March 30, 2016

Asbury Needs a Facelift-Can You Help?

John Street Church is preparing to restore its Francis Asbury stained glass window in honor of the pioneer Methodist bishop.

Francis Asbury was the most distinguished figure in early American Methodism. He was sent by John Wesley to America in 1771, and spent the next forty-five years encouraging and organizing Methodist congregations. Asbury became bishop of the newly formed Methodist Episcopal Church in 1784. Asbury's commitment to frontier preaching and class meetings helped increase the number of American Methodists from under 1500 at the time of his arrival, to more than 200,000 at his death on March 31, 1816.

After Asbury died, New York City's Methodists created a stained glass window featuring the bishop's portrait as a memorial. Originally, the window hung in Forsyth Street Methodist Church. In the early 1900s, however, construction of the Manhattan Bridge required Forsyth Street Church to be demolished. Concerned Methodists salvaged the window and stored it in John Street Church's attic. It stayed in the attic for more than fifty years. Finally, in 1968, John Street’s congregation had the window incorporated into the church's sanctuary.

Restoring the Bishop’s Window

John Street Church is restoring the two-hundred-year-old-window in honor of Bishop Asbury, as part of the church’s 250th anniversary celebration. In addition to repairing the glass leading, the restoration will repair the remarkable artifact's most obvious flaw—a crack across Asbury's face.

You can make a donation to the church's Capital Restoration Fund to help cover the cost of this project.

The restoration of the Asbury Stained Glass is also made possible by a generous grant from the General Commission of Archives and History of the United Methodist Church.

March 27, 2016

A Poem for Easter

Early in the morning on Easter Sunday in the year 1772, Joseph Pilmore—one of the first missionaries John Wesley sent to the American colonies—proclaimed the Good News of Christ’s resurrection to the faithful assembled here on John Street. After that service—which probably included prayers and singing (maybe even some of the songs we sing today), Pilmore and several of his listeners walked to St. Paul’s Chapel on Broadway, as was the custom for Methodists in New York before the American Revolution, and worshiped again. They heard another sermon, a choir sang, and the people celebrated the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper or the Eucharist.

That evening, after a day filled with worship, Pilmore jotted down a brief reflection on the day’s activities in his journal. Since that journal survives, Pilmore’s note—which is now 244 years old—is the oldest written record we have of an Easter Sunday on John Street. His note is much more than an interesting historic artifact, however, as his words help to center our thoughts and minds on the Good News of Jesus Christ this morning. Our former preacher, it seems, still preaches.

Here’s what Pilmore wrote,

We gladly joined in the grand festival of the universal Church in celebrating the glorious resurrection of Christ our Lord and Saviour, and it was indeed a day of rejoicing. Both at preaching and the Sacrament, my soul exulted in the Holy one of Israel, and sat in high and heavenly places. (p. 128)
Have you ever had the experience of reading an author’s words when the work stirred something within you so deeply that it was as if you’d just been jolted awake from a deep sleep? It’s a disorienting sensation, right?

Last fall we offered a class here at the church on the poetry of Emily Dickinson whose words regularly had an electrifying effect on me—like the shock I used to get as a child after shuffling my sock-covered feet across the carpet in my parents’ living room. One such encounter came not through a poem, though, but through one of Dickinson’s personal letters.

In a letter to her friend and mentor Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Emily offered an answer to fundamental question, “What is poetry?” This is her definition.

If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it. Is there any other way?
By Emily’s standard, then, I experience Pilmore’s Easter Day journal entry as poetry. Specifically, I’m deeply affected by his description of what a day spent in worship accomplished within him.
Both at preaching and the Sacrament, my soul exulted in the Holy one of Israel, and sat in high and heavenly places.
“My soul…sat in high and heavenly places.”

What a day!

I confess, though, that I’m chilled by this thought—made cold by the realization that I’ve allowed myself to be content with significantly lower expectations for the day.

Oh, I have high hopes.

I hope all of you to enjoy this service.

I hope my son has a good time hunting eggs and opening his Easter basket.

I’m looking forward to spending the day with my family and talking to my mom and dad on the phone.

And I’d guess that my hopes for Easter Sunday aren’t too different from yours. I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with wanting these things.

But this day, above all days, is the day to aim higher, to aspire to something greater, to gain our soul’s desire and see God face to face.

On Easter, we’d be happy with some inspiration, a piece of our favorite candy, and making some good memories with the people we love. That’s all well and good. In fact, if we are so blessed today, we should give thanks to God and consider ourselves incredibly wealthy.

Yet greater still are the tender mercies God pours out upon us, for this morning God offers to bless us in life changing ways through the Good News of Jesus’ victory over the grave and the announcement that, because of his glorious, amazing, and wondrous love, we can follow where he leads—into God’s holy presence.

“Soar we now we Christ has led, following our exalted Head.”

These aren’t just the lyrics to Easter’s great anthem, this is the reality of Easter people everywhere.

You see, Joseph Pilmore wasn’t trying to be clever with his description of Easter Sunday 1772. He was drawing, instead, from the wellspring of faith within his heart and drinking deeply from the fountain of Holy Scripture. He was claiming for himself the promise of transformation and new life in Jesus Christ, who said,

I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.
Yes, the promise of this day is more verdant than spring’s most fertile garden. It is deeper than the ocean’s deepest depths and lifts us higher than nature’s most stunning precipice.

It is the promise of forgiven sins and forsaken grudges.

It is the promise that God’s love defines us—not money, not achievements, not our screw-ups or failures.

It is the promise that the cross wasn’t the last word about Jesus and that neither pain, nor illness, nor suffering, nor death will ever have the last word about us, about the people we love, about any of God’s children.

It is the promise that, through faith, we are seated with Christ on high and empowered to serve and minister to a hurting world with humble acts of mercy, love, and goodness.

People of John Street Church, hear the Good News.

God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ…and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places...For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God...For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works… (Eph. 2:4-10)
Why would we ever settle for anything less?

Christ is risen and we are “loved,” “made alive,” “raised up,” “saved,” “seated in the heavenly places,” and “created in Jesus Christ for good works.”

That’s the poetry of Easter.

That’s the Good News for which we give thanks.

Alleluia! Amen.

March 16, 2016

Mary's Hard-Won Verdict

Jesus and his disciples were attending a dinner party in his honor when Mary, one of their hosts, made quite a spectacle of herself. Approaching Jesus with a jar of expensive perfume made of a luxurious and imported essential oil, she anointed his feet and wiped them with her hair. It was a shockingly excessive scene—an excessive gift, an excess of emotion. The scene was so outrageous, in fact, that Judas, one of the disciples, took it upon himself to correct Mary’s lack of proper decorum.

In what we might call an example of biblical mansplaining, Judas pointed out to Mary how wasteful she was being and how many poor people could have been helped if she would’ve donated the perfume to the cause instead of being so thoughtless, but the guest of honor quickly came to Mary’s defense.

Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
This is the story from John’s Gospel before us this morning and it deserves our thoughtful attention.

When Jesus chastised Judas he drew a connection between Mary’s extravagance and his impending death. He said that she was anointing him for burial. In doing so, Jesus took the opportunity that Mary’s offering gave to him to imbue a situation with meaning that wasn’t readily apparent to the others who were present.

Jesus often acted like this. Sometimes it caused consternation and confusion, but Jesus regularly took a simple action or an everyday observation and added a new and deep level of significance to it.

We recall, for instance, the conversation Jesus had with a Samaritan woman at a well. She started talking about hard work and needing a drink of water, but he told her about springs of living water.

He said, “The water that I will give will become in [those who drink it] a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”
She said, “Sir, give me this water!” and recognized him as the Messiah. John also tells us about a moment when Jesus fed a great crowd with five loaves of bread and two fish. When that miracle led another hungry crowd to seek him out, again, he took the conversation in another direction by talking about bread from heaven.
“I am the bread of life,” Jesus said. “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
Like the time when Mary anointed Jesus’ feet with costly perfume, these examples show us how Jesus regularly revealed to his followers a deeper understanding than what was most apparent.

Talk of water, bread, and an anointing—Jesus used all these to invite his disciples to discover who he was, what he was doing, and what God was up to in that moment.

But Mary’s encounter with Jesus was unique.

The story we’ve read this morning doesn’t tells us about Jesus turning some ordinary every day meeting into something significant.

No. When Jesus entered Mary’s house that day she was keenly aware that she was in the presence of true greatness and true power.

You see, when Jesus chastised Judas he drew a connection between Mary’s action and his impending death, but I think it’s clear that Mary had the death of another man on her mind—the death of her brother Lazarus who sat at the table that night with the man who raised him up to live again.

Lazarus died several days before Mary anointed Jesus.

He became ill so his sisters Mary and Martha sent for Jesus, but their brother died before Jesus showed up, and the sisters were devastated. They were angry.

Mary and Martha came to Jesus separately with the same charge, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

In John’s telling, Martha somewhat maintained her composure, but Mary was reduced to nothing.

Here’s how the Gospel describes their meeting.

When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet…When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.
From there, Jesus went to Lazarus’ tomb where he wept, too. Then, in the face of death’s stench, he cried, “Lazarus, come out!”

And the formerly dead man obediently walked out of his tomb.

John tells us that some believed in Jesus when they learned about this miracle and some plotted to kill him. But the next time we see Mary, she’ right where we left her. She’s back at his feet, but this time everything has changed.

Hear this again from John’s 12th chapter,

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
Notice the remarkable reversals in this story. Lazarus has moved from the tomb to the table, the fragrance of perfume has chased away death’s stink, and Mary’s grief has turned to joy. Mary’s words of indictment have become speechless praise.

Mary’s experience embodies what Walter Brueggemann calls praise as a knowing act. She unflinchingly challenged Jesus and, finding him to be up to the challenge, she worshiped him without reservation because she knew him to be trustworthy. She came to Jesus with her anger and disappointment, which allowed him to lead her the reality of resurrection. By this, she leads us to see that the quality of our praise depends on our willingness to go to Jesus with our questions and heartaches so that we might discover for ourselves that God is faithful.

Brueggemann writes,

By terming praise “a knowing act,” I mean that the moment of praise arises out of a long and troubled history, and it is a hard-won verdict…What concludes in praise does not begin in praise. It begins rather in hurt, rage, need, indignation, isolation, and abandonment. [The faithful’s] first speech to God is not a speech of wonder but of deep need. (p. 115)
I can’t help but wonder if part of what ails the Church and the practice of Christianity in our time is our failure to welcome the dynamics of praise that Brueggemann describes and Mary demonstrates.

Perhaps the 21st century Church is simply reaping the fruit whose seed was sown among generations of believers who were told never to question God’s wisdom and never to doubt God’s plan.

Can we really blame people for having little interest in a Faith that they’ve been told offers nothing but the opportunity to sit down, shut up, and take what God gives them?

How many people have been made to believe that their questions and challenges to God’s authority render them troublemakers, instead of being encouraged to see those exact same questions and challenges as an opportunity to enter into the space in which they could worship God more perfectly?

What’s that? Life’s heartbreaks have stirred up doubts in your heart?

What’s that? Answers that satisfied you when you were younger just don’t cut it anymore?

You must be weak. You must not have real faith.

God forgive us for letting that be our witness, because that’s not the story God gave us.

No, we have Mary—Grieving Mary, Angry Mary, Frustrated Mary—who reached the hard-won verdict and laid herself, her all, at Jesus’ feet in praise—Grateful Mary, Joyous Mary, Worshipful Mary.

Mary unflinchingly challenged Jesus and, finding him to be up to the challenge, she worshiped him without reservation because she knew him to be trustworthy. She came to Jesus with her anger and disappointment, which allowed him to lead her the reality of resurrection. By this, she leads us to see that the quality of our praise depends on our willingness to go to Jesus with our questions and heartaches so that we might discover for ourselves that God is faithful.

And that is why we call her story, our story, Good News for all people.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

March 6, 2016

Sins, Slugs, and Stars

C.S. Lewis restated a fundamental Christian teaching about God and God’s relationship with humanity in his classic book Mere Christianity. “The Son of God became a man,” wrote Lewis, “to enable men to become sons of God.” Lewis’ gender specific language notwithstanding, his statement gets to the heart of the Good News that calls and holds all of us together as Christ’s Church. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, became human to enable humans to become children of God. Lewis offers this statement—it’s actually a paraphrase of work by theological heavyweights like Saints Irenaeus and Athanasius—in order to lead his audience to a greater understanding of the Incarnation—the Christian belief that Jesus was fully God and fully human. Then, in his characteristic fashion, Lewis turned to the seemingly simple things of child’s play to illustrate this sublime Truth’s practical importance.

Here’s what he wrote.

Did you ever think, when you were a child, what fun it would be if your toys could come to life? Well suppose you could really have brought them to life. Imagine turning a tin solider into a real little man. It would involve turning the tin into flesh. And suppose the tin soldier did not like it. He is not interested in flesh; all he sees is that the tin us being spoilt.
Lewis continues.
What you would have done about that tin soldier I do not know. But what God did about us was this. The Second Person in God, the Son, became human Himself: was born into the world as an actual man—a real man of a particular height, with hair of a particular colour, speaking a particular language, weighing so many stone…If you want to get the hang of it, think how you would like to become a slug or a crab. (pp 154-155)
C.S. Lewis invites us to consider the radical nature of the Incarnation by asking if we’d be willing to put on a slug’s slimy skin or a crab’s hard shell to save slugs and crabs from perdition. Leave it to him to introduce an august theological statement then to turn our imaginations to the tiny creatures crawling in a garden’s dirt or on a sandy shore.
The Son of God became a man to enable men to become sons of God…If you want to get the hang of it, think how you would like to become a slug or a crab.
I really appreciate Lewis’ perspective because it helps us to approach a potentially intimidating topic with a fresh perspective. In this case, it helps us to recognize the Incarnation (or the capital-D Dogma of the Incarnation) not as the topic of stuffy Ivory Tower lectures, but as the defining event in God’s love affair with sinners like us.

Lewis’ simple images help us to see that the message we call Good News simply tells all who would listen of the humbling and humiliating lengths to which God went to save and restore the object of God’s love.

This is the same story we tell around the Table where Christ’s sorrow and our prayers meet.

And this is the same love story about which one of this season’s great hymns invites us to sing.

Alas! and did my Savior bleed, and did my Sovereign die?

Would he devote that sacred head for sinners such as I?

Yes, the Lord Jesus would do that for you, for me, for all the world’s people.

The Son of God became human to enable humans to become children of God.

Of course, before we had our hymns or liturgy, before C.S. Lewis, even before Irenaeus and Athanasius, there was Saint Paul.

This morning we’ve read a verse from one of Paul’s letters to the Corinthians that has influenced the trajectory of meditations on the Incarnation ever since.

Paul wrote, “For our sake, [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

Paul introduces an idea here that he explored throughout his ministry. It’s the idea that Jesus chose to humble himself and to become or endure something that he neither needed to become nor endure for us and for our salvation. In this case, he became sin (or bore the penalty for sin, or became an offering for our sin) so that we might become something pure and holy, “the righteousness of God.”

Lest we get hung up on the specifics of that thought, Paul describes the same gracious act in a different way in Second Corinthians 8.

For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.
Taken together, these examples show us the pattern of divine generosity intrinsic to Paul’s theology. Out of love for sinners like us, Jesus humbly gave of himself so that we might obtain that which was beyond our grasp—“though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.”

Finally, in what is arguably the most important and memorable illustration of Paul’s point of view, we see the same grace, the same love, and the same humility on display in Philippians 2.

In this passage, Paul invites, inspires, and cajoles the Church to rise above destructive conflicts borne of arrogance, jealousy, and pride. In so doing, he also brings his theology of the Incarnation home by making the direct connection between what Jesus did and how we should live and love.

The passage begins with familiar words.

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,

did not regard equality with God

as something to be exploited,

but emptied himself,

taking the form of a slave,

being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form,

he humbled himself

and became obedient to the point of death—

even death on a cross.

But Paul isn’t content simply to talk about Jesus. He wants to make plain the connection between what Christ did and what we can become.

He goes on.

Therefore, my beloved…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you...

Do all things without murmuring and arguing, so that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, in which you shine like stars in the world.

Did you recognize the pattern here?

“For our sake, [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

“Though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.”

In humility, Christ became like a slave so that we might shine like stars.

What a beautiful story! What amazing Good News!

Jesus Christ, the Son of God, became human to enable humans to become children of God. This is the theological bedrock on which the Spirit builds the Church, our faith, and our witness to God’s love. It speaks of amazing grace. It reveals how one act of selflessness can produce countless blessings. It shows us just how passionate God is about loving sinners like us.

And that is why we call this talk of sins, slugs, and stars Good News for all people.

Thanks be to God. Amen.