May 30, 2016

Who is It?

Even though a passage from the seventh chapter of Luke is before us this morning, I want to begin by looking at a passage recorded in the Book of Acts. While both stories come to us from the same author—a disciple named Luke wrote both books—and both deal with a similar theme—the power of God’s people to intercede in prayer on behalf of others—I think the passage from Acts is just a bit more accessible, so I begin there as a way of opening up the Gospel today. The story comes from Acts chapter 12.

Acts 12 bears witness to a frightening period in the Church’s history. Not too long after Jesus’ death and resurrection and the miracle of Pentecost, not too long after Gentiles heard the Good News and received the Holy Spirit, not too long after a fisherman named Peter came into his own as an effective and respected leader of people, the nascent church encountered fierce opposition.

This is how Acts describes the troubling developments.

About that time King Herod [Agrippa I] laid violent hands upon some who belonged to the church. He had James, the brother of John, killed with the sword. [And]…he proceeded to arrest Peter also. (This was during the festival of Unleavened Bread.) When he had seized him, he put him in prison and handed him over to four squads of soldiers to guard him, intending to bring him out to the people after the Passover.
Herod was pursuing a strategic plan to eradicate the church by eliminating its most prominent leaders. However, his plan severely underestimated the power still held in the hands of the church’s rank and file members, a power foreshadowed in the text with one potent little sentence.

Luke writes, “While Peter was kept in prison, the church prayed fervently to God for him.”

The very night before Herod was going to bring him out, Peter, bound with two chains, was sleeping between two soldiers, while guards in front of the door were keeping watch over the prison. Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared and a light shone in the cell.
And the angel tapped Peter on the side. “Hey, get up. Let’s go.”

Peter’s chains fell off, the two figures walked passed the guards, and the prison’s iron gate swung open “of its own accord,” yet Peter thought it was all a dream.

[The angel and apostle] went outside and walked along a lane, when suddenly the angel left him.
And in that moment, Peter realized that he was unbound and unguarded. It wasn’t a dream. He was wide awake and free!

So Peter went to the house where the church was praying and knocked on the gate—and that’s where the story takes a turn for the farcical, like something from Monty Python or some slapstick comedy.

A woman named Rhoda came to the gate and got so excited when she heard Peter’s voice that she ran back inside without letting him in.

Rhoda told the others that Peter was outside while he kept on knocking.

The others accused Rhoda of hearing things. They said, “You are out of your mind!” while Peter kept on knocking.

Rhoda and the church argued for a little bit, while Peter kept on knocking.

Meanwhile Peter continued knocking; and when they opened the gate, they saw him and were amazed. He motioned to them with his hand to be silent, and described for them how the Lord had brought him out of the prison.
When the believers prayed the Spirit moved and Peter came through his troubles and came out of his prison.

Commenting on this story, I. Howard Marshall, the late Professor Emeritus of New Testament Exegesis at the University of Aberdeen, notes, “When the church prays, the cause of God will go forward, and his enemies will come to naught, even if this does not exempt the church from suffering... (p. 206).

The biblical truth Marshall identifies in Peter’s miraculous escape is also present in the passage from Luke’s Gospel we’ve read this morning, a passage that lacks the humor of the Acts account, yet speaks directly to the power of our intercessions.

Luke 7 centers on a Roman centurion’s plea for Jesus to come and heal his servant who was dying.

Though a Gentile, the centurion’s character and generosity earned him the respect of his Jewish neighbors who carried his request to Jesus. Their testimony prevailed on Jesus and he went with them…

but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed…When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.
While Peter was asleep, the Church was praying.

While his servant was dying, the centurion humbly beseeched Jesus for help.

In both stories, the willingness of people of faith to go before God on behalf of another was a catalyst for change and blessing.

We’re not told anything about the dying man and we’ve only heard that Peter thought he was dreaming, but we know that somebody prayed for them and that God was present to them in their moment of need to offer healing, mercy, and grace.

And that realization sets up our encounter with the Good News this morning by bringing an extraordinary question to our attention.

If our prayers and worship were to compel God to take action this morning, to whom would we ask God to go?

Or asked another way;

Following the example of the church in Acts and the devout centurion in Capernaum, for whom will we intercede today?

This is an essential question for us.

While we’re all here, in part, because we recognize that we have benefited from God’s favor—we’re here because we’ve discovered God’s amazing grace for ourselves—ultimately, the Church’s mission and ministry must be directed outward, beyond those gathered together.

Yes, we’re here to give thanks for blessings that we have received, but, hand in hand with that, we’re here to pray and beseech and to intercede on behalf of the hurting ones all around this world that God so dearly loves.

This outward and prayerful orientation is fundamental to the People of God formed by the Holy Scriptures.

Moses repeatedly went before God for the sake of the Israelites, even when they were making him miserable.

Jesus prayed for his persecutors, his disciples, and he prayed for us.

Saint Paul urged “that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions.”

And James called the Church to pray for the sick.

The witness is clear. Prayer isn’t some special action reserved for the giants of our faith and the heavyweight saints in our midst. Prayer is just what we do, even when we’re too hurt and confused to know what to pray for. “For we do not know how to pray as we ought,” wrote Paul to the Romans, “but [God’s Holy Spirit] intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

Over and over again in the Bible we find examples and teachings that point us beyond ourselves and the boundaries that define our lives.

Over and over again we hear that the best that God has to offer can never be hoarded up and stored away, because God’s best is always meant to be shared.

“You’ve got to give it away,” sings Bono, “because blessings aren’t just for those who kneel.”

So who is it?

If our prayers and worship were to compel God to take action this morning, to whom would we ask God to go?

Following the example of the church in Acts and the devout centurion in Capernaum, for whom will we intercede today?

Let’s go to God for them today.


May 23, 2016

Lady Wisdom

Frank Sinatra had a hit record with the song “Luck Be a Lady Tonight.” Originally written for the Broadway musical Guys and Dolls, “Luck Be a Lady”—which is sung from the perspective of a desperate gambler—personifies luck as a fickle date who can’t be trusted to dance with the one who brought her—and Sinatra delivers the lines with an honesty that few can match.
Luck let a gentleman see how nice a dame you can be.

I know the way you’ve treated other guys you’ve been with.

Luck be a lady with me.

Of course, neither Sinatra nor Broadway created the character called Lady Luck. She’s been a player in our culture since the time of the ancients. The Romans even worshipped her as a goddess—Fortuna, the goddess of good and bad luck.

Since the time of the ancients, however, people of faith have also taken issue with Lady Luck. Specifically, our spiritual ancestors resisted any notion of fatalism—the idea that life “just happens” to us and that human beings are simply pawns in some cosmic scheme.

Resistance to fatalism led our faithful ancestors to offer an alternative worldview, a worldview that emphasized human freedom, and potential, and the belief that we are active players in this life.

So while the faithful have always conceded that some things in life are certainly beyond their control, they recognized that two of the greatest gifts given to us by God are the freedom to make decisions and the wisdom to choice well.

“What are human beings that you are mindful of them?” the author of Psalm 8 prayed.

Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor.

You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet.

The psalmist vision isn’t one in which people are given carte blance to do whatever they want—to exploit whatever and whomever they want in the name of exercising their God-given dominance.

That’s not it at all!

The psalms tell us, instead, that God has given humanity the ability and the responsibility to be the principle stewards of creation.

Throughout the Scripture, God calls us not to fatalism, but to actively and purposefully live out our faith and to discern a faithful path to follow.

That’s why you won’t find a single song dedicated to Lady Luck in your Bible, but you will find a whole library of ancient texts singing the praises of Lady Wisdom, and the 8th chapter of Proverbs is one of the best.

Proverbs chapter 8 begins with Wisdom preaching at the very heart of her city—“on the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand”—and that’s a very significant location.

It’s significant because it tells us that Wisdom’s message applies to all areas of life—not simply to a corner of the heart reserved for religious things.

Wisdom goes to the business centers and marketplaces to speak with people at work, to people tending to the needs of their families, to people like you and me—and she tells them that at all times they should set their eyes on the highest things.

Live simply, learn prudence, acquire intelligence.

Pursue righteousness, avoid life’s crooked paths, love justice, hate evil and stay clear of pride and arrogance for Wisdom holds its own treasure.

“My fruit is better than gold,” promises Wisdom.

When we’re honest with ourselves, you and I know this to be true, don’t we?

Every night we can flip through our channels or visit our favorite websites and see the latest exploits of someone who has so much wealth, but so little wisdom. We can point to countless examples of people who make more money in one year than most of us will make in a lifetime, yet who still make decisions that leave us wondering “what were they thinking?”

The Bible tells us that Wisdom is more valuable than silver and gold, but our experience tells us that it’s also more difficult to find.

But the hope of the faithful isn’t that we would become experts in pointing out the foolishness of others. Our hope is that we would be able to recognize our own foolish missteps and find the wisdom to chart a better course in the future.

That’s what our lesson from Proverbs is all about—it’s an invitation to hold this inspired ancient wisdom up to our own lives and learn the truth.

Have we become obsessed with material things?

Proverbs calls us to set our hearts on more noble things.

Have we made peace with injustice?

Proverbs tells us that faith cannot be separated from solidarity with and concern for the poor, the outcast, and the weak.

Have we given in to cynicism and despair?

Proverbs shows us that there is a more excellent way.

We pick up our chapter, then, in the 32nd verse.

“And now, my children, listen to me:

happy are those who keep my ways.

Hear instruction and be wise, and do not neglect it.

Happy is the one who listens to me, watching daily at my gates,

waiting beside my doors.

For whoever finds me finds life and obtains favor from the LORD;

but those who miss me injure themselves;

all who hate me love death.”

The implication is obvious. Wisdom—true wisdom—the wisdom that moves with the grain of the universe—lights the way to the deepest and most honorable desires of the human heart—happiness, justice, and living at peace with Creation and our Creator.

Our challenge, then, and God’s will for us, is that we become wise people, a challenge that presents us with one essential question.

But how?

How can we position ourselves to meet wisdom at the gate?

How can the wisdom that guided our ancestors guide us, too?

How can we find the promised peace and treasury of grace that wisdom brings?

The Good News that inspires Christian worship is the conviction that God has not answered our “how-to” questions with an exhaustive list on do’s and don’ts, but in the person of Jesus Christ—God’s word made flesh, God’s wisdom at work.

As John’s famous prologue announces,

In the beginning was the Word [the logos, the divine reason, wisdom] and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
Today the Word made Flesh, that is Jesus, invites all people who want to rise up to meet their calling—who want to leave foolishness behind in order to live more wisely—to follow him.

To follow him into a life of worship, praise, and gratitude.

To follow him into loving relationships, guided by the Spirit, capable of making friends out of enemies.

To follow him—the one who proclaimed release to the captives, sight for the blind, and freedom for the oppressed.

This morning, the Good News calls us to follow wisdom to the heights, to the byways, to the crossroads, and at the gates and to set our eyes upon Jesus.

Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.

May 9, 2016

Prayers of the People for General Conference

Let us offer our prayers for all those who take council for the renewal of our church and all those gathered at the General Conference of the United Methodist Church, by saying God of grace and God of glory, grant us courage, grant us wisdom.

Watch over all those who travel to and from Portland, Oregon over the course General Conference. Enfold them with your loving care; protect them from every danger; and bring them in safety to the end of the journey. God of grace and God of glory, grant us courage, grant us wisdom.

Enliven all the delegates to General Conference, especially the delegation from our New York Annual Conference. Guide them to perceive what is right, and grant them both the courage to pursue it and the grace to accomplish it. God of grace and God of glory, grant us courage, grant us wisdom.

Forgive the sins and failures of our past, and reveal new possibilities for our future. We pray that we will be able to discern what we must let go of and what we need to hold onto in our common life in order to follow Jesus more clearly. God of grace and God of glory, grant us courage, grant us wisdom.

Direct all those who are involved with the General Conference so that their actions will support the least, the last and the outsiders. We pray the resolutions of the General Conference are full of compassion and love, and allow us to join God’s mission in the world. God of grace and God of glory, grant us courage, grant us wisdom.

Finally, give your blessing to John Street Church’s contribution to General Conference. May our story enlighten and inspire. May we be blessed to discover new friends and partners in ministry through this incredible opportunity. God of grace and God of glory, grant us courage, grant us wisdom.

Eternal God, in your Son Jesus Christ you redeemed all of human history and called us to proclaim the Good News of Christ’s death and resurrection to the ends of the earth and to the end of the age: pour out your Spirit afresh upon The United Methodist Church and our General Conference, help us to rejoice in our past and give us courage to trust your power to shape our future, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Adapted from the Prayer of the People for 78th General Convention of The Episcopal Church, Episcopal Church in Connecticut.

May 1, 2016

Tom Joad and Healing Leaves

Born of the natural, economic, and social disasters that drove three and a half million men, women, and children from their farms in the 1930s, John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Grapes of Wrath explores the depth of human pain, depravity, and resilience revealed by the symbiotic American cataclysms—the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression.

Steinbeck’s novel follows the Joad family—a group of dispossessed sharecroppers from Oklahoma—as they head west to find work in California. People of salt-of-the-earth dignity, the Joads are, nevertheless, subjected to hunger, humiliation, prejudice, and an ever-present specter of violence along the way.

The Joad family’s trials and tribulation culminate with a scene in which Tom Joad, the story’s protagonist, crashes headlong into the violence that haunts the landscape.

When Tom sees a good friend killed for standing up for exploited migrant farm workers, Tom lashes out and kills his friend’s killer.

Knowing that he is now a wanted man whose presence puts his family in an even more perilous position, Tom meets his mother in secret to tell her goodbye.

Ma Joad, of course, wants to know if she’ll ever see her boy again. She wants to know if she’ll ever hear from him again and what he plans to do.

Tom’s response to his mother’s plea is one of the great monologues in American literature. His response has inspired millions to stand up and stand with their hurting and beaten down neighbors. It’s inspired the likes of Woody Guthrie and Bruce Springsteen to write songs, and when Henry Fonda delivered it in the book’s 1940 film adaptation, Tom’s farewell became one of the great scenes in Hollywood’s history.

Tom Joad told his mom,

I'll be all around in the dark. I'll be everywhere. Wherever you can look, wherever there's a fight, so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever there's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there. I'll be in the way guys yell when they're mad. I'll be in the way kids laugh when they're hungry and they know supper's ready, and when the people are eatin' the stuff they raise and livin' in the houses they build, I'll be there, too.
Moments later, Tom and Ma part ways. She goes back to the family and the book’s closing chapters, but Tom exits the story here and enters, instead, into the hearts of the hurting people his story reflects.

Tom Joad became a hero of this nation’s literary canon because millions of people recognized their neighbors, their families, and their best self in him.

A nameless, expendable, poor Okie in the eyes of many, to others Tom was a man of dignity, a loving and beloved son, a good neighbor, and a survivor.

In the late 1930s, he was exactly the kind of hero a whole lot of people needed to believe in.

You see, when The Grapes of Wrath landed on American bookshelves, loaded down caravans were still moving west, proud families were still being driven to despair, and the people of this nation was still searching for answers to the political, existential, and spiritual questions the Great Depression raised. It was a turbulent, chaotic, maybe even an apocalyptic time, yet John Steinbeck skillfully rode that turbulent wave and produced a revelatory work.

This is how First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt described the book.

“The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck, both repels and attracts you. The horrors of the picture, so well-drawn, make you dread sometimes to begin the next chapter, and yet you cannot lay the book down or even skip a page. Somewhere I saw the criticism that this book was anti-religious, but somehow I cannot imagine thinking of “Ma” without, at the same time, thinking of the love “that passeth all understanding.” The book is coarse in spots, but life is coarse in spots, and the story is very beautiful in spots just as life is.
As coarse as human experience, a challenge to those who would wield religion’s power to harm and exploit, as captivating as it is, at times, repellent, and “very beautiful in spots”—this morning I invite you to make Roosevelt’s words your point of entry into the Book of Revelation because what she said about The Grapes of Wrath could easily be said about the Bible’s last book.

Revelation tells the story of a Christian community tormented and persecuted by the Roman Empire. Faithful to Jesus as their Lord, Christians in this community were unwilling to declare themselves loyal to an Empire that demanded their allegiance and their worship. From the Roman perspective, this stubborn devotion to Jesus was treasonous and deserving of punishment—punishment they meted out in the marketplace, on the streets, and in the churches, even to the point of death.

Weary and nearly defeated, the faithful cried, “How long, Lord? How long will the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer? How long will it be until you take up our cause?”

So many of the wild and mysterious images most often associated with Revelation emerge from the answer to that question.

Darkened skies, falling stars, broken seals, and apocalyptic horsemen—these are but characters in John the Seer’s inspired effort to assure the faithful that they are precious in God’s sight, that their cries have been heard, and that the Risen Christ has taken up their cause.

“See, the home of God is among mortals!” that’s what he heard from the heavenly throne the last time we were together.

Look! Look! God has moved into the neighborhood, making his home with men and women! They’re his people, he’s their God.(The Message)
This brings us to Revelation 22, where John describes the intimate relationship with God the faithful will experience.

The darkness of persecution lifted, they will walk through the City of God in the light of the Lamb who is Christ Jesus.

The pain of unjust suffering relieved, they will be nourished and find refreshment at the river of the water of life.

And, then, John describes a tree within the city whose blossoms benefit not just the faithful, not only the righteous, but all people, for the nations.

On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.
We do well to recognize that this mysterious book isn't as interested in predicting the End of the World as it is interested in inviting the Church to see and experience for ourselves the redeeming power of God at work in our lives. This book ultimately ends with an image—the tree’s healing leaves—that encourages the Church to share Good News of healing and mercy and redemption with a sin-sick world.

You see, when Revelation landed in the churches’ pulpits, the faithful were still suffering and still seeking a way through a wilderness of wickedness. It was a turbulent, chaotic, and apocalyptic time, yet John, filled with the Spirit, rode that turbulent wave and centered God’s people in the reality of God’s holy and awesome presence.

John told them, and he still tells us, you are loved with a love that will not let you go so, drink deeply of living water, lift your hearts in prayer, and as God brings healing to you-as God brings you to the point at which you can say, "Look at what the Lord has brought me through!"-you will find just what you need to bring healing to others in God’s name.

Tom Joad embodies this. He knew hunger, and injustice, and sorrow, and he gave himself over to standing with his hungry, exploited, and hurting neighbors.

The AA groups that meet here throughout the week embody this, too, for they are made up of people who know what it’s like to hit rock bottom, yet have committed themselves to helping others take their first step after they fall.

And we embody this, as well, when we give because we know how much we have received, when we forgive because we know that we are forgiven, when we love because we know that we are loved.

John Street Church, you are loved with a love that will not let you go, so drink deeply of living water, lift your hearts in prayer, and as God brings healing to you-as God brings you to the point at which you can say, "Look at what the Lord has brought me through!"-you will find just what you need to bring healing to others in God’s name.

At the heart of the city where God lives there stands a tree whose fruit is always in season, and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.

Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.