December 25, 2016

That They May Know (For Christmas)

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

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

And what a ghost story it was!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grande concludes,

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

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

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

It made charitable giving a fixture of Christmas celebrations.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How did he behave?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 21, 2016

Asbury Returns to John Street

After several months in Larry Gordon's Port Stained Glass workshop on Long Island, the Asbury Window, a 198-year old memorial to Bishop Francis Asbury, returned to John Street Church just in time for Christmas.

During its absence, the window underwent extensive repairs and restoration. While it was in his shop, Gordon repaired a crack that ran across the image of Bishop Asbury's face, restored an original stenciled border, and releaded the entire window. He also replaced several deteriorated pieces of glass and, upon returning the window, made improvements to the original installation.

The restoration of the Asbury Window was the first project funded by John Street Church's Capital Restoration Fund, which the congregation established earlier this year. A grant from the General Commission on Archives and History of the United Methodist Church also covered a portion of the project's cost.

John Street will properly celebrate this project's completion and the life and ministry of Bishop Francis Asbury on an upcoming Sunday morning.

Images: The restored Asbury Window (top), Detail from the restored window (middle), The window before restoration (bottom)

December 20, 2016

What's in a Name?

What’s in a name?

When Shakespeare’s Juliet asked the question, she knew the answer—there wasn’t enough power in any name to keep her and Romeo apart.

What’s in a name?

The biblical Book of Proverbs says that a good one is worth more than gold and silver.

What’s in a name?

My son’s emerged after Laura and I spent months examining the branches of our family trees.

What’s in a name?

My wheel making German ancestors are in mine.

Throughout Advent we’ve given our attention to a specific name—Emmanuel. In recent weeks we’ve considered the importance of this name, especially the part it plays in the ministry and writings of a prophet named Isaiah. It’s Isaiah, after all, who identifies Emmanuel—which means “God is with us”—as the chosen and anointed ruler of God’s people, a king who would reign over a Golden Age of peace and prosperity.

Stoked by Isaiah’s vision, faithful hearts prayed that this leader and this age would come quickly. For centuries the words of the iconic Advent chorus were their fervent prayer, "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel."

In words we’ve shared this morning, those prayers and that chorus reach their grand crescendo.

Today we’ve heard Good News like no other.

All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel.” which means, “God is with us.”
For us and for our salvation, God’s Word became flesh and dwelt among us. The Kingdom of God drew near. The Promised One, the Chosen One, the Lord’s Anointed One—has arrived.

Mary had a baby who came to give us new life and who will come again to chase away the last pretender to his rightful throne.

Emmanuel has come into our lives.

But what’s in a name?

What’s in the name Emmanuel?

The truth is that Emmanuel holds within it the very essence of our faith. It’s the name that speaks of the kind of relationship we can have with God and the relationships we should have with one another.

It’s the name that locates our lives in the larger drama of God’s dealings with Creation, reminding us that our lives intrinsically have purpose and meaning.

And it’s the name with the unique power to break into our present circumstances and lead us in the way that we should go.

Emmanuel is a strong name and it deserves our attention this morning.

What’s in the name Emmanuel?

There’s strength for today and hope for tomorrow in the name Emmanuel.

One of the basic building blocks of the Good News is the conviction that Jesus Christ is the holy and unique embodiment of this divine promise, God is with us to bless and guide us in our present circumstances so that God might lead us into an even better tomorrow.

This is the Good News that we’re not alone—that at work, at home, in times of trouble and confusion we can turn toward and trust God.

Emmanuel brings us the greatest treasures of our life with God—daily bread, blessings for our families and loved one, the strength and wisdom to make good decisions about our children, parents and career.

The promise of Emmanuel God with us is that our lives can be better, more faithful and fulfilling, more radiant with love, and overflowing with joy and peace than they once were.

As we’ve been reminded throughout the season, the promise of Emmanuel is that the way things are is not the way things have to be because God isn’t interested in seeing us suffer or stumble our way through life.

What’s in the name?

Strength for today and hope for tomorrow, these blessings and promises are in the name.

In some circumstances, however, a name can become a curse instead a blessing. If you’re unfortunate enough to share a name with someone who has become famous for some nefarious deed, someone who is wanted by law enforcement, someone who has landed on a no-fly list, then you know about the baggage that a name can carry.

There is, for example, an episode of Seinfeld in which Elaine just can’t get over the fact that the perfectly nice guy she is dating shares a name with a headline grabbing criminal.

What does this have to do with the name Emmanuel though?

We know well that there’s a shameful legacy of people doing great harm to one another in the name of God. If we want to do better than that in our lives, in our relationships, and in our pursuit of justice, then we must confess that while the name Emmanuel is powerful, we can receive that power humbly, or arrogantly try to exploit it.

It is, after all, an incredibly audacious thing to say that, “God is with us.”

Trouble comes when we start believing and acting as though God is with because we’re just so great that we deserve Divine favor and that Jesus calls us to his Table because we’re brilliant company.

This attitude strikes at the very heart of grace and leads us to the sobering truth.

God isn’t with us because we’re great. God’s chooses to be with us because we’re sinners—we fall short—and we need God’s help to do better.

God isn’t with us to bless what we’re doing. God is with us so that we can become a blessing to others.

What’s in the name?

Some baggage? Yes. But there’s also the high and humble calling to place our trust in God’s goodness rather than in our supposed greatness and to embody the depth of God’s love by becoming ambassadors of God’s mercy and peace at work in the world.

An invitation to receive blessings humbly and to share blessings generously, these are in the name.

What’s in the name Emmanuel?

There’s strength for today and hope for tomorrow in the name Emmanuel.

What’s in the name Emmanuel?

An invitation to receive blessings humbly and to share blessings generously, these are in the name Emmanuel.

And there’s something else, too.

What’s in the name?

Your place in God’s great redemption story—that’s what’s in the name.

Martin Luther expounded on this point when the great reformer preached these words.

The Gospel does not merely teach us about the history of Christ. No, it enables all who believe it to receive it as their own, which is the way the Gospel operates. Of what benefit would it be to me if Christ had been born a thousand times, and it would be daily sung in my ears in a most lovely manner, if I were never to hear that he was born for me and was to be my very own?

[The angel of Christmas] does not simply say, Christ is born, but to you he is born, Neither does he say, I bring glad tidings, but to you I bring glad tidings of great joy.

What’s in the name Emmanuel?

God is in the name.

Our hopes and dreams are in the name.

The Church’s mission is in the name.

And you are in the name, too.

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel.” which means, “God is with us.” (Matthew 1: 18-23)

Thanks be to God for this name that is high above all others.

Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.

December 12, 2016

Christmas at John Street Church

Dear Members and Friends of John Street Church,

Holly and ivy grace the sanctuary, the words of ancient prophets center our hearts in worship, and the Advent Wreath glows with increasing brightness; Christmas is coming to John Street Church.

As America’s oldest Methodist congregation prepares to celebrate Jesus’ birth and the light of heaven’s triumph over sin’s darkness, I am pleased to announce the season’s schedule of worship services and special events.

Lights and Sounds of FiDi, Sunday, December 18, 1:00PM

Enjoy the holiday lights and sounds of FiDi with your friends from John Street Church as we stroll through the neighborhood on December 18.

Christmas Eve Service, Saturday, December 24, 7:00PM

Our traditional Christmas Eve Service of Carols, Candlelight, and Holy Communion.

Christmas Day, Sunday, December 25, 11:00AM

A Service of God’s Word & Table for Christmas Day

I also invite you to worship God through giving this season by participating in John Street Church’s Christmas Offering. Gifts given to John Street will bless the church’s ministry to and with the people of New York City and around the world. Please visit our online giving site or deliver your gift to the church by mail or in person.

My earnest prayer is that you and your loved ones experience the beauty of Christmas in new and exciting ways this season. May God’s spirit fill your oldest traditions with renewed vitality, and bless you with a deeper appreciation of the gift given to all of us in Bethlehem so long ago.

I hope you have a Merry Christmas.

Grace & Peace,

Rev. Jason P. Radmacher

Then Came a Time

“White as Snow” is the ninth track on U2’s 2009 album, No Line on the Horizon. According to one critic, “the quietest, most intimate, and arguably most arresting” song the band has ever recorded.

“White as Snow” is a song about dying. Inspired by Sam Mendes’ film Jarhead and William Golding’s novel Pincher Martin, it is Bono’s lyrical attempt to enter the mind of a mortally wounded solider as he breathes his last in Afghanistan.

Setting comforting images of childhood’s carefree moments over and against the stark reality of the young man’s bitter surroundings—contrasting memories of family road trips with this place where “the road refuses strangers”—the song is somber, but not bleak. As in so many of the songwriter’s works, faith makes this distinction possible.

Comingled with memories and pain, the dying man’s final thoughts are of grace and redemption. In a clear allusion to the “Lamb of God” Bono sings,

Once I knew there was a love divine

Then came a time I thought it knew me not

Who can forgive forgiveness where forgiveness is not

Only the lamb as white as snow

The snow-white lamb, then, becomes the soldier’s final quest and ultimate hope.

Rising above the moment, in the end the young man ponders things sublime.

“Where might we find the lamb as white as snow,” he wonders.

“If only a heart could be as white as snow,” he concludes.

It’s really a beautiful lyric.

“White as Snow” is something special musically, too.

Recreating the same somber, but not bleak atmosphere, the song’s simple melody is, in fact, based on “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” the quintessential Advent hymn.

This pairing of music and words makes a powerful combination.

The juxtaposition of a familiar and ancient hymn with a contemporary and soul searching lyric establishes “White as Snow” as a touchstone for us this morning as God’s people.

What, after all, are we about as God’s people if we’re not about holding in tension and making connections between things ancient and things contemporary?

Who are we if we are not a people committed to the belief that the old, old story of God’s love will indeed be realized and made new in the midst of the trials and tribulations we face this day?

Disciples of Jesus Christ understand that making connections like these is essential to the faith we share.

Advent is, of course, the season of the year in which the desire to make such connections directs our focus to the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth a little over two thousand years ago. These are the days to remember angelic visitors, the ministry of prophets, and the way in which God’s power transformed a humble manger into a throne room for a king.

But Advent’s images and ideas, its symbols and slogans, have a way of leading us into an ever deeper past—into an age of loss, exile, and a promised homecoming.

Advent brings to mind the darkest season of the Old Testament era, the Exile of God’s People in Babylon.

Some six hundred years before Jesus’s birth, the armies of Babylon invaded the land once ruled by King David, conquered the holy city of Jerusalem, and destroyed God’s Temple.

After the conquest, Babylon took thousands of Israelites captive and carried them into exile where they languished as strangers in a strange land for decades.

Writings from the Exiles paint a picture of a people who were separated from their land, their homes, everything that that knew and believed, and, some thought, even from God.

“By the rivers of Babylon,” laments Psalm 137, “there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion…How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”

To borrow a phrase, “once the Exiles knew there was a love divine / then came a time they thought it knew them not.”

But it wasn’t so! God had not forgotten the people and the Exile did, in fact, end.

This morning we’ve read words that capture the excitement and hope and joy of preparations for the Exile’s homecoming.

Isaiah 35 describes a once barren land and formerly fainting hearts springing forth in new life as the Lord leads the people home.

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom… Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees.

Say to those who are of a fearful heart, "Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you."

Isaiah goes on to describe the path upon which God will lead them back home. It will be a road fit for a king and their experience there will be wholly unlike their forced march to Babylon.
A highway shall be there [in the wilderness], and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God's people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.

No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there.

While on the way to Exile, their cries were ignored, their path unclear, and their lives expendable, but on their way home the people would be dignified, guided, and wanted.
And the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
The Exile ended in the year 539BC when Babylon lost a war with Persia and Cyrus the Great of Persia announced that the Israelites were free to go back home. Again, that was a long time before Jesus was born, but after his death and resurrection, Christians found the language of Exile and homecoming to be useful tools for describing their experience, too

A people who knew the sorrow of Jesus’ cross found a connection with the prayers of Exiles who felt abandoned and forgotten.

A people who knew the joy of Easter morning found a connection with those who saw their mourning turn to rejoicing.

And a people who possessed Resurrection faith in a world still dominated by Good Friday forces found a connection with those who held on to God’s promises and covenant as exiles in a foreign land.

The believers who saw how the Spirit could transform hard hearts into caring souls, who recognized that outcasts and marginalized people were welcome in God’s family, who came to believe that God’s love for them was more determinative of their identity than any label they wore, any circumstance they faced, any trial they endured—people like these found a connection with those who left exile behind and walked home with God.

So can we.

What, after all, are we about as God’s people if we’re not about holding in tension and making connections between things ancient and things contemporary?

Who are we if we are not a people committed to the belief that the old, old story of God’s love will indeed be realized and made new in the midst of the trials and tribulations we face this day?

Today, ancient words offer us Good News. In our sorrow and worry, in adversity and sin—in all our seasons of exile—we are neither alone nor forgotten for God is with us—making a way where there was no way, leading us home when we thought we were lost.

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom…[So] strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, "Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God.”
Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.

December 5, 2016

Alone, I Cannot Be

Before Emily Dickinson took her place in the Pantheon of Great American Writers, the people of Amherst, Massachusetts knew her as the reclusive daughter of one of the town’s long-established families. A letter written by Mabel Loomis Todd—a woman who would go on to have a rather complicated relationship with Emily’s family and work—gives us some insights into Emily’s famous eccentricities.

Loomis Todd wrote,

I must tell you about the character of Amherst. It is a lady whom all the people call the Myth. She is a sister of Mr. Dickinson, [and] seems to be the climax of all the family oddity. She has not been outside of her house in fifteen years, except once to see a new church, when she crept out at night, [and] viewed it by moonlight. No one who calls upon her mother [and] sister ever sees her, but she allows little children once in a great while, [and] one at a time, to come in, when she gives them cake or candy, or some nicety, for she is very fond of little ones. But more often she lets down the sweetmeat by a string, out of a window, to them. She dresses wholly in white, [and] her mind is said to be perfectly wonderful. She writes finely, but no one ever sees her. (qtd. in Wetzsteon xv)
Other sources collaborate and expand upon Loomis Todd’s observations.

It’s true that Emily tended to receive her guests in the dark and often required her conversation partners to stand around corners, behind closed doors, or in another room.

It’s true that she made an odd habit of presenting visitors with a treat or flowers while shyly stating, “This is my introduction.”

It’s true. She was a recluse, of this there is no doubt, yet while she withdrew from so much and so many for so long, in the quiet of her bedroom she wrote poetry that would one day explode across the cultural landscape and live forever.

Scholars continue to debate why Emily Dickinson withdrew for public. Was she ill? Jilted? Oppressed?

While I don’t think that the quest to understand why she lived like she did is entirely fruitless, I don’t think it’s too interesting of a topic either.

Specifically, I think there’s a powerful (and probably sexist) temptation to treat her solitude as a weakness, as a problem to be solved. There’s a temptation to act as through she became a great poet and profound thinker in spite of her seclusion.

However, I’m far more interested in understanding how solitude allowed her to cultivate the habits of mind and spirit that refined her talent and gave shape to her prodigious thinking.

Far from being victimized by the challenges of her life (whatever those challenges were), it seems to me that Emily Dickinson faced them with a remarkable strength forged in the fertile ground of her solitude.

Emily described her solitude’s richness, appropriately enough, in a poem.

Alone, I cannot be—

For Hosts—do visit me—

Recordless Company—

Who baffle Key—

They have no Robes, nor Names—

No Almanacs—nor Climes—

But general Homes

Like Gnomes—

Their Coming, may be known

By Couriers within—

Their going—is not—

For they've never gone—

Emily Dickinson was stronger and wiser and a greater truth-teller because of her solitude.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise to people of faith. After all, the Bible reveals solitude to be a verdant space for profound matters of the spirit.

As the revered spiritual director Dallas Willard noted, solitude is “the creation of an open, empty space in our lives by purposefully abstaining from the interaction with other human beings, so that, freed from competing loyalties, we can be found by God.”

In solitude, Moses received his commission as a leader and the revelation of God’s Law.

In solitude, Hannah laid her grief before the Lord.

In solitude, David prayed and raged and praised God.

Even Jesus sought out solitude—a place where he could pray, listen, and be.

God forged the ministry of John the Baptist in solitude, too.

Given the impression that John makes in the Gospels, it’s not a long stretch of the imagination to envision a letter written by an ancient traveler after an encounter with this legendary man.

I must tell you about the character of the Judean wilderness. It’s a man all the people call the Baptizer. He wears camel’s hair clothes and eats locusts and wild honey. He talks a lot about God, but when the preachers and teachers came down from Jerusalem to see him, he called them snakes and said that they were the ones who really needed to get right with God. He preaches like a wild man, but he still draws a crowd.
John was definitely eccentric, of this this is no doubt, but we revere him and his unique ministry, nevertheless, because he pointed to the Humble and Holy One of God who was coming into the own.

Matthew tells us,

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near…I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
And people came to John, and lives were changed through him, and, when the time was right, he baptized Jesus on the margins in the Jordan River.

“Prepare the way of the Lord,” he said.

The high and mighty must be humbled.

The meek and lowly must be lifted up.

The crooked must be changed as we “make his paths straight.”

It’s no accident that John preached a message like this and engaged in a ministry like this from “the wilderness,” because the wilderness, like Emily Dickinson’s room, was a place of solitude in which revelations were tested, refined, confirmed, and delivered.

Solitude allowed John to cultivate the habits of mind and spirit that shaped his unique mission.

Emily Dickinson and John the Baptist—The Myth and the Baptizer—we don’t normally pair these two with each other, but their stories dramatically demonstrate the same spiritual truth.

Our souls crave solitude for, in the words of the Psalms, we are made to be still and know that God is God.

But satisfying this craving is one of the spiritual pilgrim’s greatest challenges, especially at this time of year.

Or maybe the truth about us is that we struggle to be still and practice solitude during the holiday season because we’re really not so good at it the rest of the year either.

Emily’s insights help us chart a better course.

There is a solitude of space

A solitude of sea

A solitude of death, but these

Society shall be

Compared with that profounder site

That polar privacy

A soul admitted to itself—

Finite infinity.

Encouraged by the Myth and the Baptizer, we glimpse how fulfilling and fruitful solitude can be and receive an invitation to take up this sacred calling—to do the holy work of drawing near to the One who is Emmanuel, “God with us.”

Be still and know that God is God.

Go into your solitude, say the sages and saints, and God will meet you there.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

November 27, 2016

A Ribbon at a Time

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

A ribbon at a time.

The steeples swam in amethyst,

The news like squirrels ran.

The hills untied their bonnets,

The bobolinks begun.

Then I said softly to myself,

"That must have been the sun!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And what were those ways?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ll tell you how the sun rose, -

A ribbon at a time.

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

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

November 22, 2016

Like the Fruit of the Land

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remember where you’ve come from.

Remember what you’ve been through.

Remember the times when you went without.

Remember who heard your cry and answered your prayers.

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

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

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

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

At Saint Patrick’s Francis preached,

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

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

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

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

What was so special about Levites and aliens?

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

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

Today, that invitation comes to us.

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

Amen.

November 13, 2016

A Certain Kind of Fire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now, back to those wild and apocalyptic words.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That couldn’t stop us…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you know anyone who feels like that today?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.

November 7, 2016

Little Horn Bigmouth

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

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

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

This is the Holy One to whom the Psalmist prayed,

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

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

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

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

The description of the fourth and final beast is illustrative.

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

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

Both popular approaches leave the Church wanting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He wrote,

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

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

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

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

“They’re poor because they’re lazy.”

“They’re suffering because they deserve it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We must expose the lies and rejoice in the truth.

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

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

This is the Good News for which we give thanks.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

October 26, 2016

How to Kneel

“Your love is teaching me how to kneel.”

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

“Your love is teaching me how to kneel.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God’s love is teaching us how to kneel.

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

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

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

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

Image: Man in Prayer

October 17, 2016

A Reverend Sane

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

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

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

It’s a change that impacts my behavior daily.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And it was amazing!

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

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

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

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

The clothes were in dazzling Technicolor.

The hair was crazy—and also in dazzling Technicolor.

The music was bluesy and bold and loud.

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

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

My conversion was complete.

I had become a fan.

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

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

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

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

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

I think we can learn from that.

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

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

How beautiful upon the mountains

are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,

who brings good news,

who announces salvation,

who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We love because he first loved us.”

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

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

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

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

We’re doing this because God first loved us.

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

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

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

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

Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.

September 12, 2016

Sixty Pound Fleece

Once upon a time there was a sheep named Shrek.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s not Good News.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That brings me back to Shrek the Sheep.

Why did Shrek run away?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.

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.