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.

September 5, 2016

Saint Paul's Ninth Symphony

Almost eighty years ago, cultural representatives, official delegations, and eager crowds from around the world descended on Paris, France for the 1937 International Exhibition. The Paris Expo was a celebration of modern life, a “showcase [of] the best of the world’s contemporary scientific and technological achievements.” Attendees were educated, wowed, and inspired by “pavilions…devoted to the cinema, to radio, light, the railway, flight, refrigeration, and printing.” Picasso even painted his famous mural Guernica for display in Spain’s exhibition space. (Source)

For Hitler’s government in Germany, though, the Expo was less a time of celebration and more an opportunity to assert Nazi superiority over all other cultures and people. Like the previous year’s Olympics in Berlin, Hitler wanted the Expo to showcase German strength, genius, and power. However, just as the African American Olympian Jesse Owens proved on the medal stand the folly of Hitler’s racist ideas, a simple act of defiance by a member of the German delegation in Paris embodied the unbreakable spirit and higher ideals that would ultimately cut short the Leader’s plans for a thousand year Reich.

It was a photo-op. The German delegation at the Expo assembled in front of the Arc de Triomphe to have their picture taken. Joseph Goebbels’ Propaganda Ministry planned to use the photo to further their agenda, so when the photographer fired the camera everyone was to do their duty and extend their right arm in the infamous “Heil Hitler” Nazi salute. And that’s what everyone did, everyone except Wilhelm Furtwängler. When Goebbels reviewed the photograph he saw that Furtwängler, the principle conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic and one of the greatest artists of the 20th century, was noticeably not participating in the proscribed act of tribute. Rather than publishing the photo, Goebbels suppressed it.

The Paris photo-op wasn’t the first time Furtwängler infuriated the Nazis. He had previously called Hitler a “hissing street peddler” and “an enemy of the human race.” He refused to conduct the Nazi Party anthem and he had, on occasion, refused to take a stage under the swastika flag. Most importantly, Furtwängler refused to marginalize Jewish composers and performers and worked to save many from the Nazi’s fury.

His open defiance led some officials to consider sending him to a concentration camp, but the artist’s notoriety provided him with some security against the regime’s most severe machinations. This privileged—although not exactly secure—position coupled with the conductor’s sense of calling to defend Germany’s great musical tradition against Nazi encroachment, inspired Furtwängler to stay in Germany throughout the Second World War.

It was a decision that didn’t come without cost.

The Nazis seized on Furtwängler’s decision to stay as an opportunity to co-opt his talents for their purposes, whether he approved of their efforts or not. If he continued to play in Germany, then the government would hold him up as an example of their cultural superiority, even though he considered the government to be rubbish.

There’s a famous film clip that embodies this dynamic. You can watch it on YouTube.

In the clip, we see and hear a stunning performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. After the music, applause fills the hall and Goebbels emerges from the crowd to shake Furtwängler’s hand.

What a great people! What a great culture! What a great tradition!

That’s what the Nazi’s wanted the world to see.

When Goebbels returned to his seat, though, and as the ovation continued, the camera captured Furtwängler using his handkerchief to wipe clean his hand of the Nazi minister’s stink.

Nevertheless, because Furtwängler never fled Nazi Germany and because he did conduct concerts for Nazi officials, at the war’s end, the U.S military forced him to participate in the formal and legal process of denazification.

Denazification would judge Furtwängler’s participation in the Reich and, if necessary, determine an appropriate punishment, which could include work sanctions, a fine, imprisonment, or even death.

During the proceedings several people came to the conductor’s defense. Jewish artists testified that Furtwängler’s assistance saved their lives. When the prosecution asked if he ever helped any Jews who weren’t well-known artists, people in the gallery began shouting the names of ordinary people who fit that description.

Evidence showed that he was never a Nazi and, in fact, had been a thorn in their side. In the end, however, words Furtwängler spoke in his own defense became the trial’s most powerful moment.

Why did he stay in Germany and,in essence, bless the country ruled by the Nazis with his artistic brilliance?

That was the burning question.

To this, Furtwängler responded,

The concern that my art was misused for propaganda had to yield to the greater concern that German music be preserved, that music be given to the German people by its own musicians. These people, the compatriots of Bach and Beethoven, of Mozart and Schubert, still had to go on living under the control of a regime obsessed with total war. No one who did not live here himself in those days can possibly judge what it was like. Does Thomas Mann [the German writer who was critical of Furtwängler's actions] really believe that in 'the Germany of Himmler' one should not be permitted to play Beethoven?
This was, in fact, a real criticism—that playing Beethoven in Germany during the war was a damnable example of casting pearls before swine.
Does Thomas Mann really believe that in 'the Germany of Himmler' one should not be permitted to play Beethoven? Could he not realize that people never needed more, never yearned more to hear Beethoven and his message of freedom and human love, than precisely these Germans, who had to live under Himmler’s terror? I do not regret having stayed with them.
The court cleared Furtwängler of all charges.

Furtwängler’s post-war trial reminds me of a common reaction to Saint Paul’s letter to a man named Philemon.

In that letter, which we’ve read this morning, Paul writes to a Christian named Philemon on behalf of a runaway slave named Onesimus, who, it seems, had recently become a believer, too.

Philemon was Onesimus’ master and the Roman Empire gave him incredible powers to determine his slave’s fate.

Paul writes,

I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment…I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced. Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back for ever, no longer as a slave but as more than a slave, a beloved brother...
Paul goes on to tell Philemon that the master should welcome the slave’s return as he would welcome the apostle himself, a remarkable request given that Philemon would’ve been within his legal rights to have Onesimus killed for his transgressions.

In fact, in what I think is one of the letter’s most significant verses, Paul even tells Philemon to go ahead and prepare a guest room because he intends to visit as soon as he is able—the implication being that Paul will come and see for himself whether or not Philemon has embraced his new brother in Christ.

To me, it seems clear that Paul isn’t giving his audience much wiggle room. He believes that the Gospel has fundamentally changed all relationships—including the relationship between Onesimus and Philemon. Brotherly love, therefore, with no hint of division or dominance or violence should be the Church’s witness.

Many readers are critical of Paul’s letter, however, for not going far enough. Pro-slavery propagandists throughout the ages have indeed used the book to make their case, and abolitionists have responded accordingly.

Why didn’t Paul condemn slavery as an institution, they say.

Someone in his position could’ve done more, they say.

Beethoven should not have been played in Nazi Germany and reconciliation should not have been preached to Philemon’s church, they say.

But I disagree with the propagandists and Paul’s critics.

Far from approving any form of exploitation, I think this letter is the practical and real world application of Paul’s most lofty rhetoric and highest ideals.

“So if anyone is in Christ,” he declared, “there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”

Individuals, personal relationships, power structures, and social hierarchies—the presence of the Risen Christ among believers must transform these from the bottom up and from the inside out.

Yes, if Paul could’ve cured humanity’s propensity for cruelty and exploitation with one sermon, then I think we’d be justified in criticizing him for not doing it.

Likewise, if Furtwängler could’ve ended the Holocaust with one performance, we would curse his inaction.

But they weren’t in those positions.

The best that they could do was to take the measure of their talent, abilities, and privileges and to employ those things in the service of noble and godly ends.

The best that any of us can do—and for that matter, all that God asks of us—is to take the measure of our talent, abilities, and privileges and to employ those things in the service of noble and godly ends.

Beloved of God, when we are confronted by suffering and sorrow, sadness and savagery—when we find ourselves in positions and circumstances that we would never choose—discouragement and feeling insignificant have always been temptations, but the testimony of the faithful has always been that if we are in Jesus Christ, then no weapon formed against us shall prosper and we will walk in the light as he is in the light.

If we are in Jesus Christ—if his grace is renewing us in his image—then we have what we need to punch against the darkness, to shame the ugliness of sin with the beauty of our lives, to forge the tools of peace from melted hearts once given to violence.

If we are in Jesus Christ then we are a new creation and we have what we need to live faithfully and to love boldly.

Long ago, the apostle Paul wrote these words to a Christian named Philemon,

When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith towards the Lord Jesus. I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ.
The saints are still praying for us. May we, then, be blessed to perceive all the good that we may do for Christ and his children in the world God so dearly loves.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

August 23, 2016

Monday and Wednesday Night Classes Begin after Labor Day

John Street Church's Monday Night Bible Study and Wednesday Night Round Table begin a new season after Labor Day. Both groups are open to all people and meet in the Wesley Chapel Museum on the church's lower level. No previous experience with bible study or church discussion groups is necessary.

Unearth Methodist Bedrock Beginning September 7

Jason will lead an examination of one of the Methodist movement's most important teachings on Wednesday nights this fall.

John Wesley's convictions about Christian perfection or entire sanctification fueled the growth of Methodist communities in the 18th century and gave rise to the tradition's dual emphasis on personal piety and social holiness. In essence, this teaching addresses the reasons for and the practical application of our aim to love God and our neighbors more perfectly throughout our lives.

Beginning September 7, Jason's group will meet Wednesday nights at 7:00pm throughout the fall.

A text book, A Perfect Love by Steven Manskar, can be purchased through Upper Room Books.

Bible Study Explores the Exodus

Beginning September 12, participants in the Monday Night Bible Study will discuss the Book of Exodus.

Recounting the life of Moses and the ancient Israelites' liberation from slavery in Egypt, Exodus is both memorable and powerful. Addressing topics like injustice, temptation, courage, and faith, the book is also incredibly relevant and useful for the contemporary Church.

Weekly sessions of the Monday Night Bible Study begin with dinner at 6:30pm. The time for prayer and study begins at 7:00pm and concludes at 8:15pm.

August 1, 2016

True Riches

This is a sermon about greed and sermons about greed are tricky.

While greed is something that we all recognize as antithetical to the Gospel, it’s difficult to recognize greed’s hold on our hearts.

Greedy is a way to describe someone else, someone who is probably a lot richer than us.

Oh sure, we like our stuff, but we’re not greedy.

This is a sermon about greed and the way in which Jesus invites us to overcome it.

In Luke’s 12th chapter, a man in the crowd approached Jesus in the hopes that he could help the man resolve a family quarrel.

“Rabbi,” the man said, “tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.”

Rather than give the man a direct response, however, Jesus, as he often did, took the question with which he was presented as an invitation to point his listeners to a deeper truth about holy living.

Speaking so that the whole crowd could hear him, Jesus said, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”

Then Jesus told them a story about a rich man who worried about what he would do with all his stuff, only to die before he could do anything with it.

“So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

For all the esoteric parables Jesus told that left even his closest disciples scratching their heads, this reads like a cliché.

“You can’t take it with you.”

“Some things aren’t for sale.”

“Tomorrow isn’t guaranteed.”

At first glance, this passage of scripture seems easily reduced to slogans such as these. It’s so simple, so straight-forward.

Jesus’ parable, however, leads his audience—including you and me—to an interesting and thought-provoking place.

It’s the parable’s closing words that catch our attention this morning.

So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.

Storing up treasures for ourselves is something we understand, but what does it mean to be rich toward God?

How does a concept as intimately woven into our understanding of the material world as “being rich” relate to our relationship with the Eternal Uncreated One, maker of all things, visible and invisible?

For our purposes today, I’d like to get at this aspect of Jesus’ teaching by looking at how some of the habits and practices we associate with being rich in material things can enlighten our understanding of Christian discipleship. Obviously, this won’t an exhaustive list of such characteristics.

I came up with three, because I’m a preacher and that’s what we do, but I hope that you’ll come up with more.

So, then, here are three things to help us understand what it means to be rich toward God.

First, to be rich toward God is to experience the Divine Presence in our lives as a source of security and confidence.

Wealth provides the rich a cushion with which to absorb the blows of life’s unexpected twists. This isn’t to say that tragedy doesn’t darken the halls of penthouses and palaces, but, in life’s most difficult seasons, the rich can draw upon their assets and savings to carry them through to better days.

Look, anyone can lose their job, but the family with a healthy bank account and real estate portfolio has the potential to experience unemployment very differently than the family living paycheck to paycheck.

In a similar way, faithful hearts draw upon the abundance of God’s mercy and grace to endure; even to thrive, in difficult times.

Ours is the “peace that passes all understanding,” the promise of living water that will never leave us thirsty, and the blessing of “daily bread.”

“Fear not,” said Jesus, “for it is your Father’s pleasure to give you the kingdom…an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.”

Being rich toward God must mean abiding in God’s presence and enduring life’s challenges with the confidence that “all I have needed, Thy hand hath provided.”

But being rich toward God must also mean that we have an investment strategy for making the love of God more tangible and incarnate in our community.

I suppose there’s a fortune out there somewhere built by a family that earned a wage and kept all their money under their mattress, but most fortunes grow by investing. Likewise, I suppose there’s someone out there somewhere who came to church one day, heard a decent sermon, sang a song and prayed a prayer and was completely filled with love for God and their neighbors, but most of us need time and discipline and a great deal of help to become so holy.

To get to where we want to be, we need to invest our time and our talents, our best effort and our heart’s desire in the ways of God—bringing Good News to the poor, healing the sick, binding up the broken, and loving the lost.

“Stop asking God to bless what you're doing,” said Bono. Instead of that “find out what God's doing. It's already blessed.”

We worship in a neighborhood—the Financial District--that is synonymous with the ability of people to assess what’s going on in the world and then to determine where in the world there is money to be made.

The measure of our faithfulness as a church, however, is our ability to assess what’s going on in the world, and then to determine where God is leading us to share grace, to shine Love’s light, and to work out our own salvation.

The richest disciples, as Jesus used the term, are those who invest in their neighbors and the God who loves them.

To be rich toward God is to experience the Divine Presence in our lives as a source of security and confidence.

To be rich toward God is to have an investment strategy for making the love of God more tangible and incarnate in our community.

To be rich toward God, finally, is to own our responsibility to be wise and faithful stewards of all that we have and all that we are to the glory of God and for the common good.

In the economy of Scripture, the believer truly receives a blessing from God when he or she shares a blessing with another. Jesus, for example, taught us to pray for forgiveness and for the capacity to forgive others and St. Paul believed the diversity of gifts given by God was meant to enhance the life we all share together.

Reflecting on this biblical witness, John Wesley summarized our responsibility, saying,

Employ whatever God has entrusted you with in doing good, all possible good, in every possible kind and degree, to the household of faith, to all men….Give all ye have, as well as all [you] are, a spiritual sacrifice to him who withheld not from you his Son, his only Son.
Do you have money, time, talent, or energy?

Use them to do good, all possible good, in every possible kind and degree.

Invest these things in God’s Kingdom.

And abide in God’s loving presence, confident that you are loved, you are blessed, you are a child of God, an heir to heaven’s treasure.

Do this and discover just how rich you truly are.

Do this, and know the Gospel message of Good News for all people.

Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.

July 27, 2016

Imagine That!

Imagination is one of the greatest forces for change at work in the world today.

No less of a thinker than Albert Einstein said,

Imagination is more important than knowledge. For while knowledge defines all we currently know and understand, imagination points to all we might yet discover and create.
Regardless of one’s profession of daily routine, imagination is at the heart of innovation, creativity, and improvement.

An inventor imagines a machine that will accomplish a familiar job at half the cost and twice the speed. An ad exec imagines a campaign that will help her client reach previously untapped markets.

A musician sits at a silent piano and imagines a symphony in his mind.

An athlete imagines how a play will unfold so that she’ll be prepared to be in the right place ay just the right time.

It doesn’t matter if you work on Wall Street or Main Street, John Street or Broadway, imagination is vital. Imagination can change a point of view or landscape. Imagination can change the world.

Imagination helps children develop. It helps the troubled soul pursue a new and better say of being. Imagination shines the light of justice into an unjust situation. Imagination is a revolutionary force within each and every one of us.

You see, we’re not talking about some flight of fancy here. We’re talking about the ability to press beyond the limited thinking of “the way things are” and “the ways things have always been” in order to experience life more deeply.

Is it any wonder, then, why some people are so threatened by imagination?

Dictators and tyrants always try to control what their people are thinking, lest the tenuousness of their grip on power be exposed.

False prophets and charlatans always aim to suppress thoughts and ideas that aren’t their own.

Even in our time and place, there are countless voices and forces of the status quo determined to keep us from engaging questions and concerns with a creative and imaginative spirit.

What’s so interesting about our circumstances, however, is that they perfectly prepare us to hear Good News in Saint Paul’s Letter to the Colossians.

There were forces that wanted to keep the Colossians in line, too, the brutal and seductive powers of the Roman Empire.

Historians remind us that Rome’s objective was very clear—hold on to power through any means necessary. Bribe the people, entertain the people, crush the people, or destroy the people—Rome’s intentions were clear. Limit the options available to the people so severely, that all choices benefited the Empire.

Think of it like living your life in a casino. You might have some good moments, but, in the end, the House always wins.

A powerful Empire intends to create an environment in which it ultimately benefits from all acceptable choices.

A spirit, a vision, a savior had taken hold of Paul, however, that just wouldn’t let him accept that Rome’s approved options were the only options available to him. Paul knew that there was another power at work in the world, the Power in whom the hopes and dreams of all people rests.

Colossians is a meditation on that Power.

Listen, again, to this passage from the letter’s opening verses that we read in worship a few weeks ago.

Recalling the moment he learned that the Gospel of Jesus Christ had reached the Colossians, Paul wrote,

For this reason, since the day we heard it, we have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God.
The implication is that the new believers could expect the forces of wickedness to challenge their budding faith and to tempt them to go astray.

In light of this, Paul continued,

May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
Paul wanted the people who were living in the shadow of Rome to imagine another way of living rather than the one being pushed upon them from every direction.

There was another way to find peace rather than simply crushing your enemies.

There was another way to have a good life rather than exploiting your neighbors.

There was a real God whose image you wouldn’t be forced to worship, but in whose image you were truly created.

For in [Jesus Christ] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
In the face of an imposing, seductive, violent power our spiritual ancestors had the courage and faith to see an ever greater power at work in the world and reigning in their hearts, a power that set them free—free from the bondage of imagination stomping oppression—free to realize that with God’s help, the way it was not the way it had to be. Those first Christians could imagine a community in which old barriers of race and ethnicity and economics came tumbling down, a community where people cared for one another, a community committed to justice and reconciliation.

They also had the courage to take concrete steps toward making that image their reality.

Today, you and I come together as the heirs to the promise of the community called Church that they built so long ago to build our lives on the same foundation of God’s grace.

Like them, we need to hear the Gospel of God’s love and power made known in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Like them, we need the God-given imagination to envision relationships and communities and a world in which, as we pray every Sunday, God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.

And like faithful disciples in every age, we need courage and creativity to step out of line and into the light, to love other as God loves us, to see the world through Jesus’ eyes, that we might be for the world his kind hands—“for in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”

And that is why we call the Gospel he gave us to share, Good News for all people.

Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.

July 18, 2016


Despite the fact that I come from a long line of farmers, I struggle to pick up even a decent piece of fruit at the supermarket. However, growing up where and how I did taught me enough about the work of farmers to know that in all seasons timing is of the essence.

The timing of spring rain, summer droughts, and the fall’s first frost can make the difference between bounteous and lean crops.

The preferred window of time to plant at one time of year and to reap at another might require round the clock work in the fields.

Depending on when it comes during the season, farmers might receive a heavy storm as a blessing, an inconvenience, or a disaster.

Timing is of the essence.

Of course, we who merely enjoy the fruit of the farmers’ fields know this to be true, too. The apple in your kitchen that is crisp and tasty today will be mealy and gross in a couple of days. Given a little more time, the avocados that would make perfect guacamole this afternoon will be brown, disgusting, and inedible.

From the planting of the seed and the blooming of the first blossom to picking the fruit and eating it, timing is everything.

Grasping the importance of timing is fundamental to understanding the prophet Amos’ vision of a basket of summer fruit.

Amos declared,

This is what the Lord GOD showed me—a basket of summer fruit. He said, “Amos, what do you see?” And I said, “A basket of summer fruit.”
God showed Amos a basket of fruit, but what did the vision mean?

Would there be a feast, a celebration?

Was the kingdom about to enter a great season of prosperity and wealth?

God began to explain Amos’ vision.

Then the LORD said to me, The end has come upon my people Israel; I will never again pass them by.
The summer fruit isn’t a vision on prosperity because the time to enjoy the fruit has past. It’s no good anymore.

Amos’ vision, therefore, proves to be the introduction to a scathing indictment against God’s people for the wickedness they’d allowed to take root in their lives.

Let’s look again at our first lesson.

“Be silent!” God said.

The image here reminds me of a judge calling a defendant to attention so that the charges can be recounted and a sentence delivered. The defendant in this case is the Kingdom of Israel.

“Be silent” and listen to the three charges against you.

The first count of the indictment,

Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land, saying, “When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the Sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale?
The “new moon” and “Sabbath” were holy days of rest and worship. The first charge, therefore, is religious hypocrisy.

This refers to those who keep up the appearance of religion—they mark the holy days—but they know nothing of religion’s spirit. This is a charge against those who never turn their hearts toward God nor turn off their drive and hunger for the next day’s profit.

“You’re greedy hypocrites,” says the Lord.

That’s the first count of the indictment against the people.

The second count reads like this.

Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land, saying, “We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances.”
The “ephah” and “shekel” were units of measurement in Israel’s marketplaces, so the second charge is conspiring to cheat one’s customers, of literally rigging the scales against them—like a market that overcharges you for your lunchtime salad.
“Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring ruin to the poor of the land,” you greedy hypocrites, you cheaters and frauds. Hear God’s third charge against you. You say, “We will…[buy] the poor for silver and needy for a pair of sandals.”
A greedy heart is bad enough and cheating in business is criminal, but the third charge against the people hints at something atrocious in their community—debt slavery—a whole system corrupted and twisted so as to ensure that the poorest and most vulnerable were seen only as a source of cheap labor that could be exploited for the profit of others.

Do you sense the depravity of the situation in which Amos found himself?

Do you recognize the hypocrisy of a community whose members could pay lip service to God (the God of their own deliverance from bondage), yet still conspire to profit from human trafficking?

The Judge reviewed the charges (Greed, Cheating, Buying and Selling the Poor) and delivered the Kingdom’s sentence with a roar.

Surely I will never forget any of their deeds...The time is surely coming, says the Lord GOD, when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD.
And, indeed, that day came in the form of an invading army. Within the lifetime of Amos’ audience, the Assyria army conquered Israel, or the northern portion of King David’s once united empire, and removed it from the map forever.

Such was the substance and aftermath of the ancient prophet’s sermon about summer fruit.

But what are we to do with Amos’ words today?

Surely, we must confess that dishonest practices that exploit the poor—like the injustices Amos enumerates—remain offensive to God.

God still cares about greed, and cheating, and the sick dehumanizing conditions in which these practices force people to live.

And from young women traded for sex to workers forced into the shadows so that we can pay less for our food and our stuff, since every crime Amos mentions clearly has its twenty-first century manifestations, the prophetic word still tells us that the time is right to confess our broken and sinful ways.

The time is right, People of God, for us to come to the God who meets us in the Good News of Jesus Christ and his victory over sin.

In Jesus, God drew near to a hurting and hurtful world to offer healing and to make healers of all who would place their trust and find their place in him.

When the time was right, Jesus announced, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor…to proclaim release to the captives…recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the Lord’s Jubilee.”

And that same Spirit is with us—blessing, reconciling, and equipping us to live and to love as those who know that love of the Living God.

Amos’ vision of summer fruit should elicit a response from us. It should stir up within the Church a renewed sense of mission and purpose.

To that end, I think we can revisit Amos’ vision.

Acknowledging that timing is of the essence, we know that the fruit that is sweet today could be rotten tomorrow.

As disciples of Jesus Christ who are guided and empowered by the Holy Spirit the time is right for us to take action, and to confront injustice with courage and compassion.

We have a calling to meet dehumanizing conspiracies with the Light of God’s Truth and—in our time and in our hearts—to live into the promise that all life is precious and sacred in God’s sight.

The Spirit of the Lord that spoke through Amos and took on flesh in Jesus is with us in this time, in this moment.

May the Spirit lead us to seek justice and love kindness and may it make the life we share together Good News for all people.

Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.