January 31, 2016

An Old-Fashioned Word

Freddie Mercury, the legendary lead singer of the rock band Queen, died of AIDS in 1991. In April 1992, Queen’s surviving members, a host of pop and rock stars, and over seventy thousand fans met up at London’s Wembley Stadium to honor the late musician and to raise money and awareness to fight the disease that killed him. MTV broadcast the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert around the world and I watched the whole thing in my parents’ basement.

The concert had two acts. In the first act, some of the era’s big names in rock music played short sets of their popular songs and covered some of Queen’s hits. Metallica, Guns n’ Roses, and Def Leppard all took the stage. U2 beamed in a ZooTV performance from California. In the second act, Queen took up their instruments and invited their friends to sing Freddie’s part. Elton John and Axl Rose sang “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Robert Plant sang “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” and Liza Minelli closed the night with “We Are the Champions.” It was a glorious hot mess of music.

In the midst of it all, however, two performances stood out and have stood the test of time. Backed by Queen and a choir, George Michael delivered a soaring version of the song “Somebody to Love.” I remember being transfixed as I watched it. Then, in a performance that’s come back into people’s consciousness because of David Bowie’s death earlier this month, he and Annie Lennox sang my favorite Queen song, “Under Pressure.”

From the song’s iconic opening bass line, “Under Pressure” is rock and roll at its best. It’s emotional, grandiose, a little bit silly, and beautiful. Watching the performance now, one senses that Bowie and Lennox and the crowd, too, recognized that the moment was theirs for the taking so they took it. The moment, the song, the people—everything the concert was supposed to be.

“Under Pressure,” which Bowie co-wrote and recorded with Queen in 1981, is a song about pressure—specifically, the pressures so many of us feel pressing down on us at work and in life.

“Pressure pushing down on me, pressing down on you.”

The song’s music video underscores the nature of our anxiety by featuring images of rush hour traffic, imploding buildings, soup lines, and B-movie horror flicks.

But “Under Pressure” doesn’t just give voice to life’s anxious struggle. Instead, there’s greater power in this song because it also prescribes a better way forward.

“Under Pressure” takes the point of view that love is our salve and hope amid life’s press—real, open-hearted, self-giving love.

This song isn’t a tribute to the hedonism of some old rock and roll cliché. “Under Pressure” is a song about love without an ego, sacrificial love. Heaven help us, it might even be about the love that we call holy.

At the tribute concert, as the performance reaches its crescendo, Lennox darts across the stage—her movements against a chaotic musical break embodying life at its most frantic pace.

Bowie takes the mic to sing, “Insanity laughs under pressure we're cracking.”

And then everyone, led by Annie Lennox—who summons up her tremendous vocal power—thunders in response, “Why can’t we give love one more chance?”

As the question echoes through the night—“Give love! Give love! Give love!”—Bowie brings about the song’s blissful resolution.

‘Cause love's such an old-fashioned word

And love dares you to care for

The people on the edge of the night

And love dares you to change our way of

Caring about ourselves

The love that “dares you to care for the people on the edge of the night,” the love that “dares you to change our way of caring about ourselves”—I think there is something holy about love like this, and that’s why I believe that the performance of “Under Pressure” at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert of 1992 puts us in a position to receive a Word of Grace from First Corinthians this morning.

Of all the Christians with whom Saint Paul ministered, the church in Corinth, Greece is the one we talk about most often here at John Street. I think it’s fair to say that we give the Corinthians that honor because our cities share so many things in common.

Corinth, like New York, was a port city and an economic engine. It was a place of great wealth, deadly poverty, and tremendous cultural diversity. Corinth was a city of wild ideas, a melting pot of religions, and a candy store of vice.

It was also a place in which people eagerly received the Good News of forgiveness and new life through Jesus Christ.

The church in Corinth embodied the city’s diversity. In fact, through Paul’s letters, we get a glimpse of a community whose members seemed to have very little—if anything—in common beyond the fact that they had all been baptized.

Now, from Paul’s perspective, the common thread of baptism should’ve been enough to hold the church together and to revolutionize the lives of the people, but his plan wasn’t working so well.

Corinthian Christians badgered one another, and exploited one another, and fostered a spirit of distrust and suspicion in most everything they did.

It seems that the Corinthians had no problem believing that God loved them. They just couldn’t accept that God dared to love the people that they judged to be their social, economic, and spiritual inferiors, too.

“I get why you love me, God,” they seemed to say, “but that guy, and her, too? Are you serious?”

This parochial mindset and Paul’s efforts to overcome it are the immediate context for First Corinthians 13, a passage that was destined to become one of the Apostle’s greatest hits.

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends.

Unfortunately, this is easily the most sentimentalized passage of scripture in the New Testament. Stripping Paul’s passage of its context as a tonic to a fractured community, the modern church has reduced his inspired teaching about love into a syrupy sweet concoction of pleasantries.

But I don’t believe in this modern love.

You see, we face a great temptation to hear Paul encouraging us to be nice to each other, but telling people to be nice to each other was hardly the reason Jesus ended up on a cross or Paul at the cutting edge of a Roman sword.

But, more than being nice, this love carries a barrier breaking message of empowerment and makes possible a community that refuses to play by the old rules dictated by race, wealth, and gender.

This love is powerful and unsettling stuff. This is the love at the heart of God’s Good News.

Jesus said, “So what if you love your own kind—the people who think like you, and act like you, and care about you and have your back! Loving them is just what we call not being a jerk.”

Ok, that’s a bit of a paraphrase, but Jesus did say this to his disciples,

Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.
Paul intended his rhapsody on love to propel his listeners into the new and grace filled way of life Jesus created. His words about patience, kindness, truth, and endurance were meant to release people from their bondage to self-interest and to set them loose to love the people they once judged to be unlovable, to care for those they once ignored, and to build up the same neighbors they used to push around.

“Now faith, hope, and love abide, these three,” Paul writes, “and the greatest of these is love.”

‘Cause love's such an old-fashioned word

And love dares you to care for

The people on the edge of the night

And love dares you to change our way of

Caring about ourselves.

When was the last time you accepted love’s dare to go out—even to the edge of the night—and to embrace the hurting and lonely people you found there?

About twenty years ago, David Bowie reached out to Trent Reznor with an offer to collaborate on some music and to tour with Reznor’s band, Nine Inch Nails. Reznor’s career and fame were exploding upward at that moment and he eagerly accepted the chance to work with one of his heroes. However, by his own admission, drugs and alcohol took him to a very low place during that tour.

Reznor remembered that there were moments when Bowie—who famously fought the battle to live soberly and got clean in the early 80s—gently nudged him to find a better way, but Reznor continued to use and drink.

A few years later, Reznor got clean, too, and in sobriety decided that he wanted to talk to Bowie about their time together.

When that meeting happened, Bowie told him how he really felt.

“I’m David Bowie. After all I went through to straighten my life out, do you think I enjoyed living through your Gen-X junkie drama?”

No, that’s not what happened at all.

Here’s now Trent Reznor describes that meeting.

I reluctantly went backstage, feeling weird and ashamed, like, "Hey, I'm the guy that puked on the rug"…And I started to say, "Hey listen, I've been clean for ..." I don't even think I finished the sentence; I got a big hug. And he said, "I knew. I knew you'd do that. I knew you'd come out of that."
He concluded, “I have goosebumps right now just thinking about it. It was another very important moment in my life.”
‘Cause love's such an old-fashioned word

And love dares you to care for

The people on the edge of the night

So what about you? Will you accept love’s dare today.

Will you go the margins—even to the edge of the night--and embrace the hurting ones you find there?

Will you accept love’s dare to go without looking for an ego trip, but with a sense of self-sacrifice and surrender to the One who holds all us pressured and cracking creatures together?

I pray that you will, I pray that I will, and that God’s patient and kind love—that beautiful old-fashioned word—will change us and our way of caring for ourselves.

Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.

January 17, 2016

Just Go and Love

The story about the miracle Jesus performed in Cana of Galilee is one of my favorite passages of scripture and one on which I frequently preach. In fact, I chose to preach from this passage not quite three months ago during our Heritage Sunday celebration in October. At that time, I focused primarily on what this miracle reveals about God, noting that by meeting a social blunder (the wedding host ran out of wine) with an extravagant response (turning 120 gallons of water into wine), Jesus ultimately reveals God to be generous, merciful, abounding in love and extravagant with grace.

This morning, we revisit the miracle at Cana to tweak that focus just a little bit. Mindful of God’s qualities on display here, today I invite you to ask of this passage, “So what?”

Yes, this miracle reveals that God embraces us with abundant love and showers us with extravagant grace, but so what?

What impact does the experience of being so loved and blessed have upon us?

God is loving and merciful, but so what?

With that question in mind, let’s go back to the text.

This miracle about which Saint John tells us took place at a wedding celebration attended by Jesus, his mother, and his disciples in a town called Cana in a region called Galilee.

It happened at this wedding in Cana, after three days of festivities, that Mother Mary made a startling observation. All the wine was gone.

Mary shared this news with Jesus, but he didn’t seem particularly concerned about this development.

Sure, running out of wine would’ve probably embarrassed the host (no one wants to attend or throw a bad party), but this was a far cry from a life or death issue.

But Mary persisted and, as she took her leave of Jesus, told a group of nearby servants to do whatever he told them to do.

John records what happened next.

Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.”
So they took it.

But it wasn’t water anymore.

When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.”
And that’s it.

That’s the miracle of turning water into wine. Again, it isn’t that Jesus turned water into wine that had magical properties. This wasn’t some sort of enchanted elixir. Jesus just turned water into really good wine—and a lot of it; fifty, sixty, seventy cases by our count. And that was more than enough to “reveal his glory; and his disciples believed in him.”

But so what?

What are we to do with this news about Jesus and the divine characteristics he reveals?

We make of this Good News by taking it into our hearts and offering a grateful response.

You see, when we are confronted with the power and beauty of God’s grace, when we are confronted with the love that—according to Charles Wesley’s lyric—exceeds all other loves, sincerely asking “So what?” or “What’s next?” moves us closer to the heart of discipleship.

God blesses us and God loves us, but what are we going to do about it?

The Gospels record multiple instances in which Jesus discusses the essential characteristics of a faithful response to God’s love. We read the most famous of these instances in Luke’s 10th chapter.

A lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And [Jesus] said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
Now, that conversation continued with Jesus telling the Parable of the Good Samaritan as a way of illustrating how tempting it is to diminish love’s radical call on our lives. He told the parable to illustrate how we can know and say the right things at one time, but when pressed to do the right thing, we often fall helplessly short. However, the lawyer’s summary of discipleship, which Jesus did indeed praise, still stands.
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.
This is the answer to the so-what question.

The miracle at Cana of Galilee is just one moment in which we recognize that God—through Jesus Christ—embraces us with abundant love and showers us with extravagant grace.

But, so what?

So, in response to God’s holy presence and goodness, “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”

I’m in the habit of repeating this dual commandment as “Love God and love your neighbor.”

Ask me to give you a one sentence summary of Christian ethics or discipleship and I’ll probably say, “Love God and love your neighbor.”

To me this seems a suitable and concise description of the response to God’s grace that Jesus praises.

I’ve been thinking, however, that given how important love is to the faith we share, maybe we should strive to say more about it, not less.

Given that all that we have and ever hope to be rests in the reality of God’s love of us, it probably wouldn’t be a bad thing if we got a little bit chatty when we started talking about the love we return to God and the love we share with others.

John Wesley displays such exuberance in his New Testament Notes. Listen to how he amplifies the words of the love commandment.

Thou shalt unite all the faculties of thy soul to render [God] the most intelligent and sincere, the most affectionate and resolute service…With all thy soul, with the warmest affection, with all thy strength, the most vigorous efforts of thy will, and with all thy mind or understanding, in the most wise and reasonable manner thou canst; thy understanding guiding thy will and affections.
“Intelligent and sincere” love, “affectionate and resolute” love, “wise and reasonable” love—while there’s a stiff-upper-lip quality to Wesley’s language, his enthusiasm still comes through.

In doing so, Wesley pushes us to mine the depths of Jesus’ vision of discipleship because he understands that love is one of the easiest things to profess, and one of the most difficult things to do.

“Oh, yes, yes, I love God and I love my neighbor.”

“What’s that? Do I love intelligently and sincerely, affectionately and resolutely, wisely and reasonably? I’ll need to think about that.”

That lawyer just wanted Jesus to tell him who his neighbor was. He wanted to know who to love. He wanted Jesus to tell him that love was easy.

But Jesus said just go and show mercy, just go and love.

As Christians, we’ve received the same commission.

Just go and love, love God “with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”

The miracle at Cana of Galilee is just one moment in which we recognize that God—through Jesus Christ—embraces us with abundant love and showers us with extravagant grace.

But, so what?

So, in response to God’s holy presence and goodness, just go and love, love God “with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself,” for in this commandment, there is Good News for all people.

Thanks be to God.


January 10, 2016

What's Happening Here? (On Baptism)

Like nearly all Christians throughout history, United Methodists receive baptism, and like most Christian communities throughout history, the United Methodist Church offers baptism to infants. However, given some of the particulars of our tradition and the times in which we live, 21st century United Methodists are in more rarified company when it comes to our understanding of this ancient act of worship. Specifically, we have a tendency to not clear about why we do what we do and what we expect to accomplish by doing it.

Now don’t’ get me wrong. We have all the tools we need to produce a robust, faithful, and beautiful baptismal theology. Twenty years ago, in 1996, the UMC published a useful document called “By Water and the Spirit” which presents just that. But still, those who seek baptism’s deepest waters continue to struggle against a rising tide of forces—a struggle, I think it’s fair to say, that we come about honestly.

On one hand, Methodism came into its own as an 18th century revival in which the project of preachers regularly involved inviting people who previously had been baptized to amend their lives and, by God’s grace, to pursue holiness. Since Wesley and his followers recognized baptism as a one-time event, the connections between historic Methodist preaching and baptism aren’t always obvious.

On the other hand, given the time of Methodism’s beginnings, the movement has always been influenced by the Enlightenment emphasis on reason and empiricism. In times like these the strength of mystical and theological claims are diminished and, since it’s difficult to say objectively what happens in baptism, many Methodists and other Christians, too, have come to see the sacrament as purely symbolic, or even worse, as a superstitious insurance policy against bad things happening to us and our children.

Given the influence of these forces, what are we to do on a day like this when we hear the Good News of Jesus’s baptism in the Jordan River and devote our worship to reaffirming the baptismal covenant?

Bishop Will Willimon suggests that, on a day like this, asking the right question can make a great difference. He writes,

Our faulty thinking about baptism comes from forgetting what the church has always said: Baptism is essentially something which God does…From [our] point of view, the question asked of…baptism is, “What does this mean to me, and what am I doing when this happens?” [but the better question is,] “What does this mean to God, and what is God doing when this happens?” (p. 33)
Bishop Willimon was a professor at Duke when I was in school and I’d like to think that I’m still being shaped and stretched by his insights into worship and the Christian life. Even still, when I read this question last week, it stopped me in my tracks. I read it a second time, then I read it out loud.

What does baptism mean to God, and what is God doing when baptism happens?

For me, the difference between answering Willimon’s question and the question “What does this mean to me?” is like the difference between warming up a frozen dinner in the microwave and being treated to anything off the menu at your favorite restaurant.

I don’t believe thinking about what baptism means to us is bad. It probably won’t hurt us. Something is just lacking from the experience.

But shifting our question to God’s point of view, to God’s activity, the possibilities appear limitless. Instead of thinking about what our experience lacks, instead of cultivating thoughts of scarcity, we’re drawn deeper and deeper into the reality of God’s abundance—abundant love, abundant grace, abundant possibilities.

Through the Sacrament of Baptism we are initiated into Christ’s holy church.

We are incorporated into God’s mighty acts of salvation and given new birth through water and the Spirit.

All this is God’s gift offered to us without price.

We hear these words regularly in worship, but we need to be clear about what’s being said.

Initiates, incorporates, gives, offers—God does these things. We receive “all this” and more.

It’s true. This statement—it appears in your bulletin today as the Invitation to Reaffirm the Baptismal Covenant—is loaded with promise and meaning. But, far from being just a nifty little liturgical turn of phrase, it expresses the heart of the Gospel. In fact, when compared to what the New Testament says about baptism, we could be accused of saying too little.

Take the work of Saint Paul, for example. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul proclaims that God gives us in baptism a new identity that transcends the barriers once thought to determine so much about who people were and what they could accomplish in life.

As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
Society’s roles, the privileges and obstacles of your birth, your upbringing, your experience; Paul says that the various roads we’ve traveled, the paths upon which we’ve stumbled and been denied access, have no power over our destiny because of the new identity God gives us in baptism.

Paul goes on to say that the basis for this new identity is nothing less than Jesus’ resurrection. In other words, Christian unity and our identity in Christ aren’t simply the product of a new point-of-view or perspective. Our identity is tied to history’s crucial event.

Paul elaborates on this in his letter to the Romans.

We have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.

“Incorporated into God’s mighty acts of salvation” is fine, but it just doesn’t have the same punch as what Paul said, does it?

The New Testament goes on.

Revelation speaks of those who “have the seal of the living God” who “have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”

In Acts, baptism was the Ethiopian Eunuch’s response to the Good News that he wasn’t a second class citizen in God’s kingdom.

And Saint Peter boldly compared baptism to Noah’s ark.

Baptism, which [the Ark] prefigured, now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
What does baptism mean to God, and what is God doing when baptism happens?

Willimon’s question helps us to recognize that, thanks be to God, the font before us is filled with Good News, overflowing with God’s goodness, and brimming with the promises that God would realize among us.

I told you that I had to read and read again the bishop’s question, but, in the same book, he told a story that made me do a double take, too. I immediately knew that I wanted to share that story with you this morning.

The chapel at Belmont Abbey College not far from Charlotte, North Carolina is home to a unique baptismal font. Belmont’s basin is carved into a large stone, but it’s not some elegant piece of marble that’s been worked over by the likes of Michelangelo. No, this stone is granite and before the Abbey’s monks repurposed it for worship, it served as a millstone on a plantation that occupied the land before the Civil War. But grinding grain wasn’t the stone’s only antebellum function. It was also used as an auction block.

People were once made to stand on this stone so that they could be inspected, purchased, and forced to participate in the scourge of chattel slavery.

After the Civil War, a priest bought the old plantation and gave it to a community of Benedictine monks who built a chapel and a college there.

And the monks turned the millstone into a baptismal font to which they affixed a plaque that reads,

Upon this rock, men were once sold into slavery. Now upon this rock, through the waters of baptism, men become free children of God.
Friends, Belmont Abbey’s chapel holds something unique, but the promises spoken round that roughhewn stone are proclaimed wherever God’s waters flow.

Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.