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

Summertime

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.

July 10, 2016

Language Barrier

What a terrible week! Seven days ago we prayed that the promises of life, liberty, and the ability to pursue happiness would be shared among all people, then we experienced daily deadly reminders that the efficacy of those promises have never been self-evident to African Americans and that evil and ancient forces always seek to undermine and destroy the conditions that make genuine and honest community possible. Fear, racism, vengeance, inequality before the law, and addictive violence have unleashed their fury again, like menacing clouds on a hot and humid summer day.

Unlike talking about heat waves and thunderstorms, however, naming and speaking about the forces we’ve witnessed this week is fraught. The shooting deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and officers Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, and Lorne Ahrens expose some of the deepest and most volatile fault lines running through this nation. So deep are these fissures that even our ability to communicate becomes weak and language itself seems to fail us.

Speaking of race, it seems that some—specifically people of color—have been having “the Talk” and raising their voices for so long that the unwillingness of others to listen leaves them speechless.

For others—specifically white people—our privileged place in society tempts us to believe that race is so irrelevant in contemporary America that we either lack the will to have a conversation about it in the first place, or we discover that we lack the cultural grammar to communicate effectively.

Honestly, this week on the six train I overheard conversations between New Yorkers and tourists who didn’t speak the same language that were easier to follow, displayed infinitely more patience and trust, and made more sense to me than the venomous reactions on social media to the statement “Black Lives Matter.”

Something like a language barrier impedes discussions about race in this country, a barrier that those evil and ancient forces arrayed against God’s family are more than willing to exploit.

Of course, it is inevitable that our backgrounds and experiences influence our perceptions of events and how we understand them. Even those of us gathered here this morning would tell differently the stories of what happened in Louisiana, Minnesota, and Texas this week, and I’m sure that we have different ideas about what these things mean and what should happen next.

There’s not necessarily any sin in that.

However, when perceptions and understandings fuel arrogance and pride, when our point of view excludes the validity of all others, when the way we see the world leads us to turn a blind eye to oppression, injustice, and violence we must confess that by the measure of God’s righteous plumb line, our hearts are listing, wanting, and flawed.

It is incumbent upon us, therefore, as it’s been incumbent upon believers in every age, to know the truth about ourselves, humbly to do the work of confession and repentance, and to allow God’s Spirit to make steady our wobbly ways and to bring us back into a true and right relationship with God and one another.

God taught Moses this truth by giving him the Ten Commandments that forever linked our theology and ethics and drawing a straight line between the One who is worthy of worship and our neighbors who are worthy of respect, fairness, and justice.

God taught this to Amos, too. That’s why the prophet who railed against religious corruption and economic exploitation, also challenged God’s people to “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.”

And Jesus still teaches this truth to all with hears to hear his parable about a merciful Samaritan.

This is how Luke introduces the iconic story.

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Jesus said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?”

The lawyer answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”

“You have given the right answer,” said Jesus, “do this, and you will live.”

“What do you read in the law about eternal life?” asked Jesus.

“Love God with everything you’ve got and remember that all neighbors matter.”

“That’s right!” said Jesus. “Now go do it.”

But the lawyer had a peculiar reaction to Jesus. Luke says he wanted to “justify himself” or “to make himself right.” Given the context, I think it’s fair for us to infer from this that what the lawyer really just wanted Jesus to tell him that he was doing a great job and didn’t need to change a single thing about the way he was living his life.

The lawyer asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
Clearly this man wanted Jesus to draw a line between the people in his life—separating them into neighbors whom he should love and others whom he could ignore—a line that I’m sure the man expected to follow precisely his understanding of “my people” and “those people.”

And that should sound familiar to us because the same forces at work in our time were working on the lawyer’s heart, too.

By asking Jesus to locate love of neighbor’s end, the man was participating in an age-old habit of persons in power—saying the great and magnanimous thing, but doing little to see that statement become reality.

To love one’s neighbor as oneself is a radical statement, too radical for the lawyer, in fact, so he asked Jesus to tell him that some of those people weren’t really his neighbor after all.

When our nation’s forefathers signed on to the idea that “all men are created equal and endowed by their create with certain inalienable rights,” they made a radical statement, then continued to buy and sale some men, women, and children, too.

When, toward the end of the 1800s, it became the custom to pledge allegiance to our flag and republic, proclaiming “liberty and justice for all,” all still only meant some.

Fear, racism, vengeance, inequality before the law, addictive violence, the failure of language—we know these forces well, and they were present in the communities Jesus visited and in the lives his ministry touched, too, so Jesus bound these up and wove them into a story for the ages.

He set the story in a violent place in the aftermath of a violent event—a man was beaten and robbed on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho.

He cast the story with people of social privilege like the lawyer—a priest and a Levite.

And he made the story’s protagonist a racial and religious minority—a Samaritan.

Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.

Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.

So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.

But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’

Jesus asked, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”

The lawyer said, “The one who showed him mercy.”

Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

The Samaritan didn’t just pray for they man. He didn’t just march for better security on the Jericho Road. He did the hard, selfless, generous work of mercy.

Jesus teaches us that mercy has the power to short circuit the evil and ancient forces that undermine and destroy the conditions that make genuine and honest community possible.

It’s not being proven right, it’s not maintaining our privileges, it’s not being satisfied with justice and equality for some people, it’s mercy—mercy is the blessing that breaks open hardened hearts, compels actions, and changes lives.

Mercy restores sight to those who have become blind to oppression, injustice, and violence.

Mercy leads us to confess that by the measure of God’s righteous plumb line, our hearts are listing, wanting, and flawed.

Mercy—our experience of it and our mandate to do it—is for us the essence of God’s Good News.

It is incumbent upon us, therefore, as it’s been incumbent upon believers in every age, to know the truth about ourselves, humbly to do the work of confession and repentance, and to allow God’s Spirit to make steady our wobbly ways and to bring us back into a true and right relationship with God and one another.

Fear, racism, vengeance, inequality before the law, addictive violence, the failure of language—where can we find the path to eternal life in a landscape fractured by these?

“Go,” says Jesus, “and do mercy.”

June 26, 2016

Towering Trees and the Fruit of the Spirit

Later this summer, on August 25th, the National Parks Service will celebrate the 100th anniversary of its founding. President Obama used the opportunity the First Family’s recent vacation to Yosemite National Park in California afforded him to draw attention to this historic milestone as well as to highlight some of the challenges facing our parks—budget shortfalls and climate change being their most formidable foes.

Seeing the beautiful photographs of the President’s visit and listening to his remarks took me back to some of the great times I’ve spent in the National Parks. Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, Acadia, the Badlands, the Smokey Mountains, Yosemite, too—each park is unique, each beautiful in its own way, and all of them are profoundly moving and awe inspiring places.

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park in California is another place that stretched my mind and imagination. The park is home to the giant sequoia trees, and it’s just amazing.

I saw the sequoias when I was seventeen on a church youth group bus trip. The pictures I brought back from that trip don’t do these trees justice, and neither, I suspect, will my words this morning, but I’m going to try.

Sequoia and Kings Canyon is the place to go if you want to feel like you’ve stumbled through the looking glass into a fairy tale world of giants. The trees are just ridiculously large—the tallest approach 300 feet and are over 30 feet wide. They can weigh two million pounds.

I live on the tenth floor of my building, so these trees would just tower over my apartment, but imagine living on the 30th floor and having a tree right outside your window. That’s crazy!

And they’re ancient. Sequoias can live up to 2700 years. That means that some of the trees that are alive today have been around since before the Greeks and Romans built their empires. That means if Jesus and his disciples would’ve taken a road trip to California they could’ve said, “Wow! Look at these really old tress!”

Sequoias are biological wonders. They are freaks of nature and if you ever have a chance to see them in person, you should.

I learned another fascinating thing about sequoias this week, though, that isn’t obvious when you’re up close with one. Even though they’ve some of the tallest living things on earth, their roots are surprisingly shallow—10, 15, 20 feet below the surface. That’s it.

What they lack in depth, however, they make up for in outreach. A single tree’s roots can cover the area of a football field. And when the roots of trees in close proximity to one another become tangled and intertwined, not only is it not a bad thing, it actually makes the trees able to stand taller and stronger.

These underground connections help the trees to withstand blustery winds, to take in needed water and nutrients, and help sustain the conditions in which future generations of sequoias can thrive.

In other words, these roots are exactly the kind of anchor that these giants need, and that’s a lesson from nature that helps us better to understand the ways of God’s Spirit and the kind of relationships that should define the Church.

Saint Paul’s beliefs about what the Holy Spirit can accomplish among us is intimately tied to his expectations for the community into which Jesus will build Christians, and Paul’s expectations for our community are as impressive as California’s towering forests.

Paul believed that this community—the Church—was the community for which the world had been waiting. This was the place where old enemies become friends, the place where outcasts are warmly welcomed, and where the holiness of God revealed in Jesus Christ conquers all the selfish and destructive tyrants we permit to rule over our hearts.

As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
These memorable words from the Letter to the Galatians give us a glimpse of Paul’s grand expectations.

The Church is to be the community where barriers fall and whose members are Christ’s ambassadors and agents of reconciliation. According to Paul, these are some of the Church’s essential characteristics.

To extend our metaphor a bit, evidence of the reconciliation that Christ accomplishes in our midst is the Church’s strong trunk and expansive leafy branches, and when the Church is healthy, we will experience the bounty of God’s goodness, the harvest of faith, the fruit of the Spirit in our lives.

We’ve read a passage from Galatians this morning that gets to this point.

In Galatians 5, Paul compares what happens when communities give themselves over to selfish ambition to the community in which Jesus is truly Lord. In making this comparison, he contrasts what he calls the “works of the flesh” with “the fruit of the Spirit.”

Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.
Take note that Paul encourages us to consider the source of these things, to consider where they come from. Sure, Paul wants us to be less angry, less jealous, less obsessed with sex, but, ultimately, he’s trying to lead us to a healthier source than the unholy root that would feed these things within us.

Paul wants us to avoid actions and attitudes that weaken the community by reducing our interactions with one another to selfish transactions between self-serving parties rather than the self-giving actions of people who recognize one another as beloved children of God.

“If…you bite and devour one another,” he writes, setting up the list, “take care that you are not consumed by one another.”

For when we consume one another and treat each other like means to self-serving ends, our community will never amount to anything more than a puny, brittle-branched shrub.

But Paul continues,

By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
This is life’s good stuff. These are the works of God. These are the actions, attitudes, and pursuits that define us.

Saint Paul’s beliefs about what the Holy Spirit can accomplish among us is intimately tied to his expectations for the community into which Jesus will build Christians, and Paul’s expectations for our community are as impressive as California’s towering forests.

The Spirit empowers us to be a strong, vibrant, verdant community—like a grove of majestic sequoias—a community committed to reconciliation, forgiveness, mercy, and hospitality yielding a harvest of the Spirit’s fruit; love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

And Jesus—God’s love incarnate—our root beneath the surface, makes it all possible, for from him we receive new life and in him we are drawn toward one another.

Thou hidden source of calm repose,

Thou all sufficient love divine,

My help and refuge from my foes,

Secure I am if Thou art mine;

And lo! from sin and grief and shame

I hide me, Jesus, in Thy name.

In Galatians and throughout his writings, Saint Paul presents us with a vision for the people and community God calls the Church to be. And it’s a stunning vision of lively and loving relationship that tower over our lesser ambitions. Inspired by his vision, Paul also invites us to consider the holy root makes the vision reality. He leads us to Jesus, our hidden source of holiness.

You see, if Jesus is our root, then we are fed by God’s love, and if we are fed by God’s love, then we will have the faith and strength love others in Jesus’s name— especially the poor and vulnerable, especially the hurting and the neglected—and if we love in his name, then we will taste and see the goodness of God—the life giving fruit of God’s Spirit.

Thanks be to God for this this fruit.

Thanks be to God for Jesus.

Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.

June 5, 2016

Tearful & Slobbering

Luke tells us that Jesus raised up a woman’s only son in a place called Nain.

Psalm 146 identifies God as a friend to outcasts and the put-upon, the One who “lifts up those who are bowed down” and “upholds the orphan and the widow.”

First Kings recalls a moment in the ministry of Elijah in which God heeded the prophet’s prayer and raised up the widow of Zarephath’s son.

From the life of Jesus to Israel’s ancient prophets and beyond, the witness of scripture invites us to ponder the mercy and grace God shares with those who suffer. However, in light of this witness and confronted by a generation predisposed to skepticism, people of faith do well to ask an essential question.

If God cares for widows, orphans, outcasts, and all who suffer, then why do they suffer in the first place?

Why tragedy?

Why cancer?

Why miscarriage?

Why suffering?

Why, God, why?

“Why?” is a bedrock question. It’s one of the first questions children learn to ask, yet it fuels some of life’s greatest quests for meaning and understanding.

“Why?” is a profound question that deserves an honest answer. It’s often the case, however, that humanity shies away from this question by pressing down inquiries and lashing out instead.

We come up with platitudes to spare ourselves from wrestling with the reality of pain and sorrow.

We identify scapegoats and assign blame.

We convince ourselves that horrible things can’t happen to us.

Ultimately, our desire to avoid suffering and those who suffer can even lead us to inflict more pain.

We judge.

We shun.

We assume that they must’ve done something to cause this.

I think this is particularly true for believers who often succumb to the temptation to respond to the reality of suffering as if it were a referendum on God’s fitness to be God and act as if we must keep the sorrowful at arm’s reach lest we be accused of second guessing God’s inscrutable wisdom.

This is, of course, the exact opposite of Jesus’ example.

A passage from one of William Sloane Coffin’s most memorable sermons illustrates this point well.

Rev. Sloane Coffin was the pastor of Riverside Church in Morningside Heights from 1977 to 87. During his ministry there, he had to carry the heavy cross of eulogizing his own son, Andrew, who died a few months short of his graduation from Boston University.

On January 11, 1983, Andrew’s car careened into Boston Harbor. His passenger escaped, but Andrew did not.

Ten days later Andrew’s father spoke these words from Riverside’s historic pulpit.

The night after Alex died I was sitting in the living room of my sister's house outside of Boston, when the front door opened and in came a nice-looking, middle-aged woman, carrying about eighteen quiches. When she saw me, she shook her head, then headed for the kitchen, saying sadly over her shoulder, "I just don't understand the will of God." Instantly I was up and in hot pursuit, swarming all over her. "I'll say you don't, lady!" I said.
I think it’s worth noting that there’s nothing uniquely awful about the brunch-bearing family friend Sloane Coffin took to task. In fact, given the decades he spent in pastoral ministry, I suspect that the noted preacher could provide a few examples from his career in which the roles were reversed and he played the part of the person trying to fill an uneasy silence with an unhelpful platitude.

I know that I’ve done that and I’m also sure that some of you have been on both the giving and receiving ends of empty efforts at comfort.

Our experience, then, proves the truth of words C.S. Lewis wrote in the wake of his wife’s death.

Talk to me about the truth of religion and I'll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I'll listen submissively. But don't come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don't understand.
At our core, I think suffering scares us—we don’t want any part of it—and that fear impedes our ability to be truly present to those who are suffering by producing the wall of clichés behind which we try to hide our true selves.

“God wanted another angel.”

“You’re young. Just get pregnant again.”

“Everything happens for a reason.”

Back at Riverside Church, Rev. Sloan Coffin sought to keep his flock from peddling in phrases like these. In doing so, I believe he led them, as he leads us now, to a point of powerful encounter with the living God.

The sermon continued.

For some reason, nothing so infuriates me as the incapacity of seemingly intelligent people to get it through their heads that God doesn't go around this world with his fingers on triggers, his fists around knives, his hands on steering wheels…The one thing that should never be said when someone dies is "It is the will of God." Never do we know enough to say that. My own consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die; that when the waves closed over the sinking car, God's heart was the first of all our hearts to break.
If our faith speaks anything to us about the reality of suffering—if our faith speaks anything at all about our deepest needs—it isn’t that God offered us lengthy treatises and precise philosophical proofs about human suffering.

If we have anything to say it is to allow Jesus—God’s gift of God’s self in the flesh—the same Jesus who loved those who suffered, who ministered to those who suffered, who cried real tears with those who suffered, and who ultimately suffered, too—if we have anything to say it is to allow Jesus to speak through our actions.

From the life of Jesus to Israel’s ancient prophets and beyond, the witness of scripture invites us to ponder the mercy and grace God shares with those who suffer, for it is in pondering these things that we find our courage, our hope, our comfort, our mission, our Lord.

So, why suffering? Why tragedy? I don’t know.

But my faith shows me that Jesus walked with those who suffered and sat with those who suffered, and I believe he walks and sits with us in our sorrow, too.

He loved people who were in the midst of life’s tearful and slobbering mess and offered them himself, and so should we.

Having drawn so much from Rev. Sloan Coffin today, it seems right to allow him to have this last word. This is how his sermon closed.

As the grief that once seemed unbearable begins to turn now to bearable sorrow, the truths in the "right" biblical passages are beginning, once again, to take hold: "Cast thy burden upon the Lord and He shall strengthen thee"…"The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

I know that when Alex beat me to the grave, the finish line was not Boston Harbor in the middle of the night. If a week ago last Monday, a lamp went out, it was because, for him at least, the Dawn had come.

So I shall — so let us all — seek consolation in that love which never dies, and find peace in the dazzling grace that always is.

Let it be so with us and let us give thanks to God for this Good News. Amen.