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.