to govern the newly liberated city, or at least what was left of it.

Allied Forces had bombed Cologne into oblivion. The United Kingdom’s Royal Air Force held 262 raids on the city during which they dropped over 34,000 tons of ordinance. These reduced the city to “the biggest pile of rubble in the world” and decreased its population by 95 percent.

The U.S. Army moved into Cologne in March 1945 and made Adenauer mayor soon after, an appointment that gave him an opportunity to make the speech that caught my attention this week. There, on the plains of the Rhineland, Adenauer beheld a valley of dry bones and wondered aloud about the forces that might bring them back to life.

Confronted with a lack of food, and fuel, and shelter, the mayor issued a word of caution.

The guilty, those responsible for this unspeakable suffering, this indescribable misery, are those accursed men who came to power in the fatal year 1933. It was they who…when their own well deserved perdition was certain, systematically and deliberately plunged our misguided and paralysed people into the deepest misery. They did this not, as is often assumed, so that the German people should perish with them…they intended something much more devilish: they wanted and they still want the thought of revenge and retribution to re-animate the German people against its wartime opponents.
I think this is an incredible insight because it is true that there’s a certain kind of new life that revenge and retribution promise. When anger causes a surge of energy to pulse through our bodies, when a community is stirred up to expel from its midst those judged to be enemies, when tyrants lash out at those who dare to question authority and pursue truth—sleepiness and lethargy fade and we are invigorated. We are reanimated.

But we know, and Adenauer knew, that revenge and retribution can only produce a terrifying zombie existence.

Hearts given over to these can only consume, never make.

They can only destroy, never build up.

They can only grasp and oppress, never release and liberate.

Ezekiel knew this, too.

Hate and a desire for revenge were present among the exiles. The darkest Psalms tell us this.

Nevertheless, the prophet persisted.

So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them.
This is the vision’s defining tension.

Dry bones had reassembled to take on the form of life, but what kind of life would it be?

Would wicked and dark forces write his community’s next chapter?

Would currents of vengeance and hate cause bruised bodies and spirits to twitch and convulse?

Certainly, these forces were present among the exiles, but Ezekiel plugged in to an even more powerful source, and in that moment of revelation, saw for himself what we experience by faith.

Life in its beautiful fullness, life in its selfless and sacrificial power, life received as a gift and shared as a blessing, comes from God.

Then the LORD said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.”
The LORD said,
I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the LORD, have spoken and will act.”
“I will put my spirit within you,” says the LORD, “and you shall live (really live), and I will place you on your own soil (I will lead you home).”

As individuals, as participants in numerous communities that give shape and meaning to our lives, as Children of God and members of the Body of Christ, we do well to confess that we are tempted to take in the vapors of hate and vengeance, of pride and its lot, because these forces are intoxicating. They make us feel alive, or at least buzzed.

But the Good News of Jesus Christ calls us to press on beyond these lesser currents so that we might dwell in the Sprit that gives us real life, places our feet on stable ground, and leads us home.

Life in its beautiful fullness, life in its selfless and sacrificial power, life received as a gift and shared as a blessing, comes from God, and that is why we give thanks.

Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.

March 28, 2017

First They Ignore You

If you’ve spent enough time on any social media platform in the last year, you’ve probably come across this famous quote from Mahatma Gandhi.
First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.
Capturing the determination of one who feels that their cause is just, even as they encounter stiff resistance, the quote offers inspiration and hope, even assurance, to those who believe that their ultimate triumph and vindication is just a matter of time. With its depiction of one’s opponents as foolish and wrong, it’s also clear to see why the quote increased in prominence during our rancorous election season and its volatile aftermath.
First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.
It’s almost the perfect rallying cry for the times in which we live—a thought to stir up the base and marginalize the opposition. Indeed, in our vitriolic and divided country, this quote has achieved the most elusive status—bipartisan consensus.

It’s true. At one time or another, Donald Trump, Sarah Palin, Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, and of host of Facebook pundits have employed this quote in the service of their campaigns, because, you know, Gandhi.

First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.
In addition to its capacity to inspire sought-after emotional responses from the body politic, this quote possesses another quality that truly sets it apart from the pack in the race to be the Quote of the Age. That quality of distinction is that the quote is false. Gandhi never said it. It comes from a magazine article written about Gandhi in 1982, over thirty years after the Indian independence leader’s death. And even that magazine article is indebted to an older source—a passage from a speech given by a union organizer named Nicholas Klein at a labor rally in 1918, but you’ve probably never seen that on Facebook because, you know, who’s Nicholas Klein?

In Baltimore, Maryland on May 15, 1918, Nicholas Klein addressed the Biennial Convention of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America. For labor, in general, and for textile workers, specifically, this was the height of a turbulent era of resistance, organizing, strikes, and direct action. Only a few years removed from the Triangle Shirtwaist tragedy here in NYC, a crime that claimed over one hundred forty lives when a fire swept through a textile factory in which the owners had locked their own employees, matters of life and death were on Klein’s agenda as he took the podium.

His speech was short, a pep talk, really. Klein reminded his audience of victories they had won and encouraged them to stick together and stand with one another when hard times came their way. Then, he concluded his speech with a story.

There is a story told about the making of the first railway. There was an old man, it is said, whose name was Stephenson, who made the first locomotive… And when old man Stephenson proposed a train — something to be run without the aid of horses or oxen, he was ridiculed. One day a test was made, and they laid two pieces of wood and upon these two pieces of wood they placed some thin sheets of metal, and upon that crude arrangement was placed the first locomotive.

And it is said in this story that thousands of people were out to see the first test of that locomotive, and of course the people all shouted, and pointed to their heads, and said the man was crazy, and they said the locomotive was out of question; it was impossible, and the crowd yelled out: "You old foggy fool! You can't do it! You can't do It!" And the same everywhere. The old man was in the cab, and somebody fired a pistol and the signal was given. He pulled the throttle open and the engine shot out, and in their amazement the crowd, not knowing how to answer to that argument, yelled out: "You old fool! You can't stop it! You can't stop it! You can't stop it!"

And my friends, in this story you have a history of this entire movement. First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. And then they attack you and want to burn you. And then they build monuments to you.

And that is what is going to happen to the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America.

Nicholas Klein isn’t as famous a Gandhi, but let’s give credit where credit is due.
First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. And then they attack you and want to burn you. And then they build monuments to you.
The man at the center of the Gospel passage we’ve read this morning would’ve understood Klein’s point.

First they doubted him. Then they criticized him. And then they drove him out of town. But, through it all, Jesus saw him, healed him, found him, and set him free.

John’s 9th chapter recounts the story of miraculous healing.

It happened that Jesus and his disciples encountered a man who had never been able to see. Making mud and then spreading it upon the man’s face, Jesus told him to go wash himself in a nearby pool of water.

Then he went and washed and came back able to see.

John’s account implies that, after the healing, Jesus and his disciples left the man and continued on their way. However, with the gift of sight, our man was about to see for himself how awful and obstinate his neighbors could be.

First, they doubted him.

The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”
The Pharisees—members of the religious establishment—were dubious of the man’s claims, too. They inquired so as to learn if this really was the same man who once was blind. Once they were satisfied that it was the same man, they were less than enthusiastic.

First they doubted him. Then they criticized him.

Once the evidence convinced the authorities that a healing had, indeed, taken place, criticism about how the miracle occurred replaced their doubt.

It wasn’t the right time for healing, they said.

A holy man would know better than to heal on the Sabbath.

The authorities questioned the healed man’s parents, then gave him one more chance to denounce Jesus.

“We know that this man is a sinner,” they said.

He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.

First they doubted him. Then they criticized him. And then they drove him out of town. But, through it all, Jesus saw him, healed him, found him, and set him free.

Our story ends where it began, with Jesus drawing near to a scorned and outcast man. In this end is a new beginning, though, because he who was once blind now sees things clearly.

Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him. Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.”
The Gospel that gives us life is the message of a Savior—God’s Son—who seeks out, heals, lifts up, and loves broken people.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” Jesus said at another time, “because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

To claim the name Christian is to say, “Yes, I am one of those broken people that Jesus loves and is making whole.”

To live the Christian life is to do the good work of loving, and lifting, and serving broken people in Jesus’ name.

First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.

Or maybe not.

You don’t have to be a skeptic to regard this quote as a little too optimistic.

Furthermore, stripped from its original context and dropped into our own, I think it’s a fair assessment to say it supplies too much fuel for the fires of our division. It too easily caters to the “us vs. them” mentality that subverts our common good. That seems like a fair assessment to me.

After all, if everybody thinks that the quote supports their point of view at the expense of their enemies’, if everyone thinks that it means that they’re right, then does it really mean anything at all?

But, even still, I’ve shared this with you today because hearing this and thinking about it, does help us to receive Good News.

As people of faith, your see, we proclaim a Gospel that says even if you are ignored, you are still a beloved child of God.

As sheep in the Good Shepherd’s fold, we say that even if you’re laughed at and disregarded, the Lord will lead you, comfort you, anoint your head, and fill your cup.

And even if enemies fight and assail you, in the depths of your being, no weapon formed against you will ever prosper, because we are more than winners—more than conquerors. You are a blessed and beloved heir to heaven’s promises through the grace of Jesus Christ.

And that is why we can call a message about a misappropriated quote and a formerly blind man Good News for all people.

Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.

March 20, 2017

From the Well

Jesus loves, ministers to, cares for, welcomes, breaks bread with, and respects the innate dignity of outsiders. The poor, the sick, people with bad reputations, religious and social outcasts—in the New Testament we see Jesus going to people whose neighbors rejected them with gracious Good News of hope, healing, new life, and salvation.

Today’s scripture lesson from John’s 4th chapter illustrates this gospel truth beautifully.

Jesus was on the move. He had entered Samaria, the home to a people who looked like and believed like Jews on almost every point. But as is so often the case in what are essentially family disputes, the few points of contrast between Samaritans and Jews had, in the minds of many, created an impregnable barrier.

Samaritans and Jews weren’t supposed to interact with one another—a social convention that sets the stage for Jesus’ barrier breaking actions. So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.

A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, ‘Give me a drink’. (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’ (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.)

The barrier that said Jews couldn’t talk to Samaritans—Jesus tore it down by being honest about his own needs. He was thirsty.

[He] answered her, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink”, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?’ Jesus said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’

The barrier that said God’s grace is only offered to a select few—Jesus tore it down with Good News—“ask, and you will receive living water.”
Jesus said to her, ‘Go, call your husband, and come back.’ The woman answered him, ‘I have no husband.’ Jesus said to her, ‘You are right in saying, “I have no husband”; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, I see that you are a prophet.
The barrier that said holy people should judge, shun, and reject people they’ve deemed of questionable moral fiber—Jesus tore it down by inviting the woman to see that in the presence of true holiness we can all be honest about where we’ve been and the things we’ve been through.

Jesus was on the move, and barriers were coming down. One whose gender, religion, and past relationships pushed her to the fringes of acceptable society learned from Jesus that there was still a place for her near to the heart of God.

It’s in that place, created by grace, that we encounter God’s word today.

Jesus comes to us, just as he came to the woman at the well, with Good News of reconciliation and hope in his name.

He comes as one who knows our experiences on the margins, knows our weaknesses and failures.

He comes to move us in a new direction.

Jesus says, “The invitation to grace is for all people,” and people like us—people who have accepted that invitation—find our calling and purpose in this truth.

In his life, death, and resurrection Jesus sets us right with God. Through the living presence of his spirit in our hearts, Jesus empowers us to make things right in our community and with one another.

One of my favorite simple statements to describe the Christian life is “We are blessed to be a blessing.” It’s a statement distilled from God’s call to Abram in Genesis’ 12th chapter. We heard that story last week, but the teaching itself gives shape to the totality of our discipleship.

“We are blessed.”—this simple statement affirms that God has done something significant in our lives.

God has dealt graciously with us.

God loves us.

God is invested in us.

God has blessed us, and blessings produce a calling.

“We are blessed to be a blessing.”—this affirms that a blessing must be shared to be truly received, and while each one of us should consider the unique blessings of God in our lives—your spiritual gifts, talents, treasures, desires—there is a blessing and purpose shared by all people to whom the Christ has come—reconciliation.

We are blessed to be a blessing.

We are reconciled to God to be agents of reconciliation in the world.

God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us…For if while we where enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.
That’s how Paul put it in his letter to the Romans, or, on another occasion, as he encouraged the Corinthians.
From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view... So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ.
We are blessed to be a blessing—reconciled to be God’s agents and Christ’s ambassadors for reconciliation.

This is the truth about why we Pass the Peace every Sunday morning during worship. In that ritual, we give flesh and action to a sublime thought—the idea that the news of God’s love for us is so liberating, so transformational, so powerful, that it propels us to live peacefully and graciously with one another.

Think about that. Who will have their load lightened this week, who will feel their spirited lifted, who will be blessed because of the Good News you’ve heard here today?

The woman as the well knew the answer.

After she met Jesus, after he showed her that the walls that once surrounded her could no longer hold her, she knew exactly what to do.

She shared her blessing with her community.

Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, ‘He told me everything I have ever done.’ So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there for two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, ‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.’
The woman at the well knew that the barriers in her life had come down, and they could come down in her neighbors’ lives, too. She became an ambassador of Good News.

When Jesus sat down at Jacob’s well, he called us to get up and go to our neighbors, as well. As his disciples, therefore, we must live in the light he shines on all people.

We must leave the ways and walls of division behind and work with Jesus for the community he builds—the community where all are welcome, where the spirit and truth invigorate honest worship and humble hearts, where we drink from thirst quenching living waters of grace and invite others to do the same—“for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”

Thanks be to God. Amen.

March 13, 2017

Leave, Go, Be a Blessing

I vividly remember the first time I ever flew on a plane. I was seventeen years old. It was a hazy, hot, and humid July morning when I said good-bye to my mom and dad, handed the US Airways gate agent my ticket, and boarded a small turbo-prop plane bound from Louisville, Kentucky to O’Hare Airport in Chicago.

I remember the sound of the engines coming to life and the propellers spinning into action. (I remember being freaked out a little bit by those propellers.)

I remember being pressed against my seat as the plane took off and rose up over the Ohio River and southern Indiana.

I remember straining my neck to glimpse Lake Michigan and the skyline through the window as we approached our destination.

And I remember taking my second and third flights the very next day which carried me from Chicago to Dusseldorf, Germany where I began my four-week stay as a youth ambassador for peace through a program sponsored of Rotary International. It was one of the most important journeys I ever took.

That trip remains one of the defining events of my adolescence. As with the best of life’s adventures, though, the clearer my perspective of the event becomes, the better I understand that the physical act of going to a new and foreign place is only a small part, perhaps the least consequential part, of the actual journey I took that year.

Yes, I saw beautiful places—the Alps; Salzburg, Austria; the stunning Cathedral in Cologne.

Yes, I went to parties, and rode in a really fast car on the Autobahn, and talked about music and movies and America with other kids my age.

And, yes, I visited places with my host family that brought to life World War II era pictures from my textbooks—the site of Hitler’s failed Beer Hall Putsch; the concentration camp at Dachau.

But as incredible as those sites and experiences were, or was it because they were so incredible, so breathtaking, inspiring, disturbing, and heartbreaking, I have no doubt that going to Germany wasn’t the only journey I took that summer.

I was also making the journey of growing up—of becoming a little bit less like the kid I’d been and a little more like the adult I’d become.

I’m confident that had I not taken that trip, I would not have had the courage to leave my hometown for college in another state the following year.

I’m pretty sure that had I not taken that trip, I wouldn’t have been in a position to hear God calling to me ordained ministry when I did.

And I’m almost positive that I would’ve never been open to moving to New York City had I not taken the trip. On U2’s most recent album, Bono sings about how the music of the Ramones miraculously awakened him from his suburban teenage stupor in the 1970s. This trip did the same thing for me.

Are there journeys in your life about which you can say the same?

Have you had experiences in which the changes and growth taking place within your heart exceeded even the most beautiful or inspiring or challenging sites that your eyes beheld?

A memorable road trip, the first time you visited New York, the first time you left this country, the first time you came to this country—have you ever taken a journey that ultimately changed you, the way you looked at the world, and your understanding of how you fit into it?

This morning, a reading from Genesis introduces us to a man whose journey and subsequent transformation rests at the heart of the biblical narrative. Indeed, it’s fair to say that his was one of the most important and consequential journeys in all of human history. This is the story of Abram.

The LORD had said to Abram, “Leave your native country, your relatives, and your father’s family, and go to the land that I will show you. I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make you famous, and you will be a blessing to others. I will bless those who bless you and curse those who treat you with contempt. All the families on earth will be blessed through you.”

So Abram departed as the LORD had instructed, and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he left Haran.

This is the beginning of Abram’s story as it is recorded in Genesis chapter 12. Actually, chapter 11 gives us just a little bit of background information that’s worth noting.

From Genesis 11, we learn that Abram’s family came from a placed called Ur—a prosperous city near the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Abram grew up in that city with two brothers. A man named Terah was their father. Abram married a woman in Ur named Sarai and one of his brothers died there.

Chapter 11 also tells us that there came a time when Terah decided to leave the city with his family for a distant land called Canaan. Historian Thomas Cahill notes that the people of Ur would have considered this a strange decision, “a migration in the wrong direction,” and maybe Terah had second thoughts about the move, too. The scripture says the family stopped short of Canaan and settled in a place called Haran, where Terah died.

When his father died, Abram’s life was at a crossroad. In one direction lay the life that he’d left behind, his hometown, and his extended family. In the other direction lay the conclusion of the family’s unfinished journey.

And the Lord said, “Go on to the land that you don’t know with faith that I do know it.”

And the Lord said, “Go on to the place where you are a nobody with faith that you are somebody to me.”

And the Lord said, “Go on to be a blessing to others because you have been blessed by me.”

So Abram departed as the LORD had instructed, and [his nephew] Lot went with him.
Abram would go on to see and experience amazing things. On his journey he would see lives lifted up, lives torn down, and lives spared by God’s merciful intervention.

He and his wife would gain new names—Abraham and Sarah—and they would become parents.

Abraham would do great things.

Abraham would do terrible things.

And Abraham would do holy things that bore witness to his covenant relationship with God.

Abraham went on a journey with God and that journey changed him.

Saint Paul teaches us that that same journey can change us, too.

No, not a journey to a physical place, but a journey of inner transformation, the journey charted by faith in the Living God who calls us by name.

Disciples of Jesus Christ understand that God invites us to go forward in faith on the trail of transformation that Abraham blazed.

“Abraham is the father of all who believe,” writes Paul.

Abraham moved on from the crossroad of his life, not a perfect man, but as a person of faith.

“This happened,” notes Paul, “because Abraham believed in the God who brings the dead back to life and who brings into existence what didn’t exist before.”

Disciples of Jesus Christ understand when we go forward with God we will be forever changed.

You and I are no strangers to crossroads. We face them in our careers, in our families, in moments that test us and challenge us and reveal our most closely held convictions. With my upcoming move to another church and Pastor Stefanie’s appointment here, this spring we even stand at a crossroads together as a congregation.

And being in this situation always increases our anxiety.

Standing at a crossroads always brings to mind the memories of the paths that brought us here and stirs in us questions about how things will be different when we move on in a new direction.

We know what it’s like to stand at the crossroads between what we’ve known and what remains a mystery.

That’s why we receive the Word of God as Good News today.

Wherever you stand this morning, hear this.

“Go on,” says the Lord, “to the future that you don’t know with faith that I do know it.”

“Go on,” says the Lord, “even to the place where you are a nobody with faith that you are somebody to me.”

“Go on,” says the Lord, “to be a blessing to others because you have been blessed by me.”

Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.

March 9, 2017

Create in Me

Few people capture the imagination of Old Testament readers like King David. When he first came on to the scene, he gave hope to underdogs everywhere by bringing down Goliath, the ultimate one man wreaking crew. Although he was a youngest son, God chose him to be king. And when he ascended to the throne he proved to be an able and faithful ruler.

Under David’s authority, God’s people prospered. Their borders grew. David even redrew the map by establishing Jerusalem by Israel’s capital. And along the way, he wrote and inspired some of the world’s most treasured words of hope and assurance.

Psalm 23—“The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.”

Psalm 40—“I waited patiently for the LORD; he inclined and heard my cry.”

Psalm 103—“Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me.”

Psalm 141—“I call upon you, O LORD; come quickly to me; give ear to my voice when I call to you.”

David’s life is an inspiration. His importance is undeniable.

Maybe that’s why we’re still talking about his greatest personal failure some three thousand years later.

David and Bathsheba—two lives forever joined by one man’s arrogance.

The 11th chapter of Second Samuel lays out the disturbing story. With his army at war, David was enjoying an afternoon in the sun on the palace roof when he saw Bathsheba, the beautiful wife of one of his generals, bathing nearby.

The king sent for her, he had sex with her, and Bathsheba became pregnant.

And then David used the same creative mind he used to write songs for God, to save himself—regardless of the cost.

As soon as Bathsheba told David that she was pregnant, he called her husband, Uriah, home from the front line hoping that a baby born nine month after a soldier’s homecoming would raise few eyebrows. But Uriah was so honorable that he refused to sleep under his own roof while his men were fighting. Even after David got Uriah drunk, the general still wouldn’t go home to his wife.

So David had to make a decision. He could come clean about what he had done, or he could simply eliminate the problem. David chose the latter.

He sent Uriah back to the front line. He also sent orders to another general to abandon Uriah once the fighting became most fierce, and Bathsheba’s husband was killed in battle.

The scripture tells us that soon after all this took place God sent the Prophet Nathan to talk with the king. And in that encounter with someone who had been inspired and equipped by God to speak the truth to power, to speak the truth to someone who was waist deep in a bloody conspiracy, David got called out.

He had become the man he did not want to be.

He had turned his back to God.

It’s said that Psalm 51 was David’s first step back toward the light.

Have mercy on me, O God, because of your unfailing love.

Because of your great compassion, blot out the stain of my sins.

Wash me clean from my guilt. Purify me from my sin.

For I recognize my rebellion; it haunts me day and night.

Confronted with the truth about himself, David chose to face up to reality rather than doubling down on denial. And David’s reality was that of a man who had made a complete mess of his life and caused harm and destruction in the lives of others.

“Blot out the stain of my sin,” he says.

Nathan’s ministry confronted David with the truth about what he had done, but the prophet also centered David in the truth about who God was.

The tension between David’s sin and God’s mercy, therefore, not only gives Psalm 51 its life, but extends to us an invitation to enter the space in which

Good News transforms brokenness to healing and violent division into wholeness and peace. Purify me from my sins, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow...

Create in me a clean heart, O God. Renew a loyal spirit within me.

Do not banish me from your presence, and don’t take your Holy Spirit from me.

Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and make me willing to obey you.

As we begin this season of repentance, we’d do well to consider the significance of David’s prayer.

Create in me a clean heart, O God. Renew a loyal spirit within me.

These are the words of one who had seen the futility of giving in to arrogance and pride, of one who had seen that when a heart is consumed by conquest and bending people to its will, rather than being in the will of God, that heart becomes broken, that life, a distortion of its God given potential.

When he heard the Word of God, David recognized that he was not where he needed to be.

It’s a basic building block of Christian faith that the Word of God—the word made flesh in Jesus—still has the power to shine a light into the darkness of our lives and reveal the ways in which we’re still bound by the chains of sin.

The Word also has the power to set us free and point us in the right direction.

That’s exactly what happened in David’s life.

David had any number of vices and pleasures at his fingertips to try and fill the void in his heart. He could have tried to ease his conscience by trusting in his wealth to buy his way to a better life. He could have trusted in his power to make people do what he wanted. He could have lined up sycophants to tell him how great he was. He could have had a lot of sex. Basically, the same voices that clog our inbox’s spam filters were whispering in King David’s ear, but he charted a different course.

He realized that none of these things, that nothing at all in his power could make him right again. David needed God to bring about an inward change, and so do we.

We need to pray, “Create in me a clean heart, O God. Renew a loyal spirit within me.”

You see, every year in these weeks leading up to Easter, the Church—that is the faithful brothers and sisters who have gone before us in worship, in prayer, and in service—every year during Lent, the Church invites us to hear the great invitation of the scripture and to respond to that message with an honest confession of sin and a humble submission to God’s transforming grace.

“Repent—turn around—and prepare the way of the Lord. Get your heart, get your house ready, to receive Jesus in a new and powerful way.”

Every year in these weeks leading up to Easter, we can do one of three things with this invitation.

We can ignore it and continue on our own way. “No, thanks, God. I’ve got this thing called life pretty much taken care of.”

We can accept it, but only on our terms, saying, “Sure, I’ll get my ashes. I’ll give up something, but I’d prefer if you not go digging too deeply into my life, God.”

Or we can say, “Here I am, God, and I know that I am not where I need to be. Change my heart, fill me with something new, move me in a new direction. Draw me closer to you. Make me a better friend, a better spouse, a better disciple. Have mercy on me. Wash me. Restore me….Create in me a clean heart, and let the work begin today!”

I pray that we’ll choose wisely and faithfully.

I pray that God will change our hearts.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

February 13, 2017

Heard It

On the night of his betrayal and arrest, Jesus gathered his disciples together and said,
I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciple, if you have love for one another.
The church reads these words every year on the Thursday evening of Holy Week, a day often called Maundy Thursday, a title derived from the same Latin root as the English word “mandate.” In essence, the church regards the commemoration of Jesus’ last night with his disciples as “New Mandate or New Commandment Thursday.”

There’s only one problem with this designation. The commandment to love really wasn’t a new one.

“That sounds awfully familiar, Jesus,” one of the disciples must have been tempted to say. “Are you sure we haven’t heard that one before?”

Well, of course, they had.

Repeated commandments to love give life and vitality to the Law of Moses and the traditions of Israel in which the disciples had been raised.

There’s Leviticus 19:18, for example, which reads, “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

There’s Deuteronomy 10, as well, a passage that first describes God as the One “who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers,” then commands the people to “also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

In fact, this idea that there’s a direct connection between the faithful’s experience of God’s love and the expectation that they love neighbors, and strangers, and others well, is the bedrock on which biblical notions of discipleship, faithfulness, and ethics stand.

Prophets, like Micah, made this clear.

Reminding the people that God broke their bonds of slavery and gave them Moses and a Law to set them free, Micah pointed them to the only appropriate response.

With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high?

Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?

Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil?

Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

We are loved by God and empowered to love others in God’s name. In Jesus’ day, this was already an ancient teaching and territory he had covered with his disciples.

Remember when a Pharisee tried to stump him.

“Teacher,” he asked, “which commandment in the law in the greatest?”

[Jesus] said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

So what was Jesus up to on that last night with his friends?

Love one another, a new commandment?

What was he getting at?

I think the Sermon on the Mount helps us understand more clearly our mandate.

This morning we’ve read a section of Jesus’ most famous sermon in which he sets his teachings over and against the law in a series of “You have heard it said, but I say” statements.

“You have heard it said ‘You shall not murder,’ but I say that if you are angry with a brother or sister or insult them you will be liable to judgement.”

“You have heard it said ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ but I say everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery.”

“You have heard it said ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’ but I say if someone strikes you on the cheek, turn the other cheek to them as well.”

There’s no doubt that Jesus hoped this riff would inspire the people to elevate their actions, attitudes, and their imaginations. We do well to appreciate that while there’s no evidence he ever required any of his followers to pluck out a wandering eye or lop off an offending hand, Jesus did push his disciples to be more than a community that kept the letter of the law. He wanted them to embody the law’s spirit and highest ideals. He wanted them to be a sign of God’s beloved community, even in the midst of a broken world.

Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon describe Jesus’ intent like this,

In Matthew 5, Jesus repeatedly cites an older command, already tough enough to keep in itself, and then radically deepens its significance, not to lay some gigantic ethical burden on the backs of potential ethical heroes, but to illustrate what is happening in our midst. This instance is not a law from which deductions can be casuistically drawn; rather, it is an imaginative metaphor, which hopes to produce a shock within our imaginations so that the hearer comes to see his or her life in a radical new way. (Resident Aliens, p. 84)
The shocking reality about the radical new way Jesus wants us to live is that it is inseparable from the shocking reality about who God is and what God does.

Yesterday, February 11, marked the 27th anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison after serving 27 years for protesting South Africa’s racist policy of apartheid. Mandela went on to become his nation’s first black president and one of the world’s most respected leaders. He was also a Christian whose experience of tremendous suffering because of cruel policies that were often supported and carried out by other believers not only showed him the truth about God, but also the truth about how we should live.

Mandela articulated this truth in remarks he delivered at an Easter conference in 1994 where the prisoner-turned-politician put of the mantle of a preacher.

Mandela said,

Each Easter marks the rebirth of our faith. It marks the victory of our risen Saviour over the torture of the cross and the grave...

Our Messiah, born like an outcast in a stable, and executed like criminal on the cross.

Our Messiah, whose life bears testimony to the truth that there is no shame in poverty: Those who should be ashamed are they who impoverish others.

Whose life testifies to the truth that there is no shame in being persecuted: Those who should be ashamed are they who persecute others.

Whose life proclaims the truth that there is no shame in being conquered: Those who should be ashamed are they who conquer others.

Whose life testifies to the truth that there is no shame in being dispossessed: Those who should be ashamed are they who dispossess others.

Whose life testifies to the truth that there is no shame in being oppressed: Those who should be ashamed are they who oppress others.

The shocking reality about the radical new way Jesus wants us to live is that it is inseparable from the shocking reality about who God is and what God does.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus invites those who would follow him to center their lives in the character and abundance of God’s mercy and holiness. He isn’t interested—in this sermon or anywhere else—in teaching us how to do enough good things so that others will think of us as good people. He doesn’t want to teach us what’s the least that we can do and still go to heaven when we die. He isn’t interested in answering any question that’s based on the erroneous assumption that God’s blessings are in any way limited or scarce.

“Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness,” Jesus said, “and all these things (freedom from worry, freedom from want) shall be added unto you.”

Jesus wants us to encounter the expanse and power and beauty of God’s amazing grace, to know God’s grace is active in this world and present to all people, and to live our life together accordingly.

Or said another way,

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciple, if you have love for one another.
Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.

December 25, 2016

That They May Know (For Christmas)

After Matthew and Luke, it’s possible that Charles Dickens wrote the most famous Christmas story ever told.

In 1843, Charles Dickens wanted to draw attention to the reality of poverty and the incredible suffering it created among England’s people. Rather than write a political pamphlet about the subject, as was the custom in his day, Dickens chose instead to write a ghost story.

And what a ghost story it was!

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens is one of the most influential books of the last two hundred years.

Since it was first published, the tale of Ebenezer Scrooge’s transformation from nasty miser to generous friend has never been out of print.

Scrooge’s late night visits from the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come have been filmed, staged, and parodied innumerable times and continue to inspire would-be Scrooges to give more freely of themselves and their treasures.

A Christmas Carol’s impact on the holiday season—especially for English speaking Protestants—is without peer among stories not written by a canonized saint.

Dickens set out to shine a light on the poor, and that light did indeed shine brightly. In doing so, however, he also saved Christmas, too.

An article written by Laura Grande for History Magazine elaborates on this point and gives us a sense of the cultural tide A Christmas Carol ultimately turned. Grande writes,

During [the era in which Dickens lived and wrote], old medieval traditions, which were once used to celebrate the birth of Christ, were in a state of rapid decline. However, the disappearance of Christmas traditions was a long time coming, as England had long since stopped celebrating the holiday season on a yearly basis.
“The disappearance of Christmas traditions,” according to the author, was the legacy of Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan influence on culture—an influence that discouraged great feasts and traditional decorations among other festivities that were judged to be excessive, wasteful, or, Heaven forbid, too Catholic.

It’s worth noting, too, that Cromwell’s ideas exerted their sobering influence in this country, too. For example, there was a time when celebrating Christmas was illegal in Boston and Christmas Eve was a school night for kids in that city until 1870.

We know that similar ideas were present in our city as well, as on this night in 1806, in this very neighborhood, a group of New Yorkers tried to storm St. Peter’s Catholic Church on Barclay Street during the Christmas Eve Mass because of their suspicions about the holiday and their neighbors.

Grande concludes,

The outcome of Cromwell’s intense scrutiny of England’s holiday traditions resulted in an almost complete lack of observance of Christmas.
A Christmas Carol played a big part in altering this cultural trend.

The story’s simple moral message and sentimental images stirred something deep within the hearts of its readers.

It established “Merry Christmas!” as a common seasonal greeting.

It made charitable giving a fixture of Christmas celebrations.

And it gave Dickens’ audience permission to make this a time for frivolity and laughter and grand parties in addition to religious reflection and observance.

As one London newspaper put it with knowing hyperbole, Charles Dickens was “The Man Who Invented Christmas.”

Whether you know the story well or not, A Christmas Carol has more than likely shaped your expectations and experience of the holiday this year. It’s definitely shaped mine.

After seeing so many adaptations of the story through the years—and, thanks to my son, recently becoming familiar with the version starring the Smurfs—I actually read the book for the first time earlier this month as a part of a small group here at the church. Not surprisingly, I found several scenes and images among the pages that I don’t remember ever seeing on television or film. I thought one of those scenes, in particular, made a powerful statement about the Good News we share on this Holy Night, and I made a mark in my book as soon as I read it to share it with you now.

The scene occurs during Scrooge’s time with the Ghost of Christmas Present. There the spirit takes Scrooge to the home of his long-suffering employee, Bob Cratchit.

Now, by this point in the story it’s already established that Scrooge is a cruel man and an abusive boss.

Knowing that Cratchit works for Scrooge also lets us know that Cratchit must be very poor and have no prospects for improving his family’s situation.

Nevertheless, we find Bob to be a good man, a loving husband, and a doting father to all his kids, but especially to his son Tiny Tim.

Tiny Tim, one of the story’s most memorable characters, was terribly ill. His bones were weak and he walked with a crutch. One modern theory proposes that Dickens imagined the young character had rickets and tuberculosis as these were common ailments in London’s slums and were exacerbated by the conditions found there.

Although he leaves out a specific diagnosis, Dickens tells us that the boy is sick, but not beyond help.

The Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge a scene in the Cratchit house as Bob and Tim enter the front door. They’re returning from a church service.

As the other Cratchit kids hurry Tim away to wash up before dinner, Mrs. Cratchit asks Bob the question that parents always ask when their children have been out without them.

“How did he behave?”

“As good as gold,” said Bob, “and better. Somehow he gets thoughtful, sitting by himself so much, and thinks the strangest things you ever heard. He told me, coming home, that he hoped the people saw him in the church because he was a cripple, and it might pleasant them to remember upon Christmas Day who made lame beggars walk and blind men see.”
This is the scene that captured my attention line no other, because here, Tiny Tim expresses a desire to be nothing less than an icon and to draw others into the mystery and beauty of the Incarnation.

Tim hopes that his humble presence will bring others into the holy presence of Jesus—the One who makes the lame to walk and blind eyes to see.

He doesn’t want pity, but to point others to the One whose “grace is sufficient” and whose “power is made perfect in weakness.”

Tiny Tim is the foil to Scrooge’s greed—the child who leads us in the ways of selfless hope and genuine faith.

In this way, Tim give shapes to our worship this night.

Tiny Tim’s example asks of us an essential question.

Whose path will be more pleasant because of our presence and participation in what happens here this evening?

Whose spirits will be lifted because you stood up to sing of him who presence brings joy to the world?

Whose burden will become lighter because you possess the strength of a community that shares peace and practices reconciliation?

Who will receive a greater measure of life’s good things because you claimed your place at the Table where all are fed to overflowing with God’s goodness and mercy?

Who will find the courage to come out of the dark because of your testimony about the Light that you have seen and felt here tonight?

One hundred seventy three years ago, Charles Dickens wrote a ghost story that changed the way a culture celebrates Christmas. Tonight his story presents us with a timeless invitation—to point the way to Jesus Christ so that strangers and outcasts, the lonely and hurting, the forgotten and the vulnerable one among us may know that they are loved and valued by God, may know the Good News that the angels sang.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.
Thanks be to God for this Good News and may God bless us, everyone. Amen.